Vlak took a sip of his club soda and then checked his watch. There was still no sign of Ng, but she was only a couple of minutes late. There were very few other customers, so he didn’t feel like he was in the way perched on a stool at the end of the bar.
The hotel bar was very nice, as was his room. Apparently, his accommodations proved Wally’s theory that someone in the FBI thought highly of him. Even if it was only someone in the travel office, Vlak was going to chalk it up as a victory.
Even though he didn’t drink, Vlak always accepted invitations to bars from his fellow law enforcement officers. He understood that Feds were looked upon as outsiders who thought they were better than everyone else, so he didn’t want to give people one more reason to distrust or dislike him.
Sure, he’d been tempted more than once to decline the invite for drinks and suggest meeting at an ice cream parlor instead, but he was certain that no one at the local level would ever trust an agent who preferred banana splits to shots.
Still, the mere thought of offering that just one time as an option made him smile.
While he waited for Ng, he thought back to the night that he’d sworn off drinking for good. It had been a memorable night for many reasons. It was his fourteenth birthday, his first high school dance, and the night he realized he didn’t need to be ashamed of his name.
He’d attended a prep school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a few blocks from Central Park. His parents had been so proud when he’d been accepted, and Vlak was thrilled because it meant he didn’t have to go to high school with the same bullies who had picked on him all through grammar school.
Unfortunately, even fancy prep schools came with bullies. Vlak’s was Haywood Bennington, a rich kid who was used to getting whatever he wanted because he was being groomed to take over the family business.
Bennington had taken an instant dislike to Vlak, and as soon as he’d discovered that he was named after Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s A Wonderful Life, he’d teased him about it incessantly.
On the night of the dance, Dean Bard had called Vlak to his office. He had no idea what he’d done wrong, but to be summoned after regular school had to mean it was something major. The Dean of Students did not request your presence because he wanted to get to know you better.
When Vlak arrived at the office, he was surprised to find Bennington already seated on the bench outside the door. As soon as his bully saw him, his eyes lit up. That’s when Vlak noticed they were bloodshot.
“Look who it is!” Bennington screamed way too loudly and his voice echoed down the empty corridor. “The pride of Bedford Falls!”
Vlak could hear the band warming up in the cafeteria, and he desperately wanted to be down there, too nervous to ask any girl to dance, rather than trapped alone with Bennington.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Vlak asked.
When he stepped closer to his nemesis, something else caught his attention.
“And why do you smell so weird?”
Vlak looked around for Dean Bard or any other adult. He would have happily settled for one of the janitors at this point.
“Dean Bard, B-a-r-d Bard is going to ask you something, and you’d better back up my story, Bailey boy, or I will make you wish you’d never been born!”
Again, the bully had yelled, even though Vlak was a mere few feet away.
“Stop yelling,” Vlak pleaded.
Bennington burped. Then he burped again even louder.
“Look at this, Vlak. V-l-a-k Vlak!” he demanded as he pulled out his cell phone.
Bennington then pushed a button so that the phone made the sound of a ringing bell.
“Every time a bell rings, a nerd gets his wings!”
Bennington laughed so loud that he almost fell off the bench. He did drop his phone, though, and Vlak watched in amusement as he tried to recover it. The boy burped several times and then fell flat on his face. Vlak made no effort to help him to his feet.
Bennington eventually recovered his phone, and kept hitting the button over and over.
“Nerd wings!” he yelled every time.
“You’re drunk,” Vlak finally realized.
“And you’re going to lose the Building and Loan to Mr. Potter!” Bennington retorted.
Mercifully, Dean Bard chose that moment to emerge from the stairwell. Vlak immediately snapped to attention. Bennington laughed and burped.
“Mr. Bennington, you’d best learn how to conduct yourself, or this will not only be the last school dance you ever get kicked out of, but it will also be your last day as a student. Am I making myself clear?”
Vlak gulped in fear even though the threat was not directed at him.
“Crystal clear. Bard. B-a-r-d Bard!” Bennington laughed and burped.
“Mr. Vlak, I am glad to see that you did not follow your friend’s lead and wander off to Central Park to drink before the dance,” Bard turned his attention to Vlak.
“No, sir, I did not,” Vlak quickly confirmed.
He wanted to clarify that Haywood Bennington was no friend of his, but he knew better than to correct the Dean.
“Mr. Bennington clearly needs to go home, but claims that I cannot call his parents to get him because they are out of town,” Bard explained. “He states that he is staying at your home until they return, so I merely wanted to confirm that with you before I called your parents.”
Bennington glared at Vlak and made the gesture of slitting his throat. He then burped so loudly that he fell off the bench.
“B-a-r-d, Bard!” Bennington bellowed from the floor as he struggled to get back to the bench.
Vlak could not believe the gall of his nemesis to not only tell such a blatant lie to the Dean of Students, but to also expect him to go along with it out of sheer fear.
He looked over at Bennington, who glared at him as he sat slumped on the bench. Then he made a decision that would alter the course of his life.
“That’s the first I’m hearing of this, Dean Bard,” Vlak replied with a smile. “Sounds like Bennington here is so drunk that he can’t get his facts straight.”
Bard nodded in understanding. “I thought that might be the case. I appreciate your taking the time to clear that up for me, Mr. Vlak. Enjoy the dance.”
Bennington suddenly leaned forward and threw up all over himself.
Dean Bard shook his head and checked to make sure none of it had gotten on his shoes.
Vlak smiled and slowly walked towards the door, basking in the glow of his triumph. He could sense Bennington’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his head, but he didn’t care. The kid was an idiot who was going to need a new liver before he reached the legal drinking age.
