MICHAEL J. FLANAGAN JR.
1937 was a very busy year, with the same ups and downs of any other year, before or since.
January 1937 witnessed Howard Hughes' record breaking flight from Los Angeles to New York in under eight hours and President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated to his second term. Detective Comics, the eventual birthplace of the character Batman, was launched in March. May brought the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, NJ. Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappear over the Pacific in July. September rang in with the dedication of Abraham Lincoln's head at Mount Rushmore and the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. In November, Adolf Hitler outlined his intentions to acquire living space for the German people during a secret meeting at the Reich Chancellery, which ultimately sparked one of the darkest times in recorded history. Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the world's first full-length animated feature film, premieres at the Carthay Circle Theater in December. It was also the year that twenty-four year old Susanna Louise Caravelle was kidnapped and murdered.
Miles Harrison Caravelle II, scion of one of the wealthiest families in the world, spared no expense in the search for his only daughter, taking out two full-page advertisements every day in each of the major newspapers across New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. One promising exorbitant reward money leading to Susanna's whereabouts which brought out the crazies, as well as sightings of the woman from Maine to California. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was not the behemoth it has become in those days, but they followed all the leads they could while enlisting the aid of law enforcement agencies in the localities they couldn't. None of the leads went anywhere.
The other was addressed specifically to her captors, with promises of a huge ransom for her safe return and no questions asked. All Miles wanted was his beloved Susanna home, alive and unharmed. There were no takers.
He also financed exhaustive search parties across New Jersey, looking into every sighting or tip of Susanna, no matter how improbable the information appeared to be. In addition to the searches, private investigators from across the country were also paid handsomely to follow leads outside New Jersey.
During the desperate search for the young woman, no notice was given to the apparent burglary of the local dentist's office. Nothing of value was taken, except for a small amount of cash, but it appeared as if the burglar rifled through the dental records.
* * *
James Redbourne, an unemployed drifter, veteran of the Great War, found the burning remains of a young woman while squatting in a wooded area off U.S. Route 30 just east of Berlin, NJ. Known in the small town as somewhat eccentric, nearly always drinking, babbling nonsensical things about the war, he was dismissed as a loon when he came to town with a story about finding a body on fire near his lean-to in the woods. It was only when Miles Caravelle heard the story in passing and raised a fuss that the police decided to look into it. The body was found less than a mile away from Redbourne's camp.
Burned beyond recognition, all that could be determined at the scene was the woman was approximately the same age, height, and weight of Susanna Caravelle, with the same hair color and was killed by a blow to the back of the skull, most likely with an axe handle.
With modern forensic sciences still in their infancy, the only way to make a positive identification was with dental records. The county coroner transported the body back to the county seat, the city of Camden, retrieving Susanna's dental records from Dr. Bennett's office along the way. Two days later, it was confirmed the body found was that of Susanna Louise Caravelle.
The police searched five square acres for any evidence that would lead them to the killer or killers. Five days into the search, near nightfall and despite having been checked before, a bloody axe handle was discovered, wrapped in filthy rags, and hidden under a decrepit cot in James Redbourne's camp.
As Redbourne was arrested and led away in handcuffs, a man hidden in a small copse of loblolly pine trees nestled in a stand of ancient white oak trees, smiled.
No motive was uncovered, and although he underwent several intense, and often brutal, interrogations, the only evidence ever found connecting James Redbourne to the kidnapping and murder of Susanna Louise Caravelle was the axe handle. He steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout his trial two months after the body was discovered. After the short trial, Redbourne was found guilty and sentenced to death.
He was electrocuted for his crimes five months later.
Miles Harrison Caravelle II was a broken, defeated man after the death of his only daughter. He died of a stroke three years to the day Susanna was kidnapped. His wife, Elizabeth, hanged herself a week later.
Miles Harrison Caravelle III, Susanna's older brother, buried his parents, sold off his father's business holdings and the family's estate over the next two years, amassing a huge sum of money.
He disappeared the very day the last property was sold.
Nothing could have prepared Lauren Chase for the events that began on January tenth. That Tuesday began exactly like any other day.
Sadie, her two year old black and white Border Collie, roused her from a deep sleep just before nine, as was her wont, by jumping on the bed and assaulting Lauren's face with her tongue. It was Sadie's one bad habit. Lauren hadn't been able to break it yet, although she didn't really mind all that much, but it was peculiar because Sadie always learned everything quickly.
At least I never have to set an alarm clock.
Okay, Lauren giggled, trying to dodge the tongue busily licking her face and neck. I'm awake, I'm awake - goofy dog. Now off.
Sadie obediently jumped off the bed, turned and sat, staring expectantly at her master.
Lauren swung her legs over the edge of the queen size bed, yawning as she slipped on her oversized tee-shirt.
Alright mutt, let's go. Sliding her feet into her favorite slippers, Lauren led Sadie to the sliding glass door to let her out before turning her attention to the coffee pot.
