The train is chugging now. Full speed ahead. More good news today. My cover designer got me the draft of our new book cover (Ignore the subtitle. That has to be changed). Let me know what you think. Now back to the show...
(CAUTION: The following contains unedited material that may be unsuitable for the grammatically inclined. Keep in mind that I don’t review what I write until after the first draft of the whole novel is done, so please keep your spelling and grammar fixes until the Beta Reader rounds.)
When you've been through hard times, when you've seen death, destruction and also their polar opposite, lives snatched from the cruel grip of the Grim Reaper and light where there once was none, you sometimes get the taste for peculiar trivialities. At times this coalesces into an old habit based on an even older memory.
For Gaucho, former Delta operator and current team leader for The Jefferson Group, this took the form of waiting in lines. It didn't matter where he was, the grocery store, Disney World or where he stood now, in the line at the post office, that his memories would take him back to those early days with his mother. They would stand in line for what felt like days waiting for assistance from the church or holding out for one more hour for a low-paying job.
You would think that Gaucho would hold such memories in low regard, a piece of his history that he'd like to forget, but it was in those moments of waiting that his mother would relay her patient wisdom. A native of Mexico, his mother was a gentle soul with a strict work ethic. She would tell young Gaucho stories of their family's past. There was always a lesson tucked away like a hidden treasure. Sometimes she was teaching him that he should always do his best or that in their new home, the United States, it was important to know the land and to know the language. The most important lesson of all was to be a good man, to acquire knowledge and to never go back from where they came.
Gaucho replayed those memories now, a small indulgence on his part, his mother long dead. He smiled at the thought. "You always do your best, Chito,” she would say in her broken English. She'd been so proud to be an American, even when she was mocked for her accent or turned away from yet another job. There was always that pride. And of course, when she'd finally gotten her American citizenship, after months of applying and studying, that had been a grand day in their little family.
Gaucho had never had a family of his own. He'd been too busy fighting for his country, but he had no doubt that by his actions, he'd paid his mother's wisdom forward. Her legacy lived on through him and through those he touched, so as the line at the post office shifted one more person forward, Gaucho was content, even as the man behind him grumbled something about how long it took and the woman two ahead complained about the skyrocketing price of shipping a large envelope.
Finally, Gaucho got his turn. Now, fully flooded with the spirit of his mother, he chuckled at the thought. In a post office, of all places, he thought, saying a quick prayer for the soul of his beloved mother.
"Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?" said the tired clerk from behind the high counter.
"I just have a couple envelopes to mail." He handed over two standard size manila envelopes.
"You know sir, there's a kiosk right outside in the lobby. You are welcome to use them at any time." She paused for a moment, as if he'd snatch them back and run to the kiosk, but he didn't.
He just smiled and said, "Thank you. I'll keep that in mind for next time."
The clerk gave a little huff that could’ve indicated that for every hundred times she mentioned the self-service station, maybe one person would take her up on the offer. Gaucho could see she wasn't a bad person, just tired and overworked, but her swift keystrokes, the efficient way she tore the postage and laid it lovingly upon the envelope showed her skill.
When she was finished, she totaled the bill and said, "How would you like to pay for that, sir?"
Before he could get out the words "Credit, please." There was a loud bang from behind, like someone dropped a box on the floor. Gaucho did not turn like everyone else did but he did see the eyes of the clerk go wide.
"Nobody move,” came the raspy mail voice. The clerk shot her hands in the air. Gaucho still didn't turn but whispered reassuringly to the clerk, "It'll be okay." A baby was crying and someone was whimpering nearby.
"You. Short guy at the counter, turn around."
"You said not to move,” Gaucho replied.
"Turn around,” the man said.
Gaucho did as he was told and turned around slowly. The disheveled man hadn't even thought to wear a mask. Didn't he know that robbing a post office was a federal crime?
"Everyone pull our your wallets. Put them on the floor, and you, behind the counter, all the money in the bag." He tossed a backpack over Gaucho's head. Everyone was fumbling with pockets or purses as the man panned back and forth with his pistol. It took a few moments for the thief to realize that Gaucho hadn't moved.
"I said put your wallet on the floor."
"Sorry. No can do, amigo."
"What did you say?" The man stepped closer, his features twisted with rage.
"I said no can do. Lunch is on me today and the boys might get upset if I come home empty-handed."
"Listen asshole. You and your freak show braided beard can go to hell. I will shoot you if you don't give me your money."
"All right. You win." Gaucho said, slipping the wallet from his pocket, careful not to show the other bulge in his waistband. "Here you go." Gaucho tossed the wallet up onto the mail counter that lay between them. The man snatched it up and stuffed it in his hoodie pocket. The back and forth had given Gaucho the information he needed. All he had to do now was wait.
Confident that Gaucho was no longer a threat, the robber started barking orders to the rest of them.
"You, over there. Gather up all the wallets and put them in a box.” An old man did as instructed, entire body shaking as he went about his task. "And you, shut that baby up." The gun-wielding man said to a mother huddled in the corner, trying her best to soothe her crying child.
