It was quite possibly the most surrealistic scene I had ever witnessed in my life. I blinked several times to see if I could make it change. It didn’t. I was about to pinch myself to find out if that would help, but I never managed to do it before I was drawn into two of the most fantastic conversations that I had ever been involved in—or ever would—hands down. It was turning into an unusual day—to say the very least.
The first one began with my friends as Capone slowly walked by and headed to the bar. Maggie was first, as she rushed forward to me for a long hug and kiss. I tried to say something, but she just placed her hand over my mouth to shush me.
“No, Johnny. I need to talk first. Then you can answer and tell me if you still want me.”
The look on her face broke my heart, but I obeyed her instructions and just listened.
“I was a fool, Johnny. And I put my feelings, and my fears, way above you. Yeah, that’s right—I made it all about me, and I was about as wrong as a person could ever get to be. I’m sorry for what I said to you when I left. I never want to come between you and your job. And I’m sorry I ever tried to put limits on you or conditions on our relationship. Now I know what you do, Johnny. And I know why you do it. And it makes me love you even more than I did before. I wouldn’t change a single thing about you my love. I’m proud of you and the man you are, and if you’ll take be back I promise I’ll never disappoint you again.”
Her eyes looked up at me hopefully.
“Finished?” I asked.
“Then I just have one question for you, girl. And by the way—you’ve never disappointed me, and I seriously doubt you ever could.”
“What’s the question?”
“Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. “How about this afternoon?”
I couldn’t help but smile as I replied. “Love to, Maggie, but it may have to wait until we get back. I’m pretty sure our modern identifications wouldn’t work too well over at the Justice of the Peace’s office.”
Maggie grinned. “No, I guess they probably wouldn’t. Do you think we’ll be back soon?”
“Yeah, Maggie. If a little plan I just cooked up works out the way I hope it will.”
“I thought you were dead, Johnny. It wasn’t a feeling I liked very much.”
“I thought I was dead too, Maggie,” I replied, thinking that right at this moment she didn’t really need excessive detail about that little matter. There would be plenty of time for talk later.
That was if we all survived, of course.
We hugged then. Long.
“I can’t promise you, Maggie, that my time will never come. What I can promise you is that I will never play fast and loose with either my life or your feelings. And I will never risk my life for anything that is not worthwhile. I don’t need to do this for money. We already have more money that we could use in a couple of lifetimes. I will only do what I do to save human life—period.”
She shook her head affirmatively.
Matt was the next up, as Howard and Linh hung back. I looked Matt in the eye for several seconds. He looked back, eyes unwavering. Finally I spoke. “Thank you.”
“Do you know what I did?”
“All of it?”
“Yes. And I understand. I understand everything. I love you, Matt.”
“I love you too, Johnny. I couldn’t let you go.”
Then he and I hugged. Long. Our little group was beginning to attract some attention. Even Scarface, Brick and the Kid were looking over. I ignored them. Capone would see enough of me soon enough. Probably enough for the rest of his miserable life.
“How did you find us, Matt?”
“Followed the watch, after a bit of deduction of just about where you and Brick would be.”
“You found the watch?”
“Not exactly, Johnny—but I know what you did with it.”
“Absolutely. The solution was perfect.”
“I thought you’d never part with it, Matt.”
“Not long ago that would have been true, Johnny.”
“Everyone has to grow up sooner or later.”
“You’re eighty-five, Matt.”
He smiled as he replied. “Some people take longer than others.” For the first time in my relationship with McCabe, I couldn’t see the sharp points of his canine teeth through his grin.
It was a good look for him.
Howard and Linh closed the circle. I got a third hug from Linh as Howard and I settled for handshakes. Howard was not exactly a teary-eyed and huggie type guy, but Linh, after what she had just witnessed with Maggie, Matt and I, beamed like a major shipping lane lighthouse.
“He’s back, Johnny. Matt’s back. Maybe close to all the way.”
“I’m glad, Linh”
Howard spoke up. “What are you doing here, Johnny?”
“Having a soda, what else, Howard?”
Howard looked pained. “I mean 1940, you nitwit.”
