Authors: Chuck Barrett
he dead deputy's
words rolled around in Kaplan's head.
You have to get him to a safe site.
Promise me you'll deliver him to WitSec.
Of course this was all about Tony. Kaplan made a promise to his fellow Army Delta Force brother and U. S. Marshals Service deputy to keep Tony safe and he wasn't doing a good job of keeping it. What was it the man said?
I know all these copsâ¦they're good ole boys. All they'll do is get him killed.
In the meantime, it looked like they might get Kaplan killed too. Unless he could lose them and lose them now.
"Hold on," Kaplan yelled back to Tony.
Tony's grip tightened.
Kaplan twisted the throttle and accelerated around the F-250 towing the horse trailer. Both oncoming lanes had traffic. He kept the Harley close to the trailer and Ford truck as he passed leaving only inches to spare. Oncoming cars swerved and honked.
The first car swerved to avoid Kaplan's motorcycle and sideswiped the car next to it. Then the driver overreacted and swerved back, crashing into the back of the Camry that was previously behind Kaplan. He glanced in his mirror and saw traffic in both directions grind to a halt leaving the patrol car stuck with nowhere to go.
He was momentarily free and clear, although he knew that wouldn't last long.
Police had radios. Kaplan knew two things about those radios.
First, they were buzzing with chatter.
Second, he was probably the topic of discussion.
Within thirty seconds Kaplan found what he was searching for. The interstate. He entered the left turn lane to the on-ramp and glanced a final time in his mirror for any signs of the police cruiser.
Kaplan breathed a sigh of relief for the first time since this ordeal started. He might stand a chance of getting the old man to safety after all.
He went under the overpass, turned left onto the on-ramp, accelerated, and merged with traffic. In order to blend in, he paced the Harley with the fastest traveling vehicles. He found three cars traveling west on Interstate 40 keeping their highway speeds between eighty and eighty-five. That worked for him. Now he just needed the next twenty minutes to be uneventful, which, based on the night's events thus far, was unlikely.
Keeping Tony out of sight was not an easy assignment. Especially on a motorcycle with the man clinging to his waist wearing a tropical print shirt. His Harley was not quiet and drew glances from almost every motorist he passed. He needed to ditch his bike and pick up a nondescript automobile and he had to do it quickly before the authorities widened their search area and search parameters. Authorities would eventually figure out his need to change vehicles if he was to stay off their radar. The longer it took him to do it, the odds increased he would get snared in their dragnet.
He had to get in front of this one and formulate a plan. Staying ahead of the authorities would be more difficult without the resources he'd become accustomed to having available on demand. This time he was on his own. No one had his back.
At least, not yet anyway.
Tony had apparently given up on trying to talk over the roar of the motorcycle engine. Or maybe he was formulating his own plan. At any rate, he couldn't be trusted.
Traffic was still heavy on the interstate at this hour. After all, it was a Friday night, which meant more than the usual number of residents were out doing whatever they do and going wherever they go on Friday nights. This worked in his favor.
Soon, he spotted a group of four motorcycles ahead riding together holding a speed of seventy-five.
Motorcycle riders tend to form up in groups when traveling on high-speed highways. It was a camaraderie and safety thing. Safety in numbers. A single motorcycle rider was almost invisible to most drivers. A group was not. Which was a good thing. Unless you're a wanted man. Or in his case, transporting a wanted man. Life was full of risks and this was a gamble he had to take.
Kaplan signaled the riders as he pulled alongside. A man in his sixties with a long gray beard blowing in the night air had been elected, or self-appointed, as ride leader. He gave Kaplan a thumbs-up and a head nod to fall in behind. His timing couldn't have been better because less than five minutes after he joined with the riders, the group passed an Arkansas State Police cruiser going the opposite direction. Unlikely that a group of five bikes would draw much more than a second glance. It worked. He had blended in with the riders.
Kaplan stayed with the group until the Arkansas 365 exit. He broke from the rest of the motorcycles, took the elevated off-ramp to the right, and turned left at the light. When he crossed back over the interstate he glanced up the highway and saw the four motorcycles pulling to the side of the road. Behind them, a pair of flashing blue lights.
