Authors: Chuck Barrett
"You are not seriously going to buy that clunker, are you?" Tony said to Kaplan.
The man on the porch frowned at Tony's remark.
Kaplan reached into his pocket and pulled out a stack of bills. He counted out four, one hundred dollar bills and held them out. "It'll get us where we're going."
"Where's that?" The man asked.
The man took the bills, nodded, and stuffed them in his front pocket. Then he walked back inside his shanty of a home.
No bill of sale. No title. Nothing. In this neighborhood, the money for the car was nothing more than booze and drug money.
They were two blocks away when Kaplan stopped and attached the license plate from the Jeep to the Sable. Two minutes later, he drove up the on-ramp to I-24 southbound toward Nashville.
"I can not believe you paid four hundred dollars for this junk heap," Tony said.
"It's all about hours," Kaplan replied.
"It will be several hours before anyone can tie us to this car. By then, we'll be in a different state and a different car."
at the scene of the accident just after the sun broke the horizon in the eastern sky. Inspector April Moore slept almost the entire time they were on the road from Mayflower, Arkansas to Searcy, Arkansas. He drove the distance in just under two hours, which included a stop in Conway for food, gas, and restrooms, the only time Moore was awake for more than fifteen minutes.
It had been a long night. In reality, it had been a long twenty-four hours. Yesterday at this time he was just getting out of bed at his home in Chicago. What he wouldn't give to be back there now. Instead he had been working an evening shift in firearms training only to be interrupted and reassigned to WitSec. And to make matters worse, the assignment landed him back in the town he had just moved from, Little Rock. A town he'd grown to loathe during his WitSec tenure at the Little Rock Field Office.
A long day and a long night and now, as the sun cleared the tree line, he was staring at a charred Crown Vic upside down in the grassy median. The grass in a three-foot perimeter around the car was scorched. The twisted wreck's original paint melted off by the fiery crash.
He turned and poked the woman in the arm. "Moore, wake up. Get ready for some crash-burn physics."
She roused in her seat and he could see her absorbing the scene in her mind.
"Looks toasted," she said. "Burned hot enough to take off the paint."
"Yep." Moss surveyed the scene. The lanes closest to the median were closed in both directions. Arkansas State Police were funneling all the morning travelers into one lane causing a minor backup of traffic. Gawkers made it worse. There were two fire trucks, two rescue units, state, county, and Searcy police cars, and a newer model black Ford panel van with
stamped on the side in bold, white letters. Two men in coveralls were loading a body bag through the rear door.
He was following the trail of his witness and the man accompanying him. A man who he now knew was Gregg Kaplan. A man who had connections of his own high in the ranks of the federal government. This search continued to get more complicated. The trail had been easy enough to follow, though; Kaplan left a string of bodies behind him like breadcrumbs. Whether deliberate or unintentional, it had kept the mystery man from falling out of sight altogether. At first he thought Kaplan was a fugitive and might be connected to Tony, but now he knew the man was not. But who was this mystery man? More importantly, why was he with Tony?
Moss signaled Moore. "Come on. Let's check it out," he said. He rolled himself out of his seat and into the morning air. It was warm and damp and he knew it would be another Southern scorcher with afternoon thunderstorms firing up shortly after lunch. There was no breeze. The air had a lingering stench of burnt vehicle mixed with recently sprayed chemicals on a nearby field by a crop duster. Moss looked around, on his side of the road was a field of soybeansâwaist high and leafy. Across the highway, corn, which seemed to have just tasseled. The saddest thing of all was that he had been in the South so long, he actually knew what these crops looked like.
The Searcy Police chief held up his hand signaling Moss to stop as he approached. Moss pulled out his creds and held them up for the officer to see. Moore did the same. "Figured the feds would show up sooner or later. Didn't expect the Marshals though."
"What made you think the feds would show up?" Moore asked.
