It was 7:00 in the morning and Lieutenant Commander Jennifer Atwood was not happy. She was head of Naval Intelligence Special Projects. She had two intelligence gathering warships at her disposal. She had three hundred and fifty naval personal under her command, including a Seal team. She had direct access to some of the most powerful people in the U.S. Military, and could call in virtually any assets she required.
Yet Jerrod Max had somehow slipped out of her grasp. And with him the artifact. The artifact that her team had retrieved from an alien spaceship two miles beneath the surface of the Southern Ocean. The artifact that a team of experts had studied for six weeks without learning anything except that it was, as near as they could tell, indestructible.
Then that damnable Neil Anderson had figured out how to use it and stole it right out from under her nose. It cost him his life, but not before he handed it off to Jerrod Max, a nobody from Bozeman who should have been taken into custody with little or no fuss. But five days had passed, and Mr. Max was still at large. It was frustrating. It was embarrassing. It apparently required her personal attention.
She strode into the hotel conference room, trailed by Darren, her administrative assistant. The three people already there — two men and a woman — jumped to attention. A glance around the room confirmed that they had transformed the small conference room into a high tech command center, which was what she expected of them. From here they could run a small war, if needed. And it might be if things didn’t turn around soon.
“As you were.” She tossed her travel bag toward a corner, and dropped into a cushioned chair.
Darren collected the bag and set it on a narrow table against the wall. She valued Darren highly; he stood between her and the abyss of complete chaos that seemed part and parcel of her job. She pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. She hadn’t slept in twenty hours and was feeling it.
“Someone get me some coffee please.” She undid her tie and the top button of her shirt and waited until Darren put a styrofoam cup in her hand.
Her eyes locked on to Terrence. “Can someone help me understand how the hell Mr. Max has managed to evade capture?”
The young officer showed no sign of being intimidated. “When we arrived at Mr. Max’s house, he was already gone. According to his girlfriend, a Miss Womak, he had left twenty minutes earlier. She admitted they had found Anderson on the road the previous night, but insisted that neither she nor Mr. Max shot him. She said she would have waited for the paramedics but Mr. Max forced her to leave with him. She denied any knowledge of the device.
“We put a tap on her cell phone and on the cell phone of Mr. Parker Harrison, a friend of Mr. Max, who was at his house earlier that morning. When Mr. Harrison called Mr. Max, we triangulated on his cell and dispatched units to a cabin in the mountains south of Bozeman. Mr. Max fled and we lost him in the forest around the cabin. We believe he managed to get on a freight train headed south. We know he was in Casper, but we don’t know where he went from there.
Atwood gulped down the rest of her coffee and handed the cup to Darren. “What about the girl?”
“I’ll let Bridget handle that,” he said.
The young woman typed a few commands on her keyboard, and a large screen at one end of the room came alive with an image of a woman sitting on the edge of a bed in an otherwise empty room. Her head was in her hands.
“This is from eight hours ago,” she said.
“The girl’s looking a little worse for wear,” Atwood said.
“She’s been under intense interrogation for the last few days. We told the FBI that Mr. Max is a terrorist suspect and has information about a planned terrorist attack. They leaned on her pretty hard. I’ll jump ahead to the Great Escape.”
The image on the screen fast forwarded until it showed the woman lying on the bed.
“This is seven hours ago.”
A man appeared in the center of the room, as though out of thin air. He grabbed the woman by the arm and yanked her out of the bed and into his arms. Then they vanished, leaving the room eerily empty.
“Well, well, well,” Atwood said.
Bridget nodded. “He has the artifact and he knows how to use it.”
“Play it again,” Atwood said. “Stop where he first appears.”
The video replayed, stopping where the man appeared seemingly out of thin air. In his hand was a rectangular object about the size of a television remote.
“No doubt about it,” Atwood said. “That’s the artifact.”
“Notice his clothes,” Bridget said. “Brown leather jacket, expensive cowboy boots, good quality slacks and shirt.”
“And the belt,” said Terrence. “I’ll bet he’s wearing fifteen hundred dollars worth of clothes. It seems our Mr. Max went on a little shopping spree.”
Atwood did not join in the light laughter his remark engendered.
Terrence continued. “Mr. Max is not what you would call a man of means. In fact, he lives pretty much from pay check to pay check. He couldn’t have purchased the clothes unless he had come into some money. He hasn’t touched his bank accounts.”
“So where’d he get it?” Atwood asked.
“Robbed a bank,” mumbled Vincent from the corner of the room. He looked like a derelict — ill-fitting cloths, unshaven — but then, he always looked like that.
Terrence and Bridget tried unsuccessfully to suppress their grins. Atwood looked at each one of them, finally settling on Terrence.
