This posting includes Chapters 30 and 31 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
“I’m Arthur McLean,” a big guy said from the corner chair. His face was squinched into a scowl, semi-hostile, daring Roth to challenge his authority. The U.S. Attorney had faced many angry men during his tenure. He took in McLean with a brief glance and smiled his most ingratiating smile. The best way to disarm a potentially hostile opponent is to change tactics mid-stride. It confuses them every time.
“So, Agent McLean, I understand Harris is a WITSEC placement.” Removing the glasses from his face, he leaned back in his chair and gently rocked. If he was the least bit perturbed by McLean’s hostility, Roth did not show it.
“As you are no doubt aware, Mr. Roth, I cannot comment on the DOJ’s programs absent a court order.”
“Kevin,” Roth said as he gestured at another of his assistants in the room. He did not snap his fingers, but his underlings saw that it took a conscious effort to refrain from doing so.
A clean-cut young man in his late twenties stood up from his chair on the wall behind his boss, leaned over the conference table, and handed McLean a band of papers with a blue backing attached.
The agent looked genuinely surprised. “What’s this?”
Roth noted the man’s facial expression, and he was pleased. “It’s not always easy to find a judge on Sunday,” he explained as he rocked in his chair and stared up at the ceiling as though he saw something fascinating. “But Judge Apolinsky plays golf at the Burning Tree Country Club like clockwork. Even judges are creatures of habit. He had just seen the news coverage on the clubhouse TV, by the way, so it took very little persuasion to get his signature. You see where I’m headed with this.”
Two of the assistant U.S. Attorneys shared a quick glance and a smirk. Their boss was gloating, almost gleeful. Roth wore smugness like a warm, comfortable shroud.
Frowning, McLean hunched over the papers, deliberately biding his time as he took in everything. No loopholes; the order was airtight. Closing his eyes, he wished the Davemesiter were by his side. Under the circumstances, however, it was better if the big man kept a low profile. That left Mac McLean alone to deal with a most unpleasant situation. He was required to divulge everything he knew about Harris. When he finished reading, he looked up at a man he was gradually coming to view as a formidable adversary.
“So what can I do for you, Mr. Roth?”
“Well, I’m glad you asked, Agent McLean. I am so very glad you asked. Now, then,” he said as he snapped back to attention and folded his arms. “Tell us everything you know about Mr. Harris. What’s his story?”
Realizing he had no alternative, McLean sighed. “As you deduced, Mr. Harris was in fact a member of the DOJ Witness Relocation Program.”
“Yes. That’s correct.”
Roth nodded. If McLean required that he drag the information from him, the U.S. Attorney was game. His patience was legendary; he could sit in the leather-backed chair for twelve hours at a pop and never once take a break. They didn’t nickname him the “Iron Kidney” for nothing. “Okay, then, why exactly was he…ah…enrolled in your program?”
McLean glanced back at the court order and hesitated.
“I assure you, sir, everything is in order. No one in this room will breathe a word of what you say here.” Roth slipped on his serious lawyer face. Gone were the charming smiles and easy, graceful movements. He was all business. “What we need is your cooperation, agent McLean. We have multiple shootings, major press coverage, and a mysterious man with an alias. If we don’t make sense of this case soon, people will be shouting about conspiracies. The public will see shooters lurking on every corner.”
“I understand, Mr. Roth.” Agent McLean cleared his throat, reached for a glass of water, and gulped down several swallows. “As I recall, the FBI brought him to us around 2002. He was walking with his son on a boardwalk when a mobster named Anthony Marciano murdered another mobster. Unfortunately, Harris’s son, Michael, was killed — collateral damage.”
Roth smiled, a wicked grin revealing serpent’s teeth. “Well, well, well. Tony the Knife strikes again.”
McLean raised an eyebrow. “You know Mr. Marciano?”
“Only by reputation. His handiwork has touched many cases in our office, but we’ve never been able to pin anything on him.”
“Neither could the Bureau — until Harris agreed to testify.”
Roth stroked his chin. The light of discovery was in his eyes. “I knew the Knife was in Sing-Sing, but I had no idea Harris was involved.”
“He didn’t want to do it at first, but his wife convinced him he had to. They couldn’t let the man who killed their son go free.”
The light of understanding burst in Roth’s eyes. “This was the hit that Tony carried out himself. Supposedly, he had carried out others as well. We thought it was an urban legend — a mafia don handling his own dirty work.”
“Until Harris convinced us otherwise.”
“Yes, yes. He convinced us otherwise.”
“Yes,” McLean agreed. “Marciano liked to keep active and involved in a hands-on way. He seemed to enjoy his work. Unfortunately for him, Harris wouldn’t be intimidated.”
“Right after the trial, he received all kinds of threats, but he refused protective custody. He was the big, tough Marine who was going to protect himself and his wife. A few months later, his wife was shot dead outside a grocery store near their home.”
“Pride goeth before a fall.”
“Something like that.”
“He was a Marine. That’s interesting.”
