Authors: Chuck Barrett
like being hit in the gut with a baseball bat.
"Are you kidding me?" Moss's even keeled demeanor evaporated. "I just got to Chicago and now I'm being sent back to Little Rock? Isn't there another inspector who can take this case? Like, in Memphis. Or anywhere closer than Chicago."
There was an uncomfortable, long silence before the voice spoke.
"Sir, the order came from HQ. I'm required to read it to you.
Due to Senior Inspector Peter Moss's familiarity with the Little Rock, Arkansas area and the inner workings of the staff and functionality of the Little Rock Office along with his many years of exemplary service to the United States Marshals Service, Senior Inspector Moss has been temporarily reassigned to Witness Security, assigned WC 7922, and is hereby instructed to report to Little Rock immediately. The recovery of this witness is considered a Marshals Service top priority.
It is signed by the Director. Do you understand these orders?"
He didn't seem to have a choice. The order came from DC. He was still a few months from retirement eligibility with full pension benefits. What was another two or three weeks back in Little Rock going to hurt anyway?
"Senior Inspector Moss?" The man repeated. "Do you understand these orders?"
"Yes, of course I understand the orders," mocked Moss. "What happened?"
"Take down, sir. A restaurant in Little Rock."
The man on the line told him.
"Know it well. Any civilian casualties?"
"Five, sir. One dead, four injured, two critical."
Moss could hear paper shuffling. "Little Rock PD, Arkansas State Police, FBI, and us."
"Who called the FBI?" Moss asked.
"Little Rock PD. They already have a man on the scene."
"Could this get any worse?"
The voice hesitated. "It is worse."
"According to eyewitnesses,
witness was last seen on the back of a motorcycle fleeing the sceneâ"
"And a dark sedan was making chase, and shooting at them."
"According to LRPD, witnesses stated the vehicle appeared to be a late model Crown Vic. No one got the plates."
"What about the motorcycle?"
"Witness at the scene stated it was a dark color and rumbled like a Hog."
"A Harley Davidson, sir."
"I know what a Hog is," snapped Moss. "That narrows it down to half the motorcycles in the country. Anything else?"
"Yes, sir. Little Rock PD received several complaints of a motorcycle fitting the same description on a pedestrian and bicycle pathway known as the Arkansas River Trail. And just now on the wire is a report to North Little Rock PD of an explosion along the north bank of the Arkansas River. The caller said an airplane crashed, but that has yet to be confirmed. Units are responding at this time. You think it's connected, sir?"
"Obviously the motorcycle went where the Crown Vic couldn't. Smart move." Moss thought about the witness. "And you can bet the explosion had something to do withâ¦" Moss paused, "the witness. He's no doubt responsible for this. Who's working with me?"
"I'll have someone meet you at the airport in three hours.
"I want Deputy Jon Hepler."
"Sir, he's not WitSec."
"I don't give a damn. He might be a P.O.D. but I've known and worked with him for years." He made reference to
plain old deputy
. Not a derogatory term, since they were all officially considered Deputy U. S. Marshals; it was just an internal way of distinguishing between WitSec and non-WitSec deputies. "He's a good friend and I trust him with my life."
"No buts," Moss interrupted. "Call whoever the hell you have to, just have Hepler read in on this case by the time I get to Little Rock." Moss hung up before the man could respond.
he assassin was known only
Like the Norse mythological valkyries, the assassin sent those chosen to die on a one-way trip to the afterlife.
Others in the same line of business called themselves assets
but the term seemed so tired and overused, even though the job was the same. Valkyrie solved problems in a permanent way and preferred to call it by what it wasâValkyrie was an assassin.
And contract killing was a lucrative business.
One that had been around for ages.
There was always someone willing to pay to have another killed, thus there was never a shortage of hired killers. Most assassins took on more than one contract at a time. Valkyrie was different. A single contract, million-dollar minimum. Paid in advance. It weeded out window shoppers. Only the elite inside the world's inner circles had even heard of Valkyrie's existence and most of them thought the assassin was a rumor or urban legend of sorts. Business only came to Valkyrie through these inner circles, for it was only these elite that had the means to find and hire the best. Valkyrie used a form of subterfuge for assassinationsânever be seen by the clientâ¦rarely by the victim.
