Authors: J.C. Fields
Kruger nodded. “The agency will require too much paperwork and court orders for the kind of internet search I need. JR can do it with his eyes closed and not ruffle any feathers.”
She nodded, “Okay, I’ll clean up and go to the hospital and let you know about Neil as soon as possible. Sean…”
Stephanie went to the bathroom, and Kruger heard the shower start. He went to his desk and retrieved the glass in the plastic bag with the fingerprints. He stared at it and said to himself, “Guess I need to get you to Fed Ex for a quick overnight. Maybe this will help give us the name of our eavesdropper.”
Kruger looked at his wrist. His watch still wasn’t there. Glancing at the digital clock, he determined he had a few hours before the conference call. Plenty of time to clean up and get to the KC office. He had a bad feeling the events of the day would suck him into the investigation of the other two murders. All three were rich. The first two had connections to Israel. He realized he needed to know what connection Guevara might have to the Jewish state and he needed to know it before the conference call at the KC office. It was time to call Seltzer and bring him up to speed.
He didn’t know his phone call would set in motion a cascade of events affecting Stephanie and him for the foreseeable future.
Kansas City, MO
By 3 p.m., Kruger was checking emails in an empty cubicle on the second floor of the Kansas City FBI Office. Nothing from Luke yet, but after this amount of time, he was not optimistic about getting results from the photos. The drinking glass was another matter; Fed Ex Priority Overnight was scheduled to deliver it directly to Luke Riley's attention first thing in the morning. Hopefully by Tuesday afternoon, he would have a name and face.
Kruger understood when Dollar told him to go home and clean up, he meant for Kruger to put on a suit and tie before the conference call. He had no intentions of wearing a suit to the office, so he showed up in khakis, FBI polo shirt, light tan socks and his Docksider loafers. At least he was comfortable, and hopefully sending Dollar a message he wasn’t Kruger’s boss.
Promptly at five minutes to four, a young agent stopped at his cubicle and said, “Are you Agent Kruger?”
Kruger looked over his reading glasses at the agent and nodded.
“They're ready to start in the conference room. Agent Dollar sent me to find you. Ah... sir, Agent Dollar has a strict dress code for the office. Coat and tie at all times.”
Kruger stood, closed his laptop, placed it in his backpack, walked around the desk, patted the young agent on the shoulder, and smiled before answering.
“I don't work for Mint Dollar. Besides, I'm on vacation.”
He exited the cubicle farm and headed for the conference room.
When Kruger entered, Dollar glared at him, shook his head, and said, “You're late, Agent Kruger.”
Kruger glanced at his watch, it was exactly four o’clock and the conference call had not started. He said, “No, I'm not, it’s just now four.” Pointing at the large screen monitor on the wall, he added, “No call yet.”
“In this office, we anticipate, we are professional, and we are punctual.”
Kruger rolled his eyes, shook his head, and found an empty chair on the far end of the conference table. He glanced around. There were eight other agents, all young and all in dark gray suits with red striped ties. Except for the faces, they were identical. He removed his computer from his backpack and placed it on the conference table. He stifled his urge to laugh at the absurdity of Dollar and his rules. Finally, he was saved by the big screen coming to life with the image of FBI Director Phillip Wagner. Sitting next to him was Deputy Director Paul Stumpf and Assistant Deputy Director Alan Seltzer.
Director Wagner started, “Thank you all for joining this call. I wish it was under better circumstances. Deputy Director Stumpf will brief you on what we currently know, and then we will hear any updates you might have. Last we will discuss how to move forward with the investigation. Director Stumpf...”
Paul Stumpf was in his late 40s. At one time a dedicated marathon runner, he still had the body to show for it. But after having both knees replaced, he was starting to add pounds to his five-feet-eleven frame. His hair was dark brown, perfectly styled, with no noticeable gray. Wireless glasses sat on an unremarkable nose in front of arctic blue eyes. Kruger knew Stumpf from his early career; he considered him a friend and still one of the good guys. On the other hand, Director Wagner was an unknown even though he had met him several times.
Stumpf started his review. “We have two cases here in the Washington, D.C., area that could be related to this morning’s incident in Kansas City. The profiles of all three victims are too similar to be coincidental. All three have financial ties to the current president’s political party. In addition, all three were active in lobbying for congressional support of Israel. While we do not want to draw conclusions from these facts, it does point us in a particular direction for our investigation. We want to thank Agent Dollar and his team for supplying the name of the KC target. His identification enabled us to reach out to the Secret Service. They are also investigating.”
Kruger noticed that when Guevara’s name was mentioned, Dollar smiled ever so slightly. The man was amazing. He would take credit for anything that made him look better. So much for being a team player.
