Tracy Williams walked out of the prison through the front gate. Her friend and former neighbor, Officer Jeffrey Kingman of the Saint Pete Police Department, sat on the hood of his 1974 Plymouth Volare, waiting for her. With him was his wife, Anna.
She hugged each of them in turn. They were the only ones who had kept in touch with her in prison, writing letters, sending photos and bringing her cakes every year on her birthday, her sons’ birthday, and Christmas. None of the friends she and Lee had known had bothered to even write. And the only friend she’d had inside was Mikey, the lifer who still hoped to get out of the joint. Mikey had been in for the same thing as Tracy, manslaughter in the killing of a man who had beat her husband half to death, leaving him a near vegetable unable to care for himself. She’d protected Tracy from the worst of the other prisoners, a group of racists who attacked anyone not part of their group.
There was a price for that protection, of course. Tracy had been loathe to pay it, but after being beaten in the shower room by several women from that group, she’d woken up in the prison medical wing, being treated by Mikey, who it turned out had been a nurse in her former life. They’d talked then, Tracy haltingly as her jaw was yet healing along with several other parts of her body. And as they talked, Mikey made her pitch in exchange for companionship. Tracy realized that was her only hope of surviving, and reluctantly accepted.
Now she was leaving Mikey alone. Well, not really alone, as she had the rest of the black population of the prison to choose from.
She had tears in her eyes as she got into the car. She’d closed the door before she realized that there was someone else in the back seat with her. It was a white man, short but powerfully built, with short hair, a half inch on top and shaved on the sides. She didn’t know him. She grabbed for the door handle, thinking to get out as quickly as possible.
The window was down, and Anna told her softly, “Don’t worry, child, he’s a friend. He’s here to offer you a job, if you’re interested.”
Tracy looked back at the man, still wary, wondering why her friends hadn’t warned her before she got in. But the mention of a job was compelling, and she wondered what kind of work anyone would offer her just out of prison. Ten years was a long time, after all.
He looked at her frankly, curious to she how she would respond. When he saw that she wasn’t going to bolt, he extended his hand. “Hello, Mrs. Williams. My name is Martin Rothman. I have an offer I believe you won’t be able to refuse.”
Tracy laughed, almost hysterically. Is this guy serious, she thought? He sounds like a thug in an old gangster movie, like the Godfather or something!
“I’m almost afraid to ask. What kind of job, Mr. Rothman?”
“That will take some explaining. We can talk over dinner; the Kingmans have a dinner planned in celebration of your release.”
Tracy looked at Anna, who was watching her and Rothman. Anna nodded and said, “Yes, child. We’re so happy you’re out now!”
“Anna, you shouldn’t have.”
“Why not? You’re worth it. You know we think of you as our own daughter. Now turn around and listen to what the man has to say.”
As Tracy followed the instruction, Rothman said, “Like I said, we can talk over dinner. I’ve been told Anna’s lasagna is the best in the Bay area.”
Jeffrey Kingman, driving the car, said over his shoulder, “Now who told you that?”
“You did, my good sir. Don’t try to deny it!” They all laughed; the ice was broken for Tracy. At least for the moment.
During the two-and-a-half hour trip back to Russell Street in Saint Pete, Tracy told the others of some of her experiences in the Lowell womens’ prison. She did not, however, mention the protection she’d had from the worst of the place; like any prison anywhere in the world, it was not a pleasant place. Anna asked the most questions, as Jeff was a cop and had some understanding of the system, and Martin Rothman seemed to be happy to just listen to the discussion, almost like he knew what she was going to answer for each inquiry.
Finally they arrived. The neighborhood didn’t look much different. Tracy remembered when she’d last been there, before that day she sat in the courtroom, watching as Tommy Babbitt was declared not guilty, and her subsequent arrest for shooting that asshole who killed her husband.
Their were a couple surprises waiting for her. But instead of parking in front of Building 4, Jeff turned right, onto a worn strip of grass by a small house across the street, and stopped. As Tracy got out of the car, a crowd of people formed a loose semicircle around her. They clapped and cheered, blocking the access road that was Russell Street. She remembered a few of them by face, but couldn’t recall their names. Except one whom she spotted when he started to come forward.
