Authors: Stuart Woods
Wade Sykes stood on the landing of the stairs outside the fire door, scanning the street for hostiles—vehicles or persons. Nothing bad had appeared. He looked down at the waiting van; he could see Bess at the wheel but not Jimmy, whose presence in the rear seat was obscured by the vehicle’s roof.
He half regretted the order he had given Jimmy, but it was absolutely necessary, in the circumstances. He simply could not rely on someone who had not completely earned his trust. He hoped that all would go well, and that she would remain a part of his group. He would know very shortly.
Then, from inside the building, came a short burst of gunfire.
Stone heard the first burst from the other side of the theater, and had no wish to stick his head inside the door while
weapons were firing. They were firing rapidly now, coming from more than one direction, he thought.
Tom Blake opened the door to the greenroom a crack so that he could see the stage. The armored podium that he had placed at front and center, the sort that covered the president on speaking occasions, sheltered a single man, who was looking his way.
Tom gave him the nod, and the man stood up, still mostly covered by the podium, and fired a burst into the window of the projectionist’s booth in the balcony. Hopefully, Tom thought, that would do it. But it didn’t do it.
Eugene, standing behind the projectionist’s steel chair, reflexively ducked as the glass in the window shattered, and rounds ricocheted off the chair. He moved to one side of the seat so that he could get a look at the shooter, and, to his surprise, saw a head behind the podium. God help him, it was a setup. He returned fire.
Bess, at the wheel of the van, heard the gunfire, and so did Jimmy in the rear seat. She looked ahead and saw an armored police van pull into the street and block it. Then, in the rearview mirror, she saw Jimmy make a move, followed by an incredibly loud report and the appearance of a hole in the windshield, in line with where her head would have been if she had not, as a defense against the police van, let
her ass slide off the seat and drop her onto the floor, while clawing at her pistol under her blouse. Another loud noise, and a large hole appeared in the back of her seat, scattering bits of upholstery everywhere.
She flipped off the safety of her Sig Sauer, rotated to the right, and snapped off two rounds through the gap between the two seats. One of them caused blood to spray on the head lining of the rear seat, and more was coming from a hole in Jimmy’s right eyebrow. Pure luck, she thought, then fired another round into his forehead.
Sykes took in the police vehicle and the action in the van with a single glance. He ran down the stairs, opened the front passenger door, and slammed it behind him. Jimmy was dead in the rear seat, and Bess was climbing behind the wheel. “Reverse!” he yelled, then looked over his shoulder and saw a police car on Lexington Avenue partially blocking their way. The van had started to reverse.
Sykes grabbed the wheel and looked over his shoulder. “Full throttle!” he yelled, and she stomped on it while he steered.
The van struck the police car where he had aimed it, just forward of the rear bumper, and the car spun about ninety degrees. “Stop!” he yelled, and Bess did. “Now, drive!” She turned until they were pointed downtown on Lex, and got lucky with the changing of the traffic signals. She had gone ten blocks before she had to run a red.
“Hang a left on Fifty-seventh Street!” Sykes yelled, and she did. “Turn right on Second Avenue!” They would go with the traffic. “Left on Thirty-fourth Street! Keep your speed up!”
Bess followed orders. “Where are we headed?” she asked.
“East Side Heliport.” He got out a phone and pressed a button. “Start your engine!” he said. “Request departure to the south!” He listened for a moment, then hung up. “With a little luck,” he said, “we’ll catch it just right.”
Now rounds were coming through the front wall of the projection booth, and Eugene was on the floor, firing back at a point lower on the wall. He got to one knee and cracked open the door so that he could see the fire exit, then he flung himself at it, got it open, and ran out onto the landing, in time to see the van reverse, ram a cop car, then turn down Lexington. He was on his own.
He started down the stairs, his boots ringing on the steel steps, then caught a full burst from somewhere; he would never know where. He fell the rest of the way down the stairs and lay on his back, bleeding into the gutter.
Why aren’t there any police cars?” Bess asked.
“Because it didn’t go down the way they expected,” Sykes replied. “Turn in there. The gate is open. Drive onto the ramp!”
She did exactly as he told her. A helicopter was sitting on the tarmac directly ahead of her, its rear door open, and she
turned to avoid the rotor, then stopped. Sykes had opened her door and was pushing her out. “Into the chopper!” he said, and she dove for the door. He was on top of her. “Go!” he yelled, climbing off Bess and into a seat, grabbing a headset. “You know the routing,” he said into the mic. “You know the routing!”
Bess pulled herself up onto the rear seat beside him and found another headset.
“Where are we going?” Bess asked.
“To Virginia,” he said, “by a devious route.” He got his phone out and began making calls.
When he was sure the firing had stopped, Stone popped the door and looked warily around. The fire door on the other side of the theater was open, and Tom Blake and a couple of others were standing there, looking down at the sidewalk.
