Charlie stood by the kitchen counter sipping his coffee as his team waited. They were good people, and he hoped they were ready for what was coming. He wasn’t happy about it, especially since it was on short notice. But the package that had come in this morning contained clear instructions.
He picked up the large manila envelope in his free hand and walked past the counter into the main room, taking one of the bar stools with him. He placed it where he could easily see the others and sat down.
“Okay, people,” he began. “Our safe house is set up. We have three cars waiting for us in the Penn Station parking garage. There’s a blue Mustang and a green Diplomat. We’ll leave the Lumina right where it is; it’s been officially seen, so we can’t use it now. Someone else will pick it up.”
He took a sheet of paper out of the envelope and passed it to Tracy. “Here’s our first target. He’s a possible informant. We need to talk to him, give him a breakdown of what’s going on in his area. He’s in a high position in his county, and he’s clean. No connection to what’s happening, but he can help us if we play our cards right. We can’t scare him so badly that he runs. Understood?”
Tracy looked at the paper, then passed it on to Marissa, who passed it on herself after studying it for a moment.
Charlie continued after everyone acknowledged the instruction. “Okay, let’s get moving. As usual, check out of here the same way we checked in, like regular people.”
William Baxter walked into his house in Hyde Park, New York and turned on the light. He needed a stiff drink; it had really been a rough day at the office. The client list was growing by leaps and bounds, and the higher-ups wanted him to trim it down, to find ways to deny services to people who needed help. It wasn’t just a single department, either. Across the board, in all agencies, social services were swamped by new applicants.
His job was to coordinate the delivery of services. He wasn’t happy that his superiors were telling him to cut those services. All except childrens’ protection. And no matter how hard he tried to tell the Commissioner that providing food, shelter and cash assistance was integral to protecting children and helping families stay together, he was overruled.
He went to the bar in the den and half-filled a tumbler with Royal Crown, then added two ice cubes from the under-the-bar ice maker. He swirled it around for a couple seconds, then took a long sip. He’d eaten dinner already, at the Palace Restaurant. He hated cooking for himself and having to clean up afterward.
He thought about calling his wife, but he decided against burdening her with his troubles. She deserved her vacation, and he hoped she was enjoying the Italian Riviera. He only wished he’d been able to go with her. But their respective jobs didn’t always allow them to get time off at the same time.
He took another sip of his drink and headed for family room. He switched off the light as he left the den, and by the light of the stars coming through the skylight, he made his way to the plush sectional sofa in the center of the room. He was just starting to relax when he saw a shadow step out from behind the heavy drapes covering the sliding glass doors to the porch.
He stared for a moment at this unexpected intrusion, and then asked in a shaking voice, “Who are you?” He didn’t know if this shadowy figure had a gun, a knife, or what, and until he did know, he wasn’t moving out of his seat.
The lights came on suddenly, and he looked around quickly at the doorway where the switch was located. There was a figure dressed in black standing there. Baxter looked around and saw three more people spread around the room’s perimeter. All five wore black balaclavas over their heads, hiding their faces, and black leather gloves on their hands. Two of them seemed to be women, judging from the way they stood. They all wore guns, though none were holding them.
“What do you want?” He asked with a trembling voice.
The one by the drapes answered, “We’re not here to rob you, Mr. Baxter. We only want to talk with you.”
“Wha-what about?” Baxter stammered.
“There are things happening here that we’d like to ask you about. There are also things you may not be aware of, that you need to know about. These are things we couldn’t see you at your office about.” The man moved slowly closer. He brought out a large manila envelope that had apparently been tucked into the back of his pants. He bent to lay the package on the coffee table, then stood back up.
The man continued. “That’s the information you need to have. But before you look at it, we need to know your thoughts on the changes taking place on your job.”
Baxter licked his lips nervously. “Ch-changes? Wh-what changes?”
“Service cuts, denials of service for no good reason, in all departments except one. What’s going on has to do with that one department. We’re investigating that.”
