Finally finishing their grisly task, Linh and Maggie sat outside the Church on a sidewalk park-bench, thoroughly enjoying the ice-cold morning air as it washed the smell of death from their lungs. It had taken close to two hours to go through all of the body bags—a lot longer than any of the three would have guessed. But then jigsaw puzzles are often time consuming. Carter was still inside, finishing up with the officer on duty.
Maggie spoke up first. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this night. Not if I live to be a thousand years old.”
“That’ll make three of us then, Maggie.” Linh remembered the second row of bags. “That poor man. I almost lost it.”
“You thought it was Johnny, didn’t you?”
“Yes I did. As soon as Howard unzipped it and I caught a glimpse of his face, I thought it was him. I swear to you Maggie—it was Johnny’s face that I saw—if only for a split second. Then, it just sort of dissolved into someone else. When I looked closer, I realized he really didn’t look like Johnny at all. Must have been my mind playing a trick on me.”
“No doubt. Cops are only human too you know,” Maggie smiled.
“Don’t tell that to Howard. He thinks he’s superhuman.”
“I saw him turn plenty white a few times there,” Maggie remembered.
“Yeah, I know. He almost lost it too with that teenaged kid. Couldn’t have been much more than thirteen or fourteen years old.”
Maggie shook her head in agreement. “This was what Johnny came here to stop. I was mad at Howard for sending him at first, but I’m not now. Even if Johnny had been killed, he still would have tried to have made a difference. And even if he had ended up on a marble slab at age forty something, it would have been a life well lived.”
Howard exited the building.
“Well, we’ve got some encouraging news, ladies. I’ve been on the phone with Harper Hospital. They don’t have anyone there with the name of O’Brien, but one of the wounded that came in right after the bombing matches his description.”
“Why no name?” Linh wondered.
“That was my question too. Seems the hospital staff was pretty overwhelmed, and I can certainly understand that. They were putting victims that weren’t too badly hurt on gurneys out in the hallway, while they attended to the more serious injuries first. Makes sense. According to the night nurse, that’s where our Johnny look-a-like was. According to her, he was suffering oxygen deprivation. Apparently the guy got up sometime during the night and simply walked out. With all the confusion, I don’t doubt it. Now we just have to figure out where he went.”
“We sure he’s Johnny?” Maggie said.
“I’m going to say yes,” Carter replied. “The nurse said they removed an object of obvious value from this gentleman’s jacket pocket and took it to the nurse’s station.”
“Wouldn’t be a gold pocket-watch, would it?” Linh asked, a smile coming to her face.
“It would,” Carter said. “But it gets stranger yet. The man left without the watch. It was still there after the guy left. He never returned to the hospital. They know that because it was on total lock-down. He could have exited any entrance, but not re-entered. Yet this morning, the watch is gone, and the nurse says it was inside a locked drawer. A drawer that showed no sign of forced entry.”
“Another employee with sticky fingers?” Linh asked.
“Apparently not. According to the charge nurse, she had the only key—and she swears she’s not a thief. I for one, believe her.”
“Yeah—me too,” Linh agreed. “This has Johnny written all over it.”
Carter shook his head in agreement. “Johnny was partnered-up with a guy named Jedidiah Wahl. Mr. Wahl was registered at the Motel Six on Woodward Avenue that was also blown-up. The body count there was much smaller than here, and no one killed there vaguely matches Wahl’s description.”
“You don’t sound quite like you’re finished,” Linh said.
“Not quite,” Carter agreed. “This news I’m about to tell you is top-secret. The blown-up private residence in Bloomfield Hills was owned by a lady FBI agent named Faris. An Iranian by birth and an expert in languages. She was coordinating with Johnny and Wahl, and was going to serve as their translator. The FBI tossed the cops and took over that scene almost immediately, although they didn’t seem to express a hell of a lot of interest in any of the rest of it. Turns out that one of the Detroit cops smelled something a little fishy about the whole thing and had the presence of mind to snatch one of the stiff’s fingers out of what was left of the victim’s bedroom on his way out. That’s where most of the body was found, although it was really fragmented.”
