Authors: Chuck Barrett
eLuca faced a conundrum
Lose two more men or lose the old man.
Sitting next to him in the driver's seat of the champagne silver Buick LaCrosse was the last of his men. The last and the most trusted. Bruno had been DeLuca's second-hand man for nearly five years. Bruno had been in and out of the family since he was a teenager and would turn forty in less than a month.
Bruno said, "Boss, we need to help."
DeLuca watched the old man and his companion run down the Gallatin Pike sidewalk. He looked back at his men and a pit rose in his stomach. It was too late.
He knew Bruno was loyal and would never question his decisions. On more than one occasion, they had been forced to abandon their men and watch them die. When several more gangbangers ran from houses toward the fight, he knew this was another one of those times. His men were lost. They were tough strong fighters, but in the end, they would lose.
He lowered his head and shook it in disbelief. Five men down. His boss would not be happy.
DeLuca looked up and saw a taxi pull to the curb. The old man and his companion piled into the back. His impetus was the old man. It had been his objective from the beginning. He pointed ahead. "Follow the cab and don't lose it or we will meet the same fate."
the taxi driver the address, which was actually more than a quarter mile from his true destination. He didn't want the actual address to show up in the taxi company's records. If he were alone, he would have picked a place even farther away, but he didn't think the old man could walk a long distance. Certainly not in the short amount of time required. Tony was getting to be more of a burden. He had to risk the drop off point being closer than his comfort level. Even the brightest trackers drawing a radius would have trouble pin pointing his destination. When they did pick up his trail again, he would have put more time between him and his pursuers. Time equaled distance. And distance equaled a better chance of survival.
He and Tony walked up to the massive wrought iron gate of the high-end residential community on the outskirts of Nashville. The gated community was equipped with an elaborate security setup with temporary pass codes for guests. According to the man Kaplan spoke with on the phone, the temporary one-time codes were good for only six hours or until activated, whichever was less, then the system deleted the codes rendering them useless for repeat use.
Kaplan entered the code and the gate slid open.
Five driveways on the left sat a 2003 silver Mercedes SL55 AMG coupe. They walked up the long circular driveway to a home Kaplan guessed was at least six thousand square feet situated on three acres, give or take. There was a two-car garage at the main house and a three-car garage beneath a carriage house. Both buildings had matching mountain stone facades typical of this area.
Kaplan rang the doorbell. The door opened before the chime finished. A tall man with reddish gray hair stood in the doorway wearing an expensive tailor made suit.
He said, "Here to look at the car?"
The man looked at his watch. "I almost gave up on you, we need to make this quick, I have to be at my lawyer's office in thirty minutes. To expedite this transaction I have a certified copy from a mechanic on the condition of the car."
Kaplan and Tony followed the man to the Mercedes. He crawled in the front seat and started the engine. It sounded like a cat purring. No vibrations, no rattles, and the air conditioner worked. A far cry from the old Sable he'd just dumped in East Nashville. The interior was in pristine condition. As was everything else visible to Kaplan's discerning eye.
"You mentioned a cash deal on the phone?"
Kaplan reached into his backpack and pulled out two stacks of one hundred dollar bills. The stacks were banded in ten thousand dollar bundles. He placed one banded bundle on the hood and counted out forty single bills. "Fourteen," Kaplan said.
"Since it's a cash deal, I'll go as low as sixteen-five."
Kaplan placed another ten bills on the pile. "Fifteen."
Tony leaned over and whispered to Kaplan, "How much money you got in that backpack anyway?"
The man stepped back and rubbed his chin. "The cash is tempting but that's lower than I'm willing to settle."
"I don't know," the man said. "I justâ"
Kaplan scooped up the bills and looked at Tony. "Let's go."
"Wait," the man said. "All right, I'll take it if you agree we put down on the sales receipt and title you only paid five grand for the car." The man stuck his hand out.
"That's weird." Kaplan said. "Normally it's the buyer who is trying to duck the taxes."
"No, that is not it at all. This is my soon to be ex's favorite car. Part of the divorce settlement is that I sell it and she gets the proceeds. She will be madder than a hornet I sold it for so cheap."
Kaplan held onto the money. "Sign the title first."
The man reached into the glove box and retrieved the title, pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, and let it hover over the document. "How should I fill this out?"
"Just fill out your part and sign it, I'll take care of the rest later."
The man stared at Kaplan for several seconds then glanced at Tony. "Sure, no problem." He signed the title and held it out for Kaplan.
