The route from Montana to pick up Penny Cummings took me south through Idaho and into northern Utah, where a hard right turn onto I-80 pointed the minivan toward Sacramento. It wasn’t a pleasant run. For one thing, the Cummings apartment turned out to be a second story walkup on the edge of Watts, in an ugly tenement considered to be no man’s land, not precisely claimed by any of the major gangs but not a safe zone, either. If I knew I was heading into territory owned by the Bloods or the Crips, I could pick my colors to suit.
This way, any color at all might be an invitation for a bullet. Nothing like adding a little more uncertainty to an already uncertain situation.
Worse, I was going to have to pluck the young hacker right out from under her stepdad’s nose. Piercings (Penny) had passed on the word that Abe the horny cop would be on night shift all week, but could I trust that? About as much as I trusted the government to take care of me in my old age, maybe. The word that Mommy Dearest would be firmly passed out by eight p.m. sounded pretty good; hardcore alcoholics can be reliable that way. But I couldn’t trust that, either. I couldn’t trust anything. Not even Penny herself. Okay, so she was one of the most brilliant hackers Mr. Gray had ever come across, but she was fifteen, for cry-yi. I didn’t know this kid. I owed her. Hell yeah, we all owed her. But trust? That was another matter entirely.
Plus, I’d never once been anywhere near Los Angeles County. In the trucker’s logbook case beside me, I had MapQuest and Google Earth printouts up the ying-yang, enough to give me some sort of idea of the building layout and the way the streets ran in the area, but using GPS was out of the question. Yeah, I did have two one time use cell phones with me for extreme emergency use only, one in each shirt pocket, but even they had been surgically altered, their GPS chips removed.
Silver lining? Cops didn’t patrol Penny’s home area much. In fact, that part of the ‘hood was so poor, the drug dealers and street ho’s didn’t even bother much with it.
Then there was the getaway van I was driving. Jack had been promised it was mechanically sound, but somebody lied. The engine ran all right, the oil had been changed, and after I added a shot of Slick 50 to the crankcase, it quit using oil. There was only a little slippage in the automatic transmission. But the front end shimmied like a go-go dancer on crack at anything above 55 miles per hour. I worried about that all the way to Winnemucca before giving up and stopping at a shop to have it aligned. The right front tire was also a little too bald for my taste, so I decided to buy two new tires for the front and take my chances with the thieves in the city. I paid cash, of course, but the stop put me half a day behind schedule.
The plan was already going to hell.
Not that I was expected in the ‘hood at any particular time. Penny had been informed through roundabout Internet messages, warned to have her bugout bag ready and be ready to run by Tuesday evening–but that I could be as late as Saturday evening. Jack and Mr. Gray had wanted me to have some wiggle room there, for which I was grateful.
Something was eating at me, though. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It might have been the simple fact that Jack Hill wasn’t along on this run to back my play. On the third day out, running on occasional two hour naps at rest stops, I thought about that all the way down I-5, over the grapevine, and into the L.A. basin. I thought about it…but I couldn’t quite convince myself that was it.
I got into the city proper just at dusk. Figuring I needed to eat even if I had no appetite, I stopped at a Jack in the Box, walked in the door…and everybody in the place gave me the eye. It wasn’t my skin color; the place was plenty dark enough. It took me a while, first visiting the restroom and then getting in line to order some of what passed for food in the place, to figure it out. There was something in the way I carried myself that these people didn’t like. They weren’t about to get physical with the big black bald headed dude with the bushy beard, but they thought I was a cop. Nobody said it, but I was sure of it.
Well, if that didn’t beat all.
Back in the van, I quickly discovered the Jack Burger or whatever they called it was utterly inedible. No wonder the locals looked so weird; their guts must be tied in knots from eating this stuff. Only the oversized Dr. Pepper was palatable enough to get down.
It might not have been the smartest way to go about it, but I decided I absolutely had to case out the place. Cruising by more than once would be as suicidal as being a politically conservative black woman who spoke her mind, but one go shouldn’t make anybody sit up and take too much notice.
I was glad I did, and I was glad our crew had sent the guy with the eidetic memory. Once done with my multi-street weave-through, I got the heck back out of there and found a 7-11 store that looked like it didn’t get robbed more than once a week. The clerk was even white, more or less, though he hadn’t washed recently enough to qualify as more than off-white, really. They even had packets of Grandma’s cookies, raisin oatmeal and peanut butter flavors. It was getting dark now, closing in on 9:00 p.m. Mama Cummings should be three sheets, face down and snoring on the couch by now. Cop Dad’s beat didn’t include the home tenement. All I had to do was think things through for a few minutes while munching cookies and I’d be out of excuses.