“You know about that? I just found out today myself. How could you know about it?”
“We’ve known about it for weeks. We had to wait until our suspects made their move. Now they have, here in your back yard. So we need to recruit you.”
“Why me? I’m not anyone special.”
“You came up in our research as an honest man, someone who wouldn’t want things to go down the way they are. All we want is for you to just keep you eyes and ears open. If you agree to work with us, we’ll give you a way to contact us. If not, we walk away as if we never met you.”
Baxter looked apprehensive as he thought about it. Then, steeling himself, he asked, “Will this get things back the way they’re supposed to be?”
The answer came almost immediately. “It will help. This is bigger than Dutchess County. It’s bigger than New York State. We can’t be everywhere at once, which is why we need people like you in different areas. Nobody we’ve recruited for this, anywhere, has been hurt or gotten in trouble. So. What do you say? Are you interested?”
“How long do I have to decide?”
“Now that you know the basics, look over the material in that envelope. We’ll wait. I’m sorry, but we can’t leave this information with you; it’s too sensitive.”
Still nervous, he looked from the speaker to the other four visitors. Then he said, “Okay, I’ll look at it.” He picked up the package and opened it, then pulled out the thin sheaf of papers. He was skilled in speed reading, so it didn’t take him long to go through them.
When he put them back in the envelope, his hands were shaking slightly. He looked up at the speaker. “I had no idea it was this bad. It’s like a nightmare. How can people do things like this?”
“That’s why we’re investigating it. We intend to put a stop to it. Are you interested in helping?”
“Yes! I want to stop this!”
The speaker gave him a card. “Memorize this number, then burn the card. Don’t put it into your mobile phone. Call it if you see or hear something. It doesn’t reach us directly, but we will get whatever message you leave. And once you’re connected, the call is safe; it can’t be traced by normal means. We’ve already fixed your phone here to be clear of any tracking devices, and your office phone will be hooked up the same way tomorrow morning, bright and early.”
Charlie picked up the envelope. “Thank you, Mr. Baxter. If you do well, we’ll be able to identify ourselves the next time we meet.” He turned around and went out the sliding glass doors, followed by the rest of his team.
The team returned to their safe house on Parker Avenue, just east of Clinton Street, shortly after ten P.M. Tracy checked the monitor to make sure nobody had been there, then gave them a thumbs up. They made cold sandwiches and iced tea while Tracy and the Boulware brothers grumbled good-naturedly at the fact that there was no junk food in the cupboards. Charlie had an arrangement with the Agency to stock only natural and organic food whenever they set up a safe house.
When they were all seated with their late dinner, Charlie opened the meeting. “All right, people, we have to move fast on this. Tracy, you’ll be setting up the computer system tap. I want it done before the office opens tomorrow.”
Tracy replied, “No problem. Do I have carte blanche on this one?”
“Of course. If you find anything, you know what to do.”
He continued, “Marissa, you’ll be under cover as a single mother applying for services. No need to tell you to keep your eyes and ears open. You’ll be wired for sight and sound. I don’t anticipate problems, but Roberto, Raphael and I will be available as back-up, just in case.” He passed her a beat-up folder with phony documents she’d need for her assignment. She opened it and thumbed through them. There was a birth certificate, a Social Security card, medical invoices, utility bills, all the papers she’d need for herself and her non-existent child.
He looked at his team, then said, “Okay, we have to be up and about bright and early. Everyone but Tracy get some rest. I want us all in top form.”
Tracy started connecting her computer and modem as the others went off to their rooms. She took out a portable printer and hooked it up too, then set the paper tray and paper. She made the connection, then started typing the most likely passwords to allow her access to the data she needed. She knew it would probably take her most of the night, but she enjoyed this part of her assignment. It was like putting a puzzle together; she relished the challenge.