She ran to him, hugged him with all of her not inconsiderable strength; she’d worked out a lot in Lowell. Terry Morris, her older half-brother was out on probation. He’d testified at the trial of Tommy Babbit, but unfortunately had blurted out that Tracy was his little sister. That had simply been added to the unspoken marks against her, a black woman married to a white man and having a baby by him in Florida, farther south than what was called the “deep south’. Now here was a convicted drug dealer telling the court that she was his sister. All of that combined, Tracy thought, was what got Tommy off. And all of that added up to help her decide to kill him. She just considered herself lucky that the other two fools who were with him showed up that day, laughing and joking about the whole thing.
“Oh, Terry, it’s good to see you! I had no idea you were out, you never wrote or anything!”
Terry pulled away just enough to look at her. “Girl, you know they don’t let any kind of communication between folks in different prisons. And part of my parole was not having any contact with any other felons. But I did hook up with Jeff here so I could keep up with how you were doing. That’s how I knew to be here today.”
“Thank you! That’s three times now you’ve been there for me when I really needed it! Although that last time didn’t help much,” she said, laughing through her tears.
“Yeah, I know, Trace. But look around; you got yourself a whole lotta friends, girl. This here ain’t nothin’; the old football team is throwin’ a party in your honor this Friday; half the senior year will be there, on the beach in Gulfport. We got the permits and all for a bonfire to roast a pig from one of the farms up in Homassassa Springs. But you got some bizness to take care of now, so go on in. Jeff and Anna waitin’ for ya. I gotta go, but I’ll be back.” He pulled away and started to go down the road.
“Terry,” she said, “Please tell me you aren’t getting back into that shit that got you locked up in the first place.”
He turned back and smiled broadly. “Nah, it ain’t nothin’ like that, little sister. I’m stayin’ clean.”
He walked off then, and Tracy followed Jeff, Anna and Martin Rothman into the house. The gathering broke up, a few calling out, “Welcome home!” Anna went into the kitchen, then returned with a pitcher of iced tea and a tray of salad vegetables, cheeses, cold cuts and crackers. She set them on the coffee table, where everyone could reach them easily. “Dinner will be ready in about an hour,” she said, then turned and went back into the kitchen.
Tracy asked if she could help out, but the older woman told her that it wasn’t necessary. “And besides,” Anna added, “This is to celebrate you coming home. You shouldn’t have to do anything but eat, drink and enjoy.”
Tracy turned back to the two men. Jeff leaned forward in his seat to hand her a tall glass of iced tea, which she gladly accepted. “Thank you.” Then she turned to face Rothman squarely. She studied him for a long moment, wondering what his angle was. Finally she decide to just come out and ask.
“So, Mr. Rothman,” she began.
“Call me Martin, please, Mrs. Williams.”
“Only if you call me by my first name.” He nodded, and she continued. “You say you have a job for me. My first question is why. Why would you offer me a job when you don’t even know me?”
Rothman maintained the eye contact as he answered. “That’s not quite correct, Tracy. I do know you, at least as much as anyone who never met you could know you. I’ve been watching your case. I studied your psych profile. I know what you did and why you did it. I also know that, given the opportunity combined with the exact same circumstances, you’d do it again.”
She tried to muster up a look of contempt, but failed. She settled for fake anger as she said, “So you think you’ve got me figured out. Big deal. Any street hustler could do that. Show me something that will impress me.”
Rothman smiled as if at some secret joke. “It’s on the way.”
Tracy couldn’t get him to say anything more on the matter until Anna asked everyone to move outside to the large picnic table that Jeff had built. The older woman began setting the table for dinner, refusing all offers of help.
Just as Anna was about to sit down, a car pulled up and parked next to Jeffs’ Volare. A white man and a black woman got out of the front, and a young boy got out of the back on the passenger side. The boy appeared to be the couples’ son as he walked between them. They walked up to the table and stopped.
Rothman said, soto voce, “I believe you’re about to be impressed.”