Kruger’s decision to pursue the identity of Guevara’s shadow on his own had been correct. If Dollar knew about it, there would be an instant news conference and the guy would go into hiding.
Stumpf continued, “A sample of the explosive residue is being flown to our lab here in Washington for analysis. But after reviewing videos from the scene, our explosives experts suspect military grade C4.”
Wagner said, “Thank you, Director Stumpf. We’ll let the KC team give their report.”
“Thank you, Director,” said Dollar. “Agent Wright will review our findings.”
Kruger listened but didn’t hear anything new. In the few hours he had been at the apartment and here in the office, the local team had failed to find anything of significance. Their only new information was identifying the license plate from the van. It had been stolen from a wrecked van in a Montgomery, Alabama, U-Haul parking lot. Unfortunately, two more victims had succumbed to their injuries, making the death toll six. He wondered if one of those was Neil. But he doubted it. Stef would have texted or called him.
Alan Seltzer took control of the video conference after the KC review. He started by saying, “We will divide responsibilities in the following manner. On-site investigation will continue to be handled by the KC team with Agent Dollar in charge. Profiling will be handled by my office with Agent Kruger as lead, and he will report to me. Agent Dollar will report directly to Paul Stumpf. This will give us a broader view of the whole investigation.”
While Seltzer continued, Kruger sent a brief text message to Seltzer’s cell phone: “Thanks, I owe you.”
After Seltzer finished speaking, Kruger watched him as he inconspicuously checked his phone, smiled and nodded.
The director took control of the meeting again. “Gentlemen, we will consider these incidents to be acts of domestic terror. We will not speculate to the press. Furthermore, we will keep our findings within these walls. Is that understood?”
Everyone around the table nodded vigorously, except Dollar. He was too busy looking around the room, making sure everyone was agreeing. Kruger nodded, but not to the degree the other agents were nodding. He hated talking to the press and avoided it when he could. People far more important than he were paid to do that.
As the conference call ended, the wall monitor went blank. Dollar cleared his throat loudly and said, “Thank you, everyone, good work today. Let’s get back to it. Everyone is dismissed.”
The sound of chairs scooting on carpet, shuffled papers and the clamor of multiple conversations was interrupted by Dollar saying, “Agent Kruger, don’t leave yet. I need to discuss something with you.”
Kruger sat back down, waited until the room was clear and the door closed. He stared at Dollar and said, “What?”
“First, your appearance and attire is inappropriate for this office.”
Kruger shook his head, but said nothing.
“Also, how did you manage to avoid reporting to me? Did you call and whine about having to work under my supervision?”
Kruger smiled, but maintained his silence.
“Don’t think I’m not aware of the report you filed against me after Utah. You delayed my career advancement by several years. I didn’t appreciate the accusations, which were unfounded and misleading.”
Kruger knew that if he stayed any longer, the situation would become volatile. So he stood, placed his computer back into his backpack and lifted it onto his shoulders. He walked to the conference room door, opened it, and before leaving, turned, and said, “I really don't care if you believe it or not. I had nothing to do with the decision. I came here in the spirit of cooperation, hoping you’d changed. But after this little conversation, and the fact you reported Guevara’s name to the director without verification, confirms my original perception of you.”
Dollar's face turned red and he stood. “And what the hell does that mean?”
“That you're still an idiot.”
Media coverage of the Kansas City explosion continued nonstop on both cable and broadcast news networks. The talking heads continued to speculate on motive and which group was behind this latest terrorist attack. One network went so far as to blame the current president of relaxing the nation’s vigilance and willingness to defend itself. Several senators were even calling for his impeachment. Norman Ortega laughed when he heard this. Politicians would use any excuse to further their media presence.
He was impressed when one financial correspondent mentioned the two murders in Washington, D.C., and a possible link. Finally, his team was getting the attention it needed to further its cause.
But, the stupidity of seemingly intelligent men and women sitting around tables and putting forth theories on something they knew nothing about, disgusted him. Shaking his head he continued to be amazed that people actually watched this banality on TV.
Ortega was ex-Army. Everyone on his team was ex-Army. He had personally recruited them from soldiers he had served with during his four tours in Iraq. These were men disaffected by a civilian world dominated by rich and apathetic business owners. The very individuals whose freedom to build their businesses was guaranteed by the sacrifices of men like Ortega and his fellow soldiers. Yet, they remained hesitant to interview returning veterans.
He snapped out of his funk and got back to business. Once again he was connected to the internet in a public place, this time a McDonald's in Germantown. It was time to start planning the team’s next target, a job that would finally make it clear to the politicians and public what his team was doing.
