Burying the Past
Copyright© 2019 by Lumpy
The ring felt like an anchor in Taylor’s pocket, weighing him down as he and Kara walked back into the apartment. It struck him as odd how easy it was to ignore the phone, wallet, keys he regularly carried, even the gun clipped to his belt, but he couldn’t stop feeling the small little box pressing against his leg.
“You’re late,” Whitaker’s said as they walked through the apartment entryway.
Taylor pulled up short, Kara almost running into him, both because he hadn’t expected her to be home and because he wasn’t sure how to take the next step after the ring yet.
“I...” he started and paused, his mind going blank.
“We drive slow, talk about appointment,” Kara said smoothly, weaving around past him.
“Did Crawford call you?” Whitaker said, accepting the explanation.
“About going to see the girl headed home to Virginia? Yeah.”
“Good. I’ve already re-packed our go bags. The sooner we can scratch her name off the list, the sooner we can get back to tracking down Qasim’s connection to the cell in Tennessee.”
“We should just skip this and go right to that,” Taylor said as he checked his bag, to make sure nothing he’d need was missing.
“That’s not how this works. Skipping leads, even ones that look like dead ends, is how you miss things. Working the procedures step-by-step, eliminating every lead as you go is how investigations turn into prosecutions.”
“We don’t need a prosecution for Qasim, just a bullet.”
Whitaker set down what she was packing and whirled around, “Let me be very clear, you’re working with us on this. You’re not in the desert and you’re not back in Russia. We follow procedures and do things the right way. That means, unless he gives us no choice, we take Qasim into custody and put him before a judge.”
“You don’t know this guy. He’ll find a way out.”
“If that happens, it happens. I’m not going to give up what makes our government work just to guarantee one scumbag gets out of circulation. We only have one system, but there will always be another scumbag.”
Taylor gave a sigh and let it drop. She didn’t know Qasim except for reports and didn’t know what kind of man he was. Taylor had spent years with the terrorist and his cronies and knew exactly how dangerous he was.
“You’ll be ok for a day or so?” he said instead, turning to Kara.
“I’ll be fine. No babysitter needed.”
“OK, but if you run into problems...”
“I call Mary Jane or her mother. Yes, I know.”
“I know you do, I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
“Which is the only reason I am not kicking you in the butt to leave me alone.”
“While I’d love to see that,” Whitaker said walking past them carrying her bag, “we gotta go.”
When Whitaker’s back was turned Kara lifted her hand and waggled her ring finger at Taylor, which he ignored, instead of saying “See you soon.”
It was early enough in the afternoon that traffic out of the suburbs surrounding the capital was light. The girl they were going to find was named Mary Bennett and she was from a small town in western Virginia named Amberville, located just outside the Shenandoah Valley, an hour and a half car ride out from Washington. It was one of the many single stoplight towns that littered the rural parts of America. While he’d never been there, Taylor had been to enough small towns to have a good sense of what he’d see when he got there.
Instead of thinking on the pointless interview ahead of them, his brain kept going to the ring and how he’d ask Whitaker to marry him; the looming idea of having to ask her was gnawing at him. It wasn’t that he was worried she’d say no since he was nearly certain what her answer would be. There was, however, a pressure to do it right. This was one of those moments people talked about when they got old, and he was enough of a realist to know that he wasn’t going to be great at it.
Of course, the thought of that, in and of itself, was strange, since he’d done it before. They’d gone to Duke Gardens with a picnic lunch. He’d laid out the blanket and set down the cooler with their lunch, their spot looking over one of the large ponds there. He’d asked her to get something out of the cooler while he fixed the blanket. When she turned back around he was on one knee with the ring.
Thinking back, he’d been pretty nervous then. Now ... things were different. He wasn’t that man anymore. The idea of doing something like that again, felt like a lie. Worse, he knew Whitaker would see it too. She wasn’t like Claire either. Loretta had an edge to her, which was why they were such a good match.
“Hey?” her voice cut through his rambling thoughts.
“Did you hear anything I’ve been saying?”
“Honestly, no. Sorry. I kind of zoned out.”
“No shit. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Just thinking through some stuff.”
“Stuff with the case? The Senator? Kara? What Stuff’?”
“Just stuff. Sorry, I’m paying attention now.”
She rolled her eyes but thankfully didn’t push.
“I said...” she started, but was interrupted when her phone rang.