“Where have you been?” a female voice asked.
He turned to find the ersatz Holly, a pistol in her hand, looking at him. “How did this go down?” he asked.
“There was a guy hidden in the bulletproof podium over there. At a signal from Tom, we started firing up there.” She pointed with the pistol.
The projection booth was riddled with bullet holes, many of them large. “What was he using?”
“A heavy rifle with a long magazine. There was somebody in the booth, firing back.”
“Who fired first?” Stone asked.
She paused, then said, “Impossible to say.”
Bess felt airsick after a few minutes of sharp turns. She found a bag in the seat pocket in front of her and threw up in it.
“How are you feeling, Bess?” Sykes asked after a moment.
“I don’t know,” she said, “how do I look?”
“Sick,” he said.
“I’m sick, but I’m getting better,” she replied, then threw up again into the bag. Now she felt better. She settled back into her seat and loosened the belt a little.
“Now you look better,” Sykes said.
“I’m better,” she replied.
Sykes looked at his watch. “We’re going to pick up a passenger in about an hour,” he said.
“D.C. Well, not exactly D.C. College Park, Maryland.”
Bess shook her head, leaned back, and closed her eyes. If he was going to shoot her, now would be a good time.
A half hour later she noticed they were much closer to the ground—perhaps no more than a hundred feet. She looked forward and saw a runway framed in the windshield. “College Park?” she asked.
“The world’s oldest continuously operated airport,” Sykes said. “Built for the Wright brothers in 1908.”
The chopper slowed rapidly, then set down gently on the grass next to the runway. A tall man who looked familiar stood waiting, dressed in a military-style jumpsuit. The copilot got out and stowed his luggage in a rear compartment, while the man climbed in and sat across from Bess.
“Les Hardy,” he said, offering his hand. “We’ve met before.”
“Yes, we have, Senator.”
The chopper lifted off, climbed a couple of hundred feet, and continued its journey.
Hardy found a headset. “What went wrong?” he asked, looking at Sykes.
“Just about everything,” Sykes said. “They were lying in wait for us. Everybody is dead but Bess and me.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Hardy replied.
“In the circumstances, no,” Sykes said. “Nobody left to interrogate. Nothing in their pockets, either; we traveled light.”
“What’s the plan now?” the senator asked.
“I’m going to pick up some things at the compound, burn some papers, then we’ll head to Roanoke and meet an airplane there. Very early tomorrow morning we’ll land in Caracas. Nobody can touch us there, even if they know where we are.”
“Well, goodbye to the Senate,” Hardy said.
“Les, we both know you weren’t going to be reelected. It’s hello to a new life. And when we feel like it, we can get back to work.”
“How does that sit with you, Bess?” Hardy asked.
“First I’ve heard of it. But, as Wade says, ‘in the circumstances,’ I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.”
“We’ll be comfortable,” Sykes said. “I bought a house there more than ten years ago, under a corporate name. It’s fully staffed and provisioned, which is good. Food is hard to come by in Venezuela these days. There are a couple of cars in the garage; all we’ll need are new cell phones.”
“We’ll just pop into the Apple Store, huh?” Bess asked.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“What am I supposed to do there?”
“Write that novel or screenplay you’ve been dreaming of?”
“We can just drop you off at the compound, if you like, but before tomorrow, you’ll be chatting with the FBI.”
“If I choose that option, what would you like me to tell them?”
“Oh, you’ve been there since last weekend. You’ve no idea where I went or how long I plan to be gone.”
Stone sat in a different helicopter, one with big letters on the side, reading FBI. Tom Blake sat next to him, on a satphone, which he hung up.
“Where are they?” Stone asked.
“We lost them over Maryland,” Tom replied. “Senator Hardy is MIA from his office. Best guess is, he took the underground train to the House side and got a ride from somebody.”
“We know where they’ve gone, don’t we?” Stone asked. “They can’t be anywhere else.”
“Agreed, and we’re taking steps to be sure they don’t think we know.”
“So,” Stone said, “are we going to take the compound, just the two of us?”
“We’ll have backup on the ground, but I’m not sure we’ll need it. All of Sykes’s people we know about are dead.”
“I hope he doesn’t have more buddies than we know about. Any news of Elizabeth? Like, dead or alive?”
“She drove the van away, then got on the helicopter with him,” Tom replied, “so we’ll assume she’s alive.”
“Unless she involuntarily deplaned at altitude.”
“Don’t be a pessimist,” Tom said.
The sun was low in the sky when the pilot broke the silence. “Twenty miles out,” he said.
“Go silent,” Tom Blake said.
There was a change in something, Stone thought. He took off his headset. “Weird,” he said to Tom.
“Ain’t it? If they’re there, they’ll get a lot less notice of our arrival. Chet,” he said to the pilot, “get us down to a hundred feet off the deck, then circle the property from a mile out. Let’s see what we can see.”
