In Memory of Ed Wooton
For the Love - 34. Homegoing
After dialing information for the FBI's address and checking our map to find that it was only two miles away from our hotel, we returned the scooters, picked up our backpacks, and walked west. It didn't take us long to reach Ala Moana Boulevard, and the imposing bulk of the federal building.
The agent at the desk eyed our big backpacks with suspicion, until we gave our names. A terse "We're expecting you," followed by a quick phone call resulted in us being told, "An agent is on the way down."
We didn't have long to wait. A chime from the elevator announced its arrival, and a female agent in a dark business suit strode out purposefully and commanded, "Follow me."
I was already regretting following the sheriff's instructions, as the terse treatment did not seem to bode well. Steve and I exchanged a worried look as we took seats in the plush office to which we'd been guided to, while the agent settled in behind the desk. Leaning forward, her elbows on the table and fingers interlaced, she gave us the slightest of smiles, "I'm Agent Sharnhorst. We have agents on-scene at the shoe store and at the crash site. I've just had a very interesting conversation with Sheriff Buchanan, who informed me that you two are witnesses against Sheriff Johnson regarding his indictment, and that the man accused of offering a contract on your lives is his brother-in-law. As such, we will not be putting any of this out on the normal law-enforcement wires. However, until we know the extent of the contract taken out on you, and the organization involved, we need to place you two in protective custody. You won't be going home today."
Agent Sharnhorst must have read the concerned expressions on our faces; she softened, just a little, telling us that we would be placed in a safe house, and although we would need to be interviewed, we would be well taken care of, and any costs regarding our missed flight would be covered by the FBI.
After a long interview on everything that had transpired in recent months, we were led to a black SUV in the basement parking garage, where an even frostier Agent Sharnhorst made sure we were buckled in behind the dark glass windows in back before starting the engine.
She hadn't mentioned where we were going, and her demeanor was far from talkative, so I didn't ask. Steve and I watched with both interest and lingering concern as she drove us further west, taking the H1 freeway around the north end of Pearl Harbor. After the freeway ended, she kept going, heading north along the coast, the scenery a little less green than the area we'd explored on Steve's birthday, but spectacular in its own way.
After taking some side roads, and I'm fairly sure looping back to cross her path a few times, she pulled into a long, curved driveway lined with a thick row of hibiscus trees, shielding it from the road. Pulling up to a garage door, she fished a remote from the glove box to open it and then closed it immediately after pulling the SUV inside. A younger male agent in a business suit stood to the side, opening the door to usher us out and help us with our backpacks. He led us through a connecting door into the building, and no sooner had the connecting door closed than I heard the SUV's engine start, and the rough rumble of the garage door opening.
My first impression, though I had little to base it on so far, was that this agent lacked the frosty demeanor of Agent Sharnhorst. He confirmed it by guiding us into a modest, sparsely decorated living room while saying, "I'm Agent Roberts, but just call me Bob, everyone does. You guys want a soda, or something to eat?"
After tossing us each a can of Coke, and grabbing another for himself from the small fridge, Bob took a seat across from us, raising an eyebrow as he asked, "You guys are a couple, aren't you?"
We'd held nothing back during our interview, and the response to that bit of news had been professional but icy, so I wasn't surprised when Steve replied, "Yeah. I guess they told you that much," with a defiant gleam in his eye.
Bob chuckled, "Relax. No, they left that bit out when they gave me the rundown on your case. It does however explain why they picked me. My usual tasking is counter-intelligence, so I thought it was strange I'd been detailed to look after two witnesses to a RICO case and a contract hit. But, you two being gay explains why."
Steve and I exchanged a puzzled look, until Bob added, "I'm the only out gay agent in the Honolulu office. So, whenever they get a gay protectee, I get the job. The Bureau is heavily staffed with Mormons and Divinity school grads, and neither group is known for its fondness of gays. I'll bet Sharnhorst was pretty cold with you guys; she's an iceberg at the best of times, but she's a devout Mormon, and doesn't like gays. She and I don't get along too well. My boyfriend won't even set foot in the same room with her.
A gayFBI agent? Bob must have read the shock on our faces, because he was laughing as Steve asked, "It's great to know that we're in good hands, but what happens to us now?"
Bob shrugged, "It depends on what the investigation turns up. If there's still a hit out on you two, you might be here awhile. You might even have to go into the Federal Witness Protection Program. However, if that Blackheart character was the extent of it, then you should be on your way home in a few days. Now tell me; why did you two try going in yourselves, instead of calling us?"
