The Day of the Gun, Part III
And now, for your reading pleasure, here are chapters 7-12 of The Day of the Gun.
Arthur Foster McLean — “Mac” to his friends and close associates — was not a man who was easily perturbed. He was a large fellow, with big hands and massive forearms. Sure, he was a little thicker through the middle than he had been in his halcyon days as a running back at the University of Georgia, but he was still pretty fit for a guy his age. His thinning hair and deep, crevice-marked face gave him away as a man in his mid-fifties, but his body could have passed for 40 — okay, maybe 45.
He had worked with the U.S. Department of Justice since he was graduated from UGA law school all those years ago. Still nursing an open wound — his failure to make it to the pros — he had settled into a life that was far from perfect, but it suited him well. He had a wife, two kids — now, mercifully, grown and out of the house, although his daughter, Arianna, still racked up bills at Georgia Southern University — and an outward routine that bordered on bland.
Each morning, promptly at six, he rose, lopped along through his obligatory three-mile run, shaved and showered, slipped into his Brooks Brothers suit, and piloted his Ford Taurus to the mammoth federal office building near the White House. To a casual observer, Mac McLean was just another nameless, faceless bureaucrat in a city filled to the brim with nameless, faceless bureaucrats.
Beneath the veneer of normality and respectability beat the heart of a lion and the keen, cunning mind of a master strategist. He was no country boy cracker just up from the land of “Deliverance” and the Confederate battle flag. He knew Proust from Playboy and could recite numerous passages from Plato and Virgil. He also knew the intricacies of Aikido and could kill a man with his bare hands in fewer than 30 seconds.
So, yes, overall, his was a nice, comfortable life. The only mildly disconcerting aspect was his financial situation. He wasn’t a man given to gambling, drugs, or other expensive vices, but he nonetheless enjoyed travel, golf, amateur photography, and collecting wine. It would be nice to have a little more money available to indulge in his hobbies. The salary of a federal employee was hardly enough to satisfy his needs, but maybe one of these days that would change.
His skills had served him well during his career, although he had allowed himself to become rusty in the past five years. No longer in the ranks, he rode a desk, constantly struggling to master a mound of paperwork far more daunting than any spook he had ever faced in the field. A bullet would not take him down; the weight of the bureaucracy would.
This morning started like any morning. He reviewed the “overnights” — the top-secret packet of material that agency operatives all over the world had amassed during his absence the preceding evening. Most of the intelligence was dated by the time he saw it, but sometimes he received a fresh tip, and action was warranted. When that happened, he picked up a secure line and spoke to his assistant, Dave Tremblor — the “Davemeister,” as his friends called him. Mac thought of him as the “magic man.” The Davemeister possessed an uncanny talent for implementing any plan his boss developed with absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. When he was focused on a task with his trademark single-mindedness, Dave could be a scary individual. If the Davemeister couldn’t get it done, nobody could.
He didn’t think he would need his magic man this day. It was just another day, unremarkable in the traffic coming across his desk. It was only when he accessed his e-mail and scrolled through the messages that he grew alarmed.
“Shit.” He blinked, rubbed his eyes and re-read the message. Picking up the receiver, he barked, “Dave, come in here.”
The big man responded instantly. If Mac had been a running back, the Davemeister had been a wrestler. He had the big, thick neck and massive biceps associated with wrestlers. Standing at six feet, four inches tall, he towered over most people, many of whom involuntarily gulped as they gazed up at the heavily muscled Goliath that seemed to loom over the landscape.
The two men had worked together so long and so intimately that formalities seemed unnecessary. Without explanation, the senior man pointed at the computer. “Take a look. It’s Harris.”
The hulking figure leaned forward, squinting at the screen. “So he managed to survive,” he said as he stood. “I’m impressed.”
McLean nodded. “That’s right. Two dead. Apparently, he’s gone into hiding.”
“In his shoes, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah.” He leaned back and yawned. “Sooner or later he’ll make contact. He’ll have to. He can’t live out there, unprotected — not indefinitely.”
“They were amateurs, you know.”
McLean nodded. “Yeah. Broad daylight, wielding massive weaponry. It was meant to send a message to police.” He rubbed his eyes.
“I suppose you’ll want the usual work-up?”
“Absolutely. We’ve got to find Harris as soon as possible.”
Dave nodded and disappeared without further adieu. He was the personification of efficiency, a good man to have at one’s side in a crisis.
McLean sat back in his chair; his arms folded behind his head, he pondered the situation. Yesterday afternoon one of the “principals” — agency-speak for a protected witness — had been attacked and almost killed in his suburban home. The man now known as Kurt Martin had disappeared, slipped into hiding in case anyone else was gunning for him. He was smart, that one. In his previous life, Kurt had been a Marine, an intelligence officer, and a superbly trained covert operative. He would not be found unless he wanted to be found.
As McLean reviewed his e-mail, the phone buzzed and his secretary’s voice came on the line. “Sir, a Mr. Hewson of the Lakeland, Georgia, Police Department is on line two.”
“Thank you, Shirley,” he said as he leaned forward and pushed a button. He was hardly surprised. Martin’s house was in Lakeland; it was only a matter of time before a curious investigator added up the evidence and deduced that “Kurt Martin” was an alias and probably a protected witness.
“This is Mac McLean,” he said into the receiver.
A strong baritone greeted him. “Hello, Mr. McLean,” the gruff voice said. “Please tell me you’re in charge of the witness protection program. I’ve been routed all over the DOJ.”
“You’re in luck. I’m in the special agent-in-charge of WITSEC — the witness security program. DOJ administers the program and U.S. marshals provide operational support.”
“Well, sir, I’m glad I finally found you. I am Paul Hewson, chief of police with the Lakeland, Georgia, Police Department. We’re a small town two hours south of Atlanta. I need your help with a homicide case I’m investigating. I have reason to believe that one of the suspects was a participant in your program.”
