The early edition of the Charleston newspapers and TV news carried the story of the fire on Market Street. There was very little information for the Professor to analyze. The fire burned the rug shop to the ground. Five badly burned bodies were found, three males and two females. No identifications were being released yet. The article reported that the hulks of two cars were found in the garage. It is not known if the shop owner, a Mr. Joel Hankins, is one of the bodies. The car registered to the shop owner has not been located. The cause of the fire is yet unknown. Charleston fire department forensics personnel are still investigating.
The Professor put his plans for further violence on hold until he had time to decide if his operation was in some way compromised. If no one reported back to him, he would assume that the shop owner escaped and the people he sent to Charleston to carry out the car bombing all died in the fire. For now, he would wait for the rug merchant’s personal ad to appear and see if the Charleston authorities discovered the residue of explosives in the burned cars. No matter what, his plan to spread terror and chaos in the Charleston area would continue. Joel Hankins was not an important part of his plan. But, if he did not use his contact procedures, the Professor would conclude he was now a liability and send someone to find and kill him.
Frank, at the Counter Terrorism Center, decided that it would be impossible to control the investigation of the fire. The explosive residue in the cars would surely be revealed, but he doubted arson would be suspected. Most likely the evidence would point to faulty mixing or storing of the explosive since there was no explosion. For now he was going forward with tracking Joel Hankins and hoping a lead to the Professor would emerge from observing Hankins. He knew Jack Brandon was strengthening his team and could follow up on any action required in the Charleston area. Thank God, Jack’s team had uncovered and destroyed the car bombing plot.
Kathy met Kelly Marino’s flight from Pittsburgh and used the drive back to their house to bring her up to date. Kelly said, “Now I see why you pay such big salaries. I guess I’ll have to earn mine. I’m ready to get started. I can keep up with my studies with the University’s online program. I hope there is a place I can continue with my Hapkido training. I really like it and seem to have an aptitude for the moves. I remember Jack telling me to concentrate on the movement of the feet. Boy, was he ever right. Some of the higher belts haven’t figured that out yet. I’m getting ready to test for my blue belt in the next month.”
When Kathy pulled the SRX into the driveway, she saw that Storm and Lou Washington were already there. She gave Kelly a short rundown on the father and daughter on the way to the deck where Jack was waiting to begin a planning session.
After introductions, he briefed them on the fire scene, “Shadow and I walked along Market Street past the burned rug shop. There were a few firemen and police officers at the scene and yellow tape everywhere. We stopped and one of the firemen came over. I think he wanted to see Shadow. Not many Bouviers walking around in downtown Charleston. He asked so many questions about Shadow that I felt free to ask him about the fire. So far they haven’t determined the cause. Arson hasn’t been ruled out. The building was burned so completely that the investigation is very slow. The five bodies all appear to have been killed by smoke inhalation and burned beyond recognition. There were no smoke alarms, and it looks as if the people were surprised and waited too long to get down the only exit from the second floor.
“After the fireman walked away, Shadow nudged my leg and gave a low growl. I think he was remembering the attack on my father’s house that killed my father, his two friends and house staff, and burned the house down. Shadow was badly wounded in the fight but managed to kill one of the attackers. Still, his reaction to the fireman was out of character for him. He’s usually good with people and very laid back.”
At that time the Minhs came out with a heaping tray of sandwiches, sweet tea and soft drinks. When everyone had settled down, Jack said, “Counting Shadow and the Minhs, we are a group of eight, a small group with a big job. We don’t sign secrecy agreements and have no legal penalties for leaking information. But there are always consequences. I do not give second chances for carelessness, stupid risk taking or not following orders. Most times you will have an opportunity to voice your reservations and offer changes to plans. I want that. But, so much is at stake, including our lives, that there is no room for tentative actions or varying independently from the plan. You can count on having some kind of communications in every operation, so no need for acting without informing. Even with everyone doing their best, bad things can happen. On our last foreign venture, Kelly’s mother, a true and highly trained, dedicated warrior, was killed saving my life. All of our operations are based on the volunteer principle. Before I go any further does anyone have questions or want out? Now is the time.”
Kelly said, “I’m a newbie but count me in. In the short time I have been a member of this group, everything they told me they would do, has been done.”
Storm spoke up, “My dad tells me I can trust you people. That’s enough for me. But, I would like to know a little about what you expect from me when we leave your house.”
“Fair enough. Tomorrow morning I want you and Lou to get a couple of bikes. Your job is to infiltrate biker groups, especially those with a radical Muslim ideology, and try to get a lead on the bikers that torched religious buildings in Charleston last week. If we can identify one of them, we’ll have a chance of finding the Professor and ending his terror plots.
“The bikers may be hired help. They could attract attention by spending too much money. Work the areas where biker organizations exist within 200 hundred miles of Charleston. Kathy will give you money for expenses. Don’t be too careful about letting people know you are not hurting for money. Come up with your own cover scheme. Again, Kathy will support you with some flash documentation. Use cash. No credit cards. This house will be manned 24/7 until we get some leads. Use your new cells and leave messages on the house phone, at least once a day. Don’t hesitate to leave small bits of information that may seem unimportant.
“Kathy and Kelly will concentrate on Joel Hankins, the rug shop guy and serial killer. He must have a way to get in touch with the Professor or his people. We now know where he is and can track his car. Remember, this guy is a monster. He has killed a number of young girls. Our job is not to bring him in or stop him if it means alerting the Professor to be even more careful. In this case national security trumps criminal cases, no matter how heinous. Kathy has some good contacts in the world of national security and will use them to help us. Okay, let’s finish up the food and everyone get a good night’s sleep. Kelly will bunk here for the time being.”
After Kelly left to go to her room, Kathy put her arms around Jack and said, “Well done. I knew there was some reason beyond your money and good looks that make me want to crawl in bed with you. Before I seduce you, I need to tell you I’m worried.”
“What could be worrying you?”
“Your dog. That’s what. I was almost shaking when you were telling us about Shadow’s reaction at the fire site. That dog has never, never been wrong. I trust his instincts more than my own. He gave your father warning when Yuri’s team attacked his house. He killed one of the attackers, he warned us of a bomb in your old Pittsburgh house, and he played a big role in saving us from the gunman in the same house the next day.
“We have evidence that Yuri’s attack team came from Charleston to kill your father. We know Yuri’s cells were often made up of family members. It’s probable that the Pittsburgh gunman came from the same family in Charleston. And now some fireman at a Charleston fire site asks a number of questions about Shadow, and Shadow’s reactions to him were definitely hostile. The easiest way for that family or cell members to find you is to look for a Brandon who owns a big black Bouvier. Now I know that is all probable and stretches of logic, but I trust that dog. One more thing, I suppose that you gave the fireman your name if he introduced himself.”
“Yeah, I did. Your thesis is a bit farfetched, but we have to act on it. The risk of ignoring your analysis is too great. I’ll brief the Minhs right away. They’ll know a few people from their days in Vietnam who can help us. By tomorrow noon our security will be improved. I have a weakness for trusting people in uniform for what they represent. I need to crank up my suspicion level. I hope you’re wrong but you have my attention.”
“Okay, now that we’ve solved that issue, let’s go play the mating game.” One of the many things Kathy loved about Jack was his interest in giving pleasure to her. In their lovemaking Jack had learned she didn’t like prolonged foreplay or teasing. She liked her sex uncomplicated. Hard and fast. Taking his hand, she led him back to the master bedroom.