It was a damn mess. Jack Harley straightened his tie, but couldn’t keep the November wind from flapping it to the side. He flicked his hands away in disgust, rebuttoned his suit jacket and walked briskly across wet pavement towards the flashing lights, yellow tape and cops milling around a Dumpster with flashlights. He forced himself not to run – again. Christ, why don’t they just get on a bullhorn and announce the damn thing?

Which they might as well have, he realized, when he saw the TV news van barrel around a corner and shimmy to a stop next to the yellow tape. A skinny man with a short beard and round little glasses hopped out with a camera on his shoulder. A white beam of light flicked out from the camera before his feet even hit the ground.

Now Jack did run, whirling around in front of the cameraman and grabbing the barrel of its lens, forcing it down towards the ground. He flashed his gold-tinted badge. A blue banner across the top read U.S. Secret Service. The blue Banner along the bottom said Special Agent. A star emblazoned in the middle declared in a blue circle: Secret Service. Everybody in Washington knew better than to ask for a name.

In an impudent voice, the youngster said, “Let me guess, national security.”

“That’s right.” Jack pulled his hand away, slowly rebuttoned his jacket and leveled a steely gaze that the youngster understood to mean the conversation was over. “You can get in there here in a bit. Alright?” The camera man nodded, apparently satisfied with the compromise.

Jack ducked under the yellow tape. Three cops – two women, a tall man, all black – approached him with big Mag-Lites in one hand and the other stretched out stiffly. “Whoa, hold on there,” the man said.

“Yeah,” one of the women said, “You can’t come in here just yet. This is a crime scene.”

Jack held up his badge, “Yeah, I know.”

The tall cop took the badge and inspected it and then practically threw it back in Jack’s face. Tensions were running high, and Jack knew why. Sometimes you just had to work with the flow. “This is a DC police matter, Special Agent. We’ll brief you once we get everything sorted out here.”

Jack didn’t have time to wait for a briefing. “I just need five minutes,” he said. “Maybe not even that long. I won’t disturb the scene.” Much, he thought to himself.

All three looked at each other and then back at Jack. “Five minutes to do what?” one of the women asked.

Jack sighed and looked at his shoes for a moment, then scanned the three of them. “National security,” he said.

The three of them shook their heads. One of the women stifled a laugh. “Yeah, well, whatever happened here is done. Look, we’ll get you everything we pick up. You know the drill. We got it. Alright?”

He didn’t want to do it, but he couldn’t tell them that every second they held him up was one more second closer to the kind of breach that kept him up nights and put the President on Air Force One with the tankers. He couldn’t wait. So he had to do it.

Jack took a deep breath and said, “Victor Bravo.”

The tall man reared his head back, flapped his arms and rolled his eyes. The one woman who hadn’t said anything to that point stepped up and glared at him. “You better mean it. We’re gonna’ follow up on that. Right?”

“Yeah yeah,” Jack said. “Follow up all you want.” With that, he shouldered his way past them and stepped up to inspect what had happened next to a green Dumpster. The Secretary of Defense was lying face down, his arms spread to the side, his knees scuffed against the rough pavement of the alley because his trousers were down to his knees. Beneath him, a young black girl that Jack figured to be all of sixteen was staring into the sky with blank eyes. Her arms lay out to her side as their blood pooled on the pavement. Jack spotted six reasons right away that told him it was a setup. But he didn’t have time for all that just then.

He crouched down, gripped the Secretary’s shoulder and rolled his body over.

“Hey now, what are you doing there?” the tall man asked.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” the mouthy woman said, shining her flashlight on Jack as he hunched over the Secretary. “You done screwed it up already.”

Jack ignored them and quickly plunged his hand inside the pockets of the Secretary’s jacket. Then he fished around in the front and back pockets of the trousers. Jack’s breathing came in strained huffs through his teeth. “Come on, goddammit, where are you?” He lifted the Secretary’s torso, smearing blood on his own suit and quickly worked the coat off the Secretary’s body. Then he ripped the shirt off and tossed both to the side.

“What the hell?” the mouthy woman said.

“No, hold on,” the tall man said. Jack could here a new calmness in his voice. At least one of them was starting to get it.

Jack stripped off the Secretary’s underwear and socks. All that was left was the naked corpse, its head flopping around while Jack checked every square inch of the body.

It wasn’t there. Jack let the Secretary’s body collapse to the ground with a sickening thud and hung his head. But he didn’t have time for that.

He stood up, rebuttoned his bloodied jacket and approached the cops. Looking at the tall man, he said, “Officer you-seem-to-know-what-the-hell-you’re-doing, this is a no-shit Victor Bravo.” He held the man’s gaze for a moment. “You understand?”

“Yes sir, I do,” the tall man said.

“What about our crime scene?” the mouthy woman persisted. “It’s contaminated all to hell.”

Still looking at Jack, the tall man said, “That doesn’t matter so much right now.” They both nodded at each other. The tall man casually turned his head, his gaze still fixed on Jack. “And Chantrise, now’s the time you shut up for a minute. You’re new. So act like it and go bag up those clothes for the Special Agent here.”

The tone in his voice compelled the woman’s expression to change. Jack could tell she didn’t like it, but she quietly slipped away to fetch a large evidence bag.

“You all know this is staged, right?” Jack said. “SECDEF was not this man. Not even close.”

“All we know is what we found,” the tall man said. He had a job to do, too.

“I know, I’m just saying try to keep a lid on it. Not because it’s embarrassing to the President, which it is.”

“Why then?”

“Because,” Jack said, “It’s a message that some people will understand. And then they’ll panic.”

The tall man took a deep breath and nodded thoughtfully. “Victor Bravo.”

“That’s right. Victor Bravo.” Looking around, Jack asked, “Where’s Winterfoot?”

The tall man swung his flashlight to the other side of the Dumpster. The Secret Service Agent who had been protecting SECDEF was lying face down, too. A bullet wound crusted in the back of his head, just to the left and a little too high. Jack recognized it right away. It was a message from somebody he had known once. And it said: Yeah, I did it the hard way.

Jack pulled his wrist to his mouth. “Falconcrest.” His voice traveled over silent radio waves encrypted with algorithms that only the NSA knew existed. A voice recognition computer in an EMP-proof bunker heard his words and sent them on.

A half mile away, Jack’s voice buzzed in Penelope Grant’s ear as she drove down the impossibly intertwined streets of Washington D.C.

“Falconcrest, go.”

“Honestbroker. Look, I need an overwatch on a deal over here behind the place. I can’t stay here. I need to get back and try to get a trace on this thing before it’s too late. If it isn’t already.” He knew he was being cryptic, but even with the NSA’s best cryptography, he didn’t feel comfortable saying much more except inside an access control space buried way deep under the ground.

“I just came off 18, Top. Banger should be up -“

Before she could finish, Jack cut in and said, “Tangerine.”

Penelope slammed on the brakes and cranked the wheel around before the car came to a stop. Her tires skidded hard against the pavement and she side-swiped a car parked along the curb, crushing its driver-side door. People on the sidewalk gasped and stepped back as she floored it and barreled down the street in a blue curl of blue rubbery stench.

“Falconcrest buster. Out.”

©2021 Michael J Lawrence

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