“Yes, Chief Hewson, I know Lakeland well. I grew up in Marietta, just outside of Atlanta. I was a Braves fan before they were any good.”
“Small world. I’ve been a Braves fan since they moved to Atlanta.”
“Yes, indeed.” He paused for a moment. “So what happened in your case?”
“I’m looking into an incident that occurred here yesterday regarding a man named Kurt Martin, who may have been in your program.”
For more than five minutes, Hewson recounted details about the unfortunate episode. The account was professional and thorough; it provided McLean with a far richer narrative than the agency’s encrypted e-mail did.
“Thank you for the information, Chief Hewson,” the agent said at the conclusion of the story. “Unfortunately, I cannot be as candid with you. The Department of Justice has a policy of neither denying nor admitting that anyone is enrolled in the witness security program. You understand the reasons for the policy, I’m sure.”
“Yes, sir, I thought you would say that. I hope you understand, too, that I am conducting a homicide investigation, and I need your full cooperation. Now that Kurt Martin's cover is blown, what does it matter? I take it you’ll still need a court order?”
McLean felt momentarily surprised. Not many small-town cops knew the procedure by which the identity of a protected witness must be disclosed. This Hewson fellow was smart, despite the thick southern accent, which made people underestimate him, in all probability.
“Yes, chief, I am afraid that is what it will take.”
“Is there any information that you could provide me with that might assist me in my investigation?”
“I don’t think so.”
The police captain’s frustration was apparent in his tone of voice, which rose higher as he spoke. “Look at it from my perspective, okay? I’m living in a sleepy little town here. We’re far enough away from Atlanta that most of the urban crime problem doesn’t affect us. Except for a case involving twin killers a few years ago, nothing much happens here.”
“I understand,” McLean said in a bored voice.
“I’m under a lot of pressure to get this thing resolved. I mean, my God, how many people show up in a town like Lakeland with AK-47s?”
“I understand your situation, Chief Hewson, believe me I do. I wish I could help you; unfortunately, my hands are tied.”
“Can’t you at least check with your superiors and see if there’s anything you can tell me that would aid in my investigation?”
At that moment, Shirley’s voice blared through the speaker. “I know you’re on the phone, Mr. McLean. But you the call on line three is urgent.”
He cupped the phone and spoke directly to the speaker box on his desk. “Can you route it to Dave?”
“It’s 8172483,” she said. “He’s on EN 4551.”
EN 4551 was the emergency number provided to every protected person for use in case of an emergency. 8172483 was the file number for — speak of the devil — one Kurt Martin.
“Jesus. Okay, I’ll take it. Let me put this other gentleman through to you.”
McLean yanked the phone to his face. “Chief Hewson, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but an urgent matter has just come up and I must attend to it at once. I’ll transfer you to my secretary, Shirley, and she’ll get your phone number and other information. I’ll get back with you within a day or two if I find that I can assist in your investigation.”
“Is it Martin?” Hewson was nothing if not shrewd.
McLean smiled. “Hold for Shirley,” he said.
After the call was transferred, McLean pushed the button for a new line. “Hello, Kurt. This is Agent McLean.”
“What the hell is going on?” a voice demanded. “I thought you were protecting me.”
“Where are you?”
“Where am I? Where am I? Where are you?”
McLean ran his hand across his thinning hair. “We need to arrange for you to come in. As long as you’re out there, you’re in danger.”
“Fuck that,” the man currently called Kurt Martin said. “I was in danger on your watch. In fact, how do I know you didn’t send those guys to take care of me?”
“Come on, now, Kurt. Don’t be melodramatic. Think about it. What would I possibly gain? If I had wanted you dead I would have had plenty of opportunities to kill you before now.”
“Don’t bother with a trace,” the voice assured him. “I won’t be on the line long enough.”
“You’re going about this all wrong — ”
“ — Am I? Well, at least I’m alive. I did it your way, and I almost got killed. My best friend did get killed.”
“I grant you that something went wrong, but if you come in we can figure it out.”
“Huh-uh,” the voice growled before the line went dead. “I know about you, McLean.”
Kurt Martin, the placid suburbanite and amateur gardening enthusiast, was dead and gone. The question was whether Steve Harris, former U.S. Marine and covert operative, would be reborn to take his place.
The guest staying in Room 127 of the Hampton Inn looked down at his hands and saw they were shaking. Was it any wonder? His life had changed irreparably in the past 24 hours. Gone was his identity, his lifestyle, his comfortable middle-class existence. Never again would he see his friends Jim and Fran Gilleland in their happy middle-class suburb. The former was dead, his head splattered like overripe fruit hurled from a highway overpass — and the latter was unlikely to seek out his company. He wondered if his plump feline friend, Fat Girl, was faring well without her usual influx of Purina Cat Chow and assorted leftovers.
Once, a thousand years earlier, Agent McLean had assured him all would be well. No one had ever successfully penetrated the agency’s carefully constructed facade. He would live as Kurt Martin, divorcee, a man with little to say and much to hide.
“Trust me on this one,” McLean had said, that man with the leathery face and thinning, salt-and-pepper hair. “We’ve had lots of experience making people disappear.” He had smiled, an ingratiating, natural look which reminded the onlooker that a former athlete, a man accustomed to winning against competition, was at the helm. And, always standing behind McLean as a lurking, omnipresent force, was his gigantic, thickly muscled assistant. They had been a reassuring duo.
Ever since he had been young, the man now code-named 8172483 had been proud of his self-proclaimed “bullshit detector.” He seldom fell victim to lies and deceit. Somehow, through a God-given gift, he intuitively sensed chicanery. As a result, he was an impeccable judge of character. When McLean promised him protection, he had believed the man.
