"Why would the Federal government bother keeping tabs on me?" Johnny asked. He was pretty sure he knew the answer to that one. He was more interested to know if Enano would tell him the truth.
"Case you had last summer. Russian mafia? Rogue military unit? Any of this ringing a bell?" Enano asked.
"Yeah, not likely to forget. But we cleared that case more than a year ago," Johnny said.
"Yeah. Mostly. Never did track down one of the military guys."
"Ex-military is the official standpoint," Enano said.
"Whatever you say. So you've been keeping track of me because, what? You think that guy will come back on us?"
"That's part of it. My bosses have classified Special Unit Omega as a domestic terror organization, so that's my official interest. Unofficially, though. . ."
Enano pulled the Crown Vic into a parking spot outside the hotel and turned in his seat to face Johnny. His face was bright and animated.
"Do you have any idea how rare it is for local cops to take down a Russian mob cell? It's something that never happens, but you did it."
"Not me, specifically. And we had some outside help."
"Yeah, I'm aware of your consultant. Witness-Security boy. How is he these days?"
"I'm afraid that -- officially -- I have no idea who you're talking about."
"Right, right. Mention my name to him when you get back. We go back a ways."
"Look, Agent. . . I've got to be somewhere in," Johnny checked his watch -- 0430. "An hour and a half. It's a bit of a drive, so. . ."
"I won't keep you. Just wanted to say good work out there -- you probably saved a lot of lives today."
"That's kind of my job," Johnny said, smiling and getting out of the Crown Victoria. Enano waved and drove off into the darkness.
* * *
Johnny would have preferred to crawl into bed and sleep for a few hours, but his unintended visit to the station killed that plan. Instead, he grabbed a quick shower, loaded up on coffee, and hopped into his rented Dodge Charger. The GPS told him to get on Interstate 40.
A little more than an hour later, Johnny pulled up to the Main Gate at Fort Bragg. If Enano was tailing him, Johnny hadn't seen it. Even if he was following, though, the agent would have a hard time getting on the base, his Federal government credentials notwithstanding. Johnny had no problems. He showed his I.D. to the MP at the gate -- once the MP checked his clipboard, he waved Johnny's Charger through.
As Johnny slowly accelerated through the gate onto the base, he glanced at the time on the dashboard clock -- 0550. He'd hate to be late. The guy he was meeting was insane about time, even when it was a social call. Number-obsession, he'd explained to Johnny years back.
Master Sergeant Riley Cohane was waiting outside the mess hall. As Johnny parked his Charger and got out, Cohane looked at his watch.
"You're early," Cohane said, smiling and holding out his hand.
"Only by five minutes," Johnny said, shaking hands with Cohane.
"Six. 'Course, you're always punctual. How've you been, Sergeant?"
"Deputy, now. I've been good, Riley. Kinda surprised to see you stateside."
"Not my choice, brother. Medical had me pulled out of the field," Cohane told him as they walked into the mess hall and got in line.
"Shit. You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm good. Took a couple AK rounds in my legs. Guess that was all the excuse they needed to rotate me out."
"Nah. Friendly. Dumbass contractor couldn't be bothered to check his fire. Docs say I'll be good to go in a month or so."
"So what do they have you doing up here?"
"Running some SF training for the new kids. Low-impact stuff."
Johnny laughed. "Only you would consider Special Forces training low-impact."
"Compared to war, everything's low-impact, brother," Cohane said, grinning.
"You've got a point there. This must seem like a vacation for you. And I'm sorry to have to make you work on vacation, but. . ."
"The list of names you sent. Yeah, I got a chance to look into 'em. Not like I got a whole hell of a lot else to occupy my time, really."
The two carried their breakfast trays to a nearly abandoned table and sat down.
"Information on most of 'em wasn't real hard to find. Can't speak to the truthfulness of what I found, though. In fact, I can pretty much confirm most of it as pure bullshit," Riley told him.
"Even with your clearance level?"
"I found the same info as you probably did. Five of your guys placed in a blown-up Hummer in Iraq. No explanation on their mission, or on what an Air Force medic and a Marine demolitions guy were doing riding with three Army SF guys."
"That's the exact info the Army fed me. Once, of course, those bodies disappeared from our morgue. What did their classified files say?"
"There were no files on 'em above the unclassified level. I checked into every system I know of, and got nothing. Files've been wiped. If they ever existed at all, that is."
"What about the sixth guy? Captain Jason Black?"
"Now, that's an interesting one," Cohane said. He took a long sip of his coffee.
"At the unclassified level, nothing. But somewhere around Top Secret, I managed to find mention of him."
"His Army files are still there?"
"Nope. If we ever had 'em, they're gone, too. But whoever wiped the files missed a reference to him. And I gotta say, it's not what I expected."
"How's that?" Johnny asked, finishing off his eggs and drinking a bit of diesel-grade coffee.
"Mission report from Fallujah, 2007. Jason Black's listed in a Delta's report as an 'unlawful combatant.'
"You mean a mercenary?"
"That's exactly what I mean. Guy may have been military at some point, may not -- but as of 2007, we had him listed as a criminal."
"Anything past that?" Johnny asked, finishing his coffee. It tasted like Army coffee should, not like the fancy stuff he'd had in Cary.
"Nope. Guy's a ghost. Couldn't even find a birth certificate on him, a DOB. . . nothing."
Something triggered in Johnny's brain. The lack of a birth certificate was familiar, though he couldn't remember where he'd heard it. It was a significant fact, he knew. All the other members of Special Unit Omega had only had their military records changed, and even then only towards the end of their lives.
"I appreciate you doing all this digging. Consider us even?" Johnny asked, though he knew what Cohane would say to that. He was correct.
"Brother, we ain't even yet by a long shot. I fractured a couple of rules and gave you no real information. You saved my life. Hell, not just mine. Me and my whole team. I still owe you."
"You don't owe me anything, Riley."
"Beg to differ, brother. Me and a whole pile of dead Hajis beg to differ."
"Conversation for another time. Haven't you got some lowly noncoms to yell at?"
Riley checked his watch.
"Yeah, it's getting to be about that time. You headed back up North soon?"
"Tomorrow morning. 0600 flight."
"Well, it was great seein' you again. We shouldn't let so many years slip by next time, brother. C'mon -- I'll walk you to your vehicle."
Riley and Johnny stood and headed out to the parking lot. Johnny stretched and lit a cigarette -- he realized he'd need some sleep soon. Riley held out his hand, and Johnny shook it. He felt something small and rectangular pressed into his palm. Riley caught his eye.
"You take care of yourself, Sergeant."
As they broke the handshake, Johnny immediately put his closed hand in his jacket pocket.
"You too, Riley."
Riley grinned, saluted, and walked off. Johnny got into his Charger and headed off the base, back for Raleigh. He waited until he was miles away before he checked his pocket to see what Riley had slipped him.
It was a 4GB MicroSD card.
"Riley, Riley, Riley. What are you up to, buddy?" Johnny said aloud, looking at the tiny square of black plastic in his palm.
He had no clue what might be on the card, but he knew the information had to be extremely sensitive. Riley's look had told him as much. Whatever was on the card had to be beyond Top Secret -- Riley had told him things way above his clearance level over breakfast.
There was only one way to find out, and Johnny had a netbook with a card reader back at the hotel. He accelerated onto the Interstate.
Curiosity gnawed at him the entire drive back to his hotel, enough to drive off the desire for sleep. He pulled up at the hotel around 7:30. Most of the evidence of that morning's gunfight was gone, but Johnny could still make out traces of Officer Gable's blood on the pavement.
As Johnny walked through the front door and into the lobby, the desk clerk waved him over. Johnny shrugged and walked up to the desk.
"What's up?" Johnny asked the clerk, a red-haired guy who couldn't have been a day over 22.
"You're Mr. Teal, sir? Is that correct?"
"Yep. That's me."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Someone was by earlier -- your brother, he said. Wanted a key to your room. Claimed he lost his. I checked, and you were registered alone, so I didn't give him one -- hotel policy. He pitched a fit and stormed off. Just wanted to let you know and apologize if I caused any inconvenience."
"You did the right thing. I'm an only child. Describe the guy."
"About six-one, six-two. Blond hair. Facial piercings, a couple of tattoos."
The description didn't sound at all familiar to Johnny.
"How long ago was this?"
"Not long. Ten, fifteen minutes. He walked out the front door and didn't come back."
Johnny made a quick sweep of the parking lot, but found no one but an elderly couple slowly walking out to their Coup de Ville. He went back inside and took the elevator to the third floor. As he rounded a corner, he found someone trying to hack the lock on Room 317. His room.
The guy matched the description from the desk clerk perfectly. He was dressed all in black, and carried a large backpack. Johnny resisted his first impulse -- to shout at the guy, to identify himself as police -- and instead quietly crept up next to the kid.
"Hey. Whatcha doin?" Johnny asked casually.
The kid got up from his crouched position by the door and tried to run, but he didn't get far. Johnny had already grabbed one of the straps on top of his backpack -- when the kid set off, Johnny immediately pulled him back hard. The kid ended up on his back, staring at the hallway ceiling and gasping for breath. Johnny knelt down next to him and smiled wide.
"Don't be so quick to rush off, kid. Now, you can tell me why you impersonated a brother I don't have, or you can tell the local cops. Get me?"
The kid, still trying to find his breath, coughed and nodded quickly.
"Good man. Let's start with your name, shall we?"
"Harrison Ford," the kid wheezed, pulling out his wallet and holding it out as he sat up.
"Your real name, shitbird. Oh, what do you know. That is your real name," Johnny said as he pulled the kid's license out of his wallet.
"I go by Harry," the kid said, finding his voice.
"Yeah, I probably would, too. How about you tell me why you were trying to break into my room? I mean, you are aware I'm a cop, right?"
"Of course I'm aware of that. I know everything about you," Harry said, reaching into his wallet and handing Johnny a business card.
The card had no name -- just a Web site and an email address. Johnny looked up from the card and raised an eyebrow at Harry.
"Is this supposed to mean something to me?"
"That's my Web site. I run it. We've been interested in you for a while," Harry told him.
"Not the first time I've heard that today," Johnny mumbled. "So, you're what? A reporter?"
"I put the truth out for everyone to see."
"Still haven't told me why you were breaking into my room.
"I was looking for anything I could find about this morning's incident. The group you fought with. . . we've been keeping tabs on them for a while."
"You didn't think of, I don't know, asking me directly?"
Harrison looked shocked.
"You'd agree to an interview?"
"I might have, before the break and enter action. Look, kid, I'm dead tired. I don't feel like dealing with the Cary Police again today, so I'll make you a deal. You go away, and I'll forget this ever happened." Johnny held up the business card. "You stay away -- that means you don't follow me around, rifle through my shit -- and I'll hang onto this. I'll consider talking to you if you check out as legit. Deal?"
Harry nodded enthusiastically.
"Good. Now get the fuck out of here."
Harry got to his feet and walked quickly down the hall, tring to appear as if the short, overmuscled Johnny didn't intimidate him. He didn't carry it off to well, though -- as soon as Harry rounded the corner, Johnny heard him break out in a run.
Johnny shook his head.
"Weird little kid," he muttered to himself, sliding his keycard into the door and walked into his hotel room. It was just as he had left it. If Enano or the police had tossed the place, they'd at least had the courtesy to put everything back where they'd found it, which was nice.
Johnny booted up his netbook and connected to the hotel's Wi-Fi. He started up Firefox and typed in the address from Harry's card.
"Oh, that's just lovely," Johnny groaned as the page loaded. "He's a conspiracy nut."
The page made Johnny want to laugh out loud. There were sections for Alien Abduction, The New World Order, Government Conspiracies -- every flavor of paranoia was equally represented. Johnny fired off an email with a link to the site to his pal Eric, asking him to track down whatever he could on Harry Ford. If nothing else, he knew Eric would have a good laugh at the site's expense.
Johnny dug out his MicroSD adapter and loaded Riley's card. As soon as he loaded the card into his netbook, a grainy, low-quality video launched -- Johnny guessed it had come from a cell phone camera. In the video, Riley was sitting in an office chair, dressed in civilian clothes. He spoke quietly, directly into the camera.
"Hey, Sergeant. Apologies for the cloak-and-dagger shit, but if my COs knew I was doing this. . . well, best not to think about that. Two things -- one, I found a lot more on Jason Black than I could tell you. Data's on this card, and you didn't get it from me, clear? Second -- I hate to ask, considering I still owe you, but. . . I need a favor."