Changing of the guard, p.21
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       Changing of the Guard, p.21

           Tom Clancy
 
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  “I did some fast research on the subject, talked in RW to an expert, and then I made some assumptions for a baseline.”

  “What assumptions?” Thorn asked.

  “One, that the guy was fairly serious, because according to those who know, players who aren’t serious usually don’t bother with the fingernail thing.”

  Thorn nodded. “According to the FBI and cops who ran this thing, they say the guy is a pro, very careful. Only reason we found images off him is sheer dumb luck—he didn’t make any big mistakes.”

  “One, anyway,” Julio said. “Jay’s still alive, isn’t he?”

  Jay grinned. “Maybe he wasn’t planning to kill me. The more I think about it, the more I think maybe he might have wanted to kidnap me.”

  “Based on?” Howard asked.

  “If he’d wanted to kill me, there were fifty places better than the one he picked, and I’d have never seen it coming.”

  “Kidnapping you on a major highway wasn’t a mistake?”

  “We’d never have ID’d him from the eyewitnesses, would we? I think something happened. Maybe he didn’t even mean to shoot me in the head. Maybe he was just trying to scare me.”

  Thorn said, “Go ahead, Jay.”

  “Thanks. It doesn’t really matter what he had in mind, though—I just needed a place to set up shop.”

  Thorn nodded. “We’re with you so far.”

  “So, we assume he’s a good guitar player. That narrows it down to, say, ten thousand, people who practice a couple hours a day, at least. My expert says it’s actually probably fewer than that. I also assumed for the sake of the search that fairly serious classical guitarists not only study the instrument, they keep up with related material—magazines, either treeware or e-zines, sheet music sites, guitar competitions, concerts, guitar makers, and music stores, all like that.

  “Then I gridded the country and checked by region. I’m thinking that the guy must be a local—living somewhere on the eastern seaboard.”

  “Why?” Kent asked. “He could live anywhere, couldn’t he? We have quite a national transportation system. It sure seems you’re making a lot of assumptions, son.”

  Virtual Jay glanced at virtual Thorn, who smiled. He was a player himself, and a good one. He knew the old researchers’ adage: Assumptions were the mothers of information.

  Jay said, “You have to start somewhere. Did you ever work a hard crossword puzzle? Sometimes, you just have to put letters in, to see if it sparks anything. You can always erase and change things.”

  “All right,” Kent said. “Stipulated.”

  Jay continued: “When you strain classical guitar magazines, websites, UseNet groups, concert tickets, and luthiers—those are the guys who make guitars—you come up with plenty of duplicates, but now we’re down to a few thousand names who recur in three or four arenas. These are the serious folks. If we eliminate the women, those we can ID immediately as being too old or too young, and those outside of the east coastal states, we’re down to a few hundred serious guys. Running checks on their pix, using national, state, and local images we can access, gets down to twelve without easily found visual ID’s.”

  “Twelve?” Julio asked.

  “Yep. Then we dig a little deeper, checking guitar websites, high school yearbooks, newspapers—we have their names, so it’s easier—and we have four possibles left. Remember, we restricted the search to people who live on the east coast, but that’s just their permanent address, not their current one. It turns out two of the four are overseas right now. One is a soldier stationed in the Middle East, the other is a guy working in Japan.”

  He paused, enjoying the drama of the moment.

  “One of remaining two is in a wheelchair.”

  He paused again.

  “Jay,” Howard said.

  Jay grinned. “And the last one . . .” He touched a control on the flatscreen. A third image, full-face and a close view, appeared next to the others, and it was obviously the same man.

  “Tah-dah!”

  Julio snorted. “Why didn’t you just show us the picture in the first place?”

  Jay laughed. “It’s not enough just to get the answer, Julio, you also have to show your work.”

  Julio shook his head and muttered softly. Jay didn’t quite catch what he said, but it didn’t exactly sound like a compliment.

