Authors: Richard Fox
The Beltway Assassin
(Eris Ritter Spy Thriller Book 4)
Copyright 2015 by Richard Fox
All rights reserved
Published by Triplane Press
All rights reserved. No part of this eBook may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Table of Contents
Every war begins with a single shot. What erupted on Michael Bendis’s driveway started in the shadows, both sides struggling to keep the public ignorant of the contest for their future. Blood spilled on the streets without context to the noncombatants, for whom the war was waged. The war would never have a true name, yet its casualties would circle the globe and have a death toll historians would never tally with any degree of certainty.
In the hard frost of January, Michael Bendis knew that at seventy-three years old, he was too old and too proud to move his own garbage cans to the curb. The neighbor kid he’d paid to ferry his garbage cans was on vacation to warmer climes with his family. One of the downsides to living around the McMansions of Ashburn, Virginia, was that the few children available to work for pocket money had a much higher standard of what their services were worth than what Bendis was willing to pay.
He was an old man but not too old to do some work around the house. Besides, missing a garbage pickup would mean a visit from raccoons and another nagging from his wife, so Bendis got out of bed entirely too early and threw on a robe before braving the chill air.
He wrapped his arms around his waist and hustled out his front door and around his garage, careful to keep his feet flat to avoid slipping on the ice and snow crusted over his driveway. The same kid who took his garbage out also shoveled his driveway. Bendis made a mental note to throw down salt once he’d had a hot cup of coffee—or three—in him.
His fingers creaked with pain as he grabbed the garbage can’s metal handle. The cold and arthritic hands were a poor match. With a quick jerk on the garbage can, it rocked in place, frost-dead grass snapping and squealing with the motion. A second jerk was as useless as the first.
“Why is this thing so damn heavy?” he said. Old age and weak limbs weren’t why the garbage can wouldn’t move, he rationalized. A quick peek under the lid revealed the paper bags used from his wife’s last trip to the overpriced organic food store and not a pile of rocks.
The triple beeps of an unseen but imminent garbage truck sounded in the distance. Bendis grumbled under his breath and jammed a slipper-clad foot against the base of the garbage can. He wasn’t getting any warmer, and a little leverage should do the trick.
With his foot as a fulcrum, he tilted the garbage can over so it balanced on the attached running wheels. He turned the damn heavy thing down the driveway and let the slope do the work of getting the can to the curb. He had to pull it back several times to arrest the momentum that threatened to send him—and it—sprawling over the icy driveway.
There was a sharp crack in the air, and the garbage can shivered with an impact.
A veteran of the Vietnam War and the shadow conflicts of the Cold War, Bendis knew the sound of a gunshot when he heard it. His first instinct, dulled by years of retirement, was to blame some idiot hunter who didn’t know that bullets keep going long past a missed target. After a second of confusion, decades-old training took over. Bendis let go of the garbage can, and it slammed upright on the driveway.
He turned to run back to the safety of his house and slipped on the ice. One foot shot out to the side, and he stopped his fall with his hands. He pushed himself back up, his thoughts on his wife still sleeping inside. Which of his past deeds was finally coming back to haunt him?
Bendis never heard the next shot. The garbage can erupted in an explosion that shattered every window for a quarter mile and killed Bendis with a blast wave that pulverized his body as if from the impact of a freight train.
A walk among the tombstones wasn’t how Eric Ritter wanted to start his morning—or any morning, for that matter. Arlington National Cemetery, the burial site of America’s military dead since the Civil War, lay in a purgatory of gray fog that washed in off the Potomac River. Uniform tombstones in perfect rows and columns marched from the open pathways into the gray beyond.
Ritter kept his eyes off the etched inscriptions, not wanted to read the name of anyone he’d ever served with. He turned a corner and made his way past Section 60, where the dead from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were buried. Small American flags and desiccated flowers lay at the base of scattered graves, tokens left behind by visiting loved ones.
Ritter felt grief seething inside him. There were men and women he knew buried nearby, yet he’d fought the urge to come and pay his respects…until now. But he wasn’t here of his own volition.
He gritted his teeth as he walked past a grave with two photos propped against it. One was of a young marine with his hand on the pregnant belly of a lovely young woman. The second showed a newborn baby sleeping on a digital-pattern uniform top, a Purple Heart affixed.
Why the hell was he here?
A tall man in a dark-brown trench coat materialized out of the fog, rocking from side to side to keep the blood flowing to his feet. He had a bright-red scarf around his neck and a grayed ring of hair around the sides and back of his head. Alopecia had been cruel to the congressman.
Lawrence Hawker was just as Ritter remembered him: bookish and stately. A sincere twinkle in his eye made him instantly likable to anyone who shook his hand. There were a few more gray hairs and wrinkles since they’d last seen each other. Ritter thought Hawker looked rather spry for someone who’d spent two decades on Capitol Hill.
Ritter stopped five steps from Hawker, close enough for his training to demand that he stop to react to an attack.
“Eric, come closer. I don’t bite,” Hawker said, his arms rising for a hug.
Ritter’s hands twitched as his nervous system switched to fight-or-flight mode. His mind knew Hawker, a family friend for decades, was no threat, but his body had its own ideas. Ritter extended his arms, the right one still stiff from a bullet wound, and hugged the wisp of a man.
“Let’s take a look at you.” Hawker’s head and eyes rocked from side to side as he examined Ritter. “Well, you don’t look that bad for being in a car accident,” he said with a smile.
A car accident. That was the convenient lie he used to explain away the host of injuries he’d sustained while recovering a nuclear weapon from Somali pirates and battling the Israeli operatives who’d betrayed him.
“How’d it happen?” Hawker asked.