The coffee maker now busy brewing, Lauren watched from the window over the sink as Sadie cavorted outside, snatching a pine cone up in her mouth, throwing it out into the yard with a quick, snapping twist, only to chase it down and start over again. She smiled.
You never cease to amaze, girl.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Lauren sipped her coffee, silently watching Sadie amusing herself so ingeniously with a pang of sadness. Her parents, Carlye and Dale, would have loved the dog tremendously, but they never had the chance.
Just as they were passing through a toll booth on the Atlantic City Expressway, a drunk driver in a Ford F-250, sped the wrong way up an off-ramp and slammed head-on into their Hyundai Sonata. The driver of the Ford went through his windshield on impact and died of his injuries before medical attention could arrive. Carlye and Dale were immolated when gas from a ruptured fuel line ignited. The state police said they died before the explosion, but that was hardly any consolation to Lauren.
Her parents had been less than three miles from Lauren's house when the accident occurred. Lauren had invited them up to see her new house. Her friends tried to tell her it was the drunk's fault, she wasn't to blame. Nevertheless, it took a very long time for her to actually believe it.
She was working on her second cup when Sadie, bored with her game, came sauntering up to the sliding glass door and pawed at it once. She sat down, panting lightly, and gave Lauren her most ridiculous grin. Lauren laughed as she let Sadie in the house.
You always seem to know when I need a lift, don't you Sadie? Lauren stooped down to pet the dog.
Wagging her tail at the mention of her name, Sadie nuzzled Lauren's hand, basking in the attention. Lauren kissed the top of her dog's head.
Find your bowl, girl. You need to eat, I need to get ready for work. Go on. Go find it.
Barking once, the dog sniffed around the kitchen before she trotted to her toy box. Worming first her muzzle, then her entire head under the lid, she pushed it up. It took a few seconds of rooting through the plethora of dog toys, but she found her bowl. Lauren was always astounded, although this had become their daily morning ritual, because Sadie always found her bowl, regardless of where it was hidden. This was one trick Lauren had never taught Sadie.
* * *
Lauren had started to realize the dog's exceptional intelligence about a year ago. On a cold winter night just a week before Christmas, playing tug-of-war with a rope toy in the living room, Sadie's high energy level and lack of surrender had worn Lauren out. Lauren released the rope toy, giggling hysterically as Sadie shook her head triumphantly, growling playfully, and began to prance around as if to display her trophy.
Why don't you go get your bear? Lauren said as she collapsed to the couch. To her astonishment, Sadie instantly dropped the rope and ran to the old teddy bear that Lauren had given her as a puppy, snatched it up, and brought it directly to Lauren.
What the - ? Lauren wondered, as Sadie gently placed the worn bear in her lap.
How can she possibly know what I meant?
Lauren understood Border Collies had a reputation as the smartest dogs in the world, however, even with Sadie's aptitude for learning, this felt like something special. Indeed, she seemed no smarter than any other dog when her boss, Michael O'Bannon, had given Sadie to her just after her parents died. It was the big, gruff Irishman's way of helping her deal with her parent's death. Lauren was touched by the attempt, accepting the gift although she didn't feel up to the idea of raising a puppy at the time. She never regretted the decision.
Excited, Lauren quickly devised a small test. Sadie lay on the floor, watching Lauren as she set six toys out, all different in shape and name, on the coffee table.
Calling the dog to her, Lauren began by pointing to each toy individually and naming them. Sadie, exhibiting what seemed to Lauren as deliberate behavior, followed along, ears pricked up when Lauren named the toys and looking at them when Lauren pointed at them. Lauren felt the dog displayed an abnormally long attention span during this process.
After ten repetitions, pointing and naming, Lauren led Sadie back to the couch.
Lauren ordered the dog to sit. Sadie obeyed instantly, cocking her head almost as if she knew something important was imminent.
Over the next half hour, Sadie retrieved toy after toy with staggering accuracy. By the time the test was finished, Lauren was half convinced Sadie had been playing around, deliberately mistaking one toy for another, just to keep her guessing. Nevertheless, Lauren was overjoyed.
Over the next two months, Sadie learned every toy in the house by name.
By the end of the year, Sadie recognized about four hundred words, including at least twenty words by just their spelling.
During that year, enthralled by the dog's intelligence and learning ability, Lauren didn't notice the pall of grief over her parent's deaths lifting almost entirely. She still had her moments, but there were more days of happiness than sadness. Sadie had helped to heal her, and for Lauren, that was the most astounding thing her dog had yet accomplished.
Lauren arrived at O'Bannon's, an upscale diner by day, Irish pub by night, for her noon waitress shift, slipping her 1996 Chevrolet Beretta Z26 into her customary spot in the employee parking area. Located on Sicklerville Road, about five miles east of her home, it was the only diner for ten miles in any direction, and it was always incredibly busy. The customer lot, approximately one hundred spaces, was packed. Maybe five spaces stood empty.
Upon their death, her parents had substantial assets, and as an only child and sole beneficiary, Lauren didn't need the job any longer. Nevertheless, she needed something to do during the day, anything really, to occupy her time. The work was hectic, but fun, and she loved it.
