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Cross the Line
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A Death on Rock Creek
He changed identity like many warriors do before battle. He called himself Mercury on nights like these.
Dressed in black from his visor helmet to his steel-toe boots, Mercury had his motorcycle backed up into a huge rhododendron bush by the Rock Creek Parkway south of Calvert Street. He sat astride the idling bike and cradled a U.S. Army surplus light detection and ranging device. He trained the lidar on every vehicle that went past him, checking its speed.
Forty-five miles an hour, on the money. Forty-four. Fifty-two. Routine stuff. Safe numbers. Boring numbers.
Mercury was hoping to see a more exotic and inflated figure on the screen. He had good reason to believe a bloated number like that would appear before this night was over. He was certainly in the right place for it.
Built in the 1920s, Rock Creek Parkway had been designed to preserve the natural scenic beauty of the area. The winding four-lane road ran from the Lincoln Memorial north through parks, gardens, and woods. It was 2.9 miles long and split in Northwest DC. Beach Drive, the right fork, headed northeast, deeper into the park. The parkway itself continued on to the left and curled back northwest to the intersection with Calvert Street.
Forty-three miles an hour, according to the lidar display. Forty-seven. Forty-five.
These numbers were not surprising. The parkway was on the National Register of Historic Places and was maintained by the National Park Service; it had a set speed limit of forty-five miles an hour.
But the parkway’s meandering route was about as close to a Grand Prix circuit as you could find in or around the District of Columbia. Elongated S curves, chicanes, a few altitude changes, straightaways that ran down the creek bottom—they were all there, and the road was almost twice the length of the fabled Grand Prix course at Watkins Glen, New York.
That alone makes it a target, Mercury thought. That alone says someone will try. If not tonight, then tomorrow, or the night after.
He’d read an article in the Washington Post that said that on any given night, the odds were better than one in three that some rich kid or an older prick sucking big-time off the federal teat would bring out the new Porsche or the overhorsed BMW and take a crack at Rock Creek. So might the suburban kid who’d snuck out the old man’s Audi, or even a middle-aged mom or two.
All sorts of people seemed obsessed by it. One try every three nights, Mercury thought. But tonight, the odds were even better than average.
A few days ago, a budget crisis had closed the U.S. government. All funding for park law enforcement had been frozen. No salaries were being paid. Park rangers had been sent home for liability reasons. There was no one looking but him.
Hours went by. Traffic slowed to a trickle, and still Mercury aimed the lidar gun and shot, read the verdict, and waited. He was nodding off at a quarter to three that morning and thinking that he should pack it in when he heard the growl of a big-bore engine turning onto the parkway from Beach Drive.
On that sound alone, Mercury’s right hand shot out and fired up the bike. His left hand aimed the lidar at the growl, which became a whining, buzzing wail of fury coming right at him.
The instant he had headlights, he hit the trigger.
Seventy-two miles an hour.
He tossed the lidar into the rhododendrons. He’d return for it later.
The Maserati blew by him.
Mercury twisted the accelerator and popped the clutch. He blasted out of the rhododendrons, flew off the embankment, and landed with a smoking squeal in the parkway not a hundred yards behind the Italian sports car.
The Maserati was brand-new, sleek, black; a Quattroporte, Mercury thought, judging by the glimpse he had gotten of the car as it roared past him, and probably an S Q5.
Mercury studied such exotic vehicles. A Maserati Quattroporte S Q5 had a turbo-injected six-cylinder engine with a top speed of 176 miles per hour, and it boasted brilliant transmission, suspension, and steering systems.
Overall, the Maserati was a worthy opponent, suited to the parkway’s challenges. The average man or woman might think a car like that would be impossible to best on such a demanding course, especially by a motorcycle.
The average person would be wrong.
Mercury’s bike was a flat-out runner of a beast that could hit 190 miles an hour and remain nimble through curves, corkscrews, and every other twist, turn, and terrain change a road might throw at you. Especially if you knew how to drive a high-speed motorcycle, and Mercury did. He had been driving fast bikes his entire life and felt uniquely suited to bring this one up to speed.
Eighty miles per hour; ninety. The Maserati’s brake lights flashed in front of him as the parkway came out of the big easterly curve. But the driver of the Italian sports car was not set up for the second turn of a lazy and backward S.
Mercury pounced on the rookie mistake; he crouched low, gunned the bike, and came into the second curve on a high line, smoking-fast and smooth. When he exited the second curve, he was right on the Maserati’s back bumper and going seventy-plus.
The parkway ran a fairly true course south for nearly a mile there, and the Italian sports car tried to out-accelerate Mercury on the straight. But the Maserati was no match for Mercury’s custom ride.