Arkansas 365 branched to the right as Arkansas 100 began on the left. He checked his mirrors. Still clear. The group of motorcycles would know which exit he took so he had to assume that by now the trooper did as well. Or perhaps not. The group of riders wore vests that read
Knights of the Night
. Maybe they wouldn't be very cooperative with the trooper. It really didn't matter because Arkansas 365 went in two directions at the exit and it was Kaplan's intention to be out of sight before anyone could figure out which direction he went.
He followed the instructions he'd been given to the letter and, even though he'd been there before, he still almost missed the turn onto River Road. It seemed to pop up out of nowhere in the darkness. River Road turned into Plantation Drive, which ended with a tee at River Road Drive.
When the motorcycle slowed, Tony said, "What the hell happened here? Looks like a disaster zone."
"It was. Tornado ripped through here back in April. Took out most of the neighborhood."
"Unfortunately Tony, yes."
"You from around here?"
"No. I told you before I was just passing through. Now shut up, you're asking too many questions."
When he'd seen the news about the disaster four months ago, Kaplan didn't know if his friend was alive or dead. He called but didn't initially get a response. It was a long twenty-four hours, waiting and not knowing. He knew coming here now was not the best idea, but he didn't have many options.
"Is this a safe house?"
"No. But it's safe enough for now." Tony was starting to grate on his nerves. Maybe he should just turn around and leave.
You have to get him to a safe site.
Promise me you'll deliver him to WitSec.
"Tony, either shut up or I'll leave you on the side of the road."
He turned left and seconds later pulled into a driveway he'd only ever been in once before. A man was standing in the dark outside his garage.
Kaplan pulled next to the man and stopped. He killed the engine, turned his head, and said to Tony, "Get off."
"You won't have to tell me twice," Tony said. The old man peeled off the rear saddle and collapsed to the ground.
"Is he okay?" The man asked.
"He's fine," said Kaplan. "Legs probably went numb on the ride out here." He turned to Tony and said, "Shake your legs and get up, old man."
"I've been watching the news," the man in the driveway said. "Is that you two?"
Kaplan nodded. "Mind if I park this thing in your bunker?" He made reference to a storage bunker behind and under the house. "I'll bring you up to date in a few minutes."
The house sat on the banks of the Arkansas River northwest of Little Rock and slightly south of the town of Mayflower. It was a good-sized brick home with a beautiful view of the rolling hills of North Central Arkansas on the horizon across the river. Heavy clouds from earlier thunderstorms had dissipated and revealed a modest orange moon in the serotinal sky. Amber moonlight danced across the flowing waters of the river casting an eerie glow across the terraced backyard. It was still hot and humid but a breeze blowing off the water made it feel cooler than the city.
It had been several years since Kaplan had visited. Not because they weren't good friends; rather that life just seemed to get in the way.
The bunker wasn't visible from street level. Even from the house it was imperceptible. The bunker was built under the first terraced drop in his friend's backyard. Looking back at the house from the river, Kaplan could see the bunker doors. Above the doors at house level sat a broken concrete bench. It was a good place for Kaplan's friend and his wife to sit and watch the river make its way toward the Mississippiâ¦until the tornado uprooted a large tree and crashed it into the house, breaking the bench along the way.
He opened the doors, rolled his Harley inside, and stowed it to one side of the bunker. For the most part, his friend stored lawn equipment inside. Riding mower. Weed eater. All the required tools to maintain a yard half the size of a football field. Like most storage sheds, unused items found their way down there too. Junk mostly. Half a dozen lawn chairs, a moldy sink, several flowerpots and bags of potting soil, and a stack of lumber that had waited too many years to be used. A place where things were stored and forgotten.
He hurriedly unloaded his saddlebags into his backpack and gathered everything he thought he would need. He didn't know when he'd return to retrieve his bike although he sensed it wouldn't be anytime soon.
