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“Where the hell are you going?”
The money was pretty much set to go and Burton breathed a sigh of relief that the safe house had come up dry. By this time tomorrow it would all be over.
He looked outside for the media, some of whom were still hanging around. Those who were left hovered near the main entrance to the Department of Public Safety building. Burton slipped out the side and found his rental, a silver Ford Taurus, one of the world’s most popular fleet cars. He threw his leather briefcase and black suit coat into the backseat, dropped his lukewarm Diet Pepsi into the cup holder, and lowered himself into the driver’s seat. He slowly drove around the edge of the parking lot, avoiding attention, especially from the media. At the parking lot exit, he pulled out and steered his way over to Interstate 35E. With downtown St. Paul and his room at the Crowne Plaza to his immediate left, he instead turned right and took the entrance ramp north on the interstate. Traffic was light at this hour, and he easily settled into the flow, staying in the right lane and hovering around the sixty-mile-per-hour speed limit as he traveled north out of St. Paul.
He loosened his tie and tuned the radio to the talk station. Word was out about the ransom, and speculation ran rampant. Oddly, there was nothing about the safe house on the news. Of course, the crime scene people struck out, finding nothing. The lease information for the house was a dead end. Now he had St. Paul’s best cops, the chief’s Boys no less sitting on a house their targets never intended to return to.
Burton wasn’t doing hits for the money. His payoff on this wasn’t much. He would get $200,000 from Smith in six months, just after his planned retirement from the bureau. No, he was paying a debt.
Seventeen years ago, when Smith was pinched by Charlie Flanagan, Burton was his partner, making sure the local FBI office in Minneapolis wasn’t paying attention while Smith underreported his drug seizures. They split the money off of Smith’s drug sales fifty-fifty. While Smith retires his gambling debts, Burton put the money away, thousands of miles away, down in the Caymans and over in Zurich, letting it quietly mature over time. That money, smartly invested and reinvested, was now over two million dollars, a nice little nest egg nobody knew about, not even his ex-wife. The $200,000 from Smith would simply be walking-around cash.
The St. Paul police and the bureau suspected Smith had a partner when they took him down, but Smith never put Burton’s name in play. He took all the weight. When Smith was being sodomized in jail, when the bureau visited him, talking about how they could make his life easier if he just told them who he worked with, he didn’t give in, didn’t fold, and didn’t turn in his partner. Burton knew all this, tracking his partner’s incarceration, always worried he might break. He never did.
Meanwhile, Burton moved to kidnapping and found his true calling within the bureau. When he brought home the daughter of one of New York’s wealthiest businessmen, taking down the kidnappers in a spectacular chase through the subway tunnels, his name and reputation were cemented. He published a book. Traveled the country speaking about his cases, and now performed training for the bureau. Retiring at the end of the year, he could expect to greatly enhance his wealth on the speaking circuit. Several prestigious colleges had inquired of his interest in teaching. His life was set.
Then, four months ago Smith showed up on his doorstep. Burton owed him and there was no argument. His life was what it was because Smith never turned him in. Smith took all the heat, and Burton ended up with all the glory.
Burton spent days and nights thinking of ways out of helping Smith. He offered up part of his nest egg. Smith wasn’t interested. Burton offered to put him in touch with people who would put him to work, let him earn a respectable living, start a new life, a comfortable life, a decent life. Smith wasn’t interested in any of that. He wanted one thing: he wanted Charlie Flanagan, and he didn’t just want to hurt him, he wanted to gut him. And Burton owed him. And if Burton refused, Smith would kill him.
If he could just get through the next day, help Smith get what he wanted and get his crew theirs; he’d be free and clear. Smith would be gone. Burton could retire a happy and wealthy man. If Charlie Flanagan, Lyman Hisle, and their daughters had to pay the ultimate price for that – well, it was him or them. If that was the way it had to be, he’d just have to live with it.
The upcoming road sign told him three miles to his exit in Forest Lake.
* * * * *
Heather Foxx passed the Forest Lake exit.
