Authors: Terrence McCauley
It was an independent structure built with steel re-enforced concrete. The facility ran off the city’s power grid, but had three backup generators as well as a gas fueled back up. It had its own HVAC unit complete with filters and sensors that could detect radiation and poisonous emissions.
The entire building above him could get obliterated by a nuclear blast and Hicks would still be able to operate for three weeks before he’d have to venture outside.
The computer system, like his handheld, was tied wirelessly to the University’s secure network, with a redundant cable line piped directly to the mainframe, which was only activated in an emergency.
But that night, he was just glad the damned place had heat because he was freezing.
Hicks put on a pot of fresh coffee as soon as he shrugged out of his parka and heavy boots. He brought the dead man’s camera to the work station and booted up his computer before replacing his guns in the armory. The armory was the size of a walk in closet that was larger than some studio apartments in Manhattan. It was filled with more Kevlar vests, automatic weapons, explosives, and ammunition than most police precincts. The facility was a designated fall back position for the University, meaning that if it ever needed to, Hicks’ office could become a forward operations base. He couldn’t envision a scenario when that would be necessary, but then again, he hadn’t imagined an attack like 9/11 either.
Despite its status as an official University facility, he’d managed to keep its exact location secret from everyone except the Dean. Jason had spent the last six months trying to figure out where it was, but Hicks kept stonewalling him, more out of enjoying Jason’s frustration than anything else. The less that bureaucrat knew, the better.
Hicks secured the armory door and went back to his living area to change out of his clothes. His personal living space was in the farthest corner of the room from the work station. Although the bunker was also his home, he viewed it as primarily a workspace. He didn’t have any posters or personal photos or personal touches of any kind. He liked it that way. Besides, he had no family worth remembering anyway. Just the computer equipment, a bed, a walk in closet for his clothes and other gear.
Hicks waited for the coffee to finish brewing and tried to keep his thoughts in check. He’d been racking his brain for signs of Colin’s betrayal. Little things he could’ve missed. Hints Colin might’ve dropped that something was wrong.
But Hicks knew he hadn’t missed anything. Colin’s debrief had gone smoothly and he had nothing new to report, aside from the general anti-American banter that went on at Omar’s cab stand. Big talk and vitriolic rancor meant nothing. Men like Omar ran down America the way Yankees fans ran down the Red Sox. Hicks and Colin had even begun to wonder if they should put Colin on another assignment and return to a more passive surveillance of Omar’s cab stand. Tracing cell phone calls and emails as they came through the grid might suffice.
But the Colin he’d seen under the footbridge just over an hour before was not the Colin he’d known. Whatever had terrified him must have occurred within the past forty-eight hours. The question was why. The answer had to be Omar. So that’s where Hicks was going to begin.
Hicks logged into the system to see if OMNI had been able to make positive identifications of the two men he’d killed. The system was still running identity checks, but Hicks’ instincts told him the two men were Somali. They had that same gaunt, haunted look of the other Somalis that Omar had hired at the cab stand. He knew Omar also thought other Africans were weak and susceptible to corruption from the West which was why he hired mostly his own people. Colin’s cover had been feasible since his parents had been from a region of Kenya on the Somalian border, which Omar deemed acceptable.
Colin had told Hicks that most of Omar’s drivers were sons of farmers; young men who’d gotten to America more out of desperation than Islamic ideology. If going along with Omar’s ranting kept money in their pocket and a roof over their heads, they went along with it. According to Colin, Omar was the only hardcore radical at his stand.
That meant whatever had happened at the cab stand to turn Colin had happened since the debrief. Hicks intended on finding out what.
While OMNI kept searching for identities, Hicks scanned recent email and cell phone intercepts from Omar’s cab company and all of its workers. Many of them bought disposable phones—also called burn phones, believing that would make it harder for agencies to eavesdrop. In some cases, they were right, but most agencies didn’t have the University’s resources. Any phone activated near the garage was immediately tagged and followed for the duration of the phone’s life. Every conversation was transcribed, tracked and recorded by OMNI and deciphered by University programs and human analysts. Most of it was just mundane, every day chatter, but every so often, something valuable turned up.