“Hanging, and hiding out for a while, Howard. I think they call it “laying-low” in the crime novels. And paying a debt. I’ll fill you all in a little later.”
“What stage you at right now, Johnny?”
“The debt. I’m going to settle that one right now, and I’ve got a pretty damned good idea on how to do it too, Howard.”
“Gonna take long?”
“Just the wink of an eye.”
“You know who that is at the bar don’t you, Johnny?”
Howard grinned. “Can’t wait for the show. Be careful though partner. That man isn’t exactly a choir-boy.”
“I know he isn’t—but I’m gonna see if I can make him sing, just the same.”
I sheep-dogged our little gang over to a table, as I motioned for the Kid and Brick to stay where they were. The number of players in the room was getting kind of large and unmanageable. But I only had eyes for one—Capone.
My eyes locked with Gabriel. The time had come and he knew it. Sam nodded his assent and made his way down the bar toward his brother. After a brief brotherly side hug, Sam started talking while he pointed across the room at me. I could see Capone’s face and the doubtful look on it. It was easy to see that he was guarded, if not downright suspicious. I sure the hell hoped that old Al was buying the bullshit Sam was shoveling him. If he wasn’t, it was going to get dicey real fast. I didn’t think the bulge in his jacket was a sack of hard candy. The same went for the two goon bodyguards on either side of him. If my timing were off by only a split-second or two, the entire Stone House Bar could be turned into a slaughterhouse.
And that was something I wasn’t really ready to risk with my two favorite ladies in the whole world present.
Not to mention my yet unborn god-son, Albert.
Gabriel motioned me over.
Showtime, I thought.
Sam started. “Al, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine—Johnny O’Brien. Johnny, this is my brother, Alphonse Gabriel Capone.”
The suspicion returned to Capone’s eyes. For just a moment I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to work. Then slowly—very, very slowly, he stuck out his hand for a shake. I took it solidly in mine.
And then, we both disappeared.
Shahida Faris, along with Officers Weeks and Wiggins, were in the bedroom, well out of earshot of Agent Kessler. They sat on three opposite corners of the bed, with Weeks’ laptop between them. On the large and bright screen was a diagram of the United States Capitol Building.
“The thing is massive,” Shahida said. “It’ll take a small army to cover it all.”
“I don’t understand why we can’t just go to the cops and the FBI,” Weeks said.
“Well, we could give it a try, and it might even work—if they believed us,” Wiggins explained. “Trouble is, we don’t know for sure what our present status is. We could be classified as rouge right now, and the same for Shahida at the bureau. We could all get ourselves shot on sight.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” Weeks allowed. “So then, what’s our plan?”
Faris spoke up. “I’m sorry guys, but I’m about out of plans. I got into this thing with two partners, and I’m not even very sure right now where they are, or even if they’re alive for that matter. I can’t ask you two to get further involved with what may very well become a suicide mission.”
Weeks smiled. “You didn’t ask us. We volunteered. We still do.”
“Yeah,” Wiggins chimed in, a big goofy smile on his face. “We be like best friends now. Besides—it’s not hopeless. I may be able to come up with a secret weapon.”
“Grampa?” Weeks asked.
“Yeah, if I can get him on his private line.”
“I’m going to take a wild guess here boys, and say your grandfather had a little something to do with my rescue.”
“Yeah,” Wiggins answered. “He’s been suspicious of the bureau for a while.”
“How far away is he?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Then give it a try. You never know,” Shahida said.
“We should probably be getting out of this apartment pretty soon.”
“You’re right,” Shahida said. “We’ll leave Kessler tied-up here. He’ll be okay. Where’s the least likely place for anyone to come looking for us?”
“I’d say Central,” Wiggins said.
“I like it,” Shahida agreed.
“Good place to meet Gramps—if he’s willing.”
“Okay, it’s settled then. Let’s get going.”
On the road
“You seem quiet this morning.”
“Your lost innocence?” Moradi said.
“Something like that,” the Ice Queen replied.
“Where will you go, after this is over? What will you do? What’s next for Sandra Buckles?”
She ignored the question. “How much did the President promise you for this job?”
