The lights of the District faded in the rear-view mirror. Wiggin’s big Suburban picked up speed heading south on highway 395. It was amazing to Shahida just how fast the city faded away and how soon they were cruising in a far less populated countryside.
“Where we heading, Harold?”
“Fort Belvoir. Well, not exactly the fort itself, but close by. North of Davison Field, and south of the Belvoir County Club.”
“Which place do you spent most of your time, Harold?”
Wiggins smiled. “Depends on how chaotic the world is at any particular moment. Let’s just say I don’t get out on the links as much as I’d like.”
“Not for me. The house is a government perk.”
“Guy—no. Special talents—yes.”
“Which are, Agent Faris, to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut.”
“Which is my cue to do the same—right, Harold?”
The Suburban slowed as Wiggins exited the highway and turned onto a two-lane blacktop heading in a southeast direction. The lights faded further as it appeared they were headed into a black void.
“You’re not going to drive us into Chesapeake Bay, are you Harold?”
“No. But you might think so. Folks around here keep a pretty low profile.”
“What’s on your mind, Harold? I’ve got a feeling there’s something you’re trying to keep from us.”
“You’ve got good instincts, Shahida. You’re going to make a damned good senior agent someday. That is if you live long enough,” Wiggins added with a grin.
“What is it?”
Wiggins turned slightly in the driver’s seat and spoke to the two young men seated behind him. “Trey and Dallin. Lean forward so you can hear me plain. When you two busted Shahida out of the White House, what condition did you leave Officer Pulini in?”
“What do you mean, gramps?”
“I mean as in living—or dead?”
“Living. Chained to a refrigerator, and his mouth duct taped shut. Why?”
“Because he’s dead now. Shot through the head.”
“Jesus,” said Weeks and Wiggins, almost in unison. “How do you know?”
“Because I get updates, that’s how. It’s kind of what I do, you know—keep my ear to the ground.”
“Updates from who?”
“The tooth-fairy. And I’m not being intentionally vague either. That’s his code-name. Even I don’t know his real one. He texts on my secure line.”
“An FBI White House snitch?” Trey said.
“Exactly. Everyone the Bureau watches isn’t an agent of a foreign government.”
“Which are worse?” Weeks asked.
“Hard to tell sometimes,” Harold replied.
Shahida spoke up. “A shame—he was just a kid. He didn’t deserve to die.”
“That’s a mighty charitable view, Agent Faris. He would have watched you die in a second.”
“How do you feel about Agent Kessler, Shahida?”
“Him I don’t care much about, Harold. He’s rotten to the core and damned sure old enough to know exactly what he’s doing.”
“Was rotten. He’s dead too.”
Shahida sighed deeply. “How?”
“Found at Dallin’s apartment. Handcuffed and his throat slit.”
“When we left him, he was sitting on the sofa, in handcuffs he’d put back on himself—very much alive. He was under the impression he’d be okay if certain people didn’t think he’d helped me escape, or talked. I agreed.”
“Well, he way underestimated the opposition, Shahida. He failed them. Someone didn’t want any potential witnesses to your jail-break, like Pulini. Or one that might just crack under questioning either, like Kessler.”
“Any idea on just who that might be, Harold,” Faris asked facetiously.
“Now-now, Agent Faris. No good finger pointing. I assure you there won’t be a molecule of evidence to make any kind of accusation.”
“Except for us.”
Wiggins smiled. “Exactly, Shahida. You have sized-up the situation precisely—and you got it on the very first try. You, Officer Weeks, and my grandson are now wanted for the murder of District of Columbia police officer Ringo Pulini and FBI Agent Francis Kessler.”
“He wouldn’t tell me his first name,” Shahida said softly.
“I don’t doubt it. He always hated it.”
“What next, Harold?”
“There are warrants out right now for the arrest of all three of you.”
“Then you should probably arrest us, Harold.”
“You’re right. I probably should. I am an officer of the law you know. I’ve got a better idea though.”
“Like putting your asses to work, that’s what. I know you don’t have a phone anymore, Shahida—but Trey and Dallin do. Hand them over, guys.”
Weeks and Wiggins complied. Harold lowered the driver’s window and tossed them out.
“That was a six-hundred dollar phone, gramps,” Trey complained.
“Well when you replace it, get yourself a cheaper one. You’re a damned cop, for crying out loud. What, are you made of money?”
“Not exactly. You don’t think that throwing those phones out the window is going to destroy the GPS, do you?”
