There was a ringing noise in her ears as Alex awoke. She struggled up past the final layers of sleep, and found herself on the couch, curled on her side, with Appleby tight against the backs of her knees. For a moment she was tempted to go back to sleep, but then realized that the ringing had been her phone, and it had stopped.
With a groan she got to her feet, disturbing Appleby. He glared at her, but she didn't notice. Instead, she stumbled into her bedroom, trying to hear the message on the machine, but the caller had already hung up.
Alex dropped onto her bed, rubbing her eyes. She reached down to hit the play button on her machine.
There were two messages. The first was from Sarah.
"Alex? Hey, babe. I heard about what happened in Philadelphia. God, I can't believe it took me this long to find out. If I had known earlier, you wouldn't have come home to an empty apartment on Sunday. Maggie and I would have been there for you."
There was a pause, then she continued. "You know, if you need to talk about anything, you can call. Anytime. I know you, you're probably beating yourself up over this. But don't. It sounds like you did everything you could."
Again, she paused. "We love you, Alex. Call me. Please? I'm worried about you, kiddo, and I think you need some friends. Maggie and I are here if you need us. But call me, or I might end up banging down you door. Please take care. Bye."
There was a click from the machine, then a whirring noise. Then another click as the machine picked up the next call.
There was no voice. After a moment, Alex could hear the soft sound of someone's breath, then the phone hanging up. The dial tone buzzed for a moment, until the machine cut it off.
Alex put the hang up out of her mind concentrating on the fact that Sarah had somehow found out about Philly. She wondered how. Did Sarah call David for some reason? Or had David called Sarah, worried about Alex? She wouldn't put it past her friend, or her partner, to call the other, especially if they thought something was wrong with Alex.
Not that there was anything wrong. She was just tired. After all, she'd had to deal with a dead body in her arms, fried corpses, a vicious police captain, little sleep, and the inability to do anything about any of it. She hadn't been able to save Dabir, she couldn't keep him safe, and his blood had been hot as it flowed over her hands . . .
Alex suddenly realized that she was crying, and wrapping her hand in the comforter on her bed. She felt the sob as it rose from her chest, the harsh sounds as she struggled to breathe through the tears that dripped down her face. For several minutes she stayed still, letting the images of Dabir's blood soaked body come up in her mind. She followed the events in her memory as she heard the screams, and saw people running. She felt the dead weight of Dabir's body as she helped lift him onto the stretcher, and crawled in after the paramedic. She'd followed the medics orders, and held an oxygen mask over the bloody face. She'd seen the open eyes staring up at her, and knew they saw nothing.
Slowly, the images began to slip away. Alex found herself able to draw a breath without struggling. The tears continued to stream down her cheeks, but her hands relaxed their panicked hold on the bedspread. The ache that she'd suppressed since Sunday morning was shrinking back to a manageable size as she finally acknowledged the feeling of helplessness, and the fear and anger that accompanied it. After another couple of minutes, Alex took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and let it out.
It was time to face it.
"Okay, Dabir died," she said. "But it wasn't my fault." For the first time, she thought she could believe that. "I couldn't prepare for what I didn't know could happen. It wasn't my fault." It was logical, and she could feel the ache inside ease a little more. "I did my job. And I still couldn't have stopped it."
The pain was still there. Alex knew it wasn't going to just disappear. But as she wiped away the wetness on her cheeks, she could almost sense the emotions settling back down, this time without the rumbling boil she'd been feeling for days. Finally she felt herself back in control. It was different, not the iron will she'd demanded of herself since the assassination, but the simple understanding that the worst had happened, and she had handled it. Not only that, but the task force had seen more progress in the last few days than they'd had since starting, so many months ago. Now they knew who the men were. And with any luck, they'd find who hired them.
With another deep breath, Alex got herself fully under control. She looked beside her at Appleby, who had climbed onto the bed to watch her. He had his head tilted, and a concerned look on his face. She reached up and rubbed his head.
