7 June Jacksonville, FL
Why do I even bother, Rev. Jim Isaac thought to himself as he parked his 10-year old Buick Park Avenue in a parking space that was obviously designed for a more compact vehicle. As he opened the door, careful not to ding the sport utility parked next to him, the sweat immediately began to form, a natural by-product of the fierce humidity one found in Jacksonville, Florida in June: on his brow, under his dress shirt, tie and suit coat. Each year, it seemed that the annual city-hopping Southern Baptist Convention was becoming more and more casual, and he was one of the few pastors who still wore a suit and tie to each of the sessions. Well, he had been going to the Convention in a suit and tie for a long time—longer than some of these new pastors had been alive—and he wasn’t about to change now. Let them be casual if they like, he mused, but I’m going to look like a pastor should. It wasn’t really a pride issue with Isaac; he simply believed that a pastor should look professional, and should raise the standard for others. Heaven knows the standards have dropped enough. Even as the thought went through his head, a young family poured from a minivan. The father was wearing a solid colored t-shirt with a sport coat—a t-shirt!—while the wife was wearing a form-fitting shirt with hip-hugging Capri pants and sandals. Their teenage daughter appeared through the side door wearing a shirt that stopped just above the waistline of her not quite knee-length skirt. She stood three or four inches taller than her actual height, he noticed, elevated by the almost cartoonish platform shoes she wore. What is the world coming to? That’s probably a preacher’s family, and look at how they’re dressed! Isaac sighed, realizing that the world was changing more rapidly than he liked.
The security system chirped as the family walked from their minivan, and Isaac stopped in his tracks: he felt for his coat pocket, and let out a grunt of frustration. He had left that cell phone in the car again! He couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of his thoughts: lamenting modern life and the rapid changes thereof and simultaneously feeling undressed without his cellular phone. He turned and walked back up the ramp to the spot where his car was parked. As he approached his car he noticed a utility van parked in a no parking zone. He hadn’t seen it when he got out, but then he never looked up the ramp behind him either. He stuffed the phone in his inner coat pocket, and closed the door of his car. He looked at his watch and noticed the time: eight minutes past nine. He had just over twenty minutes before the first session started, more than enough time to stop and get a cup of coffee, maybe see a few friends he hadn’t seen since last year. As he walked down the ramp, he suddenly felt a twinge of regret about his thoughts from just a few minutes ago. Life’s too short to worry about dress codes, he thought. After all, Jesus wore a robe and sandals. Face it, Isaac, you’re turning into the grumpy old man you always said you’d never be. He smiled to himself, took off his jacket, and walked back to the car yet again. He loosened his tie and carefully folded it. He took his cell phone out and placed the tie in its place. Out with the old, in with the new. He thought about calling his wife and telling her that he was going sans tie and coat into the convention hall. She had been after him for years to loosen up, and she was right. Might as well live a little, and he tossed the jacket into trunk of his car. He dialed the number to reach his wife at home and pressed “SEND”. He never saw or felt the explosion that ripped through the garage structure, sending him to the place he had preached of and believed in for nearly 60 years.
Everyone else in the country is burning up, and I’m trying to find a jacket. This did not bother FBI Special Agent Thomas Hawkins in the least. Although he had spent most of his life in Florida, he hated hot weather. He had never really cared much for the beach, but he certainly loved the mountains, which is precisely why he had purchased this mountain-top home in Cosby, Tennessee. Most people didn’t even know where Cosby was, which also did not bother Hawkins. When he took time off, he liked to get away, and Cosby was close enough to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg that he could always find something to do if he got bored sitting on his deck looking at the Smoky Mountains. Most of the country was experiencing an unusually hot June, but the mountains of eastern Tennessee were experiencing some of the coolest weather on record, barely reaching 60 during the day under overcast skies. Hawkins found the black leather jacket he left at the house for just such occasions—he had a full wardrobe at the house, as well as any toiletries one might need, so that he didn’t have to pack much of anything when he had a few days off—and walked out into the enclosed garage. There sat his 1996 Camaro Z28, one of several performance cars he owned. He had done extensive work on the black car in the last couple of years, including building a 383 cubic inch twin-turbocharged V-8 mated to a six-speed manual transmission that replaced the aging drivetrain that came from the factory. The car was, by any definition, better than new. It put out around 550 horsepower at the rear wheels, not counting the 150-horsepower Nitrous setup that was available for special occasions. The sleek black car’s prodigious power output overwhelmed the stock tires. He really needed to get a set of 11-inch wide rear wheels and tires in order to have any kind of traction when the go pedal was mashed, but the 17 inch wheels off of a Camaro SS looked good, and leaving the car as stock-looking as possible made for a lot of fun at Test-and-Tune Night at the Gainesville Raceway. It was a fun car to drive as it was, especially on the twisty mountain roads. He got in the car and the race-prepped exhaust barked and popped to life. Even though it was a bit cool outside, he flipped the latches holding the t-tops in place and stowed them in a space behind the rear seats. He could hear his mother scolding him in his head, even as he restated his argument for the umpteenth time: “If I had wanted a roof, I’d have bought a hardtop.” It never convinced her, but he smiled at the memory of the mock-fights they would have about it. A glance at the clock radio told him the time: 9:08 a.m. Big Wally’s would be open for breakfast, and he could already taste the bacon, eggs, and grits. “Heart attack on a plate” was what he always called it, and although it wasn’t the healthiest of fare he justified it by thinking of the five-mile run he had taken earlier that morning. Even now, running was not a natural thing for Hawkins. He had scarcely ran at all before the FBI began recruiting him, and then he had a lot of years of light workouts and lying about how many miles he ran on the treadmill to make up for. By the time he went through the Academy at Quantico, he was the fourth fastest in the required 2-mile run out of his class of 31 Agents in Training. He kept up a 5-mile regimen at least three times a week so that he would never have to work that hard again.
Hawkins paused at the end of the freshly paved, inclined driveway, and turned onto SR321 toward Gatlinburg. He tried in vain to pick up the News Radio station out of Knoxville on the AM dial. The mountains effectively shut out almost all radio signals, and AM rarely made it through with any kind of clarity. He listened to news and talk radio almost all of the time, and if the TV was on there was a good chance Fox News would be glowing on the screen. He hadn’t gotten a satellite dish yet at the mountain house—there was no cable company that served his neck of the woods—so he felt a bit out of touch with the world, but then he realized that wasn’t an altogether bad thing. The world would wait, or it could go on without him.
As he accelerated hard up a steep incline he savored the cool wind whipping at him and the roar of the engine as it spun happily towards the redline. He shifted to third, and felt the car lurch forward as the twin turbos spooled up, generating 15.5 pounds of boost that pushed through the throttle body and the ported intake into the combustion chambers. Already he was doing nearly 100 mph, so he backed off. He grinned like a kid with a new plaything—the motor and transmission work had been neither cheap nor easy, but was worth the time and effort. The car settled into a comfortable 60 mph cruise for the remainder of the short drive.
As Hawkins walked in the door of Big Wally’s Barbecue Pit and Diner, he was greeted by a number of head-nods and friendly “Hey!”s.
“Top of the morning, Hawk!” The owner of Big Wally’s, Rick Wallace, greeted Hawkins with the warmth of an old friend, his Australian accent standing out in the midst of the Tennessee drawls filling the crowded room. Hawkins still got a chuckle out of the thought: an Australian man running a country-style barbecue diner in the middle of the mountains of Tennessee. But the success of the tiny diner was no laughing matter: people came from all parts of the country to eat at Big Wally’s.
Hawkins was also amazed at how warmly he had been welcomed by everyone into the small town. He had inherited a sizeable amount of money from his family, and used a relatively small amount of it to purchase the large piece of property on which his log home now sat. He wasn’t so sure that the residents of this small mountain town would take kindly to some rich fella movin’ in and buying up their land for a vacation spot, but his prejudicial thoughts had been blown away almost immediately in a pleasant breeze of good old Southern hospitality. The little old lady who lived down at the intersection of Highway 321 and the road leading up to his house—her name was Marge Willard—drove up in her Jeep and brought him a fresh baked apple pie. The apples came from the Orchard just up the road, she had said, as proud of her pie as Michelangelo had been of David. Apple pie wasn’t his favorite—he was a chocolate man—but he was overwhelmed by the sweet lady’s thoughtfulness and thanked her for the pie. He had returned the favor by having her up for steaks on the grill, and she filled him in on the history of the area. She told Hawkins that she’d keep an eye on the place for him when he wasn’t there and, in her words, if any thing needed doin’, she’d do it. She had also told him about Big Wally’s, where the good hiking spots were, the names of the folks one needed to know around Cosby, and other important facts. That was last summer, and although he had only been up a handful of times since, it seemed that everyone in the small town knew of him and his profession, referring to him as “our FBI agent”.
“Mornin’, Rick. How’s the bacon today?”
“Thick and crunchy.”
“Sounds good. As long as that doesn’t describe the scrambled eggs and grits, I’ll have some of those, too.”
“Heart attack on a plate, coming up”, Rick replied, heading back towards the kitchen. A curly-haired blonde, whose name tag declared she was “Sue”, poured a cup of decaf on the counter in front of Hawkins.
“How are you today, sugah?” she asked. Sue got a little friendlier each time Hawkins came in. He didn’t really mind, of course, because she was a knock out. She looked to be no more than 21 or 22 years old, and had the look of the stereotypical farmer’s daughter: angelic face, curly blond hair pulled up in a ponytail, and a great figure.
“Great, Sue. How’re things going at your Dad’s farm?”
“Goin’ great. Sure would like for you to come out and see it sometime. I’d love to take you out and show you around the place.” The look on her face told him she had some special places in mind for his visit.
“I don’t have much time this trip, but I may have to take you up on that one of these days.”
“I sure hope so”, Sue said, smiling and glancing back at Hawkins as she turned and walked toward other customers longing for a cup of decaf and a closer look at Sue. She was attractive—very attractive in fact, but she just didn’t ring Hawkins’s bell. He had dated based exclusively on looks before, ignoring the little voice that told him “Not this one”, and he swore he’d never do that again. He was sure that Sue was a great girl, but he just couldn’t get interested. Not in the right way, at least.
Hawkins passed a few minutes by reading the local paper. Published once a week, it contained news about what was going on for the kids during summer break, who had caught the biggest trout so far that year, and special recipes from around Cocke County. The chirping of a cell phone interrupted his reading, and he instinctively reached for his jacket pocket before he realized it wasn’t his. He grunted to himself: he had left the thing in the car. He was on a short vacation, but he had told them at the Field Office that he’d have his cell if they needed him. He couldn’t get a decent radio signal, but several cell phone companies had just erected towers nearby, making cellular phone service not only acceptable but excellent through the mountains. His particular cell phone would have a good signal wherever he went, as he carried one of the latest full digital encryption cell phones that operated on satellite as well as conventional cell towers to insure total service availability. In addition to satellites, the phones used special government cell towers strategically placed throughout the country and around the globe. A new super fast wireless technology was behind the new towers, and each cell was sufficient for a range of hundreds of miles. The technology would not be available to the general public for years, and it was still somewhat untested—hence the satellite back-up. If it continued to work as well as the first 6 months had, the new system, which had cost hundreds of millions of dollars and years to bring online, would guarantee secure communications anywhere in the world.
“Here you go, Hawk”, Rick said as he set the plate down on the counter. “Enjoy!”
“I’m sure I will,” he said. “Don’t take it away before I get started, though. I’ve got to go grab something out of the car.”
“I’ll put it under the heat lamp for you. Just come around and grab it when you come back in.”
“Thanks.” Hawkins walked out and reached into the Z28. He grabbed the phone out of the center console and walked back in. He walked around the counter and picked up his plate from under the warming lamps. He was sitting down on the counter stool when the phone beeped in his pocket: he had a message waiting. He fed himself with his right hand and pressed buttons on the phone with his left.
“You Feds are an impressive bunch,” Rick said from the pass-through window in the kitchen. “Eating and dialing at the same time. Just don’t get confused which hand is doing what.”
“Not much chance of that,” Hawkins smiled as he placed the phone to his ear. “Besides, I’m very good at multitasking.” He pressed the necessary buttons when prompted to access his voice mailbox, not quite hearing the comment Sue made as she walked behind him. The automated voice said: “Today, 9:26 a.m.” A familiar voice followed: “Tom, this is Bob Shear. Call me on my cell as soon as you get this.” The automated voice returned, declaring the end of the message. Hawkins had expected it to be Mark Woodley, his partner on the White Collar Squad back at the Jacksonville Field Office. Woodley usually called him after he had been gone 2 or 3 days, just to catch him up on the goings-on in Jacksonville. They had only been partners for a couple of years, but the two of them had hit it off famously. When the SAC in New Orleans invited Hawkins to come to Jacksonville with him, he agreed—if Woodley could also transfer. Hawkins had grown to like New Orleans, especially the food, but Woodley had a family and New Orleans was not the best place to raise your kids. Then again, what big city was?
He was surprised that Special Agent in Charge Robert J. Shear, head of the Jacksonville Division, had tried to reach him. It wasn’t that Hawkins and the SAC weren’t close; in fact, it had been Shear who had recruited Hawkins right out of seminary. Hawkins had been shocked at the time that the Bureau would want a preacher for a Special Agent, but Shear told him that his leadership experience, problem-solving skills, and intelligence would serve the FBI well. Having always harbored a desire to work for the Bureau, Hawkins applied. He was surprised when he was offered a chance to take the Phase 1 exam, and was even more surprised when he passed and was offered a slot in the exclusive Phase 2 interview and written test. When he received notification a week later that he had been offered a conditional appointment with the Bureau, he yelled so loud that his neighbors thought he was being attacked at the mailbox. A few short months later, three weeks after receiving his Ph. D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at the age of 27, he had received his marching orders: report to the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia for 16 weeks of training. He told the small congregation at the church he had been pastoring that he felt the Lord had opened a new door of opportunity for him, a chance to make a difference in a new way. Amid many tears and well-wishes, they gave him a going away party on his last night as pastor. The gift he prized the most came from the Chairman of the Deacons: an official FBI ball cap that the deacon’s friend had gotten for him on a visit to the base at Quantico. It was signed on the bottom of the lid by every deacon in the church—all four of them. They did it so that he would know that he was always being covered with prayer by those four men.
He dialed the preprogrammed code that connected him to the SAC’s cell phone. After two rings, a familiar voice sounded over the line.
“Hello, Bob. Wishing you were here?”
“You have no idea. I’m assuming you haven’t seen this yet?”
“Seen what?” Hawkins heart sunk a bit in his chest.
“Somebody hit the SBC Convention at the Orson Convention Center,” Shear said, his voice not quite as perfectly controlled as it always was. Shear never raised his voice, never got perturbed. Now, however, his voice contained something Hawkins had never heard before. “Looks like a truck bomb. Took out most of the new parking garage in the blast, then the rest came down about 5 minutes later.”
“When did it happen?”
“That’s not likely to be a coincidence.”
“No. I need you back here. Effective immediately you and Woodley are on the CT Squad.” Hawkins had wanted to get back working Counter-Terrorism, having done work on the squad briefly in the New Orleans Field Office. There had been no openings in Jacksonville when Shear had transferred and brought him and Woodley along, so he was content to bide his time. This was not how he wanted to get back in CT.
“I’ll be back by dinner time.”
“We’ll meet at the FO at 1700. I’ll have Woodley give you a buzz as we get more. Be safe.”
“Thanks,” Hawkins said, and the line clicked off. It suddenly dawned on him that there was a possibility that he knew some of the people in the pile of rubble that had been a parking garage. Hawkins noticed that Rick and Sue were looking at him as if he were about to pass out.
“You alright there, Hawk?” Rick asked.
“Gotta roll, Rick. Bad thing happened in Jax, and I need to be there.” Hawkins reached around for his wallet and started to get out cash to pay for his half-eaten meal.
Rick held up a hand. “Uh-uh, mate,” he said. “You know your money’s no good ‘ere. Get on down the road and do what you’ve got to do. You just be careful.”
“Thanks. See you guys soon.” As he headed for the door several people spoke toward him. Sue’s soft twang cut through. “Be careful, Sugah.”
“Wouldn’t think of being otherwise,” Hawkins replied, and stepped out of Big Wally’s into the cool mountain air.