“A deer jumped in front of my car on the Autobahn,” Ritter said.
“Vile creatures. That’s why I hunt them. You should come to the ranch sometime. You and I can go put a dent in their population,” the congressman said.
“I haven’t been to Texas in…quite some time,” Ritter said. He’d finished his last year of high school in Dallas, then gone to Beirut for college before the war began in 2001. Since then, he’d never spent more than a few months in the United States before returning to a foreign country to fight another battle in the Long War.
“You and your father. The ranch has plenty of room and plenty of rifles in true Texas fashion.” Hawker leaned forward slightly and cocked his head to the side. “He’s very worried about you. Begged me to get eyes on you and see just how bad this ‘car accident’ was.”
Since Ritter was a covert operative in the CIA’s Caliban Program, details of his life were sanitized or fabricated to protect him and the rest of his team. That meant lies given to everyone, even to his family. The tone in Hawker’s voice led Ritter to suspect that Hawker might know more about Ritter’s true employer and history than the pablum Ritter his father to keep him sated.
“Just a few bruises, a few stitches,” Ritter said. He turned away from Hawker and looked across the rows of white marble headstones.
“Fair enough. Do you know why I asked to meet you here, Eric?” Hawker said.
Ritter didn’t answer, his eyes scanning the names on the tombstones.
Volunteering information was against his nature. Answering questions his questioners already knew the answers to, even less so.
Hawker clasped his hands behind his back.
“I cosponsored the bills that sent us to war, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. I still believe it was the right thing to do…despite this.” His chin shot out toward the graves. “I understand the reasons I sent them—and you—to war. What I don’t know is why so many chose to keep fighting, kept going back after they had the chance to quit. Why did so many stay on when they knew the risks of dying?”
Ritter’s gaze lingered on a tombstone for a soldier named O’Neal, who had died during Ritter’s last tour in Iraq. Why was that name familiar?
“They all died for the same reason—they died for each other.” Ritter watched Hawker for a reaction, but the older man betrayed nothing.
“Duty, honor, country, mom, and apple pie will get a soldier in uniform, get you to the war. It’s the soldier who fights beside you who gets you home,” Ritter said.
He took in another breath to continue. His eyes danced over the name on another tombstone, Brown, and froze. O’Neal and Brown—both had died on the same day. They were the two soldiers he’d helped recover after al-Qaeda kidnapped them. Ritter had fought, killed, and tortured the terrorists responsible until he found O’Neal and Brown’s unmarked graves in the desert west of the Euphrates River. He’d forced the terrorist responsible for the kidnapping to lead him to where he’d hidden the bodies; then he’d delivered that same terrorist to his death.
“They’re here,” Ritter said to no one. “They’re both here.” He stepped around the adjoining grave and knelt next to the headstones. He ran his fingers over their names, remembering when their commanding officer, Greg Shelton, had dug them out of the Iraqi soil. Ritter hadn’t given Brown and O’Neal much thought since their recovery.
He’d returned to the fold of the Caliban Program shortly afterward. The world of espionage, arms dealing, and the necessary deaths of those working against America’s safety left little time for sentiment.
He looked at the stoic Hawker, who’d insisted on meeting here. Right next to their graves. Anger flared in Ritter’s chest, drowning out his nascent sorrow.
“You knew. Knew this is where they were.” Ritter stood up. As a spy, keeping his emotions in check was a key survival skill. Cracks in his emotional facade were unacceptable, regardless of who saw them.
“When you were a child,” Hawker said “I gave you a book to read,
by Robert Heinlein. I told you there was something I didn’t understand, and I thought you might help me find the answer. Now you have.”
Ritter let his anger subside as he thought back to the dog-eared and extensively highlighted paperback.
“‘And Jelly called out, “Belay that order,’” Ritter said, quoting from the part Hawker had struggled with.
“That’s right. I couldn’t understand why he would risk the entire unit to save one man. Now I know. He wasn’t saving
man—he was saving
man,” Hawker said.
Hawker took a deep breath and exhaled fog into the cold air.
“Sorry for the emotional ambush. I needed to see if you were as far gone as Mike,” Hawker said.
“Who?” Ritter said, playing dumb. Mike, one of his partners in the Caliban Program, was as cold blooded a killer as he’d ever come across, and he certainly didn’t run in the same circles as the congressman. If Hawker knew about Mike, then that meant…
Hawker reached out and gripped Ritter’s hand as if to shake it. Hawker covered the top of Ritter’s thumb with his own, then tapped his palm with his fingertips twice. Members of the Caliban Program never spoke the name of the program aloud, but they had established verbal and nonverbal ways of communicating to other members. With the handshake Hawker proved he was part of the Program.
“Don’t be so surprised,” Hawker said.
Ritter realized his jaw was slack. He shut it with a click of teeth.
“There’s a storm brewing, Eric. When the time comes, it’s important to know who we can trust,” Hawker said.
“A congressman is…in the know,” Ritter said. Was Hawker the reason he’d been recruited into Caliban in the first place?
“You’ll have to call me Speaker soon,” Hawker said with a wink. His party had just swept into power after a landslide election in November. The new Congress hadn’t been sworn in yet, nor had a Speaker of the House been chosen. Ritter hadn’t known Hawker was in consideration for the job.
“I don’t keep up with politics,” Ritter said.
“Don’t bother. It’s cattier than a Baptist bake sale and not nearly as interesting.”
The cell phone in Ritter’s pocket vibrated twice, paused, then pulsed three times. It was a general recall notice from his team leader, Shannon. Maybe the alert was about the storm Hawker had mentioned.
“I have to go,” Ritter said. He touched a finger to his eyebrow in a quasi-salute and retreated into the fog.