Now, he entertained doubts. Grave doubts, pardon the pun. He would not have questioned his judgment if anyone but the shooter had uttered McLean’s name. The same question nagged at him repeatedly — how had the assailant known the name “McLean”? Perhaps he had not really said “McLean”; let’s face it; the fellow was in extreme agony at the time. His voice was anything but clear. Even if he had spoken clearly, what did it mean?
Leaning back into the pillows, he considered his predicament. It was like exercises in logic from his long-ago college class on contingency theory. Either this or that had happened. Either Agent McLean had ratted him out or he had not. Every other course of action depended on the answer to this vital question. If McLean were the problem, he would have to be dealt with accordingly. If he were not the problem, then someone else in the agency was the culprit. Either way, 8172483 needed some kind of measure — a test — to determine once and for all where he stood.
All right, so maybe he shouldn’t have called and tipped him off. McLean would be on his guard now. But maybe that was a good thing — right? He just didn’t know. Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones? Or Martin — or Harris — or whoever the hell you are now.
He was just so damned tired and, what was worse, he was alone. He needed to talk it out, hash out the details with a trusted friend to discern what it meant. In his forgotten youth, he had been a garrulous fellow, a young bull brimming with confidence and bravado. He could whip the world and still display a remarkable gentleness toward his girlfriend of the moment.
What was he now? A frightened man pushing 40 with nothing to show for it. He had no money, home, possessions, or clothes other than what he wore on his back. The $120.00 or so in his pocket had rented a room for a night in a hotel motel near the interstate, but it wouldn’t last long. He needed a plan of action, and he needed it soon.
Even his name — Kurt Martin — was not his own. Once, he had called himself Steve Harris, but that was long ago, in another life. Maybe it was time he returned to that life — if only until he sorted out the facts that led to Kurt Martin’s untimely demise.
Steve’s options were limited. He dared not show up at work or home. Withdrawing money from an ATM was out; they probably had frozen his accounts. The credit cards were useless. He could write a check, but the paper trail would be easy to follow. He had to assume that anything connected with his identity as Kurt Martin was compromised and must be abandoned.
He replayed the scene in his mind endlessly. The exploding walls; the debris littered about his living room; the two fellows shouting at each other to stop him. They brandished automatic weapons — obsolete Russian Kalashnikov rifles, for God’s sake — in broad daylight in a densely populated suburban neighborhood. They must have won some kind of award for stupidity. Who but an amateur would behave in such a dramatic fashion, as though they were villains in a loud, flashy, mind-numbingly dumb Hollywood movie?
Or perhaps someone wanted to give the appearance of being an amateur. That was an idea to mull over.
Lying back on the bed, he rubbed his eyes and stared up at the motel ceiling. A large brown water spot caught his eye, unusual for the normally immaculate Hampton Inn. He understood the problem, though; sometimes shit happens despite our best efforts to clean it up.
He traced the outline of a vaguely familiar shape, a curvy line that snaked around the ceiling and reminded him, strangely, of Florida. In the background, CNN Headline News blared: A bombing, a shooting, an earthquake, a stock market in decline.
He had spent many pleasant days in Florida as a boy. His parents had taken him to Walt Disney World twice, and he had visited Daytona Beach and Miami in later years. Florida was a state where people went when they wanted to disappear. Old people went there to retire, following the sun and surf until the time came to check out for a better place. Young people went to find love — lust, anyway — and a nice tan. Middle-aged people flocked to the sunny shores when life went south.
He could make it there with no problem. A raised thumb on I-95 would take him to the sunshine state in no time. Maybe it wasn’t as common as it had been in the days before Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy had plied their trade, but hitchhiking was still a possibility. Sweet hitchhiker — won’t you ride on my fast machine?
Florida was a place to start anew.
Closing his eyes, he drifted off into a deep blue ocean, along a gleaming white Florida beach. A gentle current carried him down the waterway past a large marina stocked with every type of boat imaginable. He saw a dock where young children were crabbing, their traps set along the pier as they laughed and carried on with such gusto and abandon he doubted if any marine life would appear that day. The boardwalk was crowded with patrons jockeying for position in the Ferris wheel line and stuffing foot-long hot dogs into their mouths.
He saw them clearly: Their shiny, plump faces gleaming with such promise, but they seemed not to see him as he drifted by. Their lives were uninterrupted sources of pleasure. They were happy to be alive, out and about with their friends, on a warm spring day in the early years of their lives. They held an unshakable faith that their fortunes would only improve in the years to come. Young men with slender torsos and rippling muscles, their shirts removed, and their baggy pants hanging almost to their knees, danced and cavorted before the girls they hoped to impress.
He saw himself through the throngs of people pushing and shoving along the boardwalk.
For some reason he could no longer fathom, he wore a large, Hawaiian-style shirt adorned with blue and white flowers of limitless garishness. He wore Khaki shorts that showed off his heavily muscled legs. The outfit was completed with sandals. It wasn’t his usual attire, but on this day he was relaxing at the beachside carnival with his son, Michael.
Michael was still eleven years old. He would always and forever remain eleven years old. His blond hair and richly tanned skin seemed too beautiful to be real. He was laughing with unrestrained glee, always the least self-conscious boy in his neighborhood. He was eating something — Crackerjacks or peanuts, something crunchy — and telling his father a story about some silly girl at his school who blew him kisses from across the room.
A commotion erupted up ahead. It sounded like fireworks, not particularly menacing at first, just another sound effect on an otherwise perfect day. Pop-pop-pop!
The crowd gasped in unison and a man pushed his way through the throng. He wore sunglasses on an expressionless, pock-marked face. Behind him, a fellow slumped forward and tumbled to the ground. Shrieks split the late afternoon air. People pushed and shoved to escape from this man, but Steve, ever the intrepid soul, stepped forward, committing the face to memory. Something had happened here, and it must be recorded for future use.
