Runner’s Paradise. That’s what locals called Rock Creek Park.
As the sun sank lower on the orange horizon, Mitch Monroe was nothing but one of a dozen runners—just what he wanted—out on a cold, late-October afternoon, enjoying a piece of wilderness in the midst of Washington D.C.
His breath came in white puffs, fogging and disappearing in the crystal-clear air as he climbed another hill. The sun’s weak light barely penetrated the heavy wall of trees on either side of the trail. No traffic sounds came from the nearby road—Beach Drive was closed on weekends so hikers, bikers, runners, and walkers could use the road for workouts and sightseeing.
Thud, thud, thud…his feet pounded a similar beat to his heart, light raindrops falling intermittently and making the trail wet. Running, running, running…his entire life had become running. Running from the FBI. Running from a mistake that he’d do all over again. Running from his past and a woman who haunted his every move.
What he wanted was to be home, but there was no “home” for him anymore. Running was all he had.
Behind him, another runner entered the trail and Mitch quieted his breathing to listen to the rhythm. Was the runner speeding up or slowing down? Following him or simply following the trail?
There was only one person who knew he was here, specifically on this trail at this time of day. He constantly varied his comings and goings, varied his runs and the places he went. Tonight was different. Tonight he was meeting a friend.
Mitch had few friends these days.
The footsteps grew louder, closer. One step, two…he eased to the side of the trail, ready to duck into the woods. As usual, he was unarmed. Fugitive or not, he’d never shoot a fellow agent or police officer. If they came after him, they were only doing their job and it would be his own damn fault if he got caught. Anyone else—say, a bounty hunter or random criminal looking for a sucker—was fair game.
Even though he’d once been a Bureau man with commendations in his personnel folder to spare, he wasn’t a man of violence. He’d protect himself and those he cared about. Period. The level of violence depended on the threat.
The squeaking of sneakers drew closer, and a shorter, thinner man fell into step beside him. Kemp Rodgers. The only man who knew Mitch was here. A friend Mitch hadn’t seen or spoken to in months.
The man who had requested this secret meeting.
Hearing Rodgers’ heavy breathing, Mitch kept his pace slow and methodical. Jogging, not running. He pinned his gaze on the road ahead, putting one foot in front of the other and resisting the urge to grab his friend in a bear hug. So wrong. He wasn’t a hugger. Months of little contact with friends and none with his family had made him crave human contact. “That cushy White House job is making you soft, man.”
Rodgers snorted an out-of-breath chuckle. “Not like our days in the Bureau, huh?”
A wave of homesickness devoured him. Not for the Bureau specifically, but for what had been. His job, his friends, his life…all gone.
Rodgers’ text earlier that day had been brief: Rock Creek. 5:45 pm. TN. Themessage had come from an unknown number, probably a burn phone. But Monroe understood. Rodgers had news about Tommy Nusco.About Tommy’s death three weeks ago during a joint FBI-ATF assignment.
Mitch cut his eyes left, noting Rodgers was dressed in all black. Not a reflective stripe or bright color anywhere. Definitely does not want to be seen. “The cat burglar costume is really working for you.”
“Hardy, har, har. Like you’re some runway model.”
“Not me. You’ve got the cheekbones for it.”
“Too short. But I got brains. That’s why I’m in the White House.”
And I’m not. “I assume I’m freezing my ass off for more than idle chitchat about your doomed modeling career.”
Rodgers snugged down his knit hat, his voice full of the classic sarcasm Mitch missed hearing these days. “You never minded freezing your ass off before. You love survivalist conditions. Probably why you’re such a damn good fugitive.”
It was rare Rodgers threw it in his face. Nervous. But whatever information he had, it was important enough to risk his job by meeting Mitch in the park. As an aide to the president, Rodgers couldn’t be seen with a fugitive, even if he and Mitch had been friends since fifth grade. “Hey, meeting out here was your idea, not mine.”
They jogged in silence for a few feet. Rodgers checked over his shoulder. “Any news from your end on Tommy?”
Like always, thoughts of their mutual friend’s involvement in whatever this FBI-ATF assignment was brought on a flood of questions. Questions Mitch couldn’t expose himself to ask and he knew no one would answer anyway. All he knew for sure was that Tommy had ended up dead in Roswell, New Mexico.
“Nada,” Mitch said. “The few contacts still willing to talk to me claim ignorance. You?”
A tight sigh. “All I heard was something about Executive Privilege.”
What the hell? It took Mitch a few seconds to process this unexpected tidbit, the damning implications. “The president’s invoking Executive Privilege on the case? Why?”
“All my sources inside the House are closed lip. No one knows.”
What the hell did you get yourself into, Nusco? Mitch slowed his pace, listening to the quiet squeak-squeak-squeak of Rodgers’ sneakers on the wet ground. “Something definitely went wrong with Tommy’s assignment.”
“Or maybe he was dirty like the rumors claim.”
