The next morning, neither talked about the night before. By the time she’d showered and dressed in another of her ubiquitous dark pantsuits ... which, it turned out, she had an entire closet full of ... Whitaker was back to her normal self.
It didn’t take them long to figure out their plan once they got going, since it was pretty straight forward. They would stake out Brooks, and see where he went. If he had been hired to grab Julie, then this would be all for nothing, but it was the only connection they had and both believed the theory of Julie being grabbed to force Samar to let them in was still right. Taylor offered the suggestion that they could grab Brooks, and apply a little pressure to get him to tell them what he knew, but Whitaker nixed that idea. She might be operating outside of the FBI and without a net, but she was still an Agent, and she felt that was a step too far for her.
To the surprise of both of them, the rest of their drive was taken up with telling each other about themselves. Whitaker told him about her ex-husband. How they met in college and got married a few years later. She told him about how the relationship had changed over time, and he’d become more controlling until she’d demanded a divorce. While it hadn’t been amicable, he’d let her go without a fight, realizing too late he wanted someone less strong-willed than she was.
Taylor told her about his fiance, how they’d met and how he’d pursued a criminal justice degree between deployments while she was in college, just to be with her. He told her about how, after everyone thought Taylor had died in Afghanistan during the time he was in captivity, she’d met someone else, married and had a child. Taylor realized while telling her the story that it had been months since he thought about her. While the memory of it and the loss of her still stung, he found his anger over it had dissipated somewhat. He never blamed her for the situation and now he could honestly say he hoped she had a good life.
By mid-afternoon they were back in Lubbock, although in Whitaker’s blue sedan this time instead of the iconic black SUV. For Taylor it felt weird to be back, mostly because everything seemed exactly the same. With everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, the fact that the rest of the world had gone on unchanged felt somehow wrong to him.
Their first stop was the police station, where the Sheriff was surprised to see them.
“I’d heard you two were recalled back to Dallas,” the Sheriff said when they were brought back to see him.
“We were for just last night. We came back to continue investigating the explosives we believe are missing from the armory and find out why we were set up,” Taylor told him, trying to obfuscate while not exactly lying.
“So the call I received that you two were off the case was what?” The Sheriff asked.
“Our investigation has become somewhat informal,” Whitaker answered.
“Uh-huh.” The Sheriff said, leaning back in his chair. “Look, I don’t have a problem with you two doing your thing out there. I want to make the people behind Wade’s murder pay, too. And I don’t like the idea of nut jobs with explosives any more than you do either. But, you two are here as private citizens. I want you to remember that. If you step over the line, I will come down on you. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” Taylor said.
“Good. Look, if you run into something that’s worth investigating, something specific mind you, then call me. I’ll get into it and back your play. Just don’t go making me look like a jackass,” he said, standing up.
“Thank you, Sheriff,” Whitaker said, reaching across and shaking his hand.
Leaving the Sheriff’s office, they headed toward the AC Repair shop, finding a spot in a parking lot across the street and three buildings down, that offered a good view of the shop’s front door and parking lot.
“Now what,” Taylor said.
“Now ... we wait.”
When she first said it, Taylor hadn’t been prepared for what the full scope of waiting meant. After the first hour, they’d started running out of things to talk about. After the third hour, Taylor was ready to kick in the door of the shop, and drag Brooks out, screaming.
“This is the real work in police work. Shootouts with bad guys and asking questions is the easy part.”
“Ok, not easy, but at least it’s straight forward. The real work comes when you have to sift through five hundred pieces of paper to find the one sentence you need to close the case. Or when you spend a week sitting on a subject waiting for them to do something.”
“I swear, I could never be a cop. I am bored out of my mind.”
“I thought the military was all hurry up and wait.”
“It is, but most of the time you have a good idea of what happens next or at least when your next move is. And when you’re waiting for orders, you can go find something else to do until your team Sergeant comes and tells you to get off your ass and get going.”
“So you’d be fine if you got to play a little grab-ass.”
“I mean, if you’re offering, Princess,” Taylor said, a twinkle in his eye.
She gave him one of her evil stares, but this time Taylor was unfazed. He was starting to see past her no-nonsense facade.
“Well, let me know if you change your mind,” he said, and leaned the seat back, closing his eyes.
“Asshole,” she muttered under her breath, eliciting a smile from Taylor.
When he woke up, the sun had gone down. Looking over, he could see Whitaker sitting motionless, her gaze never leaving the front of the store.