He stood up to greet the newcomers and make intorductions. “Hello, Mike, Andrea. I’d like you to meet Jeff and Anna Mitchell, and Tracy Williams.” The three nodded their heads in acknowledgment. Rothman continued, “Jeff, Anna, Tracy, these good people are Mike and Andrea Capella.”
Tracy noticed that Rothman didn’t introduce the boy, who looked rather unsure of himself. She studied him, wondering if he was just shy or if he had some form of attention deficit disorder or even something in the autistic spectrum. There was a line on one side of his forehead, like an old scar, she thought. Then she saw that he was missing the little finger on his right hand.
Her own hand went to her mouth and her eyes widened in disbelief. The boy, seeing her reaction, raised his damaged hand and held it out to her slowly, not sure if this was what he should be doing. Tracy watched, saw the look in his eyes, and she suddenly knew. Questioningly, her eyes beginning to tear up, she said, “Danny?”
The boy nodded, his own eyes watering, and haltingly walked over to her. She opened her arms, and he threw himself into them, blurting out, “Mom! They told me I was gonna see you, but I didn’t believe it!” He began crying in earnest, and Tracy patted his back twice before hugging him to her, sobbing his name over and over, the tears streaming down her face in torrents.
Through her tears, she said, “Oh, Danny, Danny baby, I’m so sorry!”
The child pulled away, just enough to look up into his mothers’ face. “It’s not your fault, Mom. Mr. Rothman and the Capellas explained it to me a couple months ago. And they never tried to tell me that they’re my real parents; they told me about foster care and adoptions and all that stuff, and how the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Mr. Rothman helped arrange for them to adopt me instead of some people who wouldn’t treat me good.”
This sounded like a lot for a young boy of nine to comprehend, but here he was, telling her and proving that he did understand, at least the basics. She cried some more, happy that the one thing she wanted more than anything in the world was to see her son again, after years of thinking it would never be, had finally come to pass.
She pulled him back into the hug. “That’s good, sweetheart. Mr. Rothman is offering me a job. I think I’ll take it.”
After a while they went to their seats next to each other at the huge picnic table, where Anna and Jeff had already laid out the plates and the food. There was the lasagna, spaghetti, garlic bread, antipasto, and drinks, and they ate heartily, happy to at last be re-united. The Kingmans had set up their spare bedroom with two single beds for Tracy and Danny, arranged by Martin Rothman so that they’d have some privacy to get acquainted.
Through it all, Tracy kept stealing sideway glances at her son, afraid that she’d wake up and find that it was all a dream and that she was still back in prison.
Mother and son talked until nearly one in the morning, when they were both overcome by exhaustion. Danny was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Tracy, even as tired as she was, lay on her bed, her mind racing in twenty directions at once, unable to get to sleep. Finally, her eyes closed in the middle of asking herself what kind of job she was taking. She still hadn’t asked Rothman, but she was determined that she’d do whatever he asked in exchange for being in her sons’ life again. They had the weekend to get to know each other again before her new employer took her across the bay to begin working.
Tracy balked inwardly when she saw the sign that read, ‘Federal Bureau of Investigation’ outside the building. But she wouldn’t back away; Rothman had made it possible for her to be with her precious son Danny again; she was bound and determined to do whatever job he had for her. But she was starting to get a little nervous now. What could he want with a convicted killer? she wondered.
The went in, then took an elevator to the basement. Tracy wondered at that; she’d never seen or even heard of a basement in the Bay area, or anywhere else in Florida for that matter. She supposed the northern part of the state, maybe around Tallahassee and Jacksonville, might have them, but she didn’t really know.
He led her to a room near the end of a long hallway. It was an office, sparsely furnished with a large gunmetal gray desk, three chairs, and a filing cabinet. On the desk was a phone and a computer. He motioned her toward a chair as he took a seat behind the desk and opened a drawer, pulling out a thick manila folder. He took a pen from the shallow center drawer and a single sheet of paper from the folder, handed it across the desk to Tracy, and told her to sign it.
Tracy looked at it suspiciously. “What’s this?”
“It’s a non-disclosure agreement. You agree to discuss nothing of what you see, hear or do in this building or in the service of this Agency with anyone outside the Bureau without prior authorization. Take your time, read it carefully and make sure you understand it before signing. But we can’t go any further without it.”