"I'm okay now, pal. Just had to get that out of my system." He stared at her a second longer, then started licking at his fur. Alex laughed. "Yeah, I'm glad I'm okay, too." She picked him up and hugged him, then let him go. He jumped down from the bed, his tail up. He stalked out of the bedroom, heading for his food dish.
Alex sat a moment longer, taking stock of her tattered emotions. She felt like she could face work again without letting the frustration drive her crazy. She was looking forward to trying.
Tomorrow, there'd be laundry to do in the morning, and a workout after that. She wouldn't mind spending a day doing background work, and writing reports. There would be other days to try to save the world.
But for now, it was time to get a good night's sleep. Feeling pleasantly tired, rather than exhausted, Alex got ready for bed.
The computer on the bike said she'd ridden five miles. Alex felt like it had been twenty.
"Jeez, that'll teach me to stop working out for a month."
She hopped off the bike and grabbed her towel.
"Alex! It's about time we see you back in here."
"Hey, Margo. How've you been?"
Margo Wicks was a tall, leggy brunette, with curves in the right places. She worked as both a trainer and a first aid tech at the FBI gym. Most of the people that trained there had developed an attraction to her at one point or another. Alex was no different. At a drunken Halloween party two years before, she and Margo had spent the evening flirting with each other. They had retired to a bedroom for a little privacy and some making out. It turned out they had both had too much to drink, and instead of having sex, they'd simply passed out. The next morning had been embarrassing for both of them, but they'd gotten over it. Margo had decided she was really straight, which Alex thought was a shame.
"I heard you were in Philadelphia, Alex."
"Yeah. Not a pleasant trip, Margo."
"Guess not." Margo waited as Alex moved over to the treadmill, and set the computer for three miles. "By the way, when is your readiness test? I know it's been more than four months."
"Yeah, just over four. I think I'm scheduled to do a recertification this May."
"Well, you might want to check into a class before then. We've got this new hand-to-hand instructor that's really something else. She's an expert in several martial arts disciplines."
"Yeah, and she's single."
Alex stared at the taller woman. "Oh, Margo, not you, too?"
"Not me too, what?"
"You're not trying to set me up, are you? My partner keeps trying, my friend Sarah tries. I swear if I have to spend one more evening doing the 'get-to-know-you' crap, I'm gonna marry a guy just to shut them up!"
"No, Alex, it's not like that. I would never try to set you up."
Margo paused as Alex began her stationary jogging. "But she is hot."
Alex rolled her eyes.
"And I think she's family."
"Why? Does she wear a t-shirt that says 'No one knows I'm gay?'"
"No. But she's thirty-five, not married, absolutely gorgeous, and doesn't even give the time of day to any of the guys outside of her classes. She's gotta be gay."
"Margo. Think about this. You're thirty-two. You're not married. You're beautiful. And you won't give the time of day to most of these guys. And you're not gay."
"See my point?"
"But I thought I might have been bi."
Alex just rolled her eyes.
Margo chuckled. "Alright. If you change your mind, she's teaching a class in room seven, just down the hall, on the way to the locker room. You could take a look if you wanted."
"Hey, just in case you decide you need a little help for your test in May."
Margo patted Alex on the shoulder and left.
Alex ran the rest of her miles, then grabbed her towel and ID. She was definitely feeling the strain of having been away from the gym for too long. She reached up and rubbed her shoulder as she walked down the hall.
She passed the door to room seven, noticing that it was half-open. Alex could hear a loud voice lecturing on how to avoid being taken down in hand-to-hand combat. She sighed.
Margo probably knew she couldn't resist.
Alex edged her body into the doorway, glancing at the students in the back row. They seemed intent on the demonstration taking place on the platform in front of them, so she pushed the door the rest of the way open, and slipped inside to watch for a few minutes.
There were two people on the platform, a man and a woman. The man, who Alex recognized from her days at the academy, was dressed in a karate uniform, with a brown belt. The woman, though wearing the pants of a karate student, wore only a black sports bra for a top.