“So nothing,” he asked.
“No, but the store lights just went out,” she said, never looking his way.
Taylor pulled the seat up and they both sat silently. Not long after Taylor woke up, the front door opened and Brooks walked out, followed by two employees. Brooks spoke to them for a second as he locked the front door, and all three parted ways in the parking lot.
Brooks pulled out of the parking lot and Whitaker pulled after him, staying well behind. Taylor hadn’t really seen this aspect of investigating before and was focused on the various moves she made to keep Brooks in view while keeping from getting noticed. He honestly found it fascinating.
Eventually, they ended up at the end of a suburban street, watching Brooks from five houses down as he pulled into the driveway of a small one story home. The lights were all off and only came on once Brooks went inside. Taylor couldn’t remember seeing a wedding ring and it seemed a fair bet he was single.
“So if he’s in for the night, what do we do,” Taylor asked.
“Sit here and watch. We don’t have teams to relieve us. We have to stay on him constantly until we figure out how he’s tied into this.”
As he had earlier, she leaned her seat back and closed her eyes. They spent the night like this, switching over and watching a house with all the lights out.
As day broke, Taylor was again in the passenger seat asleep after switching over with Whitaker around five in the morning. He was awakened suddenly as she slapped his arm.
“Brooks just came out.”
“A lot earlier than he headed to work the other day,” Taylor said, looking at his watch.
It was barely seven. When they’d met him at his shop previously, he had arrived to open his store at almost ten in the morning.
“Yeah,” Whitaker replied absently as she switched the car on and pulled out, following him out of the subdivision.
They were both surprised when he turned away from downtown Lubbock and headed north on I-27.
“Where the hell is he going?” Taylor asked after forty-five minutes of driving north.
Whitaker had to tail far behind, since they were on an isolated strip of highway and with not many cars on the road around him. Brooks’s car was a small object in the distance, barely distinguishable.
“I have no idea.”
They followed him for another forty-five minutes when they hit Amarillo, one of the larger cities in the Texas panhandle, but not a particularly large city by comparison.
“Maybe he’s got a delivery of some kind, or he’s meeting a friend or something,” Whitaker said as they entered the heart of the city.
“Maybe,” Taylor said, sounding unsure.
Taylor and Whitaker were both surprised when Brooks eventually pulled into a large post office and headed inside the building, carrying a large box that, from where they were sitting, looked to be packed full of letters.
“He drove an hour and a half to mail a stack of letters? That makes no sense,” Taylor said as they parked and watched the front door of the post office.
“I don’t know,” Whitaker said, watching the building.
After about fifteen minutes, Brooks exited the building and headed back to his car.
“Do we keep following him?” Taylor asked.
“No. It’s possible he could be headed to do something else, but his shop opens in just under two hours. I’m willing to risk him slipping away to see what he was doing in here. Because a trip this far just to go to a post office makes zero sense.”
“Agreed,” Taylor said.
They watched Brooks pull out of the parking lot and drive away before they both stepped out of the car and headed into the post office. Inside, it seemed pretty typical for all those that Taylor had been in before. They walked past the rows of PO Boxes and headed to the counter where harried post office workers tried to get through a line of customers.
Whitaker ignored the indignant looks the people in line gave her as she headed to the front of the counter and held out her badge.
“I need to see your supervisor.”
“Dan,” the woman yelled out, and then went back to slowly helping the person in line.
A man, whom they assumed was Dan, had been a little ways back, sorting something in a large mail tub. When the woman called out, he set down what he was doing and came over to them, waving Taylor and Whitaker to one far side of the counter, out of the way of the customers in line.
“Can I help you, Officer?” he said, seeing the badge Whitaker still had in her hand.
“Agent,” she corrected. “Special Agent Whitaker with the FBI. There was a man in here a few minutes ago named Brooks. I’d like to see the MICT data you took off his mail, and anything else he has mailed out from this location, if he has.”
“Sure, come on back,” he said, lifting a gate in the counter allowing them to walk into the back.
As they passed through a door behind the workers, Taylor was suddenly amazed. He hadn’t considered how large the building was, but it was clearly bigger than what he’d expected. Row after row of sorting machines were sorting and boxing mail, with employees moving those boxes onto pallets.
“Wow,” Taylor said despite himself.
“Yeah. Most people wouldn’t realize it, but we’re the distribution center for North Texas. We ship out the mail from here to local post offices for distribution. Here we are. What did you say his name was?”