Ten minutes later Kaplan rejoined the two men, who were still standing in the driveway and made an attempt at introductions. "Jeff, Tony. Tony, Jeff."
"We have already introduced ourselves," said Tony.
Jeff nodded in agreement.
"How's Kam?" Kaplan said, referring to Jeff's wife.
"Curious, as I am."
"So you told her?"
"Not much I can keep from Kam. I told her as much as I know. Which is nothing more than whatever's been blasted across the news and your cryptic phone call. How about we go inside and you can explain what trouble you and your friend have gotten into."
Kaplan moved toward the door and said, "He is not my friend."
"Amen to that," Tony mumbled.
The three men went inside where Kaplan introduced Tony to Kam and noticed her reaction when she saw Tony's bloody face.
"Your nose has been bleeding," she said. "Are you okay?"
"I am now, thank you for asking," Tony replied in a sarcastic tone. He pointed at Kaplan. "And no thanks to him. He hit me with his elbow after he hit me in the head with a rock. He says he was trying to save my life butâ"
"Shut up, Tony or I'll hit you again." It only took his glowering stare to stop the old man from running his mouth.
Kam walked toward the kitchen. "Anybody want something to drink?"
Kaplan nodded, "Would you mind making some coffee? Might be a long night."
"You got it. How about some chips and homemade salsa? Jeff made it fresh today."
"That would be great," said Kaplan.
Kaplan recounted the night's events with numerous interruptions and embellishments from Tony.
After hearing the remarkable story, Jeff and Kam were quiet, almost as if shell-shocked. They sat next to each other on one of the two leather couches in the family room.
Finally Kam said, "Let me get this straight. After you evaded the car following you and rode into the quarry, a helicopter miraculously located your position and started shooting at you? Don't you find that odd?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do," Kaplan said. "It was almost as if they knew we were there."
All three turned and looked at Tony.
He raised both hands palm up. "What?"
"Oh, so now you don't have a thing to say? Your Italian tongue tied?" Kaplan said. "I think you have some explaining to do."
down the air stair of the Beechcraft King Air turboprop. The flight from Chicago was mostly smooth until they got closer to Little Rock and the pilots flew through some of the left over clouds from the day's thunderstorms.
He carried with him one bag and a briefcase, more than enough to get him by for a few daysâwhich was all the time he planned on spending investigating this case.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Jon Hepler was waiting for him inside the fixed base operator. Hepler was a few inches shorter than Moss, had thinning blond hair, and a snappy, albeit juvenile, sense of humor. He usually wore long sleeves to cover the tattoos on his forearms, a permanent reminder of his days as a police officer in a small Florida town. Tonight however, he wore short sleeves and his tattoos were visible.
On his left arm, just above his wrist was the popular police 1* shield. A play on wordsâone asteriskâone ass to risk. Above that were an eagle and a tattered American flag along with a depiction of his brother's dog tags. His brother, Moss remembered, was a casualty of the war in Afghanistan. On the inside of his right forearm, St. Michael, the patron saint for peace, held another 1* shield. Hepler said he put it on his right arm because that was his gun hand. As superstitious as Moss thought it was, Hepler put it there to make him faster and more accurate so that he could defeat any foe.
He had his star on his belt and his gun mounted on his hip.
Moss had known Hepler since his first day in Little Rock seven years ago. And they became good friends right away. He wasn't referred to as Jon, but rather JP.
When Moss lived in Little Rock, he and Hepler, also a Chicago Cubs fan, frequented a downtown sports bar on a regular basis, especially during baseball season.
Hepler grinned when he saw Moss, "You missed a good game tonight, Dirt Man. Cubs rallied in the ninth to take it to extra innings." Hepler had called him Dirt Man since day one. A dig on his name Pete Mossâ
"Asshole," Moss said. They shook hands and bumped shoulders. "The pilots couldn't find the game on the radio. ATC gave us a few updates along the way but I never heard the final score."
"Six to five. Cubbies in the eleventh."
"Sounds like I missed a good one."
