More from the novel–Chapter 2 of “All Have Sinned”

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Chapter 2

 

            Special Agent in Charge Robert Shear stood at the perimeter of the destroyed parking garage. Investigators had the ubiquitous crime scene ribbon stretched around an area some 1700 feet from the actual pile of rubble and debris to keep onlookers and the media from getting too close while leaving an opening for rescue personnel to drive their vehicles through. The actual exclusion zone was 1500 feet, and only rescue personnel and EMTs were allowed within, while the next 200 feet out had been marked off as the operations zone where a field command post had been established. The FBI, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and Fire Department already had representatives at the CP, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was on its way. The entire area had been shut down for over a mile, and the police had their hands full rerouting traffic. Interstate 95, which ran directly past the Convention Center, slowed to a crawl as people gawked at the destruction. The collapse of the structure had seemingly suffocated the flames of several vehicles ignited in the initial blast, although there were some small secondary fires burning as vehicles outside of the garage had been set ablaze by flaming debris thrown outward from the explosion’s core. The scene reminded him of other similar experiences—the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, and the WTC and Pentagon attacks on 9/11. He had actually been in Washington attending a meeting with FBI and Justice Department officials when the Pentagon was hit. Minutes later, he had been standing amidst the chaos about the same distance from the point of impact as he now stood from the destroyed parking garage. The same thought struck him as it had with the other bombsites he had been to: what a waste. These people died because some arrogant fool wanted to make a point. He contained his outrage, of course—it didn’t do any good to kick dirt around like a ticked-off coach at a baseball game. No, it was better to present a cool head for the people working the scene. He had seen more than his share of Bureau leadership blowing their tops and running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and had likewise seen what that had done for the morale of the agents. They needed leadership, not tantrums, and he was determined to do his job, regardless of the rage and sorrow that swirled in equal parts in his soul. He also knew that the press had cameras trained on the site. He scowled inwardly at the fact that media personnel arrived almost before emergency crews did. In a big hurry to start the rumor mill. Of course they would make speculations about who was behind it, what had actually happened, and so on—that was what they were paid to do. But he was paid to do a job as well: find the people responsible for atrocities like this and bring them to justice.

            It was a job he did well. Shear had been in the Bureau for 30 years, starting out as many agents do by working as a clerk while in college. After graduating with a Juris Doctor from Yale, he was hired as a Special Agent. The handsome Shear had always looked the part of a G-Man: tall and lean, a skin tone that showed a propensity for outdoor activities, and dark hair that seemed always about to fly out of place but never quite doing so. After some 3 decades in Federal service, his hair was much whiter, but the tan skin still covered the musculature of an athlete. At 6’3” he had been an intimidating figure to many on the wrong side of the law, but he always had a warm smile and firm handshake for a friend, fellow agent, or shady character he was trying to win over. His winning personality matched his success as an agent: he had arrested some of the biggest names in white-collar crime, as well as bringing several crooked politicians to justice. He had worked Iran-Contra, as well as trying to pick up the pieces at Ruby Ridge and Waco. He moved up through the ranks from street agent to Squad Supervisor. He earned a shot at an Assistant Special Agent in Charge, or ASAC, position in Albuquerque which he got, then became SAC when his predecessor retired. Usually ASACs would fill in when an SAC retired or otherwise moved on, but rarely were they promoted to the top position in their respective Field Office. But Shear was unusual, and proved to be an excellent top man—so much so that he was offered a position as interim Assistant Director over the Criminal Investigations Division in Washington. After 2 years in the bureaucracy that is FBI Headquarters, he took the SAC position that had come open in New Orleans. It was there that he had met Thomas Hawkins, a young man that he felt had a huge future with the Bureau. Shear had received a call at his office one day from a young man who was a seminary student and pastor of a smaller church out in Metairie. The young pastor told him of a special service where they would be honoring people who served in government positions, and asked if Shear would attend. Intrigued, Shear agreed to attend. Being a Methodist himself, he was not intimidated by the prospect of attending services in a Southern Baptist Church. When he and his wife arrived, he was greeted by a young man in his mid-twenties. He was slightly taller than average, although not as tall as Shear, but was solid looking, like a guy that could handle himself if had to. Not that many preachers would ever need to, Shear thought, but one never knew. Shear had been impressed with the young man’s easy demeanor and his seemingly natural way with people. He watched as he went to each person seated in the pews before the service started, called them by name, and took the time to find out the answer to his question of “How are you doing?”. When the service came, Shear became even more impressed. The young man had been a natural public speaker, and seemed perfectly at ease addressing the crowd of 150 or so congregants. After the service, the preacher had thanked Shear for coming. Shear invited the young man to give him a call—they could get together and have lunch that week. Hawkins had smiled widely at him, saying that he’d be in touch.

            The next day Shear had pulled up what he could find on Thomas Hawkins. He saw that he had been a decent student, always in Honors or Gifted classes, and pulling A’s and B’s in his classes. He had attended Clemson University as a music major, and attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he had received his Master of Divinity degree and was nearly finished with his Ph. D. Hawkins had never been in trouble, with only a couple of speeding tickets in high school. He came from good stock: Hawkins father was an executive with a major insurance company, and his mother was a physician. He had an older brother, Nathan, who had pursued a career in medicine and was now an administrator of a large medical center in Texas. He had no law enforcement skills, but that was fine. In fact, the FBI preferred it that way, so that they could train an agent correctly and not have waste time helping them to “unlearn” bad habits. Hawkins had the characteristic that had made for successful Agents throughout the Bureau’s history: a natural, easy way with people and a sharp mind. When Hawkins called a few days later, Shear had taken him to lunch. He was even more impressed after nearly 2 hours of conversation, and so he asked: “Would you consider a career with the FBI?” Shear was surprised at how quickly Hawkins had said yes. One 22-page application later, Thomas A. Hawkins was in the pile of nearly 100,000 applications to be a Special Agent for the FBI.

            A tap on his shoulder interrupted Shear’s reverie. He turned to see his ASAC, Walter Simmons, standing with a clipboard in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

            “The local affiliates are all here and they want some news. CNN just nearly ran over one of our Evidence Techs coming over the Matthews Bridge, and Fox News is putting up the pole.” Simmons was a tall black man in his mid-40’s that seemed to be in competition with his boss about who would be best dressed. Shear was already sweating in the early morning sun in his suit and tie, yet Simmons had not so much as a bead of sweat on his brow. There was no competition between these two, however; they had hit it off from the day Shear walked through the door as SAC Jacksonville, and he trusted Simmons to get things done. The ASAC had been here barely 15 minutes, and yet he had half a day’s work done already. And not even sweating, Shear thought as he shed his suit coat and clipped his FBI ID badge onto his shirt pocket. “The Sheriff just said that there was an explosion and that was all we know at this point. His press officer is trying to fend off the news hounds right now, but they want to hear from the Bureau. The Sheriff said he knew we were taking this, and anything you need from him, you’ve got”. Shear had ridden piggyback on the good relationship Simmons had established with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office over the last few years, and as a result the head-butting that often went on between law enforcement agencies was generally not a problem with the JSO and the FBI.

            “The Mayor’s Office called and said he wants to come down as soon as the area is secure. I told them it might be a while.”

            “First things first,” SAC Jacksonville said. “We need to get the sniffers to confirm for us that there’s nothing else about to go off somewhere in the area.”

            “They already have about 60% of the immediate area covered, and expect to finish their sweep within the next couple of hours. Bogart is on the horn right now with Homeland Security, and is monitoring the big picture very closely down here,” ASAC Simmons said. He was referring to James Bogart, the Weapons of Mass Destruction coordinator and Crime Scene guru for the Jacksonville Field Office.

            “Good. After that’s done, I don’t mind him coming down here, but make sure he doesn’t get into anything dangerous. Have you gotten Renee yet?” Shear was hoping that his lead press officer, Renee Cortez, would be the one to talk to the media. As good as Shear was about keeping his cool, reporters seemed to have a knack for finding his last nerve and striking it repeatedly.

            “Nope. Been trying her cell for 30 minutes, and haven’t gotten through. She was supposed to be coming back from the Keys this morning. Her new secure cell wasn’t working right, so the tech guys promised to work on it while she was gone. All she has is the old cell phone.”