Ortega contemplated the skill sets needed for the next target. Spreading the assignments around was essential. It would keep his team from getting careless and making mistakes. Mistakes led to getting caught. For now his team had not made any obvious ones. At least, he didn’t think they had.
He was not delusional. He knew one or more of his team would be caught eventually. But with its current structure, the trail would end there. He'd been careful. Their communication methods would be hard to trace, and no one knew who the other team members were. His recruiting had been done after the men returned home, so no one knew the others’ identities. He was the central hub of the group; each man knew Ortega, but no one knew where he was located. This was done on purpose. No one on the team would be able to tell the authorities his location. If compromised, he would disappear for a while and change his identity, but his team would survive to operate later. He was a realist and prepared for this eventuality. It was just the cost of doing business.
Since no one had been compromised so far, it was time to press on with their plan. The new target was a rich first-term congressman from California. The man had made millions in the telecom industry, finally selling out and running for congress. This would really throw off any theory the FBI might have about rich businessmen being targeted.
He typed out the email, signed off the internet and then sent the text message with the new email password. It was time to check out of his hotel and drive to the next city, probably St. Louis, or maybe Little Rock. The decision would be made as he drove out of the hotel’s parking lot.
His protocol was simple, travel light and always be mobile. A habit learned from his beloved 1st Calvary Division.
Kansas City, MO
Internal FBI email traffic concerning the explosion had increased tenfold since Monday afternoon. Most of Franklin Dollar’s emails contained little helpful information. There were, however, several from one KC agent worth reading. The agent had found plumbing tools in the men’s toilet at O’Dowd’s, but no plumber. After questioning the injured manager of the restaurant, the agent determined the plumber had been the driver of the van and had waited to park in a specific location. The manager had asked the plumber about being late, and remembered the plumber say he had a hard time finding a parking space.
Kruger made notes as he reviewed the emails. He printed this particular one, wrote a few questions on it and placed it in his file. Clearly the driver knew where to position the van for maximum destructive power on a vehicle dropping someone off at O’Dowd’s. But how would he have known Guevara would be in a limousine and at O’Dowd’s at a specific time?
Suddenly Kruger knew how. Because he had overheard Neil Ross and Guevara making specific plans on Sunday at the reception. He would need to confirm with Neil if their meeting plans for Monday were discussed during the reception. While not definite, odds were increasing that the man following Guevara was a person of interest.
His cell phone broke his concentration. He glanced at the caller ID, a Washington, D.C., area code. He answered, “Kruger.”
“Sean, it’s Luke.”
Kruger glanced at his watch, noted it was 11:30 a.m. in Kansas City, afternoon Washington time. He said, “Good afternoon, Luke, what’s up?”
“Nothing on the pictures, but the fingerprints hit pay dirt.”
“Yeah? Who is he?”
“Military, U.S. Army. His name is Thomas Cooper. I compared his military ID photo with the pictures you sent, and it's the same guy.”
“Does it give a current address?”
“No, but he's originally from southern Alabama, around Mobile. Mustered out about three years ago with an Honorable Discharge. He did a couple of tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, plus received all the usual commendations for being in a combat zone. Nothing heroic, just the standard ones.”
Kruger was quiet for a few moments. “They found a license plate from the van. It was stolen in Montgomery. The van wasn’t, just the plate.”
“It fits, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does. Can you send me everything via email?”
“Yes, I'm sending it now.”
“Thanks, Luke. Remember, you don't know anything about this, right?”
“Got it. Thanks, Sean.” Luke was about to end the call, but quickly said, “Almost forgot to tell you one thing.”
“Guess what he did in Iraq?”
Kruger thought for a second, smiled and said, “Explosives.”
“Yeah, he disarmed IEDs.”
“So if he can disarm an IED, he can probably build one, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would agree. I think you have a good lead, Sean. Good luck.”
Kruger ended the call and noticed a large file from Luke downloading into his email account. As soon as it was finished, he opened the file and stared at the face of Thomas Cooper, ex-military explosives expert, and the man following Fernando Guevara forty-eight hours ago.
He said, “Hello, Thomas Cooper. I need to find you, and fast.
Barbara Whitlock had been an analyst for the FBI for as long as Kruger could remember. Having worked with her on numerous cases, he found her work exceptional. She was also discreet. He found her direct number on his cell phone, a number only a select number of agents possessed, and pressed the send icon.
The call was answered on the third ring. “I haven’t heard from you in a very long time Agent Kruger. Why is that? Did you find another, younger, better looking analyst to call and harass?”
Smiling, Kruger replied, “No, Barbara, you will always be my favorite. I enjoy harassing you.”
There was laughter on the other end of the call. “Good, I wouldn’t want to have to go to HR and accuse you of harassing another analyst. Heard you got married. Who’s the lucky girl?”