“The FBI’s behavior was strange enough to set off alarm bells all over police headquarters, so they hurried up a fingerprint search on the severed finger, and what do you suppose they found?”
“That the vic isn’t the agent?” Linh ventured.
“Bingo. It was the agent’s housekeeper. An Italian lady—naturalized citizen, so her prints were on file. Most FBI agents don’t make near enough jack to have housekeepers, but for some reason this one seems to have been really loaded. No one has the faintest idea where money-bags Faris is right now either. She hasn’t shown up anywhere, to the best of the cop’s knowledge.”
“What does the FBI say?”
“Nothing. They’re still maintaining that she’s dead, although I’d be damned surprised it they didn’t know better.”
“Getting curiouser and curiouser, wouldn’t you say, Howard?”
“Yeah Linh, I would—but then O’Brien’s in the middle of it, so what the hell would you expect—right?”
For the first time in a long day and night, the three of them laughed.
“So where to next, Howard?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Linh. We’ve got no idea of where the hell Faris, Wahl, or Johnny is, how badly he might be hurt, or what the hell he might be doing, and not a dog’s idea in Hades of where to start looking for any of them either.”
“Follow the watch?” Maggie volunteered.
“That would be a plan,” Carter allowed. “Got any idea on just how to do that? As I remember, it didn’t have a GPS in it.”
A man spoke behind them. “I might be able to help with that one,” it said.
Carter, Maggie, and Linh spun around at the sound of the voice.
“Took you long enough to get here,” Linh said dryly.
“Better late than never?”
“Maybe. You intending to stay around for a while?
“Long enough to find Johnny anyhow.”
“Then what?” Linh asked.
“Then we round-up the bad guys, Linh. Same as always.”
“Then I want you to take a trip with me.”
“To whatever future we have together.”
“Do you see a future for us?
“Not the way it stands right now. I’m not going to lie to you about that.”
“You looking for points for honesty?”
“All I’m asking for is a fair hearing, and a chance.”
“Okay Matt—you’ve got it. To whatever future we have. Count me in.”
Carter spoke up. “You two going to hug or anything?”
“No,” Linh said. “Not quite yet.”
“It’s okay,” Matt said. “I understand.”
“No. I’m not real sure you do,” Linh said.
Carter jumped in again. “Well, I hate to break-up this little heartwarming moment guys, but—Matt, raise you right hand.”
“Because you are about to become Officer McCabe.”
“A cop?” Matt replied.
“Yeah, Matt. A cop. An Irish gum-shoe cop to boot. And by the way, you chicken-shit miserable little prick, I hope to hell you don’t like it very much.”
Matt raised his hand—fast.
Brick’s chair was empty when I returned, but I could see him making his way down the hallway through the open door.
“Back a little faster than I would have thought, Johnny.”
“Did you know where you were sending me, Brick?”
“I didn’t send you anywhere, Johnny. You went where you went all by yourself.”
“And you had no idea of where that was going to be—right?”
“I suspected where it would be—that’s all. When you’re involved with the Devil’s timepiece, we all tend to go to our darkest places.”
“I didn’t have the watch.”
“Doesn’t matter, Johnny. It still has its hold on you. Always will, as long as you’re alive—or it is.”
“So, being “displaced,” is pretty much like being dead—is that about right, Brick?”
“Not exactly—but in the ballpark.”
“And you’re about to explain all the fine points of difference to me—right?”
“No, Johnny—I’m not.”
“Who is then?”
I spun toward the voice. The Kid stood in the doorway.
“Sit down, Johnny,” the Kid said. “And shut-up, lose the attitude, and let me explain to you just how your new reality works.”
Washington, D. C.
The room was a tiny one. Small, plain, and decidedly unpretentious. It was deep in the basement of the grand old residence, just off one of the several kitchens. A kitchen that would be teeming with activity during daylight hours—quiet and dark now, at nearly four in the morning. It looked like it might have been used as a potential kitchen staff interview room—or maybe one where punishments were meted out for unsatisfactory employee performance, or perhaps disobedience.