Marissa had been in the Social Services building on the corner of Market and Church Streets for almost three hours when she heard the commotion through the double-paned glass door leading to the small foyer. A man had just come out, yelling and cussing up a storm. She nonchalantly made her way to the door, rummaging in her purse as she walked. She went through the door, then out the double doors to the sidewalk, where she spotted the man pacing back and forth, clearly troubled.
She stopped close to where the man was pacing. She could see the tears flowing down his angry face. She pretended to “find” the pack of Marlboro’s in her purse and opened it just as the man reached her. She quickly said, “Hey, you look like you could use one of these,” as she offered him a cigarette.
He stopped and stared at her for a moment, then accepted the offering. He wiped the tears from his face, then reached into his pocket and extracted a Bic lighter, lit her smoke first, then the one she’d given him.
They smoked in silence for a few minutes, just looking at each other. Then Marissa asked, “What happened, man?”
He struggled to keep his tears from flowing again as he answered. “They took my son! They’re putting him in foster care! He’s only six years old, and I’m all he’s got since his mother left! I don’t know what to do!” Then he stopped, looking sheepishly at her. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to blast all that at you.”
“That’s okay; I know how it is. I’ve been there myself.” She thought for a moment, then added, “I’ve got a little money. Let’s go across the street to the diner and get some coffee.”
“No, I have to go home.”
“Where do you live? I can give you a ride.”
“I don’t need a ride; I just live at Tubman Terrace.” He pointed across Church Street, by way of explanation, to the housing project there. “Thanks for the cig, but I have to go.” Without another word, he turned and ran out into the four-lane highway without looking at the lights.
Marissa gasped in horror as a fast-moving car hit him. He went flying for several feet, landing on the pavement just in time to get hit again in the next lane by yet another car as those drivers tried to stop. Brakes squealed, rubber burned, cars swerved trying to avoid collisions. One unlucky driver hit two other cars before he came to a stop. One female passenger appeared to have hit her head on the windshield as a result of not wearing her seat belt.
Marissa saw an opening and ran across Market Street to the restaurant parking lot, flicking her cigarette to the pavement as she did so. She hated those filthy things, always had, but it was part of her cover for the morning’s assignment. She unlocked the door of the red Mustang, got in, and started the motor. As she waited for an opening, she turned on the modified Citizen’s Band radio. It was pre-set to a special frequency beyond the range of most other sets. She keyed the mike and shouted, “Emergency! I’m heading home!”
She was near panic as far as talking went, but her physical training had taken over. She saw an opening and hit the gas hard, burning rubber herself as she pulled out on Market, crossed Church, and turned left on Noxon Street one block up. She went the full block up to its end at Academy Street and turned left again. She was glad she had gotten out of there before the local police arrived to block off the road. As far as she knew, the only cop that saw her was the overweight county Sheriff’s deputy on duty in the welfare building.
FBI Agent Gustavo Rivera had lucked out back in the Big Apple. A friend in the NYPD had spotted the government services car he’d seen in Jersey City. The cop had told him the two male occupants had gone into the hotel around the corner from Penn station. So he’d thanked his friend and staked out the hotel entrance, watching for them to come out again. When they did, they were followed by three other people, two women and another man. He’d been holding his camera, but couldn’t get a clear shot due to the crowd on the sidewalk as well as the street traffic.
He’d seen them exit the train station garage in three vehicles. A black Chevy van, a red Ford Mustang, and a dark green Dodge Challenger. He followed at a discreet distance.
They kept some distance between them, even driving in different lanes with other vehicles between them as he followed unseen. And they all made the same turns, eventually getting on Route 9-A heading north, more or less paralleling the Hudson River.
As they arrived at a big house just north of the corner of Hamilton and Parker Streets in Poughkeepsie, he drove past them, not too slowly, watching out of the corner of his eye. One woman, a Latina, looked vaguely familiar, as if he should know her from somewhere but couldn’t recall where or when. A couple blocks north, he turned around and headed back, turned right on Fairview and pulled into the parking lot of a Greek restaurant about half a block west. He’d parked facing the house.
