Burying the Past
Copyright© 2019 by Lumpy
Taylor found Whitaker in her office. It occurred to him, on the elevator ride up, the one actually good thing out of being an employee of the FBI, even temporarily, was the pass that let him into the building without having to go through the visitor process every time.
“Hey,” he said, dropping his bag next to her desk. “Kara said you needed me back here. Something break?”
“Good timing, I was about to head over and see Crawford,” she said as she got up from her desk. “We haven’t had a major break, but there are a few things we can follow up on.”
She surprised him then. Instead of turning to leave, she reached her arms around his neck and kissed him.
“Good job on the press conference,” she said after she broke the kiss.
“I didn’t really think it through, just kinda reacted.”
“I know. You’re a good man. Ok, let’s go see Crawford.”
Crawford had been set up in a temporary office down the hall from Whitaker since the task force after Qasim was using mostly Bureau assets. He was leaning against his desk when we came in.
“Good job with the media,” he said when they walked in.
“I was just so shocked they already knew about it I didn’t know what else to say,” Taylor said, knowing Crawford had focused on a different part of the press conference than Whitaker had.
“I was expecting it soon. Enough people end up at a hospital with an unknown form of chlorine poisoning and someone’s bound to call a reporter.”
“I still can’t figure out why he chose that town of all places for a test,” Whitaker said.
“My only thought is it has to be because the girl was there,” Taylor said. “The part I can’t figure is how a preacher’s daughter from rural Virginia ended up hooked up with the likes of Qasim. We’re missing something to tie this all together. Until we figure that part out, we’re going to be a couple of steps behind him.”
“Do we know anything about the shooters?” Whitaker asked.
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you two about. We’ve heard back from some assets in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate had files on them, but they’re spotty. They’re brothers named Kadi and Jehsn Billah. They were recruited into one of the more extreme Wahhabist factions about ten years ago when they were teenagers. They ended up on a Saudi watch list when they went even more radical and became followers of sheik Abdul Haleem al-Haider. They stayed with him for almost a year and then things get sketchy. It appears they left the group, reappeared in some pretty grainy photographs of an al-Queda training camp in Afghanistan two years later. There was one report from a village along the Pakistan border that mentioned them in a report about members of Aikhtar Al’Islam taking supplies by force. Which at least tells us these two weren’t on loan like the University of Tennessee cell, but actual members of Qasim’s group. What we don’t have is any record of either of them entering the US.”
“Which means they came over the border with Qasim,” Taylor said.
“Or before him,” Whitaker offered.
“I don’t think so. If Qasim had enough time to put people in place before he got here, he would have set up everything he needed to work out his plan on his own. The fact that he’s drafting off of other organizations still means he didn’t have time, or at least the ability, to get his people in place early. No, I’d bet they came in with him.”
“Which still gets us nowhere,” Whitaker said, her shoulders slumping.
“No, but something else did. We had people going through any video feeds we could find in the surrounding towns, to see if we could pick up the Billah’s trail and follow it back when we got lucky. Of the newer gas stations up on the state road one town over had a video system with an actual backup system, which is surprising in its own right. I was shocked with how many places around here have cameras up for show and not hooked to anything. Anyways, we looked over their video and up pops our missing Miss Bennett.”
“I’m guessing she was doing something more interesting than buying gas,” Whitaker said.
“If you call buying burner phones interesting, then yes. The cherry on top of that little gift is this gas station is owned by a corporation that owns stations all over Virginia, and they have a policy of scanning and keeping the serial numbers of all the burner phones they sold.”
“Tell me we matched the time codes and the company provided the call log.”
“That they did.”
“I thought these guys fought tooth and nail to not hand over that kind of thing without going through every legal fight,” Taylor said.
“Normally, yes. But we currently have a rather wide-ranging subpoena with them on a domestic terrorism case, and we were able to roll this up with that.”
“There’s no way that will hold up in court,” Whitaker said.
“Probably not. Their in house counsel has been so slammed with requests lately he’s gotten sloppy, and we took advantage of it. I’ve got some Bureau guys drawing up subpoena’s now for our particular phones so we can make this all official, but I wanted to give us a head start.”
“That still might not hold up,” Whitaker said.
Taylor had heard her annoyed voice directed at him enough times to know she wasn’t happy with how accepting Crawford was of breaking the rules.
“Maybe, but I’m willing to risk it. I want to get this guy before he goes after whatever the real target was. You two got out of Amberville before you saw the aftermath. If that goes off in a dense urban area, the death toll is going to be bad. Really bad.”
“So what did the call log get us?” Taylor asked, knowing Whitaker wasn’t going to let this drop easily.
“Most of her calls were to other burners we’re still working on tracking down, but she made one call to a landline.”
“And?” Whitaker asked.
“And I’m not sure. The number belongs to a residence in Michigan owned by a completely uninteresting, average family, as far as records can show. A couple and one child. Father’s an auto-mechanic, mother’s a secretary at the elementary school. Son’s a high school student with fairly average grades. No criminal records.”
“How do they connect with Bennett?”
“My money’s on the kid,” Taylor said.
“Only one that would fit. A co-ed isn’t going to be calling a middle-aged auto-mechanic three states over, and even less likely to call his wife. She’s not from there, so it’s not like they just ran into each other. How they’re connected I have no idea, it’s just where I’d start since it’s the least improbable.”
“Well, either way, I’m sending you two up there tonight. Talk to them and see if you can figure out how this piece fits. We’ll keep digging, but I’m hoping your gut keeps doing its thing.”
“I’ll do my best,” Taylor said.
When they got out of Crawford’s office Taylor pulled out his cell phone and called Kara.
‘‘Hey,” he said when she picked up. “we have to go out of town for a few days. How do you feel about staying with Mary Jane for a few days?”
“Better than I feel about staying with a stranger who keeps looking at me like I’m weird.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Maybe. I still prefer stay with May Jane.”
“Good, I’ll feel better with you having a friend to keep an eye on you.”
“You just like she has men with guns to watch us.”
“That too. You two be good.”
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The trip was uneventful if a bit cramped in coach. Taylor couldn’t help but think once again how much he preferred taking the Bureau’s private plane. He may not be a fan of their bureaucracy, but it did have its perks.
Taylor was also glad Justin Sampson, the kid they were after, lived in an actual city and not in the middle of nowhere. It was already getting fairly late, and Taylor didn’t relish the idea of driving through the countryside in the middle of the night.
Whitaker had called ahead and arranged for a few of Ann Arbor PD officers to meet them at the kids’ house. Taylor thought it was unlikely they’d have another attack, but considering how off guard they’d been caught the last time, he couldn’t fault Whitaker’s caution.
The Sampson’s lived in a completely avenge house in a completely average neighborhood that practically screamed Middle America. The boys’ parents were both confused and more than a little concerned when they opened the door to see FBI and a bunch of local police officers on their front lawn.
A middle-aged man with graying brown hair wearing a somewhat tattered bathrobe answered the door, looking groggily at the officer in uniform behind Taylor in confusion.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m agent Whitaker with the FBI,” she said, holding up her badge. “Is Justin Sampson here?”
“What’s this about?”
“Are you his father?”
“It’s probably best if we come in to talk.”
“Ok,” he said stepping aside.
The doorway led directly into the main room with a small dining area and entrance to a kitchen off to the right-hand side. Taylor and Whitaker headed for the living room while the locals spread out looking in the kitchen and hallway. The man started to protest their poking around when Whitaker started speaking, steamrolling over him.
“Mr. Sampson. We believe a friend of Justin’s is involved in a crime and were hoping Justin could answer some question for us about his friend.”
“Justin wouldn’t get mixed up with someone like that. He’s a good boy.”
“Sir, I know most parents can’t imagine their kids getting into trouble, and I want to be clear, we aren’t saying he’s done anything. We think maybe he’s gotten in over his head, maybe with a new girlfriend?”
The man hesitated, looking at the floor as he stopped making eye contact with them.
“Was there a new woman in his life?”
“Well ... yes ... but you have to understand, Justin’s a romantic. This is what he always does. He meets a new girl and, kind of ... disappears. He just wants to be involved in their lives and tries to make himself into what he thinks they want him to be. It’s his pattern.”
“So he usually takes a backseat in relationships?” Whitaker asked.
“More like he’s a doormat.”
“I take it that you haven’t seen him recently then?” Taylor asked.
“Not in a few weeks, no.”
“What do you know about this girl?” Whitaker asked.
“Not a lot. I haven’t met her or anything.”
“Do you know her name? How long they’ve been together? Where they’ve been living?”
“Living? No. I assumed it was here in town, but I don’t actually know.”
“Her name then?”
Whitaker squinted her eyes as the interview started going nowhere. It seemed pretty clear to Taylor that Justin’s mystery girlfriend was Mary Bennett, but that didn’t actually get them anywhere.
“How about how long ago did they meet?” Taylor asked.
“I think about two months ago. I’m not one-hundred percent sure, since he doesn’t really talk about them, so it’s hard to know when he breaks up with one girl and starts dating a new one.”
“You first heard about this girl two months ago though, right?”
“About that. Justin went camping around then, which for Justin is strange since he’s not the outdoor type. He got back from that with a wicked case of poison ivy and a sprained ankle, and was as happy as I can remember seeing him.”
“You said it’s been a few weeks since you saw him. Did he give you any indication on where he was going?”
“Not really. He said they were going camping again in West Virginia, but he wasn’t specific on where.”
Taylor and Whitaker exchanged a look and then she asked, “Did he leave any way for you to get a hold of him. Maybe in case of emergencies?”
“Or maybe a cell number?” Taylor added.
“We never got him a cell, hoped he’d get off his butt and do it himself. Boy can’t hold a damn job.”
“None of his girlfriends bought a disposable phone for him? “ Whitaker asked hopefully.
“Not that I know off.”
They spent a few more minutes asking questions but it rapidly became apparent Mr. Sampson had no idea when or where his son was.
“That was a waste of time,” Taylor said as they pulled away from the Sampson residence.
They had thanked the officers who’d backed then up and were headed for a motel since there were no more flights back to DC until the next morning.