many folks he was dealing with. It was too dark for that, no street-lights out this way. The first bullet blew out his right rear tire, the second bullet his left rear. As he fought to keep control of the car, a truck pulled out from a side road and hit him broadside. If his window had been up, Cove’s head would have gone right through it. The truck had a snowplow on its front end, though it was not wintertime. The truck accelerated and Cove’s car was pushed in front of it. He felt his car about to roll and then the truck pushed his sedan over a guardrail that had been placed there principally to protect vehicles from plummeting down the steep slope that the curve of road was built around. The car’s side smashed into the dirt and then rolled, both doors popping open as the sedan continued its cartwheeling, finally landing in a heap at the rocky bottom of the slope and bursting into flames.
The car that had tailed Cove stopped and one man got out, ran to the twisted guardrail and looked down. He saw the fire, witnessed the explosion as fuel vapor met flames and then ran back to his car. The two vehicles kicked up gravel leaving the scene.
As they did, Randall Cove slowly rose from the spot where he’d been thrown when the driver’s door had been ripped open by the first impact with the ground. He had lost his gun and it felt like a couple of ribs were cracked, but he was alive. He looked down at what was left of his car and then back up at where the men who had tried to kill him had raced off. Cove stood on shaky legs and started slowly making his way back up.
Web clutched his wounded hand even as his head seemed primed to explode. It was like he had taken three quick slugs of straight tequila and was about to reflux them. The hospital room was empty. There was an armed man outside, to make sure nothing happened to Web—nothing else anyway.
Web had been lying here all day and into the night thinking about what had happened, and he was no closer to any answers than when they first brought him here. Web’s commander had already been in, along with several members of Hotel and some of the snipers from Whiskey and X-Ray. They had said little, all of them reeling in their personal agony, their disbelief that something like this could have happened to them. And in their eyes Web could sense their suspicions, the issue of what had happened to him out there.
“I’m sorry, Debbie,” Web said to the image of Teddy Riner’s widow. He said the same to Cynde Plummer, Cal’s wife and also now a widow. He went down the list: six women in all, all friends of his. Their men were his partners, his comrades; Web felt as bereaved as any of the ladies.
He let go of his injured hand and touched the metal side of the bed with it. What a sorry wound to bring back with him. He hadn’t taken one round directly. “Not one damn shot did I get off in time,” he said to the wall. “Not one! Do you realize how unbelievable that is?” he called out to the IV stand, before falling silent again.
“We’re going to get them, Web.”
The voice startled Web, for he had heard no one enter the room. But of course a voice came with a body. Web inched up on his bed until he saw the outline of the man there. Percy Bates sat down in a chair next to Web. The man studied the linoleum floor as though it were a map that would guide him to a place that held all the answers.
It was said that Percy Bates had not changed a jot in twenty-five years. The man hadn’t gained or lost a pound on his trim five-ten frame. His hair was charcoal-black without a creep of white and was combed the same way as when he first walked into the FBI fresh from the Academy. It was as though he had been flash-frozen, and this was remarkable in a line of work that tended to age people well ahead of their time. He had become a legend of sorts at the Bureau. He had wreaked havoc on drug operations at the Tex-Mex border and then gone on to raise hell on the West Coast in the LA Field Office. He had risen through the ranks quickly and was currently one of the top people at the Washington Field Office, or “WFO,” as it was called. He had experience in all the major Bureau divisions and the man knew how all the pieces fit together.
Bates, who went by Perce, was usually soft-spoken. Yet the man could crumple a subordinate with a look that made one feel unworthy to be occupying a square foot of space. He could either be your best ally or your worst enemy. Maybe that’s how a man turned out after growing up with a name like Percy.
Web had been on the end of some of the classic Bates tirades before, when he had been under the man’s direct command in his previous professional life at the Bureau. A good deal of the abuse had been deserved, as Web had made mistakes as he learned to be a good agent. Yet Bates did play favorites from time to time and, like everyone else, sometimes went searching for scapegoats to pin blame upon when things went to hell. Thus, Web did not accept the man’s statements right now at face value. Nor did he accept the subdued tone as a token of peace and goodwill. Yet the night Web had lost half his face in the fury of combat, Bates had been one of the first people by his bedside, and Web had never forgotten that. No, Percy Bates was not a simple equation, not that any of them were. He and Bates would never be drinking buddies, yet Web had never believed one had to do shooters with a guy to respect him.
“I know you’ve given us the prelims, but we’ll need your full statement as soon as you’re able,” said Bates. “But don’t rush it. Take your time, get your strength back.”
The message was clear. What had happened had crushed them all. There would be no outbursts from Bates. At least not right now.
“More scratches than anything,” Web mumbled in response.
“They said a gunshot wound to your hand. Cuts and bruises all over your body. The docs said it looked like somebody had taken a baseball bat to you.”
“Nothing,” Web replied, and then felt exhausted by saying the word.
“You still need to rest. And then we’ll get your statement.” Bates rose. “And if you’re up to it, and I know it’ll be hard, it would help if you could go back down there and run us through exactly what happened.”
And how I managed to survive? Web nodded. “I’ll be ready sooner than later.”
“Don’t rush it,” Bates said again. “This one ain’t gonna be easy. But we’ll get it done.” He patted Web on the shoulder and turned to the door.
Web stirred, trying to sit up. “Perce?” In the darkness the whites of Bates’s eyes were really the only things visible of him. To Web they were like a pair of dice hanging, showing deuces somehow. “They’re all dead, aren’t they?”
“All of them,” Bates confirmed. “You’re the only one left, Web.”
“I did all I could.”
The door opened and then closed, and Web was alone.
Outside in the hallway, Bates conferred with a group of men dressed exactly as he was: nondescript blue suit, button-down shirt, muted tie, rubber-soled black shoes and big pistols in small clip holsters.
“This will be a media nightmare, you know that,” said one of them. “It already is, in fact.”
Bates stuck a piece of gum in his mouth, substitute for the Winstons he had given up for the fifth time now and counting. “The needs of suck-wad journalists are not high on my priority list,” he said.
“You have to keep them informed, Perce. If you don’t, they’ll assume the worst and start making it up. There’s already been stuff on the Internet you wouldn’t believe, that this massacre is tied to either the apocalyptic return of Jesus or something to do with a Chinese trade conspiracy. I mean, where do they get this crap? It’s driving the media relations people nuts.”
“I can’t believe anybody would have the guts to do this to us,” said another man, who had grown gray and plump in the service of his country. Bates knew this particular agent had not seen anything other than the top of his government desk in more than a decade but liked to act as though he had. “Not the Colombians, the Chinese or even the Russians could have the guts to attack us like that.”
Bates glanced at the man. “It’s ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Remember? We try to cram it down their throats all the time. You think they don’t want to return the favor?”
“But my God, Perce, think about it. They just slaughtered a squad of our men. On our home turf,” the old fellow blustered indignantly.
Perce looked at him and saw an elephant without tusks, just about ready to drop and die and become dinner for the jungle carnivores. “I didn’t realize we had laid claim to that part of D.C.,” said Bates. He had last slept the day before yesterday and was now really starting to feel it. “In fact, I was under the impression that that was their home turf and we were the visiting team.”
“You know what I mean. What could have prompted this sort of attack?”
“Shit, I don’t know, maybe because we try so damn hard to pull the plug on their billion-dollars-a-day drug pipeline and it’s starting to really piss them off, you idiot!” As he said this, Bates backed the man into a corner and then decided the guy was far too harmless to be worth a suspension.
“How’s he doing?” asked another man, with blond hair and a nose red from the flu.
Bates leaned against the wall, chewed his gum and then shrugged. “I think it’s messed more with his mind than anything else. But that’s to be expected.”
“One lucky guy is all I can say,” commented Red Nose. “How he survived it is anyone’s guess.”
“Geez, I didn’t mean it like that, Perce. You know I didn’t.” Red Nose coughed a good one, as though to let Bates know he was sick and in no shape to fight.
Bates moved away from Red Nose, thoroughly disgusted with them all. “Right now I don’t know anything. No, I take that back. I know that Web single-handedly took out eight machine gun nests and saved another squad and some ghetto kid in the process. That I do know.”
“The preliminary report says Web froze.” This came from another man who had joined their ranks, yet he was one who clearly stood above them all. Two stone-faced gents were in lockstep behind the intruder. “And actually, Perce, what we know is only what Web has told us,” said the man. Though this person was obviously Percy Bates’s superior in official rank, it was equally apparent that Bates wanted to bite his head off yet didn’t dare.
The man continued. “London’s got a hell of a lot of explaining to do. And we’re going into this investigation with our eyes wide open, a lot more wide open than last night. Last night was a disgrace. Last night will never, ever happen again. Not on my watch.” He stared hard at Bates and then said with sarcasm driven home with a sledgehammer, “Give London my best.” With that, Buck Winters, head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, stalked off, followed by his two robotic escorts.
Bates gazed with loathing at the man’s back. Buck Winters had been one of the principal frontline supervisors at Waco and had, in Bates’s opinion, contributed to the eventual carnage with his ineptness. Then, in the funny way of big organizations, Winters had received promotion after promotion for his incompetence until he had reached the top of WFO. Maybe the Bureau was just unwilling to admit it had messed up and believed that promoting from the ranks of the leadership of the Waco fiasco was a strong message to the world that the Bureau considered itself blameless. Eventually, many heads had rolled because of the flameout of David Koresh in Texas, but Buck Winters’s head was still firmly attached to his shoulders. For Percy Bates, Buck Winters represented much that was wrong with the FBI.
Bates leaned against the wall, crossed his arms and chewed his Wrigley’s so hard his teeth hurt. He was certain that old Buck would be running off to confer with the FBI director, the attorney general, probably even the President. Well, let him, so long as they all kept out of Percy Bates’s way.
The group of men slithered away singly and in pairs until just Bates and the uniformed guard remained. Finally Bates moved off too, hands in his pockets, gaze fixed on nothing. On the way out he spit his gum into the trash can. “Assholes and idiots,” he said. “Assholes and idiots.”
Web, dressed in a set of blue surgery scrubs, carried a bag with his personal belongings and stared at the sunlit sky that filled the window of his hospital room. The layers of gauze around his wounded hand were irritating; he felt like he was wearing a boxing glove.
He was about to open the door to leave when it opened all by itself. At least that’s what Web thought until the man appeared there.
“What are you doing here, Romano?” said Web in surprise.
The man didn’t acknowledge Web right away. He was just under six feet tall, about one-eighty, very powerful-looking in a wiry way. He had dark wavy hair and wore an old leather jacket, a Yankees baseball cap and jeans. His FBI shield was pinned to his belt; the grip of a pistol poked out from its clip holster.
Romano looked Web up and down until his gaze came to rest on the man’s bandaged hand. He pointed at it. “Is that it? Is that your damn wound?”
Web looked at his hand and then back at Romano. “Would it make you happier if the hole was in my head?”
Paul Romano was an assaulter assigned to Hotel Team. He was one very intimidating guy among many such folks and you always knew where you stood with the man, which was usually nowhere good. He and Web had never been close—principally, Web thought, because Web had been shot up more than he had, and Romano strongly resented the perception that Web was more heroic or tougher.
“I’m only going to ask you this once, Web, and I want it straight, man. You bullshit me and I’ll pop you myself.”
Web looked down at the guy and stepped a bit closer so that his height advantage was even more evident. He knew this ticked off Romano too. “Gee, Paulie, did you bring me some candy and flowers too?”