As the fellow disappeared from sight, Steve turned to say something to Michael, but the boy was no longer at his side. Men were kneeling over a small figure on the edge of the boardwalk. Someone called for an ambulance. As a score of onlookers drew their cell phones and pushed 9-1-1, Steve felt his blood grow cold. This crowd was not as large as the one gathered around the bleeding man 20 yards away, but it was growing.
“Michael!” he called out as he felt a familiar pain in his stomach. Steve Harris had known fear in his life, and he knew it now.
His son lay on his back, glassy eyes fixed up at the sky, unblinking. His chest was a sea of red. His hand was relaxed, resting atop a bag of peanuts. He seemed to be staring off into space at a horizon only he could see.
Steve fell to his knees and grabbed the boy’s neck to feel for a pulse, some sign of life. Even as he did so, he knew the answer. He had seen death many times in many guises. He needed no reminders of what a bullet could do to the human body, especially a body as small as this one.
He screamed something incoherent and anguished, and then curled into a ball. Crying, howling, he heard voices around him. People spoke, touched his back, called out that help was on the way. Fine, fine; help was on the way, but help was too fucking late.
He looked up to see two uniformed officers, their guns drawn, making their way through the people. Several onlookers cradled bloody wounds and talked in staccato phrases, pointing, telling their tales as best they could. When they got to him, Steve could not tell them how the bullet had entered his son’s chest, but he knew the face behind the shades, and he was certain he could pick it out of a lineup or a mug book.
The beach dissolved away and he bore witness to another scene, one of a more recent vintage. He wore his light blue pinstriped suit, a red tie with matching handkerchief protruding from the pocket, and a bit of mousse rubbed into his hair for good measure. He was a sharp-dressed man on his way to court. He fought his way through the thicket, glancing up only once to admire the looming Greco-Roman columns of the courthouse.
His lawyer, Gregg Stacey, stood by his side, a brown leather briefcase stuffed in his hand and a stern, forbidding expression plastered on his face. He reassured his client that all would be well, but the worry lines around his eyes and mouth betrayed another emotion. Just tell the truth, he said, as though the truth shall set you free. Just tell the truth, and tell it like it was.
And he had. For two days, in his quiet, unassuming, unshakable way, he had told it all. From beginning to end. The truth spilled out of him to the best of his ability, despite all assaults — and they were many and fierce — against the fortress of his resolve.
That’s when you saw the defendant — the one previously identified as Anthony “Tony the Knife” Marciano — shoot the victim?
Yes, sir, that’s correct.
Can you tell us how it happened?
Yes, sir. It was a .38 caliber handgun. The defendant, Mr. Marciano, was brandishing the pistol when I saw him on the boardwalk.
How did you happen to see this incident take place?
I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just happened to be on the boardwalk. My son and I were at the carnival. Happenstance, pure and simple.
And, sir, um, your own son, Michael, was hit in the crossfire, isn’t that correct?
Objection. Mr. Harris did not witness the shooting of his son.
Res ipsa loquitur, your Honor.
Overruled. He may answer.
Yes, Michael was killed in the crossfire.
Thank you, Mr. Harris. Your witness.
You didn’t actually see Mr. Marciano shoot anyone, did you, sir?
I saw him with a gun, and two people were shot dead.
Yes, but answer my question, please, sir. You didn’t see anyone shot, isn’t that correct? You allegedly saw Mr. Marciano with a gun, but you did not see him fire it.
He shot two people; one of them was my son. There was no “allegedly” about it.
But you did not witness either shooting, sir. You can only testify as to what you saw — not what you concluded from the scene. Your wild suppositions do not constitute evidence.
I didn’t see the sun formed from gases and chemical reactions, but I know it exists and it rises each day.
Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer the question.
Mr. Harris, the court directs you to answer the question.
I did not see him fire the gun.
Despite the legal dancing and maneuvering, the jury had done the right thing. They deliberated for two days — two excruciating, interminable days — but ultimately they convicted the son of a bitch. Steve thought the nightmare was over, but he was wrong. It was only beginning.
A note appeared in his mailbox a day after the trial ended. It ain’t over, the message read. Watch your back.
He watched his back, all right, but it turned out that his back was not the one that needed watching.
Vicky, his wife, was shopping at Kroger, as she had on dozens of previous occasions. She exited the store with her shopping cart and headed for her CRV. Witnesses said that just before she went down she seemed to be lost in thought. Was it any wonder she was running on automatic pilot? Her only son had been shot dead a year earlier, and she had never quite recovered from the numbness that had enveloped her life in the aftermath.
Onlookers noticed her, this pretty blonde woman with the shapely figure, as she threaded her way past a line of cars and opened the hatchback. The women envied her, and the men dreamed of meeting her when their spouses turned away.
One moment she was kneeling to pick up a plastic bag filled with groceries and the next she had fallen from view. Someone called the police, but she was dead by the time they arrived. One shot, clean through the chest, took her life. It could not have been an accident that the bullet struck her there. Just as her son had died from a sucking chest wound, so his mother died in a parking lot not far from home, her vital fluids seeping onto the hot asphalt. A message was sent, and the message had been received.
He had not even attended her funeral, a somber affair on a somber afternoon in her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. Her father, a minister and professor of theology at the university, had been too distraught to handle the service, or so Steve had been told. A fellow minister — a family friend — delivered the eulogy with quiet dignity. Steve could tell from the videotape that he was struggling to find the words, his faith was put to the test, but somehow God’s infinite love and mercy would prevail.
That was all well and good for a man of the cloth, but Steve doubted that his faith was so strong, so deep. He found himself hiding out, despondent. He had been a Marine and an undercover agent, so he knew about risk — and loss. But this was unlike anything he had experienced. It was one thing to lose a comrade in arms under fire. The fellow had been trained and he knew the risks when he fought for his country. It was quite a different matter when loved ones were mowed down with no warning.