“A billion. But only a fool would think that he ever intended to deliver.”
“You plan to kill him too, don’t you?”
“Of course. That was always what I intended to do.”
“Do you care anything at all about Islamic Jihad?
“Don’t be absurd, Sandra. I care no more for the politics or religions of men than you do. Oh, you like your money and your pretty things. You want to be damned sure you don’t end up back in the projects—but money’s not your focus, is it?”
“So what makes the Ice-Queen tick?”
“I don’t know. The fear I instill, I guess—it brings a kind of fame.”
“Why don’t you stick with me then,” Moradi said. “Infamy is my middle name. I enjoyed last night.”
“Brave words, Sandra dear. You know what I could do to you.”
“Have at it. I don’t care.”
“I could make you care, Sandra dear.”
“Doubt it. Not today.”
“Why should we speak of unpleasant things, Sandra? Let’s speak of our success, our immortality, our legend.”
“And what will you call that, Saal—the legend of the damned?” It was the first time she had ever used his first name. It did not go unnoticed.
“Very familiar.” Moradi said.
“We are now much closer than we used to be, Saal—bodily fluid wise, that is.”
“Careful . . . Sandra Buckles,” Moradi said.
“And where do you think you will go, Saal?—after all this is over. Where on the face of this earth do you really think you can hide? You will be the most wanted man on the planet.”
Moradi laughed. The sound began deep in his chest and slowly and amazingly softly rumbled out from his mouth. It was not a pleasant nor a friendly sound. The rustle of dead leaves and bones. “What makes you think, Sandra, my dearest, that I plan to escape to any place on earth?”
The Ice-Queen cocked her head questioningly.
“Satan has many worlds, my lovely,” Moradi said softly, his voice dripping with venom.
“And Satan has other realms.”
Shahida, Weeks and Wiggins sat, rather uncomfortably on hard backed metal chairs, facing an equally disreputable looking older desk. It was a small and dark room, lighted by only a single bullet lamp sitting in a corner atop a large and wobbly stack of file folders. The lamp had been twisted upwards to shine on the ceiling, thereby throwing more radiated light into the room than would have been expected from the small wattage bulb. It cast eerie shadows as Harold Wiggins entered the room and sat down at the desk.
He smiled and nodded toward Officer Wiggins. “How you doing sonny?”
“Not bad pops. You?”
“Not bad for an old guy.” The conversation with his grandson apparently at an end, he turned his attention to Faris.
“You don’t much seem to like to stay dead.”
“I spent a little time in a casket recently. I don’t recommend it. Boring. And the conversation sucked.
“I’ll try to remember that,” Wiggins replied.
“So what do you do around here?” Shahida questioned.
“Basically run notes between Central and the Bureau.”
“Guess they don’t know there’s such things as phones and computers these days,” Shahida said.
Wiggins grinned. “For some things you just can’t beat good old paper and pencil.”
“Things like what?”
“Serious felony. You don’t believe it, Agent Faris?”
“I can hardly believe it.”
“What? You don’t think such a thing could happen right here in the good old US of A?”
“It reeks of tin-pot dictators and banana republics.”
Wiggins’ eyes bore into her. “Just what the hell do you think America has become under this President. He was never anything but an agent of foreign interests. Bought and paid for with thirty pieces of silver. Makes Benedict Arnold look like a Catholic schoolboy. Abraham Lincoln said that America would never be defeated by a foreign army. He said our undoing would come from within. Guess the voters in the last election cycle forgot to read a little Greek Mythology. Specifically the story of the Trojan Horse.”
“You don’t seem to care for our commander-in-chief very much, Agent Wiggins.”
“Just Mr. Wiggins will do, Agent Faris. On second thought, what the hell—just make it Harold. We’re all friends here.”
“Why did you sign up for the FBI, Agent Faris?”
“Wanted to keep America strong.”
“You love your adopted country that much?”
“I love it a whole hell of a lot more than the place I came from.”
“Personal for you, Agent Faris?”
“Yeah—personal for me. I left some good people in the ground back there. A lot of those people were my family. Not many of them went to their graves whole. We were not exactly best buds of the mullahs.”