Kaplan swapped the cash for the title and two sets of keys.
"It even has a full tank," the man said.
"Much obliged." Kaplan shook the man's hand. He looked at Tony. "Get in."
"Where you from?" the man asked.
"Birmingham," Kaplan replied.
across the fender and slipped his pen through the bullet hole in the windshield.
After the Paducah Police Department located the Jeep, the street was closed to everyone other than residents and officers proceeded to interview neighbors in order to locate any witnesses. The police weren't getting much cooperation from the locals. The Jeep was treated as a crime scene, as per Hepler's instructions, and was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape and orange traffic cones.
A detective was half in and half out of the back seat fishing around in the rear back cushion. He wore jeans, a black Paducah Police t-shirt, standard issue black tactical sport boots, and rubber gloves. His bag was lying on the street with its top pulled apart. He held a pair of eight-inch extractor tweezers.
"Looking for the slug?" Moss said.
"Yeah," the detective mumbled. "Pulled one out of the door but I can't seem to locate this one. But it has to be here."
"Maybe it went through to the trunk."
The detective leaned back and gave Moss an annoyed look. "I do this for a living, that was the first place I checked. It didn't pass through. It's in here somewhere. I'll find itâ¦sooner or later."
Moore walked up and stood next to Moss. "Detective," she said. "I have a knife if you want to cut the seat open."
"Thanks anyway," he said. "But I got this. One of you could hand me my penlight if you wouldn't mind. It's in my bag, side pouch."
Moss looked in the man's bag and pulled out the light. "Here you go."
The man held up his hand without looking and Moss placed the light in his palm.
"Thanks," he said.
"Anything you can tell me about the slug from the door?" Moore asked.
"Definitely a forty-five."
Moss and Moore looked at each other and smiled.
"Got a dent on the left front fender with paint transfer," she said to Moss. "Could be from a PIT."
"A PIT, huh? Maybe Mr. Kaplan is smarter than we gave him credit for. Now we have a good idea it wasn't a one-car accident in Searcy."
"Got it," the detective said. The slug clinked inside a glass container. He crawled out of the back seat and held the two glass containers side by side. "Both forty-fives. Striations look identical so I'm pretty sure they came from the same weapon, but I won't know for certain till I get it to the lab. My initial guess is they came from a suppressed Glock."
"How could you tell that just from looking?" Moore asked.
"Ballistics is my thing, ma'am. With a clean slug, I can place the exact weapon manufacturer ninety percent of the time," the officer said. He held out one of the glass containers. "And this is a clean slug."
"Excellent. Run ballistics and send the results to the Searcy, Arkansas police chief. Two suppressed Glocks, both forty-fives, were found at the scene of an accident a few hours ago. I'll bet your slugs match one of them."
"Sure thing." The detective placed a chain of custody seal over the containers' lids, scribbled something on the top, and placed them in his evidence bag.
Moss signaled Moore with a head nod and they walked toward his Crown Vic. "So what do you think? Is Mr. Kaplan deliberately leaving a trail?"
"Perhaps he's just careless," she replied.
"Good guy or bad guy?"
"Bad guy," she said with no hesitation. "He's running with your witness. He knows the law. If he were a good guy, he'd hole up in a police station somewhere and wait for us to come to him."
"That's where we disagree, Ms. Moore." Moss paused, more for effect. "You're right about one thing, though. If he is who we think he is, then he does know the law. He knows the Marshals Service is looking for its witness. But he is also dealing with somebody who is trying to kill the witness. Why else would he leave the Jeep where we could find it? He's leaving a trail for us to follow. And right now, a trail only law enforcement has access to. He's deliberately getting local police departments involved."
"Plausible, I guess," she said. "But I'm not convinced. You're making a lot of assumptions, which surprises me. You don't strike me as the type to give anyone the benefit of the doubt."
What she didn't know was that Gregg Kaplan was handling the situation the same way Moss would have and now he felt he was starting to gain some insight into the mysterious man and his thinking.
He took a deliberate glance at his watch. "Think I'll check in with JP." He pulled out his cell phone and placed the call. She leaned against the Crown Vic and listened.
"Expand your search radius to two hundred miles," Moss said. While he listened he looked at Moore and rolled his eyes. "Anything out of the ordinary?"
"This might interest you," Hepler said on the phone. "Seems there was a turf war in East Nashville between a couple of Italians and several members of a gang. One gangbanger dead, one stabbed in the leg. Didn't fair too well for the Italians either. Both are in critical condition at a nearby hospital. Identities unknown."