“He was not just a Marine. He was special. He was in Special Ops — well-trained, a combat Marine. He saw action in Europe and Asia. Much of it was classified. Nerves of steel and all of that.”
Roth nodded. “He must be seething. He couldn’t save his son or his wife, yet he was so well-trained.”
McLean was impressed with how quickly the U.S. Attorney picked up on Harris’s character. “We thought he might go after Tony the Knife. He kept saying that even though Marciano was part of a special club…so was he. The Marines are a club…Semper Fi.”
“Right. Originally, we had a hell of a time convincing him that he could help us more if both he and Tony stayed alive. We needed him to help us preserve the conviction as it went up on appeal, and we wanted to pump Marciano for information.”
“As I recall, the conviction stuck, but Marciano exercised his constitutional right to remain silent.”
“Yes, that’s right. My right-hand man still meets with Marciano periodically, and attempts to find out new information, but it never pans out. Marciano simply refuses to deal. He seems satisfied to remain in his cell and run his empire from behind bars.”
“Sounds cozy. At least he’s safe from competing gangs.”
McLean shrugged. “Maybe. There are lots of gangs behind bars.”
Roth smiled. “Interesting theory.”
“So, that’s it. After his wife died, we insisted Harris go into the protection, and Harris agreed. That was about two years ago.”
“Two years and then out of the blue…hmm. Something about the timing bothers me. No matter — go on.”
“We kept an eye on Harris to ensure he wouldn’t go rogue.”
“And he stayed on the reservation?”
The agent shrugged. “He said he was retired. He only wanted peace and quiet.”
“And you believed him?”
“Not at first. We came around.”
“And now someone has awakened a sleeping giant.”
“It’s a safe bet Marciano is the one who ordered the hit on Harris, and his men probably shot up Parkwood Cemetery.”
“Yes, that’s a safe assumption — except for Harris’s shoulder wound. That’s an altogether different matter, in my view.”
McLean ignored the comment. “Somehow, after Harris testified against him and put him away, Marciano breached DOJ security.”
“Yes,” Roth said, nodding, his face a mask of concern. “I wanted to ask you about that. How is it that the WITSEC’s legendary security precautions were…ah…breached, as you say?”
McLean winced. He knew the question was coming, but it was painful to hear, nonetheless. He and the Department of Justice prided themselves on their confidentiality.
“We’re looking into that right now.”
Roth glanced up at the ceiling. “Yes, Agent McLean. I bet you are.”
“I will let you know something as soon as I know. I have put my chief assistant on it with the highest priority.”
“Yes, that’s admirable, Agent McLean. I can understand that this unfortunate occurrence puts the department in a bad light. It affects my office as well. As you know, many of our witnesses seek out your program for protection. If this thing gets worse, it will hurt the program and our efforts to make cases.”
After a slight pause, Roth spoke quietly. “We’ll return to local law enforcement issues as well as the question of how Mr. Harris’s identity was uncovered momentarily, but first: Do we have an estimate on the…ah…casualties?”
Michael Cameron spoke as he read from a slip of paper. “In addition to Mr. Harris, seventeen people were hit by gunfire. Nine of the seventeen died — including three policemen and three bystanders. Two men were identified as criminals with outstanding warrants. The other man’s identity is unclear at this time.”
“Speaking of identities, what about the woman — Harris’s hostage?”
Cameron consulted his file. “Mary Elizabeth Johnston, 36.”
“Do we know her connection to Harris?”
“She was Francis Gilleland’s college roommate.”
Roth frowned. “So how did she and Harris cross paths?”
“She was driving Mrs. Gilleland’s car while the widow rode in the funeral home’s limousine. Harris must have thought she was Mrs. Gilleland when he grabbed her, but then he found his mistake. It was too late by then.”
Roth smiled. “So he made a virtue of necessity.”
“How is she?”
“She suffered a concussion and numerous contusions and abrasions, but she’s going to be all right. Physically, at least. She’s still hospitalized, but she should be released soon.”
Roth nodded. “We’ll need to talk with her — especially before she talks to the press.”
Cameron nodded. “We have someone sitting with her at the hospital.”
“It just gets uglier and uglier,” McLean observed, mostly under his breath.
Paul Hewson, heretofore silent, spoke out, almost against his better judgment. “Uglier? How can it get any uglier? CNN, MSNBC, the major networks — they’ve just descended on our town like locusts.”
Roth turned his gaze on the lawman. “Ah, yes, Chief Hewson.”
“I have followed your career ever since the Gruesome Twosome case. Most impressive.” To everyone at the table, Roth recounted the dramatic tale of twin serial killers and how this unassuming elderly man had brought them to justice.
Hewson found that flattery worked its magic. He blushed. “Please,” he whispered.
Roth was a master at the deftly timed compliment. “You’re too modest, Chief Hewson. You’re a genuine hero in these parts. My wife still talks about the case with her friends at the bridge club.” It was a lie, but it was a small one by Roth’s usual standards. “It’s not often we are in the presence of such a celebrity.”
“I’m hardly a celebrity.”