Margo had been right. The woman, even from the back, was stunning. Though tall, her body was perfectly proportioned, with long legs. She had dark hair that was held back by a leather tie around her forehead. Alex couldn't help but admire the comfortable way she moved, with confidence and grace.
As the figure turned, Alex's breath caught in her chest. The woman was Teren Mylos.
"Alright, Tony. You're going to help me demonstrate, aren't you." It wasn't a question.
Tony obviously didn't see the strength in the woman facing him. Even from the back Alex could see the corded muscles on the dark woman. Tony, however, just smirked.
"No problem, Teach." He assumed a defensive stance across from her. He was bouncing lightly on his feet, the smile still on his lips.
Which was the wrong thing to do. Before anyone even realized that she'd moved,Teren had spun to the side, and landed a flying kick high on Tony's chest. He stumbled backwards several steps, and Teren easily pulled his feet out from under him.
He sat there blinking, the smirk gone. In it's place was a look half surprise, half anger. He got to his feet, rubbing his chest.
"The object of this lesson, Tony, is to stay on your feet. I don't think you succeeded."
There were a couple of nervous chuckles around the room.
"Shall we try this again?" Teren asked. Her opponent nodded.
They took their positions again, and this time there was no bounce to Tony's step. He was serious this time as he waited for Teren's move. When it came, as a punch towards his face, he blocked it without problem. But the second one connected, with an audible crack. It was enough to knock him back again. He managed to keep his feet, however, and was back into position before Teren could once again sweep his legs.
"Good." Teren nodded. "Now, this time you attack me."
Tony balked a little at that. "But --"
"That's an order, Mr. Lewis. Attack."
Tony began to move a little to his left, looking for an opening. He remembered what Teren's kick had done to his chest, and didn't want to give her the opportunity to do it again.
Spotting what he thought was an opening, Tony feinted right, then spun left with a backhand blow. It was stopped, and he ducked to avoid the counterattack from Teren while aiming a straight punch to her midsection. That too was knocked aside, but for the moment Tony was inside Teren's guard, and he used his position to throw an uppercut to her jaw. Instead of blocking it, Teren simply leaned back, letting the force of the blow take Tony's arm up in front of her. Then she hooked his right arm with her left, pulling it under hers. He immediately swung his left hand at her in a clumsy blow, and Teren brushed it aside. She punched him twice, once to his stomach, and once to his nose, then used her right foot to yank his feet out from under him. He collapsed to the floor, his nose leaving a red trail on his white jacket.
"What's wrong, Mr. Lewis? Did your mother tell you not to hit little girls?"
Tony's face was red, from blood, and from anger. He wiped his nose on his sleeve as he climbed to his feet. Teren completely dropped her guard.
"I've got news for you, Tony. I'm not a little girl. I'm the woman who's kicking your butt."
Alex hadn't moved from her position in the back of the room, but even she could see the fury in Tony's eyes. His lip curled in a snarl, and his fists were clenched. He brought his hands up, but didn't even hold his position for a full second before launching an all out attack on a seemingly defenseless Teren.
Tony was swinging wildly, lashing out in his anger, and for several minutes Teren just allowed him his rage. She blocked most of his shots, and let the rest slide past her body as she moved. Tony, frustrated with not being able to land a blow with his fists, suddenly leaped and kicked out. It was an awkward move, and came more from anger than anything else. Teren had been expecting it, and let it fly past her head. It was what she'd been waiting for.
Tony landed off-balance, and before he could recover, Teren blew past his defenses with a left hand to his jaw. She followed it with a right, then a left to his stomach. He doubled over, and before he could straighten, she nailed him in the middle of his back with an elbow. Tony went down, and he stayed there.
Teren stood up, and looked down at her beaten adversary. She shook her head, then addressed her class.
"There were two lessons demonstrated up here just now. The first, keep your feet at all times. If you're on the ground, you're done. Second," she looked back at Tony who had managed to rise to his knees, "keep your temper at all times. The object of hand-to-hand is survival, You do not survive by getting angry, or embarrassed, and you certainly don't survive just by looking good. There are no points for those who look cool while they die -- they're just dead."