He sat watching as she read. He noted that she moved her eyes, not her head, to follow the words on the paper. When she finished, she set it down on the desk and picked up the pen. He asked, “Are you sure you understand this and you’re ready to sign?”
She stopped, the pen hovering over the paper, and looked up at him. “Yes, I’m ready to sign. I don’t know how it’s possible for me to even be here, considering my record and all. But for what you’ve done for me, I’ll wash the damn toilets if that’s what it takes to be able to see Danny like that.”
“I thought that would be your answer. But before you sign that, I want you to know that your work for us might enable you to regain custody of your son. I can’t tell you how; only that what you learn will give you the knowledge to try to do something to correct matters. As for your record, it’s been cleared, as if you never shot Tommy Babbitt, never went to trial, never spent time in prison.” He smiled and added, “And you won’t be cleaning toilets; you’re far too valuable for that.”
She looked hard at him for a brief moment, nodded once, then signed.
Rothman placed the paper back in the folder, then took out a sheaf of papers held together by a staple. He passed it to her, then said, “This is the first test. You have one hour to finish it.”
At the end of the week, she’d finished the last test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a comprehensive personality test. The purpose, at least as she understood it from taking it, was to see how she handled herself in a variety of circumstances. It seemed also to have elements of an I.Q. test and an aptitude test as well, but she supposed that those were important parts of dealing with life.
She refused to ask Rothman to see if her guess was accurate. She wouldn’t give him an ounce of satisfaction, or so she thought; he would not see her break in any way if she could help it. She thought briefly that maybe she was supposed to ask about it, or something, but quickly brushed that thought aside.
She handed him the test booklet and the answer sheet, one of those lame shade-in-the circle multiple choice forms like the finals tests she took back in her senior year in high school. That memory brought back other memories, of the riots that year, Lee rescuing her from that jackass Tommy who tried to rape her, the Friday night dances that continued even after that nasty scene with Lee’s mother. She cut herself off from those memories, telling herself she didn’t have time for that now but maybe later she’d take that mental inventory. Boca Ciega is in the past; let it stay there. For now.
Rothman put the paper in the ever-present manila folder, then smiled. He said, “Next week we start physical testing. So it might be a good idea to rest up over the weekend.”
“Do you think it might be possible for me to see Danny again?”
“I don’t see why not. Let me make a phone call and see what I can arrange. Oh, and we have a car for you.” He took out a key ring and handed it to her.
“I don’t have a drivers’ license yet. There hasn’t been time.”
“Not to worry; you’ll find all you need in the glove compartment. It’s a black Chrysler LeBaron. I’ll walk you down to the garage and show you which one.”
The weekend passed too quickly for Tracy. She felt like she didn’t have enough time to spend with Danny after the years in prison. It was all well and good that her conviction had been set aside, but that just didn’t make up for the time she’d lost with her son. But she’d put up with it, not only because Martin Rothman of the FBI had arranged it, but also because he offered her a chance to make a real difference in the world. That was good enough for her, as long as it included time with Danny.
She went to Tampa in her ... well, the Bureau’s, she corrected herself silently, new car and logged in, then headed down the elevator to Rothmans’ office. He looked up from the report he was reading. “Grab a cup of coffee and have a seat, Tracy. I’ll be right with you in a few minutes.”
Presently he looked up, keeping the papers in front of him. She guessed it was her test scores. She was right.
“You tested high on your IQ and aptitude tests. The full range of skills we use in the Bureau are within your reach with the proper training. And your rating on the MMPI is something else again. It shows you as someone who generally won’t back off in a conflict where you know you’re right. You sometimes have issues with authority figures, but you are able to set them aside for the greater good as you define it. It also shows that you’re capable of acting outside the box if you see that’s what’s needed, again by your won estimation. That, coupled with your high intelligence quotient and aptitude scores, show me that you’re just the person I’m looking for.”
He put the report back in the folder and closed it, then set it to the side. He looked back at her, watching her reactions. When she showed nothing beyond curiosity, he continued.