“Then we’re friends, Agent Faris.”
“Shahida,” she replied.
Wiggins nodded his head and smiled briefly. “You know a little American history, and some of our somewhat less than stellar ‘leaders’ don’t you?”
“I know enough to have passed my citizenship test. Plus I’m a pretty avid reader.”
Wiggins grinned again. “Welcome to America.”
“Where’s your team, Shahida?”
“Damned good question, Harold. Might be dead for all I know. You know anything different?”
Wiggins shook his head negatively. “I’ve known Brick for a long time. I’m pretty sure he’ll be okay. Johnny O’Brien—him I don’t know. I’ve heard enough though, to think he’s a man that doesn’t like to stay dead for very long either.”
“He struck me that way, the one time I met him. So what’s the deal with his watch?” Shahida asked.
“Yeah. There’s something special about it. The President wants it.”
“The President told you that.”
“Why would he tell you that?”
“Dunno. He’s a braggart, and he probably didn’t figure me to be alive for much longer.”
“Truth that,” Wiggins replied. “You were never supposed to leave the White House alive.”
“I wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for your grandson and Officer Weeks.”
“Trey’s a good kid.”
“A chip off the old block?” Shahida asked.
“Says his lawman line runs back to the frontier days.”
“You could say that,” Wiggins replied. “I did a stint in Deadwood, South Dakota. These feet have stood where Wild Bill’s did.”
“You lived longer.”
“Don’t play poker?”
“I do. What I don’t do is turn my back.”
“You’re not going to turn it now either are you, Harold?”
“Not a chance.”
“Got a plan?”
“Yeah—save as many congressmen as I can. There’s a bunch of worthless bastards, but they didn’t bring this one on themselves for once, and they don’t deserve to die.”
“Gonna save the President too?”
“Nope. That worthless sack of dog shit can save himself—and good luck to him in the effort. If he lives I’ll have in ass in irons.”
“So what about the watch?”
“Damned if I know, Shahida. Could be a chip in it. Information, a secret code—who the hell knows? Could be anything. If the President wants it, then whatever is in it is worth a bunch. Well keep an eye out for it. Whatever it is might just help to put the Prez away, along with a few of his cohorts.”
“Damned right. Where you go now sweetie, I be going too.”
“Why not? The more the merrier.”
“That’s the spirit, Shahida.”
“Why not call in the Bureau?”
“Because Kessler isn’t the only rotten egg in the Bureau by a long shot. We could end up with bullets in our backs. Same with Central. Scum-bag POTUS has his admirers and henchmen everywhere. We die and the nation’s last hope is gone.”
“It’s just that serious, isn’t it?”
“Damn straight. Moradi is actually small potatoes in the giant scheme of things. The President though—he holds the future of American democracy in his slimy little hands.”
“What’s next, Harold?”
“Get the four of us out of here without being seen—same as we got in. Then you and your pups are going to get a crash-course on congressional life insurance policies.”
“Like the ones on paper?”
“Hardly. Like the ones where you shag your ass out of the building, before some bad-guy lights it up. The House and the Senate both have back doors.”
“Don’t most buildings?”
“Not like these. These go under the Capitol Building, and run for about four-hundred and fifty yards. Then they come up in another government building. An underground parking garage. One outfitted with plenty enough vehicles to whisk away hundreds of people in very short order. There’s even a helicopter pad topside to take away the big cheese.”
“Sounds like you already have this covered.”
“Not entirely. The biggest problem is the fact that there are two tunnels. We are going to have to figure out which one they are going to use to evacuate the building when the shit starts. Our ‘posse’ is just a tad bit on the small side.”
“Got a plan, Harold?”
“Want to share it?”
“Find a way to connect with Brick and O’Brien. And figure out what Mr. Saal Moradi is going to do next, even before he knows.”
“Shouldn’t be much of a problem—Wild Bill,” Shahida observed.
“Shouldn’t be a problem indeed,” Wiggins agreed with a grin.
Thanks so much for reading. See you again shortly with another installment of THE RECKONING.
Dumb Joke of the Day: