Heroes, p.9
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       Heroes, p.9

           Leigh Barker
 
A few hours later Ethan strode up the same steps that had been General Davy’s last place on earth, and a few seconds after that he stepped through the metal detector in the reception hall, and it screamed. Of course. He sighed tiredly and walked up to the uniformed guard getting ready to pat him down with a wand. He waited patiently for him to find the Sig in his belt holster. The wand beeped rapidly. And, there you go.

  The guard flipped open Ethan’s jacket with the wand and looked at him like he was an idiot child. This is the Pentagon, and military types tend to forget that their hardware is in their pockets, under their armpits, or stuck in their belts. You’d think with all that training and expensive education—

  Ethan took out his pistol and handed it to the guard with his thumb and forefinger, just in case. The guard took it, gave him a long, dirty look just because he could, and put the weapon on the security desk.

  “Don’t I get a receipt?” Ethan asked, just to press the little prick’s button.

  The guard looked from him to the gun, now being removed from sight by an overweight guy in a smart uniform. “Why? Don’t you recognize your own weapon?”

  “Yes, but now your boss has it.” The fat guy wasn’t his boss, he could see that, but—

  “He is not my boss,” the guard said, clearly irritated by this scruffy man.

  “My mistake,” said Ethan, smiling and heading off across the lobby to the elevators.

  He stepped out of the elevator and was face to face with the woman who had told him to hold the phone in the middle of the night. Last night. So yet another day starts without sleep. He thought that was over when he retired from the marines, but here he was, jumping when ordered. And bad-tempered. He’d tried to sleep on the short flight down, but there were babies, and they were in the seat behind his. Of course they were.

  “Please come this way, Mister Gill,” the PA said and walked away towards the highly polished wooden doors. Closed.

  Ethan thought about getting back into the elevator and finding a bar. He wasn’t in the marines any more so didn’t have to put up with being treated like hired help. He’d been shot at, caught a plane in the middle of the night, skipped his morning coffee, and here was this woman telling him to do this, do that—

  She was watching him quietly and holding open one of the big doors. And there was SecNav, his eyebrows raised in a patient expression. Clearly forced.

  Gill strode forward. Quickly.

  “Mister Secretary,” he said, extending his hand. “It’s been a while.”

  “It has, Ethan.” He looked him over. “Given up your uniform and started dressing like a bum, I see.”

  Now that was rude. Ethan looked down at his wrinkled blue raincoat and the off-the-peg suit that he’d been wearing when he’d rolled on the sidewalk. But that was to avoid some very annoying bullets.

  “Disguise,” he said.

  “Trust me,” SecNav said, “it’s working.” He waved him towards one of the ten chairs pushed under the oval, beech conference table and put down the folder he was holding. It didn’t have Top Secret written on it, but in the Pentagon just about everything was top secret.

  Ethan pulled out the chair and sat. He wondered why they were in a conference room instead of SecNav’s office. But he didn’t wonder much. He could wait.

  SecNav pulled out the chair opposite Ethan, and they sat at the huge, empty table like two people who thought Christmas lunch was in April.

  “Okay,” said SecNav, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table, “you’ll be wondering why I asked you here.”

  Ethan shrugged. “Not really, I thought you were just missing me.”

  SecNav laughed, but cut it short. “What I am about to tell you doesn’t leave this room.”

  Ethan said nothing.

  “Three days ago, marine Brigadier General Tyrone D. Harper was shot dead as he left a diner in Atlanta.” SecNav waited for a response.

  “Met him a couple of times down in Fort Benning. Good officer,” said Ethan, and that was enough to say it all.

  “He was in civvies, so we thought it was just a mugging gone wrong.” He reached over and took one of the bottles of water from the middle of the table and raised it at Ethan, who shook his head. He poured himself a glass and took a tiny sip. “It wasn’t a mugging.”

  That was supposed to get a rise out of Ethan. It failed. He’d already come to that conclusion. Why else would he be here talking about it?

  “Terrorist?”

  SecNav put down his glass. “If it was, it was the sloppiest terrorist attack ever. Couple of street kids put two .38 rounds into his chest, stole his wallet, and ran in front of an APD patrol car. Still waving the pistol around.” He shook his head. “The cops shot them to doll-rags. Which was a pity.”

  “Yes, it would have been nice to ask them why they shot the general.”

  SecNav looked at him steadily. He decided he was serious. “Yes, that would have been useful.”

  “But…” said Ethan.

  SecNav raised his eyebrows.

  “There’s a but,” said Ethan. “Otherwise you would have just put NCIS onto it. But I’m here. So there’s a but.”

  SecNav smiled. “Yes, there’s a but.” He opened the folder, took out a white page, and slid it across the table.

  Ethan turned it to face him and scanned the text. He looked up. “You believe this?”

  “I don’t know what I believe, but if it’s true, and God knows it’s scary enough to be. Well…” He shrugged.

  Ethan read the page again. “Al Qaeda is going to kill ten generals to prove the Americans cannot even protect their own.” He shook his head at the melodrama. Typical of the men he’d hunted. All mouth. He looked up. “Assuming it is true and an Al Qaeda terrorist is going on a killing spree of US generals, then you need to contact Homeland Security and bring in the FBI.” It was pretty obvious.

  “General Harper was one of ours, so it’s my problem. And what if I’m wrong, and this note is just a hoax?” He shook his head slowly. “The other agencies will make sure everybody is looking at us. Like picking on the fat kid in the schoolyard, you know?”

  Ethan knew. Make sure everybody is taunting the fat kid, and they’ll leave you alone.

  “So what can I do for you, sir?”

  “I want you to poke around. See what you can find. Tell nobody about this, but determine if this threat is genuine.” He pointed at the paper on the table.

  “Why me?” Ethan brushed at his wrinkled jacket, conscious now of how shabby it was. “You’ve got a whole corps of people to call on.”

  “Nobody I can think of is better equipped for this than you.” He waved Ethan silent. He wasn’t going to speak. “Twelve years as a military policeman—exemplary record—then seven years Special Operations.” He shrugged. “An extension of the police role, really. Examining evidence, following clues, finding people. Only difference being—”

  “I shot them instead of arresting them.” Ethan looked past SecNav at the framed photographs of warships. “Cuts down the paperwork.”

  “Quite. What I want is—”

  The conference room door opened, and the PA walked quickly over and leaned close to SecNav and whispered. Ethan could hear her clearly; there was nothing wrong with his hearing, what was shot was his—

  “Thank you, Collette.” SecNav waited for her to leave and then took a long breath. “Air force General Davy has been shot.”

  Ethan had met the man. A bit of a prig, but as brave as a two-star general could get. “Looks like the threat is playing out.” He pushed the paper back across the table. “Time to call the FBI.”

  SecNav nodded slowly as he thought about it. “Okay,” he said quietly. “But I still want you to investigate this. On the QT.”

  Ethan tilted his head questioningly. “You’re the boss, but I think the FBI will have something to say about me stamping all over their case.”

  “Don’t stamp.” SecNav put the paper back into the folder. “We need to move quickly o
n this. Federal agencies don’t move quickly. It’s not in their nature.”

  “Copy that.”

  SecNav stood and looked Ethan over. He didn’t like what he saw, that was clear. “Buy some new clothes. And get a shave.”

  Ethan smiled. “Sounds like an order.”

  “That’s because it is. Welcome back to the marines, Master Sergeant Gill.”

  Ethan swore under his breath. Two years out, and recalled. Great. Okay, he was overreacting, he knew that. This was a temporary call-up, just until the terrorist or terrorists got caught. Or all the generals got killed.

  Back in the marines, but secretly he had to admit he liked the idea. And he’d get paid, which would be a novelty these days. He stood up and pushed the chair back under the table.

  “I’ll need everything you have on the assassinations.”

  “That won’t be difficult,” said SecNav, and dropped the file back onto the table. “One more thing.” He started for the door, with a clear indication to follow.

  Ethan picked up the file and followed him out of the conference room, down several corridors, a flight of stairs, and through more big doors. Then he was in SecNav’s office. It wasn’t what he’d expected, because it was smaller, much smaller. A round, inlaid coffee table occupied the middle of the office, and a stitched leather sofa and chairs the remainder. With just enough space for a polished teak desk and chair by the window. He looked around and thought if this was the best the head of the navy could look forward to, then a Master Sergeant was just going to get a hole in the ground. Which in Ethan’s case was likely to be literally true. He shrugged it off. A man can only sit on one seat at a time, so this office was fine.

  What was also fine was the woman sitting in one of the leather arm chairs. Mid-thirties, short auburn hair that said military, and a toned body beneath an immaculate grey business suit.

  She waited for him to finish checking her out. It’s what men always did. She returned the compliment and moved up from his scuffed tan desert boots to his blue suit pants, with the mud from the sidewalk still on the knees. An interesting colour combination. The jacket she just glanced at. A person can only take so much. She stopped at his face and raised an eyebrow. Not bad. A bit chipped from too much warfare, but good lines, and dark brown eyes that had wrinkles from laughter or from too much desert sun. His dark hair had a generous proportion of grey, but that was okay. Even if its length wasn’t. He would probably be presentable when he got cleaned up.

  “Kelsey Lyle, meet Ethan Gill.” SecNav was smiling. He’d seen the way Kelsey had disapproved of his choice, until she met his eyes. If nothing else, he was a shrewd judge of character, and no mean matchmaker. Or so his wife would say, if she was still speaking to him. Water under the bridge.

  Ethan stepped up to the armchair and extended a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Kelsey.” And he was.

  She looked at his hand for several seconds, to make sure it was cleaner than the rest of him. Satisfied by the spotless and well-manicured nails, she shook his hand.

  “Kelsey is my NCIS special agent on this case,” SecNav explained before Ethan asked. “She is also the liaison with the FBI.” He smiled. “Yes, they have been informed and are on their way. Very efficient of them.” The smile dropped. “And Kelsey will be your channel to me.”

  “I work alone.”

