Authors: Chuck Barrett
s the Jeep
Searcy City Limit
sign, Kaplan saw three police cars, a rescue vehicle, and a fire truck pass him going in the opposite direction.
At this time of the morning, knowing what he knew, their destination was a no-brainer.
"What kind of broker?" Kaplan asked Tony.
"You misunderstand," he said. "I broker anything."
As they entered the town of Searcy, streetlights lined the highway. While he talked, Tony was doing that thing again with his hands. Thumb touching his first two fingers. Palm up. Wrist bouncing. He recognized it as a typical Italian gesture. Or Sicilian, in Tony's case. "What do you broker?"
"It depends on what my client needs. I once had a client in Argentina who wanted women so I connected him with someone who dealt in human trafficking. It's rather appalling I know, but they both paid very well. You see, all I do is make the introduction, after that, I have nothing further to do with it. I brokered for a man in Mexico who wanted guns. I don't know what he did with them. In my line of business, you don't ask questions. I've brokered prescription drugs to a South American drug lord, false passports to a man in the Cayman Islands, and recruited accident victims with Medicare information for several health care companies in South Florida." He held up his fingers and made air quotes when he said
Kaplan glanced at Tony, then back to the highway. "You realize the people you deal with are heavy hitters. They don't take kindly to anyone ratting them out."
. It's a code of silence against giving evidence to the cops. For ratting them out I'm a
pezzo di merda
"What does that mean?"
"Pezzo di merda. Like you would call someone a
piece of shit
in English. If I'm caught they will stuff a bird in my mouth and then a bullet to the head."
"Because you sang like a canary." Kaplan smiled.
He thought about what Tony said. If the old man was providing testimony against the types of criminals he mentioned, it was incredible he was still alive. He was up against some very powerful underworld players with connections that ran far and wide and a lot of money to spend to silence the old man. Corrupt money to protect their businesses. Kaplan was starting to understand why Inspector Michael Cox wanted him to deliver Tony only to a WitSec safe site.
He took an exit on the northeast side of Searcy.
"Why are we stopping?" Tony asked. He leaned over and looked at the gas gauge. "We have plenty of gas."
"We need new clothes." Kaplan pointed to the Walmart sign. "Open twenty-fours hours."
Kaplan parked the Jeep beyond a vehicle farthest from the entrance. He rolled down the three good windows and scraped the broken glass from the fourth onto the floorboard. On the off chance someone walked by he didn't want extra attention drawn to the vehicle. Cracked windshields happen all the time. And a car with its windows down in August isn't going to raise anyone's eyebrows. Odds were no one would come out here anyway, so it was strictly a precautionary move.
Fifteen minutes later with a road atlas, two shirts, and a pair of dark slacks in a bag, all paid for with cash, he and Tony got back into the Jeep. They changed in the car. Kaplan remained in his jeans but scrapped the black long-sleeve t-shirt for a tan
work shirt. Tony changed into dark brown slacks and a shirt that was a color Kaplan had trouble describing. Not purple or red or even wine. Plum, maybe. But, the combination suited Tony.
He pulled out of the Walmart parking lot and stopped behind an all-night pancake house. He tossed the old clothes in a dumpster and pulled out on East Race Avenue. He didn't take the on ramp to the highway; instead he drove under the highway and pulled into a Waffle House. "I need something to eat. I was too busy saving your ass in Little Rock." He parked on the side of the building away from all the windows. No sense advertising which vehicle he was driving.
Kaplan and Tony walked in and sat down in the booth nearest the entrance.
The diner smelled of burnt coffee. Booths wrapped around two sides of the diner and a row of stools lined the counter. It was empty except for the man behind the counter who looked too old to be working the graveyard shift in an all-night diner. An apron covered his dingy t-shirt. His hair was thin. And greasy. Almost as greasy as the griddle behind him.
"What'll it be?" The man asked.
"Got any fresh coffee?" Kaplan asked.
"You ordering food?"