"You did. It was a regular barnburner there at the end." Hepler's expression turned serious. "Weren't gone from Little Rock very long, were you, Pete?" He teased. "What? Three weeks, tops?"
"Barely two and here I am, back in this redneck hell hole again." Moss pushed his overnight bag strap over his shoulder. "Let's get moving, you can brief me on the drive in."
"By the way, prick, thanks a lot for ruining a perfectly good night's sleep."
"Requesting me on this job at the last minute. Hell, if you wanted to talk, you could've called."
"And have you miss out on all the fun?"
"I don't know whether to thank you or shoot your ass."
"It was the least I could do for an old friend."
"Next time, don't do me any favors."
The sedan Hepler was driving was a dark green Crown Vic. It was one from the motor pool and Moss had driven it on numerous occasions. An older model worn out from years of driving on the dilapidated roads of Arkansas. Although scheduled to rotate out of the fleet at the end of the year and be exchanged for a new model, Moss doubted it would get replaced for another couple of years due to all the budget woes in Congress. Hepler pulled out of the parking area and headed toward the restaurant.
"Any new developments?" Moss asked.
"What's the last thing you heard?"
"Let me think." Moss ran his hand across his bald head. "Last thing I was briefed was that a motorcycle fitting the description of the getaway vehicle crossed The Big Dam on the Arkansas River Trail, pissed off some joggers and cyclists, and an airplane crashed at Emerald Park Quarry."
"Not an airplane. A helicopter."
"A helicopter? Was it LRPD?"
"Nope," Hepler said. "No one knows exactly who it belongs to and there was no rotorcraft activity at the airport all night. ATC said it popped up on radar, moved across the river, and then disappeared. Nothing at the scene to identify it either. No
number. No serial numbers on the aircraft, the avionics, or the engine parts recovered so far. No one has reported a missing aircraft. Nothing. A total mystery ship."
"Could it have been one of those low-level, hush-hush military exercises?"
"I thought the same thing myself," Hepler said. "Called Little Rock Air Force Base and they said nothing was flying."
"Two. But they're pretty much toast. The M.E. said identification could take a while. He guessed weeks unless he got lucky or someone came forward."
"You think it was part of the hit? It might belong to whoever was out to get the witness?"
"Could be, I guess. I don't rightly know," Hepler said. "Too many loose ends at this point to tell who's who."
Moss thought about that statement for a second and then asked, "Anything on the motorcycle?"
"North Little Rock PD reported a motorcycle on Fort Roots Drive moments after the helicopter crash as did three emergency response vehicles. One NLRPD patrol car pursued but got locked up behind a traffic accident at MacArthur and Pershing and the bike got away. State Police pulled over a group of motorcycles on I-40 north of State Road 365. They indicated a bike fitting the description with two riders pulled in with them for a few miles and then disappeared. State Police thinks he probably took the 365 exit. Nothing after that."
"365, huh?" Moss ran through several possible escape routes in his head. "If that was him then he did one of three things. One, he joined State Road 100 and came back toward town."
"Why would he do that?" Hepler asked. "He had to know LRPD had already cast a net around the city."
"I agree. Too risky. Which also rules out east on 365. That would take him back to town as well. He had to take 365 west toward Mayflower. Keeps him on the back roads and away from high visibility areas."
"A possibility. He might even be trying to get to Conway by staying on the vehicle portion of the Arkansas River Trail," Hepler added. "He could follow it through Mayflower and come into Conway from the west."
"Then what?" Moss said. "He has to know by now there is a
out to all the surrounding municipalities. He also has to figure there will be an eye in the sky soon looking for a motorcycle. It would stand out on the dark back roads. No, he took 365 for a reason and we need to figure out what it is."
"You're giving this guy an awful lot of credit."
Moss thought about that statement for a few seconds and then said, "Something tells me he's not your run of the mill getaway driver."
he dark green
Crown Vic turned onto Rebsamen Park Road and was stopped at a roadblock. Two officers manned the barricade, one asked for the two deputies' identification. Moss handed his creds to Hepler who passed them out the window.