Trembling and scared, he turned himself over to the FBI, and they put him in contact with McLean and WITSEC. Although he was past the point of caring what happened to him, McLean persuaded him that the bad guys must not win. If Steve Harris were killed, as his family had been killed, other mob witnesses would not come forward and America would become a land run by lawless mobs and vicious murderers. The agent had been wise to appeal to Steve’s sense of patriotism and love of country. They were all he had left.
He opened his eyes and sat up in the bed. He was silly to think of Florida, his former life. That life was gone now. If he returned to Florida, he was placing himself in jeopardy for no good reason. McLean was the key to this whole thing. One way or the other, he had to get to Washington and unravel the mystery.
He needed another car, money, refuge. He had “borrowed” a neighbor’s Honda Accord when he fled the Pine Lake subdivision, but he had ditched it in a field a few blocks from the motel. He couldn’t use it now. At the same time, he had to have wheels; lugging a Kalashnikov rifle through the parking lot certainly would attract undue attention. He would have preferred a sidearm for protection, but he had to make do with the materials at hand.
It came to him in a flash. As he rose from the bed and headed to the bathroom, the newly reborn Steve Harris was a man with a plan. Kurt Martin might be at a loss for what to do, but Steve Harris had an idea.
“Fran,” he whispered as he slapped cold water onto his face. “Frannie.” But would she see him?
They were a handsome white-haired couple seated on the porch of a large wooden home in a safe, tree-lined, middle class suburb. Gently rocking in their wicker chairs, they faced each other in the shade of a fierce afternoon sun. Decorative Doric columns blocked the light; gently whirring ceiling fans kept the man and woman cool and comfortable.
“How’s your back?” she asked.
He could tell she was worried. Smiling, he tried to reassure her. “Better.”
“You should pay more attention.”
He nodded. It was a Sunday afternoon, his day off, and he had prepared a full agenda of gardening and yard work. The best laid plans…how did that old cliché go? Anyway, he had been thinking of a case at work and, preoccupied, stepped down off the ladder without realizing he had one rung to go before he stood on solid ground. In his salad days, it would have been nothing more than a minor irritation, but now he fell against the side of the house and barked his lower back against the drainpipe. No big deal, he thought, but the pain had been exquisite, and he sported a bruise the size of a golf ball over his left kidney.
“I still wish you would let somebody look at it.”
“I told you — I’m fine. I’m not gonna waste the whole day sitting in the emergency room just to pay $1,000 and find out I should take a little Tylenol.”
She shrugged. Experience had taught her that she could not reason with him when he was in one of his pig-headed moods. He was in one of those moods now. With each passing year, the moods became more frequent; perhaps one day he would permanently descend into pig-headedness. Wasn’t that the layman’s term for senility?
He stared off into space while a piece of English muffin rested on his lower lip.
“Wipe your mouth, dear.”
Absently, he reached up and did as she had instructed.
“Is it something at work?” She opened the Sunday Journal-Constitution and flipped to the obituaries. At their ages, the obituaries were their first source of news. Hardly a month went by when they didn’t spot a familiar name or photograph.
“Did you hear me, dear? Is what something at work?”
He was far away on a distant shore.
“Paul.” She said his name through pursed lips. She wasn’t angry, not really — she had been a policeman’s wife for far too long for histrionics — but she knew when he acted this way that something was on his mind, eating away at him. It’s what made him such a good lawman. He never rested until he cleared his desk of open cases. In 34 years on the job, he had solved all but a handful of crimes, a statistic he was justifiably proud to relate to anyone who would listen.
“You seem preoccupied. Is it something at work?”
“No. It’s nothing.”
She knew him too well to accept a cock-and-bull tale, and so he capitulated without further ado. Resistance was futile under her relentless gaze.
“Yeah, well, it’s the shooting over in Pine Lake the other day. Three people dead. One man disappeared. Very grisly. Russian assault weapons were involved. Can you believe that? Russian assault weapons in Lakeland.” He paused, shaking his head. “You know, I remember back when this was just a sleepy little town.”
“Yes. It was a lovely little town.”
“Can you believe that I once thought it was boring — writing traffic tickets, investigating petty theft, catching an occasional DUI on Saturday nights? I actually craved excitement.”
“I was stupid.”
“You were young.”
They shared a chuckle.
He seemed to be back in the present, fully engaged. “There’s plenty of excitement now. It’s not a sleepy little town now — if it ever was.”
“Was it worse than that case — what did you call it — the one with the twin killers?”
“The Gruesome Twosome. That was the term the media used. I never much cared for it.”
“That’s the one.”
“I don’t…think so. I don’t know.” He looked at her, and his eyes reflected a sadness so profound it almost stole her breath. “I think of that case as the beginning of the end, you know. That’s the one that changed everything for this town.”
Mark and Clark Davidson were twin brothers. They had grown up in the Oak Park section of Chicago, children of privilege from a home and neighborhood that could only be described as idyllic. Yet, inexplicably, these boys had grown up to be far different than their Groton-Yale-Wharton-M.B.A.-earning friends. They were masters of the universe, all right, but their skills were not honed in an Ivy League setting. They were master killers.
Nature versus nurture; it was a conundrum. Were they born or made? Were they Leopold & Loeb or something else? Even after all this time, Paul Hewson did not know.
By their own admission, the boys had killed their first victim when they were seniors in high school. Hitch-hiking home from Groton late one April afternoon, they had strangled a middle-aged businessman for no reason other than because he had stopped to give them a ride. Afterward, they later confessed, they had dissected the episode with clinical detachment, as though it were a slightly boring television show they both had watched.
The murders intensified during their years in New Haven and, all the while, their technique improved. They occasionally branched out on solo adventures, but mostly they preferred to work as a team. What good is having a twin if you have to do things by yourself?