He drafted right in behind the sports car, let go of the left handlebar, and grabbed the Remington 1911 pistol Velcroed to the gas tank.
Ahead, the parkway took a hard, long left turn. The Maserati would have to brake. Mercury decelerated, dropped back, and waited for it.
The second the brake lights of the Italian sports car flashed, the motorcyclist hit the gas and made a lightning-quick jagging move that brought him right up next to the Maserati’s passenger-side window. No passenger.
Mercury got no more than a silhouette image of the driver before he fired at him twice. The window shattered. The bullets hit hard.
The Maserati swerved left, smacked the guardrail, and spun back toward the inside lane just as Mercury’s bike shot ahead and out of harm’s way. He downshifted and braked, getting ready for the coming left turn.
In his side-view mirror, he watched the Maserati vault the rail, hit trees, and explode into fire.
Mercury felt no mercy or pity for the driver.
The sonofabitch should have known that speed kills.
A Cop Killing
Leaving the gluten-free aisle at Whole Foods, Tom McGrath was thinking that the long, lithe woman in the teal-colored leggings and matching warm-up jacket in front of him had the posture of a ballerina.
In her early thirties, with high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, and jet-black hair pulled back in a ponytail, she was lovely to look at, exotic even. She seemed to sense his interest and glanced back at him.
In a light Eastern European accent, she said, “You walk like old fart, Tom.”
“I feel like one, Edita,” said McGrath, who was in his midforties and built like a wide receiver gone slightly to seed. “I’m stiff and sore where I’ve never even thought of being stiff and sore.”
“Too many years with the weights and no stretching,” Edita said, putting two bottles of kombucha tea in the cart McGrath was pushing.
“I always stretch. Just not like that. Ever. And not at five in the morning. I felt like my head was swelling up like a tick’s in some of those poses.”
Edita stopped in front of the organic produce, started grabbing the makings of a salad, said, “What is this? Tick?”
“You know, the little bug that gives you Lyme disease?”
She snorted. “There was nothing about first yoga class you liked?”
“I gotta admit, I loved being at the back of the room doing the cobra when all you fine yoga ladies were up front doing downward dog,” McGrath said.
Edita slapped him good-naturedly on the arm and said, “You did not.”
“I got out of rhythm and found I kind of liked being out of sync.”
She shook her head. “What is it with the men? After everything, still a mystery to me.”
McGrath sobered. “On that note, any luck finding what I asked you about the other day?”
Edita stiffened. “I told you this is not so easy, Tom.”
“Just do it, and be done with them.”
She didn’t look at him. “School? My car? My apartment?”
“I said I’d help you.”
Torn, Edita said, “They don’t give a shit, Tom. They—”
“Don’t worry. You’ve got the warrior McGrath on your side.”
“You are hopeless,” she said, softening and touching his cheek.
“Just when it comes to you,” he said.
Edita hesitated and then blew him a kiss before leading them to the checkout line. McGrath helped her unload the cart.
“Why do you look like the lonely puppy?” Edita asked him as the checker began ringing them through.
“I’m just used to a grocery cart with a little vice in it. Beer, at a minimum.”
She gestured to a bottle on the conveyor belt. “This is better for you.”
McGrath leaned forward and took it before the checker could.
“Think champagne made with organic apples, no grapes.”
“If you say so,” McGrath said skeptically.
As he loaded the food in cloth bags, Edita paid with cash from a little fanny pack around her waist. McGrath wondered what his childhood buddies would say about his hanging out with a woman who bought Cliffton Dry instead of a six-pack of Bud. They’d bust him mercilessly. But if apple bubbly was Edita’s thing, he’d give it a try.
He knew their relationship was a strange one, but he’d decided recently that Edita was, for the most part, good for him. She made him happy. And she made him feel young and think young, which was also a good thing.
They grabbed the shopping bags. He followed her out into a warm drizzle that made the sidewalk glisten. Traffic was already building in the southbound lane of Wisconsin Avenue even at that early-morning hour, but it was still light going north.
They turned to head south, Edita a step or two ahead of him.
A second later, McGrath caught red fire flashing in his peripheral vision, heard the boom-boom-boom of rapid pistol fire, and felt bullets hit him, one of them in his chest. It drove him to the ground.
Edita started to scream but caught the next two bullets and fell beside McGrath, the organic groceries tumbling across the bloody sidewalk.
For McGrath, everything became far away and slow motion. He fought for breath. It felt like he’d been bashed in the ribs with sledgehammers. He went on autopilot, fumbled for his cell phone in his gym-shorts pocket.
He punched in 911, watched dumbly as the unbroken bottle of Cliffton Dry rolled away from him down the sidewalk.
A dispatcher said, “District 911, how may I help you?”