Vlak intended to walk through the door and disappear without saying a word to his sworn enemy, but then inspiration hit. He turned, smiled at Bennington and remarked, “It’s a wonderful life, isn’t it, Haywood?”
He laughed and made up his mind to swear off alcohol because he’d never want to act the way he’d witnessed Bennington behave that night. He also vowed to never again be embarrassed by his name, or to stand idly by and allow others to make his life miserable.
Vlak was snapped out of his memory by the question. He looked over to see Ng smiling at him.
“Detective Ng! Please have a seat,” he replied as he flagged down the bartender.
“It’s Joyce when we’re off the clock,” she reminded him.
“Just as I’m Bailey.”
The bartender asked for her drink order, and she asked for a ginger ale. Vlak smiled.
“Not a drinker, either?” he asked as he pointed to his club soda.
Ng shook her head. “I like to stay clearheaded at all times. A bar just seems like the most socially acceptable place to invite a fellow officer to get together outside of work hours.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you suggested an ice cream parlor next time then,” he told her.
“That I can do!” She laughed and took a sip of her drink. “How are you settling in?”
“My room is very nice,” he replied politely. “But let’s cut the small talk and get to the reason you actually asked me here. You want to know if I’m going to report to my superiors that you really don’t have a case and that the FBI should take back jurisdiction.”
As he had sworn on the night of his fourteenth birthday, Vlak was not going to just sit back and be bullied on this case. Ng and the others would need to be honest and upfront with him, or he would find a way to turn the tables and make them rue the day they had betrayed him.
Ng smiled and took another sip of her drink to buy some time to formulate an answer.
“Something along those lines,” she finally admitted. “Look, I know the case looks thin based upon what we have right now, but I can assure you we will find the people behind those guns and link them to your terrorists. And again, our three witnesses are not a criminal part of whatever the hell is going on here.”
Vlak smiled at her confidence, her willingness to work with him, and the way she protected her confidential informants. He could not foresee having any issues with Detective Ng.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Joyce, I’m not exactly sure my superiors have much faith in this incident being connected to that terror group. In fact, they might have sent me here to get me out of their hair for a little while, so you don’t need to worry about my stealing this case or reporting on you to the home office. I’m in no rush to go back to DC emptyhanded.”
Ng was caught completely off guard by his confession. She also felt an almost overwhelming sense of relief.
“What about the thirty-nine guns being a clear link to the number thirteen?” she pressed just to be sure he wasn’t playing games with her.
Vlak sighed. “I believe there was a fortieth gun recovered from the backseat of the vehicle. Perhaps I wanted the connection to be there so badly that I played up its importance more than I should have. You have to understand, Crossing the Delaware is my white whale…”
Ng chuckled. “You’re not going to tell me that Ahab is your middle name, are you?”
Vlak laughed. “Touché. No, but I might use that line down the road if you don’t mind.”
“It’s all yours,” she assured him. “Tell me more about this white whale business.”
“Every agent wants to make a name within the Bureau with that big case,” Vlak replied. “We all want to find our Buffalo Bill.”
“You really are into your pop culture references,” Ng observed with a smile.
Vlak was really starting to like Ng and her gift for saying whatever the hell popped into her head, regardless of the circumstances.
“There’s debate within the Bureau as to whether this group even exists,” he explained. “There is a camp that argues the different methodology of the attacks coupled with their vast geographic spread indicates that they were perpetrated by four different groups.”
“So why are The Crossers the ones taking the credit?” Ng pressed.
“That’s where the debate rages even deeper. Are different groups somehow working together using that name to make them sound more imposing and a larger threat? Is some lone conspiracy theorist hoping to create chaos and terror by linking four unconnected events and crediting them to a group that doesn’t even exist? Is the person claiming credit for the attacks even associated with the events in question?”
“Forgive me for using yet another pop culture reference, but Crossing the Delaware could be the Keyser Soze of domestic terrorist groups. Is someone or some group using the name to spread a reign of terror, distract from another criminal enterprise, or make the government look like a failure when it cannot bring a non-existent group to justice?”
Ng’s face scrunched up into a mask of puzzlement.
“That’s enough to drive a woman to drink,” she joked as she reached for her ginger ale.
“I’d like to be the one who cracks the code,” Vlak explained. “I want to prove conclusively that Crossing the Delaware either exists or is a wild goose chase. Discovering the source of those guns and where they were headed is a means to that end.”
“Either way, someone is responsible for those four attacks, and I’m determined to track down one large boogie man or four smaller ones. Those guns are the closest thing I’ve had to a lead in a very long time.”
Ng nodded in understanding.
“So then why were you so upset that the case had been taken from you and given back to us?” she had to ask even though she believed what he was saying.
“I don’t like to be bullied. I’m happy to share, but don’t take what’s mine and claim that it’s yours,” he answered with a confident smile and then took a sip of his club soda.
“It sounds like we need each other,” she commented. “Let’s agree to work together and not try to steal the thunder or undercut the other.”
Ng held out her hand. Vlak shook it.
“These are terms I can agree to.”
“I find it odd that a Harvard man would end a sentence with a preposition,” Ng teased.
“We’re off the clock, Joyce,” he answered with a roll of his eyes. “Throwing grammatical perfection out the window is how I kick back and unwind. Don’t be a hater.”
“How about we ditch this joint and get sundaes?” she suggested. “There’s an amazing ice cream place within walking distance.”
Vlak’s face lit up brighter than crime scene lights at a murder scene.
“You are officially my new best friend,” he announced. “Lead the way.”
He placed a ten dollar bill on the bar, and then followed his new buddy to the exit.
TO BE CONTINUED…