The Day of the Gun, Part IX
This posting includes Chapters 28 and 29 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
“I’m a big celebrity now, huh?” Steve nodded toward Hewson and the reporter. “Then this big celebrity’s got something to say.”
Dana perked up at this comment. “Oh, yeah? About what?”
“About what happened at my house that day before yesterday — the day Jim Gilleland was killed.”
Dana’s eyes went wide, as did Hewson’s.
“You wanna hear it or not?”
“We’re listening,” Dana said as she motioned at her cameraman. He gave her the a-okay sign with his fingers.
Conscious of the news camera, Hewson vigorously shook his head. “This is neither the time nor the place. We need to end this standoff, and then we need to take your statement at the police station— ”
Steve simply overrode the officer’s voice. “Two men were waiting for me at my house when I got home,” he said. “They were standing in my kitchen. As soon as I walked in the front door, they started blasting holes through the walls — right through the sheet rock. They were trying to kill me. I’m sure the police have seen the holes.”
“Kurt, listen —” the police chief objected.
“Why were they trying to kill you?” Dana asked as she leaned forward so her lapel microphone would pick up his words.
“Jesus, folks, she’s doing it. She’s really doing it,” the news director, Roger, screamed through earpiece.
This was the moment of truth. If Steve revealed his decision to enter the witness protection program, he forever closed that door. Gazing around at the onlookers and the television camera, he realized that the door already had closed.
Sensing the hesitation, Hewson took a step. “You must know that any information revealed in a public forum like this will compromise our investigation. We’ll never have a trial for whoever did all of this”— he pointed to the cemetery grounds behind him —“if you spill it all over the television this way.”
Dana would not allow the policeman to steal her story without a fight. “Look, if the man’s got something to say, you should let him tell his story, chief. He’s obviously gone to a lot of trouble to have his voice heard.”
“Dana,” the captain snapped, “this is not your business. It’s a police matter.”
“Police matters are my business, Chief Hewson. I’m a reporter, and the public has a right to know.” God, it felt good to champion the First Amendment here on live TV. They might one day mention Dana Dotson’s name in classes on the Constitution! It was heady stuff.
Steve could not believe the bickering between these two. “Would you stop it, for God’s sake?”
They fell silent and looked at him. Steve cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
Roger yelled in his reporter’s earpiece. “Here it comes, folks, here it comes! Go in tight on his face, Bob.”
Hewson held up his hands. “Enough is enough. Now, look. Let’s end this thing right here and now. We’ve had more than enough violence and bloodshed for one day.” He nodded at Steve. “Your hostage needs attention, and you look as though you could use some yourself.”
“Can somebody get this guy outta here,” Roger screamed. “He’s spoiling the moment!”
“She’ll get treated in a minute, Paul.”
“You said you’d let her go when you got Dana. So let her go.”
“Who the hell is this guy?” Roger squealed through the earpiece.
“I want to get back to my story,” Steve said. “Then everybody can get treated. Then maybe I’ll reconsider my decision to leave the cemetery.”
Roger approved. “Now we’re cooking with gas!”
Hewson perked up at Steve’s comment. Motioning to his assistant, Ed, to pull the men back and have them stand down, the chief felt encouraged that perhaps the day might end without additional gunplay. “So you’ll surrender and come along peacefully if we let you have a few minutes to speak your mind?”
Steve ignored him. “They — these men who tried to shoot me through the walls — they followed me onto the yard.” He paused, choking back a lump in his throat. “Jim just happened to look out the door at the wrong time, and they shot him.”
“You’re referring to James Gilleland, the decedent?” Dana asked, sounding a bit stiff and officious.
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“Dana, get him to summarize what happened. Make the story tight. Bob — pan out to include Dana and the guy in the same frame!”
“So let me make sure I understand this,” she said. “James Gilleland was shot by two men who were trying to kill you. It wasn’t planned, just a freak occurrence, pure and simple, and only happened because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You had nothing to do with his shooting.”
A look of sadness swept across Steve’s face. Up until that moment, he had looked deranged, outlandish. Covered with blood, his hair askew, disheveled, he was a picture of a monster in human form. The solemn expression that stole across his brow did as much as anything to humanize him. Nodding, he whispered, “I had everything to do with his shooting. Because of me, two men — strangers — shot him dead.”
“Why did these men want to kill you, sir?”
“I…I know things.”
“Things? What things?”
Roger was elated. “We’re golden, baby! We’re golden. Bob, give me an extreme close-up. I wanna see the pores in his face!”
Glancing around at the crowd of onlookers, Steve suddenly felt a wave of nausea. So his life had come to this, had it? He was the ultimate star on reality television. He fell silent.
Roger realized he was losing the moment. “Dana, prod him! Prod him! Don’t let it slip away!”
Steve frowned. “What?”
Warming to her subject, Dana pressed her line of inquiry. “So we’ll come back to that one. In the meantime, can you tell me how you escaped?”
