Wally, Ng, and Vlak stood in the middle of the nearly empty warehouse. They wore tactical gear, which clearly had not been needed, and focused their attention on the four cardboard boxes that silently mocked them from a few feet away.
Each box was marked THRIFT STORE in huge block letters. One contained old sweaters. The other three contained sweatpants and tee shirts in a rainbow of colors and a variety of sizes.
“We’re going to clear out,” the SWAT team commander broke the silence. “Unless, of course, you think those boxes might be a threat.”
He chuckled at his joke, but when no one else did, he took that as his cue to exit.
The trio did not speak until they heard the SWAT vehicles drive away from the scene.
“Thank you for indulging me and calling in SWAT even when it was obvious that there would be nothing here,” Vlak said with a heavy sigh.
Wally walked over to the boxes and kicked the closest one.
“Better to be prepared than to find ourselves outnumbered and outgunned,” Ng replied. “That being said, I’d bet a year’s salary, these guys started clearing out of here the second someone called from the pursuit car to say the warehouse had been compromised.”
Wally nodded in agreement, but remained silent. Other than the boxes, the warehouse was a ghost town. They hadn’t even left any dust behind to be analyzed for trace evidence.
“You can say it, Officer Wainwright,” Vlak urged. “I deserve it, so let me have it.”
Wally shook his head. “I’m as disappointed as you are. I wanted to find something here to corroborate their story.”
“Sometimes the lack of anything is something,” Ng waxed philosophic.
Vlak walked over to a dark spot on the concrete and squatted down to examine it.
“Their story checks,” he confirmed. “This is fluid from an automobile, and it’s not the only such spot in the place. There were definitely old cars parked in here like Aspen stated.”
“But who goes around stealing old, boring cars?” Wally asked. “Maybe teenagers looking for a really lame joyride or a few quick bucks for spare parts, but why would a crew that could bug out this quickly and effectively do that?”
Ng walked over to look at the skid marks burned into the concrete.
“But they didn’t only steal minivans and beat up SUVs,” she reminded him. “There was one top of the line sports car here loaded with enough firepower to take down a Marine battalion.”
“What did you find out about that car?” Vlak asked as he walked over to join Ng.
“The owner reported it stolen this morning after a friend saw it on the news and texted him,” Ng replied. “Turns out he and his wife have been in Europe on vacation for two weeks and left the car tucked away safe and sound in the garage. So it could have been stolen any time over the past two weeks.”
“Does any of this fit the MO of your domestic terrorists?” Wally asked. “Any chance they’re a bunch of intense soccer moms who think the country needs to return to the good old days when women had way fewer rights?”
Vlak chuckled. “That joke was not at my expense, Officer Wainwright. Does this mean that perhaps you are willing to bury the hatchet and give me a chance?”
Wally smirked. “Please call me Wally. And sure, we can bury the hatchet. Just don’t impale me on it, Vlad.”
“Aww, look at you boys making friend,” Ng mocked the moment.
“To answer your question, Wally, this group doesn’t really have an MO. They seem to enjoy mixing up their methods as much as they like moving around the country. The attacks they’ve claimed responsibility for have occurred in four different states and three time zones. They’ve set off a car bomb, started a fire, mailed a toxin, and delivered a savage beating.”
“Isn’t that unusual? Don’t these groups tend to pick a method and stick with it?” Ng asked.
“Usually that would be correct, but these guys are anything but normal,” Vlak confirmed.
“An obsession with the Revolutionary War does ring as abnormal,” Wally quipped.
Vlak shrugged. “But consider the goal of a terrorist organization. They want to inflict maximum terror on an anxious population. That being said, it would make sense for the group to evolve. What’s more terrifying than never knowing what to expect?”
“What do these guys call themselves?” Wally inquired as he gave up on staring down the boxes and finally walked over to join his colleagues.
“Crossing the Delaware,” Vlak answered.
Wally made a face. “That’s an action. Don’t these groups normally call themselves something more in the noun family? Like Proud Boys or Promise Keepers?”
“I don’t name the groups, I just investigate them,” Vlak countered. “But you bring up an excellent point. Members refer to themselves as Crossers. Supposedly, they all wear hand carved wooden crosses around their necks with the number 13 burned into them.”
“Making the cross is a rite of passage, and is part of their whole hero worship of George Washington. He had wooden teeth, so the crosses are made of wood. Rumor has it, they only use wood from cherry trees, but I think that’s bogus.”
“Crossing the Delaware obviously goes along with the Washington theme,” Wally pointed out. “Even if you know nothing else about the Revolutionary War, you’ve seen that famous painting of Washington crossing the water.”
“And the number 13 is very important to them because that was the number of original colonies, right?” Ng asked.
“You would both excel at Revolutionary War Trivial Pursuit,” Vlak praised them with a smile.
“I wish that were an actual game,” Wally mumbled as he walked around the skid mark to try to imagine Tex stomping on the gas to get the group safely aware from their pursuers.
“You don’t think the Crossers were the ones keeping this warehouse?” Wally asked even though he was pretty sure of the answer.
Vlak shook his head. “This was strictly local talent tasked to provide the guns and the cars. If I had to guess, your local criminals had no idea who they were dealing with. The Crossers prefer to operate as ghosts.”
Wally nodded like this all made sense.
“The question is why would this group have any interest in our city?” Ng stated.
“If we can figure out the answer to that one, maybe we find our terrorists,” Vlak answered. “The one bright light in all this is that your friends prevented the guns from being delivered. That might be enough to cause the Crossers to call off their plans. At the very least, it’s bought us some time to try to figure out what they plan to do in your fair city.”