The chief looked at Moss then turned to Moore. "Crown Vic, no IDs, and those." The chief pointed to two handguns lying in the grass. Both Glocks and both with sound suppressors.
The chief gave Moss and Moore a full briefing on the one-car accident. He explained the skid marks on the asphalt indicated the car swerved and lost control. Since no large animal tracks could be found as a source of the swerve, he had initially attributed the crash to be caused by the driver falling asleep at the wheel.
"I'm not buying it," Moss said. "Something's not adding up. But what?"
"You think it's connected to the incident in Little Rock, don't you?" The chief asked. "Is that why y'all are here?"
Moss gave him a quizzical look.
"The shootout at the restaurant was all over the late news last night and the scanner at the station has been buzzing all morning."
Moss paused. "Hard to say. At this time, the only similarity is the type of vehicle and even that would be speculation at this point. A lot of people own Crown Vics. It's a popular car. I'm sure there are a few folks around here with sound suppressed handguns too. What do you think, Chief?"
"I reckon there's a handful, but these two ain't from around these parts. Plates were hard to trace but finally we found out they belong to some corporation in Memphis. Seems it don't exist either. Not at the registered physical address anyhow. Nothing there but a vacant lot."
"Anything suspicious on the car?" Moore asked. "Like dents or paint transfer."
"Think someone ran them off the road?"
"Just a thought," she said.
"Nothing on the car we could find. That's why I'm ruling it a one-car accident. My men have been up and down the highway. Searched the medians. There is no evidence of other vehicle involvement." The police chief looked at Moss. "I'll make sure you get a copy of my report if you want it."
"Thanks. That would be great." Moss paused and looked at Moore then back to the chief. "I think Inspector Moore and I will run into town and get something to eat. Any suggestions?"
The chief looked at Moss and snapped his fingers. "That reminds me. You might want to talk to the cook at the Waffle House?"
"What for?" Moore asked.
"He had some excitement early this morning, not long after we arrived here at this scene. I haven't had time to check it out but maybe the ruckus is connected to your incident in Little Rock somehow."
"What happened at the Waffle House?" Moss asked. "And how might it be connected?"
"It seems a couple of our younger trouble makers got their asses handed to them." The chief explained. "By a man traveling with an older gentleman. Seems they picked on the wrong guy this time. He put 'em both in the hospital. Broken noses, concussions, and one with a broken wrist. They're still at White County Medical Center. I got an officer holding them until I can get there and question them."
Moss glanced at Moore then back at the chief. "We would like to talk with them too," he said.
later both young men were sitting at a table in the hospital in front of Moss and Moore. With the exception of the cast on one man's right arm, they looked the same. Both had swollen blood-crusted noses and black eyes.
Moore started the questioning. "We need descriptions of the men you got into a fight with at the diner last night. Was the older man wearing khaki pants and a dark blue shirt and the younger man in jeans and a black shirt?"
The men didn't respond. Neither one wanted to talk.
Moss stood and leaned his body over the man with the cast. He placed his palms flat on the table revealing his massive arms and large hands. "For starters, how does assault with a deadly weapon sound?" Moss pressed down on the man's arm and pinned the cast to the tabletop. He rapped on the cast with his knuckles. The man winced. "Now listen up. I'm a big man who hasn't eaten in a very long time, which means my blood sugar is low. And when my blood sugar gets low, my patience evaporates and I get mean. You either answer Inspector Moore's questions or I'll ask her to leave the room. Now, you wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"
The young man began to squirm in his chair. "Okay," the man tried to pull his arm away from Moss. "The old man was wearing brown pants and purple shirt."
"And the younger man?" Moore asked.
"Jeans and a tan shirt, I think."
Moss held up his phone. On it was a photo of the witness. "Recognize him?"
"Could be the old guy, I guess. I'm not sure."
Moss handed the phone to the other man.
"Looks familiar. I think so. It all happened so fast."