The man's focus was wholly on the screaming child, so Gaucho made his move. He pivoted and with his momentum, reached out to yank the mail scale from the counter between he and the clerk. With one fluid motion, he spun the rest of the way around and flung it at the criminal. But he didn't stop there. With a quick hop, he was on top of the tall table, even as the scale slammed into the man's gun wielding hand, sending the weapon flying, undoubtedly shattering bones in the empty hand. The man's grimaced and his eyes followed the weapon as it skittered to the floor. Then realized too late that another threat loomed overhead.
Gaucho timed his jump perfectly, just as the criminal leaned back, and when he came down the man's hands were in the air between them, trying to block him but that would be impossible. Gaucho might have been smaller in stature, but his short, burly form was more than a match for his target. Knees leading the way, Gaucho crashed into the man's chest. Legs crumpled and the man howled. A second later, the former Delta operator was straddling his prey.
"Don't move,” he said to the man who was struggling to regain his breath. "Someone call the police,” Gaucho barked and then he realized his phone was buzzing in his pocket. He pulled it out and grinned. "Hey, Cal." Gaucho listened for a moment and then said "Sure. Let me finish what I’m doing, then I'll be on my way." He hung up the phone and then said to the wide-eyed man underneath him, "You know, you really should work on your timing.”
Most of The Jefferson Groups key players were now in attendance. Their CEO, Jonah Layton, was out of the country with the president and Dr. Higgins, their chief psychologist and expert interrogator was at Fort Bragg helping the Army. They would both be apprised of the situation if it really was a situation. Cal and Daniel had already relay the story of the chase to Top, Gaucho and Neil. Neil was only half listening as he clicked away on four different computer screens.
"So you’re sure you don't remember this Quinn kid? Top asked Cal.
"I don't know, maybe, you know how it is in the Marine Corps. I could've met him once, but it wasn't memorable enough for the name or the face to stick."
"And what about his parents? Do you think they have something to do with it?" Gaucho asked.
"No way,” Cal said. "They're good people, I'm not sure what their son was into, but I’ll bet they were trying to help him out. Neil found out that they took out a second mortgage on their home in the past six months. Then their near-perfect credit tanked."
“I got those utilities paid, by the way,” Neil said.
"What bills?" Top asked.
"When Diane and I went to visit them the first time, there was a stack of overdue utility bills in their mailbox. I had Neil pay the bills online."
"That was nice of you."
"It wasn't much," Cal shrugged. "Besides, they're good people and I hate to see their electricity turned off."
"Okay, so let's rehash,” Top said. "You were out getting an ice cream cone with sprinkles on top and a Maserati crashes not fifty feet from where you stand. You go to help and the guy inside says your name and 'eyes on the prize.' What does that mean?“
Cal said. "Honestly, maybe it was just something he said when he was living. A dying man can say all sorts of things, you know that."
Everyone around the room nodded, except for Neil.
"Okay," Top continued.
"So this guy dies in your arms, you and Diane go and visit his parents. By the way does Diane know about all of this?"
"She doesn't know all the details," Cal said.
"You think that's smart?”
"After what happened in Europe, I'd like to know all the facts before I tell my girlfriend, if that's okay with you."
Top took the hint.
"So look, I think we dig into this guy's life, talk to his old friends, maybe see if his Marine reserve unit remembers him.”
“What about the guy that clocked you?" Gaucho asked.
It was Neil who answered. "I just got into the system at Roanoke and they don't have cameras a that junction. So no dice on a positive I.D.
"All we've got is Tommy Quinn and his parents,” Top added.
"And his parents,” Cal repeated.
"Now, say we divvy up the-"
"I got it!" Neil said, interrupting the conversation. He was pulling up multiple windows now, one after another and everyone gathered around.
"Okay, here's what I've got,” Neil said. "It took me longer than normal, but our systems aren’t completely back on line yet. I've been having to build it piece by piece. I told you that, right Cal?"
“Sure, sure. What'd you find?" Cal said, urging his sometimes distracted friend forward.
"Well, Thomas Quinn Jr. worked for a conservative think tank in D.C." Neil read off the name. It didn't ring a bell with Cal.
"What did he do for them?"
“Let’s see…it says here he was a security consultant. Got paid pretty well for it too." Then he paused, scanning the screen. "Hmmm, that's interesting," Neil said, pointing. "A few months back the think tank suffered a massive cyber security breach, put everyone on high alert. Now that's not rare these days, but what's interesting is that the breach happened exactly one day after Tommy Quinn was let go.”
"Wait. He was fired?" Cal asked.
"That's what it looks like, there's no official two weeks notice or anything like that. I mean I could be wrong, but it has all the markings of Tommy Quinn getting canned.”
“All right. Neil, you keep digging. Daniel, I think you and I need to go back up and see the Quinns, see if they've gotten Tommy's personal things. Maybe we'll get lucky.”
“What do you want us to do?" Top asked.
"Why don't you and Gaucho hang tight and see what else Neil can find. We'll flex as needed."
Then as Neil rattled off the contributors to the Washington think tank, no one thought twice when the name of Senator Warren Fowler from Wisconsin was said aloud.
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