Parking: Leave the van on Whatsit Street, two blocks over.
Approach: Walk around and down the street like I owned it, pop on into the stairwell–which was not locked or gated in any way, the only security being the doors to the apartments themselves–and climb on up to knock on the door. Using a simple double rap, of course, and standing to one side of the doorway as I did so.
Departure: Penny’s room had a small window overlooking the street. She’d darn well better be watching for me. Barring that, she was supposed to be listening for the double knock. So, give her the password to identify myself as her black knight in ratty hoodie, escort her down the stairs, walk back around the two blocks like we owned them, get into the van and drive away. Piece of cake. Ten minutes away from the van, tops, and the street where I’d be parking it shouldn’t be a problem. I hoped.
Emergency Exit: If something went wrong and the manure hit the rotating blades, Plan B. Instead of traveling back around to the minivan by way of the cracked sidewalks, dart straight across the street from the front of the tenement, through the narrow gap between two houses–not more than eighteen inches wide, but I could make it through there if I went sideways. Then hook right, down the alley a few yards, vault the back yard fence, cross said yard diagonally, which would get me to cover under a wilted mishmash of palm trees and brush, don’t ask me the species. Through that on a slight hook, dive through the front window of an obviously deserted house; the glass had been broken out ages ago. Out the back door, and so on and so forth, four more distinct maneuvers, and I’d come out the front of a deserted building just a few yards behind the minivan.
That run, if it came to that, I could make in right at one minute flat. What Penny the hacker could do if I had to drag her through that way, who knew? But at least I had a bugout route; it was better than nothing.
I parked the vehicle right where I’d hoped; there were only three other cars parked on the entire block, and none of them had moved since I’d cased the street two hours earlier. The street lights didn’t work here, which suited me just fine. Nobody came down the street looking for trouble or a set of wheels to jack; I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.
So why was I hyperventilating? Man, I’d have given a whole bunch to be back up in the mountains, freezing in the snow and setting a trap for an armed robber on the run. Those were the good old days.
On the way around to the Cummings building, I only passed one other dude, a skinny little guy going the other way on the other side of the street, half my size and either strung out on meth or wishing he was. He kept his head down, eyes on the sidewalk, making sure to avoid eye contact with me. Good. On a mission like this, a fellow damn sure wants to be the most horrible thing that goes bump in the night. There was a bit of light to see by on Penny’s street, not streetlights, but a quarter moon feebly batting at the ever present L.A. smog. I didn’t need the night vision monocle riding in my cargo pants pocket–not yet, anyway–but the night could still be best described as dark and ominous.
The hinges creaked loudly enough to make me jump when I used a fold of my hoodie to open the door to the walkup without leaving prints, but at least Penny’s intel had been accurate; it wasn’t locked. It didn’t even have a lock.
Inside, I took a moment to adjust my eyes to the greater darkness before starting the climb. Something is wrong. Every nonexistent hair on my shaved head screamed at me to get out of there. This was the place? Yes, this was the place; I was certain of that. But…I pulled out the night vision monocle and put it on. Immediately, the infrared picked up the image of a mouse on the upper landing, nibbling at a little scrap of something. Piss poor stereotype; it should have been a rat. Reaching back, I drew the Taurus .22 from its pancake holster. Anything else I could do? I couldn’t think of anything.
Okay, cowboy, get on with it. I began easing up the stairwell, one step at a time, listening to the occasional board creak, the pounding of my own blood in my ears, the ever present city sirens in the distance. Something is wrong! One more step…halfway there….
The one time use cell phone in my left hand pocket vibrated, nearly giving me a heart attack. For a split second, I thought about not answering–but no. That phone linked to Mr. Gray himself, the right hand one connecting to Jack Hill. Gray wouldn’t be calling unless it was truly Life and Death important. Carefully, I unbuttoned the pocket flap, lifted the phone out, flipped it open.
“Yo,” I spoke, so softly that at the other end, Gray would have to know it was not a good time to talk. It was his voice that came back, all right, but not as I had known it; his tone was clipped, precise, fraught with tension.
“It’s a trap!” He snapped. “Abort! Penny Cummings is a federal agent!”
The phone went dead. The nerves in my fingers went dead as I returned the phone to my shirt pocket and froze in place–and the apartment door at the head of the landing swung open. Had I not had the night monocle in place, I’d not have been able to make out her pert young face, backlit as she was, but her voice was the epitome of gentle femininity. “Mr. Trotter?” Her eyes, I realized, were beautiful. The powerful police flashlight she held in her left hand, the beam flicking on and swerving swiftly to blind me, was not. She was fast.
