“Destiny has two ways of crushing us –
by refusing our wishes and by fulfilling them.”
- Henri-Frederic Amiel, Swiss Philosopher (1821 - 1881)
Chuck Taylor leaned against the ledge and looked down. Twenty-two floors to the sidewalk. No way would he survive that! But then again, wasn’t this the idea?
It would take seconds…
His mind responded to the challenge and automatically started to calculate just how many. He shook his head harshly, the tremor carried to his whole upper body. What a waste of a life! He had planned so much, for himself, for his wife and two young kids. Now he was going to throw it all away, in a heartbeat; maybe three or four… He recalled reading somewhere many jumpers were already dead when they hit the ground; something about their hearts giving out as they fell. Would there be time? Was it even true?
Taylor closed his eyes letting his overactive imagination play the movie internally in a loop he wanted never to end. He would climb onto the ledge, slide his feet forward to the edge of the stone wall, then just fall forward and let gravity do the rest. Maybe he should pause first and utter one final prayer… for himself… for his family.
This would make it all right! That’s what they had told him.
Could they be trusted? After all, he wasn’t going to be around to check up on anything, to see if they held up their end of this ‘agreement’.
Another strong shake of the head.
This was crazy! They couldn’t seriously expect him to go through with it, surely? His life for three others. They had made it clear; it could be the other way about, if he chose it.
He glanced behind at the two individuals observing his ruminations from just inside the roof exit doorway. Laurel, as he called him, was the talker, the one who explained everything; the one who had changed his plans that afternoon. A beer at home while he waited for his wife to return with the kids, then everyone was going out for pizza and a movie. That was his idea. Now, forty minutes later, he was standing on the roof of his apartment block contemplating the unthinkable.
Laurel was bundled up in a thick overcoat with a brightly colored scarf tied at his neck. He wore skintight black gloves. The combination gave him a rather effeminate air; a stark contrast to the other half of this deadly duo. Hardy, another nickname, needed in the absence of their true identities, was the almost silent partner. He’d spoken once, no twice. The guy had a heavy accent, a partner to his size. Slavic, maybe Russian, or somewhere from over that way. He too had on a heavy coat that looked two sizes too small for his massive chest. He too wore those tight-fitting gloves.
Neither man had said anything when he had started for the door. They had in fact stopped talking when he printed out the note he had been told to write. Had not uttered a word when he scrawled his name at the bottom, adding a hasty ‘forgive me’ for his family. Leaden steps had taken him out to the hallway. Hope sprung in his mind, the despairing prospect of meeting his neighbor, the cop. He would know something wasn’t right here. It was not to be. The cop worked two jobs and was only ever seen on the occasional Sunday at this hour. Today was Friday. His salvation was two days late.
Up the stairwell they had gone; the quiet jumper and his escort. Through the roof access door, picked expertly by Hardy. Then Laurel and Hardy had stopped, just outside the door. There was no one else up there; it was just a precaution against someone spotting them from another building. That would be hard to explain. It took the two of them to ensure the guy went through with this? Maybe they’d say they tried to stop him, but how would they explain they were not residents in this building and, therefore, what were they doing up on the roof? They had watched him for all of four or five minutes now, never saying a word.
Now Laurel spoke.
“Mr. Taylor…” Polite, he was always polite. “You’re only prolonging the inevitable. You’ve made your choice. Our agreement is set. Don’t delay now. If someone, your family, sees the note and comes up here before you go, things would take a different turn; one you would not like.”
What? He was supposed to ‘like’ this version better?
Protesting was a waste of time. He had done enough of that downstairs and it had got him nowhere. He had finally accepted the unavoidable. Someone was going to die that afternoon. Him… or his wife and kids.
Who would do it? The thought intruded into his mind, a last-minute procrastination. Hardy probably. Looked like he could snap his wife’s neck with those huge hands as easily as snapping a chicken bone.
As though tuned into his thoughts, Hardy moved.
Taylor started, pushing out his hand to steady himself against the waist-high parapet. Would it look the same if they threw him off? Forensics, trace evidence, bruises on his body at the autopsy.
He glanced again at his two escorts. Hardy had twisted his whole body but only to remove a pack of cigarettes from his inside jacket pocket. Chuck watched, mesmerized, as Hardy went through the actions of lighting the thin white stick as though he had never seen someone smoke before. He sighed.