Adulthood did not quell their homicidal urges — quite the contrary. They found new targets of opportunity as they moved up and down the eastern seaboard in search of variety and unusual experiences. Each murder fulfilled a need, but eventually the need returned, each time more quickly and more urgently than the time before.
Despite their fancy education and mental acumen, the brothers chose to eke out a living as day laborers. It was little wonder their crimes went undetected for so long. Investigators began piecing together a pattern of homicides in each community where the twins plied their trade, only to find the trail grown cold as the boys moved to another locale. It might have remained that way but for a fortuitous circumstance — they killed a homeless man in Decatur, Georgia.
They were just passing through. With no connection to the town, they might have gotten away with it as they had gotten away with so many others. Fate must have intervened — fate or luck or a universe with a dark, perverse sense of humor.
A storeowner closing up late one night saw two men leaning over a hapless fellow in the alley behind the store. The homeless man, Clancy Yarborough, was well known around the Town Square and so the storeowner took note of the fellows as they left. He even had the presence of mind to record the license number of their Malibu station wagon. After finding the homeless man dead, local police made note of the number, but the perpetrators were long gone.
Two weeks later, 100 miles from Decatur, Officer Hewson noticed a strange car with out-of-state plates. In a larger town, the plates would not have stood out, but Lakeland was so far off the beaten path that he resolved to run a check. He found a series of speeding tickets in several Georgia towns. A few phone calls later, he realized that something odd was afoot.
Brandishing a foam cup filled with coffee and the Sunday newspaper, Hewson staked out the car until the twins returned. He greeted them as they opened the trunk, and the trio exchanged pleasantries. At first, nothing seemed amiss. They were two polite, seemingly well-scrubbed young men. They did not strike him as especially nervous or apprehensive. In fact, they appeared bored, almost sleepy.
As he talked with them about the prohibition on parking in a loading zone, Hewson noticed their gym bag was leaking. He was quick to drop his coffee and pull his service revolver.
“What’s that leaking from your bag?” he asked as his heart slammed against his ribcage.
The young men seemed neither surprised nor overly concerned at this sort of behavior. “I don’t know,” one of them said. “Shampoo or conditioner, perhaps?”
His brother nodded. “Yeah, that’s what it is, officer.”
“It looks like blood to me,” Hewson observed.
One of the boys frowned. “Naw,” he said. “Blood’s darker — a kind of brownish red.” His voice was flat, his eyes heavy-lidded and uninterested.
“Almost rust-colored,” his brother agreed. He was grinning as though he had shared a bawdy joke and was waiting for someone to call his hand.
“I don’t know if I would say ‘rust-colored.’ Rust isn’t the same deep rich brown as blood.”
“It depends on the lighting.”
“Yes, that’s true. Lighting changes everything.”
“Open the bag,” Hewson ordered as he waved the barrel of his gun in a circle. “Empty the contents onto the ground.”
The boys exchanged glances as if to say, hey, man, what’s up with this cracker law dude?
“You heard me. Empty it — now.”
“I don’t know, officer. Don’t you need probable cause?”
“Yeah,” the brother agreed. “Probable cause.”
“I needed reasonable suspicion to talk with you, which I had. That led to probable cause, which I now have after seeing the bag leak what appears to be blood. So I’ll repeat myself. Empty. It. Now.”
“I’m telling you. Blood is darker.”
“You heard me.”
“You the boss,” one of them said as he yanked at the zipper and held the bag upside down. Nothing happened.
“Shake it up. There’s something stuck in there.”
The brother without the bag twirled his hips and sang. “Shake it up, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, shake it up.”
“Again.” If the officer sounded frightened, he was.
The twin holding the bag shook the contents. It appeared as though nothing would happen again until a cylindrical object fell from the opening and struck the ground with a thud.
“Uh-oh,” one twin said.
“Spaghetti-o,” his brother finished.
“That looks bad.”
“Yep,” the brother agreed. “We’re in a whole heap of trouble.”
“I fought the law, and the law won,” the other fellow said.
The twins laughed.
That is how Paul Hewson came to stare into the wide eyes of his neighbor, Joel Thomas Spivey.
The twin standing closest to Hewson watched the head roll out of the bag and shrugged. “Yep, I know this looks bad.”
“It looks real bad,” his brother exclaimed. He wore a smirk on his face.
“Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.”
The other twin laughed. “That was pretty good.” He pointed at the lawman. “Don’t you think that was a spot-on Ricky Ricardo?”
“Oh my God,” Hewson exclaimed. His mouth dropped open.
“Ain’t that a shame,” the brothers said in unison, and laughed at some private joke only they understood. “My tears fell like rain.”
“Lord have mercy.”
“You know sumpin,’ chief,” one fellow said in an exaggerated southern accent as he took three steps to Hewson’s left, “you can’t shoot us both before one of us takes you out. Maybe you’re like that Barney Fife fella, and you ain’t got no bullets in that there gun.”
“I think Barney always had one bullet.”
“But not loaded in the gun, bro.”
His brother, the spot-on Ricky Ricardo, laughed. “Hey Anje, can I use my bullet now? I wanna fuck up Aunt Bea real good!”
“You hear that, Mr. Copper Man? Did you hear that? That was sumpin,’ don’t you reckon? That was a spot-on Barney Fife.” The men sauntered forward slowly as he spoke.
Despite his shock, Hewson recognized the danger and quickly recovered his composure. They were almost hypnotic in the way each fed off the energy of the other.
“He’s a big man with a gun. But does the big man have the balls to use it?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Hewson swung his gun at the other twin, the impressionist, pulled the trigger, and swung the gun back to the man who had issued the threat. “You were saying?” Outwardly, the lawman appeared calm and in control.
The first twin collapsed onto the ground, clutching his knee and grimacing in pain. “Godammit, my knee!”