With my adrenaline already sky high, I was faster. The three hundred practice rounds with the Taurus paid off; she never felt the double tap that drove two .22 caliber slugs through the bridge of her nose and scrambled her brain.
I didn’t wait to see her body hit the floor; I was already flying back down the staircase. A man’s voice, screaming curses, I heard that. On the very last step at the bottom, I tripped, went with it, slammed the door open with my shoulder–my good shoulder, thank God!–and tumbled out onto the sidewalk. The fall saved my life; the sharp -crack!- of bullets coming my way filled my hearing; I could literally hear nothing else.
Eternally grateful for the law enforcement professionals who can’t shoot straight under pressure, I sprinted across the street…but stopped next to the narrow passageway between the houses that I’d selected as my escape route. The male fed who’d played the role of Penny’s abusive stepfather came barreling out through the front door of the tenement, still firing–until his weapon’s slide racked back on empty and he had to pause to change magazines. I didn’t dare dart off between the houses; he would have seen which way I went. Besides, if he got the right angle in time, I’d be a sitting duck for ten seconds at least.
So I assumed my favored kneeling position, used the night vision monocle to compensate for the lack of ambient light, and emptied my pistol, carefully but quickly. It was a lot longer shot that the twenty-one feet I’d practiced, the man was obviously wearing a vest, and I knew there’d be flyers. Which there were, but I was pretty sure three of the seven bullets nailed the agent firmly enough to give him a checkup from the neck up. He was falling before the final round left the barrel.
I didn’t waste time reloading. What I needed now was invisibility. Even if there were more agents behind the downed man, they’d be ultra cautious about poking their heads out of that door now.
It had been a major operation. That was made clear to me by the time I’d scooted under the brush; a chopper was already roaring in, its multiple searchlights searing the crime scene with blazing illumination. Fortunately, they clearly didn’t know which way I had gone; they were hesitating, probably covering the downed officer.
By the time I broke out on the street behind the minivan, the chopper was searching, but not yet aiming this way. It felt like forever, but really, not much time had passed; it would take more smarts than the average fed possessed to realize I could have gotten this far away this quickly.
Or so I hoped, but that didn’t mean I turned on the lights right away. Running dark would put a bullseye on my back if they saw me doing it, but…there. I didn’t bother trying to read the street sign, but there was a street with plenty of traffic. Now I did put the lights on, stopped nicely at the nonexistent stop sign, turned right, and eased into the flow.
I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was well on my way out of the ‘hood.
The minivan would have to go…or would it? My prints and DNA were all over the thing; there was no way to avoid that. Yes, I’d need to change vehicles, but not, I realized, in California. Certainly not in L.A. County. Unless…no, I didn’t know the area well enough. If I could dump the vehicle in a deep-assed lake or burn it to a crisp…but no, not here or anywhere near here. I was going to have to hope Jack’s pick had been a good one. Certainly there were thousands of these old silver gray Chrysler Voyagers around, right?
Curiously, the News at Ten on the radio had nothing about the shooting. Cover up? Or a simple lack of media interest in another black on black shooting, none of the talking heads yet realizing federal agents were involved?
Because they most certainly were federal agents. I replayed the scene in my mind again and again, Miss Penny Whatever-Her-Real-Name-Was, her beautiful voice, the sweep of her police flashlight as she whipped it out and around toward me. Hacker my ass. I’d just gunned down not one but two feds, one of them a girl who looked like she could be my sister. Hell, considering my worthless old man, she might have been my sister. I’d killed a girl, a child–well, no, not a child. If she was undercover for the feds, she certainly wasn’t just fifteen years of age. Twenty-five, maybe, with a baby face.
At any rate, she wouldn’t be celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday.
Why the trap? I couldn’t figure it; it made no sense. More than that, how had we all sucked into it, bought her story, hook, line, and sinker? Mr. Gray, I was sure, had the answers. He almost didn’t have them in time, but he had them now.
It dawned on me that if it hadn’t been for the delay required to repair the minivan, I’d have likely pushed on down into L.A. County early enough to try to make the pickup one night earlier–and Mr. Gray would not have figured out what was going on in time to warn me. Thank you, POS minivan. Thank you from the heart. Maybe I should keep the thing forever. As far as I knew, nobody in law enforcement had eyeballed the thing.
Okay, maybe that was going too far. Get out of California!