“I don’t know. First, Gruesome Twosome, now this case. It will be difficult to avoid the limelight, even if you are so inclined. Everyone saw you and the reporter on the news chatting it up with a blood-soaked, gun-toting maniac who may or may not be a bad guy. Your images are bouncing all over the world even as we speak.”
Hewson nodded, no longer looking self-congratulatory.
“I trust you will have those cuts examined?”
The chief touched his face. “They’re superficial. I’ll be fine.”
Roth plowed ahead. “Some of my colleagues are working with Ms. Dodson right now to find a way of limiting the damage. Still…” The U.S. Attorney’s voice trailed off.
“That doesn’t prevent the media from circulating the story,” Hewson said.
Roth smiled. “True, true. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it cannot be returned. Damned First Amendment.”
Hewson was the only local law enforcement personnel in a room filled with federal agents and attorneys. Unsure of how the Feds had stepped in to take over his investigation, he wisely exercised his right to remain silent. If anyone else could unravel this mystery and restore order to a chaotic situation, he would leave it to greater minds than his to take charge. Even so, he wondered about this U.S. Attorney. Robert Roderick Roth was a slick operator — maybe a little too slick for Hewson’s liking.
“Chief Hewson, I hope I can count on your support in this difficult time,” Roth said as if he had read the captain’s mind.
“You and I must work together on this case to sort out the state and federal crimes involved.”
The captain nodded. “Of course.” He rubbed the bruise on the small of his back and thought, I am way too old for this shit.
“The cooperation of a man of your stature will help us a great deal.”
“Oh, please. That’s laying it on a little thick, don’t you think?”
The U.S. Attorney looked surprised, but only for a moment. Hewson could be handled, but only up to a point. He was a sly dog himself, and Roth must never forget that fact. He wasn’t much to look at, this aging lawman, but he had balls and a hard-nosed attitude.
Ignoring the comment, Roth turned his attention back to McLean. “It seems we have more than one reluctant celebrity associated with this case. What else can you tell us about the newly famous Mr. Harris?”
“Like I said, he’s a special guy.” Glancing around the table, McLean motioned with his hands. “All that stuff you read in novels and see on TV about spies and covert operations — that’s Harris. Or at least it was 10-12 years ago. Strictly Tom Clancy stuff.”
“So what happened?”
McLean shrugged. “He got married and wanted a life.”
The room fell silent while everyone considered this new bit of information. In the interim, Robert Roderick Roth stood and sauntered over to the window. The entire outer wall of his office was made of bulletproof glass. It was a mirror. He could see out, but someone standing outside only saw a reflection. Behind him, the men seated at the table waited to see what he would say.
“The news media are like vultures,” he said, pointing down at the parking lot. “They want answers, and when none are to be had, they make them up.”
“What should we tell them?” It was Michael Cameron, the squeaky-voiced assistant U.S. Attorney.
Seemingly lost in thought, Roth muttered in a barely audible voice. “’No comment’ should suffice for now. When we’re ready, we’ll leak a story about mobsters and vendettas. Maybe we’ll give it to the Channel 11 reporter. What’s her name again?”
“Right: Dotson. Now that’s she’s the new flavor of the month, we can use that to our advantage.” He spun on his heels. “Now, then, agent McLean. I need to know if it’s possible that Tony the Knife has someone inside WITSEC.”
The men sitting around the table froze. “A mole — in WITSEC?” He paused to consider the possibilities. “It seems unlikely.”
“Unlikely, but possible. Tell me you’ve explored this angle.”
McLean nodded. “Sure. Anything’s possible. Still, we in the Department have implemented procedures that minimize those sorts of security breaches. My chief assistant is in charge of our internal investigation.”
Roth ambled back to his chair and slid into the seat. “Enlighten me. How do you guard against the ‘summer soldier and the sunshine patriot’ in these trying times?”
A phone on the conference table rang, startling everyone with its harsh, abrupt tone. Cameron reached for it.
“We rotate case officers, constantly monitoring our placements. We train, train, and retrain our agents. We perform constant, ongoing background and security checks. No one person has access to all the files.”
Roth nodded. “One file, apparently, was all that was needed.” Frowning, he pushed the glasses up on his nose and made a note on his yellow legal pad. “Let’s go back and look at every agent who had access to Harris’s file. I’ll have some of my assistants go over them with you.” He wagged his finger at the group seated back toward the wall. “They’ll get to the bottom of things.”
McLean glowered at Roth and felt his face grow red hot with the implied criticism, but he said nothing. The U.S. Attorney had a court order — what could he do but comply?
“In the meantime, Chief Hewson, I’ll get over to the hospital and question Mr. Harris when he’s conscious. I may need your help with some follow-up work.”
Cameron cupped the phone with his hand. “Too late, boss. There’s a gentleman named Gregg Stacy on the line one for you. He says he’s Harris’s lawyer, and he’s at the hospital right now.”
“Oh, dear,” Roth said with mock seriousness. “Don’t you just hate it when lawyers get involved?”