est levels and he had no choice but to defer to it. Yet, still, he filed that away in the back of his head. For him the truth should not come with qualifiers or conditions, if for no other reason than that he might need it as ammo to cover his own ass at some point.
He’d heard construction jobs were still plentiful in New Orleans after Katrina. And people, desperate for workers, didn’t ask for tricky things like Social Security numbers and permanent addresses. At this point in his life Stone did not like questions or numbers that would lead anyone to know who he really was. His plan was to lose himself in a mass of humanity trying to rebuild from a nightmare not of its own making. He could relate to that very well, because he was basically trying to do the very same thing. Except for those two final shots. Those he’d intended with every pulsating nerve of anger and sense of justice denied he possessed.
As the train bumped along in the darkness Stone sat in his chair and stared out the window. In the reflection he studied the young woman who sat next to him holding a baby, her feet perched on a battered duffel bag and a pillowcase crammed with what looked to be bottles, diapers and changes of clothes for the infant. They were both asleep; the child’s chest nestled against its mother’s swollen bosom. Stone turned to look at the child with its triple chins and doughy fists. The baby suddenly opened its eyes and stared at him. Surprisingly it didn’t cry; it didn’t make one sound, in fact.
Across the aisle a rail-thin man was eating a cheeseburger he’d bought in the station, a bottle of Heineken cradled between bony knees covered by patched denim. Next to him was a young, tall, good-looking man with brown, tousled hair and a few days’ worth of stubble on his unmarked face. He had the lean, lanky build and confident moves of a former high school quarterback not yet run to fat. This was not exactly a guess on Stone’s part, because the kid was wearing his high school varsity jacket dripping with medals, letters and ribbons. The year stitched on the jacket told Stone that the kid had been out of high school for a few years. Long time to be holding on to the glory days, Stone thought, but maybe that was all the kid had.
To Stone’s eye the young man also had the look of someone who was certain that the world owed him everything and had never bothered paying its bill. As Stone watched, he rose, climbed over the cheeseburger man and headed to the rear of the car and through the door into the next train car.
Stone reached over and gently touched the baby’s fist, receiving a barely audible coo in return. While the infant’s life was all in front of him, Stone’s was drawing closer to the end.
Well, they would have to find him first. He owed that to an authority that was often callous to the people who served it with the greatest loyalty, with the most quietly suffered sacrifice.
He leaned back in his seat and watched Washington disappear as the train rattled on.
JOE KNOX HAD BEEN READING in the small library of his town house in northern Virginia when the phone rang. The speaker was economical with his words and Knox, from long experience, did not interrupt. He hung up the phone, laid aside his novel, pulled on his raincoat and boots, grabbed the keys to his scuffed up ten-year-old Range Rover and headed out into the foul weather for an equally foul task.
An inch over six feet with the thick, muscular build of the undersized linebacker he had once been in college, Knox was in his fifties with thinning hair that he still had barber-shop cut and then slicked back. He also possessed a pair of pale green eyes that were the human equivalent of an MRI: they missed nothing. He gripped the wheel of the Rover with long fingers that had pulled just about every trigger there was while in service to his country. From his secluded, forested neighborhood he turned on to Chain Bridge Road in McLean, Virginia. The traffic would still be heavy on the Beltway this time of morning. Actually, there was really no longer a time when the asphalt noose around the capital city’s neck wasn’t strangled with cars. He pointed his SUV toward the District and backtracked his way to eastern Maryland from there. Eventually he smelled the sea, and with it he envisioned the murder scene. All in a day’s work.
Three hours later he was walking around the truck as fat raindrops pelted down. Carter Gray still sat in his seat-belt harness, his head destroyed and his life ended by what appeared to be a long-range rifle round, although the postmortem would confirm that. While police, FBI and forensic teams buzzed everywhere like bluebottle flies, looking for some place to land and do their business, Joe Knox squatted in front of the white grave marker and small American flag planted in front of it by the side of the road. It was on a curve. The motorcade would have slowed here. A curious Gray had obviously seen these two items and rolled down his window—a fatal mistake.
Grave marker and American flag. Just like at Arlington National. An interesting and perhaps telling choice.
The fact that the windows rolled down showed Knox that the vehicle wasn’t armored. Such vehicles’ windows were phone-book thick and did not move. Gray had made his second mistake there.
Should’ve asked for the armor, Carter. You were important enough.
This wasn’t baseball, Knox knew. In his business, it never took more than two strikes to finish you.
Knox looked off into the distance, tracing in his mind the trajectory of the lethal round. None of the protection detail had seen any sign of a shooter, so he had to cast the potential flight path out farther where the optic and muzzle signatures would be nearly invisible to the naked eye.
