Allen threw his fork across the room and stood up, looking ready to fight to the death anyone who crossed his path. “Man, fuck this shit! I gotta get some fresh air and clear my head. I can’t think like this, dude. Hold down the fort ’til I get back.” He stormed out the door, leaving Steve sitting there.
Almost five minutes later, Steve heard someone coming up the back steps. He figured it was Allen coming back at first, but then realized that his friend wouldn’t be back that soon when he got upset like that. A knock came at the door, and he went to answer it, looking through the peephole first. He thought he saw someone moving down the stairs and then away from the house, but he couldn’t be sure.
He opened the door and looked around cautiously. Seeing nobody there and nobody in the distance, he looked around, examining the landing. He spotted the old rusty barbeque grill in the corner; there was something sticking out of it. He picked up the cover and found a large manila envelope with no markings on it. He picked it up and looked around again before going back inside.
Sitting in the red Mustang, Tracy watched as Stephen Winthrop looked around, then took the package in the house. She waited a minute to make sure the man wouldn’t come back out, then looked over to the tree where Marissa was waiting and watching for the all clear. She motioned to Marissa to get in the car.
The red mustang pulled up to the old house and the two women got out, laughing quietly as though at some private joke. They entered the house to find the team leader sitting down in front of Tracy’s computer and sipping on a bottle of Dads’ root beer. He looked up at them as they entered, then went back to reading the screen.
As Marissa went to the refrigerator and grabbed a couple bottles of coke for herself and Tracy, Charlie asked, “How did it go?”
“Like clockwork, just the way we planned it,” Tracy answered. Marissa nodded in agreement as she handed a bottle to the darker woman. She looked around as she asked, “Where are the twins?”
“They’re out scouting around for our tail. I called D. C. while you were out this morning to see what I could find out about him. Turns out he’s a solo agent with an open-ended assignment. His name is Rivera. Somehow he caught on to us back in Jersey and is trying to find out what we’re up to.”
He took another sip of his soda, then continued. “Rothman was surprised there were still solos out there. But this guy has a reputation for being good at what he does.”
“And what does he do?” Marissa asked pointedly, “besides following other agents that he shouldn’t even recognize as such?”
“According to Rothman, he finds rogue agents. And he seems to have decided we may be rogues. He’s investigating us. Or trying to.”
Tracy fired up her computer. She said over her shoulder, “I’m gonna find out about this guy. Shoulda done it before, but I got so wrapped up in that local case. Damn.”
Charlie smiled coldly. “Good, Trace. Then we can combine what you find with what the twins discover. I want to have as much info as possible before we pull him in.
“In the meantime, we still have a job to do. So let’s see if we can locate our next target. We’re almost done in this town. It’s too bad we can’t tap those two guys we sent that package to.”
Tracy looked thoughtful as she said, “There might be a way.”
“Come on, Trace, you know we can’t go through normal channels. Orders are no contact except through Rothman, and he won’t approve a tap like this, because we’re not supposed to get involved in any of these local situations.”
The dark-skinned woman smiled slyly. “Who said anything about normal channels, Charlie?”
The team leader narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. He thought he knew where this was going, and he didn’t want it discussed openly. In fact, due to security concerns, he couldn’t allow it to be discussed openly, not even with or in the presence of his team. At least, that was what his orders said. Tracy knew this, and she was the only one on the team who knew it, because she was present – she’d had to be present – when the order came down.
Charlie knew he should forbid what Tracy was hinting at. Yet he also knew that they needed that outside assistance. But, he asked himself, is it worth the risk? He be disobeying orders, which was a thing he had never done in either this job or his previous military career.
He watched the computer specialist as he thought. Then he came to a decision that was neither acceptance of her suggestion nor denial. “I don’t want to think about this, but I think we need to discuss it anyway. But not until we’re all here. So we wait until the twins get back with their report.”
