Hot Iron: Part 7

13.

The guy was built like one of those Harley thugs from street-gang movies. In other-words, a brick shit-house that might’ve given Juan Torres a run for his money. That is, until he was slammed backward against a wall of shelves by the tiny, blonde NSA agent. Barnet watched with an almost sick satisfaction, smirking at the debilitated pain in the guy’s face. Sarah pressed a gun to his head with one hand, twisted his testicles with the other.

“Kieran Walters, asshole! Where is he?”

“Bitch, I… don’t know who you’re… talking about,” he said an octave higher than expected.

She gave an angry twist, “Tell me, or I rip ’em off!

Barnet was leaned against a car a few feet away, its hood open. He crossed his arms, casually, “You might wanna’ do what she says. I’m not sure she can do it, but personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing her try.”

“Sick fucks, both of–” A twist and a sharp inhale cut him off. His voice was even higher, “Alright, alright.” Sarah released him enough to speak. “I seen him come in here. He wanted a fleet of SUVs. Yah. And when I asked him to sign the paperwork, he dropped a briefcase full’a money on the table.”

Barnet moseyed over, “We’ve found the fleet, all twelve of ’em.”

He spoke through curled, nicotine-stained lip, “What about the last one? Thirteen?”

Sarah readied to squeeze again, glanced back at Barnet, “What d’you think?”

“Walters seems like the type to account for this.”

They exchanged a glance and looked back to the guy for an explanation. He shrank away as best he could. “The guy… Walters… didn’t know, but I had trackers in the trucks. Just in case… something happened.”

He grit his teeth, fearful of another twist. The two agents had a silent conversation of tilted and raised facial features. Finally, Sarah looked back, “Give us the tracker’s I-D frequency, we pretend this little infraction never happened. We’ll even keep your parole officer from hearing about it.”

“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow. “And I can keep the money?”

Barnet shook his head pitifully, “The NSA doesn’t give a shit about Walters’ money, or yours, just quit jerking us around.”

The guy swallowed hard, nodded. Sarah released him, but kept her gun up. It followed his half-limp around and into a nearby office. He sat behind a desk, nursed himself with a gentle hand and typed with the other.

“Fuckin’ bruised ’em, I think.”

“Poor baby.”

He switched out hands to scribble down a series of letters and numbers on a memo pad, then tore off the page for Barnet. He went back to cradling himself, with both hands this time, “That’s it. Feed it into any GPS monitor and it’ll show up the next time the truck starts.”

“Why the wait?” Barnet asked.

He shrugged, breathed carefully, “I dunno. That’s just always how the system’s worked…. I’d say I wish I could offer more help, but we’d all know it’s a lie.”

Sarah safetied her pistol, slid it into her hip-holster, and stepped away. Barnet moved to leave, nodded at the guy, “Best to get some ice on ’em before too long.”

“Yeah. Right. I’ll do that.” The door to the office shut. “Asshole.”

A bucket of ice water splashed Kennedy’s face and torso. She choked and coughed, gasping for air and spitting out inhaled water. Walters’ fingers nursed his wounded neck as she shook water from her face, opened her eyes to see him lean in at nose-length again.

“That wasn’t very smart. Try some it again, I’ll strip you naked and feed you to my men.”

Her eyes burned with hatred. Her emotional control had returned in full-force, and was currently tempering her fear into active hatred and undeniable logic. “No. You won’t. Not if you ever hope to get anything out of me. My guess is, until then, you’ll keep me as safe and sane as possible. Otherwise, you. Are. fucked.

Walters straightened from his lean and began to laugh. He looked back at one of his men, “Maybe I was wrong about this one. Maybe she is a smart girl.”

Walters nodded to the man. He stepped to a nearby door and threw it open with one hand, the other clasped around a Kalashnikov. Someone was thrown toward him. He dragged them in, forced them forward at rifle-point. The person stumbled, hands bound with rope and mouth gagged with a swath of cloth.

Kennedy’s eyes widened at Melissa Fannon. Juan Torres’ bombshell sister looked like hell. She’d passed the point where any amount of time could make her look whole again, no matter her skill with make-up.