"How is this helping me?" Moss said. He noticed Moore had walked away from the Crown Vic and was talking on her phone.
"The car they found was registered in Paducah."
"Inconclusive. I need more."
"All right. How about this, Dirt Man? The plate belongs to the Jeep taken from Mayflower."
He looked back at the Jeep and smiled. "Now you got my attention."
He finished getting the update from Hepler and then lowered his voice. "What about the other matter?"
Hepler said, "Officially the creds check out."
"Officially?" Moss asked. "What the hell does that mean?"
"The credentials are registered and issued to April Moore. But I couldn't find anyone who has ever met this person."
Moss saw Moore hang up her phone as a Paducah detective approached. "Gotta go," he said to Hepler and hung up.
"Excuse me, Inspector," the detective said. "But we got a lead on a possible getaway car."
"An older model Mercury Sable?"
The detective's face showed his bewilderment. "How'd you know?"
"The man who sold it said the two men were in a big hurry. Physical descriptions match the ones you gave us. He heard them say they were on their way to St. Louis."
"Thanks, Detective. I guess we'll check it out," Moss said. He turned to Moore. "Let's go."
They walked to the Crown Vic and climbed in.
"How long will it take us to get to St. Louis?"
"Don't know, don't care."
"What do you mean you don't care?" Moore asked.
"We're not going to St. Louis."
He looked at her. "Nashville."
he silver Mercedes
zipped along Interstate 81 east of Knoxville, Tennessee with the cruise control set at 73 MPH, a speed Kaplan figured would not draw any unwanted attention from law enforcement. Almost three hours had passed since driving out of Nashville and he was starting to feel his luck change. He pushed back in the soft leather seat and relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.
Tony had been asleep in the passenger seat for most of the drive, his head resting against the window and his hot breath blowing steam on the glass with every exhale. It seemed the old man had reached the point of exhaustion and couldn't stay awake any longer. At least he wasn't snoring.
After buying the Mercedes, he tossed his last burn phone in a nearby dumpster before he drove onto the interstate. All three burn phones trashed and now he was in need of another one.
Tony grunted then sat up straight. "Where are we?"
"Three hours east of Nashville."
"Well, I need to go again and I'm hungry," Tony said. "And I want to take care of them in that order."
"Tony, you're like taking care of a baby. All you do is whine, pee, and eat." Kaplan pointed to a road sign. "How about Dandridge?" The sign indicated the exit was three miles ahead. Perfect. Tony could take care of business and Kaplan could get another burn phone. Then he would find some place for them to eat. Fast food. He wanted to get back on the road and put more distance between him and whoever was after Tony.
The situation in East Nashville was perplexing. The men didn't want to kill Tony. Whoever Tony had double-crossed wanted him alive for a reason. Perhaps to watch him suffer before they put a bullet in his head. Or maybe Tony possessed something or knew something that they wantedâ¦or needed.
"Sounds good," Tony finally said.
"Who were those guys back in Nashville?"
Tony hesitated. "How should I know?"
"They were under orders
to kill you. Their orders were to capture you alive. So I'll ask again, who were those guys?"
Tony said nothing. He just stared at Kaplan.
Kaplan raised his voice. "This isn't funny. I need to know what I'm up against.
I'm up against. Or else we're both as good as dead." Kaplan knew that was a lie, but Tony didn't. He was perfectly capable of keeping them both alive. He had the skills; he just needed information. Forewarned is forearmed. The only way he was going to get Tony to talk was to scare the hell out of him.
Tony sat still and said nothing.
"Dammit, Tony. I've killed people who were less trouble than you." He let his foot off the accelerator and the Mercedes slowed as he navigated his way down the Dandridge exit. He snatched Tony by the collar. "Talk or your ass goes out on the street."
"All right, just take your hands off me." He loosened his grip on Tony. "They work for the Scalini family."
"Scalini? As in Martin Scalini, the New York crime boss? And the son, that was Max, right? I thought you said this wasn't a mafia thing."
"No. I said you've watched too many
movies. I also said I was a broker and a recruiter. You once called me a criminal, when in reality everyone I deal with is the criminal. I connect criminal with criminal and take a fee for the introduction. What they do next is their own business. I am not the hardened criminal you think I am but I know things. A lot of things about a lot of people. And they are criminals, big ones and little ones. That is why I am in WitSec. I primarily brokered for the Scalini family. A man I connected Scalini with killed his son so now the old man wants me dead."