            “And all of the cell systems will be messed up for hours with everyone calling to check on family members and friends,” Shear said. “Call the Miami FO and see if they can raise her on her radio.” Shear was so reliant upon Cortez’ excellent skills and working relationship with the media that he allowed the press officer to break the rule about using a Bucar for personal trips. He knew that Cortez kept her digitally encrypted FBI radio on at all times. If they couldn’t talk via cell phones, maybe they could get through another way. “In the meantime, tell them I’ll come over in five minutes to give them a brief rundown,” he said, emphasizing the word “brief”. “And tell them this is a statement, Walt…no questions.”

            “Got it,” and the ASAC jogged off towards the waiting media. Shear turned at the sound of a vehicle approaching, and saw a dark blue Suburban with flashing strobes in the front window and grill pull into the restricted area—Evidence Technicians. Now that the ETs were here, they could coordinate with the rescue crews and help direct their efforts to where people would be most likely be alive in the rubble. Shear prided himself on being an optimist, but the more he looked at the smoking pile of concrete and steel in front of him, the more he believed the rescue crews were wasting their time.

            “What in Sam Hill is going on down there?” the President of the United States asked as he hurried into the White House Situation Room. He saw before him several people he had seen only an hour ago in his morning Intelligence Briefing: the Director of Central Intelligence, the National Security Advisor, and the Director of Homeland Security, now joined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the White House Chief of Staff, the Director of the National Security Agency, and the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI. The Director of the FBI would have been here as well, but was already on his way to Jacksonville from another engagement.

            “Best we can tell at this point, sir, is that we have a likely terror incident at a religious gathering in Jacksonville, FL,” Director of Homeland Security said. “It wasn’t a WMD, but a conventional explosive device demolished a parking garage at the convention center there.”

            “Religious gathering?” POTUS asked. “That’s the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest religious groups in the country. That’s like saying Disney World is a nice little theme park. There’s likely to be thousands of people there, of all ages.”

            “Yes, sir, I realize that,” DHS replied, then continued. “We have no estimates of casualties at this point. Local law enforcement and the FBI are coordinating.”

            The Director of Central Intelligence, Jack Price, spoke next. “We don’t have any indication of international chatter over the last few days, so this doesn’t seem to be an Al-Qaeda thing. They tend to get real noisy before they try to pull something.”

            “Which is how we’ve been able to shut them down before they could,” POTUS interjected.

            “Exactly,” DCI replied. Everyone in this room knew exactly how many terrorist plots had been foiled in this country and abroad because of the diligent work of the agencies represented there. They all knew equally well that the general public would never know of those successes, but would hear only of their failures. It had been said, and rightly so, that when the Intelligence community did their job well, no one knew about it; when they screwed up, everyone did.

            The NSA Director, Alfred Reid, interjected. “Director Price is correct. We’ve had nothing recently. We’re checking logs now, of course, but nothing has stood out that would lead us to expect something like this.”

            DCI Price continued. “This is not to say that it couldn’t be Al-Qaeda, but we could have another Oklahoma City-type thing here.”

            “The militias have been laying low for a while, so it’s about time they tried something,” the Deputy AD for the FBI said.

            “That they would hit another group of Christians is a little unusual for them, though,” the National Security Advisor said. “They usually target racial groups, or those they see as a threat to their way of life.”

            Price spoke again. “I’m not very knowledgeable on comparative religions, but I know that the Southern Baptists are diametrically opposed to most of what these militias stand for, racial equality only one of many such things. That could make them a target.”

            “Well, whatever it takes, we need to get to the bottom of this and find out who’s behind it,” the President said. “Each of you have a job to do, so go do it. Whatever you need, you’ve got it. I’m meeting with the Senate Majority and Minority leaders after this, so I’m sure we’ll have any resources available you need. No one’s going to want to look partisan and petty on this.”

            “I can think of a few,” the Chief of Staff said. Nearly everyone in the room grunted in agreement.

            “Regardless,” POTUS continued, “I’ll get my part done. You get yours.”

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