“Normally, you’d have to go through the application process. Then if you’re accepted, a five-month training program in Quantico, Virginia, kind of like boot camp for federal agents. After that would be specialized training, depending on what you’re interested in and have an aptitude for, as well as what the Bureau needs. But I’ve been given a mandate, and wide latitude, to put together a special team of invesigators from a variety of specialties and life experiences.
“Right now, you don’t have a specialty, other than survival. You did well in prison, mostly staying out of trouble, once you got past that problem in your first week. Oh, don’t look so surprised; I’ve studied your record and I know how that situation came about as well as how it was resolved.
“At any rate, due to that latitude, I’m going to start your training today. You’ll go through an intensive physical fitness regimen that may give you some small difficulty even as fit as you are. You’ll be working out with a certified trainer on our staff at this facility, who will report directly to me. When that trainer and I agree that you’re ready for the next phase, you’ll add classroom training to the physical. But this will be specialized to take advantage of your abilities.”
Rothman took Tracy to a gym on the floor just above. It was much like the one at her old high school, including a full basketball court and workout gear ranging from climbing ropes to gymnastic equipment. Balance beam, parallel and uneven bars, saddle horse, pole vault and shot put were all there. He introduced her to the instructor, a short, stocky Asian man with the unlikely name of Julio Klemper.
Later in the week, she would meet a martial arts instructor who would improve her skills in hand-to-hand combat.
Four weeks into the training, Rothman was watching her go through her paces, noting how much she had learned. He was satisfied with her progress. Her early training had stood her in good stead; her concentration and focus were excellent, and her movements were fluid and precise.
He decided it was time to begin some classroom training. Based on all of her test scores, he’d decided on computer operations training. She had an analytical way of approaching things, according to the tests, and this would suit her well in the computer field. And it was what he needed for the investigative team he was developing.
She learned computer operation quickly and easily, as Rothman knew she would. He cynically thought that his carrot-and-stick approach was working so well that he hadn’t needed to use the stick at all. He was hopeful that he would never have to use it, since for her, the carrot and the stick were the same: time spent with her son.
What she didn’t know was that young Danny was learning the same thing she was, but on a different level. He was learning to hack, unaware that he would eventually be working with his mother, albeit from a distance. And that both the carrot and the stick were the same. As long as he continued to do well, he would get more time with his mother.
After three months of intensive training, she was brought to an outside training area that she hadn’t seen before. She was tested for accuracy, effectiveness and time. Her perceptiveness was tested; Rothman wanted to see how quickly she could discern whether a given situation was threatening and to what degree. She was graded on how much she exerted herself in each test, the lower levels being given higher marks. The goal was to make each action as automatic as possible in as short a time as possible, and she passed with flying colors.
When Rothman was satisfied, he gave her an assignment. She was given a Colt 45 semi-automatic pistol and instructed to escort a family to a safe location. She was to pick them up at a mall on 66th Street and Tyrone Boulevard in Saint Pete
and bring them to a location on 58th Street and Park Boulevard in the suburb of Pinellas Park, just north of Saint Pete. The place, she knew, used to be a barber shop until the owner was caught several years back molesting young boys. She was told the building was now being used as a transfer point for the Bureau.
She wore a navy blue suit jacket specially tailored to hide the shoulder holster. She parked the car as near to the designated entrance as possible without being too conspicuous. She locked the door and walked to the building, paying attention to her surroundings, including the people in the area.
She picked up the family of three and led them out to her car. The woman got in the back with the little boy while the man got in the front passenger seat. She started the vehicle and pulled out, going onto 66th Street heading north to Park. Looking in the rearview mirror, she noticed a black sedan with tinted windows three vehicles behind her. Suspicious, she changed lanes, saw the other car do the same. She watched it all the way to her turn; it alternated between two and three cars between them, always within sight.
She made the turn on Park, then sped up rapidly to make the next turn, on 65th Street, hoping the other driver would miss her. She took 65th to 70th Avenue and turned left, heading for 58th Street. Apparently she’d lost the tail, as she’d seen it pass by still on Park.
On 58th, she turned left again. Almost there, she thought.