“Should be Art Brooks. He was here in the last twenty minutes.”
The man clicked through a series of screens, mumbling names and codes to himself. Finally he opened a file and a list of numbers appeared on the screen.
“Here we are. Ohh, this guy sends a whole lot of mail.”
“Can I get a print out of everything he’s done over the last three weeks?”
“Sure,” Dan said and typed some more, until a printer nearby started spitting out page after page of information.
When it stopped, he scooped up the papers and handed them over. Taylor was surprised by just how many letters Brooks had been mailing over the past few weeks. He had been expecting a few hundred, based on the box h’d seen, instead there were well over a thousand letters listed on the sheets in his hand stretching over the three weeks.
“Is that all you need, Agent Whitaker?”
“That should do it. Thank you for your time,” she said, turning and walking out of the employee area.
Taylor followed behind her, a bit confused, as they left the post office.
“What’s all that,” he said pointing to the papers. “And what is MICT?”
“MICT is the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program. It was part of a package of laws congress passed in 2001 just after the anthrax letters got mailed around. Basically, it’s a system where the post office takes pictures of the mail that is processed through it and captures the information off that. Who mailed what to whom from where on what day. That kind of thing,” she said as they got back in her car.
She pulled out of the parking lot and followed the same path Brooks had taken a little while earlier, back towards Lubbock.
“That’s legal?” Taylor asked, surprised.
“As of now. Technically, since we aren’t opening the mail, and just looking at the front and back of the letter, and then allowing it to pass through unchanged, we aren’t conducting either a search or seizure. It falls under a similar theory that the NSA uses to collect metadata, which essentially this is.”
“Huh. I’m surprised this has not been shut down by the courts, yet.”
“Not many people really know about the program. The post office doesn’t advertise it, and neither do we. However, when the NSA’s program was revealed a few years ago, it managed to survive a few court cases before the administration decided to pull the plug because of public pressure. So there’s a chance this would hold up too, unless of course public pressure forces it to stop, too.”
“None of this bothers you?”
“Taylor, remember who you’re talking to. I’m of the mindset that, you shouldn’t care if you have nothing to hide. I know there are going to be those people out there who scream about their privacy or what not, and sure, I sympathize with that. But my main concern is to protect those people and everyone else, and I’ll use every tool I’m allowed to until the very moment I’m told I have to stop.”
Taylor made a non-committal noise but didn’t say anything. He could see her point, but his knee-jerk reaction was to be a little shocked and upset over the government tracking everything he was doing.
“Think of it like this. Without this program, we couldn’t find out what Brooks is up to, without tipping him off, and possibly getting a whole lot of people killed. So it could save a whole lot of lives.”
“I get all that. It still creeps me out a bit.”
“Well, get over it and start looking through those,” she said, pointing at the papers she had set on the center console in the car.
Taylor picked up the papers and started flipping through them. The information was pretty basic. It listed the location the mail was dropped at, Brooks name and return address, the name and address of who the mail was sent to, if it was a package or letter, and gave the weight.
Thumbing through all the listings, Taylor could see they all came from the same Amarillo location, although Taylor didn’t know enough about the program to say if that’s because each location kept their own data separate from other branches or if Brooks only went to that one branch. He also saw they were all letters, and all were incredibly light, most likely containing just paper and nothing else in the envelope.
The other thing that struck him was that the addresses the letters were being sent to were all over the country. Every state seemed to be represented. None of the names stood out but they seemed to cross at least all the ethnic ranges, or at least those that could be guessed from first and last names. There didn’t even seem to be a pattern on which states got sent to, in what time. The list went back three weeks and it looked like Brooks had been making trips to the post office twice a week for that time. Looking through the dates, the names didn’t follow any alphabetical pattern by weeks, such as one week sending F through G and the next visit H through I. There also wasn’t a pattern of places, so it seemed he wasn’t working off any type of ordered list. Or at least, not one that Taylor could work out.
By the time they got back to Lubbock, Taylor had walked Whitaker through his observation and they’d gone through the list together, him calling out names and addresses and then the two of them discussing it. They’d already left Brooks on his own long enough that they decided a little longer was something they were willing to risk. Instead they headed to the police station and begged a workstation from Sheriff Goodman.
“Any ideas?” Taylor asked as he pulled up a spare chair to the desk and terminal that the Sheriff was letting them use.
“We just go through it methodically. It could be that only a handful of the names are important, and the rest just a smoke screen to hide them.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”