Tommy had joined Mitch and Kemp during their sophomore year in high school. Long hair, ratty jeans, and enough anger inside him to fuel a freight train, the crazy teen had copped an attitude that pissed off Mitch from day one. But he’d seen a buried part of himself reflected in Tommy’s cruel lips and flippant comebacks. Seen a reflection of his soul in Tommy’s bring-it-on demeanor and me-against-the-world insolence.
Contrary to Kemp’s advice, Mitch had immediately taken Tommy under his wing. Of course, Tommy being Tommy, he rejected all attempts at friendship, clinging to his outcast status with zeal. But Mitch was persistent. He watched and waited, and when the time came and Tommy finally dug himself into a hole he couldn’t get out of, Mitch showed up in the nick of time to save Tommy’s ass.
Along with Rodgers, they’d taken the FBI Academy by storm. Their instructors had dubbed them The Three Musketeers. Mitch figured it was better than The Three Stooges.
“The rumors are bullshit,” he said. “Tommy had to be working an angle. Something went wrong and now the government is covering it up. That’s the only reason for Executive Privilege.”
“I don’t know. You sure about that?”
It had been a long time since Mitch had been sure about anything, but this…this was different. Cover up. “The whole thing stinks, and it isn’t because Tommy was dirty.”
“If the president is threatening to invoke Executive Privilege, someone high up wants to keep the details secret. My guess? The parties involved are part of a bigger operation.”
Tommy had always been a risk-taker, always reaching for the biggest fish in the pond. Had it gotten him killed? “Christ.”
“Look, I know you were looking into what happened, but now you have to back off.” Rodgers rubbed the end of his nose and sniffed. “You poke the wrong bear and the claws of the Justice Department will come down on you hard and swift. The FBI won’t be the only entity hunting you.”
Back off? No way. If anything, this Executive Privilege development fueled his desire to uncover the truth even more. But Kemp was a good guy—a good friend—and when the shit hit the fan, as it invariably would once Mitch started digging, he needed plausible deniability. Kemp had left the FBI to pursue politics, and in the process, landed a sweet seat in the White House because he didn’t break the rules. Ever. Mitch, on the other hand, had more Tommy than Kemp in him.
Most rules were made to be broken. Executive Privilege or not, Tommy’s killer wasn’t getting away with murder, and the government wasn’t getting away with pinning crimes on an innocent man. Tommy deserved justice.
“Mitch?” Rodgers’ voice held a warning. “Promise me you’ll leave this alone.”
Mitch stopped, his ears ringing. The Three Musketeers never called each other by their first names or made promises they couldn’t keep. “Tell me you did not just go there.”
Rodgers stopped as well, turned and came back to face him, his breath puffing out in white clouds around his face. “I did, and I expect that promise.”
“Easier to open a vein.”
“Tommy wouldn’t want that.”
“He also wouldn’t want to be branded a traitor.”
The two glared at each other in the shadowy light. Ahead, Mitch spotted a group of hikers crossing the road, dressed in expensive clothes and laughing about something. Their flashlight beams bounced off nearby trees and he automatically stepped closer to the woods.
His friend didn’t follow. “I get it, man. You always had a soft spot for Tommy, and without you, he wouldn’t have made it through high school, much less college and the Academy. But he was a wild one, and once you left the Bureau, there was no one keeping him in check. I don’t know what happened in New Mexico, but what I do know is that Tommy might have crossed a line.”
…once you left the Bureau, there was no one keeping him in check. Mitch’s back teeth locked. My fault. He could hardly grind out the words. “Whatever happened, he was not dirty.”
Rodgers set his hands on his hips and looked off in the distance to where the hikers had disappeared. “I’ll look into it discreetly from my end. You stay out of it. Capisce?”
Capisce, my ass. “Whatever gets you through the night, Kemp.”
He held up a hand, his nerves stretched thin with emotion. He didn’t want his friend worrying about him and adding a new layer of guilt to his growing pile. “All right, all right. I’ll stay out of it, but do me a favor.”
“Don’t look into it, even discreetly. Whatever’s going on could put you in hot water. You need to keep your nose clean, forget this conversation. I’ve got a buddy who can investigate what happened. He’s discreet and he has an ‘in’ with the Bureau.”
“Better you don’t know.”
“Right.” Rodgers blew out a breath, looked back the way he’d come. “Guess that’s it, then. You need money or anything?”
Ouch. Mitch stepped forward, offered a handshake. “I’m living the high life. ‘Go home. Find a wench, raise fat babies, live a good, long life.’”
Rodgers laughed at the movie quote, took Mitch’s hand and dragged him into a manly embrace. “All for one?”
Mitch hugged him back. “And one for all.”
As Rodgers jogged off, Mitch watched the deepening shadows gobble him up. What had happened to the three of them? Tommy was dead, Mitch on the run, and Kemp had sold his soul to God and country. Not the way Mitch had thought their story would go.
“All for one, and one for all,” he whispered to himself as he took off in the opposite direction. “Don’t worry, Tommy. I won’t let you down.”