WEEK OF MAY 19TH WINNER FEATURE
Author of the Urban Fantasy, Smokescreen
Author of the Urban Fantasy, Smokescreen
It starts in Washington when a lone gunman enters a busy burger chain and opens fire killing twenty five people. It continues in Paris, London, Sydney and Beijing. Authorities, including FBI agent Jack Rossi find no motive or any connection between the shootings causing fear and panic in the world’s major cities.
As Jack scrambles to get answers, he stumbles upon a secret world of hybrid humans, moles and a threat he never saw coming. One that could lead to the loss of an unprecedented number of lives. Including his own.
Excerpt One (Long)
Her penchant for French fries and hamburgers had finally gotten her in trouble. Except it wasn’t the cardiovascular, ‘you should take care of your heart’ kind. It was more the ‘move and you’re dead’ kind.
Jennifer Malloy lay on the floor of Big ‘Ole Burgers trying her hardest not to move a muscle. Her head lay on her plump arm and there were goose bumps where her arm made contact with the cold tiles of the floor. Moments earlier a man had entered the restaurant and opened fire on the patrons. She had just taken a bite of her cheeseburger when he had turned his gun towards her and shot her in the chest. She had slid to the floor and was now playing dead.
The shock hadn’t worn off yet and her brain was still trying to come to terms with what had just happened. She felt like this couldn’t possibly be real; however the sharp, throbbing pain in her chest proved otherwise. Wet blood spilled out of her wound flowing river-like down her body. An image of the gunman’s face flashed through her mind. The cold, dead stillness in his eyes. The determined line his lips formed as he aimed and fired. Why was he doing this? Who was he? And most importantly, when was he going to stop?
Her eyes were closed and her other senses sharpened to pick up the slack. The loud screams of people desperately trying to get away shattered in her brain threatening to give her a headache. Equally potent was the smell of burnt hamburgers and freshly bled blood. An unlikely eau-de-toilette.
Jennifer struggled to remain absolutely still. She had never realized how difficult it was—she felt her legs tremble and it took an extreme effort to stop them from moving. The last thing she wanted was for the gunman to notice she was still alive and try to finish the job. Stay calm, she told herself.
Her body did not co-operate as her legs started their involuntary contractions again and she felt her armpits grow wet. Her heart continued beating at breakneck speed and gushed pints and pints of blood causing her T-shirt to cling to her body. This wasn’t False Evidence Appearing Real. It was FEAR, plain and simple.
The gunman seemed to have developed a rhythm to his shooting. Pausing only to reload his gun, the ‘pop-pop-pop’ came at regular intervals along with the thud of bodies falling to the floor.
The place grew still for a moment. Jennifer wondered what was going on. Dare she venture a peek? The sound of quickly approaching police sirens gave Jennifer hope. This will be all over soon, she thought. Jennifer slowly opened her eyes just in time to see the gunman drop the gun. It clanked on the tile next to his scuffed, brown leather boots. He raised his hands in surrender and went down on his knees. Through the glass doors, she saw policemen leap out of their vehicles with their guns drawn. They rushed into the restaurant, one of them handcuffing the shooter, others heading to people’s aid.
Jennifer let out a long, slow breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. Thank God it’s over, she thought. The fear which had gripped her heart loosened its hold slowing down her heart’s frantic pace. She tried to call out for help but only a whisper came out. Her throat felt dry and raw. Clearing her throat, she made another attempt. The darkness swam before her eyes and she lost consciousness.
Metropolitan Police Headquarters, Washington
Captain Lewis’ office at the metropolitan police headquarters was as standard issue as a policeman’s uniform. It was painted a dull, light grey with the customary framed commendations hanging on the wall. There was an L-shaped desk in the center of the room with a computer on the shorter side of the ‘L’. A filing cabinet was flush against the wall to the back of the room. On the longer part of his desk were stacks of case files scattered about and a half full cup of coffee.
FBI agent Jack Rossi, along with Lauren Jeffries, sat in the two chairs facing the captain’s desk waiting for him to come in. Jack glanced at his watch. They had already been waiting for ten minutes and he was anxious for the meeting to get started. They had been called in to talk about the lunchtime shooting at Big ‘Ole Burger. Due to its violent nature and the possibility of terrorist links it necessitated collaboration with the FBI. The door opened and Captain Lewis rushed in. He was a solid, middle aged-man with hair that was graying and thinning at the top. Shaking their hands quickly, he took the seat behind his desk.