Laurel looked at his wristwatch, a bulky affair that looked cheap even from where he was standing.
“It’s time, Mr. Taylor.”
To stress his statement he drew an automatic pistol fitted with a suppressor from his overcoat pocket. It looked huge in his small hands.
“You, now, or…” Laurel inclined his head back toward the stairwell behind.
Chuck Taylor took a deep breath and climbed onto the stone rampart. He steadied himself then looked down. Yeah, the sidewalk was still there. He noted no one was beneath, no innocent caught up in this madness, then took one last look at his executioners.
“May you both rot in Hell!”
Taylor took a step into space, felt his stomach tighten, the warm trickle of urine in his pants, the rush of the air…
* * * * *
“Об этом сообщил вам, что он будет делать это. Ты меня пиво должны.” [“Told you he would do it. You owe me a beer.”] said Hardy, turning back toward the stairwell after flicking his half-smoked cigarette toward the wall.
Laurel just shrugged as he unscrewed the suppressor from the gun and returned both to his overcoat pocket.
Major Bridget Mason was pissed. Her first day back at work. Her first day after months of recovery and rehab to get her shoulder working again. All that effort, pain and sweat and her boss, Colonel John Teal, had only left a message for her at the main door of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Headquarters building complex at Anacostia-Bolling Air Force Base. The bastard hadn’t even bothered to show up there in person; just a friggin’ note to intercept her as she tried to enter the building on her return from taking a bullet on her last assignment. She had been cut out of the loop on that project as soon as the events on the Hudson River had occurred; as soon as mass-murderer Robert Polanski had put that bullet in her shoulder. Using her own gun; that rankled! Still, Polanski was dead now, but she had no idea how the rest of the mission had played out. She had been taken by ambulance to an emergency room in a civilian hospital in New York first. Then, once the doctors had performed the first of three procedures and she had recovered enough to travel, a medical helicopter took her to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda. Two further operations awaited her, then the exhausting rehab. No one had come to see her during her stint in either hospital. No one except that damned writer, that was, and he didn’t count. Her boss was conspicuous by his absence.
Deep down she understood. She was tainted goods. Teal was a good boss. She’d worked for him during her last three years of postings abroad and he had called her in when he was given the US-based assignment. A quick posting, he’d said. Maybe a year, maybe two. Very visible to the higher-ups. Good for her career. It had been five years. Five frustrating years… chasing shadows... taking a bullet… drowning… almost dying… only to be used as a political scapegoat by Walter Beecham, the Deputy Director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Beecham, a bastard who only looked after one person, himself. The New York assignment had gone badly, that much she knew, so her isolation from the flow of status reports was to be expected. She had expected more from Teal though. He was a soldier’s soldier; a combat-toughened commander who had moved through the ranks into the phantom world of Washington D.C. politicians. She had hoped he would at least have stood up for her in the ensuing shit-storm after the events on the river. Maybe he could have at least visited her and unofficially given her an update on how it had all turned out. She wasn’t expecting a damned medal or even a mention in her jacket for exemplary service, above and beyond. Just being kept in the loop would have been enough.
True, Beasley, the writer, had visited. Often. The guy brought books to read, flowers to smell, and occasionally chocolates, but what she wanted, he couldn’t give. He wasn’t in the loop either. His infatuation with her had made her decide to play along. He did know things; things her boss would like to know, like what had become of the object they were assigned to find. Perhaps, lost in a puppy dog moment in his schoolboy crush on her, he would reveal a clue, a small tidbit of truth about the scheme he and his co-conspirator Stiles had cooked up. That would get her back into Teal’s good graces; maybe into Beecham’s as well. That would be beneficial for her career.
It was not to be. She replayed every word of every conversation with the writer as she lay in her bed at Walter Reed, but nothing was forthcoming. The man was a novelist after all and she thought he even enjoyed, in some abstract way, the verbal chess they played during his visits.
She wanted Intel… and all she got was chocolates.
And a cheerful smile.
He knew, of that she was certain. She had let herself be outplayed by two amateurs. Okay, in her defense they were both best-selling thriller writers used to laying out complex plots with plenty of red herrings to confuse their readers. Yet these two had played her and left things so up-in-the-air she had no idea what to believe anymore.