This latest contract was triple the minimum, three million dollars, half already deposited in an offshore account.
Urgency and complexity determined the cost of each contract, and this contract was both urgent to the client and complex for Valkyrie.
Valkyrie's new client went by the code name Shepherd. The killer knew nothing about the man except that the name sounded like it came from the Cold War era. The assassin didn't care, it was all about money and Shepherd was paying well. To Valkyrie's surprise, Shepherd accepted the terms quickly. Clients normally tried to negotiate a lower fee. Three million was a lot of money, even for Valkyrie. The willingness of the client to pay such a high price caused Valkyrie to wonder if more money should have been put on the table.
Once a deal was struck the process was simple, Valkyrie made arrangements to receive an electronic briefing package via an anonymous email over a secured VPN. The virtual private network was more expensive than most but worth the extra money ten-fold. It routed through six thousand encrypted servers before landing in Valkyrie's inbox. The only thing Shepherd had to do was log on to a secure server with the username and password from the email and upload the file. It was as simple as that. After Valkyrie received the file, the URL for the website was removed and all traces vanished in virtual thin air.
Impervious from intercept.
Untraceable from either end.
Valkyrie sat in a leather recliner, laptop in place, and with the stroke of a few keys and a click on the trackpad, the file opened on the screen. Extensive and complete, no detail of the target's life had been omitted. Age, weight, height, aliases, passports, driver's licenses, friends, relatives, every location he'd ever lived, every job he'd ever had, past loversâit was all there. Valkyrie was looking at the man's entire life under a microscope. There was nothing, it seemed, Shepherd didn't know about the target except one thing.
The most important thing.
His current whereabouts.
Valkyrie scoured the file learning as much as possible about the man. It would take several hours to digest this much information. Time Valkyrie didn't have. A person's past provided a wealth of information to the discerning eye. And Valkyrie could discern what others could not, more quickly than most. A gift that elevated the assassin to a level of prominence in a dog-eat-dog business.
The target presented a unique challenge for the assassin. He had traveled extensively over the past few years, most of it under an assumed identity. Valkyrie understood why. If the man wanted to stay alive, his true identity had to remain disguised. Which made Valkyrie's job more difficult. The assassin could see by the file the target had many enemies and most wanted him dead. He had survived several prior attempts on his life. This time he would not be so lucky.
The target was last seen in Little Rock, Arkansas not much more than an hour ago, which meant the trail was already growing cold. Valkyrie was an hour away by private jet plus thirty minutes to get to the airport plus another fifteen minutes to pick up a rental car. Essentially three hours behind the target. An almost insurmountable gap unless the target made a mistake which, based on his file, was unlikely to happen.
Valkyrie closed the laptop and slipped it inside a backpack.
Plenty of time to read more about the target on the flight.
Valkyrie placed a call to the airport, grabbed a go bag
and left the luxurious Denver flat for the Centennial Airport where the chartered Hawker 400 XP would be fueled and ready to go.
the call and mounted his Harley. The raging fire on the hillside behind him had ignited a brush fire. The breeze pushed it up and around the inside of the horseshoe shaped quarry to the point where it would soon threaten the grove of tall pine trees at the top of the cliffs.
First responders were on their way and within a short time the area would be swarming with firefighters, police, and emergency personnel searching for possible survivors.
"Tony," Kaplan shouted. In the distance he heard sirens. The direction seemed to be just beyond the quarry. "We need to leave now or we're as good as dead. It will take thirty minutes to get where we need to go and we're not exactly inconspicuous."
Tony stood and slipped onto the rear saddle. Kaplan shifted the bike into gear and sped off down the Arkansas River Trail. He knew what was west of him on the Trail; he didn't dare return the way he came. The directions he just received indicated the Interstate was not very far north of the river. He just needed to get there without the authorities spotting him.
He needed a place to hole up and hide while he sorted things out. Like how to keep Tony alive until he delivered him to a WitSec safe site. It seemed the promise he made to the dying deputy was getting more and more difficult to keep. Several people wanted the old man dead and didn't care if Kaplan was collateral damage.
He took the first road he came to and exited the Arkansas River Trail, which took him through the perimeter of a North Little Rock neighborhood. The road made a series of turns before it merged onto Fort Roots Drive. In the distance, a car rounded a curve with its blue lights flashing. To his left, above him on a hillside, were two sets of red flashing lights navigating through a series of switchbacks as they descended the hill toward the crash site.
