Stone Cold, p.1Part #3 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
To Bernard Mason, steel true, blade straight
To the memory of Frank L. Jennings,
who meant so much to so many.
HARRY FINN ROSE as usual at six-thirty, made coffee, let the dog out into the fenced backyard for its morning constitutional, showered, shaved, woke the kids for school and oversaw that complicated operation for the next half hour as breakfasts were gulped, backpacks and shoes grabbed and arguments started and settled. His wife joined him, looking sleepy but nonetheless game for another day as a mother/chauffeur of three, including a precocious, independent-minded teenage boy.
Harry Finn was in his thirties with still boyish features and a pair of clear blue eyes that missed nothing. He’d married young and loved his wife and three children and even held sincere affection toward the family dog, a floppy-eared golden Labradoodle named George. Finn was an inch over six feet tall, with a long-limbed, wiry build ideally suited for speed and endurance. He was dressed in his usual faded jeans and shirttail-out clothing. And with round eyeglasses on and his intelligent, introspective expression, he looked like an accountant who enjoyed listening to Aerosmith after a day of crunching numbers. Although he was amazingly athletic, living by his wits was actually how he put bread on the table and iPods in his kids’ ears, and he was very good at his work. Indeed, there were very few people who could do what Harry Finn could. And live.
He kissed his wife good-bye, hugged his kids, even the teenager, grabbed a duffel bag that he’d placed near the front door the night before, slid into his Toyota Prius and drove to National Airport on the Potomac River right outside of Washington, D.C. Its official name had been changed to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, but to the locals it would be forever simply National. Finn parked in one of the lots near the main terminal building, whose chief architectural feature was a series of connected domes copied from Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello. Bag in hand, he trudged across a skywalk into the sleek interior of the airport. Inside a restroom stall he opened his duffel, pulled on a heavy blue jacket with reflective stripes on the sleeves and a pair of blue workpants, slid a pair of orange noise mufflers around his neck and clipped the official-looking ID badge onto his jacket.
Employing a standard turnstile crash maneuver, he inserted himself into a herd of airport employees trekking through a “special” security line. Ironically, this line lacked even the cursory level of scrutiny forced on ordinary passengers. Once on the other side of the barrier he bought a cup of coffee and casually followed another airport worker through a secure door to the tarmac area. The man actually held the door open for him.
“What shift you working?” Finn asked the man, who told him.
“I’m just coming on,” Finn said. “Which would be okay if I hadn’t stayed up for the damn football game.”
“Tell me about it,” the man agreed.
Finn skittered down the metal steps and walked over to a 737 that was being prepped for a short-haul flight to Detroit with continuing service to Seattle. He passed several people along the way, including a fuel man, two baggage loaders and a mechanic inspecting the wheels of the Michigan-bound plane. No one confronted him because he looked and acted as though he had every right to be there. He made his way around the aircraft as he finished his coffee.
He next walked over to an Airbus A320 that would be on its way to Florida in about an hour. A baggage train was parked next to it. In one practiced motion, Finn pulled the small package from his jacket and slipped it into a side pocket of one of the bags stacked on the train. Then he knelt next to the plane’s rear wheels and pretended to check out its tire tread. Again, people around him took no notice because Harry Finn exuded an air of a man perfectly at home in his surroundings. A minute later he was chatting up one of the ground crew, analyzing the prospects of the Washington Redskins and the deplorable state of employment for those toiling in the aviation industry.
“Everyone except the head honchos,” Finn said. “Those bastards are printing money.”
“You got that right,” the other man said, and the two did a little knuckle smack to seal their solemn agreement on the disgusting greed of the rich and the ruthless who ruled the not-so-friendly skies.
Finn noted that the rear cargo hatch of the Detroit flight was now open. He waited until the handlers left with their train of luggage carts to fetch the bags and then climbed up on the lift parked there. He slipped into the cargo hold and inserted himself into his hiding place. He’d already picked it by studying interior cargo schematics of the 737 series, which were readily available if one knew where to look, and Finn clearly did. He’d also learned from open source research on the Internet that this plane was only going to be half full so his added weight in the rear would not be an issue.
While he lay curled in his hiding place the plane was loaded with fat bags and stressed passengers, and then it was wheels up to Detroit. Finn rode comfortably in the pressurized cargo hold, although it was a bit cooler here than in the main cabin and he was glad of the thick jacket he wore. About an hour after takeoff the plane landed and taxied to the gate. The cargo door was opened a few minutes later and the baggage offloaded. Finn patiently waited for a bit after the last bag was removed before he came out of concealment and peered through the open aft door. There were people around, but none looking his way. He climbed off the plane and dropped to the tarmac. A minute later he noticed a pair of security officers heading in his direction, sipping coffee and gabbing. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a lunch bag, took out a ham sandwich and began eating it as he walked away from the plane.
When the two guards passed him he nodded. “You regular coffee drinkers or is that half-caf caramel latte with a twist and four shots of who the hell knows what?” He grinned with his mouth full of ham sandwich. The two cops chuckled at his remark as he walked off.