"Then I'll put on a fresh pot now. It'll only take three or four minutes." While he spoke he ripped open a bag, dumped the grinds in a hopper and shoved it in a machine. With the push of a button, fresh coffee started dripping into a carafe. "What'll it be?"
Kaplan said, "Three eggs scrambled, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy."
"And you?" He looked at Tony.
"I'll have the same."
"Coming right up."
The man turned around and tossed a glop of lard on the griddle and worked it with a spatula into a fine glaze on the cook top. Within minutes Kaplan heard bacon sizzling and smelled freshly brewed coffee. His stomach growled. He was hungrier than he realized. The plate of food arrived and he shoveled it down. His last meal had been over twelve hours ago in Knoxville, Tennessee.
As Tony was finishing his meal, Kaplan noticed a pickup truck pull into the parking space in front of their window. The truck was covered in a camouflage wrap with a gun rack in the rear window. Two young men jumped out laughing. Beer cans tumbled from the cab onto the parking lot. They laughed louder. Easily amused. Both were about the same size, one had short dark hair tucked beneath a tan cap with a Ducks Unlimited logo, the other had short red hair and a John Deere cap. They looked like high school seniors who probably worked on their fathers' farms by day and went looking for trouble by night. And it was a Friday night.
Technically, Saturday morning, a time when young people across the nation would unwind from the week by drinking enough to act stupid.
Both boys wore jeans with dirty work boots. The guy in the John Deere cap wore a shirt that said something about rice and grain. Ducks Unlimited wore a t-shirt with PETA scribed across the front in big bold letters, which seemed odd until Kaplan read the subscriptâPeople Eating Tasty Animals.
Through the window PETA pointed at Kaplan with both index fingers in a drum roll fashion.
The cook turned around when he heard the door open. His face fell. "Look boys, I don't want any trouble tonight. Go on and get out of here before I have to call the cops on you two again."
"Call the cops then," John Deere said. "No one will answer. They got called out to a fiery car crash out on South 67. All of them."
Kaplan's gut clenched.
When he left the smashed up Crown Vic, there was no fire. Or any signs one might ignite. He looked at Tony and said, "Let's get out of here."
"I'm not finished yet," Tony said.
PETA squeezed into the booth and sat next to Tony. "You heard him. Let the man finish."
John Deere sat down next to Kaplan.
PETA said, "We're hungry. Why don't you buy us breakfast too?" More laughter.
Kaplan said nothing.
Tony turned his attention back to his plate. "You boys are making a big mistake," he said.
"How's that old man?" PETA stared at Kaplan.
"You should leave while you can," Tony said and took a bite of his biscuit.
"What if I say we're staying?" John Deere said.
Kaplan picked up his half-empty coffee cup and swirled the dark liquid inside until it almost lipped over the edge of the cup. “He's right. You should leave now.”
John Deere pulled a knife from his pocket and clicked it open.
Tony gave John Deere a nervous glance and said, "You really shouldn't have done that."
Before John Deere could respond, Kaplan's elbow smashed into his face with a mighty upward force. The cartilage in the kid's nose gave way and his head snapped back. Kaplan seized him by the nape of the neck and slammed his forehead into the table. Coffee splashed from the cups. Silverware rattled on the tabletop. Kaplan pushed the unconscious kid to the floor.
Kaplan quickly scooted out of the booth. PETA was already standing two feet away pointing a handgun at Kaplan's head. His hand shook.
"Johnny?" PETA nudged his unconscious friend with his boot.
"He can't hear you," Kaplan said. "Get in your truck and leave or you'll join your friend."
"You forget who's holding the gun."
Kaplan's left hand moved with swift accuracy as he turned sideways and deflected the gun to his right, PETA's left. The gun fired. The bullet hit the base of the counter and lodged in the wood molding. In one smooth motion, Kaplan's right hand grabbed the barrel and twisted PETA's wrist inward, past the breaking point, which sent PETA to his knees. Kaplan kept twisting until the gun came free from the kid's hands and was now in Kaplan's hand and pointed at PETA's head. "Looks like I am."