“No. Of course not. That’s the point.”
“The point of what?”
“Spreading breadcrumbs, sonny. That’s how it works.”
“That’s only two crumbs, gramps.”
“Okay, wise-guy. Let’s make it three.” Wiggins reached into his jacket pocket and handed his own phone to Faris. “Send a text to O’Brien. Follow-up with a phone call. Chances are pretty damned good he isn’t going to answer an unknown number, but that doesn’t really matter. Voice mail will be actually be better. Just say you are free and on your way out of DC. Don’t say where. Say you’ll call tomorrow with more details. Say you need to get together with him as soon as possible. Don’t mention me at all. Doesn’t pay to be too obvious. The Bureau or Secret Service will figure it out.”
“They’ll be monitoring?” Weeks asked.
“You bet your sweet ass they will.”
“We’ll get some company pretty damned fast. That’s what’ll happen.”
“Probably. And Bureau agents. And if we’re lucky—Mr. Saal Moradi in his glory.”
“That’s a hell of a lot of attention,” Shahida offered.
“It is. But then, we’re going to set a hell of a trap.”
Finally the Suburban slowed again and turned onto a long gravel drive. Shahida could just make out the dwelling at the end if it—a long, ranch style house. Probably built in the mid-fifties, it was obviously updated, enlarged, and improved. Still, it harkened back to a simpler time, and reminded her a lot of the house that she had lived in for a while after immigrating to the United States.
Wiggins pulled up close to the garage but did not enter it.
“Best leave our calling-card parked right out in the open.”
“Aren’t you a little afraid of it sustaining some damage?”
“Not really. Even if it did, there’s another one just like it in the garage, and the double brick walls makes it pretty much bullet proof—except for rocket launchers of course.”
“You expecting rocket launchers?”
“Hey, you never know.”
“You live here all the time, Harold?”
“Yeah, pretty much I hang my hat here when I’m not on the road. It’s a comfortable house. Built in 1955. Added on to many times. The original owners were worth some bucks, the way I understand it. It was the cold war era, so they installed a bomb shelter in the backyard. You used to have to leave the main house through the back door to access it, but about twenty or so years ago, the house was enlarged out over the top of it.”
“Yeah,” Wiggins agreed. “It’s sweet, and the old shelter has been expanded just a bit as well. Let’s get inside and I’ll show you all around.”
“Trey been here before?”
“Oddly, no he hasn’t. He was raised by his mother after my son was killed, just outside Rapid City, South Dakota. I was in and out of his life a lot back in those days, but after I retired from the police department and took a job with the bureau, we didn’t connect that often.”
“How did your son die, Harold?”
“Well, I wish I could tell you it was in combat, Shahida, but the fact of the matter is, it was simply a dumb-ass military training accident. Sometimes things like that just happen.”
“Yeah, sometimes they do, Harold. I’m sorry.”
“How did you get to be a District cop, Trey?—if you don’t mind my asking.”
“Not at all. Mom passed away just a few years after dad died— of cancer. I had just turned eighteen and asked gramps if he could put in a good word for me for a job with his old police department. He did a hell of a lot better than that and recommended me to one of his friends with the DC department. I’m glad he did. Never been a dull moment since.”
“I’ll bet,” Shahida smiled. “Found a little corruption therein?”
“More than a little. I reported what was going on to gramps over at Central, and before you know it, I’ve got job number two—keeping my finger on the pulse of the sordid underside of the department.”
“Met him in my rookie year. We became friends. He’s a good man.”
The elder Wiggins smiled. “Yeah, they became best buddies from the moment they met. If they weren’t both straight, they would have made a lovely couple.”
Weeks and Wiggins grinned back, obviously unoffended.
“Anyway, that’s why I’ve never been out here before,” Trey continued. “Despite the same name, we intentionally didn’t connect with each other very much. No one noticed the name—there’s about a million cops and government workers in this neck of the woods. Whenever I had to tell gramps something, I’d generally meet him in the park across the street from his office, always in plain clothes. We shared enough park-bench hotdogs and coffee the local Langley police probably thought gramps was a chicken-hawk scouting out young stuff.”
Harold grinned wider. “Touché, Trey—touché.”
Unlocking the front door, they all stepped inside. Harold flicked a light-switch just inside the door, flooding the spacious living room with light. Shahida’s impression from the outside was confirmed. A beautifully appointed and furnished house—worthy of the finest efforts of a professional interior decorator.
“Nicely done, Harold. You, or a pro?”