Moss flipped to a photo of Kaplan. It was the photo from Kaplan's driver's license. Hours earlier, Hepler had copied it and sent it to his phone. "What about this guy? Was he one of them?"
The man with the cast looked startled and then angry. "That's him. That's the asshole who did this to us. I'll never forget his face."
Moss showed it to the other man. "Yeah. It's him all right."
Moss felt the vibration from his cell phone and the screen changed to incoming callâHepler. He signaled to Moore, "Take over. It's JP."
He stepped into the hallway and answered, "Talk to me."
"You're not going to believe what showed up this morning in Paducah, Kentucky," Hepler said. "Came across the wire about ten minutes ago."
"JP, I've been up all night and haven't eaten. I'm not in the mood."
"Low blood sugar kick in, dirt man?"
"JP, I need information. Now.”
"Okay sourpuss, here goesâ¦Paducah PD responded to the
on the black Jeep. They found one parked in a run down neighborhood with the keys dangling from the ignition. Tag was missing but I ran the VIN and, lo and behold, it is registered to the same address in Mayflower where our witness was."
"Yep," Hepler said. "And I took the liberty of shifting the search parameters to the east, north, and south of Paducah. I can't imagine he'd double back to the west knowing the world is looking for him."
"Good thinking," Moss said. "As a minimum, he's two hours ahead of us. Moore and I will leave and head to Paducah."
Moss noticed Moore coming from the hospital room with her cell phone held to her ear. She gave him thumbs up.
"Anything else I can do for you, Dirt Man?" Hepler asked.
"As a matter of fact, there is," Moss said. "Couple of things actually. First, call Paducah PD and have them canvas the town for any cars for sale by owner. The newspaper is probably a good place to start. Maybe we'll get lucky. He wouldn't have dumped the Jeep without lining up another vehicle and it isn't very likely he would stick around Paducah. He knows he left a trail, he won't stop running."
"Okay, what else?"
Moss walked out of earshot of Moore.
"Sniff around and see what you can come up with on Inspector April Moore. I can't put my finger on it, but I have a strange feeling about her." Moss paused. Moore was off the phone and staring at him. "And do it discreetly," he whispered into the phone.
"You got it, Dirt Man."
He hung up and walked over to Moore, "Jeep turned up in Paducah."
"Kentucky," he said. He motioned to the hospital room where the two young men were, the police guard still outside the door. "Did you get anything else from them?"
"Not really. Guy with cast was whining about missing work. Said his father was going to
hit the roof
. His exact words."
"Wah. From what I've seen of this Kaplan fellow, those two are lucky they aren't in a coma."
"Or the morgue."
Moss smiled, "Or the morgue."
from the early morning sun radiated through the driver's side window as he drove toward Nashville. The man who sold him the car was right, the air conditioner didn't work and even with the fan speed set to high, Kaplan could feel beads of sweat rolling down the back of his neck. Moisture under his arms formed dark circles on his shirt. Rolling down the window didn't help much either, as the August morning air was already hot and humid. It was only a two-hour drive to Nashville, but in this heat, it would be a brutal two hours. Morning clouds already showed roiling signs of vertical development, a forewarning of another thunderstorm-riddled day in the humid South.
Tony had been asleep, or pretended to be, since ten minutes outside of Paducah. He claimed to be almost seventy, but he moved like a much younger man. Kaplan wasn't sure how much he could trust this stranger he was trying to protect and regretted getting involved. But, he gave his word to the dying WitSec deputy, a former Delta Force soldier just like himself. And he wasn't one to go back on his word. He had only done it once. Never again. Besides, it was the right thing to do, stepping in like he did. He looked at the sleeping man. There were too many things about Tony that weren't adding up.
Something else bothered him too. Over the past few years he'd become quite proficient at staying out of sight and off the grid, so how was it that so much misfortune had followed them? He had removed all the tracking devices from Tony's possessions and left them in Mayflower. Unless the old man had a device implanted under his skin. As unlikely as it was, it would explain his current situation. Was Tony really the problem?