“Stop your whining. I could’ve aimed a little higher.”
Hewson shrugged. “Ain’t that a shame. My tears fall like rain.”
The wounded man writhed in agony. “Motherfucker! Motherfucker!”
“Sorry, guys. No more Ricky Ricardo for awhile.”
“Oh, you motherfucker!”
Hewson looked at the man still standing. “Why ain’t you laughing now? If I’m Barney Fife, why ain’t you laughing?”
“You’re a crazy motherfucker.”
Hewson nodded. “Takes one to know one,” he said as he reached for his belt. “Now put on these cuffs.”
The officer lowered the gun. “Or this time I go for the balls. Wanna try me? You think I have the balls to take out your balls?”
The fellow put the cuffs on his wrist.
The newspapers labeled the killers the Gruesome Twosome, and their capture and subsequent running confessional had made Paul Hewson a celebrity of sorts. Scott Petty called him “The Great American Crime Fighter” and urged him to run for Police Chief in Atlanta. For a few weeks before he descended back into relative obscurity, he might have won the election.
“That new case you’re thinking about,” Martha said as she buried her face in the newspaper. “One of the men was James F. Gilleland, 42, an accountant.” It was not a question.
Jerking his head up, he shook away the memories and stared at his wife, dumbfounded. She was never one to remember names, much less other details. “What?”
Smiling, she held out the obituary. “The man’s funeral is this afternoon. It’s right here in the paper. Big as day — a picture and everything.”
He nodded. “For a minute, I thought you had joined the detective business.”
She laughed as she handed him a section of the paper. “No, thank you. One policeman in the family is quite enough.”
He slid his reading glasses on the end of his nose and squinted down at a grainy photograph of the victim. The fellow had been an accountant and Kurt Martin’s next door neighbor. He frowned. Had somebody interviewed the neighbor’s wife? Hewson was almost positive that she had given a statement, but he could not for the life of him recall what she had said. He was pretty sure she was not at home when the shooting occurred, but he would have to check on that tidbit. His memory was not what it used to be.
“Hmm?” He glanced up at her over the top of the newspaper, slightly irritated that she had interrupted the flow of his thoughts. It was increasingly difficult for him to get into the zone these days, so he treasured those moments when he could mull over a problem unimpeded by the outside world.
She held up his empty mug. “More coffee?”
Nodding, he waved her off and returned to the newspaper. “No, thank you,” he muttered.
Agent McLean had never returned his call about the witness protection program and, let’s face it, he probably never would. Without a court order, Hewson would never learn anything more about Kurt Martin or why he had fled the scene. McLean had not sounded surprised when Hewson mentioned Martin’s name, a fact that spoke volumes, but that was a slender lead in an otherwise exasperating and dead-end case.
Scanning the obituary, he wondered if Kurt Martin and the deceased man — he glanced at the text — James F. Gilleland were friends? If so, perhaps that explained why Gilleland had been murdered. Perhaps the killers wanted to deliver a message. Perhaps Martin had delivered a message of his own.
He leaned back in his rocking chair, wincing at the pain above his kidney. If I were in Martin’s shoes, what would I do? It was a question about the shooter he asked in every case.
They had frozen Kurt Martin’s accounts, put a tracer on his credit cards, and contacted local banks to be on the lookout for his checks passing through the system. Unless he had packed away a contingency fund, the man was essentially destitute. He dared not show up at home or work; they were watching and listening in every place he was known to frequent. Even the Gilleland house was bugged.
Kurt Martin had few, if any, friends, as far as the investigators could tell. The descriptions provided by his co-workers and acquaintances at his health club were the old clichés: He was very quiet and polite. He always kept to himself. He wasn’t exactly friendly, but he wasn’t rude, either. He was just a real closed off kind of guy.
So now Kurt Martin, this closed off kind of guy with no friends or close relationships, was in hiding. He had very little money. What would he do? Unlike spy novels and adventure movies where the action hero has all sorts of resources at his fingertips, in real life a fellow still had to eat, have shelter over his head, and build some kind of life.
Maybe McLean and WITSEC were shielding him. They might already be building a new life and identity for this man. Theoretically, they would have to provide him to the police for questioning in a homicide investigation, but Hewson did not put it past the Feds to lie and say they knew nothing about where Martin was or if he even existed.
Martha returned to the porch with a fresh cup of coffee. “Is your back still hurting you?” she asked when she saw his furrowed brow.
“No,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out this case.”
“I’m surprised you’re not going.”
“Hmm?” He peered at her over his glasses.
She pointed to the newspaper in his lap. “To the funeral, I mean. It starts at three. Haven’t you always said that suspects sometimes come to the funeral to see the victim one more time?”
He stared down at the obituary. James F. Gilleland’s funeral was scheduled for 3:00 p.m., in about 90 minutes. His family — including his wife, Frances — would be there.
Who else would be there?
If I were Kurt Martin, destitute and in need of assistance, wouldn’t I contact the one person who might help me? And wouldn’t I do it away from her house so I wouldn’t be spotted?
“Martha, you’re a genius.”
“I’ve always,” she said playfully as she sipped her coffee, “thought so.”
I know about you, McLean.
The threat reverberated through his head endlessly, endlessly. Exactly what did he know? What was the threat level here? It wasn’t every day that a protected witness issued threats, despite the bad actors that drifted through the program, but then the Harris case wasn’t an everyday case.
McLean thought he had seen it all — drug dealers, mob informants, international terrorists — but Steve Harris was a scary fellow even by those standards. Harris normally appeared jocular, even friendly. But something about him changed when he was pressed. It was as though he flipped a switch and exchanged personalities, slipping out of the amiable hail-fellow-well-met mask into the cold, ruthless, calculating killer mask. How does a person do that?