“Son of a bitch, you broke my wrist.”
The cook's mouth dropped open. "How'd you do that?"
"Practice." Kaplan thrust his knee upward in PETA's face. The kid fell over, nose bleeding and unconscious.
Kaplan fished three twenties out of his pocket and tossed them on the counter. "For the meals and inconvenience. Also, coffee and aspirin. They'll need both when they come to."
Kaplan turned around and Tony was standing next to him. "I warned them," the old man said.
"Kids these days just don't listen."
aplan and Tony
hurried across the Waffle House parking lot toward the Jeep parked out of view from the diner's windows.
"Here," Kaplan said. He tossed the Jeep's keys to Tony. "You're driving."
Tony caught them in midair, "I can't drive like you. I don't think this is a good idea."
"None of this is a good idea. Now get in and drive."
Kaplan got in, adjusted the seat, and settled in to a comfortable position. He estimated it would take a little over two and a half hours to get to Poplar Bluff. He pulled out the road atlas he bought at Walmart, reached into his backpack, and pulled out his mini-Mag penlight.
While Tony drove, Kaplan studied the map. "As a precaution, I think we should alter our route. If we're being tracked, and I'm pretty sure we are by now, especially when word gets out about what just happened back there, we should veer away from a straight-line path to our destination. It will add a few extra hours driving time but it will muddle their guess of our intentions."
"A few hours? You think that's a good idea? I thought time was of the essence."
Kaplan ignored the question. "In Paducah, we'll turn south toward Nashville. We should get another car and dump this one. We can do both in Nashville. They'll be looking for the Jeep by now."
Kaplan reached his right hand to the base of his seat, felt around, and found the correct button. The seat's motor hummed as his seat back reclined. Yesterday hadn't turned out at all like he'd expected. Or had planned. It had been almost twenty-four hours since he left Virginia and now he was on his way back. His original itinerary called for a good night's sleep in Little Rock, an early wake-up call, and then another long day's ride to El Paso.
The man he'd met last year in Yemen lived in El Paso. He held the key to the whereabouts of the woman for whom Kaplan was searching. The man, according to his handler, was the only one who knew her current location. A location he might be reluctant to reveal at first, but Kaplan was certain he could persuade him.
His thoughts returned to his own carelessness. How could he have made such a stupid mistake? A rookie mistake. Tradecraft training taught him to identify and resolve multiple complex scenarios simultaneously. Now his failure to pay attention to detail made his current situation even more complicated. When law enforcement showed up at his friend's home and found Kaplan's motorcycle and ran his license plate through motor vehicles databases, alarm bells would go off at the CIA. He would be back on the grid and the agency would have to officially deny he was in an operational status inside the United States. No one at Langley would be happy.
His friends' lives might be in jeopardy. The only thing working in their favor was that they bought the vacation beach house in Sandestin two weeks ago and, with any luck, the banking and property databases hadn't been updated yet.
alkyrie hung up the phone
Shepherd had informed the assassin about the break-in at the home on the Arkansas River. No one was home and all of the old man's WitSec identity documentation had been discovered inside the home along with several RFID tracking devices. How Shepherd obtained that information Valkyrie did not know. Nor care. What Valkyrie did want to know was whether Shepherd had someone else working the same job.
Shepherd said the target would move east. The old man and his companion would keep to the back roads, stay out of sight, and change vehicles often.
But to where?
and Moore made phone calls, Moss and Special Agent Small walked through the house with Sheriff Hollister. It seemed that whoever broke into the home hadn't stayed long. Barely long enough to regroup and formulate a plan. Perhaps they even tried to map out an escape route. It appeared they did have time enough to find something to eat in the house and make a pot of coffee.
Moss knew the witness's background. The Department of Justice's contract with the witness was to provide testimony against several crime families. And in so doing, he would incriminate many other underworld figures as wellâ¦in the United States and abroad. Any number of whom had the resources to hire an assassin. These were ruthless people driven by power and greed.