The friendly and spirited redhead did well, quickly developing regular customers and collecting substantial tips every shift. She only kept about ten percent of her tips, however, preferring to have her boss quietly distribute the majority amongst the other wait staff. Only Mike, and Robin Hardin, Lauren's best friend, knew of her generosity. Robin, also a popular waitress at O'Bannon's and the wife of a former professional football player turned highly successful defense attorney, quickly followed suit. On a good day, the two women could pull in two or three hundred in tips, despite not working the more lucrative night shift.
Mike was sitting at his office desk looking over some papers as Lauren and Sadie walked through the private entrance to his office.
His brown eyes seemed to light up as he stood, lifted her in his strong arms, and twirled her around in his usual exuberant greeting.
Chase! Sadie! How's me two favorite girls this fine day? Mike greeted them, using his nickname for her, a tiny remainder of his Irish brogue in his deep, booming voice.
Morning to you too, Mike, Lauren laughed, throwing her arms around him as the room spun. She thought she loved this man once, in the depths of her grief, would have let him love her as well, but he made it clear without words that she was like a daughter to him. She respected him all the more for it now. She did love him, but in a different way.
She latched on to his desk, trying to recover her equilibrium as he set her down.
You do realize it's only been two days since you last saw me, right? she said, breathlessly.
Of course, girl, but I don't see there's a problem showing the two of you how much you're loved, do you? He laughed.
Lauren watched as he opened the top right drawer of his desk, knew what he was preparing. She glanced surreptitiously at Sadie. The black and white pup pricked her ears, tail wagging vigorously. She knew what was coming too. Lauren grinned.
You know she always wins, Mike.
There's always a first time, Chase. He shrugged.
You can't say I didn't warn you.
Mike pulled two large Ziploc bags filled with what appeared to be coffee grounds from the drawer and set them on the desktop. He was always prepared for when Lauren brought Sadie to work with her, giving the dog little tasks, testing her.
Now, young Sadie. There's a treat in one of these bags, but you won't be able to sniff it out. The coffee covers its smell. What you have to do is figure out which one, but only when I tell you. Do you understand?
She barked once, as if in agreement, and sat, waiting patiently, the very picture of doggy concentration.
Good girl. Mike leaned against the desk, watching her, drawing the test out a bit.
Okay pup, here we go. It's the one on the L-E-F-T. He spelled the word out.
Sadie approached, reared up, placing her front paws on the desktop. She looked back and forth, considering each bag.
Well, dog? What's it gonna be? Mike smiled.
Sadie lowered towards the right bag, her eyes on Mike as her jaws began closing.
Lauren stifled a smile, realizing the dog was pulling a fast one on her boss.
Quick as lightning, Sadie twisted her head at the last second, gently picking up the correct bag in her teeth. She whined happily at Mike, grinning.
Lauren could no longer hold back her laughter at his wonder as Mike playfully ruffled the dog's head with a calloused hand, taking the bag and opening it.
Confound it, pup. I really thought I had you that time. Here you go, pup. A deal's a deal.
Sadie took the proffered peanut butter flavored treat, took it to her blanket in the corner, and started munching on it.
I tried to warn you, Lauren said, still laughing. I taught her right and left a couple weeks ago.
Aye, Chase, you did, He shook his head ruefully, sat down in his chair. One of these days, it'll be her that's befuddled instead of me.
I almost wish I'd kept her.
You don't really mean that.
He waved dismissively.
Of course I don't. I'm just thinking it would've been nice to find another one like her.
I'm doubt there's another quite like her. Speaking of which, how did you find her?
The big man paused, thinking.
I'll leave some of the details for another day, but the gist is this, he replied, waving Lauren to the chair opposite his desk.
Do you remember J A Deli, just around the corner from here?
Sure, she nodded. I used to eat there all the time. Best hoagies in Jersey. That actress owned it - Jen Rogerson, I think it was. It closed overnight about two, two and a half years ago.
That it did. The entire Rogerson family disappeared right around the same time, along with Jen's business partner, Angela Bessom. No trace of them has ever been found.
They were all my friends. Jen and Angela ate here every morning before work.
I'm sorry, Mike, Lauren said, knowing how weak the expression was, but not knowing what else to say.
So was I, He sighed, rubbing a hand across his eyes, remembering. A girl was murdered in the store about two weeks before they disappeared. Hayden Pickett.
Why haven't I heard about this? Lauren asked, astonished.
Some government agency covered it all up. Very few people heard about it, let alone remembers it. I only know about it because of certain, acquaintances, shall we say?
What does this have to do with Sadie?
I was nosing around the Rogerson's a few days after they vanished, looking for something that would tell me what happened. The house was destroyed. Roof caved in, one wall collapsed, windows shattered, almost as if the place exploded.
I didn't find anything, but just as I was climbing into my car, this half-starved puppy crawled out from a pile of rubble, whining as if to get my attention, but looking ready to bolt if she decided I couldn't be trusted. I managed to coax her to me, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jesus, Mike. Why didn't you ever tell me this before?