She’d had her chance though. That meeting in the cafeteria. Stiles slamming the box, its prize within, on the table. If she had just reached out and taken it then. She had her gun to keep both the men at a distance while backup arrived. Hell, she had even taken Stiles’ weapon by then. Armed, with a skill set well out of the reach of those word-slingers, yet she had fallen for their scheme. True, it had resulted in Polanski showing up as they wanted. That part of the mission was a success; a minor issue, payback for the death of a colleague. But the main goal… what the Hell had become of that?
Beasley knew… and wasn’t telling. Stiles knew too, but she’d not seen hide nor hair of the other writer as the months dragged by. A nurse had told her their co-authored novel about the events, ‘Outsourced’, was doing well; up there on the best seller charts. Beasley had even brought her a copy. She read it, when he was absent, looking for a hint of how it played out, where the object was. But they had been clever. They gave the readers a neat tidy ending without revealing the truth. A finale calculated to stop people looking for the object. Another red herring! Damn them!
Discharge from Walter Reed arrived, together with her rehab schedule. Five days every week, though she had been there weekends too. She had gone back to her off-base apartment, a mere two klicks from the DIA Headquarters. Spent more time commuting to Bethesda than anything else. She had hoped her proximity to the DIA would somehow cause Teal to react and communicate. One day her discharge from rehab had added a spring to her step. She had donned her uniform and made the short drive to the Base.
She hadn’t gotten far. As soon as she had shown her ID at the South-wing entrance to the sprawling complex she had been told to wait. To take a seat… and wait. Twenty-five minutes. Twenty five slow minutes on a hard plastic seat.
There was a TV playing, tuned to some news channel and she let her eyes drift to it, not really taking in the reporter’s words until she heard the name Beecham. Mason now focused on the screen. A female reporter thrust a microphone toward a face she immediately recognized.
“…and these leaks on whistle-blower websites do not help National Security. The current revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s HUNTREAL program will hurt this nation’s capacity to protect itself from National and International threats.”
“So you are confirming the HUNTREAL program cited in the leak is a real NSA project? It is described as a means to map and index what we call the Deep Web, the underbelly of the Internet where all manner of illegal services are offered. Is that right?”
“I am not going to confirm or deny the exact nature of that project; enough damage has been done.”
“But as Deputy Director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence do you confirm your office is investigating the leak…”
“I can only say measures have been taken. That is all.”
The reporter tried to keep Beecham talking but he started to move away, muttering a loud ‘No Comment’ repeatedly. Finally the woman gave up.
Mason had heard there were more leaks on NSA data collection projects. Not an avid watcher of TV before she had been shot, it had been hard not to do anything else after she was hospitalized for so long. She had seen several reports in the last couple of weeks about this particular leak. Documents purporting to be design specifications had appeared on a couple of Internet sites first then had been picked up by the leading newspapers and TV channels and blown up into hot news pushed at the viewers and readers every hour. She had not paid that much attention to the details however, until Beecham’s involvement had made it an interesting item. If he was immersed in this problem, maybe she would not attract his attention when she reincorporated into the mission.
A few minutes later an official envelope had appeared, hand-delivered by a Corporal, no less. Not even a Warrant Officer! Just some dumb low-rank grunt who had five minutes to spare. Still she had signed for the envelope then torn into it as soon as the man had left. The effort had resulted in disappointment. She was on ‘light duties’ until further notice. Report to the FBI’s Intelligence Division, at their New York headquarters, 23rd floor, oh-eight-hundred, the next day.
What the hell?
A small smile had played on her tight lips as she recalled her last visit there. Teal, and Beecham, had been waiting. Maybe she was being read-in to the mission.
Mason had changed into civilian dress for the meeting in New York. She had hopped a ride to McGuire Air Force Base and driven the last sixty miles to the Big Apple in a hire car the night before. Unlike her previous trip to the building at twenty-six Federal Plaza, this time there were plenty of people about. She took a crowded elevator to the twenty-third floor and walked to the reception desk. The same plump woman was on duty. To Mason’s critical eye she appeared to have gained a few more pounds.
“Major Mason,” she said holding up her DIA credentials. “I have a meeting here…”
“Yes, Agent. Fourth door on the left.”
