Ahmad Khalin frowned at the tepid coffee in his hand. He didn’t like sitting here waiting. He felt out of place. Hell, he was out of place. The overweight clerk behind the counter looked his way again. The urge to flee had become almost unbearable. Khalin half expected to be surrounded at any moment by a dozen police vehicles.
Cars began streaming out of the parking lot of the church down the road barely a half mile away. Khalin watched as a few of them turned into the strip mall’s parking lot and pulled in front of the restaurant across the street. A waiting line had already formed, and the newcomers joined the line.
Must be good food, he thought and wondered why the embassy had instructed him to meet his contact at this window counter in a rundown gas station rather than at the restaurant across the street. He read the sign over the entrance again, Rein’s New York Style Delicatessen. He could hide out in a crowd, but at this small counter, he felt like he might as well be carrying a sign saying, “Here I am. Come and get me.”
Khalin silently thanked Allah for getting him this far. He didn’t think any of the others had made it. The plan had been simple and effective, and he knew the safety of the others had never been a priority. He knew this because he led the team on the attack. Some in his inner circle had believed that getting four individuals armed with explosives into a major American airport would be nearly impossible. However, Khalin knew the American sense of security had always been short lived.
They picked a major airport that serviced New York City. A logical choice, he believed. He remembered hearing that more Jews lived in New York than in Israel. All four entered the same terminal in the large airport the same way at almost the same time. They entered the immense building from the runway, ignoring the Do Not Enter signs on the doors and ignoring the loud alarm buzzers that went off. Dressed in the attire of airport contract employees who work daily on the runway, one man from each team of two entered through separate doors at different ends of the terminal.
The two lead men stopped and played with the code box on the inside wall next to the doors. While it appeared they were trying to turn off the alarm, the second member of each team entered through the same door. After a few seconds, the four men feigned frustration and shouted at the nearby airline gate personnel who were themselves busy with hundreds of boarding and de-boarding passengers.
The two teams only remained by the doors for about ten seconds before walking off toward the center of the terminal.
“You aren’t supposed to come in that way! You know the rules!” shouted a woman who worked for one of the airlines. Khalin would have loved to slit her throat right there. She would never dare to talk to him like that in his country. Despite her rebuke, she hurried over to the code box and turned the alarm off. Khalin smiled to himself as he moved away from his associate and closer to his target location.
At the other doorway, no one bothered to try to turn the alarm off as the short-handed airline gate staff tried to resolve the issues of some very angry passengers who had been dropped by an overbooked flight.
Central security control dispatched security personnel to the doors, but door alarms went off too often at these airports to raise any real urgency.
Khalin tossed his large backpack onto a vacant chair in the middle of the food court, a bit dismayed that more people weren’t present. A mother went by pushing twins wearing matching pink outfits in a tandem stroller. He walked up to the nearest kiosk and then walked further down to another as though he couldn’t decide what he wanted. At the same time, he watched the other member of his two man team walk into a men’s room.
He waited about ten seconds before he depressed the remote. The explosions rocked the terminal and nearly knocked Khalin off his feet. They also momentarily deafened him. The first things he heard were the screams. The sounds of success, he thought. He would’ve liked to linger and watch, but he knew he had to move fast. He had to insert himself into the stream of panicking people looking for a way out. A few small fires and a lot of smoke and dust fed the chaos to get out of the terminal.
The gaggle of frightened people fled toward the exits. Khalin jogged along in the middle of them. He saw a handful of security personnel running in different directions. He was outside walking away from the terminal in less than two minutes. He would walk the mile to the car he used to bring the four of them to the terminal only two hours earlier.
Khalin wondered if the other three were still in possession of their backpacks when the explosions occurred. Each bomb had a thirty second delay to give its handler a chance to get away. Only Khalin, and his superiors, knew that the bombs could also be activated remotely, and that his remote bypassed the thirty second delay.
Dozens of police vehicles, ambulances, fire engines, and even a handful of helicopters sped to the airport while he walked away. When he reached the old Toyota Camry, he paused and looked back in the direction of the airport. He didn’t see any smoke or other evidence of the attack. He also didn’t see any sign of his comrades coming to join him. He climbed into the car and drove off. The euphoria of achieving his mission suppressed any concern he had at being captured, and that satisfaction lasted nearly all the way to Hartford.
A police vehicle pulled into the small gas station’s parking lot. Rather than get gas, a chunky man dressed in a uniform got out of the car and strolled inside. He walked up to the counter and started talking to the man behind the counter. Khalin thought the two could be brothers.
He picked up the small gym bag and placed it on the stool next to him. After waiting a few seconds, he unzipped it and fumbled around inside like he was looking for something. Actually the item he pretended to search for, the Glock semi-automatic, sat on top of a change of clothes. At the slightest hint of trouble, Khalin knew he would use it.
