CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Washington, D. C.
The gurney stopped moving. It was all that Shahida could do to not pull the pistol from behind her back and to a more instantly accessible location. It was too early she knew. There was still a chance that they might all make it out without gun-play. The guards seemed young, and they might well sneak by. But she was also painfully aware that here, they were in the dragon’s lair, and should it come to a shooting match, she and her two friends would be woefully over-matched.
The voice from outside the box was muffled, but still Shahida could easily make out every word. It was a male voice, that of a youngish man.
“Is that the suicide from the B4 unit?” the voice asked.
Weeks hesitated an uncertain moment and then spoke up. “Yes sir.”
“Alright. Let me see the DC.”
“Yeah smart-ass, the DC—you had Strumpf pronounce, didn’t you?”
Weeks looked blank.
“Jesus, where do they get you guys from anyway? You can’t just take a body out of here until the doctor comes over and does a pronouncement.”
“A pronouncement?” Wiggins said.
“Yeah, genius. A doctor, a medical physician specifically—has to examine the body and pronounce it dead. Us, we’re way too stupid to be able to tell a thing like that. How’d she off herself?”
“Bullet through the head.”
“Well then, there you go. You or me, we look at a body with a big gaping hole through the noggin, and a bunch of brains leaking out, well, you can’t expect us dumb shits to know if she’s dead or not. Takes a physician for that. Then he has to sign the DC—the death certificate. You have present that to me, or to whoever is on shift here when you come through. One of us signs it too and off you go over to the Sunny Side funeral home. They do our cremations. No double signed DC—no cremation, simple as that.”
“Sorry, we didn’t know.”
“Then I’ll bet Dr. Strumpf wasn’t even called, was he?”
The guard signed. “Okay then. Park her over there in that side hallway and I’ll give his office a call. Probably take a few hours for him to get over here, but maybe we’ll get lucky and be able to get you two out of here while we’re all still in our youth.”
Another voice spoke up, this time from the end of the hall. Shahida recognized the voice as belonging to the FBI agent that had been with the President. Things are turning sour pretty fast, she thought, as her hand tightened on the pistol.
“It’s okay Officer,” the voice said. “I’ll take over from here. This lady is a special case.”
“Yes sir,” the guard replied. “No problem.”
“Thank you,” the older man said, as the young guard turned and walked away.
“Weeks, Wiggins—take a right at the hallway. I have a hearse from Sunny Side waiting. Where’s Pulini?”
“Staying behind,” Weeks replied. “He’s got the shits this morning. Too many hot peppers on his pizza last night.”
“Okay then,” the older man replied. “We need to make this fast. Too many people already looking for her. Faster she’s in an ashcan the better.”
“What’s the deal with her anyway?” Weeks asked.
“None of your damned business is what’s the deal with her,” the older voice said. “The less you know the better.”
“Okay, okay—just curious, that’s all.”
“Remember what they say about the cat. You like all the extra money you’re making?”
“Well, keep your eyes and your mouth shut and you’ll keep making it.”
“Okay–got it boss.”
“So start pushing this damned thing then. Long way out to the loading dock.”
The procession started moving.
It was quite easy to sidestep the punch. Child’s-play really. It was easy to see how the Kid, and Brick too, for that matter, had been able to win all those fights. Gabriel stumbled forward slightly as his right connected with nothing but air. I gave him a cuff on the side of his head as he went by. I could have done a lot worse, but I really didn’t want to seriously hurt the guy. I kind of liked him. And besides, the whole time-travel fighting thing seemed a lot more than just a little shady to me. It wasn’t quite cricket, to say the very least. On the other hand, I didn’t exactly want a good beating from Gabriel either—so I kept it up—momma didn’t raise no fools.
“Knock it off, Sam!” I said as he passed me for about the tenth time. I added another powder-puff swat for emphasis. “You can’t win this, big-guy.” Apparently he didn’t know that, as he cocked his big mitt for another try at the center of my face. He didn’t miss by much, and I felt the breeze as his knuckles passed an inch or two from my nose. Brick and the Kid had at last turned away from the bar to watch the festivities. They were both holding their drinks, and looked prepared to defend them if necessary, or at the very least keep them from spilling if we waltzed in a little too close.