“Actually, it was me, Shahida. My book isn’t quite as crude as the cover might suggest.”
“Never thought it for a minute, Harold. You have good taste.”
“Thanks. Mrs. Wiggins was always fascinated with interior decoration. She taught me a thing or three.”
“Is she gone too, Harold?”
“Sadly, yes she is. A fine lady. I miss her every day.”
“Again, thank you. We Wiggins have been kind of a hard luck family.”
Shahida quickly changed the subject. “How many bedrooms?”
“Four, up topside. Three more down below.”
“Three? That’s a large bomb shelter.”
“Well, Shahida, like I said, it’s been expanded a tad. Shall we go see?”
“Love to, Harold.”
Wiggins crossed the living room to an over-sized brick fireplace. It was two, actually. Large and wedge shaped, one side of the wedge heated the living room, while on the other, a slightly smaller fireplace faced the kitchen. There was a considerable amount of space between the two.
“Nice,” Shahida allowed.
“There are some special features,” Harold said. The kitchen side is a conventional fireplace. As in wood burning. The other, the living room side is a gas log. You will soon see why.”
Wiggins reached above the hardwood mantle and pushed a certain brick. Immediately the entire fireplace, along with the grate and screen began to rotate counter-clockwise.
“Simple,” Wiggins observed. “But sometimes you just can’t beat a good old-fashioned classic.”
For a lot of heavy brick on the move, oddly the revolving fireplace did not make much noise—mostly a moderate hum. Finally it came to rest, exposing a simple and amazingly clean narrow set of concrete steps going down. Harold reached inside and flipped a switch. The staircase was instantly illuminated.
“Ladies first,” Wiggins said, expansively waving his hand toward the entrance.
“Oh, why the hell not,” Shahida said. “I’ve recently been in a casket. I might as well go into the crypt as well.”
“That’s the spirit, Agent Faris.”
Shahida started down. The three men bringing up the rear, just behind her. The temperature decreased markedly.
At the end of a short hallway there was a simple door. Shahida opened it, pushing it inward with some effort.
“And reinforced, as well,” Wiggins said.
Stepping through the opening, Shahida was surprised by the cleanness of the air in the smallish room. She had expected mustiness.
“The air is pumped in from the outside, and it’s charcoal filtered. The intake is about a hundred yards into the woods and not that easy to find, but if it were, we could shut it off in a second and go to internal Oxygen. Four people could live down here for about ten days with what we have in tanks.”
“Nice,” Shahida allowed.
“This room is like a hub of a wheel,” Wiggins explained. “It’s the nerve center. The desktop computer on the table to your right is set up to monitor the exterior cameras. There are six. They are set up in some of the larger pines surrounding the property. Four of them cover each side of the house above us, while a fifth and sixth monitors the road from both directions. Anybody comes our way, we’ll know about it well ahead of time.”
“What are the other doors, Harold?”
“Three are the bedrooms, and the fourth is a bathroom.”
“Where’s the arsenal?”
“You get right to the point. I like that, Agent Faris. Help me push this sofa aside.”
Once the rather large and comfortable sofa and rug underneath it was pushed out of the way, Shahida could clearly see the outline of a trapdoor.
“A safe house within a safe house,” Shahida said.
“Kind of,” Wiggins agreed. “Down there is food and water storage, along with small arms and ammo.”
“Why so much, Harold?”
“There are quite a few facilities like this around the District, Shahida. In the event of a massive governmental emergency, there are thousands of critical workers that would have to be put up somewhere safe. So starting back in the fifties, the government began building these things, or converting existing facilities like this one. I certainly don’t know where they all are, and I don’t know who would—FEMA maybe.”
Weeks and Trey Wiggins pulled on the latch. For a heavy door, it lifted easily. A short steel ladder descended into the darkness. Once again, Shahida took the ladies first position and started down. A couple of rungs down the ladder, she could see a pull-string for the overhead lights and yanked it. The much smaller room was illuminated. The three men followed her down.
Along two of the walls were shelves for food storage. They were filled with cans and boxes of all kinds. It was plain that three or four people were not going to starve anytime soon in this facility. The third wall and a good part of the fourth consisted of heavy-duty plastic barrels filled with purified drinking water. Shahida estimated there were at least several thousand gallons on hand. Just to the left of the last row of barrels was a lone door. Again, it was of solid steel construction, set well into the concrete wall.
“The goodies?” Shahida asked
“The goodies.” Wiggins confirmed with a smile.