There was silence in the room, broken only by Tony Lewis's heavy breathing. Teren's gaze swept the room, and she made eye-contact with most of her students. Her gaze paused on the blond head at the back of the room. Alex realized she'd been spotted, and she gave a nod to the instructor. Teren's eyes held hers for several seconds, then focused back on the figure beside her.
"Mr. Lewis, go get yourself cleaned up. Have Margo check you out, then come back. We'll talk about your ability to stay calm under pressure." Tony got to his feet, and slowly moved towards the door.
Alex stood aside, nodding at her former classmate, and then looked back at Teren, who was already forming the group into pairs for practice. Alex watched for a moment longer, then walked the rest of the way down the hall to the locker room.
It was past eleven when she finally made it into the office. Alex stopped by David's desk first, just to check on things. He was just putting his jacket on.
"Alex, hey. 'Bout time you showed up."
"Well, Cliff told me to get some rest, and hit the gym this morning, so I did."
David stopped and looked into her eyes. "You look better. The color in your eyes is strong again."
"I feel better." She perched on his desk. "What do you mean about my eyes?"
"When you get really tense, the color dims, like it's been watered down. Normally they're a real strong green. The past few days they've been pale, like somebody mixed white paint in them ."
"Oh." She quirked an eyebrow. "I didn't know that."
"Yeah. That's how I know when you need a break. It's also why I called Sarah last night."
"Aha. So, it was you that sicced her on me."
He shrugged. "I didn't know what else to do. Normally, if you're eyes are pale at night, the next morning they're fine. But this time . . ."
She nodded. "Yeah. I needed a break. An evening to myself. And I got it."
"Good. You slept well, I take it?"
"Yeah. Didn't even clean things up after dinner. Just ate on the couch, and fell asleep there."
"I've had to spend the night on your couch -- that's not really comfortable, Alex."
"It was only for a couple hours. Then I switched to the bed."
"So, you didn't go anywhere after you got home?"
"Sarah called me back. She said she'd phoned your place and got the machine. She was kind of worried. I'm supposed to tell you to call her."
"Do you know what time she called?"
"About 7:30, I think."
"Damn, I must have slept right through it. I heard the phone once, but it was a hang-up, and that was at nine o'clock."
"You must have really been zonked."
"Yeah." She looked at the floor, then up at her partner. "Where are you off to?"
"Oh, yeah. Ben and I are going to talk to people at Wilford's former jobs. First we've got an interview with a Karen Larsen. She used to work with Darryl Wilford, and she dated him for a while. When I called this morning, she was busy, but agreed to meet us on her lunch hour. Should be interesting. It sounded like she knew him pretty well."
"Well, good. Glad you guys are getting somewhere. Don't forget to ask her if he ever talked about white power or anything like that."
"Don't worry, I think I know what to ask. Ben and I set up a list of questions, including the basics, and every harebrained thing we thought you'd ask."
"Hey!" She punched him lightly on the arm as he grinned at her.
There was a rap from the doorway of the cubicle.
"Hi, Ben." Alex had always liked Ben Cleves. He was the oldest agent on the team, and was less than a year from his pension. Ben hailed from south of the Mason-Dixon line, and his accent, like his dark hair, had never faded. He was taller than Alex by a couple of inches, and had always reminded her of her father. She wasn't sure why, after all, they looked nothing alike.
She rose from her seat on the desk. "I understand you and my partner are going off for some interrogations. Did you pack the rubber hoses?"
"Yep. And I got the spotlight in the car already."
"Bamboo needles for the fingernails?"
"Eh, doesn't sound like we need to go that far with these ones." He grinned at Alex, then put an arm around her shoulder. "It looks like you're feelin' better."
"Yeah, I am. Does everyone know that Cliff sent me home last night?"
"Nope. I didn't even know 'til you just told me."