The clerk and the policeman laughed at some joke one of them said. Khalin watched them closely. He took a quick glance at his watch. Where was his contact? Time to go, he thought. He had waited too long. Obviously, his contact had been delayed or had to cancel all together. Khalin had an emergency phone number he could still use to set up another rendezvous.
He stood up to go, taking his eyes off the policeman. He grabbed the gym bag and pulled it toward him. Suddenly one of the handle straps slipped out of his hand, and the gym bag swung open as it dangled by one strap. Khalin reached down and grasped the second strap.
“That was close,” he mumbled imperceptibly to himself. Then he noticed the policeman.
In the seconds that Khalin had looked away, the policeman had started walking in his direction. Khalin immediately realized from the look in the man’s eyes that he had seen the gun. He also saw the policeman’s right hand instinctively move to his own weapon.
“What do we...”
Khalin didn’t let him finish his question. In a flash he had the Glock out and fired three shots into the cop. He then swung around and fired one at the clerk. Both men crashed to the floor, and Khalin didn’t stick around to see what damage he had done. He dashed out, got into his car, sped the hundred yards to the entrance to the freeway, and shot north.
The policeman rolled over onto his back. He knew he had been shot, but he also sensed that he must be in shock, or maybe he hit his head when he fell. The room wouldn’t stay still. He pulled his radio to his face and called for help. He heard the gas station clerk cry out in pain. Good, he thought, they were both still alive. He braced himself against a display shelf of assorted chips and forced himself into a sitting position. He looked down and saw two entrance wounds that may have killed him if he hadn’t been wearing his vest. He also saw the large amount of blood that spread over his left sleeve. One shot had caught him high up in his arm. With his good arm he held his radio and continued his call for help.
Clint Smith took another bite out of his ham and Swiss. They didn’t make them much better than this he thought and contemplated ordering a second. He enjoyed his infrequent visits to Rein’s.
“That’s enough!” a woman at the next table shouted at her very young son.
Clint thought the boy couldn’t be more than four years old. He was in the process of putting ketchup on his French fries, and apparently his idea of the amount of ketchup needed conflicted with his mother’s.
The agitation at the front entrance distracted him from his observation of the adjacent table and from his lunch. A young server rushed by his table.
“What’s up?” Clint shouted, and the server hesitated for a second.
“There’s been a robbery across the street, and I think someone’s been shot.”
Clint tossed a twenty on the table, grabbed what was left of his sandwich, and hurried out of Rein’s Deli. He knew this wasn’t exactly his jurisdiction, but since he carried US Marshal credentials he knew his presence shouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Besides he might be able to help someone until reinforcements arrived.
A crowd of onlookers had already formed a perimeter around the small gas station. Clint heard sirens in the distance, but he didn’t see any flashing lights in the immediate area. He ran across the parking lot and the street.
“Hey! Watch it!” yelled someone as he brushed by. Clint ignored him.
Most of the crowd stood off at a safe distance, but a few had wandered to the station’s entrance.
“Excuse me! Coming through!” Clint held his badge up in front of him. It did the trick as people backed away.
“I’ve been keeping everyone out, except those two,” an excited young man at the door said to him. “They said they were doctors, or maybe a doctor and a nurse.”
Clint stopped just inside the entrance and scoped out the scene. He saw two men on the floor. They looked like they had been shot, and one of the two wore a policeman’s uniform. He also saw two women who appeared to be administering first aid to the injured men.
“How serious are they?” Clint asked.
“This one should be okay,” the one helping the policeman answered. She looked like she might be in her fifties and wore an outfit that made Clint think she must have come straight from church. He saw stains on her navy blue skirt that he thought were from blood. The wrists of her white blouse had already turned a bright red. She pressed a large handkerchief against the policeman’s upper arm. The cop looked at Clint and nodded.
Clint looked at the other woman who had not said anything. She appeared to be working more frantically at the man’s chest. He didn’t bother her with another question. A gurgling sound seemed to come from the man, but his head was hidden behind the woman’s small frame.
He felt useless, but, thankfully, the sirens sounded close.
“Can I help either of you?” he asked.
“Come here,” the cop answered him in a faint voice.
“What can I do?” Clint asked after leaning down close to him.
“It was one man. No idea who he was. Think he was in a small green or blue car. Saw a pistol in his gym bag. He saw me see it and opened up on us. No other provocation. Dark hair. Maybe a Puerto Rican, maybe an Arab.”
“He won’t get far. You take it easy. Time to get your statement later.”
He nodded and closed his eyes.
Clint started to ask the woman a question when two patrolmen burst through the door. He stood up and showed them his badge.
They just glanced at it, which Clint knew could have been a mistake if he wasn’t who he was.
“Anyone clear the scene?” the older one asked.
“No, but I believe he’s gone,” Clint answered.
Clint looked down at the wounded policeman, who nodded to the two new arrivals, but didn’t say anything.
“Take a look around anyway,” the older cop instructed his partner.