“Just give it to me straight, Web.” He paused and then asked, “Did you wimp out?”
“Yeah, Paulie, those guns somehow shot themselves all up.”
“I know about that. I meant before that. When Charlie Team went down. You weren’t with them. Why?”
Web felt his face growing warm and he hated himself for it. Romano usually couldn’t get to him. Yet the truth was, Web didn’t know what to tell the man.
“Something happened, Paulie, in my head. I don’t know exactly what. But I didn’t have anything to do with the ambush, in case you suddenly lost your mind and were thinking that.”
Romano shook his head. “I wasn’t thinking you turned traitor, Web, just that you turned chickenshit.”
“If that’s all you came to tell me, then you can go on and get the hell out now.”
Romano looked him up and down again and Web felt like less and less of a man with each pronounced glare. Without a word, Romano turned and left. Web would have preferred the man had exited on the heel of another insult rather than silence.
Web waited another few minutes and then opened the door.
“What are you doing up?” asked the surprised guard.
“Docs discharged me, didn’t they tell you?”
“Nobody told me anything like that.”
Web held up his bandaged hand. “Government isn’t paying for another night on account of a scratched hand. And damn if I’m paying the difference on my paycheck.” Web didn’t know the guard, but he seemed like the type to be sympathetic to such a commonsense plea. Web didn’t wait to get an answer but just walked off. He knew the guard had no grounds to stop him. All he would do was communicate this development to his superiors, which he was assuredly doing right now.
Web ducked out a side exit, found a phone, called a buddy and an hour later he was inside his split-level thirty-year-old rancher in a quiet Woodbridge, Virginia, suburb. He changed into jeans, loafers and a navy blue sweatshirt, ripped off the gauze and replaced it with a single Band-Aid of blazing symbolism. He wanted no pity from anyone, not with six of his closest friends right now lying in the morgue.
He checked his messages. There weren’t any of importance, yet he knew that would change. He unlocked a firebox, pulled out his spare nine-millimeter and thrust it into his belt holster. Although he had not technically shot anyone, this was still an SRB—or Shooting Review Board—matter now, since Web had most definitely fired his weapons. They had confiscated his guns, which was akin to taking his hands. Next, they had advised him of his rights and he had given them a statement. It was all standard, by-the-books practice and yet it still made him feel like a criminal. Well, he wasn’t about to walk around without hardware. He was paranoid by nature, and the massacre of his team had made him a walking schizoid, capable of seeing real threats in babies and bunnies.
He went out to the garage, cranked up his 1978 coal-black Ford Mach One and headed out.
Web had two vehicles: the Mach, and an ancient and iron-gutted Suburban that had carried him and his Charlie Team to many Redskin football games, to the beaches in Virginia and Maryland, to beer-drinking outings and on assorted other manly campaigns up and down the East Coast. Each guy had had his own assigned seat in the Suburban, based on seniority and ability, which was the way everything was divvied up where Web worked. What outstanding times they had had in the big machine. Now Web wondered how much cash he could get for the Suburban, because he didn’t see himself driving the beast anymore.
He jumped on Interstate 95, headed north and fought through the obstacle course that was the Springfield Interchange, which apparently had been designed by a highway engineer strung out on cocaine. Now that it was undergoing a major overhaul scheduled to last at least ten years, the driver navigating it each day had the option of laughing or crying as years of his life slipped by while the traffic’s progress was measured in inches. Web sailed over the Fourteenth Street Bridge, cleared the Northwest quadrant where all the major monuments and tourist dollars were kept and was quickly in a not-so-nice part of town.
Web was an FBI special agent, but he did not see himself as such. First and foremost he was a Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) operator, the Bureau’s elite crisis response group. He didn’t dress in suits. He didn’t spend much time with fellow agents outside HRT. He didn’t arrive on the crime scene after all the bullets had stopped flying. He was usually there from the get-go, running, -->