Shrugging, I replied, "We thought about it, but what could you have done with only a picture of a playing card? That's not enough to get a warrant. We knew Blackheart was in it for the money, so we thought that we could bribe him, or someone who worked with him, for some information. We had no clue he was a contract killer, too."
Giving us an appraising look, Bob nodded, "We could have tried much the same gambit, with an undercover agent. I guess we'd have been unlikely to get anywhere, though. Apparently, the only reason Blackheart revealed himself was for the contract killing. He'd likely have just brushed off an undercover agent. I can't support what you two did; you nearly got yourselves killed. However, I have to admit, the results are rather promising, both for our interests, and those of your civil suit against the man who appears to have put a price on your heads. FBI agents are, by and large, either accountants or lawyers by training, and I'm the latter. I'll tell ya, I'd love to be in your lawyer's shoes right now."
Bob fixed some sandwiches for lunch, and then showed us to a small guest suite at the end of the house. The first thing I noticed was the sliding glass doors, opening onto a stretch of sandy beach. Bob grinned, "Think of this as some extra vacation time, at government expense. You will have at least one more interview soon, but other than that, your time is your own. There are a few surfboards in the storage shed, and wax in the refrigerator, so have some fun. I've got to be with you, but we can do some sightseeing, too. How about Pearl Harbor tomorrow?"
Steve and I went surfing, or tried to, late that afternoon. Paddling the boards was easy enough, but our attempts to catch waves did not go overly well. I saw Bob watching from the house before disappearing inside, only to re-appear, in shorts and with a surfboard under his arm, heading our way.
He spent an hour teaching us the fundamentals of surfing, including the use of wax; I'd wondered what it was for. He showed us how to put a bead of wax on the deck of the boards, and then how and where to catch a wave. Look for where they are breaking, and just go with the wave.
Steve managed to stand on his third try, shooting me a big grin during the second and a half before he wiped out. It took me a few more tries, but I got the hang of getting to my feet. Bob put us both to shame, carving up the waves like a pro, but for our first try, I figured we didn't do too bad.
If there was one thing I'd never thought I'd be doing: being taught to surf in Hawaii by the FBI would be it... We had a blast that afternoon and early evening, though Bob did disprove the stereotype that gay men could cook; he burned the macaroni and cheese - twice!
The following morning, while Steve was in the shower, Bob told us that we would need to change our appearances a little before the trip to Pearl Harbor, but sunglasses and baseball caps would do. That gave me an idea, and after a hurried conference with Bob, I dug in the backpacks for something, while Bob procured my other request from a wardrobe elsewhere in the house.
Steve emerged from the shower, dressed in a towel, drying his hair as he noticed what was lying on the bed. His eyebrows arched up as he looked to me for an explanation, so I shrugged, "Bob said we had to. We need disguises."
Glaring at me, "Then how come you are wearing your own clothes?" Steve asked.
"I've got to wear sunglasses and a baseball cap, just like you." I replied.
Steve held up the pair of loud plaid polyester golf shorts, before dropping them disgustedly on the garish Hawaiian shirt we'd picked out for Dex, "You can't be serious... I've got to go to Pearl Harbor wearing these?"
Turning away so he wouldn't see my struggle to avoid laughing, I told him, "Bob said to do it. If you don't believe me, go ask him..."
Taking my advice, Steve left the room, only to return moments later, with a downcast look on his face. With much grumbling, Steve got dressed. In the living room, Bob gave us our baseball caps, along with the instructions to wear them, and our own sunglasses. Bob himself had dressed casually; Levies and an Abercrombie T, and I could tell that he was having difficulty not laughing at Steve's outfit.
Steve left the obnoxious shirt unbuttoned, but it, combined with the hideous polyester shorts, plus the emerald green baseball cap, made for quite a sight. I knew I'd just have to get a picture of him, somehow.
The other car in the garage was a black sedan with black-glass windows. As we climbed in the back, I couldn't help but think, 'if this is the FBI's idea of inconspicuous, God help us...'
Bob didn't follow the signs for the Arizona memorial. Instead, he pulled up to the Navy guard post, flashed his badge, and drove us across the bridge to Ford Island, parking near Battleship Row. Our first stop was the Battleship Missouri, and a few more flashes of Bob's badge had us aboard, on a private tour, without paying, and better yet, without waiting in line. Yes, I decided, being a guest of the FBI wasn't bad at all...
Using my cell phone, I managed to get a few pictures of Steve during the battleship tour. In deference to the memorial, he'd buttoned up the hideous shirt, and Bob had trouble keeping a straight face. Steve noticed me snapping pictures, but he was a good sport about it. Bob took a picture of us, standing together on the teak deck, under the enormous sixteen-inch guns. As we continued the tour, guided by a retired sailor who had served on the Missouri or the 'Mighty Mo' as he called her, we learned a lot about Iowa-class battleships and World War II in the Pacific theater.
Our tour concluded after a visit to the Tomahawk missile launchers on the fantail, as our guide explained how the ship had been upgraded in the nineteen eighties, to serve again on the high seas after years in mothballs.
The next stop was the USS Arizona Memorial, which we'd seen from the bow of the Missouri. A graceful white building, seeming to float over the water, built over the shattered hull of the Battleship, the namesake of our state that had gone down on that dreadful December Sunday morning in 1941. It had been then that I remembered that the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II had occurred on the decks of the Missouri, while, for America at least, that war had begun with the Arizona.
Our guide led us off the Battleship, and to my surprise to a small launch tied up alongside the pier. Bob explained, "Normally, tours of the Arizona Memorial start from the mainland shore, at the main facility, and tourists travel by boat from there to the Memorial. But due to our security concerns, I've arranged for us to go by boat from here."
The old sailor piloted the launch like the pro he was, slowing to a respectful crawl as we approached the Memorial's dock. I saw the rainbow shimmer of oil on the water as we approached, as the old salt explained that, even after all these years, the Arizona was still leaking her bunker oil.
There were very few people on the Memorial when we arrived. The silence, broken only by the gentle lap of the harbor waters, was so fitting. Bob and our guide staying behind as I walked forward with Steve across the marble floors to the memorial wall. Neither of us felt like speaking, as we looked at the wall of names, and then over the side, through the harbor waters to the remains of the ship herself.
After our tours, Bob took us for a drive around the naval base, so that we could see the descendants of the Missouri and the Arizona; the modern Pacific Fleet. Bob knew his stuff, naming off the various ships, from Nimitz class carriers to Ticonderoga class Aegis cruisers. He took us for lunch at a McDonalds within the base, and as soon as we were out of the car, Steve stripped off the garish Hawaiian shirt, turned it inside-out, and tucked it into the waistband of his shorts, draping it around to hide them, from the back at least. Over burgers, milkshakes, and fries, Steve asked Bob;"Why did I need this disguise, if we're not leaving a navy base?"
Bob's throat quivered as he struggled to complete a bite of his burger, before he answered, in a strained deadpan, "Security."
I hid my grin behind a mouthful of fries as Steve glanced at me, a glimmer of suspicion in his blue eyes, before muttering to Bob, "Yeah, that's what you said this morning."
On the drive back to the safe house, I received more than a few suspicious looks from my boyfriend. As soon as we arrived, Bob took his leave of us, his grin barely concealed, and Steve literally dashed for the bedroom to change into a pair of his boardies.
We took a walk along the beach, chatting about the things we'd seen that day, when Steve suddenly changed the subject by stating, "Security my ass. You got me, I know you did, it took the freaking federal government to do it, but ya got me..."
A pair of blue eyes bore in on mine, so I answered by taking off running, splashing through the surfline with Steve in pursuit. I burst out laughing, losing my stride as Steve gained on me, tackling me from behind, sending us crashing into the sandy water. Steve pinned me as the Pacific's waves washed over us. As I came up sputtering he chuckled, "I knew it. I'll get you for this... You know that, don't you?"
The next day, Bob gave us another surfing lesson, before Agent Sharnhorst arrived to interview us again. She wouldn't divulge what the FBI had found; simply stating "ongoing investigation" as if that made everything okay. Bob was more forthcoming after Agent Sharnhorst left, "It looks like they got plenty of evidence from the computers, and so far, it appears that the offer to Blackheart was the only contract the reverend took out on you two. They've got the two bikers, so unless something else turns up, they're cutting you loose tomorrow."
We spent our last afternoon in Hawaii sitting around, lounging on the beach, chatting with Bob. We both liked him; he'd treated us well, and become our friend as well as our protector.
The next morning, Bob took us to the airport. We waited for the flight, which the FBI had booked, paying the penalties as well, feeling sad to be leaving. Just before our flight boarded, we exchanged contact information with Bob, and said that one day, we'd be back to take him and his boyfriend out to dinner. I very much hoped that we would see him again, and with that, we boarded our flight home.
Bob's last words to us were the only down note, "Guys, watch your backs. People like the ones you're up against won't go down easy."
It was with sighs of relief that we lifted off for our long flight, our wonderful vacation behind us, marred only by our close call and the violent, though well-deserved death we had witnessed, but with the hope that what we had uncovered would prove worthwhile.
We again survived the airline food, and our flight landed on time at Sky Harbor. We retrieved Steve's Charger from the long-term parking, aghast at having to pay five dollars a day for a strip of dirt. The detour to avoid Piedmont County delayed our return home until after dark, but before we knew it, we were walking in the door at Steve's house, to be welcomed by warm hugs from both of his parents, followed immediately by a severe tongue-lashing from Mr. Williams for our impromptu investigation of Blackheart.
Our return home was difficult in many ways; our vacation was over, and it was back to school and back to work, and also, unfortunately, back to legal hassles.
The good news, though, was that we were now on the giving rather than the receiving end of many of those legal hassles. Thus proving to our total satisfaction the old adage, 'it is better to give than to receive.'
The day after our return, we met with our lawyer Rick for a rundown. He ushered us into his office and as we took seats at his desk, I couldn't fail to note the newest addition to his decor; a gaudy painting of Johnny Cash, done on black velvet. Rick gave the painting a proud glance as he took his seat, getting right down to business, "Guys, we've had some major developments. Sheriff Buchanan went out on a limb and gave me some info. As you already know, the FBI raided the shoe store, and amongst other things seized a computer. The computer had some heavy-duty encryption, but apparently, it had been unlocked. It contained, amongst other things, an e-mail from Thaddeus, putting a hundred-grand price on your heads. This is not exactly detrimental to your civil suit against Thaddeus," Rick said, breaking into a wicked grin at the end.
Steve got the point first, asking simply, "How much?"
Leaning back in his chair to plant his cowboy boots on his desk, Rick smiled as he said, "The records show that Thaddeus and his non-profit corporation have assets around three million, including the church building itself. He's been 'living out of the corporation', a big legal no-no, so I think we can pierce the corporate liability veil fairly easily. I think we should try for the whole shebang and a million besides, so we can threaten any future earnings, then let the suit settle out around two million if it's quick. That won't close the door to going after Piedmont County later, and Sheriff Johnson too."
Struggling to keep from getting my hopes up, I asked, "What was the bad news you mentioned?"
Rick angled his head before answering, "The computer the FBI seized in Honolulu had Thaddeus' email on it, and they traced it back to his IP. However, he's running a wireless network, apparently unsecured, so that gives him a 'reasonable doubt' angle because the IP is assigned to his router, and any computer on that network would show that IP, even if it was just someone jacking in and using his connection. Okay, quick legal lesson here; 'reasonable doubt' will be a defense only in a criminal case. The burden of proof on the plaintiff in a civil suit is to prove his case by a 'preponderance of the evidence' which translated is merely 'more likely than not', while the state in the criminal case must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt; a much higher standard. In other words, the D.A. has a tougher case to fight, but it's by-and-large the same thing we're claiming. Therefore, if he can prove his case, ours is in the bag. Anyway, here's where we stand; the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's Department obtained a warrant for Thaddeus' computer, but all they turned up was an older machine, showing little signs of use in recent months. So, just sit tight, and try to avoid any high-speed chases this week, okay?"
With reluctance, we paid our promised visit to Sheriff Buchanan, who seemed glad of the chance to yell at us in person, before explaining that he hadn't arrested Thaddeus yet, in the hopes that he'd lead them to more evidence.
After visiting the Sheriff, we stopped by Veronica and Chad's house. They welcomed us, wishing us both a happy birthday, before Veronica asked the dreaded question;"Why did you guys stay longer in Hawaii? Dex hinted that there had been some trouble. What happened?"
We tried to be evasive, but like a bulldog, Veronica wouldn't let go, "What kind of trouble did you guys get in thistime?" she demanded.
Steve shook his head, "All I can say is that the FBI put us in a safe house. We can't talk about it, not for a while."
Veronica growled, "I smell bullshit. You guys better tell me something soon, because if I find out from somebody else, I'll get you both, got it?"
After she reminded us that our combined birthday parties would start Friday night, just two days away, and with an unveiled threat or three, she wished us a suspicious adieu. As we drove away, Steve stared at my hair for a moment before saying, "I'm just trying to picture what you'll look like with a purple shaved head."
"Me? You're the one who suggested going to that shoe store..." I replied.
Steve grinned, "Yeah, but you've been to Piedmont, twice, and it was you she threatened with the shave-and-dye job."