  Jay kept going: “This image was taken at a box office in Washington, D.C., two months ago, by a QuikTix machine that sold him the admission to a classical guitar concert. He paid with a debit card. We have the bank and the ID on the account. The name is fake—he calls himself ‘Francisco Tárrega,’ which is a giveaway—Tárrega was a famous Spanish guitarist who died a hundred years ago. The address is also bogus, but he does have an active mailbox at a Mail Store in the District where the bank sends his statements. We can get a team of feebs to watch the place. When he goes to fetch his mail, we’ve got him.”

  “Great work, Jay,” Howard said.

  “But wait, it gets better. I also sent copies of the picture to classical guitarists and instrument makers and sellers and all like that, once I was sure he wasn’t one of them. I’ve got half a dozen people who recognize the guy, and we have a first name—Edward. We also know he probably is foreign-born. Our witnesses say he has an accent. He sounds like a Russian, Ukranian, something like that. Nobody claims to know the guy well; they do say he seems to know guitars and can talk the talk. One shop owner in New York City says from what this guy has told him, he owns at least a few fairly expensive custom-made instruments.”

  At home, but also there, Jay grinned and relaxed. He felt a little better about this, but he’d feel better still once the guy was in custody.

  Or on a slab.

  “Welcome back, man,” Julio said.

  “Thanks,” Jay said. “It’s good to be back.”

  Or anywhere, for that matter.

  26

  Net Force HQ

  Quantico, Virginia

  Thorn stripped off the VR gear and smiled, very much pleased with himself. Jay had come up with the guy’s name, but Thorn had just discovered where he lived!

  He reached for the com, to call Jay at home. Jay had a personal stake in this.

  Jay’s face appeared on the computer’s screen. “Hey, Boss. What’s up?”

  “We got his house, Jay.”

  “We did? How?”

  Thorn smiled. Spoken like a true information hound—the “how” was as important as the fact it was done.

  “From your info. One of the interviewees, a music store owner, said our man claimed to own some expensive handmade instruments. Said he was passionate about them, prized them highly, and knew enough particulars so that the store owner was sure he was telling the truth. The guy loves fine guitars.”

  “And?”

  “So, I did an on-line survey of American luthiers who produce classical guitars costing more than a couple thousand dollars, and asked if any of them had shipped one to somebody with the first name ‘Edward’ in the New York or Washington, D.C., area in the last few months. I got three hits. On one of them, from a luthier in Portland, Oregon, the spelling was different—it was E-D-U-A-R-D. I checked with the carriers the guitar-makers used, ran down the three addresses. Two of them checked out to be people who couldn’t be our man. The third one, the “u” spelling, that’s our guy—I talked to the truck driver who delivers air freight to the house. He’s trucked several guitars there in the past year. It’s him.”

  “Cool,” Jay said. “But I should have thought of that.”

  “You were just out of a coma from being shot in the head, Jay. Cut yourself a little slack getting back up to steam.”

  “Yeah, I guess.” But it didn’t sound as if he meant it.

  “Anyway, we have a home address, and a last name to go with Eduard—Natadze.”

  “ ‘Not-see?’ What kind of a name is that?”

  “Na-tad-ze. He’s from Georgia.”

  “A Russian from Georgia?


  “No, Georgia the country. A web search shows the name is Georgian. They have their own language, but a lot of them speak Russian, given as how it used to be part of the Soviet Union.”

  “Well, I’ll be,” Jay said. “You sicced the feebs on him yet?”

  “Not yet. I’ve run down ownership of the house, and it’s a circle of holding companies and paper-only corporations, no way to connect to him. I was thinking maybe the fewer people who know about this, the better—that maybe we should check it out further to be sure we’re not mistaken, before we call in the regular FBI.”

  There was a pause. “You’re turning Howard and Kent loose.” It wasn’t a question.

  “Technically, I’m not supposed to do that,” Thorn said. “But maybe it wouldn’t hurt if somebody from Net Force did a recon and checked the situation out. Kind of a . . . training exercise.”