Or was it him?
Bad luck and trouble
plagued him for the past few years. Ever since the incident on St. Patrick's Day in Savannah, Georgia, his life had seemed to take one bad turn after another.
He could only remember one other time when his life went into such a tumultuous downward spiral. It was his second year of college when his parents were t-boned by a loaded eighteen-wheeler. They were killed instantly, or at least that was what the police told him. That was when he dropped out of college and joined the Army. His tour in the military was good for him. The discipline and regimented schedule were things he needed at the time. He always knew when and where he was supposed to beâtwenty-four hours a day. And Special Forces helped him vent his anger. Come to grips with the sudden loss of his parents. His life turned around, and so did his luck.
Tony's constant interruptions annoyed Kaplan so he was glad to have some quiet time to reflect on his current situation.
Immediately after entering Tennessee, Tony sat upright and pointed at a road sign for an upcoming rest area. "I need to make a pit stop."
Kaplan smiled. He could stand to stretch his legs. And the sign also indicated a welcome center; one he hoped included air conditioning.
Kaplan took the rest area exit and chose a parking spot across from the main entrance. The welcome center was indeed air-conditioned and he savored the cool, crisp air in the main lobby. His eyes followed Tony as the old man swiftly moved toward the men's room. Several wooden rocking chairs and a kiosk full of road maps and tourist information filled the lobby. Kaplan monitored the rest room door carefully. Tony didn't seem to get it that Kaplan was his only chance of survival.
While he waited, Kaplan used a second burn phone to locate a replacement vehicle in Nashville. It would be expensive, very expensive, but he had more than enough cash in his backpack to cover the cost and a lot more. He placed the phone call and made the necessary arrangements.
After five minutes of waiting, Kaplan was growing concerned. He'd seen several men go in and out and still no Tony. He gave the old man another two minutes then went inside the men's room. Tony was standing at a sink washing his hands. "What took so long?"
"I told you," Tony said. "I had to go."
"And we need to leave now. We have to meet a man about a car in a couple of hours." He handed the keys to Tony. "I'll give you directions."
An hour later the faded Mercury Sable turned onto Gallatin Pike in East Nashville. Kaplan knew from past experience that Nashville had the highest crime rate per capita than any other city in the country and East Nashville was the worst part of town. The area where he directed Tony was seedy and run down and criminal elements roamed the streets.
It was a perfect place to dump the Sable.
ngelo DeLuca caught a lucky break
After his men failed in Little Rock, he thought all was lost. Three men dead and nothing to account for it.
The text message on Bruno's phone simply read: I-24 red Mercury Sable wagon.
The rest was up to him to figure out.
His luck was about to change.
He spotted the Sable fifteen minutes ago on Interstate 24 and was now two hundred yards behind it on Gallatin Pike in East Nashville. And the old man was driving.
An earlier communiquÃ© specified Nashville as part of the planned escape route. That's what DeLuca was counting on. Where he'd made plans to spring his trap. His orders were simple by definition but difficult in execution, intercept the Sable and extract the old man. The fate of his companion was irrelevant, but the old man was to remain unharmed. His was a different destiny.
It was up to the remaining four, himself included, to complete the task that the first three had failed to finish. The fiasco in Little Rock had been a setup. Someone else knew it was going down. And that someone had a different plan in mind for the old man. A plan that involved hit men waiting outside the restaurant in Little Rock to take the old man down. DeLuca had to assume they hadn't given up and were still in pursuit.
Also in pursuit of the snitch would be the U. S. Marshals Service. The old man was too important to the Marshals Service and the Department of Justice to let get away. His testimony would bring down dozens of top criminal figures, from drug lords to human traffickers, from arms dealers to health care defrauders.
And the man at the top, DeLuca's boss.