He entered the terminal, went to a restroom, took off his jacket, ear mufflers and ID badge, made a quick phone call and marched to the airport security office.
“I put a bomb in a bag that was loaded onto an A320 at National Airport this morning,” he explained to the officer on duty. “And I just rode in the cargo hold of a 737 from D.C. I could’ve downed the plane anytime I wanted.”
The stunned officer was not wearing his weapon, so he leaped over the desk to tackle him. Finn neatly sidestepped this attack, and the fellow sprawled on the floor screaming for help. Other officers poured out of the back room and advanced on Finn, guns drawn. Yet Finn had pulled out his credentialing letter before the pistols had even appeared.
At that instant the door to the office flew open and three men strode in, their federal badges held high like the scepters of kings.
“Homeland Security,” one of the men barked at the guards. He pointed at Harry Finn. “This man works for us. And somebody’s in a shitload of trouble.”
“GREAT JOB, HARRY, as usual,” the head of the Homeland Security team said later, clapping Finn on the back. People had been screamed at and reports filed, e-mails fired off and cell phone batteries sucked dry as the clear lapses in airport security revealed by Harry Finn had been broadcast to all appropriate parties. Ordinarily, Finn would not have been tasked by the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS as it is commonly known, to execute an airport security breach because the FAA kept a stranglehold on that field. Finn suspected it was because the FAA boys were well aware of how many flaws there were in the system and didn’t want anyone outside their domain to realize it as well. However, folks at DHS had managed to get authorization to do this one, and picked him to pull the trigger.
Finn wasn’t an employee of DHS. The firm he worked for had been retained by the agency to test the security strengt
Normally Finn would have left the airport without revealing what he’d done and let the chips fall. However, DHS, obviously fed up with the state of airport security and no doubt wanting to make a robust statement, had instructed him to go in and confess so they could dramatically storm in after him and make a big splash. The media would be salivating and the airline industry reeling, and Homeland Security would look very efficient and heroic. Finn never got in the middle of that. He did not give interviews and his name was never in the newspapers. He just quietly did his job.
He would conduct a follow-up briefing for the airport security personnel he’d just run rings around, trying to be both encouraging and diplomatic in assessing their performance or lack thereof and recommending changes in the future. Sometimes the briefing sessions were the most dangerous things he did. People could get very ticked off after finding out they’d been both snookered and embarrassed. In the past Finn literally had had to fight his way out of a room.
The DHS man added, “We’ll get these people in shape somehow, some way.”
“I’m not sure it’ll be in my lifetime, sir,” Finn said.
“You can wing it back to D.C. with us,” the man said. “We have an agency Falcon standing by.”
“Thanks, but I have someone here I’ve been meaning to visit. I’m going back tomorrow.”
“Right. Until next time.”
Until next time, Finn thought.
The men left and Finn rented a car and drove into the Detroit suburbs, stopping at a strip mall. From his knapsack he pulled out a map and a file with a photo in it. The man in the picture was sixty-three years of age, bald with several distinguishing tattoos, and went by the name Dan Ross.
It wasn’t his real name, but then neither was Harry Finn’s.
ARTHRITIS. And on top of that the damn lupus. They were a lovely duo, perfectly synchronized to make his life a painfully throbbing hell. Every bone creaked, every solitary tendon shrieked. Each movement sent a mule kick right to his gut and yet he kept going, because if you stopped, you stopped for good. He downed a couple of potent pills he wasn’t supposed to have and plunked a ball cap on his hairless, pale-skinned head, pulling the brim low over his eyes and then donning sunglasses. He never liked people seeing what he was looking at. And he never wanted people to get a good look at him.
He eased himself into his car and drove to the store. Along the way the meds kicked in and he felt okay, or at least he would for a couple hours.
“Thank you, Mr. Ross,” the sales clerk said, glancing at the name on the credit card before handing it back along with his purchases. “You have a good day.”
“I don’t have good days anymore,” Dan Ross replied. “I only have days left.”
The clerk glanced at the hat covering the hairless head.
“Not cancer,” Ross said, reading the man’s thoughts. “Might be better if it was. Quicker, you know what I mean?”
The clerk, who was in his early twenties and of course still immortal, didn’t look like he knew what Ross meant at all. He gave an awkward nod and turned to help another customer.
Ross left the store and debated what to do next. He had no money worries. Uncle Sam had taken care of him in his old, busted-up age. Pension was first-rate, health care coverage gold-plated; that was one thing the feds did well. One of a short list was his opinion. Now he just had time. That was his chief concern. What now? Home to do nothing? Or lunch at the local deli where he could fill his belly, watch ESPN and flirt with the pretty waitresses who wouldn’t give him the time of day? Yet he could still dream, couldn’t he? Dream of the days when the ladies gave him far more than simply time.
Not much of a life, he had to admit. He thought this as his gaze discreetly eased in all directions. Even to this day he could not overcome the impulse to check whether he was being followed. You got that way when people were always trying to kill you. God, he had loved it, though. Beat the hell out of the deli-or-home bullshit debate every miserable day of this screwed-up dilemma playing out as his “golden” years. Over three decades ago he’d been in a different country every month. Every month during the busy season anyway. Seen the world on a wing, a prayer and a weapon of choice, he’d always said. He allowed himself a nostalgia-fueled smile. That’s all he had now, memories. And the damn lupus. I guess there is a God after all. Pretty damn shitty to find out now.
