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The Only Thing She Ever Feared
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have dived out of the way to avoid a bullet. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly died while looking into the crazed, psychotic eyes of the men that I hunt. But I can tell you how many times I was thrown into a situation that I couldn’t handle: one.
It had all opened as a rather typical morning as well. The beeping drone of the alarm clock wasn’t any different nor was the customary battle to escape the warm confines of the blankets and embrace the chilly air of the second story of our drafty old house. The weather wasn’t particularly noticeable in any way – it was just another weakly sunlit day in our nation’s capital.
After a customary morning routine in which I had to three times attempt to rouse my husband out of bed, despite his mumbled protests, I emerged downstairs no earlier or no later than usual. It was as I was hopping on one foot while securing my shoe on the other as I entered the kitchen that I realized what I was in for.
Present Exhibits 1-3: Patrick, Elliot, and Alexander my sons, ages ten, eight, and five. Oh yes, seated at the kitchen island they were quite the formidable sight and I pulled back my shoulders, smoothed down the sides of my skirt and prepared for battle.
“Mom, Mrs. Kemp said that we could bring in some things for our class today.”
“Mom, you know I have soccer practice after school?”
“We’re out of orange juice! “
“On the way to school, can we get some construction paper? I need it for a project.”
“And what’s wrong with the printer? I need to print something off and it isn’t working.”
I held up a hand in the midst of their cacophonous assault of voices, which instantly brought quiet. Several years ago, my husband and I had made a rule to our children that none of them could come into our room during the morning until we were both up and ready to begin the day. Children had an irritating amount of energy and Joseph and I needed the full hours of sleep that we were able to catch in order to do our jobs properly.
“One at a time,” I told them, going to the fridge and pouring my glass of milk. “Patrick, you first.”
Patrick was my eldest child – a dark-haired athletic boy who loved soccer almost to unhealthy proportions. “I have soccer practice after school, I need to print off my English assignment, and I can’t find that stupid green hat that Dad always wears at New Years’.”
I took a slow sip of milk. “I can take you to practice, you’re going to have to wait for Dad to fix the printer and the hat – hold on.” I turned and fixed my eldest boy with a stare. “Why do you need the hat?”
Patrick looked at me as if I had grown antlers. “Mom, today’s Halloween!”
I pressed my hand to my forehead. “Halloween. Right.” I looked at my three children, still in tousled hair and pajamas. “But you three aren’t even dressed yet! I hope you picked your costumes out last night because we don’t have time this morning to go dashing around the house looking for something to wear.”
The boys all nodded energetically and made to shoot off to begin working on what they would wear but I called, “Hold it!” and they reluctantly returned to their stools. “Patrick, go and look for the hat and get your Dad up if he’s not showering already. Now Elliot, what were your problems?”
Elliot was opposite his older brother in every way. He still had the dark hair, but it was fine and straight – the kind of hair that gets all static-filled when you pull off your hat. He loved to read but hadn’t listened to Joseph and me when we told him to read with the light on, so now he wears glasses because of it. “I need construction paper and cookies to bring to class today. Also, the pool’s going to be open tonight and I was wondering if we could go so I could practice.”
“We’ll get construction paper on the way to school.” I undid the twisty tie on the bread bag and slid two thin slices in the toaster. “And what kind of cookies do you need?”
“We’re having a party at school for Halloween and that’s what I signed up to bring.”
“Right.” I crossed to the cupboard and pulled out the designated cookie tin. “I’ll make the plate up for you and you can take it with you. And remind me when you get back from school about your swim lesson and either your Dad or I will take you. Now, do you have your Halloween costume?” Elliot nodded and I pointed to the stairs. “Then go and get ready and come down for some breakfast.” Elliot took off leaving my baby Alexander.
Alexander jumped off the stool once his brothers were gone and flung his arms around my waist. He had been made fun of by his brothers for still wanting hugs from his parents and so now sought them only in secret. My other boys did the exact same thing, but none of the boys every hugged in front of each other.
“We’re out of orange juice,” Alexander mumbled into my waist.
I patted his wild head of red curls affectionately. Joseph and I had not been able to uncover where his red hair had come from; it was a mystery to this day.
“And I want to play volleyball at the beach on Saturday.”
I frowned. “It’s almost November, sweetie. It’s way too cold to go to any beaches.”
Alexander pouted for a minute and stomped his foot. “But I want to go!”
I raised an eyebrow and slid my toast onto a plate. “You used the ‘W’ word, Alex.”
“Would like,” he quickly corrected, then frowned himself. “Would has a ‘W’ too, Mama.”
“I said no, Alexander. Maybe if you ask your Dad nicely he’ll stop and grab you some orange juice for tomorrow morning.”
“Okay.” Alexander moved toward the entrance to the living room and turned back to me. “Can I be the frog again? You know, the costume Auntie Elise made for me?”