In reviewing the OMNI reports on all emails, text messages, and conversations from phones that had been near the garage in the past forty-eight hours, Hicks didn’t find anything suspicious, but that was to be expected. OMNI software translated and deciphered all conversations and emails and texts, listening for key phrases and code words and patterns. Nothing out of the ordinary came up, but Hicks ordered OMNI to re-scrub the conversations to see if he could catch anything new about Colin.
Then Hicks took a look at the camera he’d taken from the dead man in the park. He removed the SD card from the camera and placed it in his computer’s drive. After scanning it locally for a virus, he watched the footage from the beginning.
The man had begun filming as soon as Hicks walked into the underpass. The image jerked and went out of focus as the cameraman tried to keep Hicks in frame. Colin looked even more strung out and timid than Hicks had remembered. The footage jerked wildly as the cameraman lost his footing and slipped from where he’d been standing and lead started flying. The camera was still shooting when the cameraman caught a bullet to the head and died.
The last image on the SD card was of Hicks’ face as he pulled the camera from the dead man’s hand before shutting it off.
The footage didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know, but it told him something. Judging by the way the camera shook, the cameraman had been standing in the cold for a while. It also confirmed that these boys were amateurs. Pros would’ve had better equipment. They would’ve outfitted Colin with a small camera somewhere in his clothing. They would’ve picked a location where they could’ve seen Hicks without being spotted. They would’ve dressed warmer and had better clothes than cheap Jordan knockoffs. And they wouldn’t have been waiting to shoot him with a gun in their bare hand in a blizzard.
The whole scene vibed desperation. It vibed panic. It vibed intent with no thought given to execution. These men were underfunded and undermanned and inexperienced as hell. Colin must’ve done something or saw something that scared them and now they were scrambling to protect whatever Colin had threatened.
Hicks ran the serial number stamped on the bottom of the camera and found out it was made in China and bought at a Best Buy in Long Island City, Queens. A cash transaction over two years before. He tried to access the store’s surveillance camera footage from the time of the purchase, but it had been long since deleted.
Hicks put his computer to work on the disk to analyze it for other images. Even if a file or image had been deleted or recorded over, the disk might show a trace of what had been on the disk before. And unless the camera had been sitting in a closet some place since it had been bought—or if the SD card was new—chances were good that there’d be something on that card he could use.
While he watched the progress bar of the scan crawl from left to right, Hicks cut, then lit, a cigar: a Nat Sherman Timeless Churchill. It was a long smoke that would keep him focused and grounded while the technology did its job. Even with all of the gadgets and gizmos at the University’s disposal, the intelligence game was still a waiting game. A patient man’s game. Because intelligence involved human beings and, even in a high tech world, human beings were unpredictable. They moved at their own pace. Technology was a tool, but human beings decided how to use it.
Hicks let out a long plume of bluish smoke and watched it drift up toward the air scrubber in the ceiling. The fan pulled the smoke from the room and the carbon filters scrubbed the air clean. He wondered what Jason would say if he saw him smoking a cigar in a University facility. He’d probably fire off a terse memorandum reminding him that smoking was prohibited in all University facilities.
And Hicks would’ve politely reminded him this was technically not a University facility. After Holloway’s death, Hicks had built the New York office from the ground up through his own means. Extortion, blackmail, and good old fashioned thievery were all fair when assembling a vital intelligence network. He funded his New York Office much the same way. He’d broken an awful lot of laws and even more bones to build the New York office into the flagship of the modern University’s network. And although the Dean had given his approval, he’d given little else beside the hardware and remote access to OMNI to make it happen.
