Taylor said his goodbyes to Naziah and Colonel Keene and headed out to join Robles in the SUV.
“How’d it go? he asked, as John opened the passenger side door and slid into the seat.
“I told them I’d look into it.”
“See, I told you there was something here!”
“I’m not going that far. It’s possible this kid is innocent, but all they have is how they feel about him. Mothers are usually the last to know what their kids are really like.”
“Yes, but Colonel Keene agrees.”
“Sure. That and your support of this is a big reason I decided to look into it. I sympathize with Naziah, but I’m not sure the faith a grieving mother has in her son is enough evidence of anything.”
“But you believe them.”
“Like I said, maybe. I’ll look into it and see what I can see. I didn’t promise anything beyond that.”
“Great. That’s all we can ask for.”
Taylor didn’t reply and looked out the window as they pulled out of the driveway and headed into a more built-up area near the freeway filled with restaurants and hotels.
Finally, Robles broke the silence
“The Colonel told me if you agreed he’d make some calls and get you access. I’m the new guy in the office, so I told him I wouldn’t be able to get shit. He was pretty confident he could get you in though. I’m gonna drop you at a motel and get you a room so you can get some rest while we work out the details.”
“Is the mother paying for...”
“No. Hell no. She offered, but I’m not that much of a dick. We didn’t want you to do this outta pocket though, so I threw in, the Colonel threw in, even some of the guys from the unit the kid’s dad served with. We’ve got enough to cover the bills while you look into it.”
“Thanks. While we’re talking about covering stuff, I had to leave my sidearm behind to get on the flight. I feel kinda naked without it.”
“I figured as much. I mentioned it to the Colonel before your plane landed. He is going to see about getting you some kind of authorization to carry while you work on this.”
“How much pull does this guy have? I mean, he’s a Colonel, but that doesn’t mean shit in the real world.”
“Remember he works at the Pentagon, and he’s good at his job. He has favors on top of favors. This guy has some real juice.”
“If you say so,” Taylor said, and let the conversation drop.
A minute later they were pulling into a budget motel parking lot on the side of the freeway.
“It’s not the Hilton, but...”
Robles handed some cash to Taylor, who waved goodbye and headed inside.
After five minutes Taylor was pushing open the door to a single room at the end of a long, dank smelling hallway. Shutting and bolting the door, Taylor flopped on the hard, squeaky bed and closed his eyes, ignoring the cigarette burns in the bedspread of this supposedly non-smoking room.
He let himself drift off for a minute, his brain jumping from item to item, but didn’t fall asleep. Taylor hadn’t slept much in the last six months. Between his time in captivity and the events in Miami, there were too many ghosts floating just behind his eyelids. More often than not he would drift off to sleep around one A.M. as exhaustion overtook him, only to wake up screaming just before sunrise in a cold sweat.
Eventually, he settled on a pattern of quasi-meditating that one of the old Army guys that regularly made their way through Albert’s shop recommended. It wasn’t sleep, but it let him quiet his mind a bit and relax, if not rest. Sometimes he even fell asleep that way, although that didn’t happen often.
Taylor sat, drifting in and out for a while, and must have nodded off after a time, as the next thing he was aware of was a ringing phone jerking him awake. Wiping his eyes, he took a second to get his wits about him, momentary counting his blessings it was a phone waking him up and not a flashback.
“Yeah,” he said picking up the handset.
Robles’ voice came through the speaker, saying, “The Colonel came through. There is a meeting in two hours to brief agents who were just assigned to the case. You’ve got access, and they want to introduce you to the ASAC running the task force. I’m pulling up in two minutes. We need to hurry if we’re going to make it to Dallas before the meeting starts.”
“I’ll be out front,” Taylor said, hanging up the handset without waiting for a response.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, Taylor stood up and made his way to the bathroom, splashing some water on his face to help clear his head a bit. He had never even removed his shoes when he lay down, so Taylor only had to grab the small duffel he carried with him, and he was out the door, walking back down the grimy hotel hallway.
Dropping the keys on the front desk of the hotel without a word, Taylor breezed past the confused looking clerk, who had checked him in only hours before, and was walking out the front door of the roadside hotel.
The timing worked out, as Robles pulled up under the awning covering the front entryway just as Taylor exited the hotel, allowing him to slide into the SUV with little break of momentum. Moments later, they were tearing out of the parking lot and headed onto the freeway that would carry them into Dallas.
They rode in relative silence the whole way. Robles attempted to make conversation a time or two, but after a few monosyllabic replies he gave up. It had been small talk anyway. So, instead, the two men rode in silence.
They made good time until they reached the outskirts of the city, proper. It was hitting quitting time, and the roads were well clogged, slowing them to a crawl. They pulled into the parking garage assigned to the FBI building with only a few minutes to spare before their scheduled meeting.
Robles stopped at the front security desk, where a visitors badge with Taylor’s name was waiting for him. A short elevator ride later, a secretary was hustling the men into an office labeled “Special Agent in Charge, Fernando Ruiz.”
“Sir,” Robles said, stepping into the tastefully furnished office.
“Just in time, Trevor. Tony’s briefing is starting in five minutes, but I wanted a chance to meet Mr. Taylor first,” the man sitting behind the desk said.
He was an older Hispanic man in his late forties or early fifties with black hair on its way to gray in a slicked back, almost wet looking, style. He was wearing a crisp white shirt and a stylish dark blue silk tie. A suit jacket lay ignored, draped on the back of the chair the man had been sitting at a moment ago.
Reaching Taylor, he stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Fernando Ruiz.”
“Good to meet you,” Taylor replied.
“Trevor, why don’t you head on to join everyone else in the conference room? Let them know I’ll be there momentarily.”
“Yes, Sir,” Robles said, and left after a quick glance at Taylor.
“Thanks for allowing me in on the investigation,” Taylor said after a second of silence that hung between the two men.
“It’s not every day I get a call from both a Deputy Attorney General and an Army Brigadier General. When they asked for access for a special investigator, it’s pretty tough to say ‘no.’”
Taylor couldn’t help but think that when Robles said Colonel Keene had juice, he wasn’t kidding.
“Still, it’s appreciated.”
“My pleasure. I was wondering something, however. I took a look at the file we have on you and I saw nothing in it to suggest an investigative background.”
“I’m more of a subject matter expert,” Taylor replied.
“Yeah, I saw that, too. I’m happy to have you here with us, but I want to make it clear I do not want a repeat of that business in Miami.”
“I only did what was necessary to get the job done, Sir.”
“Humph. There’s a smuggling, white supremacist, gang leader who tells a story that suggests you went a little above what most people would consider ‘necessary.’”
Taylor hadn’t thought about Ronnie, the gang leader in question, since he walked out of the house the gang used as a headquarters six months ago. Taylor had applied what the military liked to call enhanced interrogation to Ronnie to get information that would help him track down a woman grabbed by Russian gangsters. Taylor didn’t have any qualms about what he had done then, and he had none now. A woman’s life was in danger, and Ronnie was the poster child for scumbags.
“They’re welcome to their opinions.”
“Well, let’s try and not leave bodies in the street. Okay?”
“I’ll do my best Sir.”
“Uh-huh. Ok, I’ll take you in to meet Tony, and get you up to speed. It’s been made crystal clear to me that I should offer you all the support you need, so if there’s something, please let me know.”
“Sure thing. Also, I had mentioned to Robles that I wasn’t licensed to carry in Texas and had to leave my weapon behind. I’d asked if there was some kind of dispensation to allow me to carry.” Taylor said.
“Tony will be able to take care of that for you.”
Ruiz led Taylor out of the office and down a hallway into a conference room with about fifteen people in it, all in suits, all looking exactly like you’d expect a room full of FBI agents to look. The room itself had a large table in it, with a monitor hung on the wall at one end of the room and was clearly the head of the table where the presentation would be given.
Taylor saw Robles talking to a couple of other agents at the opposite end of the room, but Ruiz directed him towards a man with blond hair cut very conservatively. It wasn’t quite a high and tight, and Taylor would have picked his background as law school rather than the military. Next to him was a woman who looked extremely serious, with dark brown hair knotted in a tight bun, wearing a dark pantsuit.
“Tony,” Ruiz said when they walked up, “this is John Taylor, the investigator I told you about. Taylor, this is Tony Dorset, the ASAC in charge of the task force. He’ll be your point of contact and will provide you with everything you need.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dorset said, in a way that suggested it was anything but.
“Well, I’ll get out of your hair and let you get started,” Ruiz said, excusing himself.
“Mr. Taylor, this is Special Agent Loretta Whitaker. She will be assigned to you for the duration of your investigation to assist you. Let her know if there is anything you need. Now if you will excuse me, I need to get started.”
“Sure,” Taylor said.
Taylor knew when he was being dismissed, and walked to one side of the room, to lean against a wall. Whitaker followed and stood some distance away. He hadn’t spoken to her yet, but it was hard to miss the dismissive look she had given him when she was introduced. He also couldn’t help but notice that she was the third person he had been passed to since he arrived in the building. The FBI was playing kick the can, and Taylor was apparently the can.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats,” Dorset said, standing behind the chair that sat at the head of the table. After a little rustling, everyone was either standing against the wall like Taylor or sitting at the conference table.
“By now, you’re all aware of the explosion at the National Guard Armory outside of Waco, but just in case you’ve missed it, here are the broad facts. Shortly after nine in the evening last Wednesday, the code of one Corporal Samar Abbas was entered into the security system, and all of the cameras and fence sensors were shut off moments later. Four minutes after the code was entered, there was an explosion. Technicians are still trying to put together the initial point of the blast, since this armory stored demolition charges, small arms and light vehicle ammunition, and a notable amount of fuel; all of which went up, didn’t leave much more than a crater.”
