I-75, North of Ocala, Florida, 2009
Eric decided that he'd had enough of sitting in the back of various law enforcement vehicles to last a lifetime. Hopefully, after the day was done, he'd never have to warm the backseat of another Crown Victoria, Impala, or Charger ever again.
The sun was just coming up as the beige Crown Victoria cruised along the Interstate. Eric wasn't handcuffed, and had a cup of coffee from an @Starbucks in Gainesville in one hand. The car's driver, Marshal Valder, was also sipping a cup of coffee -- Marshal Valencia, in the passenger seat, had finished hers some time ago.
"So how'd you like Gainesville?" Valder asked, turning his head slightly to be heard.
"It was nowhere near as bad as that place in Illinois you guys had me at for a couple weeks."
"Yeah. That place. Horrible."
"That's where I'm from, sport," Valder shook his head.
"Oh, shit. Sorry."
"Nah. 'S alright. I tend to agree with you, actually -- I got the hell out of there as soon as I graduated high school. It is pretty terrible."
"Any idea where I'm going to end up after the testimony today?"
"That's a little above our pay grade, I'm afraid," Valencia shrugged.
"Just so long as it's not that horrible, horrible town."
"They rarely shuffle protected witnesses back through places they've already been. You're pretty safe," Valder laughed.
They made it to downtown Tampa just before 9 a.m., when Eric's testimony was scheduled. There had apparently been a lot of media attention for the trial, which had been in progress for more than a week, as the place was a zoo.
Reporters from all of the local TV stations (and a few national news networks) were parked blocks away, as close as the Tampa Police cars blocking off the street would let them get. Even four blocks away, the Marshals and Eric could see a huge crush of people waiting outside the courthouse.
"Shit. Eric, put the hood on, sport. Don't want your face splashed on every TV channel in the world," Valder shook his head.
Eric put on the black ski mask sitting on the backseat next to him. The Tampa PD waved the car through the barricades, and Valder piloted the Crown Vic the remaining four blocks to the Federal Courthouse, where Eric had lived three months prior.
"You ready for this, Eric?" Valencia asked as uniformed police surrounded the car.
"As I'll ever be, I suppose," Eric shrugged, his words muffled slightly by the ski mask.
Valencia nodded to one of the officers outside, who opened Eric's door and offered a hand to help him out. Eric declined and stood on his own. He was sure he looked silly in a chocolate-brown business suit and a black ski mask, but he didn't care -- he only had to wear it until the courtroom, which was only perhaps two hundred steps away.
Those two hundred steps were much harder than Eric expected, however, thanks to the thunderous barrage of automatic weapons fire that ripped through the air.
Valencia and Eric were on the wrong side of the car, and the first spray of bullets caught them both. The force of the impact knocked Eric back bodily into the trunk of the Crown Vic, but the Kevlar vest under his white button-up saved him. He felt someone grab the collar of his jacket and haul him over the trunk, bodily dropping him to the concrete on the other side of the car.
Valder had pulled him to safety, and now, with his Glock 19 in his right hand, was making his way around the front of the car to help Valencia. The female Marshal was up and moving, but blood was streaming down her right arm -- she hadn't been as lucky as Eric, and one of the bullets had caught her shoulder.
Eric peered out from under the car to see if he could locate the shooters -- there were two of them, dressed in street clothes and Kevlar vests, both wearing Russian SPHERA helmets and balaclavas. Each of the shooters had an AK-47, plus a pair of Gsh-18 pistols duct-taped to the front of their vests. They were reloading the AK's now, and the police surrounding Eric popped up and returned fire.
Bullets bounced harmlessly off the SPHERA helmets and dug into the Kevlar, but the two shooters kept coming, now reloaded and opening up again. Valencia was safely behind the Crown Vic with Valder and Eric, but the car wouldn't hold up for much longer.
"How's your arm, Maria?" Valder asked, gently taking Valencia's Glock 19 from her right hand.
"Hurts like fuck. Which means it's not numb, which means it'll be fine," Valencia replied through gritted teeth.
"Right on. Eric, you just stay low and behind that tire, all right, sport? I'll have this cleared up in a jiffy," Valder winked, hefting a Glock in each hand. He waited a half-second after the second barrage of AK-47 fire died down, then popped up from behind the car, aiming carefully. He fired both Glocks at the same time, one round each, then ducked back behind the car.
Eric waited for the gunfire to start up again, but it didn't. The Tampa police moved as a single organism, rushing over to what Eric now saw was two very dead gunmen. Valder had managed to shoot both of them just below the SPHERA's faceshield, hitting one in the throat and one in the lower jaw.
"Jesus. That was a hell of a shot," Eric said in disbelief.
"Need a medic over here," Valder told one of the cops. A stretcher appeared, and Valencia was loaded into the back of an ambulance moments later. Valder, flanked by a Tampa PD officer on each side, escorted Eric into the courthouse.
"Where in the hell did you learn to shoot like that?" Eric asked as he was led to the secure area of the courthouse where he would wait until his testimony.
Outside, he could see the news photographers coming back out from their hiding spots, flashbulbs going wild over the entire grisly scene. The remaining Tampa police officers were doing their best to keep everyone away from the two downed gunmen, but as the door to the secure area closed, Eric saw that the scene was deteriorating quickly into chaos.
"Army," Valder shrugged, "Sniper school. Had to do something to keep off the streets."
"Marshal Valencia going to be OK?"
"Should be. Don't let her size fool you -- she's a tough one."
Another Marshal, one Eric hadn't met yet, came into the secure area with a digital camera. He showed some pictures to Marshal Valder, who nodded and motioned for Eric to come over. Valder showed him pictures of the dead gunmen's faces, or at least what was left of them.
"You know these guys?"
"Yeah. That one's Reggie Phelps. Don't know the other guy's name, but I've seen him a few times. They both worked for Julian."
"Thanks, Steve," Valder nodded to the other Marshal, who quickly left the room. "Well, looks like the cat's out of the bag on your testimony. I'll put some guys on figuring out how the order to take you down got out, but you're safe in here. I'll make sure we get extra security when we extract you."
Eric nodded numbly, then flopped into a chair. He couldn't get the images of Reggie's torn-apart face out of his head -- but for one misstep, Eric realized, that could have been him.
"Uh, sport?" Valder interrupted Eric's thought.
"Probably safe to take the hood off now."
Valder was grinning. Eric hadn't realized he still had the hood on, and suddenly, he felt extremely stupid. He clawed the mask from his face, then tossed it to Marshal Valder.
* * *
Apparently, Julian didn't know who the witness was -- just that there was someone coming to testify that could put the final nail in his coffin. Eric would later find out that Julian suspected Russel, who had wandered out for cigarettes a few minutes before the FBI raid and hadn't been seen since. He'd been able to find out when the witness was to be transported, hence the two-man suicide squad -- but he didn't have a name.
For the first time in the more than eight years Eric had known Julian, he saw genuine shock on the older man's face. As Eric was escorted to the witness stand, he smiled at Julian, and that shock quickly turned to rage. By the time Eric was taking the oath of the court, however, the rage had vanished from Julian's face, replaced with his usual half-amused smirk. Eric noticed, however, that the smirk lacked any of its animation -- it was hollow. Julian was fucked, and he knew it.
Eric had met the prosecuting attorney a couple of times, and had gone over the questions he'd be asked thoroughly. At the prosecutor's cues, he recalled his lengthy employment in Julian's organization, detailing all of the weapons deals, drug trafficking, prostitution, and law enforcement corruption to which he'd been a witness (and, in many cases, in which he'd actively participated). Eric's testimony of the murder of Jason Willis, as well as his own attempted murder at the hands of Russel Brandt, helped to paint a pretty damning picture of Julian as the head of a huge criminal organization.
The testimony took the better part of three hours, and there was a break for lunch before the defense attorney would have a chance to cross-examine Eric. Eric spent the hour in the secure room just off the courtroom -- Valder offered to bring him a sandwich, but Eric wasn't hungry. About fifteen minutes before court was to resume, Eric got another visitor in the secure area.
Agent Enano looked like he hadn't slept in days. Still, his face was animated when he smiled at Eric and pounded him on the shoulder.
"Look at you, man. That's a nice suit," Enano smiled widely.
"Yeah, your taxes paid for it. Might as well look good in it. See you've finally got rid of those horrible ties," Eric smirked back.
"Hey, promotion, buddy. I can afford the good ones now."
"That's right. I hear it's 'Special Agent in Charge' Enano now. Organized Crime Task Force. Good on you."
"The Marshals been treating you all right?"
"No complaints, sir."
"Looks like you've bulked up a bit. You been working out?"
"Not much else to do with my time."
"Yeah, well, that won't last. They get you in a permanent city, you'll have to work for a living just like the rest of us. Hey, you're doing great out there. Don't let Julian's lawyer rattle you."
"I don't rattle very easily, sir," Eric nodded.
"Good man. See you back out there."
Julian's defense attorney did, indeed, go for the throat -- but he was extremely clumsy about it. He tried to paint a picture of Eric as a career criminal, despite the fact that he'd only had one arrest in his life. He tried to claim that Eric and Julian had never even been in the same room, despite the forensic evidence presented earlier that showed huge amounts of Eric's blood (as well as the blood of several others) under the tile in Julian's kitchen.
"Mr. Austen, can you even offer any evidence that there is a criminal organization at work here? Much less that you were a part of it, and that my client was the head of it?"
Eric smiled. The defense attorney was obviously flustered now -- he had nothing.
Eric simply smiled and took off his jacket. He rolled up his right sleeve and showed his forearm to the court. The tattoo he pointed to covered the area from the back of his wrist to nearly his elbow -- a stylized, two-headed snake made out of intricate black tribal marks. It was the same tattoo that the two gunmen earlier had on the same spot on their forearms; it was the same tattoo Russel Brandt had on his thin, wiry forearm; and it was the exact tattoo that Julian himself had on his forearm, a picture of which was propped up on the evidence table with the note "Exhibit F" pinned to it.