Hicks wanted it that way. He’d never wanted to be just a clock watcher, some asshole who scribbled down bits of information he overheard and entered them into a database while he calculated his pension every month. He’d been trained to take the fight directly to the enemy and he couldn’t do that from behind a computer screen. He’d crafted his office to be the tip of the spear and he kept it very sharp. Sharp enough to cut anyone who got in front of it. Including people like Jason.
To Hicks, the only thing more important than the University’s overall goal was protecting the New York Office. Whoever had turned Colin had also threatened Hicks’ operation. His natural impulse was to order a Varsity squad to hit Omar’s garage as soon as possible. But he also knew a raid would only confirm Omar’s idea that he was being watched.
Hicks didn’t know what Omar knew or what Omar suspected. Colin had been trained to lie under interrogation, but he’d died before Hicks could’ve questioned him. Ordering a Varsity raid on Omar’s garage would only confirm Omar’s suspicions that he was being watched. Hicks decided to investigate him in other, more subtle ways.
Hicks took another long pull on his cigar and looked at the status bar of the SD card’s scan. He willed the scan to go faster, but knew it would take as long as it took. He took another pull on his cigar instead. He just hoped there would be something on that disk he could show Jason because he didn’t want to get dressed down by that goddamned bean counter first thing in the morning.
He’d just flicked his cigar ash for the first time when the search program pinged that it was finished. He clicked on the results and saw three ghost images that had been recorded over on the card. The first two were blurred shots of something that looked like a ceiling and maybe the top of a woman’s head. It was as though someone had turned on the camera by accident.
But the third shot was solid gold.
It would’ve made great blackmail material had he recognized anyone in the shot worth blackmailing. Pure party time action.
Instead, it showed a black woman in a hotel room, looking to be in the middle of a striptease. The street ink above her left breast was a crude image of a dollar sign. Her blonde dreadlocks covered her face.
But in the background, there was a black man in the bathroom, stark naked as he serviced a woman from behind who was bent over the sink. His face was obscured, but the reflection in the mirror was clear. It took a couple of seconds for the program to clear up the image, but when it did, the man’s face was as clear as a passport photo. He was also black, but lighter skinned than any of Omar’s Somalis. He was otherwise clean shaven except for a pencil thin moustache. Hicks had never seen him before, but knew the image would be clear enough for OMNI to identify him. If he was in any database in the world, they’d find him.
Hicks selected the man’s face, pasted it into the OMNI facial recognition software, linked it to the two previous searches of the dead men and let the system go to work. He took another long drag on his cigar and let the technology do its thing.
He had no idea who the man was or if he had anything to do with what had happened in the park. He could’ve just been a guy who’d gotten his picture taken during a drunken night out with the boys. He could’ve been the reason why Colin was dead. That was the problem with intelligence work. A definite maybe was often the best one could hope for. But wars had been started over less.
Hicks’ had no intention of just sitting around waiting for the searches to run their course. He brought up the OMNI tactical screen for New York City and selected the trace he’d put on the car that sped away from him outside Central Park. OMNI had tracked the Toyota as far north as an indoor parking garage just off Broadway up in Washington Heights. The program showed the car had driven straight there after leaving Central Park West and got there in about thirty minutes. Pretty good time considering the streets hadn’t been plowed yet.
There was no proof linking the driver to the Somalis in the park, but someone going that fast in that kind of weather must’ve had a reason. Hicks clicked on the icon showing last location where the satellite had tracked the car. According to the car’s black box, the car was registered to Mr. Jacfar Abrar at an address in Long Island City, Queens.
The same part of Queens where Colin had been working undercover. According to immigration records, Abrar was also Somali. Just like Omar.
Hicks clicked on Abrar’s file, which opened a window showing Abrar’s Somali passport photo, age, height, and resident alien status. He didn’t look like either of the men Hicks had killed in the park. Abrar didn’t look familiar from any of the surveillance photos Colin had taken of cab company regulars, either. Hicks wouldn’t know for sure until the system had identified the other the two dead men and the man from the camera, but it looked like three new players were in Omar’s operation. The question was why them and why now.