Sunrise found me thinking I might just make it, though I was rummy as all get-out from lack of sleep. The fake beard and cheek pads had gone to a fiery death in the desert, the hoodie had been discarded in a pile of arroyo trash left behind by northbound illegal immigrants, and I was back in my western clothes, my big black hat disguising my big black bald head. It was bright enough out that no one thought twice when I left my shades on at the restaurant in Kingman, Arizona–where Oklahoma City bomber and patsy Timothy McVeigh had a history, no less–so my bloodshot eyes were hidden as well.
I hadn’t yet come up with a believable story to tell about Treemin Jackson of Montana’s Rodeo Iron scouting down this way for a possible Arizona franchise, but I was working on it, just in case. And I found out I had an appetite, enough to wrap myself around a double order of biscuits and gravy, washed down with a gallon or so of hundred mile coffee. I was good to go.
Once back on I-40, I decided it was time to use my right hand one time phone to call Jack. Gray would certainly have alerted him right after he called me; the folks at Ovando must be going nuts with worry by now. Besides, I had my cover story ready, just in case the feds were actually listening. Not that I believed they were nearly that good, but still.
Jack picked up on the second ring. “Go!”
“Yo, Jack,” I said cheerily, “the Arizona franchisee turned out to be a bust. I’d still like to see Rodeo Iron up and running in this state, but believe me, Kingman is not the place for it.”
“Wasted run, then?” I could hear the relief in his voice, but he was thinking all the same.
“Pretty much. Wasted, wasted.” If I knew Jack, he’d get the message; I’d wasted two people, fighting my way out of the trap.
“So, you coming through Salt Lake on your way home?” Translation: He needed to know my route.
“Nah. Should, maybe, but I was thinking maybe I’d stop in and get myself some shirts. You know I can’t resist a good store once I find one.” Code: Meet me in Sheridan, Wyoming, where I first got back into western attire by buying clothing at the Corral West store a couple of years ago.
“Shirts are good,” he replied. “Might pick up one or two myself.”
Awesome. He’d beat me to Sheridan, have a motel room waiting. He’d also have it figured out where we could safely dump the minivan. Hopefully, he’d also have some answers.
Now I just had to drive as long as I could until the coffee ran out, find a rest area, and get some sleep. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I could sleep.
“So, Jack, we’re heading to Missoula first?” The minivan was history, crushed and recycled and out of my worry zone. Hill piloted his Subaru Outback westward, fueling up at Park City while I grabbed a few snacks to go, and we were back on I-90.
“Believe we should. Your girls can’t wait to see you, as I’m sure you know, but they understand. Gray is beside himself; if he doesn’t get a chance to apologize and explain, he might just have a stroke.”
I sighed, pure pleasure, relaxed and safe. Or as safe as things ever got, anyway. “All righty then. Let’s go see Mr. Gray.”
It was early evening when we walked into the Half Castle, past the guard with the halberd and into the secret conference room on the other side of the restroom. For the first time ever, I was looking at a disheveled Mr. Gray. He looked like he’d slept in his fancy suit, his eight hundred dollar shoes were scuffed, and his tie was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t shaved, either.
“Treemin!” He rushed forward, literally rushed, grabbed my hand and shook it furiously. “Thank the Powers that Be!”
“Um,” I said, “Good to see you, too.”
He gathered himself with an effort. “Have you eaten?”
“Not recently,” I admitted.
“Ah. Well then. Do you mind if I, heh, order you and Jack some take-in–as opposed to take-out, get it?–and you can eat while I explain. That is, if my explanation doesn’t make you lose your appetite.”
“After what I’ve been through,” I said, “it would take a lot to make me lose my appetite.”
Minutes later, Jack and I were leisurely helping ourselves to a mountain of Chinese food. Gray began his explanation.
“Please believe me, I knew none of what I’m about to say when you left on your rescue mission. Several of our best hackers, people who have worked with us for years–more than a decade in one case–started picking up on things. Something didn’t feel right to them, and when something doesn’t feel right to a really talented hacker, they take that feeling seriously. Without that instinct and the determination to figure out what’s really what, a lot more of them would get arrested and prosecuted.
“It would take days to tell the long version, but the short version is that our people finally spotted Penny Cummings–who is really FBI Agent Sharon Blakely–”
“Was,” I interrupted.
“Was. Agent Blakely should be considered in the past tense.”
“Yes, Mr. Gray. Your little mercy mission came within one split second of getting me killed, stone cold dead. Or just as likely, arrested and interrogated and investigated until we had feds crawling all over Montana. But I did not die, and Piercings Cummings aka Sharon Blakely did.”
“You–” Gray’s face had lost all color. His people had obviously not yet realized that Blakely was dead.
“Yes, I. Don’t get me wrong. Our hearts were all in the right places. Yours, the real civilian hackers, Jack, me, all of us. Knowing what we did, thinking as we do, it was inevitable that we’d send somebody to pick up the poor persecuted Penelope, wasn’t it? The feds wouldn’t have known who–and I’m sure they still don’t know who, or I’d be dead already–but those assholes figured to lay a trap that would bring in a physical body. They’d grab that body, alive if they could, and torture his ass until he told them all about all the hacker networks and wannabe terrorist organizations and whatever else their puny little minds could conjure up. Am I right? They couldn’t crack the hacker’s circle in any real way, so they tried an end run.
“But you know what? The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions, my friend. I’m not faulting you, or me, or Jack, or anybody else that was in on helping me decide to go put my big back ass on the line. Besides, yes, you unknowingly threw me out there in the shark pool, but you also literally saved my life with that phone call. I thank you. From the heart. I really do. I want us to keep working together. We need to work together. But that was the last time I or Jack or anybody else is going to toodle on down the road to save the damsel in distress from the flaming dragon. From here on in, either we know you well, personally, or you can fry in hell and be served up as a side dish for the Devil’s breakfast. Oh, and one more thing. I didn’t just have to kill Miss Blakely to bust out of that trap; I had to cap another fed, too, a guy, probably the one pretending to be the abusive stepdad. I don’t know if there was a third agent in the apartment or not, a woman pretending to be passed out drunk on the couch. I didn’t get that far. But our misguided Good Samaritan bullshit has burned the bull right in the balls. The feds seem to be keeping these killings quiet for now, don’t ask me why, but they’re not forgetting. The entire Federal Bureau of Investigation is by God pissed, no two ways about it. If they ever get the slightest whiff of our scent, either Jack’s and mine or your organization’s, it’s all over but the screaming. Am I clear?”
Gray looked stricken. “Clear as glass,” he whispered. “Treemin, I’m sorry.”
“Shit, Gray, I’m sorry, too. Maybe we got past this one. Maybe. You haven’t identified any of us to any of your other contacts, right?”
“No…you’re known on the YouTube video from the attack up on the Highline, but that’s it. None of the other items. Even the wolf DNA analysis was done blind; the lab had no idea who was requesting the workup.”
Seeing me wind down, Jack stepped in. “What we had here was a wakeup call. With the possible exception of Tree, who really didn’t want to go on this mission in the first place, every one of us called it wrong. But Tree did it right; he even made sure he didn’t use his bare hand to open the door to the walkup where Blakely and crew were waiting. If he hadn’t sprung the trap, we wouldn’t have known that your hacker network had been so thoroughly infiltrated. But the federal hackers who were playing the game didn’t know why somebody wanted to know the Execution Committee’s location in Pittsburgh; I doubt they realize, even now, that the EC was hit at all, or even what the EC is, what it really does.
“So it seems to me that we’ve been granted a gift. You’ve learned that all hackers need to be vetted a lot more thoroughly than they have been in the past. If we blew it, if a clue has been left that will eventually lead to one of us, well, we can’t do anything about that. But if we did escape the big bad Uncle Sam wolf by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin, then we’ll come out of this as tempered steel. What doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger.”
Silence settled in the room after Jack’s declaration. He and I munched quietly away, wading through teriyaki chicken, vegetable egg foo young, and sesame beef dishes, washing it all down with copious drafts of tea. Gray sat on his stool, staring at the floor, thinking.
“I promise you this,” he said finally. “I will never again even hint at suggesting you two might want to take a particular course of action. I’ll admit, I did originally mention the arrest of young Piercings in the hope that you would do something about it. When you did act on it, I felt thrilled at first, excited. I guess I was getting a vicarious high from being the knowledge provider behind the scenes. Then when I found out it was a trap…I’ve never felt that kind of terror. I almost couldn’t make that call to you, even though I knew I had to. Not that I hesitated; the minute I understood, I picked up the phone. But…I don’t ever want to be in that position again. If you had been caught, or God forbid killed, I don’t think I could have lived with myself.”
“Suicide?” I cocked an eyebrow, honestly amused.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “Suicide. I do believe I’d have done it.”
Jack and I both laughed out loud. “Shoot, Gray,” Hill said between bursts of mirth, “you wouldn’t have needed to do that. I can think of fifteen or twenty people who’d have done it for you!”