Thousand yards? Fifteen hundred? To a target inside a vehicle revealed only through a barely two-by-two-foot opening in the dark and drizzle. And planted the bullet right in the brain.
Remarkable shot any way you look at it. No luck there. A pro.
He rose and nodded at one of the uniforms. Knox wore his ID badge on a lanyard around his neck. When everyone had seen what his official ties were they had been deferential and also given him a wide berth, like he had an incurable and contagious disease.
And maybe I do.
The cop opened the door of the Escalade and Knox peered inside. The shot had hit dead center of the right temple. There was no exit wound. The round was still in the brain. The postmortem would dig it out. Not that he needed the autopsy report to tell him what had killed the man. Blood and bits of flesh and skull had embedded in parts of the SUV’s interior. Knox doubted the government would be reusing this ride. It would probably go the way of JFK’s limo. It was bad luck, bad karma, call it what you would, but no other VIP would want to rest his butt in the dead man’s seat, sterilized or not.
Gray didn’t appear as though he were sleeping. He simply looked dead. No one had bothered to close the man’s eyes. His glasses had been blown off on impact from the kinetically energized round. The result had Gray perpetually staring at whoever looked back at him.
Knox lifted one of his gloved hands and shut the eyelids. It was out of respect. He’d known Gray well. He hadn’t always agreed with the man or his methods, but he’d respected him. If their positions were reversed, he hoped Gray would’ve done the same for him.
The briefing papers Gray had been reading had been collected already by the CIA. National security trumped even homicide. Knox highly doubted that whatever the CIA chief had been reading at the moment of his death would be connected to his murder, but one never knew.
Yet if they could have read the man’s mind in his last moments of life? When he stared out at that grave marker and that flag?
Knox’s gut was telling him that Gray knew exactly who had killed him. And maybe others at the Agency did too. If so, they were letting him go through the motions on his own. He wondered why for a second and then stopped. It was tricky business trying to figure out what the hell went on behind closed doors at Langley. The only thing you could count on as the real truth was as convoluted as anything you’d find in popular fiction.
He left the corpse and mentally processed the facts as he stared off toward the Atlantic.
Gray’s home had been blown up over six months ago, the man barely escaping with his life. Knox had been briefed via secure phone on the drive over. Any suspects involved in that matter were not to be considered to be involved in Gray’s murder, he’d been told. This directive had come from the high
He drove to Gray’s home, made a brief inspection of the interior, found nothing of interest there, and then walked toward the cliff at the rear of the property. He stared down at the thrashing water of the bay below before glancing out at the fully formed storm front that was not making the nearby murder investigation any easier. Knox eyed the fringe of woods that ran by the right side of the house. He walked through the trees and quickly calculated that a path through here would take one up to the gravel road that Gray’s motorcade had used.
He looked back at the cliffs.
And wondered if it was possible.
With the right man there was only one answer to that question.
He climbed back in his Rover and headed to the second murder scene.
The great state of Alabama was suddenly one senator short.
And without even seeing the circumstances of Simpson’s death, Knox instinctively knew he was looking for only one killer.
AS SOON AS ANNABELLE stepped on the front porch she saw it. Alex Ford did too. They’d just gotten back from dinner at Nathan’s in Georgetown. It had become a favorite haunt of theirs.
She pulled the knife free, unfolded the letter and then glanced around, as though she expected the person who’d delivered it to still be nearby.
She and Alex sat in front of the empty fireplace while she read it. She finished and passed it across to him, waiting in silence while he read it through.
“He says for you to pack up and move. That people would be coming to ask questions. You can stay at my place, if you want.”
“I guess we knew it was him, didn’t we?” she added.
Alex looked at the letter. “‘I’ve had many regrets in my life,’” he said, reading from it. “‘And I’ve lived with them all. But Milton’s death was my fault alone. I did what I had to do. To punish those who needed to be. But I will never be able to punish myself enough. At least John Carr is finally dead. And good riddance.’” He looked up. “Sounds like a man who did what he believed needed to be done.”
“He asked us to tell Reuben and Caleb.”
“I’ll do it.”
“They deserved it, you know. From all that Finn told us that happened that night.”
“Nothing gives someone the right to murder someone, Annabelle,” he said firmly. “That’s vigilantism. That’s wrong.”
“Under any circumstances?”
“One exception destroys that rule for good.”
“So you say.”
“Burn the letter, Annabelle,” Alex said suddenly.
“Burn it now, before I change my mind.”
“It’s not a confession but it’s still evidence. And I can’t believe I’m saying this. Burn it. Now!”
She grabbed a match, lit the paper and tossed it into the fireplace. They watched the letter curl and blacken.
“Oliver saved my life, more than once,” he said. “He was the most decent, reliable person I’ve ever met.”
“I wish he’d stayed to talk to us.”
