Copyright© 2020 by Lumpy
Frieda Wissler sat in her old, comfortable chair, pushed close to the fireplace, a shawl wrapped tight around her shoulders. Although the fall air had only just started to cool, taking on the crisp scent of the changing of seasons, her weathered frame could not take the fall air like it used to. Fall had always been her favorite season, a time to stroll along the Kurfürstendamm free from the heat of summer. Now the dropping temperature meant aching bones.
The weather probably was not quite cold enough to really need the fire yet. If she was honest with herself, she probably could have done with just her shawl, but she did not want to. Besides the warmth she got from the flickering flames, she liked the way her apartment looked in the glow of the fire. It cast shadows everywhere, making it easier to pretend she still lived in style. The cracks in the plaster with its fading paint and the stacks of books and papers covering nearly every surface in precarious stacks were hidden by the shadows.
She knew she had let herself go, especially after Frederick had passed. She had seen the pity in her great grand-nieces eyes that morning when she had visited, looking at the clutter and the mess in its unorganized splendor. Frieda was old, but she was not senile, at least not yet. She recognized the looks. Her niece had heard Frieda’s request and promised to help, but Frieda saw it in her eyes, the mixture concern that a feeble old woman’s mind had turned. Still, the girl had promised to help, and that’s what mattered. She had even taken the documents Frieda had asked her to hold onto, but Frieda was not sure she would actually put any effort into it.
Frieda sighed and sank lower into the weathered cushions, crumpling in on herself. This was her last shot. She had tried every avenue inside the family, only to be rebuffed. The third time they had warned her to stop making trouble, politely of course. They always observed the niceties, but the message was clear.
So Frieda went outside the family. Not far outside, but far enough that she knew there would be trouble when they found out. They had left her no choice, though.
Frieda sighed again. She felt old. She was old, of course, but she felt it more than she remembered. Her whole body ached. She was tired of their secrets and the constant need to protect their legacy. She was tired of having to go to them, hat in hand, a relic of a dying branch of the family. What she really wanted to do is sleep. Just nod off and let her troubles slide away.
She could not do that, at least not yet. She had promised Fredrick. Not directly, his death had been too quick for that, but she had promised him in her heart. If her grand-niece did not come through, Frieda thought again, she did not know what she would do. She was almost out of options.
She almost sighed again, until a soft clicking sound behind her caused Frieda to freeze. The apartment was old, still large, and cavernous, but old. The building was prone to the creaks and groans of age. Frieda, however, knew every sound. She had sat in this chair for ten years, listening to the old girl talk to her. This was not one of those sounds.
A floorboard creaked.
She turned as a shadow fell over her.
“Was willst...” was all she got out before the knife flashed out, sinking into her.
“What the hell is in this thing?” Taylor asked as he mounted the stairs one step at a time, trying to keep his balance while holding a large box in front of him.
“It is books. Be careful,” Kara said, watching him from the top of the stairs.
“You know you’re not supposed to put books all in one box. This thing weighs a ton.”
“I didn’t put all in one box. I put books in two boxes. There were too many to fit in single box.”
Taylor groaned as he moved up another step. He did not look forward to going back down and carrying up another one of these damn things. He had paid the doorman’s nephew at their building in Alexandria to help him load all of Kara’s stuff from their apartment, who wisely used a dolly and elevators to move everything. The brownstone Kara was moving into with Mary Jane had no such attendant.
Mary Jane’s secret service detail, which the families of both major party candidates received, were available, but they were not, did not seem inclined to help a middle-aged man struggle with boxes. Had Whitaker been involved with the move, she would have thought ahead and hired movers at both ends to do the dirty work. He added that to the ever-growing list of reasons why he missed his estranged fiancé.
“You know you’re only here for the school year, right? You’re not moving in with Mary Jane permanently.”
“I know. I didn’t take everything, just essentials.”
“Two boxes of books are the essentials?”
“Yes,” she said, flipping her red hair as she turned and walked into the open area overlooking the entry hallway downstairs.
Taylor groaned and took another step.
“Girls?” a voice called from downstairs.
“They’re upstairs Senator,” Taylor called down as he finally got close enough to the top floor to set the box down and slide it forward.
Turning around, he sat on the steps and put a hand to his aching back, as he watched Senator Caldwell walk upstairs towards him. When she lowered herself onto the steps next to him, Taylor had a moment of cultural whiplash. He still had trouble believing that the Republican nominee for President and the front runner, according to the networks, was his friend.
Yet he had no doubt that she was. Not only had she helped him several times since they got to know each other the previous winter, but she had also once again swooped in when he needed her.