Our next stop was Dex's house. We found him in his cluttered garage, fiddling with his remote-controlled airplanes. He was overjoyed with the gaudy Hawaiian shirt we'd bought him, but soon got down to business, "The sheriff won't arrest Thaddeus because of the open network he's running; it creates reasonable doubt. Due to Thaddeus being so well connected, the D.A. is worried that he'd be acquitted if they go with just what they have now. The computer they seized had nothing on it, the file dates indicate that its hardly been used in years. I think Thaddeus has another computer stashed away. I even think I know where..."
Dex turned on a TV, jacked his camcorder into it, and then fast-forwarded the tape from the tunnel exploration. He froze the frame on the doorway; nodding at it as he continued, "We don't know what is behind that."
"Why doesn't the sheriff search the tunnels?" I asked.
Shrugging, Dex replied, "He couldn't find any entrance from Thaddeus' church when that was searched. He said he plans on going in via Betty's store, but after his trip to Phoenix. Four of his deputies got sick at a church picnic last weekend, so he's real shorthanded. That leaves just him, Steve's father, and Deputy Jacobs who's still hobbling around on a cane, so the department's stretched thin. He's got a lot of stuff to prepare for the big meeting with the state police and the State Attorney General Friday, which both he and Mr. Williams will be attending. He wants to get it right, because he wants to nail Sheriff Johnson to the wall. Anyway, he's also waiting to see if my GPS tracker gives any other results."
I turned to Dex with renewed interest at the mention of the tracking device, "What happened with that? We got your e-mail indicating that it moved."
Dex grinned, "Yeah, it moved all right. Late one night, it reported in, moving down Main Street. I tracked the coordinate stream it sent; it ended up about ten miles outside of town, out in the desert. It stopped sending so it's either inside a building, or somebody found it and smashed it."
Steve sighed, "Yeah, but what's there?"
Dex shrugged, "No idea. Nothing out there, as far as I know. Sheriff Buchanan can't check it out because it's over the county line, in Piedmont County. That's part of the info he's taking to the state police. He's going to have them go in and check it out."
Holding up some kind of camera, Dex gave us a lopsided smile, "There is something we can do while we wait. Sheriff Buchanan gave me an okay to put my fiber-optic camera, minus the light, back in the brick wall in Betty's bookstore, hooked up to a VCR. That will give us a record of anyone using the tunnels, and without the light, they won't know."
After exchanging a puzzled glance with Steve, I asked, "But if there's no light, how will it see anything? Do you have an infra-red camera?"
Dex laughed, "No, not yet, but we don't need one. Anybody using the tunnel would need light, so that solves that problem. I'm hooking a photocell into the feed, so the tape will run only if there is some light in the tunnel. That way we don't have to scan through hours of black screens."
"So why haven't you set it up yet?" Steve asked.
Dex turned away, blushing slightly, "The sheriff only gave me a go-ahead yesterday, so I wanted you guys there when I asked Betty."
Translation: Dex was scared of Betty. I'd never seen Dex nervous about or afraid of anyone, so this surprised me, but I couldn't say I blamed him; Betty could be intimidating, "Okay, let's head on over there and get that thing set up." I said.
Dex followed us in his van, and to my surprise, Betty was in one of her rare good moods. As it turns out, she had seen the raid on Thaddeus' church and knew that his days were numbered. She jumped at the chance to play a role, not even batting an eye when Steve brought in the sledgehammer, and used it to tap a steel rod through one of the sealed-up drill holes. Leaving the sledge in the corner, we watched as Dex made quick work of setting up his gear. After running a few tests, he pronounced it in operation before beating a hasty retreat.
Betty looked a little sad as Dex left, but she seemed cheerful enough when she reminded us that we were working tomorrow, as we did most Thursdays. She welcomed us home with a hug, wished us a happy birthday, and shooed us out the door so she could get some work done.
Our home life settled back to normal, and I was pleased to see that Mr. and Mrs. Williams seemed to have overcome the rift caused by the disclosure of Eric's parentage. Mrs. Williams seemed more like her old self again, which delighted us all. Now that we were both eighteen, I was again able to spend the night in Steve's room, so we returned to our old routine of alternating between his room and my apartment.
Given the charges against the Piedmont Sheriff, plus our avoidance of the legal issues related to our age difference, the threat of charges against us had apparently diminished to insignificance. Things were going well, allowing us both to concentrate on choosing a college to attend. We spent hours on the computer, researching both the colleges and the areas they were in, coming up with several favorites. One, which we would have never previously considered, was the community college in Kahului, Maui. We'd seen it during our stay, even stopping by for a look, and the idea seemed to be taking root. We had many other options, but that one certainly was on our A-list.
Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"
Many thanks to Conner for editing, support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions on this chapter.
Many thanks also to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!).
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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