The Rules of Play
The man who wanted to kill the young woman sitting beside me was three-quarters of a mile behind us, as we drove through a pastoral setting of tobacco and cotton fields, this humid morning.
A glance in the rearview mirror revealed a sliver of car, moving at a comfortable pace with the traffic, piloted by a man who by all appearances seemed hardly different from any one of a hundred drivers on this recently resurfaced divided highway.
“Officer Fallow?” Alissa began. Then, as I’d been urging her for the past week: “Abe?”
“Is he still there?” She’d seen my gaze.
“Yes. And so’s our tail,” I added for reassurance. My protégé was behind the killer, two or three car lengths. And he was not the only person from our organization on the job.
“Okay,” Alissa whispered. The woman, in her mid-thirties, was a whistle-blower against a government contractor that did a lot of work for the army. The company was adamant that it had done nothing wrong and claimed it welcomed an investigation. But there’d been an attempt on Alissa’s life a week ago and — since I’d been in the army with one of the senior commanders at Bragg — Defense had called me in to guard her. As head of the organization I don’t do much fieldwork any longer but I was glad to get out, to tell the truth. My typical day was ten hours at my desk in our Alexandria office. And in the past month, it had been closer to twelve or fourteen, as we coordinated the protection of five high-level organized crime informants, before handing them over to Witness Protection for their face-lifts.
It was good to be back in the saddle, if only for a week or so.
I hit a speed dial button, calling my protégé.
“It’s Abe,” I said into my hands-free. “Where is he now?”
“Make it a half mile. Moving up slowly.”
The hitter, whose identity we didn’t know, was in a nondescript Hyundai sedan, gray.
I was following an eighteen-foot truck, with Carolina Poultry Processing Company painted on the side. It was empty and being driven by one of our transport people. In front of that was a car identical to the one I was driving.
“We’ve got a two miles till the swap,” I said.
Four voices acknowledged this, over four very encrypted com devices.
Without looking at her, I said to Alissa, “It’s going to be fine.”
“I just . . . ” she said in a whisper. “I don’t know.” She fell silent and stared into the sideview mirror as if the man who wanted to kill her were right behind us.
“It’s all going just like we planned.”
When innocent people find themselves in situations that require the presence and protection of people like me, their reaction more often than not is as much bewilderment as fear. Mortality is tough to process.
But keeping people safe, keeping people alive, is a business like any other. I frequently told this to my protégé and the others in the office, probably irritating them to no end with both the repetition and the stodgy tone. But I kept on saying it because you can’t forget, ever. It’s a business, with rigid procedures that we study the way surgeons learn to slice flesh precisely and pilots learn to keep tons of metal safely aloft. These techniques have been honed over the years and they worked.
Business . . .
Of course, it was also true that the hitter who was behind us at the moment, intent on killing the woman next to me, treated his job as a business too. I knew this sure as steel. He was just as serious as I was, had studied procedures as diligently as I had, was smart, IQ-wise and street, and he had advantages over me: His rules were unencumbered by my constraints — the Constitution and the laws promulgated there under.
Still, I believe there is an advantage in being in the right. In all my years of doing this work I’d never lost a principal. And I wasn’t going to lose Alissa.