Alex covered her face with her hand. "Great."
Ben jerked his head at Dave, motioning him to leave the cubicle. Once he had, Ben put his hands on Alex's shoulders and waited for her to look up at him.
"Look, it don't matter. I think everyone knew he'd probably give you the evenin'. You've been runnin' on pure cussedness since you got back from Philly, and the engine sputtered a little. So, you know what you do? You find a way to refill the gas tank, and you keep drivin'. All of us need a refill from time to time, and I ain't goin' to begrudge you yours. Got me?"
"Alex, Dave told us that he chased after the guy while you tried to help the victim. He said you rode in the ambulance, and the guy was DOA. It don't take much to figure out that, of all of us workin' on this fuckin' case, you're the only one to have seen a victim get hit, up close and personal like. That's why it hit you like it did."
Alex leaned forward, and gave him a hug. "Thanks, Ben."
He hugged her back, then stood and straightened his tie. He looked around to make sure no one had seen what happened.
"You tell anyone I hugged you, I'll deny it."
"Not a word."
Ben nodded at her, and then walked towards the door.
"Ben?" He looked back at her. "I wouldn't let Dave drive."
Ben snorted. "Alex, I may be slow, but I ain't stupid."
Alex laughed. She stood there for a moment after Ben left, and just let her thoughts drift over their conversation. It didn't surprise her that Ben had known what she was feeling. He was nearing twenty years as an agent, and had probably been through the same thing. The only thing that did surprise her was how he accepted her reaction. She thought that her lack of control in the meeting, and her inability to function without emotion, would lower her stature in the eyes of her fellow agents. Obviously, that hadn't happened with Ben. She'd have to just wait and see how everyone else took it.
With that she headed for her office.
"Hi, you've reached the home of Sarah Mahoney and Maggie Copeland. Neither of us are available right now, but if you leave a message, we'll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks." Beep.
"Sarah. It's Alex. I'm okay. Yeah, it's been a little tough the last few days, but I'm fine." Alex paused. "I'm gonna have to do something about you and David ganging up on me. It's not fair, you know. I have to listen to him all day long, about how I'm not taking care of myself, and I should get some more rest. Then I get home and find your messages saying the same thing. Sometimes I feel like I'm back home with my parents. Yeesh!" She paused a moment longer, and then softened her voice.
"But, I gotta say, it's nice to know somebody cares. I love you, too. Give Maggie a hug for me, and tell her I love her. I'll see the two of you soon, I promise. Love you. Bye."
Alex hung up, breathing a sigh of relief. She had called Sarah, and let her know she was fine. However, she had called at a time when she knew Sarah and Maggie would both be out of the house. It wasn't that she didn't want to talk to her friends, she did. But they'd ask again how she was doing, and she wasn't prepared to tell them about her crying spell last night.
She wasn't ready to tell anyone about that, yet.
Instead, she stared at the stacks of paper in front of her. They represented all of the paperwork that needed to be done by agents involved in the investigation. Cliff had grimly guided her into the control center and pointed her to them.
"I thought you wanted me to do research, Cliff."
"We have a research department, Alex. You're not part of it anymore. Now, you're a full-fledged agent, and you get to do the same job everyone else has to do. It's called 'paperwork.'."
"Yeah, but --"
"No buts. Just do it." He turned away, then turned back and grinned at her. "Besides, I can read your writing. Ever tried to decipher Mark's, or Steve's, or Louis'?"
"No, but --"
"Nope. No buts."
And he'd left her alone in the forest of paper.
Part of what she was trying to do now, was organize the case notes from all the members of the team. Since all the events of the previous weekend, no one had tried to assemble the latest case notes, and that had to be done before they could be given to one of the secretaries for typing into the computer. The had to be in chronological order, and readable.
After a while she realized two things: one, Cliff was right, the other members of the task force had some pretty bad handwriting. Two, there were pieces of the puzzle hidden inside the notes. When originally written, they'd meant little or nothing. But now, in the light of what they'd recently learned, these scraps of information had taken on new importance.