"Those men didn't seem interested in killing you. Seems to me they wanted you alive."
"I am positive they do want me alive. Scalini would have ordered that. I have known Martin a long time, death is preferable to what he has in store for me."
Tony didn't answer his question. "In exchange for my testimony, the Department of Justice put me in the Witness Security program."
"Who killed Scalini's son?"
"You don't want to know."
"I asked a question, that generally means I want to know the answer."
"Let's just say their resources are better than Scalini's."
Kaplan turned right after the exit and pointed to a fast food chain establishment. "Get it and go."
"I'd rather have a sit down meal," Tony said.
"Tell you what," Kaplan motioned to the hamburger joint. "We eat this one on the road and keep moving. If we make it to our destination before nightfall then we'll talk about a sit-down meal."
Tony stared at him for a few seconds and nodded. "Deputy Cox was a lot more accommodating than you."
"Yeah? How did that turn out? Deputy Cox is dead. We keep moving whether you like it or not."
After they got their food and returned to the car, Kaplan drove around until he found a store that sold prepaid cell phones. He bought two. He'd learned over the years he could never have enough burn phones. They had a lot more uses other than telecommunications. On many occasions when he knew his phone was being tracked, he'd used it to misdirect his pursuers.
Within minutes after getting back on Interstate 81, Kaplan opened a burn phone and placed a call.
The man who answered said two words. "Code in."
They were well-known words to Kaplan, requiring voice authentication to get through to his handler. Kaplan coded in and was directed to another man.
"Damn, Gregg," his handler said. "What part of
stay off the grid
didn't you understand?"
"I was put in a compromising situation."
"Compromising enough to derail your career?"
Kaplan looked at Tony. "No, not sure if it was."
"We started getting hits on your motor vehicle records last night. First from the FBI and then later from the U. S. Marshals Service." The man paused. "What kind of shit storm did you start in Arkansas?"
Kaplan briefed his handler while Tony pretended not to listen.
"I can't believe you got mixed up in Marshals Service business. They won't like this upstairs."
"Well don't tell them then." Kaplan took a deep breath. "I'm already in enough trouble with the upstairs office. No one needs to see or hear my name for a while."
"Might be too late for that. What's your next move?"
"Tomorrow I'll drop the old man off at the SSOC, then I'll be back on assignmentâ¦and out of sight."
"Quit calling me old man," Tony interrupted.
"I'll keep this quiet as long as I can," his handler continued. "But remember, you did this voluntarily. I won't go down with you, so if they askâ"
"I know the routine." Kaplan terminated the call.
"I have a question," Tony said.
"In a minute." Kaplan raised his index finger to signal Tony to wait while he placed another call.
The voice on the other end was a familiar one. "The B & B," the voice said.
"Dick, it's Kaplan." He paused long enough for the man to recognize his name. "I need to make reservations for two. Tonight. No call in. No verification. No guest register. Will that be a problem?"
Dick hesitated. Kaplan knew he had put him in a precarious position. They had been in the same business for years. Kaplan trusted him and needed his help. Dick and his wife, Susan, ran an off-the-books CIA safe house in Lexington, Virginia.
It was as close as he dared get Tony to the SSOC, the U. S. Marshals Service Safe Site and Orientation Center, without first contacting someone from WitSec and arranging for a transfer. Any effort to take him all the way to the SSOC without a U.S. Marshals Service escort would likely be an attempt in futility.
The SSOC was located on the Virginia side of the DC suburbs. He'd been there once before, under special circumstances. When he did, he was required to go with a Marshals Service escort in a Marshals Service vehicle. Eighteen months ago when Kaplan flipped a Russian agent, the CIA insisted, with uncompromising arm-twisting, that Kaplan would not leave the Russian's side until the man was safely locked inside the SSOC. A rare exception was made allowing an outsider to know the location of the SSOC. Somebody at the top of the food chain with the CIA had pulled a favor from somebody in the Marshals Service to break protocol. Kaplan would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation.
The location was a carefully guarded secret. Even from the witness.
Especially from the witness.
"We have rooms available," the man finally said. "What time shall we anticipate your arrival?"
"Excellent. Susan and I look forward to catching up."
Kaplan hung up and noticed Tony still staring at him.
"Where are we going?"
Kaplan didn't answer right away. He didn't want to answer at all. Finally he said, "Tonight we'll stay in Lexington, Virginia. Tomorrow you will no longer be a pain in my ass. I plan on handing you over to the U. S. Marshals Service."