  Another pause. “And if they happened to spot this guy walking out his front door, they might feel compelled to detain him and then call the FBI field guys.”

  “That would seem a reasonable decision. To make sure he didn’t escape.”

  Jay grinned. “You are going to fit in just fine around here, boss.” A pause, then: “Listen, I’m not a field guy myself, but do you suppose I might ride along, as an observer?”

  “I’m sure General Howard and Colonel Kent wouldn’t have any objection to that. If your doctors think you are up to it.”

  “They do, no question. Thanks, boss. Good work.”

  “You’re welcome, Jay.”

  When he discommed, Thorn smiled again. It felt pretty good to be the guy who came up with the missing piece of the puzzle. And to be the boss, too? How much better did it get than that?

  He reached for the VR headset again. He hadn’t done more than a cursory look at this Natadze guy, enough to ascertain that he was their suspect. Now, he’d do a little more digging and see what else he could find.

  Washington, D.C.

  Natadze shook the delivery man’s hand again, and this time, he pressed a wad of folded bills into the man’s palm, ten hundreds. “Thank you, Esteban, I appreciate it.”

  The man accepted the money without looking at it. “Yeah, well, you always done right by me, Mr. Natadze. This guy asked about guitars, and I told him, without thinking, you know? Lo siento. Least I could do was tell you. I hope it’s not nothing serious.”

  “Let me be honest with you, Esteban, it’s a visa thing. Some papers I was supposed to fill out are . . . a little late.”

  The delivery man, Hispanic and probably still working off a green card himself, nodded, his face grim. “I hear you.”

  It was the perfect thing to say, as Natadze had known it would be. Now, in that moment, they were brothers, dodging La Migra, or whatever they were calling it these days. Just honest, hard-working men being hounded by the uncaring bureaucratic machine over some niggling technical detail, some obscure letter of the law designed to keep a good man from getting ahead. Esteban knew all about that.

  “What will you do?”

  “I’ll turn in the papers and pray for the best.”

  “I know a guy who knows a good lawyer,” Esteban said.

  “Thanks, my friend, I appreciate it. My uncle is an attorney; I’m sure he’ll know how to handle it.”

  After the man left, the sense of panic Natadze felt threatened to roil up in his throat and choke him. Esteban felt bad, and that and the thousand dollars would probably keep the authorities from getting anything else out of him for a little while, but that was closing the gate after the horse had gotten out.

  He forced himself to stand still and take three deep breaths, slowly, inhaling and exhaling through his nose. Blind panic would be fatal.

  He felt only a little better as he headed for the back door. He would slip out, go over the fence into his neighbor’s yard—the one without the dog—and leave the area on foot. It didn’t seem likely they would have allowed the delivery man to pull right up to his door if they were out there now, watching, but he couldn’t take the chance. They’d know his car.

  His main regret at losing the house were the guitars in the basement. They were beyond price, some of them, but even so, it was not worth spending the rest of his life on death row to stop and pack them. He had to go, now! Somehow, he would either send for them, or make it back here some day, but now was not the time.

  Maybe he could take just one, the Friedrich . . . ?

  No. A man on foot carrying a guitar case was memorable.

  He paused only long enough to collect his good revolver and some spare ammunition. He tucked the holstered gun under his sport coat.

  It was not possible that they could have found him, and yet they had. Why else would somebody who claimed to be from Net Force be asking the air freight delivery man about him? He had to assume the worst—they knew who he was and they would be coming to get him.

  It didn’t make any sense. He was sure he had not left anything behind in his operations of late, neither with Gridley nor the Russian, nothing that could tie him to them, much less to this house!

  And yet they had questioned Esteban, and they knew about his hobby, and they knew where he lived. It was clear that they had only wanted to confirm it.

  There was no way they could have gotten that information, no connection to him.

  Well, yes. There was one way.

  He dismissed the thought angrily, instantly ashamed that such a disloyal idea had crossed his mind.