I think you know the answer, Chase. You had enough on your plate just then.
I guess I did. Still... Lauren glanced at Sadie, who was fast asleep, curled up on her blanket.
Did you ever find out what happened to the Rogerson's? Lauren asked.
Those acquaintances I mentioned? Let's just say they made strong suggestions not to go poking about where I shouldn't.
Now shouldn't you be off to work now?
Fine, fine, Lauren laughed. Slave driver.
A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, he quipped, picking up the papers on his desk.
She rose and walked to the door.
I have just one more thing to say, boss, Lauren paused at the door.
Mike looked up to see his favorite employee, the girl he loved like a daughter, stick her tongue out, thumbs in her ears, the other fingers wiggling.
He threw a wadded up piece of paper at her as she ran from the room, ponytail bouncing along behind her.
She could still hear him laughing when she reached the other side of the long kitchen.
Jayson Blackmon quietly led his heavily armed, five man team south through the densely wooded area, paralleling an unnamed dirt track as he closed in on the small, three room cabin tucked at the rear of the four acre tract. Three more similarly equipped teams approached the structure from the east, west, and south, cutting off possible escape routes for their quarry. Blackmon hardly thought a small platoon was necessary for a single person, but it wasn't his place to question orders hand delivered by the Director.
He keyed his throat mic after ensuring his team was in position.
Alpha Team in position. All teams report, he whispered into the early afternoon stillness.
Charlie Team in position.
Delta in place.
Bravo two mikes out.
Copy that, Bravo. Have your team check equipment and ammo on the way. Don't need to be here longer than needed. Double click when in position.
Acknowledged. Bravo out.
Blackmon had his team check their equipment as he surveyed the cabin and the small clearing surrounding it. Smoke curled from the stone chimney on the east side of the cabin, and an aging four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco sat on the west side. A single, twenty foot tall light post stood to the northwest, wired only to the cabin. Using a ultra-sensitive, but incredibly small, directional microphone Blackmon could hear a television or radio playing inside, and a diesel-powered generator at the rear of the cabin.
Each operator with his team carried a Heckler Koch MP7A1 submachine gun fitted with a sound suppressor firing 4.6x30mm ammunition, a .45 caliber SIG Sauer P220 Combat Pistol with extended magazines, as well as three non-lethal flashbang grenades for this mission. One man carried an AA-12, a fully automatic combat shotgun, loaded with 12-gauge door-breaching rounds.
Putting the microphone in its pouch on his web-belt, Blackmon quickly performed a touch-inventory of his own loadout. He carried a customized and suppressed Mark 18 CQBR, a close-quarters variant of the M4A1 carbine, as well as his personal side arm, a Beretta 93R, also fitted with a silencer.
Blackmon heard a double click in his earpiece, Bravo Team's signal.
Copy Bravo. All teams, non-lethal target neutralization only. The Director wants this one alive.
All teams affirmed and Blackmon gave the order to begin. His team moved slowly, every eye watching windows and doors, weapons trained on the front of the house. No sign of movement, no shouts of protest, no resistance to their approach. Concentrating on the cabin, they failed to notice the heavily camouflaged, miniaturized motion detector mounted at the top of the light pole.
With the only door on the north side, Alpha would be breaching the cabin while the other teams secured the perimeter and prevented the target from escaping. Using hand signals, Blackmon directed two of his operators to each of the windows on either side of the door, and the shotgunner to the door while he and the last member stacked up behind him. The tiny porch could barely contain the five operators.
Keying his mic twice to signal his team was in position, receiving whispered replies from the other teams signaling the same, Blackmon nodded to the shotgunner and the two at the windows to begin.
The windows shattered as a flashbang was tossed through each, followed two seconds later by loud whumps and brilliant flashes of light from both, completely disorienting and incapacitating anyone inside the cabin. Timed with the blasts from the grenades, the shotgunner boomed twice, quickly, sending two rounds of powdered metal into the door lock, obliterating the mechanism and the part of the frame with the striker plate.
The shotgunner stepped aside, two agents covering from the windows, Blackmon and the last operator entered the cabin fast, Blackmon left, the other right. The other three followed swiftly as soon as the two cleared the doorway. The only sounds were the operators shallow breathing and the muffled noise of the generator chugging behind the cabin. The grenades had silenced the television.
The afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows revealed no one in the continuous living room, kitchen and dining area. Hand signals directed two agents to one of the remaining doors, while Blackmon and another went to the other, the shotgunner covering both teams. Silently, Blackmon counted down with his fingers, three, two, one. On zero both teams kicked in their respective doors, one room a tiny bathroom, the other a small bedroom. They were empty.
On the tiny kitchen counter sat a cheap coffemaker, still brewing.