Letting out an exasperated sigh, she answered it, “Whitaker ... almost ... uh-huh ... uh-huh ... Hold on a sec.”
Reaching over she pushed a few buttons on the console, connecting her phone to the car’s hands-free system, “Taylor’s in the car with me. I just put you on the speaker. Could you start over?”
“Sure,” Crawford’s voice came through the speakers. “So we got the initial report back from the lab. They gave a huge caveat that they weren’t even close to being finished with their examination, but I’d asked them to tell me the second they knew anything, no matter how insignificant.”
“Sure,” Taylor said.
“They’ve confirmed the chemical traces the field techs sent over were strange. They haven’t been able to identify it but said it forms some kind of unusual bond with diluted chlorine. I wasn’t clear on the next part, but they found that once the bond is made, it reacts by turning parts of the water and chlorine into an odorless gas they described as ‘an extreme form of chloride gas’.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Whitaker said. “So it’s some new form of toxic gas.”
“Worse than that. It hadn’t occurred to me at first either, but they pointed out that...”
“Many public water supplies go through a chlorination process to kill bacteria, which would leave trace amounts of diluted chlorine in most municipal water supplies,” Taylor said.
“How the hell did you know that?” Crawford asked.
“We worked with civil affairs a bunch of times, winning hearts and minds of small tribal villages. One of the first things those guys looked at was getting the village a clean water supply.”
“Huh, well, he’s right.”
“It also tells us what Qasim’s plan is,” Taylor said.
“Poisoning the water supply? That’s a bit of old-time radio, mustache-twirling villainy, isn’t it?” Whitaker asked.
“Doesn’t keep it from being a way to kill a whole lot of civilians, and make people scared to turn on the faucet.”
“Plus, all the work Homeland’s done working with locals to protect their water supply won’t do shit to stop something like this,” Crawford added.
“We don’t know where, though,” Whitaker said.
“We know some places where it isn’t through. Not everyone uses chlorine. Some places use UV systems, other’s use other chemicals to sterilize the water,” Taylor said. “What’s worse is, the places that use both chlorine and UV systems, the UV system won’t stop it.”
“Once again, he’s right,” Crawford said
“So what does that do for our target list?” Whitaker asked.
“Not as much as you’d hope. I have some people building a list, prioritizing important locations or large population centers, but a whole hell of a lot of the country uses chlorine in their water supply. The list is still going to be too big to do us any good. We’ll put out a notice to local agencies, and put our own people at some of the more important weak points, but without knowing where he’s planning on hitting, we’re just guessing.”
“So we keep working the case. It at least fills in some pieces,” Whitaker said.
“Right. Do you have an NBC kit in your car?”
“Yes. Policy after the anthrax thing was for agents to keep the small field kit in official vehicles at all times.”
“I figured you did, but I wanted to make sure. I’m putting a memo out to all agents in the task force now to make sure everyone has equipment on hand. You guys keep it at hand, ok?”
“Sure,” Whitaker said.
“We’re almost at Amberville,” Taylor said, taking the exit off the state road they’d been on.
“Good. Clear the girl and then get back here.”
“Will do,” Whitaker said.
The Bennett’s house was close to Amberville’s single street downtown area on one of the several half-acre lots that had once been farmland but later bought and broken up for homes in the 1950s. It wasn’t in disrepair, but it was weathered and could have used a new paint job. It was a classic small American two-story house, with a wide porch and short picket fence, and a swing hanging off of one branch of the tree in the front yard.
Taylor pulled into the driveway and he and Whitaker headed to the door, with Whitaker taking the lead. A barking dog inside the house alerted the owners to their presence, as the front door opened and a smallish woman with brown hair cut with grey streaks and wearing an apron came out before they reached the porch.
“Can I help you,” she said.
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m Agent Whitaker with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and we were hoping to have a word with your daughter.”
“Mary? What for? Has something happened?”
“There was an incident at her school, and we think she might have been a witness. We just want to ask her a few questions.”
“Have you checked at school?”
“Yes, Ma’am. They canceled school classes for the week, and she told some classmates she was coming back home.”
“We haven’t seen her. She hasn’t been home since the semester started, and hasn’t called in a couple of months.”
“Has your husband spoken to her,” Taylor asked.
“I don’t know. Come on in I guess, and you can ask him.”
She stood aside, holding the door open as Taylor followed Whitaker up the front steps and into the house. The thing that struck Taylor first, once inside, was the number of religious images everywhere. Crucifixes on the walls, a small picture of Jesus on one table, a bible sitting out on another.
“Albert, there are some government people here asking about Mary.”
“What for?” a voice from a side room off the front hall called.
Taylor followed Whitaker into the room, where they found a man in slacks, a button-up shirt, and a cardigan sweater leaning back in a recliner. A small terrier sat next to him, its tail thumping on the ground.
“As I told your wife,” Whitaker said in her best ‘we’re from the government and we’re here to help you’ voice, “there was an incident at your daughter’s school and we wanted to ask her some questions about it.”
“What kind of incident,” the father asked.
“We aren’t able to release specifics yet, but it involves a shooting at the off-campus housing of several students.”
“Mary would never be involved in anything like that,” the mother said, hand clutching at her neck.
“Of course not. She was, however, in a student group with several people who were involved. We are just looking for some background information on them, and hoped Mary could help us.”
“She hasn’t been home in a few months,” the father said, his tone making it clear he wasn’t happy about that.
“Your wife said you haven’t spoken to her in some time either, is that correct?”
“Yes. Kids go off to places like that, get caught up in drugs and parties, and forget what’s important.”
“Albert,” his wife protested, “you know Mary isn’t like that. I’m sure she’s just busy with her classes.”
Albert harrumphed in response, clearly not buying his wife’s defense of their daughter.
“Do you know where she might go if she left campus? Perhaps the names of her friends, either there or here?” Whitaker asked.
“I haven’t had to meet any of the kids from that school, thank the Lord,” Albert said.
“Most of her friends from here have gone off to college too, and I think she’s lost touch with them.”
“Has she mentioned anyone’s name?” Whitaker asked.
“We don’t know any of them,” Albert said, getting out of his chair. “We told you, she isn’t here. I think that should be enough for you.”
Whitaker’s mouth pulled into a frown as she reached into her pocket and pulled out one of her business cards.
“If you talk to her, please have her call me. It’s important we speak to her.”
The father just grumbled again, and walked out of the room, heading up the stairs, while his wife took the card saying, “We will.”
Taylor and Whitaker turned and headed out of the home, Mary’s mother closing the door behind them.
“You drive,” Taylor said as they headed back towards their SUV.
“Back to DC?”
“No, I saw a sheriff’s office just about a block before we hit that downtown strip. Head there.”
“Because her parents haven’t heard from her? It’s not unusual for kids to not call home from college.”
“I know,” Taylor said, “but something feels off. First, there’s the girl. She tells people she’s going home, and then doesn’t, which makes this more than a kid just not calling home. I’m not a fan of coincidences, and her having any kind of tie into the cell makes me want to look at it twice. It’s more than that, though. Something about the father is bugging me.”
“I don’t know, it just felt off. Without canvassing all of his neighbors, the sheriff’s the best source in a small-time town like this.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, jutting her chin towards her laptop he’d opened.
“Pulling their records,” Taylor said and paused as he read the screen. “Which isn’t much of a help since they don’t have much. No traffic tickets, no criminal history.”
“Which could mean nothing.”
“Yep,” he said as he shut her laptop and watched her pull-up to the sheriff’s office.
She flashed her badge to the officer at the front desk, which brought the sheriff up to meet them in short order.
“I’m Sheriff Fulsom. What can we do for the FBI?” asked a middle-aged man wearing a dark brown uniform.
“Sheriff, I’m agent Whitaker and this is Mr. Taylor. We’re getting some background on a case we’re working, and we hoped you could help us out.”
“Sure. We don’t get Feds here often, and anything different is a nice change. Come on back to my office.”
They followed him through a small squad room furnished with two desks and a row of filing cabinets. The back wall was split between a room with a long conference-style table and a smaller office with plaques and pictures on the walls.
Following him into the office they both took seats while the sheriff circled around his desk and sat in the chair behind it.
“Sheriff, how well do you know the Bennetts?” Taylor asked.
“Pretty well. Simon’s been preaching at the Baptist church for just shy of fifteen years now. Elizabeth’s helps with the church’s books.”
“What about their daughter?”
“Can I ask what this’s about?”
“Did you see the bulletin on the incident at the University of Tennessee?” Whitaker asked.
Taylor looked at her briefly. He didn’t realize the Bureau would have sent out information on what happened to local law enforcement. From what he’d seen, they liked to keep everything close to the chest, no matter how minor.
“This is about the shooting there? Do you think Mary’s involved?”