  And yet—who else could possibly know?

  Another worry, but no time to distress about it now. To stay here was to be trapped.

  He looked through the sliding glass door into his fenced backyard. Nobody there he could see. It had only been an hour or so since Esteban had talked to the agent, he’d said. Maybe they hadn’t had time to get the proper clearances and roll. There were laws in this country that governed such things. You couldn’t just kick in a door and arrest somebody without a judge permitting it.

  But maybe they had a tame judge, and were on the way and closing fast.

  Of course, they might be sitting in a helicopter a mile away watching through a telescope, or footprinting him with a satellite, or just on the other side of the tall wooden fence, guns drawn, ready to cook him on sight.

  No, they’d want him alive. To find out who he was working for, and what else he knew of value. If they were out there.

  He took a deep breath, and stepped out into the yard, his hand on his revolver’s butt under his jacket. He was not going to prison, no matter what else happened. And with any luck, he could take a couple of them with him.

  But nobody yelled or leaped out waving guns. There were no helicopters in sight, and if they had a spysat watching him, there was no way to tell.

  He made it to the fence, jumped up and caught the top, and pulled himself up to peer into his neighbor’s yard.

  Nobody there.

  He tugged himself up and over the seven-foot-tall fence and dropped to the soft, sweet-smelling and neatly mowed grass. He hurried across the yard to the gate. A few more blocks, he would steal a car, get farther away, change vehicles, and get farther still. He would avoid public transportation, use back roads when he could, and get out of the District. Into a neighboring state, maybe one past that.

  If he got that far, then he’d figure out what to do from there.

  27

  Washington, D.C.

  Kent wanted this to go by the numbers, and he was being very careful not to do anything to screw it up. It was, after all, his first field op for Net Force.

  At the moment, he was in that RV that Lieutenant Fernandez—who was about to become a Captain as General Howard’s parting gift, though he didn’t know it yet—had scored. It was a comfortable way to sit surveillance, that was for sure.

  John Howard sat on the couch, looking through the one-way polarized glass at the subject’s house. The man who lived there was one Eduard Natadze, a Georgian native. They didn’t know much else about him,
except for the guitar material, but that didn’t matter—they knew what he looked like, they had his house in sight, and they knew if he showed up, they were going to grab him, which should be enough info to do the job.

  Jay Gridley perched on one of the captain’s chairs, also staring out at the surveillance scene. He didn’t need to be here, but Kent understood why he wanted to be. He wouldn’t get in the way.

  It was Kent himself who was the problem. He simply wasn’t as comfortable as he’d like to be. He knew he didn’t have any problems at all when it came to a battlefield, but this kind of operation was not his forte. Sure, he had done enough intel gathering over the years to know you sometimes had to sneak instead of stomp, but this was the first time he’d ever mounted an operation on U.S. soil, other than in training or VR exercises, and he wanted a win.

  So far, everything had gone like a Swiss watch.

  They were parked within two hundred meters of the subject’s residence. Fernandez had an eight-trooper team scattered around the place either disguised or in hiding. There was a “repairman” working on a street light, a “gardener” clipping bushes, and others hidden inside nondescript cars and trucks, ringing the house. When the guy came home, they’d have him.

  His car was there, but he wasn’t in the house, they knew that, not unless he could make himself invisible to their FLIR and sound sensors, which could pick up a man’s body heat and the sound of his respiration. Unless he was hiding in a freezer and breathing real slow . . .

  But as the day wore into night, and eventually into day again, there was no sign of the subject. Maybe he was out of town.

  As Gridley crawled out of the overhead bed just after dawn, he said, “I just had a thought. Commander Thorn talked to the guy who delivers this guy’s guitars, right?”

  Kent said, “That’s what he said.”

  “Let me check something.”

  Gridley sat on the couch, opened his flatscreen, and began tapping the keys. After a moment, he said, “Well, that’s that.”

 
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