He snooped around, trying to get photos or sound recordings, but the shades were kept down and the place seemed to be soundproof; he couldn’t get anything at all except the plate numbers on the vehicles. So he went back to his car, a late-model brown Toyota Corolla. Switching the lens on his Nikon to a telephoto lens, he made himself comfortable and sat back to wait. Unfortunately he fell asleep soon after, completely missing their exit, but did wake up in time to see them coming back later that night.
He was wide awake when four of them emerged in the morning, all except the second woman, a thin black girl of indeterminate age. What he now saw as an older man took the Chevy. The two younger ones he’d glimpsed in Jersey City took the van, and the Hispanic woman took the Mustang. Something about her had caught his attention. He didn’t know what just yet, but it was enough for him to decide to follow her to wherever she was going. That turned out to be the local welfare building. She went in, and he settled in to wait for her to come back out.
A couple hours later, she did. He watched as she talked to a young man, gave him a cigarette and smoked with him. He saw the guy get hit, watched as the woman rushed to her car and took off.
He followed as she peeled out across Church Street and turned left on Noxon Street. Now he wondered who she was, what she was doing and why she was doing it. He hadn’t yet had a clear view of her face, but her body language and movements were very familiar to him. Yet he couldn’t place where he should know her from. He had been taken off guard at the dramatic turn of events, but he wasn’t about to let her slip away.
Marissa got over her panic reaction quickly. She saw that she was being followed. She watched the mirror and saw the brown car had made every turn she did. Heading east on Church, she called on the radio, informing them that she had a tail. Now, going north past Mansion Square Park on Clinton Street, the car that had been following her was stopped at the traffic light, unable to make the left turn due to traffic crossing Church in both directions. That would only buy her a minute, maybe two, but Charlie and the twins sat ready in the other vehicles to block her tail after she made the turn.
Stepping on the gas she sped away, taking the next left and turning right on Mansion Street at the next corner, ignoring the stop sign. She turned right on Parker and pulled into the driveway at the safe house. She jumped from the car and ran through the door as Tracy held it open for her.
FBI Agent Rivera was shaken up. The Chevy van seemed to come out of nowhere, but of course that was impossible. Clearly it had come off the road beside the park. And the green Diplomat had pulled up behind him, close enough to prevent him from backing up enough to take off. The three men had put it in no uncertain terms that he was to back off. They’d threatened to have his credentials pulled. They knew he was a Fed, and they didn’t care. Something was wrong here, and he was going to find out why.
The men had just left after pulling the distributor cap from his engine. He called in to report the incident and request a new one. He was told that one would be there within a couple hours, as soon as they ordered it from a local Toyota dealer. In the meantime, he had to stay with the car. He put it in neutral, got out still holding the steering wheel, and pushed the car onto the side street. He was in good shape physically, as was required by the Agency, but moving a vehicle alone was rather strenuous.
And he still hadn’t gotten a good look at the woman he’d been tailing...
By the time the men had gotten back to the safe house, Marissa was calm again. Their timing, as usual, had been perfect all the way around. And Tracy had handed her a hot cup of tea as soon as she’d come out of the main bathroom.
She related the morning’s events blow by blow, just as they’d happened. She hadn’t gotten a look at her tail, but the men had that covered. He was Agency, of course, but had no clearance to know anything about their team, much less to be following any of them around.
Charlie called in to the secure phone line set up for his team’s exclusive use. He reported the situation, ending with the confrontation with Agent Rivera. When his nominal supervisor asked why he hadn’t just submitted a written report through channels, he said that he needed to inform the brass right away, and that his written report would be sent A.S.A.P.
The two brothers were joking about the incident; that was their way of dealing with things that bothered them. It was how they let off steam when direct action wasn’t possible.
But Tracy had almost as much a problem with it as Marissa. The death of the young man, as Marissa had related it, had dredged up memories that she really wanted to forget. Even though the cause of death was totally different, and there was no reason she could see for the reminder, there was one thing this had in common with her own story...