"Marshals Service," the officer said. "They're expecting you."
"They?" Moss spoke past Hepler to the officer. "Who are they?"
"LRPD homicide, FBI," the officer passed the credentials back through the window. "And one of yours."
Moss and Hepler looked at each other. "One of ours?" Moss asked.
"Yeah, U.S. Marshals Service." The officer stepped away from the Crown Vic and signaled his partner to remove the barricade from the road. "Ask her yourself." He waved them through.
Little Rock police had cordoned off Rebsamen Park Road from Old Cantrell Road to Riverdale Road. The FBI ordered every establishment within that stretch closed. LRPD was instructed to have all the cars in the parking lots cleared out. Patrons of the restaurant were interviewed, statements taken, and subsequently sent home. The only vehicles remaining in the parking lot belonged to law enforcement, injured patrons taken to the hospital, or dead bodies.
As Hepler parked the Crown Vic, Moss observed the group standing in front of the restaurant, LRPD homicide and FBI he recognized, he had worked with both before on several occasions over the past few years.
The two deputies got out of the sedan and walked toward the crowd.
A woman pushed her way to the front and walked briskly toward them. She had the body of a runway model, long legs and zero body fat. Her long red hair hung loose around her shoulders and blew in the breeze. She had the cougar sex appeal of a woman in her forties, but a strictly business look on her fair skinned face that could keep a man at bay. A woman tired of the government's
attitude. A woman who didn't want to be here. She wore a black jacket with the Marshals Service logo and a matching black cap. She looked straight at Moss when she talked.
"I'm looking for Senior Inspector Moss."
"Looks like you've found him," Moss said. "But I think you already knew that."
She held up her creds, "April Moore."
Moss looked at her credentials, United States Marshals Service, Witness Security. "Why the hell wasn't I informed about you, Inspector Moore? This is highly irregular."
"I don't know," Moore said. "I was informed about you."
"So it seems. This is a problem. It is outside of WitSec security protocol and until I have proper authorization, you're out."
"I understand your dilemma, Senior Inspector," said Moore. "And like you, I'm following last minute orders as well."
"Which office?" Hepler interjected. "Who gave you the orders?"
Moore looked at Hepler and then at Moss. "I was assigned from the Atlanta office by Regional Chief Inspector Michael Johnson."
"Yeah?" Moss said. "How's ole Mike doing these days? Still running marathons?" It was a trick question. Johnson never used the name Mike and had undergone bypass surgery six months ago.
"I wouldn't know," she said. "Never met the man."
"How could that be? You just said he ordered you here."
She stepped closer to Moss. Her green eyes glinted under the streetlights. Her voice lowered, a sultry sound. "Inspector, two weeks ago I was a P.O.D. at the Des Moines office when I was selected on an Atlanta WitSec bid. My first day was yesterday. Tonight I was ordered hereâ¦to work with you. I don't know why, I didn't ask. I just did what I was told. The message was the Service wanted two inspectors on this investigation. I was told you used to work here and were reassigned from Chicago. I was also told you know the area, the ropes, and that you were easy to work with."
"Ha," Hepler laughed. "Dirt Man is the biggest S.O.B I know."
"Dirt Man?" Moore asked.
"Inside joke." Moss checked his watch.
"It's late, I'll have to wait until morning to get authorization. So, for now, you can ride along." Moss looked around. It was a scene packed with an assortment of law enforcement officers. "How long have you been here, Inspector Moore?"
"Long enough to know the FBI is giving LRPD traffic management. Crowd control, that sort of thing. Strictly support." Moore paused and then said, "Inspector Moss, I was sent over here to be part of the investigation, not sit on the sidelines and watch. You're not going to pull any of that good ole boy crap on me, are you? What you know, I want to know. No holding back. You keep me in the loop at all times. I was ordered here as your partner. Where you go, I go. Is that going to be a problem?"
He'd had to fight the good ole boy system inside the Marshals Service for years and knew exactly how she felt. The last thing he wanted was to be identified as one of them. "It's only a problem if you insist on following me into the bathroom."