“Officer down,” McGrath croaked. “Thirty-two hundred block of Wisconsin Avenue. I repeat, officer…”
He felt himself swoon and start to fade. He let go of the phone and struggled to look at Edita. She wasn’t moving, and her face looked blank and empty.
McGrath whispered to her before dying.
“Sorry, Ed,” he said. “For all of it.”
Light rain had begun to fall when John Sampson and I climbed out of our unmarked car on Rock Creek Parkway south of Mass. Avenue. It was only six thirty a.m. and the humidity was already approaching steam-room levels.
The left lane was closed off for a medical examiner’s van and two DC Metro patrol cars and officers. Morning traffic was going to be horrendous.
The younger of the two officers looked surprised to see us. “Homicide? This guy kissed a tree going ninety.”
“Reports of gunfire before the crash,” I said.
Sampson asked, “We have an ID on the victim?”
“Car’s registered to Aaron Peters. Bethesda.”
“Thanks, Officer,” I said, and we headed to the car.
The Maserati was upside down with the passenger side wrapped around the base of a large Japanese maple tree. The sports car was heavily charred and all the windows were blown out.
The ME, a plump, brassy, extremely competent redhead named Nancy Ann Barton, knelt by the driver’s side of the Maserati and peered in with a Maglite.
“What do you think, Nancy?” I asked.
Barton looked up and saw me, then stood and said, “Hi to you too, Alex.”
“Hi, Nancy,” I said. “Anything?”
“No ‘Good morning’? No ‘Top of the day to you’?”
I cracked a smile, said, “Top of the morning, Doc.”
“That’s better,” Barton said and laughed. “Sorry, Alex, I’m on an old-school kick. Trying to bring congeniality back to humankind, or at least the humankind around me.”
“How’s that working for you, Nancy?” Sampson asked.
“Pretty well, actually,” she said.
“This an accident?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said, and she squatted down again.
I knelt next to Barton, and she shone the light into the Maserati, showing me the driver. He was upside down, hanging from a harness, wearing a charred Bell helmet with a partially melted visor, a neck brace, and a Nomex fire suit, the kind Grand Prix drivers used, right down to the gloves and booties.
“The suit worked,” Barton said. “No burn-through that I can see. And the air bag gave him a lot of protection. So did the internal roll bar.”
“Aaron Peters,” Sampson said, looking at his smartphone. “Former Senate staffer, big-time oil lobbyist. No wonder he could afford a Maserati.”
Standing up to dig out my own flashlight, I said, “Enemies?”
“I would think by definition a big-time oil lobbyist would have enemies.”
“Probably so,” I said, squatting back down. I flipped my light on and probed around the interior. My beam came to rest on a black metal box mounted on the dashboard.
“What is it?” the ME asked.
“If I’m right, that’s a camera inside that box, probably a GoPro. I think he may have been filming his run.”
“Would something like that survive a fire?” Sampson asked.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” I said, then I trained the beam on the driver’s blackened helmet. I noticed depressions in the upper part of it that didn’t look right.
“You’ve photographed it?” I asked.
Barton nodded. I reached up and released the buckle of the chinstrap. Gently but firmly, I tugged on the helmet, revealing Aaron Peters. His Nomex balaclava looked untouched by the fire, but it was blood-soaked from two through-and-through bullet wounds to Peters’s head.
“Not an accident,” I said.
“Impossible,” Barton agreed.
My phone rang. I was going to ignore it but then saw it was chief of police Bryan Michaels.
“Chief,” I said.
“Where are you?”
“Rock Creek,” I said. “Murder of an oil lobbyist in his car.”
“Drop it and get to Georgetown. One of our own is down, part of a double drive-by, and I want our best on the scene.”
I stood, motioned Sampson back toward the car, and broke into a trot, saying, “Who is it, Chief?”
He told me. My stomach turned over hard.
Sampson put the bubble up on the roof and hit the siren, and we sped toward Georgetown. I noticed the light rain had finally stopped as I was punching in the number for Detective Bree Stone, my wife. Bree was testifying in court that day and I hoped she’d—
Bree answered, said, “Rock Creek an accident?”
“Murder,” I said. “But FYI, Michaels just moved us to Georgetown. Two shooting victims. I’m afraid one is Tommy McGrath.”
There was a long stunned silence before Bree choked out, “Oh Jesus, Alex. I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Exactly my response. Anything I should know?”
“About Tommy? I’m not sure. He and his wife separated a while back.”
“We didn’t talk about personal stuff, but I could tell he was quietly upset about it. And about the fact that the new job kept him from working cases. He said he missed the streets.”
“I’ll keep it all in mind, and I’ll text you when we get on the scene.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m going to have a cry.”