Marissa watched and listened, feeling a bit disturbed that she didn’t have anything to add. But when the subject of tapping the two guys they – she – had delivered the package to came up, she got an idea. She spoke up, with only a slight hesitation. “I could... introduce myself to them. You know, like we did to that other guy the other day. Night, I mean.” She looked from Charlie to Tracy, saw the black woman smile, and went on. “I could explain why we left the package, and ask them if they’d be interested in keeping us informed of their progress.”
Tracy chimed in, to Charlies’ annoyance, “Not to mention passing on whatever else they manage to pick up.” She turned to Marissa. “Great idea, Mare!”
“Let’s not forget,” the team leader responded, “that we’re not authorized to get involved in any local situations, ladies.”
Charlie wasn’t happy with the idea, beyond the fact that they already had gotten involved, to a degree, by delivering the package of documents. But he was at least honest enough with himself to know that it was because it wasn’t his idea. And he knew it was a good one, but needed to be implemented very carefully. To the women, he said softly, “We can talk about it when the twins get back.”
When the brothers returned, Tracy turned on the computer in anticipation of enacting her idea. While she waited for the boot-up sequence to finish, she turned and watched the twins get sodas from the fridge. They sat on a stool by the counter that divided the kitchen from the dining room. From there, they could see the rest of the team clearly.
Raphael asked, “Okay, what did we miss? You guys got real quiet when we came in.”
Charlie replied, “Let’s here your report first, then we’ll fill you in.”
Robert began while his brother took a long pull on his Coke. “The guy’s gone. Checked out early this morning. We have no clue where he went to. He might still be around, but he’s nowhere near this house right now. We checked all possible vantage points watching here, including up in the trees. Nothing.”
Raphael continued. “It’s possible he’s left town, but I doubt it. He seems to have latched on to us for some reason. I doubt he’d let go so easily. I think he’s still around here. But like Robby said, he’s not in sight of this house.”
Just as Raphael finished talking, the computer beeped, signaling that the start-up process was complete. Tracy turned and logged on, then turned back to the others. Charlie had just opened his mouth to speak when the machine beeped again, and Tracy turned her attention back to the screen. There was a message.
She clicked on the icon, a mailbox with a raised flag, and watched as it was replaced by a crude graphic, a red skull and crossbones on a black screen, which switched to a black on red image. As she watched, the colors would swap places every three seconds. She tapped the control key and the escape key at the same time, released, then pressed them twice more.
The mailbox returned, coming out of the skulls’ mouth, the door hatch opening slowly as the mailbox image grew to encompass the screen. In the center of the blackness inside the opening was a small white dot, which grew quickly to become a drawing of an envelope with the words ‘Mind Over Matter’.
As the rest of the team watched, she clicked the three capitalized letters, and a text appeared. Type ur name. She typed out her first name. The text changed to Who r u. There was no punctuation, and no attempt at writing correctly, except for the capital letters at the beginning of each request. The letters were clearly shorthand for the words they sounded like. She typed, Your mother. I miss you, Danny.
Miss u 2 mom. How u no its me?
The initials. They spell M-O-M. Why else would you capitalize them?
OK. U need 2 b careful. Someone looking into ur record. Fed type. Been following u 4 a week, & headed now to where we were.
Tracy looked stunned for a second. She looked around at Charlie, then at the others. She turned back to the keyboard and typed one letter, in the same shorthand her son was using. y
The answer came quickly. Trying to figure out who u guys r. Gonna talk 2 ur nabr back then. The cop.
Startled again, she typed, You know about that?
Yep. I don’t blame u. I blame the system. We got screwed. So did ur friends up there with u. But u no that.
Yes, I know.
Chaser is 1 of u. He’ll b back. Show him.
Yet again, Tracy was stunned.She looked around, saw that the rest of the team was too, but none so much as Charlie. But he twirled his finger in the air, signaling for her to continue. How do you know this?
I have skills. That’s all Danny would say on the matter.
Tracy typed, We were just about to discuss getting in touch with you.
Then my timing is good.
Hold on, came the next line of text. Then, Gotta go. I’m being paged. C ya later. Luv u mom. The screen went blank.
Tracy stared at it briefly, then turned toward her companions. She knew they could see the tears in her eyes, as well as her struggle to not let them fall. But she didn’t care.