“Dana, what are you doing? We want the big announcement. Don’t get us off track.”
“We need to set the stage for our viewers. Then we can finish with your big announcement.”
“Oh, I see where you’re going with this. Way to milk it, babe. Bob, go long! Go long!”
Steve shrugged. “In my previous life, I was trained for that sort of thing.”
“Oh, yeah, baby. Yeah! Roger likey! Roger likey!”
Dana paused for a moment to take in this comment. “What do you mean, ‘in my previous life,’ and ‘that sort of thing?’”
He sighed. Where should he begin? His previous life seemed a thousand years ago. He could scarcely believe that once he had been a man with a wife and child, a life, prospects for the future. What did he have now?
Fearing dead air, Dana gently prodded him. “Mr. Martin? I, uh, the viewers, the public — we need some answers here. You said you wanted to have your say. So here it is.”
“That’s it, baby! That’s it. Bob, pan out again.”
Steve swallowed, hard. “In my previous life,” he said, calmly, deliberately, “I went by the name of Steven Harris. I was an ordinary man who had an ordinary life. Before that time, when I was in the service, I was trained to operate in the field.” He stared off into space, lost in thought, seemingly oblivious to the crowd of policemen, press, and frenzied onlookers milling about just a few feet away.
This revelation was a bombshell, and it raised a thousand questions that Dana burned to ask. Wisely, she held her tongue. She instinctively realized that her subject would not be rushed. He would tell his tale in his own sweet time.
“The funny thing is that I had left that life behind,” he said as he snapped back to the present. “My days of black ops, code words and secret rendezvous points were behind me. I was just another guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do you see how ironic that is?”
She nodded, unsure of whether she followed his train of thought but anxious to coax him into a network-loving, big-ratings-grabbing confession. “I do.”
“So I watched my son shot down and then my wife is murdered and then I have to disappear from sight.”
“Guys, guys, guys! Get research on the phone! I want everything we can find on Steven Harris and a family shooting. Is that ‘Steven’ with a ‘v’ or a ‘ph’? I don’t know. Let’s search for both. Hang with him, Dana. Hang with him!”
She was hardly an ace crime reporter, but Dana had watched enough prime time television to hazard a guess. “Witness protection?”
He nodded. “WITSEC — that’s the abbreviation they use. They assured me I would disappear, remain anonymous.” Sadness again slipped across his face. “It’s really no kind of life, but I suppose it’s better than no life at all. At least, that’s what I told myself. At least I was safe. Or so I thought.”
“So what happened?”
He motioned with his gun. “I wish I knew. That’s what this is all about. Somewhere, somehow, somebody talked. There was a breach.”
“Dana, get him to elaborate on the breach. Get him to name names.”
Captain Hewson had been horrified that his suspect was going to spill his guts on TV, but he soon found himself enthralled. He believed every word of the tale. It all made sense, falling together like the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
“Roger that. Any ideas who?”
That was the $64,000 question that Steve had been pondering ever since his would-be-assassin had whispered McLean’s name as a dying declaration.
“As a matter of fact,” Steve said, “I do.”
Dana was breathless. “Who? Was it that guy you were just talking about — Mark something?”
Steve opened his mouth to speak, but he never got the words out. As he leaned forward slightly, his head down, a loud crack split the air for the last time that afternoon. He collapsed into a crumpled heap.
“Oh, my God,” Roger shouted into the earpiece. “Bob, go long; go long! Where did that come from!”
Pandemonium reigned supreme.
Robert Roderick Roth was a short man — barely five feet, four inches tall — but what he lacked in stature he compensated for in charisma and an oversized personality matched by an even larger ego. He was a fiery presence with a penetrating stare and a sharp, distinctive, slightly high-pitched voice that stopped many a man in his tracks. Ever since his freshman year at Brandeis, when he had decided he would become the youngest man ever elected president of the United States, he had been determined to be smarter, better informed, and more exciting than anyone else he met. He continued his successful quest for academic and intellectual stardom at Columbia Law School, no mean feat in such a stellar environment. He often prevailed in his endeavors, thanks to God-given talents and an amazing tenacity that drove him to the depths of tedium. His almost religious devotion to hard work was legendary.
Although he was now 47 years old and had missed his goal by four years — with no reasonable chance at snagging the presidency in the near future — he generally fulfilled his other, less lofty expectations. He even looked the part of a successful lawyer: pear-shaped, thinning hair, a pasty complexion, and the beginnings of Nixon-sized jowls drooping on the underside of his neck. He spent far too much time ensconced behind a desk to worry about mundane matters such as eating properly, exercising, or spending time with his family.
Not that family was all that important to Robert Roderick Roth, anyway. His wife, Nancy, had been a trophy wife 18 years earlier, but now she was showing definite signs of aging, not to mention the girth that signified a more-than-satisfactory income coupled with plentiful leisure time. Fortunately for Roth, Nancy looked the other way when he husband practiced his extracurricular activities with desperate young female assistant U.S. Attorneys who would do anything to advance their careers. The only price for her silence was a seldom discussed but frequently invoked quid pro quo: Roth must turn a blind eye when Nancy engaged in her own dalliances with tennis pros, exterminators, and pool boys. Tit-for-tat, so to speak. Since he was seldom home until late in the evening, it was an easy request to fulfill.
As for his daughter, Rachel, well, she was no longer daddy’s little girl. Seventeen years old and rail thin, she used her feminine charms as a weapon to bludgeon her prey, just as her father had demonstrated to her throughout her life. He used words and subpoenas to fight his wars. She used sheets and passion. Their weapons were different, but their ends were identical. To call their relationship an estrangement would be to imply that a relationship still existed for the estrangement to occur. They were barely roommates. On the few nights when either parent found himself or herself at home with Rachel, they communicated only through monosyllabic grunts and an occasional flare of temper.
Without family distractions, Robert Roderick Roth was a sharp, ambitious man, and he never missed an opportunity to ensure that everyone around him knew he was going places. They could impede him, in which case he would charge right through them like a Mack truck knocking down a brick wall, or they could assist him, in which case he would take them with him into the stratosphere. He had twice been appointed U.S. Attorney, and his reputation for zeal and diligence was impeccable. When Roth spoke, people listened. Some quaked; others exulted, but all listened.
“Gentlemen,” he said to the group of men gathered around the large oak table in the conference room as he charged through the door. They stumbled to their feet, mumbling the expected pleasantries, even those who did not know him.
Slapping his briefcase on the place setting at the head of the table, he snapped the locks with an audible click. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. Please be seated.” He said it as though he was anything but thankful. He was the U.S. Attorney, by God, and men would come when he called, even if he called on a Sunday evening. The fellows slipped back into their chairs as they had been instructed.
“Will you be needing anything else, Mr. Roth?”
He glanced around the table. A yellow legal pad, two pens, a glass of water, and a coffee cup were placed at each seat. Several pots of steaming fresh coffee and small bowls of red and white striped mints were strategically placed around the table. He was satisfied.
“No thank you, Delores. That will be all.”
“Very good, sir. See you in the morning.”
The men mumbled their goodbyes as the white-haired woman, a grandmotherly figure who seemed singularly devoted to her boss, gathered her purse and cell phone and shuffled from the room.
After waiting for the woman to depart, Roth cleared his throat theatrically. Perched in his tall, leather-backed chair — taller than the other chairs so that he could neutralize the height advantage enjoyed by others — he leaned forward with his elbows on the table and launched straight into the meeting. “Now, then, tell me where we are.”
It was not a question; it was a command issued to no one in particular. A response was expected forthwith.
“Well, sir,” said Michael Cameron, an assistant U.S. Attorney. His voice was shaky, uneven, and unsure. His obvious nervousness brought smiles to several faces. “Five minutes ago, we learned from St. Vincent’s that Steven Harris survived his surgery.”
“What was the extent of the damage?”
“No major arteries hit. A shoulder wound — serious, but not life-threatening.”
“Uh-huh; uh-huh. What can we deduce from this wound?”
Cameron blinked. His mouth was slightly open as though he were having trouble processing oxygen. “Deduce? What do you mean, sir?”
It was a gentle lob, not designed to trigger Roth’s famous anger, as so many questions did. “The shooter was not aiming to kill him. He wanted to put the man out of commission, nothing more. We can deduce it was not the mob. They would have killed him.” He paused for effect, glancing around the room. “Think about it. A shoulder shot is difficult, at best; a sucking chest wound or a head shot is a more reliable method of dispatching the target. Gentlemen, this shooter deliberately aimed for the shoulder. He was skillful. He hit exactly what he aimed for.”
The men murmured among themselves. The U.S. Attorney smiled, pleased that his little exercise in logical deduction had engendered a favorable response. Straightening his tie and surreptitiously slapping at his neck to assure himself that his jowls were not jiggling unnecessarily, he gazed triumphantly at his young assistant.
“I see.” Cameron grimaced. “Point well taken, sir.”
Roth was already leafing through his file, a pair of half-glasses perched on his hawk-like, Roman nose. Nodding, he spoke without looking up. “So his name is Steven Harris?”
It was Cameron who spoke again, his voice wary and uncertain, little more than a husky whisper. “Yes, sir. ‘Kurt Martin’ was an alias.”
“Is he conscious?”
Cameron glanced at his watch. “He’s still in recovery, but he should be around in an hour or two. I have two U.S. Marshals stationed there for his protection, and to question him when he’s able.”
“Yes. That’s SOP.” His voice said: Don’t expect praise for doing your job.
“We have three agents researching his background as we speak.”
“I want to know the moment you have something.”
“In the meantime, we must use the resources we have at hand.” Looking up over his glasses, Roth’s eyes traveled around the room. “Now, which of you is agent McLean of WITSEC?”