Like the question, asked in writing by Tom Jorgen, if a Dremov rifle could possibly be the weapon that killed Steven Fletcher. Tom had asked, because he'd read that there were still hundreds of Dremovs in the states, brought in years ago as souvenirs by military men returning from Europe. He hadn't followed up on it, however, because it was a long shot. Besides, there was no rifle to test.
There was also a note about a phone call from the witness who saw the blue sedan in the parking lot before Doug Wilson's car exploded. The witness said she had remembered something about the car. While it wasn't possible to see through the tinted windows, she had gotten a glimpse into the back seat of the car when the white male suspect opened the door and entered the vehicle. Louis Baker, who had spoken to the woman, quoted her as saying, "I know it sounds strange, but I could swear there was a baby seat in the back of the car." Baker had noted beside the quote that she might have seen a package, or maybe a suitcase of some kind.
Finally, Alex came across the list of employees at the store the Baltimore rifle had been stolen from. Weeks ago, the name Ricky Wilford meant nothing to anyone.
Today, it meant a great deal.
She picked up the phone and dialed.
"It's Alex. Where are you?"
"Baltimore. Near the Arena. Why?"
"Do you know where Riley's Sporting Goods is?"
"Yes. It's a long way from here, though."
"Do any of the places you're going take you near Riley's?"
Alex heard the rustling of paper.
"Yeah, one of the businesses is close to there."
"Well, make sure you stop in at Riley's."
"Because you might want to talk to one of their employees."
There was mumbling on the other end of the line.
"Alex, Ben said he and Mark already interviewed the employees."
"Did he? Ask him if he remembers one named Ricky."
Again, muffled voices. "Yeah, he remembers."
"Ask him if he remembers Ricky's last name."
She heard a yelp from Dave, and then Ben's voice came on the line.
"Alex? You're shittin' me."
"Nope. Checked it on the computer. Darryl was his older brother. Maybe you should let Ricky know we think his brother fried to a crisp in Philadelphia."
"We'll do it. I just hope the little prick is there today."
"If I may suggest, since Ricky doesn't know David, it might be good if he did the interview. He was there, so he can tell Ricky all the fiery details."
"Yeah. Shit. Mark's gonna be pissed."
The line went dead, and Alex immediately started dialing again.
"Rick, it's Alex Reis. Why are you answering Ken's phone?"
"Cause Ken's mouth is full. We're eating a late lunch. Anything I can do?"
"Maybe. Have you guys gone to see Brogan yet?"
"Not yet. Why?"
"Ask him where he was on the dates of the murders. Remember, there are at least two other reports of a blue sedan. And I just came across a note that said a witness in Atlanta thought there was a child's seat in the car she saw."
There was a pause.
"Yeah, I'm here. I'm writing it down. Ask him about all the dates, or just the ones where the car was seen?"
"I'd ask him about all the dates. If he knows something, and we ask him about all of them, he'll realize we've connected him somehow. With any luck, he'll either go running scared, or talk."
"Right. I'll let Ken know. You still want to talk to him?"
"No, let him finish eating. Just tell him I haven't had a chance to check on Gerlach and his friends. I should get to start on it today. I'm also going to look for computer records of Brogan traveling anywhere. If it was his car, that means he might have gone with them. If so, there could be gas receipts or something."
"Hopefully." There was a muffled voice. "Ken says hi, and thanks."
"Tell him hi for me, and you two have fun. Play nice with Mr. Brogan."
"Right. I have to. I'm the good cop."
Alex laughed. "Bye, Rick."
She hung up, and once more dialed again.
"Mikey, it's Alex. Did you find that information on the Dremov?"
"And I haven't had time to check it against the shells we have. I'm aiming for sometime late this afternoon."
"That's fine, Mikey, I just wanted to check."
"Yeah, sure. You field agents get all the fun jobs and then you expect us hard working guys to have stuff done right when you want it."