She took a moment to compose herself, wiped her eyes roughly with her sleeve, then guzzled the last half of her Coke. She set the bottle down on the table gingerly, as if afraid it might break. Then she looked up at the Charlie.
“Okay, that opens up a few questions. Like how does he know what’s happening up here? And how does he know this Garcia is going to talk to Jeff? He was only a two and a half then, and in foster care, waiting to be adopted.” She took a deep breath and waited for someone to answer.
Charlie looked at her, thought about how to respond. After a moment, he asked, “Who’s Jeff, Trace?”
Tracy took a deep breath, then let it out slowly before answering. “Jeff Kingman. He was a neighbor when I was growing up. He was a cop in Saint Pete. I was glad he was there that day, and I chose him to turn myself in to. He was on duty a lot during my trial. And when he was off, he sat in the courtroom with Anna, his wife. They were like a big brother and big sister to me.”
“Okay, can you get in touch with him from here?”
“If he’s got a phone, yes. He probably does.” She turned to the computer again and began typing commands. Within a few minutes she had a listing of all the phones in the Tampa Bay area, including unlisted numbers. As she worked, she explained that it was easy enough to get into the old Bell system’s computers, which had the records of all phone services for everyone on the network. Combining her computer training with her government position, it was easy to get that information with a simple pass code.
She found the number and an address; it was the same street they’d all lived on back then. She reached for her mobile phone, but Charlie grabbed her arm before she reached it. She looked up at him, seeing in her peripheral vision the brothers on one side and Marissa on the other. She said, “I’ve got to warn him, Charlie. Let me call him now.”
“Not with this phone, Trace. Either a pay phone, or tap into some other line. You know the Agency owns these phones.”
Understanding dawned on her face. “Oh, shit! I cleaned the computer of all the bugs, but never thought about the phones! Okay, let’s go to that Greek place up the road, and I’ll use the pay phone there.”
Ann Kingman watched from the kitchen doorway, a look of concern on her face, as her husband of forty-four years hung up the phone gently, then brushed a tear from his eye. Her tiny frame almost gliding,she walked over to him and took his hands in her own.
“What’s wrong, Jeff?” she asked softly. “Who was that?”
The going-on-old man looked at his still-beautiful wife and smiled sadly. “Do you remember that girl who used to live next door, the one we went to court to watch years ago?”
Ann’s’ eyes opened wide in surprise. “That poor child who …?” She couldn’t bring herself to speak the words, even after all the years that had passed since they’d watched as Tracy Williams lost her everything that ever mattered in her life.
“That was her, Ann. She’s all right, she says, and got a good job, but she can’t tell me what it is. I think she’s in trouble though. She said there’s a man coming to talk to me about her. A man from the F.B.I.” He shook his head as his wife mouthed a silent Oh! He continued, “She told me to tell him the truth about what happened.”
Ann ignored the tears in her own eyes. “That poor child. You know I still think about her every day, like she’s my own daughter. Nobody should have to go through that mess.”
Jeff sighed loudly, then said, “You know the way the system did her is why I left the force. I couldn’t be a cop when the bad guys get off on some bullshit and the good people, who’re trying to take care of themselves and their families, get screwed the way Tracy did. Yeah, she made a choice after that trial. But she shouldn’t have been put in a position where she felt she had to kill that fool. To this day I remember her telling me that’s the only way she would ever get justice.”
Ann embraced her husband as she said, “I know, baby.” Jeff just stood there a moment before slowly, gently returning the hug.
Tracy came back in the restaurant, picked up a dinner mint from the bowl by the cash register. She popped it into her mouth and walked back to the table where her friends were looking at menus. Yeah, she thought, they are my friends, just like Danny said.
She sat down between Robert and Marissa, as that was the only seat left unoccupied at the table. She took a sip of her coffee, which had cooled off considerably while she was on the phone in the entrance lobby. Then she put the cup down and looked at the team leader. “All set. Let’s eat.” But all through the meal, she kept thinking about her son...