Copyright 2012 All Rights Reserved
"Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies,” grated over the headset. The man’s voice sounded shakier than the last time he’d recited the children’s rhyme.
“He’s reciting it again.” Claire stabbed the mute button with her finger. “No matter what I say, that’s all I get back. How am I supposed to negotiate for a hostage if all he’ll do is repeat ‘Ring Around the Rosy?’” She chewed on the inside of her cheek. “Do we have any psych reports on this guy?”
“Nothing new. We’ve got the president of the company coming in to give us some idea of what we’re dealing with here.” Captain Reed shuffled the papers in his hand¾the same ones he’d read three times already. “I need a status report, people,” he said into his radio. “Where are we?”
Claire heard their team check in. Almost done clearing the perimeter. Evacuation is ongoing. Stairwells are cleared and elevators locked down. But it didn’t seem to satisfy the captain. “Where is this company president? I thought he was on his way!” He spoke to no one in particular as he paced, looking out the glass door as if the guy they were waiting for would magically appear.
Claire cracked her thumb knuckles. “You know I’ve got to go up on that roof.”
“No way.” Captain Reed’s voice was firm. “Colby and Bart aren’t in position yet. We need the information they can give us once they’re in place.” He brought the radio back up to his mouth. “We have a visual?”
“No, sir,” Claire heard Colby’s voice loud and clear on the radio.
“Captain, I can get us a visual. Let me on that roof. I won’t be able to resolve this if I can’t see him. I need to be there to read his body language instead of sitting down here listening to a nursery rhyme.”
“It’s too dangerous. You know that.”
Claire looked over at her secondary negotiator, Steve Davis, for support, but he merely shrugged before glancing at the captain in front of them. The message was clear: he was the new guy and no way would he contradict the on-scene commander. Claire understood, but some situations needed more than one perspective.
With a small shake of her head, she pulled the mic of her headset down to her throat. Taking a step toward Captain Reed, she used her most reassuring tone. “I’ll be fine.” She drew herself up, giving him her most coaxing smile. It was a look she’d perfected for situations like this.
“Don’t use your do-what-I-say-and-you’ll-get-whatever-you-want tone on me,” he admonished.
Claire pulled at the button on the sleeve of her blouse so she could roll it up. It’s always worth a try. She turned back to the table and looked at her notebook buying herself some time to decide what to do.
“Just keep trying to talk to him. You know the drill¾keep him calm and keep him talking. And a nursery rhyme is better than nothing. At least we know he’s listening.”
Claire released an inner sigh of disagreement and set her notebook back on the table. That was the problem, he wasn’t talking at all, and her listening skills alone wouldn’t get a hostage out of there safely. She wanted to see this guy. Why was that so hard? She put the mic back to her mouth and took the headset off mute. “Gary? Can I call you Gary? Are you still there?”
“Ashes, ashes,” he said through the phone, his voice hesitating a bit before he continued. “We all fall down.”
“Are you sure there isn’t anyone you’d like to talk to? I’d like to help you out of this.” She licked her lips. All she could hear through the phone was the wind on the roof picking up and starting to whistle in the background. “Come on, Gary. It’s not too late to go back. We can fix this.”
There was silence on the other end for a moment and Claire shifted her weight from foot to foot, waiting. She wanted to push through the law enforcement personnel surrounding them and get up on that roof. It was only a hunch that she needed a face-to-face in order to end this peacefully, but it was a strong one and she’d learned long ago to go with her instincts.
“Ring around the rosy,” he began again, his voice soft.
“Why don’t you tell me what you want?” Claire rubbed her hand over her neck. A bead of sweat ran down her back between her shoulder blades. For the first time since this all started, Gary seemed to be fading a little. But what did that mean exactly? She would know if she could just see his face.
“Does that rhyme mean something to you? Tell me what it means and let me help you.”
There was silence for a moment, then the heavy glass door behind her opened. A tall man in an impeccable dark suit and tie entered, staring at her expectantly. She cocked an eyebrow and muted her headset once again. He even had the little handkerchief in his breast pocket that matched his tie. “I’m Vince Kelly. Have you heard from my brother? Who’s in charge here? What have you guys got?”
“Captain Ron Reed.” He shook Vince’s hand. “So far we don’t have much.”
Claire stuck out her hand and Vince shook it. “Detective Claire Michaels.” He’s the president? He looked like he’d barely graduated high school. She reached her hand back to grab her notes and double-check what they had on him.
“What more do you need? We’ve got to get my brother out of there.” Vince unbuttoned his suit jacket and sat down. “The guy up there with him is Gary Holman, a fairly new employee.”
“What do you know about him?” Claire asked.
“He has some pretty severe burns on his face from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. He served with my brother. I know he’s good at his job here. Doesn’t talk much. Keeps to himself.”
“What did he do here exactly?”
“He works in our research and development department. He’s got a lot of rough edges personally, but he has a great knack for figuring out encryption and finding hidden files.”
“Is that what you do here?” Claire made another note, tapping her pen on the edge of the table.
“Yes, we write programs that help law enforcement with data recovery. You know, what criminals try to hide, we expose. We just got a big contract from the Department of Defense because of a program we developed for breaking encrypted files. What used to take months, we can do in days.”
Either he really believes in his product or he’s a slick salesman. Claire jotted down some notes in case she needed the information later.
“I hear you’re the acting president of Axis. Where’s the president?” the captain asked. The question came out a little too bluntly, putting Vince even more on edge.
“My father had a stroke. Listen, I could answer your questions a lot easier if I knew my brother was safe.”
“We’re just trying to get as much information as we can so we can get everyone out safely Mr. Kelly,” Claire tapped her finger on her chin. “Has Gary been having any problems lately? Have you noticed anything unusual?”
Vince let out a breath and looked at the ceiling. “I don’t know. I heard he might have had a few PTSD issues that he was dealing with. But he showed up for work and did his job. We weren’t worried about it per se.”
Claire straightened, going back to her position with the headset. “Do you think Gary would talk to you?”
Vince shrugged. “We could try.”
She turned to the headset, taking it off mute, hope flaring in her chest for the first time today. “Gary, we’ve got Vince Kelly here. He’d like to talk to you.” She handed him the extra headset.
Gary’s voice came through as little more than a whisper as he recited the rhyme again. “Why is he repeating that?” Claire whispered to Vince. “Does that mean something?”
Vince closed his eyes for a moment and his face visibly paled. “Gary was a field expert in explosives. My brother told me that Gary used that rhyme when he was setting munitions, so they could make sure they all had time to clear the area. As soon as he said, all fall down, they took cover. It was an inside joke or something.”
The hope that flickered in Claire’s chest was instantly snuffed out. They had an explosives expert with PTSD on the roof with a hostage? Her mind reeled. Think, Claire. Think it through.
The room went silent as Vince began to speak. “Gary? It’s Vince.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t know what’s happening up there, but I don’t think you want to hurt Rafe. You said once he’s like your brother. Let him help you. Or I can help you. I’ll do whatever you want, just let Rafe go.” He was talking quickly, but he sounded sincere. Claire held her breath.
Vince’s plea was met with silence. He said Gary’s name a few more times, but Gary didn’t say a word. With a defeated look, he handed the headset back to Claire.
Claire pushed the mute button, trying to quickly piece together a strategy. “Tell me again what you saw today, Mr. Kelly.”
Vince folded his arms. “I was scheduled to meet with Rafe to talk over some family business, but was held up on an important phone call. When I was through with the call, Rafe still wasn’t there so I walked out to the lobby to look for him. I could see through the glass doors that he was there with Gary. Gary pulled a gun on him. By the time I’d opened the security door, my brother was on his way to the stairs after telling my receptionist to call the police.”
“Did Gary say anything to you?”
“No, I was too far away.” He stopped and furrowed his brow. “I did notice he was wearing a tacky, plastic-looking jacket.” His nose wrinkled. “And it looked like it had a matching black vest under it.”
The captain shot a meaningful glance at Claire, but she pretended not to see. “What do you mean? What did it look like?”
Vince shrugged. “Like I said, I didn’t get a good look at it. It just looked like he was trying to cover up a beer belly, which was odd since Gary is fairly fit.” He smoothed his tie, obviously relieved he didn’t have a belly to speak of. Claire doubted he owned any tacky jackets, either.
Now, more than ever, she needed to get up on that roof. She walked over to Steve. “Do we have any info from Bart or Colby yet?” She kept her voice low. Her two other team members should be in position by now and having eyes on the hostage-taker would tell her if there was a bomb up there or not. But Steve shook his head. “They’re still trying to get a good angle.”
She moved back toward her original position near the table, rolling her shoulders. “Can you tell us anything else about Gary’s personality, Vince?” She turned back to the phone, ready to try again.
Vince shook his head. “I’ve already told you all I know. We need to get up there and get Rafe out.”
Claire nodded her head. “We will, Mr. Kelly. I just have a few more questions.”
Vince scrubbed his hands over his face. “Like what?”
“You said your brother was here for a meeting. Does he work here?”
“No, Rafe is a Navy SEAL, pretty highly decorated. He’s only here on leave while he recovers from an injury.”
Claire mulled that information over. “What kind of injury?”
“A knee injury.” Vince shoved a hand through his hair. “Are we going to sit around and talk all day or do something? Maybe I should go up on the roof. Maybe if he saw me, Gary would give up or talk to me.”
“I’m going up on that roof, Mr. Kelly, and I’ll do everything I can for your brother, but first I need to make sure I have as much information as possible. Can you describe your brother for me?” Claire prodded.
“About 6’2” I guess,” Vince said, finally sitting down in a chair.
“I have no idea. I don’t stare into his eyes all that often. Green maybe? Blue?” He stood back up and started pacing. “Listen, shouldn’t you be talking to him? What if Gary’s done something to him already?” He reached for the phone headset Claire had left on the table. “I should try to talk to him again.”
Claire noticed Vince was getting more agitated the more they talked, his pacing picking up speed. It was time to get him out of here, so she could concentrate on his brother.
The captain must have come to the same conclusion. He motioned for Vince to follow him to the door. “That won’t be necessary. Detective Michaels has been trained for this situation. We’d like to keep you close by in case we need you, so why don’t you go down to our mobile unit and stay there. We’ll keep you apprised of any developments.” Vince looked like he was about to argue, but with a glance at the captain, he capitulated and was handed off to an officer right outside the door.
As soon as they were gone, the captain turned to her. “We’re not taking any chances. Steve, get down there and make sure the entire building and surrounding blocks are evacuated.” He stood over Claire, the commanding tone leaving no room for argument. “We’re relocating to the mobile unit and if Colby gets a shot he’s going to take the subject out.”
“No. Not yet. That’s always a last resort. You’ve got to let me go up there,” Claire knew she had to try one more time. “We don’t know for sure if that vest is a bomb, but if it is, I just trained on this. I can handle it.”
“That was one seminar, Claire.”
“One very good seminar.” She gave him a half-smile. “Trust me.”
He chewed on his bottom lip. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
She shook her head. This was too important. Putting the mic to her mouth again, she spoke to Gary, but her eyes were on Captain Reed. “Gary, I want to come up and talk to you. Just talk. I’ll be unarmed and I’m trusting you, okay?”
He didn’t respond, so Claire kept talking. “I’m here for you, Gary. Anything you need. You just have to be willing to talk to me.”
There was silence once again before she heard the familiar rhyme start up, his voice stronger this time. “Ring around the rosy, a pocketful of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
“Okay, I get that you don’t want to talk right now. Is Mr. Kelly all right? Can I talk to him?”
Claire could hear some scuffling and she clenched her teeth in frustration. He was definitely a unique case by virtue of the repeated nursery rhyme alone. What was he trying to tell her? To take cover? Did he really have a bomb vest up there? Something else was going on here and she needed to look this guy in the eyes, see how close he was to the edge. She’d never wanted to see someone as badly as she wanted to see Gary.
“Claire, I want this taken care of as much as you do,” her captain said, his tone softening.
Claire merely nodded, her entire focus on Gary. She could hear his breathing, shallow and fast and she knew the adrenaline was rushing through him, just like it was running through her system. “Gary? Is everything okay?” She shot a quick prayer heavenward. Please, God, let him listen a little longer.
After a long pause, Gary finally started to whisper the rhyme again and Claire swallowed hard, grateful to hear it. As long as he was reciting that rhyme, he was still alive and they had time to get the hostage out safely.
The captain grabbed the rumpled papers and read off their laundry list of information for the millionth time, his normally calm demeanor cracking a bit. “We need more.”
His voice was low and tightly controlled, but Claire could hear the frustration.
“If it’s PTSD, we have a chance to talk him down,” Claire said. “He was probably seeing a counselor so we need to figure out who that was so we can get them on the phone.” She paused. “I can go up and get him talking while you’re gathering more information. We’ll keep the team in position with him in their sights. I’ll be fine.” Claire folded her arms over her chest and stared directly at the captain.
The captain wasn’t a man that let many people question his orders, but Claire had been part of his hostage negotiation team for so long, he cut her a little slack. He’d always trusted her instincts before and she’d proven herself on the job. She knew what she was doing, but for some reason the captain was in protective mode today. They all knew situations like this could get out of control in the space of a heartbeat, but in this instance she had a gut feeling and not being able to follow it was making her crazy.
Captain Reed ran his hand over the short gray stubble on his head, his military-style haircut the same today as it had been the day she’d met him six years ago. He obviously didn’t want to give in and let her go out, but he was warring with the fact that he wanted this thing taken care of as soon as possible. “Okay, but I want you to stay on a safe perimeter, especially if there’s an explosive involved. Don’t get too close¾this guy’s on the edge. Literally.”
Claire nodded, a small smile lifting her mouth at her captain’s gallows humor. She quickly took her headset off mute before she spoke. “I’m coming out right now, Gary. And since you’ve been out there for a while, I thought I’d bring you a drink of water,” she told him. “Do you think you can come away from the edge? It’d sure be nice to have a cold drink where it’s not so breezy.”
She didn’t receive an answer.
She set the headset on the table behind her, watching curiously as Captain Reed looked over a piece of paper Steve had just handed him. “Do we have any water bottles?”
He nodded his head and wordlessly handed her the paper. The message said her father had called. Twice. What’s that about? Claire pressed her lips together in a tight grimace. Her dad was the chief of the National Clandestine Service, which didn’t give him a lot of time to actually be a dad. What would make him call now? Was it something to do with this case?
Captain Reed walked over to the corner of the room while she read, picking up a Kevlar vest for her. Handing it over, he watched as she crumpled the note. “I don’t like this, Claire. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Yeah, NCS could add another layer to this thing. I mean, involvement by any part of the CIA gives me a headache. You know how those guys are.” Claire shook her head. Maybe her father was just worried about her. But he would know she was working. As soon as Vince had said Rafe Kelly was a highly decorated SEAL, it had crossed her mind that he could be part of any number of elite groups that tapped the SEALs including the CIA and its arms. But then again, there were a lot of decorated soldiers. It didn’t always mean they were paramilitary. Her mind went back and forth.
“If it’s about this case, I wonder how they got wind of it so fast,” her captain mused, reading her thoughts, watching her face.
Claire took off her duty belt and handed it to the captain. She felt bereft as the weight from her belt was taken off her hands. Should I take a gun up there just in case? As soon as she thought it, she dismissed the idea. Trust with the hostage-taker was essential.
“Claire, did you hear what I said?”
“About them getting wind of it?” Claire lifted a shoulder. “With NCS, or anything even remotely to do with the CIA, I’ve learned not to ask questions. You never get a straight answer, anyway.” She put the NCS and her father’s interest out of her mind as she slipped the vest on over her favorite blue blouse, placing the small microphone so the team could hear the negotiation. Normally she would have protested the Kevlar, but the captain was right. Something was off about this and Claire definitely wanted the extra protection. She wished now, though, that she’d changed her shirt before she headed over here. The Kevlar would more than likely leave wrinkly vest marks and she had plans for later.
“Axis is working with the government somehow, but I can’t get a straight answer out of anyone what they’re working on exactly. Maybe that’s what your father’s call is about,” Captain Reed said, worry coloring his tone as he bent to help her with the last Velcro strap. “Just watch yourself out there.”
Claire nodded. “Don’t worry. I don’t think he wants to kill his friend. I think it’s some sort of PTSD episode.” She ran a hand down the vest. “We can do this.”
Her captain gave her a hard pat on the shoulder just as an officer came through the glass door to hand her three bottles of water. She held onto them, letting the chill seep through her for a moment. Taking a breath in through her nose and letting it out through her mouth, she envisioned the outcome. Hostage safe, hostage-taker in custody. Everyone fine.
With one last breath in she tried to unravel the knot in her stomach and right then, she was glad she’d worked through lunch. It wouldn’t foster any confidence in her abilities if she threw up right before she went out on the roof with a hostage. I’ve got this. With a quick nod to herself and a roll of the water bottles in her hands, she started toward the door that the captain was holding open for her. He looked worried, so she tried to give him a reassuring smile. “I don’t think anyone’s going to die today if it makes you feel any better.”
“Nobody had better,” he said under his breath. “Not on my watch.”
Claire chuckled softly. “So it’s all about your pride then?”
“No, it’s all about getting too old for this.”
He looked genuinely concerned, which gave Claire pause since the captain was well known for his poker face on operations. “Captain?”
With a wave and a shake of his head, he went back to business. “We’ll have you covered. Should Steve try to make contact with him from mobile command?”
“Thanks, but no. Just have him listen and learn on this one.” Steve was a quick learner, but he still had a ways to go.
She headed down the hall toward the door to the roof. Pushing through it, she let the door close before she began climbing the concrete stairs, her captain’s face running through her mind. Don’t let it spook you, she told herself firmly. Focus.
Claire reached the top and opened the metal door before heading across the roof. With a glance at the sky, she saw the puffy clouds from this morning had turned dark and the breeze was cold. Please, don’t let it rain, she said silently, sending one more prayer heavenward. That would make a miserable situation even worse.
She smoothed down her ponytail, the wind chasing some loose strands around her face before she could tuck them behind her ear. Running her hands over the condensation from the water bottles, she took a look around, trying to get her immediate bearings. In a short sweep, she could see the rest of the team in her peripheral vision—Bart and Colby to her left and right, respectively, in position on the far sides of the roof and ready to go tactical if needed. It made her feel better seeing them there. They’d been together on the team for so long, they felt like her older brothers.
Straight ahead was her target and she strode toward the two men very near the edge of the roof. Both men were stone-still, watching her. One man was kneeling down, his broad shoulders pulled into a military posture. Crisp. Like he was ready to salute, even though he had a gun to the back of his head, execution-style.
She stopped, suddenly flashing back to the image of her brother kneeling in that same position, the man above him holding a gun to the back of Luke’s head while he read a list of demands. Her heartbeat accelerated. This isn’t Luke. Although the hostage in front of her wore the same expression on his face that her brother had¾perfectly calm. He didn’t look scared, just thoughtful.
Thrown a bit, Claire forced a smile to her lips, even though the tension in her muscles ratcheted up a notch. And while she’d been expecting to possibly see a homemade bomb strapped to Gary, as she got closer, she was surprised to see a sophisticated black ball, a blinking light, and several canisters attached to it peeking out of his halfway zipped, over-sized jacket. Vince’s words came unbidden to her mind. Explosives expert.
This was obviously worse than she’d thought.