“Sure. Go and find it and ask one of your brothers to help you attach the patches on the pack.” As Alexander raced out of the kitchen, he narrowly avoided Joseph who was wandering into the kitchen while tucking in his shirt, his tie hanging loosely around his neck.
“Sounds like another morning in the Bradford house.”
I went up and wrapped my arms around his neck, kissing him lightly. “You know it.” I walked back to the island counter and took a big bite of buttered toast. “I have to take Patrick to soccer after school so I should be home around five.”
Joseph, the black-haired, blue eyed charmer that he was, had the grace to look put out. “So much for my plans to have you to myself after work.”
“Sorry.” I put down the toast and began to stack cookies on the plate for Elliot’s party. “I’ve been so caught up with the Archivist, I forgot it was Halloween today. I’ll have to stop and grab a few bags of candy for the trick or treaters tonight.”
“Let me worry about that.” Joseph moved to the hallway mirror and began to tie his tie. “You’ve got enough on your plate in dealing with that psycho.”
“I know.” I stretched, massaging my hands into my lower back. “But it comes with the job, I’m afraid.”
Joseph turned back toward me with a slight glint in his eye. “Sometimes, I think I would be happier if you were just some receptionist somewhere.”
I grin back at him. “But then I never would have met you, hot shot.”
“Life works in mysterious ways, Li.” He smiled at me again and then rubbed his hands together. “Now, what can I do to get those kids out the door?”
I leaned back at the counter. “You can either have breakfast or costumes.”
“I’ll take breakfast.” Joseph opened the cupboard that held the cereal boxes with a flourish. “I do know my way around the kitchen, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Leaving him in the kitchen, I walked down the hallway and poked my head into Patrick’s room. “All set?”
Patrick had found his green soccer uniform, bright green socks, Joseph’s green New Year’s hat and what looked like half a roll of red yarn tied to his chin. “I’m a leprechaun!” he announced over my laughter. “I took it as a dare, okay Mom?” he added defensively.
“I’m sure.” I pointed to his cluttered desk. “Now gather up your homework and head downstairs. Your father’s making breakfast for you.”
My next stop was Elliot and Alexander. Elliot had pulled together a very realistic Harry Potter costume and was attempting to draw a lightning bolt on his forehead while squinting into the mirror. “Where are your glasses?” I asked, moving to help him. After the scar was drawn, the glasses were on and the books were gathered, Elliot took off down the stairs, black cape flapping out behind him.
That left Alexander in the room and after helping him with his frog suit, we joined the rest of the family.
“Special Agent Liana Bradford.” I answered the phone by the third wing just as I was pulling into the FBI parking structure in downtown D.C.
“Bradford!” My boss, Al Jackson, was pissed and rightfully so. It had taken me twenty minutes out of my way to get construction paper for Alexander’s project and I was running very late.
“I know, I know. I’m late.”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” Jackson snapped sarcastically. “The Archivist is waiting just for you, Bradford, before he strikes again. He wants to make sure we don’t begin without you.”
“It won’t happen again, boss.” I parked the car and was in the elevator within minutes. I waited for his response, but he had already hung up. Taking the elevator up to the third floor, I exited and wove through the maze of desks and cubicles until I got to my team’s area near the windows that overlooked the street.
“Another body was found this morning, Liana.” My partner, Samuel Fells, looked grim. “The usual box was found with it.” He gestured to the board where I could see the graphic crime scene photos of our victim. “The box had everything. Bank statements, old bills, photographs, store receipts – everything on paper that Chris Avery can be tied to for the past two years.”
Jackson entered the team area just then and snapped his fingers at me, pointing to the box. “Bradford, I want a detailed inventory on everything in that box. I want it all sorted, tagged and bagged and I want to know what is real, what is a copy and who had access to the information.”
I looked at him in horror. “That’ll take me all day!”
“Well if you would have been here on time, you would have longer, wouldn’t you.” Jackson grabbed his coat and zipped the zipper up with a bit more force than I considered necessary. “I want it done by twelve.” He snapped his fingers at our other team member, Michelle Worthington and gestured for her to accompany him.
I plopped down in my desk chair and stared at the box angrily. “He’s punishing me, you know,” I said to Sam who merely grinned.
“You were late, Li. Those who are late face Jackson’s fury.” Sam had worked with NYPD before transferring to the FBI. He was a good agent who knew what he was doing and had spent many years perfecting his craft. I had been surprised when he had been passed up for the senior agent position by Jackson, but Sam hadn’t seemed to mind. That was one of the things I respected about him.
It took us two hours to sort through the first layer of papers alone. The Archivist had not varied from his previous kills – the notes and documentation of this victim was just as detailed as all the others he had stalked.
Around 10:30, my desk phone rang. “Special Agent Liana Bradford.”
“Mrs. Bradford, this is Mrs. Okung at John C. Calhoun Elementary.” The woman’s voice sounded weak and feathery over the phone. “I’m calling on behalf of your son, Patrick.”