“I’m glad he didn’t.”
“Why?” Annabelle said brusquely.
“Because I might have had to arrest him.”
“You’re kidding. You just said he was the most decent person you’d ever met.”
“I’m a lawman, Annabelle. I swore an oath, friend or not.”
“But you knew he killed people before. And you didn’t seem to have a problem with it then.”
“Right, but he did that on orders from the U.S. government.”
“So that makes it okay in your eyes? Because some politician said it was?”
“Oliver was a soldier. He was trained to follow orders.”
“But even he felt guilt for that. Because some of the people he was ‘ordered’ to kill were innocent. You saw how that crushed him.”
“I respect his morals. But that wasn’t his call.”
Annabelle rose and looked down at him.
“So he kills two people who did deserve it, but because he didn’t have ‘government authorization’ you’re suddenly prepared to arrest him?”
“It’s not that simple, Annabelle.”
She flicked her long hair out of her face. “Sure it is,” she snapped.
She walked over to the door and opened it. “Let’s call it a night before we say something we’ll regret. Or at least I do. Besides, I have to pack.”
“Where are you going to go?”
“I’ll let you know,” she said in a tone that left much doubt whether she meant it.
Alex started to say something but instead rose and walked out, his features clouded and his lips set in an uncompromising line.
Annabelle slammed the door behind him. She sat down cross-legged in front of the fireplace and studied the blackened bits of Stone’s final message to them. Tears trickled down her cheeks as in her mind she went through the letter’s contents again.
She glanced toward the door. Alex and she had become very close over the last several months. When they had heard of Gray’s and Simpson’s murders they both had instantly suspected the truth. Yet they hadn’t said anything about their feelings, afraid perhaps that if they did acknowledge that they believed Stone had killed the two men it would make that suspicion an intractable truth. Now their two very different interpretations of the man’s perceived actions had just driven a wall right between them.
Annabelle packed her few belongings, locked up the cottage for what she was sure would be the last time, climbed in her car and drove to a nearby hotel. She got undressed and climbed into bed. She would be moving on now. There was nothing to keep her here any longer. With Oliver gone, her father dead and Alex revealed to be something other than what she thought, she was alone once more.
It seemed to be her natural state.
Good luck, Oliver Stone.
Annabelle was very sure of one thing. He would need all the luck he could get.
Maybe they all would.
JOE KNOX WOULD HAVE preferred to have been back at his town house drinking a beer or maybe even a couple digits’ width of Glenlivet while sitting in front of a toasty fire and finishing reading his novel. Yet here he was. The chair was uncomfortable, the room cold and ill-lighted, the waiting unpleasant. He eyed the opposite wall but his thoughts were far from this place.
His tour through Roger Simpson’s murder scene hadn’t taken all that long. Like his former boss at CIA, Simpson had still been sitting in death, only with him instead of a car seat it was a ladder-back chair in the kitchen that was now all mottled with the dead man’s blood. The shot had come from the unfinished chunk of construction across the street. The hour of execution—for Knox was certain that’s what this was all about—had been an early one. And eyewitnesses had been in damn short supply.
The only item of interest, really, had been the newspaper. Simpson had been shot right through that morning’s edition of the venerable Washington Post, taking the round smack in the chest. As had been the case with Gray, most snipers aimed for the brain as the gold standard of all possible killing shots. Sure, you pack the right ordnance and a torso hit would also likely be fatal, but the head shot was like a faithful dog in a professional killer’s world because it just never let you down.
So Gray in the head; Simpson in the chest. Why?
And why through the newspaper?
That had really bothered Knox. Not that having to penetrate the few pages would’ve screwed the shot, but the shooter would’ve had to more or less guess where his round would impact. And what if Simpson had had a thick book on his chest, or a
cigarette lighter in his breast pocket that the paper had concealed? That could’ve fouled the shot. Most snipers Knox had known didn’t like to guess about anything other than who they’d kill next.
Yet when he’d examined the paper he understood quite clearly why the chest shot had been used. A snapshot of someone had been taped to the inside of the newspaper. The shot had taken the person’s head in the photo right off. As Knox looked more closely, the remaining part of the picture showed the torso to be that of a woman. There were no marks or writing on what was left of the photo to help him figure out who it was. He’d talked to the paper carrier to see if he’d seen anything suspicious, but he hadn’t. And Simpson’s building didn’t have a doorman. Yet the killer had put that photo in the paper, Knox was certain of it.
And that meant only one thing. This hit had been personal. And the killer had wanted Simpson to know exactly why he was going to die and also who was doing the deed. Just like the flag and grave marker with Gray. His grudging admiration for the assassin increased even more. Gauging the shot accurately enough to take out that picture required remarkable skill, planning and simply a level of confidence that not even