Walters smiled with a sadistic satisfaction, “Now, my bows, they’ve already had their way with this one. I figure though, you’re a… medical professional, took an oath to “do no harm–” He felt at his neck with a sickly wince. “And my guess is, that extends to this–” He knelt down, grabbed Melissa by the back of the head, “this poor, cowering creature here.” He threw her head forward, stood up, and pulled a gun from his hip. He stopped between Kennedy and Melissa, gun aimed at the latter, “Now, she doesn’t know where they’re holding her brother, but you do. You can see where this is going, I imagine. In case you don’t, let me just say, I have no problem killing her to get you to talk.”

“What if I don’t?” Kennedy asked, eyes locked on Walters’.

He cocked the pistol’s hammer, “Maybe we should find out.”

Kennedy grit her teeth. Walters hesitated. Melissa’s eyes were stuck in a traumatized stare. She’d clearly been through something. Kennedy hoped, whatever it was, Walters was lying about it. All the same, she was at a loss. If she gave them the information, they’d have no use for her anymore, and they’d kill her. Then, they’d kill Melissa, raid the NSA Safe-house, kill Mendez, Torres, and whomever else got in the way.

She looked up at Walters, “How do I know you won’t kill us afterward just for the fun of it?”

Walter’s head tilted in agreement. He knelt to match his height to hers, eyes boring holes into her own, “Well, I suppose, that’s just the risk you take.”

Kennedy inhaled a sharp breath. Her stomach churned. “Alright. No games.”

She took a breath, and relayed an address. Walters immediately ordered his men to ready up over a two-way radio, put the man in the room on guard and left. It was only a matter of time before he realized the address was a fake. With any luck, the real NSA safe-house next door would intervene.

14.

Sarah’s sedan pulled into a space a few places down from the Dentist’s car. He’d been and gone since lunch, and was currently inside working on one of his patients. Barnet and Sarah eased from the car, neither much in the mood for talking. They still had to get upstairs, begin monitoring the GPS signal, and hope, when it registered again, it would lead to Kennedy… and that she’d still be alive.

They pushed into the building as a vehicle rolled up behind them. They ignored a shout as four doors opened. The building door shut, and Barnet’s mind blocked it out. He was too focused on finding Kennedy. Upstairs, they had only the vaguest sense that something was off. A loud crash sounded, but given the place below was a bar, it was neither uncommon nor alarming.

Sarah took a place at her laptop, keyed in the GPS ID the ex-con had given them. Barnet stood before the two, scarred patients with his arms crossed. His thoughts were only of Kennedy and an undeniable guilt at involving her. She’d only been gone a few hours, but she could be dead by now, maybe worse. In his line of work, death was quick, simple, with no time for undue suffering. More often than not though, guys like Walters excelled in make suffering a deranged art. He didn’t want to admit any of it to Sarah, as her hope kept him going, but his own was a facade that could easily disintegrate if not careful.

Kennedy Hart. She shouldn’t be here. She was a nurse, not an agent. Hell, she hardly had a life outside work. To think it might be over so young, so needlessly, wounded him. He may not have put the gun to her head, but he’d damned sure put her in position for Walters to. He and the Agency– the NSA, that was prepared to disavow Barnet’s entire operation if things went sideways and the wrong people found out what was going on. Barnet wasn’t even sure anymore, not really.

He’d sussed out what he could from what he hadn’t known. Hot Iron had never been solely about locating and eliminating Walters. That was the one thing he’d lied about. The NSA was intent on taking Walters in, interrogating him with prejudice, and getting everything from him they could. They’d charge him in a secret court, and shove him in a cell so deep underground he’d be dead a decade before anyone learned he’d been caught. In the meantime, they and the other acronym agencies would use whatever they’d learned to forward their own, particular agendas.

It made him sick to think of it. Half truths and white-lies. That was what he’d given to Kennedy. There was no way to avoid the guilt. He’d been as honest as he could be, told her enough to know to keep herself safe, protect her job from the people holding it hostage. It wasn’t enough. It never could’ve been. He doubted full-fledged field-training would’ve put her in the right place to take on Walters. The man was a trained, ex-mercenary on a warpath. The entire CIA hadn’t been able to keep him leashed, even then the NSA hadn’t been able to catch him. What hope could Kennedy have in his hands?

It was on Barnet’s watch that Kennedy had been hit and captured. Her T-boned Taurus was still being combed for clues at the crash-site. What a waste of effort and time. It could’ve been better directed elsewhere, at finding her, at squeezing every last resource the agency had to do so.