"Fun jobs? Mikey, I'm doing case notes for the entire task force."
"Hm. Okay, so you have to do a day of grunt work. I gotta go. Talk to you later, Alex."
Alex put the phone down, and left it there. She leaned back in her chair, rather proud of herself.
Mark came into the control center where she was working and dropped into a chair beside her.
"Okay, Alex, what did you do to my partner? He called me, hopping mad. Told me we'd missed something and I should see you. What'd you do?"
She handed him the list of employees, and pointed at the name.
Mark blinked for a moment. "Shit. Goddamn son-of-a-bitch was right there."
"There's no proof, Mark."
"Were they related?"
Mark stood up, letting the sheet of paper fall back to the desk. "And here I thought I was gonna be the one with all the hot tips today."
"Oh? What did you find out?"
"Well, I was finishing my phone calls on Wilford's background. I called his college; they're sending his transcripts. But I thought I was missing something obvious. You know, how you know something is right in front of you, and you can't see it?"
"I spent the last few days feeling like that."
He looked at her. "Yeah, I guess you did, huh? Anyway, I was just looking over my notes, and then the notes on the gun, and thought, shit, if he's a rifleman, he's probably NGA. So I checked. He was."
"No, that's not great. What was great, was that the National Gun Association is so proud of him that they faxed me a copy of his profile. The guy wasn't good with a rifle, he was great. They rated him an expert marksman. They also sent a copy of an article they did on him for an edition of their newsletter. I pulled the original out of our files. You'll never guess who's in the picture with him."
Alex's eyes went wide. "He isn't."
"Yes, he is. And they're each holding a rifle."
"God, Mark, you're a genius."
He shrugged. "Naw, I just got lucky." He tilted his head and grinned. "Wanna know how lucky?"
"Okay. In that picture? The rifles they're holding?" Alex nodded. "Well, the caption identifies them both as Colt carbines. But you can tell that they're not the same. I kind of wondered if the rifle in Mather's hands could be a Dremov."
Alex could feel her jaw hit the table in front of her. She jerked it back up, and cleared her throat.
"May I suggest you take that to ballistics today?"
"Actually, I scanned the picture, enlarged it, and emailed it to Mikey. He emailed back something about all field agents having too much time on their hands, and said, yes, it is."
Alex whooped and jumped up from her chair.
"That's great!" She gave him a grin and a hug. "If I had your luck, I'd head for Atlantic City."
"Yeah, I might do that."
"Did you tell Cliff?"
"No, he was in a meeting. I left a message with Jodi that he should come in here as soon as possible."
"Cool. We can tell him our news at the same time."
"Yep. Hey, wanna see the picture? I emailed it to everybody on the team."
Alex turned to the computer and brought up her email screen. After downloading the file, she switched over to a graphics program and opened the photo. There on her screen were George Mather, and Darryl Wilford, rifles in hand.
Cliff chose that moment to appear.
"All right, Mark, what's so goddamn important --" He stopped in mid-sentence. "Where the fuck did that come from?"
"NRO newsletter. Mark got lucky." Alex continued to look at the picture while Mark told Cliff about his idea, and then the information the organization gave him. He went over how he had learned about the article, and then the picture.
As Mark was talking, Cliff split his attention between him and the screen. Alex, however was looking at the screen intently, fixing on something in the background of the picture.
She framed the area that had caught her attention and magnified it. She had to do it twice more before the images began to stand out. Alex stared for a moment at what she'd found. It didn't look like anything really interesting, but Alex could feel something trying to come through in her mind.
The image she'd enhanced was one of two men facing the left side of the screen while shaking hands. One man was holding a prize of some kind in his left hand while shaking with his right. Neither of their faces could be seen. Behind them was a banner of some kind, though it was unreadable.
"Alex? What are you looking at?"
Alex folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. She tilted her head, and stared at the screen.
"I know that picture."
She didn't say anything, just tilted her head the other way. Then she glanced at Mark.
"Did the article say where this picture was taken?"