I instantly straightened, gripping the receiver tightly. “Is he alright?”
“Mostly.” Mrs. Okung’s voice lowered. “Mrs. Bradford, your son and another boy were involved in a fight this morning. The other boy had been teasing Patrick and attempted to pull the beard from his costume off his face. Patrick responded by striking the other child in the face with his fist. Jason Lewis went home with a bloody nose and Patrick has some bruised fingers. The administration has decided that Patrick can no longer stay in school for the rest of the day. We need you to come and pick him up.”
I pressed my hand to my forehead. “That doesn’t sound like Patrick at all.”
Mrs. Okung sniffed. “It had surprised me too, I can assure you Mrs. Bradford, but the administration feels that Patrick is a danger to the rest of the children and will not allow him to return to class.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I blew out a breath. “And there’s no way the principal will let him go back to class?”
“I’m afraid not, Mrs. Bradford. Please pick him up within the hour.”
I hung up the phone and rubbed my eyes.
“Problem?” Sam sounded genuinely concerned.
“Patrick got into a fight with another boy at school.” I picked up the phone and dialed Joseph’s number. “They want him to go home.”
“Joseph, it’s me.” I eyed the large box of documents that had yet to be catalogued. “Patrick got into a fight at school.” I explained the situation to him and heard him sigh in frustration.
“I’m really tied up, here Li.” Joseph sounded tired already. “I’ve got a meeting with the Secretary of Defense in an hour and he’ll expect to be briefed with information that I do not have. Can you get away for an hour?”
“No. Another Archivist victim has been found and I was already late getting here. And even if I were to get away, where would I take Patrick? I can’t bring him back here.”
I could imagine Joseph running his hands through his hair in agitation. “Well, what do you want me to do about it, Li?”
“I don’t know.”
Before he could say anything else, Joseph hurriedly said, “I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later tonight.” He hung up and I slammed the phone down in irritation.
“I could cover for you here for an hour,” Sam suggested. “Jackson will probably be out in the field for most of the morning.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that.” I smiled at him wearily. “But thank you for the offer.” I decided to call my sister, Elise. She was usually home during the day and we had called on her in the past when Joe and I were tied up at work and one of the kids was sick. Fifteen minutes later, Elise had agreed to pick up Patrick and take her back to her place.
A blonde-haired, bespectacled man poked his head around the corner. “The Director wants to speak with Special Agent Jackson.”
“He’s in the field,” I responded, looking up from a stack of photographs of Avery at his job.
The blonde agent shrugged helplessly. “The Director wants to talk to someone.”
“I’ll go.” Sam pushed himself to his feet, but before he could leave, his phone rang. After talking for a few minutes, he looked at my sympathetically. “Boss wants me down in forensics helping Darby. Sorry, Li. Looks like you’ll have to face the Director.”
I snorted and pulled my blazer on, fastening the buttons in the front. “Wimp.”
In the video conference room, Director Whitehurst did not look happy. “Status,” he barked almost before I got my headset secured.
While I filled him in, the shrill ring of my personal cell phone cut me off. While I fumbled to silence it, Whitehurst glared at me.
“Do you need to answer that, Agent Bradford?”
“No, sir.” Feeling my face heating I returned to my briefing.
“I want to speak with Agent Jackson upon his return.” Director Whitehurst leaned forward and glowered at me. “And next time, I want to speak with a senior agent, is that clear?”
My face heated more. “Yes sir.” But he had cut the connection before I could even get all the words out.
The rest of the day did not go any better. Jackson returned to the office at twelve and was not pleased to see that I had not finished with the box of documents. After lunch, he got another call to head into the field and this time took Sam with him, telling me I was not to leave my desk until I had finished. To make matters worse, I got another call from John C. Calhoun Elementary telling me that Elliot had had a minor asthma attack on the playground and needed the emergency use of his inhaler.
By two o’clock I was worried beyond belief at about my two boys, both of who were in the care of my sister.
At three, I said goodbye to Jackson and my team, took the box of documents home to work on overnight and left to pick up Alexander from school.
However many tumultuous things had happened today, however many crises I had dealt with, none of those things was the situation that I could not handle. I was a mother of three after all, and was used to dealing with chaos. It was the phone call I received in the car while on the way to Elise’s house.
Fifteen minutes later, the breaks screeched as I jolted to a stop and I left the driver’s door open in my haste to dash into the house. Bursting into the foyer I quelled my children’s greetings by ushering them out into the car. Elise must have noticed the pale color of my face and the strange look in my eyes, for she followed them out and jumped into the passenger seat. I threw the car into reverse and shot down the driveway, breaking the speed limit as I headed for the freeway.
“Mom, what’s going on?” Elliot has always been the most perceptive of the three and was able to detect tension from the moment it walked into the room.
“Someone tried to murder the Secretary of Defense.” I met their scared gazes in the rearview mirror. “Your father was shot trying to protect him.”