“It’s in,” Sarah said.

Barnet nodded. Another crash sounded below. Four doors slammed shut outside. An SUV ground to a start.

“Hold on, we’re getting something,” Sarah said, the screen before her triangulating with a progress bar.

Barnet heard doors slam and suddenly knew.

“It’s–”

“Here.”

His pistol was out, legs pumping for the building’s entrance. He threw himself through the office-door, bounded down the steps, then crashed through the building’s entrance. Tires squealed as he burst outside. His pistol rose, barked rounds. The SUV’s rear-window shattered. A tail-light burst. Sarah was out behind him, diving into the car. Barnet aimed one last shot, blew out a rear-tire on the SUV. It fish-tailed away over metal grating asphalt. Three tires screeched, whipped it around a corner. Sarah threw the car through a reverse 180, door open. Barnet reloaded as he jumped in. Rubber burned and peeled away after the SUV, the force slamming the doors shut.

They blazed through an intersection. Sirens blared and began to scream along behind them. They galloped forward, engine whining, pursuing the wounded truck. Barnet leaned from his window, fired wildly into the rear of the truck. Blood sprayed a window and someone in a rear-seat slumped sideways, dead from a stray round. Another person turned around.

“Down!” Barnet yelled.

He shoved Sarah beneath the dash. She fought to keep the car straight, blind. A Kalashnikov chattered, and spit ammunition and shell casings out the back window. Divots danced across Sarah’s hood and windshield. A double triplet of fire shattered the window over them. The sedan chirped and barked, weaved to dodge more fire. It died for a reload.

Barnet was up, “Keep it steady!”

He took a deep breath, aimed at the figure in the backseat. It fumbled with a new magazine. Timed slowed. Barnet breathed, squeezed. Blood and brain splattered from an exit wound. It spit across seat-backs and the windshield, threw the SUV into a frenzy as the driver struggled to wipe it away.

Time resumed. Screaming sirens and the squeal of sparking metal sounded over the bark of Barnet’s gunfire. The truck threw itself around corners, used its fish-tails to dodge the shots. A helicopter thumped into view overhead. Squad cars behind them suddenly surged forward to come even with them– the cops would have run their plates, deduced what was happening. The day’s earlier events assured everyone knew the NSA and FBI were hunting someone. The chopper pulled ahead with a bloodthirsty vengeance above, then sank like a stone to cut off Walters’ SUV.

The chase diverted into an alley, rocketed out the other-side into heavy traffic.

Walters ducked in the front seat, phone to his ear, “Kill them. Line them up and kill them both.”

The man in the room before Kennedy thumbed his phone, shoved it into a pocket. He advanced with his rifle on her. A hand grabbed Melissa, threw her at the far wall across from Kennedy. She knew what was about to happen, had only one chance to stop it. She was a nurse, knew human anatomy better than most. She’d have to put it to the test. But how? Could she? She was sworn to help people, but this was different, wasn’t it?

The man unlocked her first cuff. She had to wait until she was up. She couldn’t risk not having full leverage. There were a million ways to kill a person, probably more. Most of them she’d seen, either as attempts, or eventual successes. They all required both hands.

“Beside her, now!” Her second hand came free and he pulled her up.

Nothing mattered now except survival.

She straightened to step forward. His rifle was low, its butt even with his diaphragm. It wouldn’t take much. She moved to step. A fast grip and heavy jolt; the rifle-butt slammed his diaphragm. He fell back, breathless. She wrestled the rifle away. A heavy jerk broke it free. A moment later the butt crushed his throat. A crunch, and he was dead, spinal cord severed.

Kennedy’s chest heaved from the effort, mind still reeling. A flit from Melissa forced her into action. In a flash, she was beside her, rifle in hand, fighting knotted rope at her wrists. She freed the gag from Melissa.

“Y-you k-killed him,” she said, traumatized.

She fought the rope, “These knots. The rope’s too tight.”

“He h-has a kn-knife,” Melissa said, eyeing the body.

Kennedy hurried over to search him, found a pistol and a large survival knife. She slid the pistol into the waistband of her scrubs, then sliced through the binds on Melissa’s wrist.

“Ready?” Melissa nodded. “Stay behind me. We’ll get out of here. I promise.”

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Hot Iron: Part 6

11.

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.”

“Jesus Christ.”

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.

12.

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.”