"All it said was a rifle tournament in Michigan. Wilford took first place."
"Did it say who took second?"
Alex sat still for a few more minutes, then shrugged.
"There's something familiar about that scene. Like I've seen it somewhere, but I don't know where or when."
"You mean the whole picture, or just that little bit in the corner?"
"Just that little piece." The scene kept nagging at her, but the memory wouldn't come out.
She shrugged again. "I don't know. I think I'll just leave it on the screen for a while, and if I remember, great. If not, it must not have been important."
"Sounds good," Cliff said. "Now, want to tell me what you've been up to? Mark said you were stirring things up again."
"Well, not as much as this did. Really."
Alex explained about the notes she'd found, that had suddenly seemed more important in the context of their new information. She ended by telling Cliff that Ben and David were going to visit Ricky Wilford.
"Hot damn. I think we've actually got a chance at solving this son-of-a-bitch."
"You mean you didn't think so before?"
"I thought I had the best team, and if it could be solved we'd solve it, " Cliff said. "But I wasn't sure, two weeks ago, that we were ever going to get a break. Now, we've got several, and we just might do it." He got up from the chair he had been sitting in. "Now, I'm expecting a conference call from California. Vic said they've got a line on another guy that was in the car. They're still looking for this Brillo character."
"Well, maybe this will give them some hope. Wish them luck for us."
Cliff nodded, and left.
"You really think Arturo was part of this, Alex?"
"Well, his name was on the list. Plus, with the area he lived in, it's a little suspicious. I mean, he didn't live in Brentwood, but from what I understand, drive-by's were unheard of in his community."
"Yeah, but it's completely different from these killings."
"Is it? Think about this. The first two were similar I'll grant you. But even they have their differences. In the first murder, the weapon is removed; in the second it's not. The third is a bombing. The fourth is by handgun in the middle of a room. There are more differences than similarities, yet we're discovering that the same two men probably killed all four victims."
"Sure, I agree, but the evidence suggests that the killers in LA were gang members."
"So? I figure if someone could hire Mather and Wilford out here, then that same someone could hire a gang member out there."
Mark sighed. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Damn. Everytime I think we're getting closer, I'm reminded of how far we have to go, and suddenly . . ."
Alex nodded. "I know the feeling. It's great knowing we got the killers nailed. But then you realize, the killers are dead, and we don't have a clue yet who hired them. It almost feels like we're spinning our wheels, but not going anywhere."
The two of them were quiet, then Mark glanced up at the clock.
"Oh, shit. I'm gonna be late if I don't hurry."
"Where are you going?"
"I got a class at three o'clock. That's why I had to stay here and David went with Ben."
"Well, I'm coming up for recertification in hand-to-hand, and I thought it would be a good idea to get in a class before I took the test. It's just a two-week refresher, and it starts today."
"Who's your instructor?"
"I don't know, somebody new. They said it was a woman."
Alex grabbed his arm as he walked past. "Hey. If it's who I think it is, then don't fuck around in there, Mark."
"What are you talking about?"
"Look, I know you. I've taken a class with you, remember? Our instructor didn't care that you cut up during class, cause he knew you. But this instructor doesn't know you, and you won't get away with it this time."
"Who do you think it is, Alex?"
"You remember, Cliff and I told you about the CIA agent who'd been shot, and was now just teaching karate?"
Mark's eyes grew wide. "Her?"
"Yeah. I know she's teaching, cause I got a chance to look in on one of her classes this morning. She wiped the floor with Tony Lewis."
His jaw dropped at that one. "Tony?"
Alex nodded. "Yeah. She bloodied his nose, and then some. So don't act up. I have a feeling she won't tolerate it."
"Thanks, Alex. I'll keep that in mind."
He left the room with a little less bounce in his step. Alex hoped she'd given him enough of a scare. Mark was a good guy, a little on the hyper side, and occasionally obnoxious, but still a good friend. She'd miss that smile of his, if Teren ripped his face off.
To Be Continued
original fiction <> homepage