She pulled into the small parking area and shut the motor off. She got out and looked around, then signalled by hand for her passengers to exit the vehicle. Just as they’d closed their doors, she saw a car coming from up the road and slowing down. She could see the driver watching her, a white man with a Confederate flag bandana on his head, long blond hair flowing past his shoulders. Another man leaned out the back window, brandishing a shotgun.
For an instant her mind flashed back to the day she and her family had been shot down in Central Park. She thought, Oh hell no! Not again! She said over her shoulder, “Get down! Now!” as she pulled her 45. The child was slow getting down, fighting his mother and looking around to see what was happening. She put herself between them and the oncoming vehicle, stooping and turning sideways to as small a target as possible. She took fired three shots in rapid succession at the driver through the windshield and was momentarily satisfied at the holes through the glass and the surrounding spiderweb of fractures as the car turned away and raced back out to the street.
She helped the family get back on their feet and quickly led them to the side entrance of the former barbershop. She fished out a key from the low pocket of her jacket and opened the door, leading them in. She found a light switch, flicked it, and was only slightly surprised to find that the lights didn’t come on. She immediately discarded the thought that the bill hadn’t been paid. This is the FBI for crying out loud,” she thought. They wouldn’t let the power lapse!
She went into a crouch again, motioning the three others back and down. Her vision adjusted quickly, and she saw four shadows moving toward her. She fired four shots in rapid succession, hitting each target and watching them go down. She scanned the building for others and found none; there was only the front door and a passage through which the four attackers had come.
She looked into the room on the other side of that doorway and saw nothing. Then she pulled out a small electronic device and pushed the single button on its face to signal that she had arrived.
The lights came on overhead, bright enough to nearly blind her momentarily. She crouched down yet again, telling the three with her to get down. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the four she had just shot lieing where they had fallen. There was dark red on each of their chests. Then she watched, dumbstruck, as they all stood up. They were all smiling, clearly enjoying her confusion.
She aimed her pistol at the one she thought was the leader, a short, stocky man with a crew cut. Then she heard a familiar voice coming from the opening to the back room.
“Congratulations, Agent Williams. You just passed your final test.”
She turned, and there was Martin Rothman, smiling broadly. Then she turned to the people she’d transported. They were also smiling, watching her. She turned back to Rothman. “This was a test? You told me it was an assignment.”
“Well, yes, that’s the method I used to test you. And you did very well. Your passengers are agents from our Tallahassee office and their son. Harold and Jane Oliver, and Harold Junior.” He turned to the three. “Thanks for participating in this, people. And you, Junior, look after your parents, okay? Don’t let anything happen to them.” The boy looked like he wanted to jump like he’d just made a touchdown. “You can go now. I’ll be in touch.”
Tracy watched the family exit the building, and was only a bit surprised to see the two men from the car she’d shot come in. Rothman introduced them and then dismissed them just as quickly. That left the four inside assailants. She ignored them and turned back to Rothman.
“That was fucked up, you know, setting me up like that. You know my record, how I lost my husband.”
“Yes, well, I had to be sure you wouldn’t be slowed down by that type of scene happening again. And you weren’t; your reflexes were right; if they weren’t, we were going to continue your solo training until you either washed out or passed.
“In the meantime, I’d like you to meet the people you’ll be working with for the forseeable future. Charlie Richardson,” he indicated the crewcut man, is the team leader. The young lady is his wife, Marissa Montalvo...”
“Ex-wife, Marty,” Charlie interrupted.
“Of course; ex-wife. And over there are Robert and Raphael Boulware. You’ll be training with them for a while before you get a real assignment. I need you to be able to work as a fully integrated unit. That should take anywhere from three to six months. When you finish, you’ll be working together, using each of your individual talents and abilities to fulfill a special assignment. Only you, me and my immediate superior know what that is, and that’s the way we have to keep it.”
Tracy noticed that Marissa was watching her intently while the men were watching Rothman. She was about to say something to the young Hispanic woman when Rothman said, “You’ve all got two weeks until you start your joint training. Get some rest; you’ll need it. Tracy, I’ve arranged for you to spend that two weeks with Danny. You’ve earned it. Now get out of here, all of you.”