According to his file, the witness's location had been compromised twice before, and both times for the same reasonâhis refusal to follow WitSec security measures. The witness's involvement in several philatelic organizations was an activity WitSec repeatedly instructed him to abandon for his own safety. A passionate hobby he couldn't seem to give up. He continued to purchase rare stamps to add to his collection. Moss wouldn't be surprised if the cause of this breach weren't for the same reason.
It was his job to locate WC 7922, aka Anthony Napoli, before the bad guys did. At this point, Moss had to assume this Kaplan fellow was keeping the witness alive for a reason. For what, he did not know.
After a thorough search of the home, no evidence of blood was found except a trace amount on a sink in a half bath behind the family room. Not enough to amount to more than a small cut or bloody nose. Even though samples were taken for DNA testing, by the time those results came in it wouldn't matter, this would all be over.
Before he and Small started the walk-through, Moss gave Moore and Hepler specific instructions. Moore was to call U. S. Marshals Service headquarters to see if they had the clout necessary to get information on Gregg Kaplan. If not, since the Marshals Service was Department of Justice, maybe somebody there knew somebody up the food chain who could pull a few strings. He tasked Hepler with coordinating a review of all traffic cams in Little Rock that might have picked up the dark sedan pursuing the motorcycle. Once he had investigators looking at video, Hepler was to ensure an APB was issued for Gregg Kaplan. Moss wanted the all points bulletin to include Arkansas and any state that shared a common state line with Arkansas.
One thing was certain; Gregg Kaplan was a person of interest. His motorcycle was there. But where was he now? And was the witness still with him? What about the homeowners? Where were they? It was beginning to seem probable that the owners weren't home when Kaplan and the witness arrived.
"Inspector Moss?" Moore's voice called to him from the back door.
Moss walked down the stairs. "Find out anything?" He walked toward her and she met him in the middle of the family room.
Hepler came through the door at the same time. Moss and Moore turned toward him.
Moss turned back to Moore, "Well, what did you find out?"
"Not good," she said. "Not only is the Marshals Service locked out of Mr. Kaplan's file, all of Justice is as well. His info is locked up tighter than Fort Knox."
Moss turned to Hepler. "Get anything useful from the traffic cams?"
"Nada," Hepler said. "The car wasn't seen on any traffic cams that we could find. And if Justice can't get his fileâ"
"He's NSA or CIA." Moss interrupted.
"My money says he's a spook," Hepler said.
Moss rolled his eyes. "Come on, JP. You think everyone's a spook. I need something now, his trail is growing cold and I don't intend to end my career with a failed assignment. Find out what vehicles the owners have and let's start looking for them. I want to know about anything that seems out of the ordinary. I'll determine whether it's relevant or not."
Hepler raised his finger. "There was one thing, Dirt Man. Maybe it's related." He fished a piece of paper from his back pocket. "There was a fatal one-car accident a couple of hours up the road from here. Two people killed. One died in his seat belt and the other was ejected from the vehicle. A black Crown Vic. No IDs either. The car caught fire and burned. Arkansas State Police and Searcy Police responded. Two weapons were found in the grass median."
“Maybe one day you can explain this
thing,” Moore said. "When did the accident occur?"
"Little over an hour ago." He looked at his watch. "Probably closer to two by now."
"Timing is right," Moore said.
"Yes it is," Moss said. It was a lead. And a direction. Not much, but something worth checking out. If it was the same Crown Vic from earlier, then they knew something he didn't. Perhaps they were following the witness. Or knew where he was going. "Run the prints on the weapons and see if we get any hits.
"Also," Moss continued. "Hitch a ride back to your car with Special Agent Small. I need someone in the office to coordinate this operation. Contact Arkansas Motor Vehicles and issue BOLOs on all vehicles registered to this address." Moss turned his attention to the red-haired woman. "Inspector Moore, looks like you and I are going to the booming metropolis of Searcy, Arkansas."
She smiled. "Wouldn't want it any other way."