Blue lights meant cops.
Red lights meant emergency response vehicles like fire trucks and rescue units. Not good, but better.
Kaplan made a hard left and turned up Fort Roots Drive as he opted for the red lights. Rock walls lined both sides of the road as it ascended the steep grade. He accelerated toward the first switchback and passed a fire truck with its siren wailing. Forget pulling to the curb and yielding the right of way, he didn't have time. He needed to get as far away from the crash site as he could in as little time as possible. In the first switchback, he swerved to avoid a rescue unit that had cut the turn short and taken some of his lane.
After clearing the curve, Kaplan twisted the throttle and accelerated up the winding road again. The old man's grip tightened on his waist. Ahead he saw another set of flashing red lights rounding a switchback and head in his direction. Another rescue unit, judging by its size.
He glanced back down the hillside and saw a string of vehicles with blue lights racing toward the Arkansas River Trail and the wreckage of the helicopter.
All but one.
A single set of blue lights had turned onto Fort Roots Drive, apparently in pursuit of him. It was imperative he keep distance between the cop car and the Harley.
Fort Roots Drive snaked back and forth through several switchbacks until it reached the hilltop where it opened up onto a huge complex. He should have put two and two together earlier, however in all the excitement, he didn't. Until now. The complex buildings were unmistakably of U. S. Government origin. By the look of the structuresâmilitary. And that made sense. Fort Roots Drive. Fort Roots.
He passed through an abandoned security checkpoint, the kind with a horizontal retractable metal gate. Another fire truck thundered past him toward the exit. The guardhouse was empty, in fact, there was not a guard in sight anywhere. He wondered if the post was manned anymore or if the guards had left the gate open and scrambled in response to the explosion on the other side of the complex. He had no intention of sticking around long enough to find out.
He made a right turn at a red brick building positioned so close to the road it was almost in it. The road curved to the right in a long sweeping arc with traditional bland government buildings to his left side while a grassy meadow opened to the right. Even though he'd never been here before, it looked typically familiar. Most military installations had the same general look and feel about them. Architects and engineers did not need creativity to satisfy the government's regulations and requirements.
The road swept left then back to the right and that's when a mammoth-sized building appeared on the left. He realized what it was at the same time he saw the lighted sign, Eugene Towbin Veterans Affairs Hospital.
He must have entered the hospital grounds through a rear entrance, which meant the main entrance was still in front of him. He hoped there wasn't another guard post. He might not be so lucky the second time.
He accelerated straight ahead and the complex changed appearance from a governmental architectural style to a private sector look. Commercial really. No guard post in sight.
In his mirror, flashing blue lights appeared in the distance. Now was not the time to get complacent and run the risk of getting caught. He blasted through two red lights and past a strip mall on his right. He didn't know where he was going just a general sense of which direction the interstate should be based on the instructions he received on the phone. The blue lights disappeared from his side mirrors. Ahead, traffic was heavier.
He couldn't run the third traffic signal because the intersection was too congested. However, he saw a sign directing him toward the interstate. He needed to turn left, which meant he had to wait for the turn signal. And that meant time sitting still in traffic. Time that would allow the police car to catch up to him.
He pulled into the left turn lane behind a Ford F-250 pulling a horse trailer. Cars were darting through the intersection from his right and his left on the crossing road. The street sign said MacArthur Drive. He counted the seconds, hoping he'd see the light turn green. Two cars pulled in behind him, a Toyota Camry and a Chevy Malibu, which was a bit of a relief because blue lights had already appeared behind him and were closing the gap.
The green turn arrow appeared about the time the North Little Rock Police cruiser was still two hundred yards from the intersection. It stayed in the far right lane. Cars pulled clear of the lane to give the police car passage and, for a brief moment, Kaplan thought it might not be in pursuit of him.
He followed close behind the horse trailer and as far to the left as possible in attempt to use the Camry and Malibu as a screen from the patrol car. The police cruiser entered the intersection then stopped, blasted its siren, and turned hard left.
Now he knew he was a person of interest. What he didn't know was why. On second thought, he knew why and where to find the answer.
It was sitting right behind him.