“Gotcha,” Chet replied, and began his descent.
From a mile out, Stone could see no vehicles parked in the area. It was dusk now, and there were no lights on in the house.
“Chet, take us back to the main road and drop us on the tarmac, then stand off a couple of miles, where you won’t be noticed from the air, shut down and keep your radio on and
your cell phone ready. If we come under fire, we may need to call in help, which is about five miles up the road. If you see incoming aircraft, call me on the phone.”
“Gotcha,” Chet said. He took them down to an altitude of two feet and hovered over the highway, while Stone and Tom grabbed their weapons and jumped out.
They were wearing SWAT suits and armor and carrying assault rifles and FBI-issue 9mm Berettas.
“Do you read me?” Tom said over the intercom.
“Loud and clear,” Stone said.
Tom began jogging lightly up the dusty dirt road toward the house. It was a mile or so, and Stone was sweating when they got there. Tom held up a hand, got out his phone, and stuck it under one side of his helmet. He listened for a moment, then ended the call. “Helicopter traffic coming in from the northeast, five miles out.”
“The barn,” Stone said, and the two men trotted over to the building and tried the small door in the big door. It was unlocked, and they stepped inside. There was a single car parked in the barn, an older one.
Tom got on his phone again. “It’s Blake; backup requested, suggest you land a mile off and come up the road. It’ll be dark when you get here.” He got an acknowledgment, then hung up. “We’ll just roost here until the cavalry arrives,” he said.
They watched through a crack as a helicopter set down in the large parking area. Two men and a woman hopped out and walked toward the house; the chopper sat, idling.
“Elizabeth is alive,” Tom said. “This is obviously a short stop for them, so we may have to go to it before our people join us. There are only three of them, after all, and one of them is ours.”
“Whenever you say,” Stone said.
Lights began to come on in the house.
In my study,” Sykes said. “The safe is in there.”
“What’s in the safe?” Hardy asked.
“Everything: rosters, safe houses; a law enforcement wet dream.” He moved toward the safe and tapped in a digital code. A spin of the wheel, and it was open.
“Hand me that cardboard box, Bess,” he said.
Bess had a hand under her blouse, when Les Hardy stepped in and grabbed her wrist. “Is there a weapon in there?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why would you need a weapon here?”
“I thought I heard something, like a distant chopper,” she said.
Sykes walked over to her, ripped her blouse open, and removed the pistol.
“No chopper sounds,” Hardy said.
Stone and Tom left the barn through a rear door and walked to another building, trying to keep the helicopter pilot’s back to them. Tom ducked under the rotor, edged his
way up the side of the aircraft, yanked open the pilot’s door, and stuck his pistol inside. “Freeze,” he said. “Chop power now.”
The pilot reached out, pulled the throttle to off, and flipped a couple of switches. The panel lights went off and the engine wound down. Tom unfastened the pilot’s harness, pulled him from the chopper, and put him on the ground. A moment later he was handcuffed to the frame of the machine.
“Those in the house would have heard the engine die,” Stone said. “This is going to get harder now.”
“I know,” Tom said. “Judgment call.”
Stone racked the slide of his rifle, pumping a round into the chamber.
You’re a big disappoint to me, Bess,” Sykes said. “I gave you chance after chance to gain my confidence, but you never quite made it.” He put the pistol to her head and thumbed back the hammer. “Stand back, Les. You don’t want to get all bloody.”
The senator backed up a step or two, but not far enough.
A gun fired, and Sykes spun around as he took the bullet in the head. Hardy was spattered.
“You hold it right there,” a deep voice said.
“You’re not going to get an argument from me,” Hardy said.
Elroy, the cook, stepped forward, relieved Hardy of his weapon, and put him on the floor, then he turned to Bess.
“Do you remember how to handcuff somebody?” he asked, holding out a pair of cuffs.
“It’ll come back to me,” she said, accepting them. “And by the way, thank you for shooting Sykes. I was going to do it myself, but that didn’t work out.” She handcuffed the senator.
“It was my pleasure,” Elroy said.
“Everybody freeze!” a man shouted.
“Tom, is that you?” Bess said.
“It’s me and Stone Barrington. Backup is on the way.”
“You won’t need it, there’s just the two of us,” Bess said. She pointed. “All that paper over there is everything you always wanted to know about Sykes and his coconspirators.
“And, gentlemen, meet Elroy Hubbard.”
“It’s Leroy Collins,” Elroy said. “CIA.”
“Lance Cabot sends his regards,” Stone replied.
Then the sky was filled with rotor noise.
Stone let himself in through the front door of his house and entered the alarm code in the keypad.
“Who’s there?” Holly asked over the intercom.
“Pizza delivery,” Stone replied.
“Come on up, but it better be hot.”
Stone headed upstairs.
January 31, 2020
Key West, Florida