It was not as though Brick and the Kid were no help at all. They shouted advice and encouragement. Trouble was, it was directed toward Gabriel, not me. I guess they probably looked at this altercation as a learning experience for me, and as an added bonus—they did not have to be the ones doing the teaching. At any rate, it was plain that they were enjoying the spectacle and having a good time. Again, I thought it about time to bring this so-called “fight” to an end. Trouble was, I wasn’t exactly sure how to do that—at least without causing Gabriel to lose a lot of face, and I didn’t want to do that. I was starting to really respect the guy. Anyone who absolutely refuses to give up, no matter how one-sided the odds or pointless the conflict—well, some qualities just have to be acknowledged.
In the end, the finish wasn’t very pretty. I tripped him. I admit it wasn’t much flashy, or even very fair, but damn–did it work. He sprawled headlong and face first into the floor, which gave me a terrific advantage as I basically stood on his neck and demanded his surrender. Like I said, it would never make the annals of the great fist-fights magazine year-end photo edition.
Sam twisted his neck around enough to be able to speak.
“What was that you were drinking?” he inquired.
“Club Soda. Neat. No rocks.”
“Tell the barkeep to make it two, and I’ll have one with you.”
“Fair enough, Sam,” I replied with a smile. “Fair enough.” I quickly removed my foot from his neck. He rose slowly to his feet, straightened out his jacket and vest, and then stuck out his hand for a shake. I was only too happy to accept it.
“I’ve fought many a man,” he began. “And not a one of them ever made the fool of me that you just did. I bow in your presence Mr. O’Brien, and I tip my hat to one hellofa great fighter.” Gabriel tried for the cap tipping thing but it wasn’t on his head anymore. I had knocked it off in the first few seconds of the fight. I reached behind me and retrieved it from the floor and handed it to him.
“Just Johnny to my friends, Sam. Just Johnny to my friends,” I repeated.
“Yes sir, Johnny,” he said enthusiastically. Let’s have some of that soda stuff. Can’t say I’ve ever had it before. Maybe I’ll like it!”
“Maybe you will,” I agreed. “I hope so, Sam. I truly do.”
We bellied up to the bar, all four of us in a row—kind of like crows on a telephone line. Brick and the Kid nursed their liquor. Gabriel and I sipped our Shirley Temples. It was practically a Hallmark moment. Sam allowed as to how his soda didn’t taste near as bad as he had expected it to. After his little go-around with me, and the absence of new intoxication for a few minutes, old Sam was starting to lose his buzz just a little bit. When he spoke, his words were not nearly as slurred. He spoke to the Kid, but somehow I just sort of intuitively knew to whom he was referring. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just a little. And my skin crawl.
“Big Al’s back in town.”
“So I’ve heard,” the Kid responded dryly. “Been awhile.”
“Years,” Gabriel agreed. “They say he’s dying.”
“And Satan always speaks the truth, doesn’t he?” the Kid replied sarcastically.
“You’re not a believer?” Gabriel asked.
“I wouldn’t believe that bastard if he said the sky was blue,” the Kid responded.
“What’s he got to gain? He’s a broken man.”
“Yeah, right. What he has to gain, is the only thing that ever really mattered to him. Power. Power over men, over women, over anything of good, worth, or value. Money was only the means to his end.”
I jumped in. “Are we talking about the “Al” that I think we’re talking about, Kid?
“Yeah, Johnny. The one and only.”
“You kind of forgot to mention earlier that he was a friend of yours.”
The Kid screwed up his face in distaste. “He was never a friend of mine, Johnny. Never. No man on this earth was ever the friend of Al Capone.”