“News travels fast. Yes, we were married last Saturday. Stephanie and I finally figured out we weren’t getting any younger.”
“Good for you two. You know, when we heard the news, it broke a few hearts around here. Some of us thought we might have a chance.”
Kruger chuckled. “That’s very nice of you to say, but I don’t believe it.”
“Probably for the best. So, what can I do for you, Sean?”
“I’m working on the profile of the guy who did the Kansas City bombing.”
“Saw the videos; it looked nasty.”
“It was. I need a deep dive on three individuals: Charlton Wheeler, Kyle Rousch and Fernando Guevara.”
“Were all three in the bombing?”
“No, just Guevara. The others were separate incidents, but I believe they’re related.”
“Got it. What are you looking for?”
“Common threads, business associates, personal habits, social connections, political beliefs, anything you can find that might tie them together. No matter how slim.”
“Send me the case file numbers and I’ll get right on it.”
“Thanks, Barbara. One more thing.”
“Be careful who you mention this to. Mint Dollar is involved.”
“Shit.” There was silence on the phone for over five seconds. “That moron, I wouldn’t give him the time of day. Don’t worry, I’ll only discuss it with you.”
Kruger ended the call and leaned back in his desk chair. It was time to visit his friend in Springfield. He sent a short text message to a number he had memorized a long time ago. The message was simple. “Call me K.” His cell phone vibrated fifteen minutes later with a caller ID of UNKNOWN. He smiled, answered it, and said, “Kruger.”
“I haven't heard from you in six months.”
“Yes, you're right, sorry. I've been busy, but you could have called too.”
“Yeah, you’re right, but I really don't like calling FBI agents, even if they are fishing buddies.”
“Speaking of fishing, I was planning a fishing trip. How’re they biting?”
“Don't know, haven't been lately. Guess we can find out together. When are you coming?”
“Early tomorrow morning, same place?”
“See you then.”
The call ended. The total call time recorded on his phone was exactly one minute and twenty-two seconds. The maximum JR Diminski would stay on a phone call was two minutes, and he never identified where he lived. It wasn't that he was paranoid. He was a man who didn't exist within the system and didn’t want the NSA listening to his conversations. The fishing nonsense was JR's idea; when Kruger needed his help, he would just ask to go fishing. He shook his head and smiled as he thought about the first time he'd met JR Diminski.
Kruger had been assigned to help track down a fugitive accused of killing one man and wounding another in New York City. Politics, and the fact the fugitive fled to another state, brought the FBI into the case. Through various sources, whom Kruger refused to identify, he tracked the fugitive to southwest Missouri in the city of Springfield. During his investigation, evidence was found that contradicted the known facts of the case—namely, the dead and wounded men were actually hired thugs who were going to kill JR and dump his body in the Hudson River.
JR had been a computer software analysis for a large privately held software company. The owner of the company decided to bring in new investors to help expand his business. The new investors, through stock manipulation, suddenly owned a majority of the outstanding shares. They proceeded to dismiss the entire analysis team and outsourced their jobs to India. Within a year, the company was broken up and sold, reaping millions for the new investors.
After being dismissed, JR had hacked into the laptop of the new owner and found multiple files outlining illegal activities by the individual. He copied the information and tried blackmailing the man, thus the reason he found himself in the company of so-called security guards. JR managed to escape, but in the process, killed one and wounded the other.
Their first conversation was the night Kruger sat down next to him at a local pub in Springfield. An old friend of Kruger's had been helping JR establish his new identity. When Kruger sat down, the friend said, “JR, this is someone you need to talk to. He’s fair and will listen.”
Joseph stood up, looked at the man he had called JR, and left.
Kruger said, “Before you wet your pants, I'm not here to take you back to New York. I know the truth and I'm here to help you.”
The man looked at Kruger calmly and said, “Don't know what the hell you're talking about, man. I'm just sitting here drinking a beer and watching a baseball game.”
Kruger nodded, “Okay, here's what I know.”
He proceeded to tell JR everything he knew while JR stared at a TV showing a St. Louis Cardinal baseball game. When Kruger was done, JR said, “And what do you plan to do with this knowledge?”
Kruger sipped his beer, stared at the TV, and said, “Nothing. I need someone like you to help me once in a while. If you want to help me, fine. If you don't, I'll walk out of here and you'll never hear from me again.”
JR turned to him and said, “How do you know Joseph?”
Kruger shrugged and said, “Old family friend.”
“If I help you, what's in it for me?”
“I'll start the process of clearing your real name.”
JR looked at the Kruger, smiled and said, “My name’s JR Diminski, glad to meet you.”
They had been friends ever since.