The fat woman still insisted on calling her an ‘Agent’ despite her military ID. Mason grunted and headed for the designated doorway. She knew the route. It was the same small conference room they had used for her last meeting with Teal and Beecham. As she approached she hoped Beecham had given this meet a miss. She was in luck. A quick knock on the door, answered immediately with a muffled ‘Enter’ in a voice she recognized. Mason went in, closing the door quietly behind her and stood to attention before the room’s only other occupant.
“Major Mason reporting for duty, sir.”
“At ease, Major. Take the load off.” Teal waved a hand at the chairs flanking the oval table. As usual he was carrying a large coffee takeout cup. “You’re early.”
“Sir. Just keen to get back into it, sir.”
“Good. But it’s light duties until I get the okay from the medical staff. You have a revision scheduled for two weeks. That right?”
“Okay. This job should be a walk in the park, Major.” He glanced at her civilian pants suit, as though noting it for the first time. “Glad you kitted up in civvies, Major; you’re going to be keeping a low profile on this one. Are you carrying?”
“Yes sir. I signed out a weapon before I left HQ.”
“Not any of that armor-piercing crap like before, I hope.”
“No sir. A Walther PPQ M2, 9 millimeter, sir.”
“Good.” He reached into his uniform pocket and withdrew a flat black object, glanced at it once, then tossed it across the table toward Mason. “We pulled this from Polanski’s corpse. Thought you might like it back.”
Mason looked down at the ceramic knife she had last seen sticking out of Robert Polanski’s thigh.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Yeah. Don’t thank me, Major. That’s another piece of nonstandard kit I don’t want to see you using here stateside, right? I took it from the body before Beecham heard about it. He went ballistic when he found out the gun Polanski was using was yours and that it fired armor-piercing rounds. Try to be a little more discreet this time, Major. This isn’t Afghanistan, remember.”
Mason pocketed the familiar blade; she would slot it into the makeshift sheath on the inside of the back of her belt at the first chance she got.
“Sir, am I back on the mission, sir? I mean the same one as before…”
“Hell no! I put you back there and Beecham would probably post me off to a weather station in the Antarctic. No, forget about that, Mason. I’ve a new assignment for you.”
“Sir, permission to speak…” Teal made a hurry up gesture. “Sir, I feel bad about leaving that mission unresolved…”
“Unresolved! Damn, that’s a neat way of saying it. It was one almighty screw-up when I last heard.”
“Sir, I have been out of the loop…”
“At Beecham’s direct orders, Major.”
“Sir. Did they ever find the thing, the device?”
Teal looked at the woman seated opposite before shaking his head as though weighing up his words before replying.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this; Beecham wanted you out, no argument. You took a bullet though and he didn’t, so I’ll bend the rules a little. The whole thing is a black hole, right?’ There are two camps. One thinks the device went down in the river and insists on spending tax dollars on divers and current studies. The other thinks that writer guy, Stiles, took it with him on his trip to India. That could mean the device is in the possession of the Indian Government, maybe even the Dalai Lama. To be honest, I’d prefer the latter, but I don’t get a say in it. Anyway those that favor option two are spending more tax dollars on keeping the computers running back at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. I guess if they turn up anything, they may ask for a field agent again, but it won’t be you. Beecham will see to that. He called your work negligent and unlawful. You have a serious career enemy there, Mason, so watch your back.” He cleared his throat as though underlining the discussion of the mission was finished. Then he took a sip of his coffee, grimaced and set the cup down on the table. “Look, what you need to get you back on track are some easy missions that will give you some successes. In this part of the world, you’re only as good as your last assignment so we need to put some distance between you and the Polanski affair as soon as possible. That’s why you’re here today.”
“What happens if I turn up a new lead on the device?”
“First off, don’t go looking for any! They, and by that I mean Beecham, will take any involvement you may have in their project as intrusion and they’ll come down heavy. That said, if something does accidentally cross your radar, bring it to me, and only me. We’ll see what you have then decide how to proceed. Okay?”
Mason nodded. At least she was not being ordered to drop the mission completely.
“Now, your new assignment. As I said, it should be a walk in the park. A guy who worked for a company with a Department of Defense contract has committed suicide. It probably has nothing to do with his job or what his employers were developing for the DOD but we need to be absolutely sure. You’ll be teaming up with an NYPD Homicide Detective and investigating it jointly. Two, three days should see it done. If there’s no indication his work was involved, then you pull out and leave the cops to finish the job, okay. As I said, clean and simple; an easy win for you.”