Unfortunately for Ross, while his observation skills were good, they were no longer infallible. Down the block in his rental car Harry Finn sat and studied the inimitable Mr. Ross. Where to, Danny? Home or the deli? Deli or home? What a long fall it’s been for you.
During the times Finn had observed this internal debate, Dan Ross had picked the deli over home about three-quarters of the time. This ratio held true today as he turned and walked down the street and into the Edsel Deli, going strong since 1954, the sign over the door said, making it far more popular than the dismal car after which it was named.
Ross would be in there eating and watching every move of the cute waitresses for at least an hour. Then it was twenty minutes by car back to his house. After that he would sit out in his backyard, read the newspaper, and then it was time to go in, take a nap, fix a modest dinner, watch TV, play Solitaire by the small table near the front window with the lamp illuminating the cards, and then the man would call it a night. By nine o’clock the lights in the small bungalow would go out, and Dan Ross would fall asleep and wake up the next day to do it all over again. Finn methodically counted off in his head these ticks of the older man’s threadbare life.
After Finn had tracked Ross to this town, he’d made several trips here to learn the man’s routine. This surveillance had enabled him to concoct the perfect plan to complete his task.
About five minutes before Ross would appear from the Edsel, Finn got out of his car, strode across the street, glanced in the window of the deli, and located Ross at his usual table in the rear, studying the bill he’d just been handed. Finn walked unhurriedly down the street to where Ross’ car was parked. In two minutes he was back in his rental. Three minutes after that Ross emerged from the restaurant, slowly edged down the street, climbed in his car and drove off.
Finn left in the opposite direction.
Ross went through his usual litany of triviality that evening, finishing it off with three fingers of Johnnie Walker Black and, ignoring all label warnings, combining it with a potent pop of meds for the pain. He barely made it to his bed before the paralysis set in. At first he assumed it was the drugs, and he actually welcomed the numbing feeling. Yet as he lay on the bed it occurred to him with slight panic that it might be the lupus moving to a higher, more aggressive stage. When he suddenly found it difficult to breathe he knew it was something else altogether. Heart attack? But where was the elephant on the chest, the shooting pain down the left arm? Stroke? He could still think, still talk. He said a few words and none of them constituted a mumble. His face didn’t seem lopsided. He had felt no pain beforehand, other than his usual. That was the problem; he could feel nothing in his limbs now, nothing at all. His gaze ran down his arm until it reached his left hand. He tried to rub the fingers together but his mind’s command apparently was not reaching the digits.
Yet earlier there had been something on his fingers. It had felt slick, like Vaseline. You could rub and rub and never get it to feel dry. He had washed his hands when he got home, and that seemed to do the trick. The fingers didn’t feel slick anymore. He didn’t know if it was due to the soap and water or to whatever it was having evaporated.
Then the truth hit him like a .50 cali
Where had his fingers become wet? He strained his mind to think. Not this morning. Not at the store, or the deli. After that? Perhaps. Getting in the car. The car handle! If he could have managed it, Ross would’ve sat up in a Eureka! moment. But he couldn’t manage it. He could now barely breathe. All that emitted from his mouth was a sort of shortened wheeze. The door handle of his car had been slicked with something that was now killing him. He eyed the phone on the nightstand. Two feet away and it might as well have been in China for all the good it would do him now.
In the darkness the figure appeared beside his bed. The man wore no disguise; Ross could make out his features even in the weak light. He was young and normal-looking. Ross had seen thousands of faces just like that and had paid little attention to any of them. His job had not involved normal; it had encompassed extraordinary. He couldn’t imagine how someone like this man had managed to kill him.
As Ross’ breathing became more labored, the fellow pulled something from his pocket and held it up to him. It was a photo, but Ross couldn’t make out who was in the picture. Realizing this, Harry Finn flicked on a small penlight and shone it on the photo. Ross’ gaze ran up and down the image. Still recognition didn’t come until Finn said the name.
“Now you know,” Finn said quietly. “Now you know.”
He put the photo away and stood silently looking down at Ross as the paralysis continued to wend its way through. He kept his gaze on the other man until the chest gave one last erratic heave and the pupils turned glassy.
Two minutes later Harry Finn was walking through the woods at the back of Ross’ house. The next morning he was on a plane, this time in the main cabin. He landed, drove home, kissed his wife, played with his dog and picked the kids up from school. That night they all went out to dinner to celebrate his youngest child, eight-year-old Susie, being named to portray a talking tree in a school play.
Around midnight, Harry Finn ventured downstairs to the kitchen, where George the faithful Labradoodle rose from his soft bed and greeted him. As he sat at the kitchen table and stroked the dog, Finn mentally crossed Dan Ross off his list.
Now he focused on the next name: Carter Gray, the former chief of America’s intelligence empire.
Stone Cold by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on44 votes