  “Not on this one you don’t,” said SecNav, and his tone showed he meant it. “This is too close to home and could just blow up in my face.”

  Ethan nodded. “Understood.” He sat on the leather sofa and leaned back. “So, Kelsey, what do we know?”

  She threw a quick glance at SecNav and got a nod in response. Ethan saw it and smiled.

  “What we have,” said Kelsey, sitting up and leaning forward a little, “are two dead generals. One marine brigadier and one army three-star.” She pointed at the folder Ethan was holding. “And I see you’ve got the anonymous note.”

  Ethan opened the file and slid out the paper. “Not much. Al Qaeda says it’s going to kill our generals.” He put the note on top of the file. “Or that’s what somebody would have us believe.”

  Kelsey frowned. “You think it’s a hoax?”

  “God, no. But I never believe anything anybody tells me until I see proof.”

  “Works for me.”

  He liked this woman with those deep green eyes. He liked anyone with good common sense.

  “So far,” Kelsey continued, “we have next to nothing. General Harper was gunned down outside a diner—”

  “SecNav brought me up to speed on that one,” Ethan interrupted. “What’ve we got on General Davy’s killing?”

  “Precious little,” said Kelsey. “Uniforms found his body in his car at the airport. Right out in plain sight. Shot twice in the chest at close range. Probably from the driver’s seat.”

  “And his driver?”

  Kelsey was silent for a beat. “Missing. But we have to assume the worst.”

  “Safe assumption,” said Ethan, a little callously, but combat will do that to a man. “So Al Qaeda—”

  “Or someone pretending to be Al Qaeda,” Kelsey interjected.

  Ethan nodded slowly. “One marine, one army. I’m not a betting man, but I’d say they’ll go after navy next. Probably an admiral. Just to keep things balanced.”

  “There are more than two hundred admirals serving in the navy right now,” SecNav informed them.

  “Then they have a lot to choose from,” Kelsey added.

  “We need to narrow down the field,” said Ethan, standing and pacing the office. Two steps each way. He gave up and sat again. “They’ll want a four-star to get the biggest buzz.”

  “How many?” Kelsey asked.

  “Active? Nine,” SecNav said. “But a terrorist is going to find it tough to get to them, really tough now that security is ramped up to maximum.”

  Ethan made a pyramid with his fingertips and put them on his lips. “We can’t watch them all the time,” he said after a moment. “Do the dead generals have anything in common?”

  Kelsey shook her head. “Nothing that I can find, but Davy’s assassination has only just been reported, so I haven’t had time to check his history and contacts.” She saw Ethan’s look. “I’ll get on that.”

  “Thanks,” said Ethan. “Three days between hits, so far.” He made the pyramid again. “But with a sample of two, that’s not very telling.”

  “There’s you,” said SecNav.

  Ethan frowned, then got it. “Yes, I did know them both. But I have an alibi.” He stood up ready to leave. “I need to see Davy’s car.”

  “The FBI will have it,” said SecNav, caught Ethan’s look and nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

  “FBI have a lead,” said Kelsey.

  “And you were going to tell me this, when?” Ethan was irritated, but a night without sleep will do that.

  She shrugged. “I was waiting to see if I can trust you.”

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome,” she said with a smile. “First impressions aren’t great, you know?”

  He knew.

  “There’s a two-man terrorist team that fits the profile for this.” She waited for him to react. He didn’t. “Naser Alzesh and Mahmoud Faraj arrived in this country five weeks ago from Pakistan and then dropped off the grid. Alzesh is a person of interest in the assassination of a high-ranking Pakistani politician. Faraj ambushed an Afghan-led patrol in Helmand and killed a dozen Afghanis and four marines.”

  “And they walked in through JFK?” Ethan’s tone showed he was not impressed.

  “The FBI let them in,” said SecNav, a little embarrassed but without reason. “They believed they could manage them and they would lead them to bigger fish.”

  “They were wrong,” said Ethan.

  “Evidently,” said SecNav, a little testily.

  “Okay, it’s done,” said Ethan. “Have we any idea where they are or what they’re up to?”

  SecNav shifted uncomfort
ably. “Homeland Security believe they’re here to avenge Bin Laden’s death.”

  “Oh, great.” Ethan let it go. “I’ll reach out to my contacts in Afghanistan and see if there’s anything buzzing about these two or a whisper about a revenge attack.” He crossed to the door, stopped and turned. “If you hear anything,” he said to Kelsey, “you let me know. It doesn’t matter how unimportant it might seem. Okay?”

  “I’ve done this sort of work before.” Her cheeks reddened just a little.

  “Sorry,” said Ethan. “I’m used to dealing with numb-nut… with marines.”

  “I’ll keep you in the loop,” she said, satisfied. “When there’s a loop to keep you in.”

  “Okay, do that,” said Ethan and left.

  He collected his Sig from the security desk and smiled at the scowling security guard. It costs nothing to be nice.

  Back on the steps, he stopped and looked up at the dark December sky that pretty much reflected how he felt. So, the first order of business was to get some food, get a hotel, and get some damned sleep before he smacked somebody for just looking at him.

 
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