“Sorry for the delay. It couldn’t be helped. What a way to start the week.” He reached inside his pocket for a handkerchief and wiped his brow. “Jack, Lauren, nice to see you both again. Though I wished it wasn’t under these circumstances.”
“Same here. The shooting has gotten everyone shaken up. What’s this world coming to when it is not safe to get a burger?” Jack said.
Captain Lewis sighed. “I remember when they first had to put metal detectors in schools. Now this. Anyway, let me summarize what we’ve got so far. Around five after twelve the shooter entered Big ‘Ole Burgers on 600 7th Street. He shot up the place killing twenty and wounding fifteen. The shooter has been identified as John Cassidy, a twenty-two year old white male. His motive is unidentified so far. He wasn’t a disgruntled employee, former or current. We are checking to see if he had a relationship with any of the victims. We’re also waiting on the results of some drug tests. He is scheduled for a psychiatric evaluation later today. So far we’ve determined no history of mental breaks.” Captain Lewis took a sip of coffee and shuddered. “Ughh. Cold. We got the weapon—a Beretta 3032 Tomcat with the serial number scratched off. We did a preliminary search of his car and found his cell phone and not much else. Forensics is going over it now. Am, what else? Cassidy worked at an automotive repair shop down on Ontario Rd and rented a room a few blocks away.”
“Have you talked to his boss yet?” Lauren asked.
“Yeah. He was genuinely surprised when he learned what happened. He said John called in sick today which was unusual: he hardly ever took any time off. He described him as a good kid: respectful, always on time, hard worker. Gave us the old ‘I can’t believe John would do this’ line. He did notice him acting a little preoccupied lately but said he didn’t interfere in his workers’ lives.”
“Guess planning a massacre is a little distracting,” Jack muttered.
“What about his co-workers?” Lauren asked.
“Same story.” Captain Lewis looked at his desk and starting rummaging through the stack of files he had haphazardly strewn all over it. As he shifted the files, Jack noticed coffee stains on some of them. Finally, he found what he was looking for. He handed Jack a file with a videotape on top.
“Here is what we have so far—that’s the surveillance video from the restaurant. You’ll be liaising with Detective Eddie on this one.”
“Anyone question Cassidy yet?”
“No. You’ve got first crack.”
“We’re on it.”
Captain Lewis nodded and opened one of the files on his desk. Jack and Lauren got up and headed down to the second floor to the wing with the interrogation rooms.
Jack turned around and saw Detective Eddie Nelson walk towards him. Eddie was tall and well built, a testament to the many hours he logged in at the gym. He had short, black, thick hair and tanned, brown skin. Jack gave Eddie a bear hug and a tap on the back.
“How was the game last night?”
“Cool. Too bad you couldn’t make it. We cleaned them up!”
Jack smiled and gave him a high five. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it next Sunday.”
“You better. Captain tells me we’ll be working the Cassidy case together.” He paused and smiled at Lauren. “Howdy Miss Lauren,” Eddie said in the best southernly gentleman voice he could muster.
Jack smiled. He knew Eddie enjoyed teasing her.
Lauren rolled her eyes. “Eddie, always a pleasure to see you. Guys, I’m going to the ladies’ room. Meet me at the interrogation room. Don’t be long.”
As Lauren walked away, Eddie gave a low, appreciative whistle. “I don’t know how you do it. How can you resist all that?”
Jack watched Lauren’s ample derriere and hourglass figure disappear around the corner. He had to admit that Lauren was a stunner. Long, black hair he was convinced she wore in a braid to frustrate him, big beautiful blue eyes, high cheekbones and luscious lips—she had the face of a high fashion model. And a body straight from the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Jack couldn’t deny that he was often tempted. But Lauren wasn’t the type of woman you had a casual affair with. And after his messy divorce, he avoided such complications like a kid avoided bullies. “Two words—Vanessa Davidson.”
Vanessa was his ex-wife. They had been married for two years and he had made many mistakes. His dedication to his job had been a major issue. He often had to keep secrets from her and she had accused him of loving his work more than her. He had vehemently denied it at the time but in retrospect he was ashamed to admit she was right. It had led to ugly fights and an even uglier divorce.
“That was a long time ago, man. Get over it and move on,” Eddie said.
Jack shook his head and decided to ignore Eddie’s prodding.
“Anyway, let’s go talk to this John Cassidy guy. Have you seen him?”
“Just when they were bringing him in. His eyes man. They were so cold. So dead.”
Jack gritted his teeth and stared at the light blue wall of the interrogation room. He took a deep breath and tried to keep his temper in check. If he could sum up John Cassidy in one word it would be devoid. Devoid of feeling. Devoid of remorse. And devoid of speech.
John hadn’t answered a single one of his questions. In fact he just looked at Jack like he was looking at a blank TV-screen. His state appointed lawyer sat to the right of him fidgeting and adjusting his glasses. He looked like he was fresh out of law school—no top notch state defender for John. Eddie stood in the corner of the interrogation room, his arms folded across his chest.
Lauren was in the seat next to Jack and had let Jack do most of the talking. He knew she preferred to observe from the sidelines. She rarely intervened unless it was to stop Jack from doing something out-of-hand which Jack felt could be any moment now. His frustration level was setting new world records.
“Let me try again. Who are you working with?” Jack leaned so close into John’s face he could see his pores.
Silence. No answer. No change of expression.
“Dammit!” Jack pounded his fist on the table. The glass of water which had been sitting untouched on the table fell over and spilled its contents. Jack sat down never taking his eyes off of John. What was this guy’s deal? He couldn’t get a feel for him. After ten years at the FBI, he could put ‘reading people’ as one of the skills on his resumé. Not now though.
On the surface, John Cassidy looked like an average Joe. Five feet eight inches, one hundred and eighty pounds with brown hair, brown eyes, he could easily blend in a crowd of people. But as he had often learned in his line of work, ordinary people often did out of the ordinary things.
“Listen kid. You are looking at spending a lot of time behind bars. If you co-operate you can make things a whole lot easier on yourself,” Eddie said.
Eddie might as well have been talking to the concrete wall. John kept the blank expression on his face which he had worn since the beginning of the interrogation. Jack glanced at his watch. They had been at it for half an hour already and they still hadn’t learned anything. Was this the beginning of some larger plot or an isolated act? The fact that John refused to say anything and that he had schooled his body language to reveal nothing suggested that he was not working alone. This is what nagged at Jack the most. If it was true it meant that there was more trouble to come.
Lauren put her hand on Jack’s arm. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
Jack knew she was right. He stood up and rumpled John’s hair roughly. “This isn’t over kid.”
He looked over at Lauren and Eddie and signaled for them to leave. Once they were outside the room, he let out a deep breath. “What do you guys think?”
“Either that guy’s a stone cold pyscho or he’s not acting alone. Maybe after he spends the night in lockup, he might loosen his lips,” Eddie said.
“I doubt. That guy has been trained very well. Meanwhile, let’s head out to his apartment and see if we find anything.”
“I have some things to wrap up here. You guys go on ahead and fill me in later.”
“Ok. We’ll call you when we’re done. You ready Jack?” Lauren said.
“Yeah. Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
“This shouldn’t take long,” Jack said as he looked around John Cassidy’s small bachelor pad. With one glance he was able to survey the entire apartment. The bedroom and living room were one and the same and was separated from the kitchen by a long counter top. There was a bureau underneath a lone window with tan blinds that were closed. The single-sized bed was jammed to the wall. There was a door on one side and a computer desk in the corner on the other.
While Lauren booted up the computer, Jack walked over to the window and pulled up the blinds. The afternoon light flooded the apartment and Jack shielded his eyes from the glare. He bent over and pulled out the top bureau drawer. The clothes were neatly folded inside; there were the usual T-shirts and jeans. He then opened the bottom drawer searching around the underwear and socks. Nothing. “What’s on his computer?” he asked.
“So far nothing of interest. He is a dedicated mechanic. Hard drive is full of stuff on cars.”
Jack crouched down to look under the bed and noticed some shiny metallic dust particles on the brown carpet. He passed his hand over it and against the cream color of his latex gloves he could see that it was grey and granular. Pulling an evidence bag and a spatula from his pocket, he collected as much he could into the bag.
“Nothing suspicious on the computer. We’ll have to take it down to the lab for a deeper scan. Maybe he deleted something they can recover. I’ll request his internet browsing records from his ISP when we get back to the office. I’m going to check the bathroom,” Lauren said.
Jack looked up as Lauren passed him. He couldn’t help but be struck again by her beauty. It was as if she was sculpted out of a man’s fantasy. He derided himself for letting his thoughts wander at a time like this. At any rate, as he had reminded himself many times over the years they were working together, Lauren was off-limits. No matter how his body reacted to hers, she was his partner so going down that road would be messy. It was best to avoid it.
Jack got up and went into the kitchen. He opened the cupboards and the fridge. There was nothing out of the ordinary. He noticed a jacket hanging from a hook on the wall to the side of the entrance door to the apartment. He went through the pockets and found a phone number and a receipt from Big ‘Ole Burgers dated a week ago. So he cased the place before, Jack thought. He took out his cell phone and dialed the number. It kept ringing and no one picked up. It went to voicemail and a male voice said, “You know what to do.” Jack rolled his eyes. He never understood why people had those wise guy greetings on their voicemail. When he returned to the office, he would get a trace on the number.
“Bathroom’s all clear,” Lauren said.
“Let’s close up here and talk to the neighbors.”
They carried the computer down to the car and went back inside to talk to the neighbors. The building had two floors with four rooms on each floor. Lauren took the bottom floor. Jack went upstairs and started with the apartment closest to the stairwell. There was no answer. No surprise there as it was the four thirty in the afternoon and he expected most people to still be at work. The next room was John’s so he knocked on the one adjacent to it. No answer.
He tried the last door. A woman dressed in a long, pink ratty robe answered the door. She had a box of tissues in her hand and a bad case of the cold.
“Sorry to bother you ma’am. I’m Agent Rossi with the FBI. I just have a few questions to ask you about John Cassidy,” he said as he flashed his badge.
She looked at it and nodded. “This is about the shooting today isn’t it? It’s all over the news. Terrible what happened.”
“May I ask your name?”
“What can you tell me about John?”
“I don’t know much about him really. He was a quiet neighbor. Polite. I am still shocked that he would do something like this.”
“Notice anything ‘off’ about him lately?”
“I don’t really see him much. I can’t say I noticed anything.”
“What about visitors? Any friends or family that came to see him?”
“He had a friend that used to come around on and off.”
“Do you know his name?”
“I think I heard John call him, ‘Greg’. I don’t know his last name. We were never introduced. He’s about six feet, lanky, with black hair in a crew cut.”
“Anything distinctive about him? Birthmarks, tattoos, scars?”
“I’m not sure. I never really looked at him if you know what I mean.”
Jack never ceased to be amazed at how little people paid attention to the things happening around them. If it didn’t affect them directly, they didn’t care. “Do you know if John was a member of any group?”
“What do mean like a cult or something?”
“Any kind of group.”
She shook her head and sneezed into a tissue. Jack handed her his card.
“Thank you. If you think of anything else, call me.”
Jack turned and went downstairs. Lauren had just finished talking with one of the neighbors and walked towards him.
“Nothing. You?” she said.
“Zilch. Let’s get out of here.”
Lauren glanced at Jack as he drove them back to the office. The vein in Jack’s temple was working overtime. “Slow down. The office isn’t running away. Since when are you in such a hurry to go do some paperwork?”
Jack ignored her and continued to speed along. Lauren knew better than to argue when Jack was this wound up. He reached down to pick up his ringing cell phone. “Yeah,” he barked.
Lauren felt sorry for whoever was on the other end of the line.
“Oh, it’s not you. Rough day … you know I can’t talk about stuff I’m working on … Yeah, we’re still on for tonight. I’ll pick you up at around eight.” Jack hung up the phone.
“Your date for Georgina’s party tonight?” Lauren asked, fighting to keep the jealousy out of her voice. She hoped she came off as light and nonchalant. The last thing she needed was for Jack to realize the effect he had on her.
“Uh-huh, that was Stacey. Are you still going?” he asked.
“Yes. I wouldn’t miss it. Georgina’s been planning this anniversary bash for months. You know how your sister gets. Besides, it took me forever to find the perfect gift for her and Tim.”
“I never thought I would say this, especially after the fiasco with the prescription drug abuse, but he has really been good for Georgie. She has never been happier. I respect the way he manned up and changed his ways—not that I would ever take my eye off of him.” Jack paused for a few moments. “Are you bringing anybody?”
She could have sworn she saw him hold his breath. “No.” Lauren closed her eyes and leaned back against the headrest. She was not looking forward to tonight. Despite all the time she spent hanging around Georgina, she had not picked up any of her social skills. She sucked at small talk and hated to feign interest in people’s lives. Her stomach churned as she thought about how she was going to have to watch Jack and Stacey together all night.
Jack pulled into the parking lot. They got out and went inside to the office. Lauren hurried to the break room to heat up the leftover tuna casserole she brought from the dinner she had with Mrs. De Luca last night. She hadn’t eaten all day and was starving. Wolfing down the meal, she thought about all the people who had their last meal at Big ‘Ole Burger today. It was so tragic. And unnecessary.
She went over to the audio-visual room where Jack was waiting to watch this morning’s surveillance video. There was a large television screen to the front of the room and about ten desk-chairs, the kind with a small writing surface attached to the chair. She sat down and Jack pressed play.
The security footage started off with a typical scene at a fast food restaurant. The place was crowded—there were mothers trying to get their children to stay still and stop playing with their food, businessmen reading the paper while chowing down on their burgers, and long lines at the cashier. Then according to the time stamp at the bottom right hand corner of the screen, at 12.05 p.m John Cassidy walked in. He looked like an ordinary customer in his well-worn blue jeans and green T-shirt. His body language gave no indication of the carnage he was going to cause. He walked up to the security guard who stood a few feet away from the front door. He pulled out a gun from the waistband of his pants and shot him in between the eyes.
The whole place exploded into chaos. People were screaming and rushing to run out of the restaurant. A young boy got trampled over as patrons pushed and jostled with each other in a mad dash to get away. Cassidy spun on his heels and started firing. One by one, he picked out his victims and shot to kill. His face held no emotion—it was if he were merely pointing out items in a showroom. I’ll take that and that and that and that. On the floor, the bodies of his victims lay bleeding forming red pools on the white tile. In the background, underneath the cries of terror and the sharp gunshots, a popular dance tune was playing softly. Lauren guessed it was a tune from the radio which fast food restaurants often had playing in the background.
John paused to reload his gun. A man peeked out from a cubicle behind him. A few seconds later, he sped off and rammed into John using the full force of his bodyweight. John stumbled and the man tried to wrestle the gun away from him. John gave him a head butt and the man released John’s hand briefly. John stepped back and wasted no time. He shot the man in the shoulder. When he fell back exposing his chest, John took aim for his heart. Lauren cringed as she saw the blood geyser out. John took one last look at the man and resumed his shooting spree.
The shrill sound of sirens could now be heard in the background. John quickly fired the rest of his bullets. When he had emptied his clip, he dropped the gun to the ground, put his hands behind his head and dropped to his knees. Police officers rushed in from the front and side doors. John put up no resistance as he was handcuffed and escorted out of the restaurant. The timestamp on the bottom of the screen read 12.19 p.m.
The captain’s words echoed in Lauren’s brain. Twenty dead and fifteen injured - all in a space of fourteen minutes. She took a deep breath and massaged her temple.
“Sick bastard,” Jack said. His mouth had formed into a thin line and he was shaking his head angrily.
Lauren was horrified by what she had just seen. Her heart ached for the victims on the tape, especially the brave soul who had tried to put an end to it. Why did John massacre all those people? He must have had a compelling reason even if it only made sense to him. A horrible thought flashed through her mind. Could it be—? Is it possible that—? Was it time? They had said that when they made their move it would be something big and unexpected. This certainly fit the bill. If they were really responsible, what happened today would be just the beginning. A cold chill rocketed up Lauren’s body. She ran her hands over her arms which had gotten goose bumps.
“Are you okay?” Jack asked.“Yes, I’m fine. Seeing what happened just got to me, that’s all. “ Lauren got up and walked out the room. She refused to explore the possibility that the time had come. She just wasn’t ready to face it; she didn’t know if she would ever be.
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