His job was to make sure the old man never made it to the witness stand.
his cell phone's GPS, Kaplan directed Tony two blocks down a side street where he told him to pull to the curb. The street was littered with trash. Abandoned cars were turned into permanent lawn ornaments, a few with concrete blocks under bare wheels. Two out of every three of the cookie-cutter style houses was abandoned. Windows and doors boarded, graffiti painted on the outside. In Nashville, this part of town was known as an epicenter of criminal activity. There were crack houses, whorehouses, and meth labs.
The thick humid air had a putrid stench about itâa combination of rotting garbage, urine, and feces.
"Leave the keys in the ignition and let's go," Kaplan said.
"We are getting out of the car
? Is it safe?"
Before Tony could finish, Kaplan was out of the Sable, retrieved his backpack from the back seat and had walked around to Tony's door. "Get out," said Kaplan. He gripped the Sicilian's arm and turned back in the direction of Gallatin Pike.
Pulling to the curb behind the Sable was a black Chevrolet Impala. A hundred feet behind it, three gangbangers policing their turf walking down the middle of the road toward them.
Two big men unfolded out of the Impala's seats. Italians. Just like the ones from the Little Rock restaurant. They either had a fetish for black or they had a funeral dress code in the mafia. They made no attempt to conceal their weapons, just jammed them in their front waistband in proud display. One meant for intimidation.
If the Italians in Little Rock had names like Vito, Nico, and Sal, these big guys had names like Gianni and Tito. Gianni was Kaplan's size. Tito, much larger. He was the enforcer. His sheer size was more intimidating than the weapon stuffed in his waistband. Which is why Kaplan chose the fictitious name, Tito, meaning
. Yet Kaplan knew something they didn't, there were three East Nashville gangbangers fifty feet behind Gianni and Tito and closing. And right now, they were his only allies.
Two carried metal pipes, the other a baseball bat.
Tito said, "You have two choices. You can get in the car peacefully."
"Or?" Kaplan said. Forty feet and closing.
"Or I shoot you and stuff you in the trunk."
"What are you doing?" Tony whispered. "These guys aren't close enough for you to doâ¦ that thing you do."
Kaplan said, "Why don't you make me an offer I can't refuse?"
Gianni pulled his pistol from his waistband. He was a Southpaw. A lefty. "Real funny, tough guy. I don't know who you are, but you just made the wrong choice."
"Oh I see, you're going to kill us. But that was really the plan all along, wasn't it? Shoot us in cold blood. Leave us dead in the middle of the street."
Tito pulled his gun. "Not him, we want him alive." He used his barrel to point at Tony and then back at Kaplan. "You though, are expendable. A dead man if you don't do what I say."
Gianni heard them first. He spun, gun leading the way. One of the metal pipes smashed his wrist. His gun fired, the bullet ricocheted off the asphalt. Gianni screamed. His wrist was bent downward, all of the small bones in his mangled hand probably shattered by the impact. Bloody grooves swelled on his hand from the threads on the end of the pipe.
Tito sidestepped the swing of the baseball bat as if he felt it coming from behind. He turned, gun in hand, and fired. The shot hit the man with the baseball bat in the chest. He fell to the pavement and never moved again.
Using his right hand, Gianni pulled a switchblade from his back pocket and buried the blade into his attacker's thigh. The man yelled and dropped the metal pipe. He grasped his leg with both hands.
Tito raised his gun toward the third attacker but was too slow. The metal pipe struck the barrel and knocked it from Tito's oversized mitt. The attacker swung again and Tito caught the pipe mid-swing with a single hand and tossed it on the ground.
What was left was a brawl; a one-armed man versus a one-legged man and two large men with nothing but fists, and Kaplan wasn't hanging around to see the outcome. He grabbed Tony's arm and pointed toward Gallatin Pike.
"Let's get the hell out of here."
Tony didn't argue. They both turned and ran from the scene of the brawl.