He pulled the door open, pausing in the doorway before entering. “There are a dozen high-powered semi-automatic and fully automatic assault rifles in here, Shahida, along with over ten-thousand rounds of .223 and .308 rifle ammo. There are also several Beretta model 92 handguns with several hundred rounds of 9mm hollow-point ammo to go along with each of them. Two cases of grenades, and two rocket-launchers. We’re well supplied. If Mr. Moradi is stupid enough to come this way looking for O’Brien, we’re going to hand him his ass in a bushel basket. Come take a look.” Wiggins reached just inside the door to his left for the light switch.
“Stop!” Shahida said, instantly drawing her pistol.
Wiggins hand stopped moving. “What?”
“Please push the door closed, Harold—slowly.”
“What the hell’s going on, Faris?”
“There’s air coming out of that room, Harold.”
“Of course there is, Faris. It’s on the same ventilation system as the rest of this structure.”
“It’s not the air that concerns me, Harold. It’s the smell coming with it.”
“Are there any explosives in that room?”
“I smell plastic.”
“No, it isn’t Harold. I’ve smelled them before—in Iran. Both after and before they went off.”
“Plastic explosives don’t smell, Shahida—but something else does, doesn’t it?”
“Right. Not the plastic itself, Harold—the taggants,” Shahida said.
“Yeah,” Wiggins agreed. “Smells a little like lemons, or seltzer. I catch it now myself.”
“What’s it tagged for?” Weeks asked.
“For bomb-detection dogs, and CSI guys.” Wiggins said.
“Something’s been bothering me, Harold.”
“How’d you know that Agent Kessler hated his first name? He never used it.”
“I knew him for years, Shahida. We came up together in the academy.”
“He knew you well?”
“Yeah, kinda—we weren’t poker buddies or anything like that, but we knew each other. He didn’t know anything about this place, if that’s what you’re driving at.”
“He knew the kind of man you are, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, I guess he did.”
“What else was done to Kessler, Harold. Besides cutting his throat, I mean.”
“How’d you know?”
“Lucky guess. Tell me.”
“I didn’t mention it before, Shahida. I didn’t think there was a point. Knowing what they did to him wasn’t going to make him any less dead. I didn’t mention it out of respect for him.”
“Yeah. They tied him down and shoved an electric carving knife up his ass. And then they nearly sawed him in half with it—from the inside of his body.”
“And why do you think they did that, Harold—for kicks?”
“Yeah. Probably for kicks, and for information.”
“You’re getting too old for this line of work, Harold my friend. And way too over-confident.”
“Yeah, Agent Faris,” Wiggins said weakly. “I guess maybe I am.”
Slowly they pushed the door partly open again as Weeks crossed the room to retrieve one of the emergency flashlights. Gingerly, he shown it into the darkened arsenal room. As the beam played over the room, they could see the empty rows of wooden wall racks. Racks that had only shortly before held firearms.
“Jesus, Shahida. They’re all gone.”
“Yeah, and something left in their place,” said Weeks as he focused the beam on a small table in the middle of the room. On it lay a small black leather brief case. From it a single wire stretched upward to the light fixture above. A single piece of white paper was taped to the wire. It sported a short note. One written in letters large enough to be read from where they stood. Just below a bright red happy face were the words—“BANG, you’re dead.”
“It’s wired to the light,” Trey Wiggins said.
“Yeah,” Shahida agreed. “And just in case we spotted the note in time to not flip the switch and kill ourselves instantly, I’ll bet it was also wired to the light I turned on when we came in. Probably to a timer.”
“Holy mother of God. How long do you think, Faris?”
“Your guess is about as good as mine, Harold. But not long.”
“Yeah. Close that door and latch it tight. Then let’s get our asses out of here as damned fast as we can. That much C-4 shouldn’t blow a locked door as heavy as this one. Moradi’s obviously way ahead of us. He’s the cat—we’re the mice.”
“I’ve been a fool,” Wiggins said.
“I’d love to debate that with you another day, Harold. For right now let’s get the hell out of here. If that satchel goes off, it’s likely to take most of our hearing with it—at the very least.”
The elder Wiggins climbed the ladder first, quickly followed by Weeks and Shahida. Trey Wiggins had taken an extra few seconds to roll a heavy water barrel against the arsenal room door, and his head was just emerging from the trapdoor when the bomb exploded.
The steel door didn’t hold.
Thanks for reading. See you again shortly . . .