“We have as yet been unable to identify the remains of any of the soldiers stationed and signed into the armory at the time of the explosion, including Corporal Abbas. Until such time as we can confirm his status, we are operating under the assumption that he is alive and possibly planning additional attacks.”
Taylor was a little amazed at the way some of this was framed. Robles was correct when he said they had already made their determination, and the number of assumptions the FBI seemed to be making was startling. He raised his hand to make just that point, when a vice like grip pulled his arm down.
Looking over, Taylor saw the hand belonged to Agent Whitaker, who shook her head at him, making it clear there would be no questions.
“You each have your assignments. We need to tear apart this kid’s life, both in the military and out of it, and find him and anyone in his cell. Details of the case have been emailed to each of you. Please come see me if you have any questions. Let’s go find this kid.”
And like that, the briefing was over. Taylor started to make his way to Dorset, but once again Whitaker reached out to him, this time gripping onto his upper arm and directing him out the conference room door.
“I’m supposed to take you to see the scene,” she said once the door shut behind him.
“I wanted to speak to Agent Dorset about his briefing real quick,” Taylor said, pulling to a halt.
“Agent Dorset has a lot going on right now, dealing with real investigators. He doesn’t need to be dealing with tourists.”
“I seem to remember something Ruiz said about complete cooperation.”
“I’m taking you to the crime scene, that seems pretty cooperative.”
Taylor didn’t have any specifics to bring to Dorset’s attention yet, just his concerns that the FBI seemed incredibly sure of themselves that Samar was guilty, without much in the way of evidence. Thinking about Dorset’s attitude in their ten seconds of interaction, Taylor figured Dorset wouldn’t hear him out even if he did get Agent Whitaker to relent.
“Fine,” Taylor said, letting the matter drop. “Before we head out, he also mentioned you guys would be able to set me up with a sidearm and some kind of temporary carry license.”
Ruiz hadn’t actually said this, but it seemed close enough to Taylor. The FBI appeared to be all for making rash assumptions, after all.
“That’s a bad idea. The last thing we need you to do is get in a gunfight in the middle of downtown.”
While that example was specific enough to tell Taylor she had read his file, it didn’t deter him from getting armed. “Be that as it may, your boss’s boss seemed to think it’d be ok.”
“Fine,” she said, sounding annoyed. “Follow me.”
Taylor followed Whitaker down the hall and into an elevator, where she hit the button for the basement. Muzak played in the background as they avoided conversation and eye contact. Usually the silence wouldn’t have bothered him, since that’s how he liked it anyway. It was hard to miss the hostility coming from the woman, which did bug Taylor a bit. He understood it was probably because he was an outsider and every organization is wary of interlopers, but it was hard not to take it personally.
The elevator door opened and they exited, headed into a warren of turns. The light tan walls and pictures of various FBI muckety-mucks were replaced by concrete walls and pipes on the ceiling. After several turns, they ended at a solid metal door with a keypad next to it. Whitaker keyed in a series of numbers and an audible click could be heard. Pushing the door open she gestured Taylor through the door.
Inside was a room with a small waiting room-like window, with a man sitting behind it, typing away at a computer. The only difference between this and something you would see at a typical doctor’s waiting room was instead of file drawers behind the person manning the front desk, Taylor could see multiple rows of small arms.
“There should be an authorization from upstairs for a John Taylor,” Whitaker told the man.
He didn’t respond directly, just punched what seemed like an endless string of data into his computer. After a minute he got up and went into the cages. Scanning down the sides of the boxes, he found the one that matched what he was looking for and pulled it off the shelf.
He returned to his computer, pulled a handgun out of the box, and compared the serial numbers on the side of the weapon to something on his computer. Apparently, it matched since he set the weapon back in the box, which he slid towards Whitaker.
“Sign here,” he said, handing a clipboard to Taylor.
Mostly due to what happened with the Marshals in Miami, he didn’t want to take these people’s word on it, and pulled the weapon towards him, comparing the serial number to the one on the paper. Once he was satisfied, Taylor signed the log and handed it back to the man in the window.
There was a belt holster in the box with the weapon and Taylor removed both, along with the two loaded magazines. The weapon was a Glock 23, .40 caliber pistol. Taylor was impressed. The army had gone 9mm years back, something that had bothered Taylor. The 9mm didn’t have the stopping power needed in some circumstances, although Taylor could recognize it had advantages over heavier caliber weapons. Thankfully, Special Forces had allowed their soldiers to be more choosy and he’d been able to carry a .45 for most of his career. That experience in the army made Taylor appreciate the Bureau’s choice of the .40 caliber.
Both the .40 and .45 were comparable in power, the only real difference between the two was the .40 was faster and the .45 had a wider impact radius. Although they were close enough either would work.