The younger cop had barely moved when three men in EMT attire came in. It only took them seconds to take in the scene, two of the three went to the aid of the civilian, and one came over to the policeman.
Clint knew he was just in the way. He walked out of the station as two more police vehicles pulled into the lot. Clint stayed in the immediate area for about five minutes before he started to walk back to his car.
Clint turned and saw a policeman in civilian clothes signal to him. The man’s badge was prominently displayed on his belt.
“May I see some identification?” the policemen asked.
Clint handed him his credentials.
“Umm, Marshal Service, I understand you were one of the first on scene.”
“That may be stretching it a little, but I did come over to see if I could help.”
“Did you see anything?” the policeman asked while he wrote Clint’s identification onto a small notepad.
“No. I was inside the deli across the street when it happened.”
“So, you didn’t see anything?”
“No, like I said, I arrived at the scene after it all happened.”
“Okay. You can go now. We’ve got it from here.”
“Good luck,” Clint said, and he meant it.
Clint saw her as he walked back to his car. She seemed fixated on him. He didn’t like the way she looked, and he didn’t like the way she stared at him. He imagined she was one of the too many homeless people who occupied America’s streets these days. Truth be told, she kind of spooked him.
He turned away from her when he reached his car and called Washington.
“Buzz,” Clint said into his phone, “Is she in?”
The she he referred to was Theresa Deer, the person in charge of a covert organization that had a small office in the bowels of the U.S. Marshal Service Headquarters. Although Clint operated in the field and rarely went to Washington, he had met Deer on a few occasions. He felt that those who described her as a genius had underestimated her.
“Clint, how are you today?” Deer asked.
“Fine, ma’am. I’ve got a situation.”
Clint explained what had happened. His primary concern at the moment was that he had used his Marshal Service credentials to identify himself to the police. He didn’t expect any problems to arise, but Deer had a very specific rule which required the dozen or so operatives who worked for her to immediately notify her or her immediate staff whenever the credentials were used in the field.
While even Clint didn’t know who actually pulled the strings of Special Section, the cover name given to Deer’s organization, he understood the logic of reporting such incidents. Somebody there had to initiate the appropriate backstopping to preclude too many questions from being asked. As far as the vast majority knew, Special Section was a small office in the Marshal Service that did highly classified analysis and consisted of only four personnel.
“Think you can pick up the shooter’s trail?”
“I could try, but this appears to be a local matter.”
“Maybe, maybe not. See what you can do.” She hung up.
“Hello, hello? Goodbye to you, too.”
Clint put the phone back in his pocket and turned back to look at the gas station.
“Jeez!” he exclaimed.
Barely four feet from him stood the woman who had been staring at him earlier. She still stared at him.
“I saw him. I need to go with you. I know which way he went.”
“I need to go with you.”
She spoke in a way that caused Clint to think there might be something wrong with her. He wondered if she had some mental issues. Her dirty clothes and unkempt hair reinforced his opinion she was homeless. Still, she didn’t look filthy and her eyes stared without hesitation into his.
“You should talk to the police—“
“They won’t listen to me,” she interrupted. “You’re the police, too.”
“Why do you think I’m with the police?”
“You came out of that gas station and showed the other policeman your badge. Then you came here and called Washington.”
“What?” Clint asked surprised that she knew where he called.
“I saw you dial. Two zero two is Washington. I also saw the five, nine, nine, and six, but your left hand blocked the other three digits, so I couldn’t tell if they were the one, four or seven.”
“How could you see that? You were too far away.” Still, she had amazed Clint with what she said. She had correctly identified the partial phone number and had given them in the right order.
“I didn’t have to see the numbers. I saw your fingers go up and down. I know where the numbers are. I’m very good with numbers.”
“Still, I don’t give rides to strangers.”
“I’m in danger here, too. I need to get away.”
“I’ll tell you, but first we must go. He may already be eighteen miles away. I saw his tag number and know which way he headed on the highway.”
“Which way did he go?”
She didn’t answer.
“You don’t know, do you?”
“I know, but I won’t tell you unless you take me with you.”
Clint considered his options. He could always take her far enough to learn what she knew and then drop her off at a gas station or rest stop. She didn’t look dangerous, but he didn’t really want her in his car.
“Okay get in, but you better not be playing any games with me.”
She hurried around the car and jumped into the passenger seat of the navy blue Lincoln MKZ.
“Damn,” Clint muttered to himself.
He pulled out of the parking lot and headed up the road the short distance to the entrance to the interstate.
“He went that way,” she said indicating to the north.
“To the north?” Clint asked for confirmation.
“This way,” she said as she nodded.
“What kind of car was he driving?”
“A blue car. A small one.”
“Did you see what make or model it was?”
“I don’t know cars, but it was blue. I saw the license tag number: A874G, a New York tag.”
“Did you write it down?”
“No. I know numbers. Yours is RDD-1950, a Texas tag.”
Clint glanced at her. Was this some kind of joke, he wondered?