She hung up, and my stomach felt sour all over again because I knew how much Tom McGrath meant to her. McGrath had been DC Metro’s controversial chief of detectives and our boss. But back when Bree was a junior-grade detective, and McGrath was still working cases, he had taken her under his wing and guided her, even served as her partner for a brief time. He’d mentored her as she rose in the ranks and was the one who’d recommended that she move to the major cases.
As the COD, McGrath was a competent and fair administrator, I thought. He could be tough, and he played politics at times, the kind of cop who made enemies. One of his former partners even thought McGrath had turned on him, planting evidence and driving him from the force.
As a detective, though, Tommy had keen instincts. He was also genuinely curious about people and a good listener, and as I drove across the city toward his death scene, I realized I would miss him a great deal.
There were patrol cars with flashing blue lights, uniformed cops, and barriers closing off the 3200 block of Wisconsin Avenue. We parked down the street, and I took a moment to steel myself for what I was about to see and do.
I’ve spent years as an investigator with the FBI and with DC Metro, so I have been to hundreds of murder scenes, and I usually go to work inside a suit of psychological armor that keeps me at an emotional distance from all victims. But this was Tommy McGrath. One of the brethren was down, one of the good guys, and that put chinks in my armor. It made this all personal, and when I’m dealing with murder, I don’t like it to be personal. Rational, observant, and analytical—that’s my style.
I got out of the unmarked car trying to be that detached observer. When I reached the bloody scene, however, and saw McGrath in his workout shorts and T-shirt lying next to a beautiful woman in yoga gear, both of them dead of multiple gunshot wounds, the cold, rational Alex Cross took a hike. This was personal.
“I liked McGrath,” Sampson said, his face as hard and dark as ebony. “A lot.”
A patrolman approached and laid out for us what seemed to have happened based on the initial statements he’d taken from witnesses. They said the car had come rolling toward McGrath and the woman. There were shots, three and then two. On that, all the witnesses agreed.
McGrath was hit first, then Jane Doe. Chaos ensued, as it always does when there’s gunfire involved, witnesses diving out of the way, trying to find cover or safety, which is entirely understandable. Folks have the right to survive, but fear and panic make my job harder, because I have to be sure those emotions don’t cloud their judgments or taint their memories.
The witnesses were waiting for us inside the Whole Foods, but before I went in, I walked the perimeter of the scene, seeing the organic goods strewn about the bodies: fresh produce, beeswax candles, and two broken bottles of kombucha tea.
Lying in the gutter about ten feet from the corpses was a bottle of Cliffton Dry, some kind of bubbly apple wine, which I thought was odd.
“What are you seeing, Alex?” Sampson asked.
I shrugged, said, “I thought Tommy McGrath always drank Bud.”
“So it’s her bottle. They together?”
“Bree said McGrath and his wife were separated.”
“Divorce is always a possible motive in a murder,” Sampson said. “But this looks gangland to me.”
“Does it?” I asked. “This wasn’t the normal spray-a-hail-of-bullets-and-hope-you-hit-something killing. This was precision shooting. Five shots fired. Five hits.”
We looked over at the woman, who lay on her side at an awkward angle.
I noticed the fanny pack, put on gloves, and knelt down to open it.
In addition to three hundred dollars in fifties, the fanny pack contained a student ID card from American University’s law school and a District of Columbia driver’s license, both in the name of Edita Kravic. She was three days shy of her thirty-second birthday and didn’t live far from the Whole Foods store.
I also found two business cards emblazoned with THE PHOENIX CLUB—THE NEW NORMAL, whatever that meant; according to the cards, Edita Kravic worked there as a Level 2 Certified Coach, whatever that meant. Below the club’s name was a Virginia phone number and an address in Vienna, near Wolf Trap.
I stood up, thinking, Who were you, Edita Kravic? And what were you to Chief of Detectives McGrath?
Sampson and I went inside the Whole Foods and found the shaken witnesses. Three of them said they’d seen the entire event.
Melanie Winters, a checkout clerk, said the victims had just been in the store, laughing and joking with each other. Winters said they’d seemed good together, Tom and Edita Kravic, like they had chemistry, although McGrath had complained in the checkout line about her not letting him buy beer.
I glanced at Sampson. “What did I say?”
As McGrath and Kravic left, the checker said, she started moving empty produce boxes by the front window. She was looking outside when a dark blue sedan rolled up with the windows down and bullets started flying. Winters dived to the floor and stayed there until the gunfire stopped and the car squealed away.
“How many people in the car?” Sampson said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just saw these flashes and heard the shots.”
“Where were the flashes?” I said. “Front seat or back or both?”
She winced. “I’m not sure.”
- On Sale
- May 23, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing