Kennedy’d felt foolish about her state the moment it was gone. She knew why it had been there, even that it was foolish at the time, but it had overwhelmed her. Paranoia and professional fears were the obvious roots of things; fearing the NSA was betraying her was overwhelmed by the fear of going against them. That was, of course, to say nothing of the ethical lapse required to do what she’d done. She’d be unable to compartmentalize for once, do her job as expected.
Kevin would’ve thought it a win, but it was a loss no matter what way Kennedy looked at it. Her emotions had overwhelmed her to the point of physical illness. She’d lost total control, become a subject to the whims of her own self-involvement. She didn’t like it. Emotions could help to heal people, but when they got in the way, they killed. It was one thing to have a bed-side manner, it was another to let it override everything she’d worked to become and trained for.
Stuck in evening traffic on Michigan Avenue, she had no choice but to consider it. The start-stop pace was enough to make anyone painfully introspective– or outright hostile– and she was merely another of its victims. She watched the left lane creep by as someone in a new, sleek BMW head-banged to metal older than him. Even from the angle she could see the glow of the windscreen’s in-built HUD that was even more excessive and unnecessary than the slick chrome and LEDs lights glowing in its sockets and undercarriage.
She rolled her eyes and let her beater idle forward. Reaching the north end of Neo-chicago these days wasn’t easy, especially when night-shifts immersed her the combo traffic of eager, homeward bound commuters and booze-thirsty tourists and clubbers. She could’ve taken any number electric, public shuttles or elevated light-rails, but traffic was the only procrastination a governmental body still allowed. That, and there was no telling when she might get to work and suddenly find she wasn’t needed and was sent home.
How she’d gotten where she was remained a puzzle. At least in regards to Barnet and the NSA’s requirements. The only satisfactory answer Kennedy had managed to suss out of things was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How many other people could say the same for their jobs? Then again, how many of them were being extorted by the NSA to do as requested or end up jobless and charged for treason? She was certain the answer was low enough there couldn’t even be a support group for them. These days, that was saying something.
It was another half-hour before traffic crept along far enough for her to break away onto another, high-traffic avenue. Thankfully, this one was less crowded, allowing for a low speed cruise to take the place of inching forward between stop lights.
She accelerated through one intersection for another, the road almost completely empty. Scattered headlights in the oncoming lanes ensured she wasn’t, in fact, dreaming. The NSA safe-house was only minutes away. No doubt when she arrived she’d be just in time to catch the meeting with the NSA’s specialized med-staff she was now in charge of.
A check of her watch said she was later than expected. She revved up through a yellow light. A horn wailed. Her head turned right. An SUV’s headlights bore down on her. Her passenger-side crumpled, T-boned. Her belt lashed tight, whipped her back and forth. She had the vague notion of spinning before her head hit the steering wheel and everything went black.
Time passed in gaps, flashes. Black SUVs and masked figures encircled her. Her head swayed, feet heavy. She absently clutched the cell-phone scanner. An unmasked face appeared with familiar, darting eyes. Commands were issued, orders shouted. Gun barrels rose. Kennedy’s finger tapped at the scanner. Kieran Walters raised a weapon. A burst of blue light engulfed her. Her body seized, and she lost consciousness. Walters’ men pulled her from the car, shoved her into the backseat of his SUV.
Across town, Barnet was standing before Torres and Mendez, looking down with something akin to sympathy. Except, he wasn’t sure it was sympathy. There was the definite twinge of pain, like a paper cut, but a sickened bile beneath it said he felt less for them than something else. Hopefully, it would reveal itself before–
“Hart’s scanner just went off. Signal’s Incomplete.” The blonde woman said suddenly from beside him.
She handed a tablet over, incomprehensible Morse code scrawled over it. “What do we know?”
“Police scanners are going haywire,” she led him for a computer hooked across the room. Above it, a large, flat-screen television flared on and mirrored her actions. “I pulled sat-images from the phone’s last GPS hit.”
Barnet was staring at a bird’s eye view of the crash scene. A fleet of black SUVs had encircled another buried in the passenger-side of a small four-door sedan. The sat images honed to a high-resolution, and Barnet left all doubt behind. Kennedy’s blue Taurus was totaled, the driver’s door still open. Between it and another SUV, two figures were pulling a third, limp figure away to stuff it into an SUV.
Barnet tossed the tablet, felt for his gun at his hip, and began back-stepping from the room, “Call NCPD; tell them to shut down all roads out of the city. Get the FBI to shut down the back roads. And have our ground units sweeping. I want choppers in the air now!”
“I got it. go!”
He sprinted from the office, bounded along the stairs, then burst out the front door for his sedan. Its tires squealed from the parking lot.
He dialed his phone to speak to the woman remotely, “Sarah, I need an address.”
A pair of black choppers suddenly whizzed past, nav-lights blinking blue and red and under-belly spotlights flaring on to swivel about beside their nightvision cameras. NSA sharpshooters sat before each open door.
Their low flight nearly drowned out Sarah’s reply, but he caught enough to know where to head. His car slipped and squealed around corners, screamed through lights, wound and weaved through traffic with a whining supercharger. His phone rang as he approached the scene; a dozen police cars and a fleet of ambulances and fire-trucks had already cordoned off the intersection to re-direct traffic.
“Barnet,” he answered.
“NCPD has a location on one of the fleet vehicles. It’s in an alley not far from you, West–” His car screeched a 180 for the location. “Air units believe it’s abandoned, but advise to approach with caution. The FBI’s already sending in a team.”
“Sarah, tell them to hold position. I want bomb-sniffers out before anyone gets near it.”
She affirmed his order. He fish-tailed around a corner, accelerated for the nearby alleyway. A few unmarked box-trucks were already in position on one side of it. Barnet skidded to a stop, jumped out with the car still running.
He flashed his badge, “Who’s in charge.”
A man in a full tac-gear hung back as his team advanced on the alley, “That’d be me. Special Agent Roy Cullen, HRT.”
Barnet saw men moving through the alley. “Pull them back. Pull them back now!”
“I’m going to have to ask–”
“There may be a proximity armed bomb in that vehicle. Tell your team to–”
Barnet’s next words were lost. A fireball lit the air with a blinding flash. The truck’s panels and windows erupted outward with it. The shock wave blew Barnet and Cullen sideways. Glass from shattered windows along the street rained amid pulverized brick-dust and crumbling debris. Car alarms whined blocks away.
Barnet landed more than a dozen feet from where he’d stood. Cullen lie ahead of him, a few feet away, unconscious from the blast’s concussion. Several of the box-trucks had overturned, mounds of gathering rubble piling atop them and Barnet’s car. A section of building came loose from above, landed with a crush of metal and a burst of dust. The dust engulfed his vision and he passed out.
Kennedy eased back to consciousness, tried to reach for her head, but found her arms cuffed behind her. Sharp pains stabbed at all of her nerve-endings, forced her to cry out. Her lips pulled tight against duct tape slapped over them.
Light suddenly flared through tar-thick darkness, made her eyes leak tears. She was blind for a full minute, her breath in ragged bursts from her nose as heavy steps approached her with angry breaths. She blinked away water, focused her eyes against the light. A silhouette appeared before her, the floodlight redirected to reveal it properly.
Familiar, short-cut, graying hair and an unmistakably European-something face appeared atop a tall body clad in a leather riding jacket and t-shirt and jeans. Kennedy’s eyes widened, her face white. If she hadn’t been gagged, she might have vomited in pure terror. Instead, she merely squeaked, panted through her nose above the tape.
Kieran Walters leaned forward at nose-length, “You know who I am.”
It was a statement. She knew that. She also gathered he was aware of her association with the NSA. She swallowed hard. Then, with a solemn nod, reaffirmed his statement. A lightning hand gripped either side of her face. It squeezed at her upper jaw, directed her eyes to his.
“Then we’ll skip the small-talk.” His grip tightened. She squeaked terror again, afraid her teeth would crack. He spoke slowly, enunciated each word to inflect more intimidation and malice than Kennedy thought a human could. “Where. is. Juan. Torres?”
She shuddered, shook. The stabbing nerve-endings sent shocks through her body. Knives stuck into her heart and lungs, made each breath like swallowing razor blades. He released her face, tore the tape away with a loud riiip! She sobbed incomprehensibly, vaguely saying she didn’t know. Walters balled a fist, hit her like a Mack truck. Bruising was instant. The tight pull of swelling said it would last. She tasted blood from her a split lip. It leaked from along her chin, hot, wet.
Her stomach lurched, and her face involuntarily stiffened up. She needed to remain collected, calm, wait to get the upper hand, and stay alive long enough for Barnet to find her. Neither panic nor hysteria would help her. She did her best to still her trembling limbs against the lingering effects of the stunner’s charge and the bruised wounds Walters had caused.
She sniffled away the last of her tears, “I’ll n-need a p-pen… and a free hand.”
Walters nodded at someone in the room’s darkened recesses. A man stepped forward with a pen and pad of paper. Walters took it, knelt to undo her cuffs and freed both of her hands. She rubbed her sore wrists as he stepped back. With a deft hand she wrote in miniature script, then handed over the pad and kept the pen.
He squinted at it, “Three-Thirty-one fukyerself la—”
She lunged, pen out, aimed for his jugular. It speared his neck to a stream of blood, but no spurt. Kennedy internally panicked. She’d missed.
Walters stumbled back, “Fuck!”
The man in the shadows sprinted over, his rifle on her. She spit at their feet, “Go to hell, asshole!”
Walters tore the pen from his neck with a grunt, “Bitch!”
Blood leaked through his tense fingers, kept pressure on the wound. He stepped forward, hit her hard enough to knock her unconscious again.
Barnet eased up from a cot in a mobile relief-center; a tent on the edge of the explosion zone. He checked himself to ensure he was intact, found only minor scratches and a thick coat of soot and dust. He stumbled for a tent flap ahead, passed sedated and burned FBI agents and others groaning in pain and shock. He stepped out to find fresh, morning sun streaming down on a new day.
The tent was an eye of order in an otherwise chaotic storm. It had been setup across the street from the initial explosion, in the mouth of the opposite alley from where the truck had been. Fire-trucks lined the whole city block, still soaking smoldering ruins and fires that seemed to want to flare up or spread incessantly. The din of countless uniformed officers, plain-clothes and suited FBI agents, and a myriad of EMTs, doctors, and fire-fighters criss-crossed the open spaces between emergency vehicles and tents.
Barnet paused in the thick of things to get his bearings; Kennedy needed to be found, sooner rather than later.
“Garret!” Sarah jogged up, dressed in a sharp suit and looking more masculine than usual. Her tie flapped behind her, “Garret, you’re alright!”
He felt himself over again to make sure, “No holes, anyway.”
She breathed relief, “Thank Christ. Listen, we’ve got Intel on the fleet Walters was using.” His senses honed enough for him to take in the information. “They’re registered to a local rental company operating out of the city’s East-side.”
His mind lagged to see her point, “It would’ve been easy to falsify the information to rent the vehicles, Sarah. I don’t think–”
She waved him off, “Right, but the owner’s an ex-con with prior felonies. He’s on his lat strike. More than likely, he’d have been given big money to keep his mouth shut. But if we squeeze him, he might give us something.”
His mind sputtered to work as he watched fire-fighters flood the ruined block with ultra-jets of water. His eyes met Sarah’s. “It’s our only lead?” She gave a nod. “Then you drive. I’m… not sure what they gave me, but I feel like I’m back in high-school.”
She led him through the sea of people to her car, “Are you sure you want to do this? I can deal with one ex-con.”
He thought of Kennedy at Walters’ mercy and gave a resolute shake of his head. “No. I won’t let this go unanswered. It happened on my watch. If it weren’t for me, Kennedy wouldn’t even be a target. She shouldn’t have ever been a part of this in the first place. The agency made a mistake with the way this was handled. I aim to see she doesn’t pay for it and gets back in one piece.”
They slid into Sarah’s black sedan. She started the car, hesitated with a long look to Barnet. Emotions played over her face for a moment. When she finally spoke, it was with a grave reservation at her own words. “Garret, you may have to accept…” Bile scorched her throat. It was almost unbearable to think her own thoughts, let alone speak them. “Walters might’ve already killed her.”
“No,” he reasoned firmly. “If Walters had wanted her dead, he’d have killed her on the road. He needed her alive. He wants something from her.”
She put the car in gear, “I sincerely hope you’re right.”