The three of them allowed that information to sink in for a moment.
“Let’s wrap it up here,” Ng suggested. “Vlak’s had a very long day and is probably dying to get to his hotel and relax.”
“Please call me Bailey,” Vlak asked.
“Every time you call him Vlak, a vampire gets its wings,” Wally teased. “Where are they putting you up by the way? This will tell us how high up you truly are in the FBI pecking order.”
“The Stern Goddard,” Vlak replied.
Wally and Ng smiled and nodded.
“Best bar of any of the hotels in town,” Ng let him know. “Why don’t you settle in while I brief Captain Hamel on the day’s events, and then I can meet you at the hotel bar for a nightcap where we can bad talk Wally in his absence?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Vlak agreed with a smile. “Why won’t Wally be joining us?”
“I’ve got to make the final arrangements on the safe house and get our VIPs settled into their new home,” Wally explained.
“You sure you don’t need my help with that?” Ng asked.
Wally shook his head. “I’ve got it totally under control. I’ve already arranged the pickup and delivery. My better half is smoothing out the details with our gracious host.”
“I’ll meet you at the hotel bar in an hour. Are you good getting there on your own?”
“Sure,” Vlak smiled picking up the vibe that he was being dismissed. “GPS is my best friend.”
“If you flew more, a pilot could be your best friend,” Wally couldn’t resist one last bit of razzing, but did so with a big smile.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Wally,” Vlak promised as he walked off towards his car.
Wally waved and then they watched him walk off to his vehicle.
“He’s not that bad when he doesn’t try so damn hard to impress,” Ng observed.
“I take it you wanted to speak to me alone,” Wally replied rather than commenting on what she’d said about Vlak.
“I just wanted to say that you handled yourself well today, and I’m really looking forward to working with you. As hard as it might be for you to believe, Bruno did speak very highly of you and assured me I would enjoy your company.”
Wally blushed ever so slightly. “Thank you. I’m not used to hearing praise. And if there ever was any, it was merely a set up to knock me down off my high horse with some blistering follow up comment I never see coming.”
Ng laughed. “That sounds like Bruno. I know he comes across as a miserable hard ass, but there is no better detective or mentor in the department. He’s also one of the kindest, sweetest men I’ve ever met, but it takes a long time to chisel away the layers to get there. Just be patient.”
Wally nodded because none of this was new to him. He knew there was more to Bruno than met the eye, but some days, that was difficult to believe.
“I also wanted to congratulate you on your significant other, rookie!” she said with a sly smile. “ADA Ambrose is a fox and as brilliant and ambitious as they get…if you can overlook the fact that she’s a lawyer, of course.”
They both laughed at that one.
“I see that some of Bruno’s brainwashing has stayed with you,” Wally remarked.
“I disliked lawyers before I met Bruno,” she replied. “He just made me realize I could dislike them a hell of a lot more.”
They laughed again.
“Michelle’s great,” Wally finally let down his guard and opened up about his feelings. “I wasn’t prepared to get into any sort of serious relationship this early in my career, but she really left me no choice. There’s no way I wasn’t going to fall completely head over heels for her.”
“Aww.” Ng gave him a gentle nudge in the ribs. “Something tells me she’s just as lucky.”
Wally’s cheeks turned red again. “I’m not used to blushing this much at work. Whenever I do, Bruno mocks me mercilessly.”
“He might have trained me to be a detective, but in case you haven’t noticed, we are completely different people. I’m tiny. I’m a woman. And I am very Asian. I have a feeling we’re going to get along just fine, Wally.”
“I agree, Detective Ng.”
“Call me Joyce. Just don’t do it in front of Bruno or Captain Hamel. They’re very old fashioned and into that whole rank has its privileges thing.”
“I’ll keep it Detective Ng when we’re on the clock,” Wally suggested.
“You sure you’re okay with taking care of the safe house while I babysit our FBI agent and make sure he’s not reporting anything bad on us back to his superiors?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he assured her. “I have a feeling they’ll swallow this inconvenience a lot easier if we make it seem more like a family outing. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure they’ll consider you a part of the family as soon as they get to know you.”
Ng chuckled. “Whatever keeps them alive and help us catch the bad guys. I know they’re your friends, Wally, but keep in mind they are in danger. I don’t think those George Washington fan boys are going to be pleased that whatever chaos they have planned has been interrupted.”
“And I’m sure they’re pissed about their guns.”
“That doesn’t even take into account the group that was running this warehouse and had their operation blown to hell,” Ng reminded him. “Be an officer of the law first and a friend second. That’s how you keep your friends safe.”
Wally nodded. He’d tried to convince himself that the worst was behind them now that Agent Vlak seemed to be on board, but he had to accept that he’d be letting down his friends if he didn’t accept that they were a long way from being out of danger.
He took one last look around the warehouse and then followed Ng towards the exit.
TO BE CONTINUED…
The characters keep getting more interesting. Good work, Austin.
Thank you, Mark. It’s fun to add new voices to the mix…
Okay, so Vlak is starting to grow on me.
I love the bit of Revolutionary War history weaved in. The banter between Ng, Vlak, and Wally is so amusing, and I love how you include a little back story in all of your characters so we get a better understanding of them!
Vlak is something of a chameleon. He blends and adapts to his surroundings. He came in all hot and bothered because someone stole his case and he just assumed he had to be belligerent. Now that people are being nice and welcoming, he’s changing his colors…
I am starting to see that. Everyone has bad days. 🙂
I imagine that a good FBI agent could adapt and blend seamlessly. Might keep him alive longer… 🙂