“I don’t have much time. I have a fundraiser in an hour, but I wanted to make sure the girls got moved in alright.”
“They’re already plotting everything they’re going to do together. Kara is absolutely ecstatic. I know I’ve said it already, but I really appreciate you putting this together.”
“Nonsense. You know we love Kara, and I wasn’t comfortable with Mary Jane living on her own yet. She seems over her wild-child phase, but I want to be sure. This seemed an obvious solution to both of our problems. Mary Jane gets someone to help her stay on the straight and narrow and Kara gets to go attend one of the best private high schools in D.C.”
“The arrangement does work out, but I meant beyond just paying for Kara to be able to live here. With Whitaker out of the country and jobs from the Bureau stacking up, I was at the end of my rope on how to manage everything. Kara’s worked so hard to get caught up on all the school she missed over the years, and we were still coming up short. I talked to the headmaster yesterday, and he said they’d brought on special tutors for the weekends and developed a personalized curriculum for her to graduate in three years and be ready for college. I was sure there was no way we were going to pull that off, and now I have some hope.”
“John, you can stop thanking me. When Mary Jane told me what was going on, I couldn’t stand idly by and let you three fall apart. You and Loretta need time and space to get your relationship back together and Kara needs special attention to get caught up on her missed education. Like I said, this is the perfect solution.”
“This is just, not how I like to deal with things. I took her in and took responsibility for her. Leaving her to be someone else’s problem rubs me the wrong way.”
“You aren’t making her someone else’s problem. If I thought you were, I wouldn’t have offered to help. Trust me, when I tell the one skill, anyone, from money, must learn is how to spot the users. You’re not that type. Plus, I know you. You’ll be checking on her all the time. Heck, you’ll probably check on Mary Jane more often than I could if I win this damn thing. Think about it like this, you’ll have to deal with the same thing when she goes to college, it’s just a little early, that’s all. You’re still going to be a great father to her, even if she isn’t under the same roof for part of the year.”
“I hope so.”
“Now, how are things with you and Loretta?”
“Still tense. I talked to her last week when she dropped Kara off and she hasn’t ruled out us getting back together, so, for now, I’m holding out hope. She’s had a tough time with me at the Bureau so much lately. When she got the offer to go to Europe to help out her relative, I think she was glad for the excuse to put some distance between us. We’d been running into each other too much.”
“You two will work it out.”
“I don’t know. I stepped over every line she ever put down when I shot Qasim. Worse, she covered for me. Instead of paying for what I did, which I was willing to do, I ended up slapped on newspapers for stopping a terrorist attack and had the Bureau bend over backward to get me to come work for them. I’d tried to put them off. I knew that the FBI bringing me, of all people, in house would really be rubbing salt into the wounds. The fact that they bent over backward to convince me to take the position, just made it worse. The last time we talked, she said she felt like everything, and everyone she thought was important had betrayed her. I offered to not take the job, but she made it clear that wouldn’t make things better, that the damage was already done. She’s mad at me, she’s mad at her boss, and she’s mad at the Bureau. I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive me. I still think I did the right thing putting that monster down, but I think the price might have been too high.”
“She loves you, John, I can still see it. She’ll come around once the anger fades.”
“Well,” Taylor said, standing up and then offering the Senator a hand up. “I still appreciate everything you’re doing for us.”
“Damn, look at the time. I have to run. Remember you promised to be at the event tonight. The press still can’t get enough of you.”
“I’ll be there.”
The Senator rushed out as Taylor went back to struggling with boxes.
Hoover Building, Washington D.C.
Taylor was running late when he left the girls’ apartment. He made Kara run down every rule he had put in place before he agreed to this plan. Twice. Even then, he was unsure if this was a good idea. Taylor was not worried about her safety. With Mary Jane living there, the Secret Service would have a presence along with regular checks by Metro PD. She would actually probably be safer than all the times she had stayed at their apartment alone while he was out on the job.
Besides security, their apartment was barely a block away from her new school. All the way out in Alexandria, it would have been all but impossible to get Kara to school every day, especially when he was out of town. Now, besides being able to walk to school, Mary Jane would be available to give her rides, if she needed it. He did not want to stand in the way of her future and opportunities like this did not come around often.
Still, he could not help but second guess the idea. Normally, Taylor was not one for worrying over the decisions he had made. Once a decision was made, he moved on to the next problem. The parenting thing, especially by himself, was so far outside of his experience, it was difficult to trust he had made the right call. His best option would have been to talk it over with Whitaker. Despite their estrangement, she had not stepped away from Kara and still communicated with Taylor regularly about their adopted daughter. Her willingness to put up with seeing Taylor regularly to do the right thing by Kara was one more reason he regretted how things had turned out.
Unfortunately, going over Kara’s new living arrangement was not an option at the moment. She had left for Berlin before the Senator had made her offer, and Kara needed to start the new school next week. She had not left a number he could reach her at, and his relationship with her sister, which had been only acquaintances before Whitaker put a hold on his engagement to her, had become awkward after. The few times he called her house, where Whitaker was staying, she had been extremely cool with him.
He did not begrudge her the reaction; she was just a good sister. The attitude did, however, make calling her to get a number for Whitaker problematic.
The time crunch and lack of a direct method to reach Whitaker meant he had to make a decision himself. He weighed the options, worked out as many scenarios as he could think of, just like he had been trained to do with every problem, and this remained the best option. It being his best option still did not mean liked it.
Taylor pulled into the Hoover Buildings parking garage and was in the elevator headed up to his office. As happened every time he arrived at the Bureau, he felt strange having an office in the building after more than a year of bumping heads constantly with the agency.
They had created a special position for him, outside of the regular chain of command and answerable to Solomon directly. They used him as a troubleshooter, dealing with situations that required an ability to think laterally but did not require a lot of sensitivity or tact, traits Taylor was admittedly lacking.
He quickly found that, while the cases he had been assigned so far had their interesting moments, they were mostly fairly routine and did not involve imminent life or death scenarios. He had been working edge cases for so long he had somehow convinced himself that was what working cases was like. Taylor was not bored, but this also was not what he saw himself doing, forever.
Caldwell had been the deciding factor in convincing him to take the position. He knew having an official position gave him some legitimacy in the eyes of a public that had trouble understanding how an ex-soldier private investigator was friends with someone running for president. A Federal agent, on the other hand, was an easy to understand and respectable job.
Had Taylor really not wanted the job, he would have been able to say no to the Senator, but there had been enough other factors that he had only needed a nudge over the edge to agree.
A stack of files waited on his desk when he walked into his office.
He was just starting to sit down and look at the case on top when an agent who worked on the same floor stuck his head in the door.
“Joe’s looking for you.”
“Damn, what did I do now?”
“Don’t know, but he said to tell you to go up to his office as soon as you got in.”
Taylor groaned, pushing himself back up. His back had a slight twinge in it from all those boxes he’d lugged up the brownstone’s steps.
On the elevator ride up to the top floors of the Bureau offices, Taylor tried to think what he could have possibly done to upset Joe now. Not that it was out of the question. While the AG and layers of politicians were throwing themselves to congratulate both himself and Whitaker, Joe had been dead set against letting Taylor into the FBI. The political animal that he was, Joe realized quickly he was losing that battle and had Taylor assigned to him directly, most likely to minimize any contamination Taylor might cause among the ‘real’ agents.
Not that Taylor minded, since he agreed he did not really belong in an organization like this. Even though he understood Joe’s attitude, he was not a fan of the now weekly ass chewings he was getting about violating this or that policy.
Walking into the entrance way, Solomon’s secretary waved Taylor through. He was surprised to find that Joe was not alone. A man in a very well-tailored suit sat in a chair across from the director.
“They said you were looking for me?”
“Yes. This is Kriminalhauptkommissar Torsten Graf of the Bundeskriminalamt. They’re our equivalent in Germany. There’s been an incident, and the Kommissar has requested our help. More specifically, he’s requested your help.”
“What can I help you with?” he asked, lowing himself into the chair next to the German officer.
“You are acquainted with an Agent Whitaker, yes?”
The man’s accent was thick and pronounced. His accent was not to the Colonel Klink level, but it was noticeable enough that he would have made a fair Bond villain.
“Yes, we’ve worked on several cases together.”
“My understanding is your connection goes deeper than that.”
“We were engaged for a short time.”
“You are no longer engaged?”
“Not at the moment. What is this about?”
“Have you been in contact with her?”
Taylor looked at Joe. He was all for cooperating with other law enforcement agencies, but clearly, something was going on that involved Whitaker and estrangement or no, he wanted to know what that was.
“There’s been an incident in Berlin,” Joe said in response to Taylor’s look.
“What kind of incident? Is Whitaker ok?”
“We don’t know, that’s the problem,” Graf said. “I take it from your response that you haven’t heard from her.”
“No, we aren’t on the best of terms at the moment. I knew she was going to Europe, but not specifically where, and I didn’t get a number for where she’d be. Someone needs to tell me what’s going on. What kind of incident.”