Livid, cursing softly, Blackmon radioed the other teams to stand down. Two jagged knife scars, one running from his left ear down his jaw line to his chin, the other from the corner of his left eye, crossing the other to end at the juncture of his neck and shoulder stood out brightly against his red face as he punched a number into his cell phone as he stepped out to the porch. He removed the baseball-style cap from his head, rubbing a hand across his baldness in frustration.
The Director is NOT going to be happy.
Go secure, Blackmon ordered. And get me Regina.
He sighed, listening to the clicks and burrs of the encryption software.
Unbeknownst to Jayson Blackmon and his teams, wireless pinhole cameras, mounted at various points throughout the cabin, outside on the porch, as well as several in trees surrounding the cabin, and activated by the motion detector hidden on the light pole, recorded the entire assault.
O'Bannon's Diner and Pub was constructed in a large, reverse L-shape, the short side parallel to Sicklerville Road. Twenty tables set up on the awning-covered platform that fronted the diner provided seating for those that preferred eating outside. Forty booths and tables inside, plus the twenty stools lining the counter, which doubled as the wet bar at night, completed the seating arrangements.
Richly appointed with elegant, soft chandelier lighting throughout, plush mahogany carpeting, dark tan tablecloths with mahogany borders, deep brown leather upholstery on the wooden chairs and booth benches, the diner was among the most popular places in the tri-state area. People from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania stopped to sample its fare when they were in the neighborhood, such was its reputation. Celebrities, in the area working on one project or another, turned up for a relaxing evening at the bar almost nightly.
The lunch rush was just hitting its stride when Lauren reached the waitress station. Robin, Lauren's best friend was waiting for her.
What's up, girl? Robin asked.
S.S.D.D. You know how it is.
Do I ever, Robin laughed.
Place is hopping today, Lauren commented, surveying the floor while gathering a couple of pencils and an order pad and tucking them in the apron's pocket.
Only a little more than usual. Well, girl, let's get to it.
Lauren paused, brilliant green eyes taking in the semi-controlled chaos before she and Robin got to work. Between the two, they split the twenty tables on the short side of the diner. Table after table, order after order, customer after customer, they didn't stop for the next two hours.
* * *
The lunch rush subsided just after two o'clock, affording Lauren the opportunity to take a much-needed break to check on Sadie. The dog was snoring lightly, nose tucked under the tip of her tail.
Grabbing her purse and gently closing the door, Lauren made her way to the employee restroom to check her hair and touch up her makeup. As she reached the mirror, Robin exited one of the stalls.
Lauren watched her friend in the mirror, surreptitiously. She was always awestruck by Robin's seemingly effortless good looks. Chinese-American, with long, black hair, today worn in a curly, layered style, bangs partially covering her left eye, sides arching around her oval face, and glittering black eyes that seemed to take in everything at one glance. Barely five foot two, weighing perhaps a hundred pounds, the petite woman was the very essence of exotic beauty. Men flirted with her all day, every day, to no avail. Happily married, however, Robin shot them all down, unfailingly polite. Lauren envied her, at times, for the ease in which she handled those situations. She knew Robin was extremely comfortable with herself, with a cat-like grace, and supremely confident. Robin was everything Lauren wanted to be.
At five foot eight, Lauren was the classic Irish redhead, from the green eyes, right down to the smattering of freckles across her cheeks and nose. Perhaps a hundred twenty pounds, toned and fit, Lauren still felt positively ungainly compared to Robin. She received her fair share of attention from men, however, but she just wasn't interested. She'd had five lovers since high school, but none since her parents died.
Hey Red, having fun yet? Robin asked as she washed her hands.
Lauren smiled at the college nickname Robin had given her as roommates at the University of New Jersey Woodbury, for obvious reasons.
You know me - I always have fun.
Don't I know it, Robin grinned. I remember all the fun we had in school.
Oh really? Lauren gave her friend a wry look, adjusting her ponytail.
Sweetheart, I'm hurt, Robin said, although the smile was clearly evident in her eyes. Have you forgotten that I know the carpet matches the drapes?
Laughing, Lauren shook her head as Robin put on her best seductive look, winked, and blew a kiss at her reflection before she left the bathroom.
Brat! Lauren called after her.
Regina Forness was unaccustomed to failure. She had rarely encountered it in her life's pursuits. She'd worked extremely hard to achieve success, harder than most, albeit not altogether honorably. Becoming the Chief Executive Officer, and public face, of what had become simultaneously the third largest for-profit company, as well as the largest charitable organization, in the world would have been difficult for any woman, let alone a black woman. Yet she had done just that over the last thirty-odd years, first joining the organization as a young corporate lawyer, fresh from the bar exam, specializing in hostile takeovers.
Ruthless, efficient, fearless, and never hesitant to do dirty work when necessary, Regina was five years into her employment when she had a very torrid affair with, then blackmailed, the legal division's manager. Two months after she was promoted to assistant manager, she visited the man's wife and told her everything. The woman was disbelieving - until Regina shamelessly shared photos of the man in several compromising, and very pornographic, positions, with her in the starring role. The man gave up his job to save his marriage. He committed suicide six months later, after his wife took ninety percent of everything he owned in the divorce settlement.
Just the first in a series of such career advancements, there was no line Regina was not willing to cross. To her, life was about going as far as one could, and damn the consequences. Not surprisingly, Regina had never married.
Severing the secure connection after receiving Jayson Blackmon's report, she wondered how, when, or if, she should inform the Director of their target's escape. The failure was disappointing, yes, but hardly unusual when this particular quarry was involved. This quarry, however, invoked a rage from the Director beyond Regina's understanding.
She didn't think this was a business deal gone bad. This seemed more....personal. All Regina was permitted to know about this target was it was a woman, she was not involved in any business ventures that interested, or interfered with, the company or the charity, and she has been pursued around the globe. They didn't even have any reliable pictures of the target, just some grainy, out of focus distance shots and some computer generated projections of how she may look.
It wasn't much to work with, but the intelligence departments gathered, collated, and cross-referenced even the slimmest of leads, and they've come very close to catching her. So close, in fact, that the teams found meals, still warm and left uneaten in apartments, remote cabins, even a tent on one occasion.
Today, Blackmon found the coffeepot still brewing. The woman must have been warned just minutes before the team made entry into the small cabin. Luck, it seemed, was always on this accursed woman's side. Until Regina could get an investigative team to the area, she could only assume the woman had some outside help. It wasn't unprecedented.
About twenty years ago, well before Regina had attained her present responsibilities within the organization, the woman had enlisted the aid of a coalition of several prominent political, as well as a few important private, figures. She very nearly succeeded in bringing the company down that time, only failing when a number of the private figures were found dead, ostensibly of natural causes, or suddenly finding themselves defending against hostile takeovers of their respective companies. All but two of the politicians were publicly disgraced in sex scandals, or caught up in corruption investigations. One was even suspected of murdering a lover in a fit of drunken rage, though he was never prosecuted. When Regina had assumed the office of Assistant Director, which included the hunt for the fugitive woman, she read all the relevant files, and tremendously enjoyed that particular incident.
Now, however, Regina needed to get the present-day search back into full swing. Fully intending to ensure this was the woman's last escape, Regina prepared to order teams from every pertinent division into action, beginning with the investigative team. She also needed to get in touch with Brandon Cole, the company's lead operator. A bit of a lone wolf, Cole was also the best at what he did. Right now, Regina needed the best.
Sighing, Regina picked up her phone.
* * *
I understand Ms. Forness.
Top priority, Cole. This individual has made several terrorist threats against the company as a whole, and the Director in particular. This woman is dangerous, but must be taken alive. You have a blank check this time Mr. Cole.
Yes ma'am. I'll give it my full attention.
See that you do, Mr. Cole. See that you do.
Three things, Ms. Forness.
Yes? What is it? She sounded irritated.
I assume you sent Blackmon? I want him gone by the time I get there.
Fine. Next? Acid dripped from her voice.
Nobody disturbs anything at the cabin until I'm finished with it. In fact, I'd prefer that no one enters at all.
There is an investigative team from the New York office on the way there, Mr. Cole. What do you propose I do call them back?
Send them to flipping Disney World for all I give a damn! Just keep them out of that cabin!
Very well. And the last?
A helicopter equipped with infrared cameras to patrol the area around the cabin. It's unlikely the target would return, but I like to be prepared for anything. Did you get all that?
Why do you think I will allow you to dictate to me, Mr. Cole? Regina's voice was icy.
Oh, I think you know perfectly well, all I have to do is make one phone call, Ms. Forness, and I will have my way. I just thought we could cut out the middleman and all the fuss. He matched her tone, icicle for icicle.
Indeed, Mr. Cole. Remember this, though, and remember well I am not known for my patience, nor for forgiveness. Do I make myself clear?
Absolute crystal. Bye-bye now.
Brandon Cole hit the end button on his cell phone, ending the call. God, how he hated that bitch. He hated the necessity of being even marginally polite to her more. He'd always done his level best to limit his contact with her. He certainly wanted nothing to do with her, but he had little choice at the moment.
He made a few calls to arrange for a rental car and hotel reservation in New Jersey, and one of the company's private jets while he packed his duffel bag, reluctantly.
Ten minutes later, he was on his way to the airport. New Jersey was only an hour's flight time from D.C.
Lauren's shift ended at five forty-five. As she was untying her apron, Robin walked up, playfully snapping her bra strap.
Hey Red are you busy Saturday?
I don't have any plans at the moment. What's up?
Well, Alan and I were hoping you'd come over for dinner. We could have a taco night, pizza and beer, steak, whatever you want. Maybe curl up on the couch with a movie and a bottle of wine.
Lauren eyed her suspiciously.
This wouldn't be one of your master plans to set me up with some guy, would it?
Absolutely not, Robin laughed. I remember how well the last time worked out.
Yeah, well... He wasn't my type.
No guys, I promise. Except Alan, but he doesn't count.
I'm sure the former all-pro quarterback would be thrilled to hear he's not a card-carrying member of the male species any longer.
Duh! He's married, remember? I carry them around in my purse now.
So that's how you keep him in line, Lauren joked. I wondered how you managed that.
Sweetheart, that is the only way to keep them honest. So? You coming? You haven't been over in months. Robin pouted, bringing a smile to Lauren's face.
And how could I possibly deny that face? Lauren tweaked her friend's nose. Peppers and onions, with extra cheese? And no guys?
Scout's honor, Robin gave the Girl Scout salute, then gave Lauren a quick hug.
As Robin walked away, Lauren called out to her.
You know I know you were never a scout!
Guess you'll just have to trust me then! See you around seven! Bring Sadie too! Robin waved.
Lauren just grinned and shook her head as she walked back to Mike's office. She knocked on the open door as she walked in the room.
Sadie ambled over, tail wagging. Lauren scratched behind the dog's ears.
Hey, pretty girl. You being good for the boss?
The dog sat and looked at Mike.
Good as gold, Chase, he said. He open his drawer, pulled out a small dog biscuit, and tossed it to Sadie, who caught it in midair.
She's spoiled enough, Mike. You keep giving her those treats, she's going to get fat, too. Lauren laughed.
Are you kidding? That dog's too smart to get fat.
You just might be right about that. Do you need me to do anything else before we go?
Not unless you've suddenly decided to work the night shift, he laughed. He knew she didn't like the bar scene, even an upscale place like O'Bannon's.
Lauren smiled at the familiar joke and gave her equally familiar answer.
Not a chance, you old reprobate.
Well? What are you waiting for then? Get out of here.
The big man came out from behind his desk, hugged Lauren and kissed her forehead.
See you tomorrow, Chase.
* * *
In a clearing on the far side of a small lake, a hunter-green Dodge Durango sat, engine idling, exhaust plumes hanging heavy on the still spring air. The young woman in the driver's seat sat watching the aftermath of the military-style assault on the cabin as her laptop downloaded video and still images the hidden cameras had recorded. She counted people as they came into frame.
My, my! Twenty operators for just one woman! How desperate you have become, the hatred, the anger you must feel, my dear Director.
If anyone should feel hate and anger, it was her. The years of being hunted like an animal, chased across six continents, through sixty-plus countries, would be enough to make anyone bitter. She knew it was within her right, but she couldn't bring herself to feel that way. If anything, she felt good about things, more often than not. After all, she was still a step ahead of people hunting her, although this time it had been a near thing.
* * *
A scant three hours ago, she'd just started the coffee pot and stepped into the small bathroom to brush her teeth, when the television came to life, the volume blaring. Wired to the pressure triggers she'd installed in a loose ring around the cabin's clearing, it was the perfect alarm system. Unless a person knew exactly where the triggers were buried, there was no way to avoid them, and they gave her a maximum of five minutes warning of human approach.
As she always slept fully dressed, five minutes was more than enough time to slide into her sneakers and grab her laptop in its backpack, her pistol in its tactical holster, and her small emergency flashlight.
She went to the brick fireplace, felt along the mantle for the hidden switch the owner of the cabin had recently installed. Silently thanking God for small favors and good friends, she found the switch, pressed it. She felt more than heard the dressed stone face on the left side of the fireplace pop free. She pulled the panel open, revealing a small passage, roughly one and a half feet wide, three feet tall, and about three feet deep, with a small hole in the dirt floor at the back of the passage. She jammed her pistol and holster into a front pocket of the backpack
Strapping the backpack on, she slid feet first into the passage. Pulling the panel closed behind her, she slid, crawled, wormed her way back to the hole in the floor. As her feet found the empty space, she switched on the flashlight, the light shining on the small hand- and foot-holds embedded in the concrete sides, as well as the concrete floor of a tunnel eight feet down.
By this time, the cabin should be visible to whoever tripped the alarm.
Holding the flashlight in her teeth, she started her descent.
As her feet hit the floor of the tunnel, she swept the light in the direction the tunnel ran. She found the switch for the overhead lighting, turned them on, dispelling the darkness. The dimensions of the tunnel were barely large enough to allow a single person through it, but it was dry, empty, and most importantly, it led away from whoever was coming. With a speed honed by much practice, she removed her holster from the backpack and strapped it to her belt and right leg. She prayed she didn't need it.
She couldn't run in so small an area, but she wasn't going to waste any time either. Her sneakers made little sound as she set out, heading in the general direction of the lake.
She was five hundred feet into the tunnel when she heard the faint sounds of the flashbangs, mingled with the shotgun blasts.
She walked faster.
* * *
Now, after forty-five minutes in the tunnel, and another hour and a half of hiking through heavy woods to the far side of the lake, she sat in the SUV, attention divided between the laptop and the cabin. She kept pulling up videos and still shots at random, until she came across the video of a muscle-bound oaf with two vicious-looking scars on his face, walking from the cabin to the porch. As he pulled his hat from his head and rubbed a hand across the top of his bald head he looked angry, but the woman took more notice of the hat than the man. Freezing the video, she stared for several seconds at the hat before realizing what drew her attention to it.