Shahida rinsed the last bit of ketchup and syrup out of her hair. Finally, after nearly thirty minutes in the shower, the smell of the fake blood concoction was fading. It was just in time too, as the hot water was quickly beginning to fade from the smallish sized water heater. Weeks’ digs were a little surprising to Shahida. It was an exceptionally neat and clean apartment for a bachelor guy, and well decorated too. Not what she would have expected. Shahida had wondered if the oddly good-looking Weeks and his goofy partner might be a couple, but several photos of Weeks and his very pretty girlfriend rapidly ended that speculation.
Weeks’ taste ran to colonial style furniture, but instead of the more common maple stain of that period, his was rich dark wood, and very stylish. A nice four poster bed in the bedroom, along with matching end-tables, and a large dresser. A drop-front desk in the living room, and a sweet corner cabinet—all perfectly matched. The extra-large sofa was cloth, and a sedate cream color. One look told Shahida it would be a comfortable sleeper.
Quickly she dressed in the bathroom, and wrapped a towel around her wet hair. In a few minutes she would blow-dry it and brush it out. Not much more needed to done with it—Shahida’s hair had a natural wave to it, and always quickly bounced back. She expected nothing different this time, despite the oddly concocted “shampoo” that it had been subjected to. It wouldn’t do to not look her best when the time shortly came to question the FBI guy. It was a matter of dominance.
He was currently seated on the big comfy sofa, with both hands and feet securely handcuffed. The last that Shahida had seen him, he did not seem like a particularly happy camper, having just been bested by a junior agent, and a female one at that. She had to smile at the memory of it.
As the coffin reached the loading dock, the senior agent had called for it to be opened. Since there was not going to be a doctor called in on this one, or a death certificate, he explained, he was going to have to do a visual on the corpse. Not trusting the older agent to be a complete moron, Shahida intended to give him something interesting to see. After Weeks and Wiggins nervously opened the lid and the agent stepped forward and unzipped it, the “corpse” rose up quickly and jammed the barrel of her 9 mil against his forehead. The agent’s eyes grew large with the complete and total surprise of it. Shahida couldn’t help smiling too as she remembered Weeks and Wiggins eyes also enlarging considerably as her “blood” smeared breasts tumbled free of the body-bag. Once they had the agent cuffed and gagged and on the floor of the hearse, Shahida returned to the dead for the short trip to Weeks’ apartment. Fortunately a small complex and under cover of darkness, it was no trouble to smuggle Shahida in, wrapped in one of Weeks’ bathrobes. Likewise with the old agent, who had decided that he would rather comply than lose a few inches of spine as Shahida’s pistol pressed into his back. The escape had gone remarkably easy—freedom for her and her two friends, and a captured crooked agent as a bonus. She hoped that their good luck would continue. Experience told her however that that was probably not going to be the case. When her body did not show up at the funeral home, and Pulini was discovered, Shahida decided that all hell was likely to break loose at the White House.
Finally finishing with her hair, Shahida stepped into the living room.
“Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?” She asked the very uncomfortably seated agent.
“Why should I tell you anything?” he answered, spitting out his reply.
“It’ll be more fun that way for one thing. And help pass the time. Let’s start out with name, rank, and serial number. It’s traditional.”
“Oh why the hell not?” the agent replied. “Kessler. Senior FBI agent number 105455.”
“You don’t carry an ID.”
“Not a good idea in my present line of work.”
“What’s your first name?”
“None of your damned business.”
“That’s a name you don’t hear every day. We’ll just stick with Kessler. Okay Agent Kessler. Why does the President want me dead so bad?”
“You’re a bright girl; bright enough to have gotten the drop on me—you figure it out.”
“Okay, I’ll take a shot at it–pun intended, by the way. You tell me where I’m going wrong.”
“Feels good to be on top, doesn’t it, Agent Faris? My advice; enjoy it–it’s not going to last very long.”