“Three days ago, an older woman was murdered in her apartment in Berlin. This picture was taken a few minutes before the woman’s time of death.”
Graf pulled a picture out of a leather folio he’d been holding and handed it to Taylor. The picture was dark, and Whitaker was lit from the open doorway. He could tell it was her, but she was mostly obscured, head down, walking with purpose.
“This picture was taken about fifteen minutes later. No one else was seen entering or leaving the building for several hours before or after, only Agent Whitaker.”
Graf pulled out a second picture and handed it to Taylor. Whitaker’s face was turned up in this picture. Taylor could clearly see an expression of concern on her face. She was not turned to look at the camera and seemed to be looking around her. There was a small smudge on her neck that could have been blood, but the quality was not good enough to be sure.
“Who was the woman?”
“Her name was Frieda Wissler. She apparently was a distant relative of Agent Whitaker from an old and very rich German family. Frau Wissler was from a lesser branch of the family, but she was still worth millions.”
“I can tell you now, without a doubt in my mind, that Whitaker had nothing to do with this woman’s death.”
“While I’d like nothing more than to believe that, we still need to talk to her. At the moment, she’s only considered a witness, but that could change. We’ve been able to track her movements before Frau Wissler’s death. After the murder, your agent Whitaker - how do you say - dropped off the radar? Going into hiding does not seem like the actions of an innocent woman.”
“I’m sure there’s a good reason for it.”
“Which is one of the things we will be asking her about; once we find her. A warrant has been issued for her arrest, again as a material witness in the case and not as a suspect. If she remains in hiding, however, that may change.”
“John,” Solomon said, “Inspector Graf would like for you to accompany him back to Berlin and assist in finding agent Whitaker.”
“I have been told you are talented at finding people who do not wish to be found, and I read in your papers about the events with you and the terrorist. While I normally would not allow a member of a foreign law enforcement agency to work on an active case, your personal connection to agent Whitaker, her ability to remain hidden, and my superiors’ desire for progress in the case has left me with little choice.”
“As I said before,” Director Solomon said, “John is as non-law enforcement as you’re going to get inside the Bureau. While events pushed the Attorney General to want him working for us, he still remains largely outside the chain of command.”
The statement made Taylor wonder just what the two men had discussed before he arrived. Taylor had no illusions of what Solomon thought of him and was certain the director had tried to convince Graf to not take Taylor. He did not particularly like Taylor operating inside the US. Taylor was sure his representing US law enforcement in a foreign country was not something Solomon would have allowed if he had the choice.
Graf did not seem to be giving him a choice, at least not without denying the German government US assistance when it was requested. Solomon was too much of a political animal to allow his personal reservations to get in the way of diplomacy.
“I appreciate your concern, but agent Taylor not being a typical representative of your agency makes his assisting us easier.”
“Special Assistant Taylor.”
Graf looked at Solomon with a questioning expression.
“I didn’t go through the academy or get promoted to the position of agent. To find a place for me, they created a position called Special Assistant. People like Joe here, who came up through the ranks, take the title ‘Agent’ very seriously. Please just call me Taylor, that’s what everyone else does.”
“Fine,” Graf said, looking from Taylor back to Solomon. “I’ve heard your concerns, but I still request Taylor’s assistance in this matter.”
Taylor looked at Joe. If the decision had been up to him he would have said no, gotten on a plane to Berlin, and found Whitaker on his own. He was certain she had not murdered anyone, but he did not know Graf or the German police force. Even if they were operating in complete good faith, a benefit of the doubt he rarely gave to any government organization, they could still put the murder on her just to close the case.
The flip side was that he would have an easier time finding Whitaker with the resources of the Berlin police than on his own. Working through official channels would also allow him to see some of their cards and would keep him from getting blindsided by them.
In the end, his mental tug of war ended on the side of hoping Solomon gave in to Graf.
“Fine. I won’t lie, I’m not crazy about Taylor becoming involved in this. I think you’re going to find you regret his presence once he goes off the reservation, and I promise you at some point he will, but I can’t think of an official reason to deny you the request.”
“I’m sure we won’t have any issues. Thank you, Director Solomon,” Graf said, standing and extending his hand.
Joe shook the offered hand and said, “Give me a moment with Taylor, please.”
Graf gave a slight head bow and turned crisply, walking out into the reception area.
“While I was honest when I said I wasn’t crazy about you going over there, the idea that Whitaker was involved in something like this doesn’t feel right to me. Find our girl and bring her home.”
“I will,” Taylor said, standing and turning to follow Graf out.