Agent Faris wondered if that was why she was here now.
She had been waiting for well over an hour, since being escorted into the room by Agent Stuart Hollings. Shahida had not bothered to ask him any questions, knowing that he was far too small a “fry” to be in any significant loop. At nearly sixty-years old, Agent Hollings was quickly approaching retirement. Not one that would be trusted with state secrets, Shahida knew. Much better to only let younger agents in on what was really going on. So much easier to control—when their entire careers stretched out before them.
When the door finally opened a minute later, two men entered. One, Agent Faris did not recognize—although she made him to be FBI to the bone. The other man she did.
“Good morning, Mr. President.”
“Agent Faris,” the President said. “You don’t seem surprised to see me.”
“Surprised, yes—shocked, no. I’ve been out of pre-school for a few years now.”
“A realist, Sir. This whole deal hasn’t smelled right from the start.”
“Just what do you think is going on, Agent Faris?”
“More than meets the eye.”
The President smiled. “Good answer. Where do you suppose the rancid smell is coming from, Agent Faris?”
This time there was no smile. “Honest. Don’t you know honestly can get you out of a career real fast, Faris? Or worse.”
“What else is new? I was about ten minutes from being dead a while ago.”
“You were not,” the President said. “You would not have been allowed to be killed. I am sorry about your maid. No one was aware that she was there.”
“Her husband and two children will be glad to know of your sorrow.”
The President’s jaw visibly tightened. “Do not vex me, Agent Faris. In war there is always collateral damage. Sometimes that’s just the price that’s paid to keep the State safe.”
“The State—or yourself?”
The jaw tightened further. “Where is O’Brien, Agent Faris?”
Faris looked surprised. “How should I know? I hardly had time to go looking for him before I was whisked back here.”
“Humor me,” the President said. “Offer me a theory.”
“No ma’am,” the President said. “Not dead. Slightly injured though. He was briefly in the hospital, but left apparently under his own power. We have not been able to ascertain his whereabouts since that time.”
“Then Moradi may have him.”
“He does not. Moradi is looking for O’Brien as hard as we are—but isn’t having any luck either. He seems to have completely disappeared.”
Faris glanced at the door. “How do you know what Moradi is doing?”
The agent standing next to the President smoothly drew his semi-automatic pistol and pointed it directly at the Faris’s head.”
“Because Moradi works for me,” the President said. “I think it’s just about time we had your weapon, Agent Faris.”
“What are you after?” Faris said.
“O’Brien. Nothing more, and nothing else.”
“Well—to be perfectly honest, it’s a whole lot more about something Mr. O’Brien in carrying. Let’s just say that it’s something that could significantly change the balance of power in the world. I want to make sure that balance is changed in our favor—not our enemies. That’s happens to be why I’m Commander-in-Chief. It’s my job to protect America.”
The FBI guy spoke, sweeping off the pistols safety. “Your gun, Agent Faris. Hand it over—now. I won’t count to three.”
Faris slowly drew her pistol with two fingers and placed it on the table.
“Good girl,” the President said. “Now you are going to remain here as a guest of the United States Government. Your accommodations will be quite nice. You won’t be suffering, I assure you.”
“That’s good to know,” Faris responded. “So much for being on the same team. Why not just kill me now and be done with it?”
“Agent Faris,” the President said, with mock indignation. “What do you take us for? Do you think we are some kinds of thugs or something? Your life is in no danger. We are simply detaining you for your own protection. After all, you narrowly escaped death once. We just want to make sure you don’t have any further close calls.”
“And? There’s always an “and” with men like you.”
The President smiled again. “Now I am hurt, Agent Faris. Here I thought we were making progress on the friendship front.”
“So—why am I really still alive?”
“In case O’Brien comes looking for you. Simple as that. You’re the bait.”
“O’Brien probably thinks I’m dead.”
“He might—but probably not for long. Mr. O’Brien is not a stupid man.”
The door opened again, and three uniformed police officers entered.
The President continued. “Meet your three new best-friends. All District of Columbia Police Officers. Don’t let their youth fool you—they are most competent. They will be assigned to your care and protection 24/7 until this thing is over. They will be keeping you safe from harm, and keeping you safe from doing any harm as well. You may consider yourself to be in their protective custody. Do not attempt to leave that custody, Agent Faris. They are empowered to be extremely harsh with you if that were to occur.”
Faris looked them over. Two thin white men—young. The other was bronze-skinned—perhaps Tongan or Samoan. He was also young, but taller, well-built and very muscular. His nametag read Ringo Pulini Jr. The other two names were Dallin Weeks, and Trey Wiggins. The fact that there was no attempt to cover or remove those nametags make Agent Faris doubt that she would see the end of the week alive. Might as well go for the gold, she decided. Sure would be a shame to die for something and never even know what it was, she reasoned.
She stood and faced the President of the United States defiantly.
“What does Johnny O’Brien have that’s so important as all of this?”
The President smiled for the third and last time, as he moved toward the door.
“His watch. That’s all, Agent Faris. Just his watch.”
“So what’s my new reality?” I said, as the three of us sat down. I picked up the coffee that Brick had brought me before I left. Still steaming, I marveled. Not too bad—for a cuppa joe going on a couple of decades old.
“My real name is Norman Selby, Johnny. The history books remember me better as “Kid” McCoy. A phony Irish name. My handlers thought it made me sound a bit more manly. Irish tough-guys were all the rage back in the day.”
“When was that, Kid?”
“1897. I had just won the Middleweight Boxing Championship of the World.”
“And that’s why you were able to handle yourself so well with the two goons.”
“Sort of. Truth of the matter was, Johnny—I never was that much of a fighter, even back then. I had two-hundred fights and lost six of them. The ones where I tried to be ‘myself.’ Now—hell, my joints ache like a bitch and I can barely make a fist much before noon. Lucky if I’d be able to fight my way out of a wet paper bag most the time.”
“Because I’ve got an edge, Johnny—same as you do now.”
“I committed suicide, Johnny. At the Tuller Hotel, right here in Detroit—April 18th, 1940—a lot like your lady friend Sheila.”
“Slit your wrists?”
“No—I was more of a coward than she was. Sleeping pills for me.”
“Because I was tired, Johnny. Real tired. That’ll do for now.”
“So you’re telling me you’re dead.”
“No—I’m telling you I’m displaced, Johnny—same as you.”
“You said April—1940?”
“It’s not that date yet.”
“I know, Johnny. I’ve got a choice to make here too. Much like the one you made for your lady-friend tonight.”
“Someone stopped you, didn’t they Kid?”
“Yeah—someone stopped me. But only after I’d done it. That’s why I’m displaced.”
“The same one that stopped you, Johnny. After you were killed in the Hotel explosion.”
“Close, but no cigar—try his dear old papa Roan instead. Roan was a fight fan. Made me what I was—a star of the squared circle. Oh, Matt made the phone-call, no doubt about that. But Roan is the one that stopped you.”
“I always forget that McCabes come in more than one flavor.”
“True fact, my friend,” the Kid said.
“Why did Roan interfere with me?”
“My guess would be that he figures you are going to play a part in his baby boy’s final chapter.”
I involuntarily shuddered. “How ‘bout you Brick. Are you displaced too?”
“No. My story is a little different.”
Brick hesitated a moment. “Oh, why the hell not. Let’s just lay it all out here today. We’re all friends—and partners—right?”
I nodded my head affirmatively. “Go on,” I said.
Brick sighed deeply.
“It all started in Deadwood,” he said. “A shootout in Deadwood, South Dakota.”
Brick paused again. “On the day the towers came down.”
Thanks so much for reading. We’ll be back in a few days with another new installment of THE RECKONING.
Until then, Good Night, and Happy New Year 2016 . . .
First Dumb Joke of the Year . . .