A half-hour ago she had been slumped in the back seat of her rental car, slipping on her Nikes, exhausted from a long-day in ninety-five-degree heat, and hoping to get a few hours of sleep, when the Taurus approached, driving cautiously around the perimeter of the parking lot. Looking up through the strands of hair falling across her eyes, Foxx saw that the driver was John Burton, the mysterious FBI man running the investigation, but unwilling to speak with the media. Rumor was he had a room down at the Crowne Plaza. With all of the other vultures hanging around, there was no way to approach him, let alone get any time with him. But, looking to her left, she saw that the rest of the media types were oblivious to his escape. Heather thought this might be her chance. She started her car and followed.
If she could catch him at the hotel, maybe she could talk with him one-on-one – get a hint at what tomorrow might hold. But instead of driving into downtown, Burton took the entrance ramp on I-35E north out of downtown.
“Where the hell are you going?” Heather said out loud, pulling in a good two hundred yards behind him. She was suddenly thankful that her little sports car was in the shop and she’d been forced to use a nondescript rental. Perhaps Burton had double-crossed everyone and was staying at one of the nice business hotels that were strategically located along the I-694 strip, a Residence Inn or Country Inn Suites perhaps. But he continued on I-35E past I-694 and now well out of downtown and passing the last of the White Bear Lake Exits, cruising into the countryside north of the Twin Cities.
“This is damn peculiar,” she muttered as Burton kept driving on, now twenty miles out of downtown and continuing north as Interstate 35W and 35E merged to form Interstate 35 to Duluth. Heather contemplated giving up, but Burton hit his right turn blinker and took the Forest Lake exit. At the top of the exit ramp, the FBI man turned right and drove a mile east into downtown Forest Lake, pulling into the parking lot of the Ranger Bar. A bright white marquee on the front indicated that the Ranger – a play on the nickname of the local high school – was open until 2:00 AM. From the looks of the cars in the parking lot, it was apparent that the party was going plenty strong inside. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and a lot of people in the Forest Lake area were getting a head start.
Burton had turned into the lot on the north side of the bar. Foxx drove past the front and pulled into the lot on the south side and then cruised around to the back of the bar and out onto the street running along the backside so that she could look at the back of Burton’s car. She parked along the curb and slumped down to watch. The FBI man stayed in his car, contorting his body around – she saw his arms waving over his head as his shirt came off. Five minutes later, he was out of the sedan, dressed in jean shorts, a dark T-shirt, baseball cap, wire-rimmed glasses, and flip-flops.
Foxx took one look in the rearview mirror and realized she would be noticed without some alterations. Popping the trunk, she grabbed her duffel bag and quickly jumped back into the car and inventoried the contents. She’d gone to her fitness club early the day before, so there was an extra clean tank top, a hair binder, and a white Adidas tennis cap. She changed shirts and put on the baseball cap, sliding her pony tail out the back, but it wasn’t quite enough. There was also a sky blue Reebok nylon sweat top in the bag. It was a little gamy as she zipped it up, but that was okay – it might keep people, meaning men, away. The last thing she did was take out her disposable contact lenses and toss them out the window, sliding on her dark-rimmed glasses instead. She was as unrecognizable as she could make herself. Grabbing her purse, she walked into the bar.
Forest Lake sat on the far northeastern edge of the Twin Cities, so it was considered a suburb, but it had a country feel. The Ranger created a melting pot for the clash of those suburban and rural cultures. One look at the massive throng revealed a great mixture of the denim-and-belt-buckle, NASCAR-hat crowd and the Tommy-Bahama types.
As Heather entered from the back, she found a large bar beneath dark-paneled walls covered with framed sports jerseys and newspaper clippings, souvenirs of the Twins ’87 and ’91 World Series victories and recent Minnesota Gopher hockey national championships. In the dim lighting, she noted pool tables and dartboards in a segregated area to her immediate right. Straight ahead, a short hallway led to the main bar area where booths and tables surrounded a long, four-sided mahogany bar. In the far right corner, karaoke was going strong with an American Idol wannabe belting out Eddie Money’s “Shakin” – badly.
Heather picked her way around two sides of the main bar before spotting Burton, who was sitting in a booth, talking to another man. She grabbed an open bar stool, three from the corner nearest to Burton, and sat down.
The bartender appeared instantly, a good-looking, six-foot, black-haired early twenty-something in a tight black Ranger T-shirt, which showed his chiseled upper body. “What can I get ya’, darlin’?” he said with a bright white smile.
Darlin’? He was cheesy for sure, but definitely cute. “You know what a Vodka Sonic is?”
“Sure darlin’. Vodka, club soda, splash of tonic, and a lemon. We call it a Jolly Roger around here.”
“That’s what I want.”
“Vodka Sonic for the pretty lady it is,” the bartender replied, strolling off to mix the drink.
Heather alternately looked at a table tent menu with nightly specials and toward Burton, still deep in conversation with the other man, who was perhaps a little shorter. The man had short black hair, slightly graying at the temples. His profile revealed a large nose with a knot two-thirds of the way up, where it had been broken before. Both men had a beer in front of them, one-third finished, along with a bowl of popcorn. They leaned in close as they talked, their hands crossed in front of them.
* * * * *
“So where is the investigation at?” Smith asked, taking a pull off of his Budweiser.
“We’re good,” Burton answered, hat pulled down low. He ignored his Miller High Life and cautiously peered around the jam-packed bar, trying to determine if anyone was watching or looking in their direction. He wasn’t comfortable meeting in this environment, but Smith insisted and he was the one pulling the strings. “The discovery of the house today actually worked to your advantage.”
“How so?” Smith asked with raised eyebrows.
“Besides the obvious, which is that we didn’t find anything to identify you, it means that the best St. Paul has to offer are sitting on the house right now. It’s the only break the case has had, so they’re lying in wait, hoping you’ll come back.”
“Which means they’re wasting their time and not looking for us,” Smith answered, smiling, taking another hit off the beer. He was so happy, he was thinking of ordering another.
“And that’s a good thing,” Burton said. “These guys aren’t bad, particularly this McRyan character.”
“Now that name’s familiar,” Smith answered. “Why do I know that name?”
“Let me tell you why,” Burton took a sip of his beer. “You were still in the can at the time, but last winter the St. Paul police took down a crew of ex-CIA guys running security at Peterson Technical Applications, you know, PTA, in St. Paul. This McRyan was the main guy in all that, figured it out, broke the case wide open, and chased the guy behind it through downtown. He put him down in the RiverCentre Parking Ramp.”
I saw a TV report on that,” Smith answered. “Shootout in downtown. Arms sales and stuff like that.”
“That’s it,” Burton replied, taking a couple of kernels of popcorn out of the basket. “Anyway, this kid’s a pretty good cop. He’s fourth generation. I knew his old man,” Smith said, nodding his head.
“As well you should,” Burton added. “Simon was a hell of a cop, one of the best local cops I ever saw. His son is a chip off the old block for sure, scary smart and just tenacious as hell.”
Burton related the argument about releasing the video to local authorities and the mayor and Duffy’s objections. “He didn’t back down one bit. He’s essentially calling the mayor, his boss I might add, an idiot and political hack in front of a room of cops and agents. He was one hundred percent right and wouldn’t back down until he got his way.”
“What lets him get away with that?” Smith asked, stunned.
“I’m not totally sure. If I had to guess, at least part of it is his DNA. Word is he’s never, ever, backed down from anything. On that arms sales thing, he was repeatedly told to leave it alone, but didn’t. Hell, he wouldn’t, and he brought that thing home. If he thinks he’s right, he won’t stop.”
“He’ll end up on the street if he keeps doing that.”
“Perhaps, but I don’t think he worries about it. He’s got money.”
“How? He’s just a cop.”
“It’s not widely known, even within his department, but he invested ten grand about five or six years ago with two old high school friends in a coffee business, the Grand Brew. You’ve seen them around town haven’t you?”
“Well, that little enterprise is up to nearly thirty shops, with more on the way, and McRyan has a piece of that action, gets a check every so often. When that little business goes public or gets bought by a bigger corporation a few years from now, he’ll be a multi-millionaire. It gives him a certain freedom to say what he thinks and do what he wants. He doesn’t have to worry about whether he can make the mortgage payment.”
“Tenacious and he’s going to be rich, which is good for him. But what makes him like the old man? What makes him someone we should be worrying about? I mean he can’t be that old? What, early thirties?”
“Thirty-three to be exact.” Burton snorted and shook his head, “You haven’t seen him in action. Let me tell you a little about him.” The agent pulled out a paper-clipped set of papers out of his pocket. “I got myself a look at his personnel file. Honors graduate of the University of Minnesota and William Mitchell College of Law, second in his class. His college entrance exams and LSAT to get into law school were off the charts. The guy is brilliant.”
“Why did he become a cop, then?”
“He’s fourth generation. Two of his best friends growing up were two cousins, Peter and Thomas McRyan. Apparently, the three were tight and all planned on becoming cops. But Mac has the college grades, marries a smart and pretty girl, and they both head off to law school, graduate with high honors, and line up the six-figure jobs after graduation.”
“Still doesn’t answer my question. Why the cop bit?”
“Two weeks after he takes the bar exam, his two cousins die in the line of duty, and he feels the calling of the family business. That was eight years ago. He trashed a legal career where he’d probably have made a big pile of money and blew his marriage because the wife didn’t like him being a cop, all to take up the family business. I guess he felt obligated.”
“So in eight years, he’s the best St. Paul has? I bet the veterans love that.”
“It’s an interesting dynamic for sure, but from what I’ve seen the vets roll with it pretty well. You can tell they all know he’s the smarter one in the room. Plus he’s a McRyan, a name that means something around here. These guys – Riley, this big guy Rockford, and fat Lich – all try keeping him just enough in line to stay employed, but then run interference for him so he can do his thing.”
“Sharp, then,” Smith acknowledged.
“Damn straight,” Burton answered, taking a pull from his beer. “He knew the safe house was the safe house five minutes after he got there. Long before they got into the house to look around.”
“What told him that?”
“Gut. Instinct. He just knew it was the place. He said he could feel it. Cops like that scare the shit out of me. They see what you don’t want them to see.” Burton took a last pull from his High Life. “I feel much better knowing I got McRyan sitting still.” Burton finished the popcorn, picking out one piece at a time and popping them into his mouth. “So tell me about the plan for tomorrow.”
“The call will come in at 6:00 PM….”
* * * * *
Heather nursed her drink, a small amount of the diluted, yet refreshing liquid remaining amongst the melting ice cubes and squeezed lemon. She looked at her watch, 1:22 AM, and the bar was still going strong. The crowd was whoopin’ it up, including the woman strangling a cat in the corner, or maybe she was just singing karaoke.
Burton was still in the booth and had been talking for over half an hour with the other man. Heather had only seen his profile, except for now. The man looked her direction just briefly and then turned away and back to Burton. The conversation was equal at first, but now the other man was doing most of the talking, counting off on his fingers while Burton nodded along, only occasionally speaking.
“You want another drink darlin’?” the cute bartender was back.
Heather learned that his name was Skeet, which couldn’t possibly be his real name. She contemplated the offer, the first drink having tasted so good. “Sure. Easy on the vodka though.”
“Anything for you darlin’,” Skeet answered, giving her his big cheesy smile and a wink as he started to mix the drink in front of her. Heather smiled inwardly and chatted with the bartender while he poured. This guy was working her, and he thought he was closing the deal, which was the funny part. Skeet put the drink in front of her, smiled again and moved away, beckoned by a loud crowd demanding Kamikazes on the other side of the bar.
The reporter took a small sip of her fresh drink and casually turned her gaze over to the right. Both men were gone.
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