There was a logo, or something very similar, on the front panel of the hat. She couldn't read it, even though the cameras around the cabin were more than a decade more advanced than the best available to the general public.
Figures. Nothing's ever that easy for me...
Using software she had personally designed, she isolated the image, enlarged it. She still couldn't quite make out the logo. She loaded the picture into an image enhancement program, again of her own design, and started it. Knowing it would take at least three hours, if she was lucky, before the picture would be ready, she decided it was time to leave. She was pushing her luck by hanging around as it was. The cozy little cabin had been her home for far too short a time. She had loved it, though.
She heard the helicopter as she put the Durango in gear. She couldn't see it, but she knew it was after her. Already in four-wheel-drive, she tromped on the accelerator. The tires sent sand and gravel flying as they spun. A fraction of a second before they gained traction, the helicopter popped into sight, just above the treetops, coming at her from the direction of the cabin. The SUV rocketed towards the treeline.
She knew this trail forward and backward, having scouted it many times over the last few months. She also knew she was now heading in the wrong direction. This way meant houses, people. People meant danger, although not to her from them, but to them from the people hunting her.
They'd done it before, twenty years ago. Politicians, business people, others, all dead because she went to them for help. No one was ever caught, let alone prosecuted, but she knew it was them. There was no way to prove it back then, and certainly no way to prove it by now. All she could do was keep her circle of friends as small as possible to keep them safe.
Now she was putting more innocent people at risk because her enemies reacted to her escape faster than she expected, caught her unawares. There was no way she was going to allow that.
Driving along the narrow trail, low-hanging branches smacking the grill, hood, windshield, engine whining as the SUV bounced and jolted over exposed tree roots and fallen tree limbs, she made a decision.
It was time to stop running. It was time to fight.
* * *
Brandon Cole's flight landed at Atlantic City International Airport barely forty-five minutes after taking off from the company's private airport outside Washington, D.C. Half an hour later, he pulled his rented Dodge Charger down the narrow dirt track that led to the cabin the woman had so recently occupied, stopping just inside the small clearing around the cabin.
He sat in the car, reading Blackmon's after-action report, such as it was, glancing at the cabin, taking in its crude but sturdy construction. From the report, he could envision the inside; living room, dining area, tiny kitchen arranged along the front and right side, small bedroom and smaller bathroom on the left. The oversize fireplace in the living room, constructed outside the right wall, was more than enough to heat the tiny building. The same could be said of the generator behind the cabin. To Cole's experienced eye, it was far larger than was needed to power the small building. He wondered why.
He exited the vehicle, walked around the perimeter of the cabin, studying it. He made four circuits before pausing at the fireplace. He suddenly had an idea as to why the fireplace was so much larger than a cabin of this size needed. If he was right, it might explain the outsized generator as well. He wanted a look inside.
Cole went to the small porch, crossing it in two big strides. Pushing open the remains of the door, he looked in, unsurprised to see the spartan layout was exactly as he pictured it. Stepping inside, he inspected everything slowly, seeking insight into his quarry. There appeared to be little, if any, personal touches. No pictures, no knick-knacks, no personal computer, nothing.
Crossing to the small bedroom, he saw the bed, constructed of rough logs, but sturdy. The bedding itself was standard, cheap but comfortable. The simple cedar chiffarobe tucked in the corner contained maybe three days worth of clothing; no jewelry or personal items, nothing to identify the woman. The bathroom yielded no clues either.
In the tiny kitchen and dining area, the cabinets and drawers held just enough for two settings, a half-empty box of crackers, a box of microwaveable oatmeal, the makings of a spaghetti meal. A single coffee mug sat on the counter next to the coffeemaker, waiting. A small wooden table with mismatched chairs. Again, nothing of a personal nature. Cole moved on to the living room.
As he crossed to the fireplace, boot heels thumping dully on the plank flooring, he noticed some oddly curving scratches, running roughly parallel to each other. Studying them, he thought they looked familiar, that he'd seen their like before.
The more he thought about it, the closer he seemed to a revelation, something about a kidnapping investigation he'd been involved with during his time as a Philadelphia cop. Just as he seemed on the verge of a small epiphany, his radio burst to life.
Patrol to Cole. Do you copy?
Go for Cole.
He heard a helicopter pass over the cabin.
Vehicle spotted, opposite shore of lake. Initiating contact at this time.
I copy, Patrol. Do a flyover, verify target. If female, detain for questioning.
Cole headed for his car. The cabin wasn't going anywhere. He could work on the scratches and the woman's escape later.
As he cleared the doorway, into the sunlight, a brief glint of light flaring from glass caught his eye from high in one of the trees lining the clearing. He thought he knew what the flare meant, but he had to check anyway, hoping he was wrong. If he was right, things might go bad for the company, and he promised himself that if he couldn't stop it, he wasn't going to get caught up in it either. It was time for him to put his 'retirement' plan into action.
* * *