“Nothing ever does,” Shahida allowed. “So the President of the United States sets this great big glorious ‘Jihadist plot’ machine of his in motion and gets some of the biggest and best names in law enforcement nationwide to go along with it. Why? To create a frenzy, and a giant smoke-screen. Screening what? There certainly isn’t and never was any plot to kill children in a Christian academy–that much’s for certain. But it’s a great story; no one’s going to ignore the possibility of a toddler massacre. Everyone goes crazy. Everyone reacts. So what’s really going on?”
“Maybe, bringing people together? Kessler replied. “Ever see Die-Hard?”
“No, I’m not into American movies. Too violent. Bringing who together–O’Brien and Wahl?”
Kessler slowly nodded. Shahida’s hunch was paying off. He was turning out to be a talker. Egotists usually are.
“Why?” Shahida asked.
Kessler sneered. “Okay sweetheart–I’ll help you along. What does this President–hell, what does any President want most in all the world?”
“To have more power.” Shahida said.
“Bingo–and to keep it a lot longer than eight measly years. No President ever wants to relinquish power. Goes against the natural instincts of a predator.” Kessler added.
“So contriving a fake Islamic State attack would allow him to stay in power?”
“Depends. Go deeper,” Kessler added. “Let’s see you work those Poirot ‘little gray cells.’ Do the math.”
“You would have to declare martial-law to be able to suspend elections,” Shahida mused. “And you would have to get most of the country, including Congress and the US military to think that it was a good idea. It would take something pretty damned big to be able to do that.”
Kessler grinned again, more savagely this time. “How about an attempt on the life of the President of the United States of America? One that was traceable to a foreign power.”
“Not enough. We’ve had that before.”
“Right. How about an attack on the President that he survives, but about three-quarters of the US Senate and the House of representatives do not?”
Shahida shuddered at the thought of it. An attack on the heart of the United States government. “Impossible. They are way too well guarded.”
Kessler chuckled. “If you think that, then you don’t know Sal Moradi very well.”
“I don’t know him at all–outside of his dossier. Apparently no one else does either.”
“Wrong Agent Faris. One man knows him very well.”
“Mr. O’Brien’s new partner.”
“Right. Jedediah Wahl. He and O’Brien are not together exactly by accident. Moradi has an interest in O’Brien as well, although I don’t know precisely why.”
“And are you ready, Agent Kessler, to accept an American dictatorship?”
“Not too much worried about it to tell you the truth.”
Shahida pondered this. “How involved is Central?
“Not at all.”
“Pure as the driven snow.”
“How about the DC cops?”
“Plenty dirty–except for your two.”
“Yeah, except for my two. I kind of like them. They’re almost like a pair of missionaries they’re so wholesome and good. How dirty is the District FBI?”
“Except for you.”
“Except for me.”
“Personal reasons, Agent Faris. Extremely personal reasons. Let’s just leave it at that for now, if you don’t mind.”
Shahida shrugged away her indifference. “Fair enough–I don’t care. You’re reasons for being a traitor to your country are you own. You can explain them to a Federal judge.”
“Assuming you live long enough to get me in front of one.”
“Yes, assuming that. Why are you helping me, Kessler?”
“Who says I’m helping you?”
“Have you said a false or untrue word to me so far?”
“Why would you believe me, if I told you I hadn’t?”
“Because oddly enough, I don’t believe that you’re lying to me, even if you’re not helping me.”
“Correct, Agent Faris–and very astute. Every word I have told you is the complete truth.”
“But there’s more.”
“Of course there is. There’s always more.”
“Nope, Faris–this is the place where I keep my big, fat mouth shut tight.”
“Doesn’t matter. I know enough to stop this thing.”
“Not even close, Faris.” Kessler rocked slightly back and forth, smiling savagely as he did so. He spoke in a mocking tone. “You’re a little girl who’s about to lose your life–and all your fine friends with you. And this time–you stay dead for good.”
“Because?” Shahida asked.
Kessler answered slowly and deliberately, rocking harder and still smiling–falling into a child’s sing-song voice.
“Because I know one thing you don’t.”
Thanks for reading! Be back in a few with a new installment . . .
Dumb Joke of the Day (A classic Far Side)