Terrence continued. “There aren’t a lot of places to buy expensive western wear like that. Turns out he got it in Cheyenne. Spent thirty-five hundred dollars. In fifty dollar bills.”
Bridget picked up the story, swiveling back and forth on her chair as she talked. “We did a little poking around and came up with an unusual ATM robbery. Turns out he stole an entire ATM. Two of them, actually. The first time, he took half the machine, but sliced all the bills in half. The second time, he took the whole machine. Cut off a woman’s hand in the process, but — ”
“But,” interrupted Terrence, still smirking, “he brought them back. The fingers, that is. Wrapped in a towel in an ice bucket.”
“He’s a thoughtful guy,” Vincent added.
“Anyway,” continued Terrence. “He has the artifact and he knows how to use it, and he has some traveling money. That’s the bad news. The good news is that he has a money laundering problem. Even the small amount he has spent so far has raised eyebrows. He’ll have problems with, say, an airline ticket or an upscale hotel.”
Atwood was pleased with the professionalism and resourcefulness of her staff. She had hand-picked each of them for their intelligence, drive and unique talents. They were her “Team Atwood” and they were the key to her plans for the future. She massaged her left temple with two fingers.
“Are you all right, Jen?” Bridget asked.
“I’m fine, Bridget. Thank you.”
Atwood walked over to the window and swept the curtains open. No one spoke while she stood looking out into a parking lot. She turned toward them, leaning on the window sill. “We have no idea where they’ve gone, do we?”
The three exchanged looks and Terrance said, “We have to wait for them to resurface again.”
Bridget pushed her hair back. “Should we alert the FBI to expand their search? Maybe a nation-wide APB?”
“No,” said Atwood. “We’re already over-exposed. If the FBI gets any more involved than they already are, somebody’s going to start asking questions that I don’t want to answer. The same with NCIS. Let them continue their search, but don’t pass our intel on to them.” She returned to her chair. “In the meantime, we need a plan.”
Everyone looked at Terrance. He unfolded his lanky frame from his chair and approached the whiteboard attached to one wall, where he stood for a few moments, slowly twirling a whiteboard marker between the fingers of his left hand.
“Obviously, the first order of business is to re-acquire Mr. Max. He can go literally anywhere in the world he wants. Vincent is best suited for that task.” He wrote on the white board:
1. RE-ACQUIRE TARGET – VINCENT
Vincent pinched his chin between his thumb and forefinger. “He could go anywhere in the world, but he won’t. He will go to someone he knows and trusts. I’ll make a list of potential contacts — friends, family, co-workers. Put taps on phones, put human surveillance on the more likely ones. He has to surface sooner or later.”
Bridget said, “There’s another angle we might want to think about.” Everyone looked at her. “I took another look at Neil Anderson’s background. Turns out he was one of McClellan’s proteges.”
“How the hell did that get past our security checks,” Atwood said.
“I don’t know. It might not mean anything. Lot’s of people got certain aspects of their intelligence training from McClellan.”
Vincent sat forward in his chair. “We should not take anything for granted where McClellan’s concerned. If he gets hold of the artifact, we’re screwed. Right up the ass.”
Vincent was prickly, and Atwood knew the rest of her team was not entirely comfortable around him. But she had complete confidence in both his abilities and his loyalties. She had rescued him from the trash heap of black ops agents cast off during one of the intelligence community’s periodic clean-up-the-image exercises, which usually happened in response to a public outcry at revelations of some of the more unsavory things they did for their country. Cut loose from his intelligence ‘family’, he had fallen into depression and alcoholism. She found him, cleaned him up, and gave him a new lease on life. He might be an assassin, but he was her assassin. If anyone could find Jerrod Max, it was Vincent.
Terrance continued. “Okay, we’ll put surveillance on McClellan. Second, once we find Mr. Max, we make contact. It has to be as non-threatening as we can make it. We don’t want him to run again. We want to win his trust. He’s between a rock and a hard place, and he doesn’t know what to do. We’ll offer him a way out. Bridget, being a hot female, is best suited for the task.” He wrote:
2. MAKE CONTACT – BRIDGET
Bridget smiled sweetly and gave him the finger. She was medium height and a little on the pudgy side; nobody would ever mistake her for a supermodel. But neither did she look like the geek she was. Atwood had yet to find a security problem she couldn’t solve, or a computer network she couldn’t break into.
Terrance continued. “Third, we make him an offer he is unlikely to refuse. Bridget has lead on this too, because we don’t want to introduce more people into the mix than we have to.” He wrote:
3. MAKE AN OFFER – BRIDGET
“What do we offer him?” Bridget asked.
“He has two problems,” said Terrance. “The first is that he is wanted by the Bozeman police, and is being investigated by NCIS and the FBI. The second is that he barely scratches by financially and stands a good chance of losing his job over this mess. We offer to solve both problems for him in exchange for the device. His name gets cleared with local and federal law enforcement, and he gets a substantial finder’s fee of, say, a hundred thousand dollars, which will seem like a lot of money to him.”
Darren raised his hand. “What if he doesn’t go for it?”
“He’d be crazy not to.”
“There are lots of crazies out there.”
Terrance stared off into space. “Okay, then we need a fall-back plan. An offer that he can’t refuse.”
Vincent said. “We threaten someone he cares about.”
“We did that with his girl friend,” said Bridget. “He used the device to rescue her from an FBI detention center.”
“Then we make sure the device can’t be used to rescue her.”
Terrance frowned. “What do you have in mind?”
“You don’t want to know,” Vincent said.
Atwood said, “I want to keep collateral damage to a minimum.”
He turned his gray eyes toward her. “I’ll keep collateral damage to a minimum.” That wasn’t especially reassuring, but it was the best she was likely to get out him, so she let it go.
Terrance put his fourth point on the whiteboard:
4. MAKE THE EXCHANGE – BRIDGET
“Fourth, we make the exchange and send him on his way. No fuss, no muss. Everyone goes away happy. Bridget is the logical choice since she will be a known entity.”
“No,” said Atwood. “I’ll do it.”
There was a moment of silence. Darren sat forward in his chair. “Why you?”
“I want to meet this Jerrod Max. He has caused me a lot of trouble, and has managed to evade capture by my best field ops team. I want to look into his eyes and see what he’s made of.”
Bridget said, “And then we just let him walk away?”
“That would be a mistake,” Vincent said.
“Why?” Darren asked.
“Loose ends. They tend to come back to haunt you.”
“And leaving dead bodies lying around doesn’t?”
Atwood held up her hand. “He walks. Free and clear. He’s not going to risk everything by making noise. And even if he does, nobody will believe him.”
“And the people around him who know about the device?” Vincent said.
Bridget pursed her lips. “That could be a lot of people.”
“Depends,” Darren said. “If we move fast enough, we can contained it.”
Atwood stood. “Then let’s get started. Find our elusive Mr. Max. Find him soon.”
* * *
By the time Atwood got out of the shower, Bridget had her laptop up and running on the motel room’s desk.
“You have a secure link to the Pentagon. Reynolds is expecting your call.”
“Thanks. Why don’t you go ahead and take a shower?” She opened a video chat. Rear Admiral Jackson Reynolds accepted the call at once.
“Commander,” he said. “Is that a hotel issue robe you’re wearing? And a hotel issue towel you have wrapped around your head?” He didn’t make any effort to hide his appreciation for the plunging neckline provided by the robe. She resisted the urge to tighten it around herself. Reynolds had a reputation as a dirty old man, a reputation she could vouch for from personal experience on those rare occasions in which she had to meet with him personally.
“I’ve been traveling non-stop for twenty hours, Admiral. You’re not catching me at my best.”
He put on a sympathetic face. “I understand, Jen. You’ve been pushing hard for the last seven weeks. No rest for the righteous.” All semblance of sympathy slid off his face. “Have you recovered the artifact?”
“Mr. Max has proven more resourceful than we expected. He has learned how to use it.”
Reynolds’ frown deepened. “That’s a problem, Commander. I want that artifact, and I don’t care what it takes to get it.”
“I understand that, Admiral, and I …”
“I don’t think you do, Commander. This is a matter of national security. If that device falls into the wrong hands, the consequences would be dire.”
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Just get the goddam artifact. Or I’ll find someone who can?” The connection dropped before she could respond.
Something had him stirred up. His temper was legendary, which made his climb into the stratosphere of Washington political power all the more surprising. Becoming one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff required a great deal of political acumen and self-control. But whatever had him riled up probably didn’t have anything to do with her or the artifact.
She sighed. Sometimes it seemed like her entire career had been one long string of misogynistic assholes like Reynolds. On the other hand, she had become proficient at manipulating them to her advantage. They were stepping stones on her way to the top. For now she would let him think he was using her to achieve his own ends. She was a patient woman. Her time would come.
Bridget’s voice broke into her thoughts. “He’s such a sweetheart.”
She turned to face the naked woman. Bridget’s little-girl smile faded into a stony stare. “Lose the robe.”
Atwood hesitated for a second, and Bridget was quick to answer it with a sharp command. “I said, lose the robe.”
The robe slipped off her shoulders and fell to the floor, followed by the towel on her head.
Atwood dropped to her knees, sat back on her heels, placed her palms on her thighs, and fixed her eyes on the young woman’s feet.
“Yes, mistress,” she said. Bridget always knew exactly what she needed.