The Davemeister was at the wheel, thank God. McLean was in no condition to drive; his hands were trembling. Despite all his years as a federal agent, he was nervous. As usual, Dave had remained calm and collected even after he learned of the conversation with 8172483.
Fidgeting, McLean drummed on the dashboard. “How much longer?”
Dave glanced at his wristwatch. “I’d say 10 minutes. Relax. Still plenty of time.”
The graveside service would not start for another 30 minutes or so. They had plenty of time to stake out the site, just as Dave indicated. “Yes, indeed,” McLean muttered. “Yes, indeed.”
They rode in silence as the big man aggressively weaved the Crown Victoria through traffic. He repeatedly cut the wheel, mashing the accelerator and brake with different feet as he gracefully swung around slower-moving vehicles. Watching him at work was like watching an artist; he performed an automotive ballet.
“You could have been a NASCAR driver,” the chief observed.
“I was — for a brief period after college.”
McLean was impressed. “Really? You never mentioned that before.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Mac.” The Davemeister smirked.
“I guess so. But, really — you were a NASCAR driver? I was kidding.”
“But I’m not. I drove for awhile. I could never find a sponsor, though, and it’s an expensive hobby.”
“You drove at Darlington, Daytona, and all that?”
“Well, no, not the big tracks. I was stuck in the bush leagues.”
“I’m surprised you had the money to do it in the first place.”
Dave grinned. “My dad footed the bill. He said, ‘give it a year and let’s see what happens,’ so I did.”
“Ah, the dreams of youth.” He paused. “Seriously, though, I’m surprised after all these years I didn’t know that about you.”
“I’m a man of many secrets.”
“I guess we all have our secrets.”
They fell back into silence and Mac McLean thought of his youth. He had been a football player with dreams of stardom in the NFL. His story was so hackneyed and common he winced whenever he was called upon to tell it. Everything was set for a stellar career until he was sidelined — permanently — with a debilitating knee injury. After that, he fished about for a new life before drifting into law school and, eventually, law enforcement.
“You know,” Dave said after a few minutes. “He may not show.”
McLean had thought of that. Attending James Gilleland’s funeral was a risky move for a man under the gun. Tony the Knife might plant sharpshooters in the trees. One bullet, expertly placed, would end the charade. Nonetheless, Kurt had called Gilleland his “best friend.”
It was worth a gamble for Mac and Dave to fly down from DC and scope out the situation. If Kurt Martin did not show, it was a waste of time and money. The drive from Atlanta to Lakeland was scenic, but would it pay off?
“Trust me, Dave — he’ll show.”
“I don’t know. It’s pretty ballsy.”
“Wouldn’t you show if someone killed your best friend?”
“I don’t know.”
“He’ll be there.”
“Whatever you say, boss.” He sounded doubtful.
McLean raised an issue that bothered him. “Why did Tony send amateurs — assuming he’s the one behind this in the first place — when a professional could have dispatched the target with no commotion, no mess?”
Dave shrugged. “I’ve wondered about that.” He turned the steering wheel and the car glided into the Parkwood Cemetery, disappearing beneath a canopy of oak trees. “You think maybe Tony wasn’t involved? Maybe it involved something else — something from Harris’s past?”
“No, Tony was involved all right. Who else would want Harris dead?”
“Even though he’s still in prison?”
McLean laughed. “C’mon, Dave. You know Tony’s got long tentacles. What’s the phrase? ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.’”
“That’s very philosophical, my friend.”
“I’m the philosophical type.”
“So I see.”
“Tony Marciano’s part of a large club, very well connected.”
“Of course, Harris was a Marine. That’s a large club, too.”
Dave shrugged. “The whole thing’s a mystery.”
“Is it possible,” McLean thought aloud, “this wasn’t just about killing Harris? Maybe it was staged.”
Slipping beneath a moss-draped tree next to a tent marked “Michael & Sons” in big letters, the car came to rest on a deeply rutted embankment near the road. In smaller script on the tent, the word “Gilleland” indicated they were in the right place. Dave cut the engine and turned to look at his boss. “Staged?” He sounded genuinely surprised.
McLean was on a roll. “Think about it. You send two amateurs to shoot up the neighborhood. If they get the target, fine. But maybe they fail, and that’s okay, too.”
Dave shook his head and jerked the handle to the car door. “You just lost me.”
McLean reached out and touched his arm. “You kill a protected witness in the dead of night and nobody knows about it. It gets hushed up. WITSEC goes on as before. Head bloody but unbowed, and all of that.” He raised a finger in an overly dramatic gesture. “But when two thugs right out of central casting shoot up a peaceful suburban neighborhood with automatic weapons in broad daylight, suddenly it gets a lot of attention. People take notice. Maybe the program gets exposed, and….” He drifted off, rubbing his chin and staring into space.
Dave had seen the light. “Other witnesses won’t testify. The DOJ can’t make its cases. That’s a pretty compelling theory.”
McLean nodded. “Exactly. Yes, indeed. That’s a whole lot better than killing one witness, especially since the damage caused by that witness has already been done. You give the public — and potential witnesses — a taste of the Wild West.”
“Not a bad plan,” Dave mused as he and his supervisor stepped from the car in unison. “You think Marciano’s that clever? He’s still in prison. I think that’s a bigger impediment than you do.”
“He shot Ravelli in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses, didn’t he? This guy’s nothing if not audacious. Didn’t delegate it; did it himself! Had it not been for Harris’s testimony, such a bold move would have been rewarded in Marciano’s circles.”
“Yeah, you may be right. It does have a certain logic to it.”
“Tony’s up there in Sing Sing, but you and I both know he’s still calling the shots.”
“You’re prob’ly right.” A sigh. “I was hoping all roads didn’t lead to Marciano.”
“Yeah, but I think they do.” Dave slammed the car door and surveyed the graveyard. “In any case, I’m gettin’ a bad feeling.”