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The springtime sun was slipping past the horizon as a line of government vans and black SUVs quietly snaked their way through the New Jersey industrial park. Most of the one-story buildings were deserted for the night, but light from a few of the offices bathed areas of the parking lot with a soft glow. Civilian casualties weren’t something Secret Service Agent Griffin Keller wanted to contemplate right now. Not when he was so close to capturing the man who had eluded him for nearly two years. A man, known only as The Artist, who was responsible for flooding the world’s monetary system with nearly fifty million dollars in counterfeit one hundred dollar bills.
Griffin fidgeted in the front seat of the Chevy Tahoe, an SRG rifle on his lap and a lump in his throat. Any one of those occupied offices could be housing a lookout who might alert their prey to the incoming visitors. They needed to get the strike team in place before that happened. The intel he’d received earlier in the day indicated the group was preparing to relocate. Possibly overseas. Griffin would be damned if he let the counterfeit ring slip away from his grasp. He hadn’t played nice with the FBI for all these months just to lose the biggest collar of his career.
“Subject on the move.” The voice of one of the agents staking out the warehouse whispered through his earpiece.
“Damn it! Let’s move in,” Griffin shouted into his radio transmitter. “I don’t want that son of a bitch getting away!”
Agents from the Secret Service and the FBI quickly slipped out of the vans, their bodies forming a wide circle around a darkened office/warehouse unit at the end of one of the buildings. Their dark battle dress uniforms and sleek black helmets equipped with night vision goggles made them look like a bunch of cockroaches fanning out in a kitchen after dark.
“Hey, Agent Keller, let’s not forget who’s in charge here,” Leslie Morgan’s husky voice floated through his earpiece. “No one enters that building until I give the go order.”
Louis Silva, the driver of the SUV, chuckled next to Griffin. “Damn. That woman loves her position of power,” Silva said. “I’ll bet she’s like that in bed.”
At Silva’s comments, Griffin felt himself go hard. Leslie was like that in bed; constantly trying to dominate her partner. Sex with the FBI Special Agent always turned into a sweaty wrestling match. One Griffin never let her win. He frequently wondered if Leslie’s need to best him was what kept her coming back for more. Not that he minded. Their relationship—if it could be called that—was about blowing off steam. Nothing more.
Griffin didn’t bother sharing this information with Silva, though. “Get your mind out of the locker room and back into the op, Silva,” he commanded before jumping out of the car.
Leslie had her team of agents in place just outside the bay doors leading into the warehouse. Griffin’s team positioned themselves along the perimeter of the building, blocking all the possible escape routes. Based on the intel they’d gathered from the agents manning the stakeout, there was only one person inside. Presumably, he was packing up the printing presses, ink, and specialty paper to move to their next site.
“Okay, team, let’s see who’s at home.”
Leslie had no sooner gotten the words out when one of the garage doors opened. A rental box truck, its engine running, filled the warehouse bay. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck, a young man, wearing a Yankees baseball cap, stared wide-eyed at the twenty assault rifles trained on him.
“Federal agents,” Leslie called out to him. “Come out of the truck slowly with your hands where we can see them.”
Griffin watched the driver’s mouth turn up in a sneer as he reached for the gear shift.
“I’m going to disable the vehicle!” Griffin shouted while he aimed his rifle at the truck’s front tire. “I want this guy alive.”
The windshield exploded before Griffin could get the shot off, however. The box truck never moved, its engine quietly idling. Through the shattered glass, Griffin could see the driver leaning against the blood-spattered back wall of the cab, his eyes still wide and a perfect black hole in the Yankee emblem of his baseball cap. Chaos followed as Griffin swore violently.
“Damn it! Who the hell took that shot? I’ll have your ass fired tonight!”
Leslie was yelling for the strike force to check the perimeter rooftops as sirens peeled in the background. All Griffin could hear was the roaring in his ears. He took two steps toward the truck before Silva grabbed him, pulling him behind the line of vans.
“Stay back, Keller,” he said. “We need to check the area for explosives.”
Fuck. Not only was his best lead dead, but all the evidence could be blown to bits, as well. Two agents dressed in explosive ordinance disposal clothing exited one of the FBI vans, each with a dog by his side. The agents slowly circled the truck as the dogs danced around the chassis, sniffing for explosives. Like the dogs, Griffin was filled with his own nervous energy, pacing as the agents and their canine partners seemed to take their time inspecting the truck.
“The shot came from a rooftop two buildings away, Agent Morgan,” a voice said over the transmitter. “The shooter got away.”
Griffin ripped his receiver from his ear and let it dangle down over his shoulder as he swore viciously again. He didn’t want to hear about anyone escaping. Not tonight when he’d been so close to breaking the case wide open. His gut had been right about someone else watching the place. Whoever it was, they hadn’t bothered warning the kid in the truck. They simply silenced him instead.
“Can we make this go any faster?” He practically growled the question at Leslie who’d come up to stand beside him.
Griffin was impatient to get inside that truck to see if the gang had left any clues to their identity. Specifically, clues that would lead him to The Artist. Not that he believed he’d find anything, but there was always a chance the black hats had slipped up. Griffin didn’t want to stand around with his hands in his pockets while potential leads slipped away.
Leslie shot him a sympathetic look, but that was the only thing soft about her. “I won’t jeopardize the safety of anyone on this team, Agent Keller.”
She was right, of course. Busting into the truck would have to wait until the area was secure. Her ability to keep cool under fire was one of the things Griffin respected about the FBI Special Agent. Griffin had a tendency to act first and think later. A trait that bugged the crap out of his parents when he was a teenager, followed by every supervisor he’d ever had. He shoved his earpiece back in and continued his pacing.
“The lobby area is clear, Agent Morgan,” a voice said.
“Copy that,” Leslie said. “As soon as the bomb squad gives the all clear, forensics can go in and sweep.”
He ceased pacing and stood to watch as one of the bomb squad agents carefully opened the driver’s door. Griffin held his breath as the agent slowly turned the key, killing the ignition. He then checked the driver’s pulse before shaking his head, telling those assembled what they already knew. The guy would be heading to the morgue rather than an interrogation room. Griffin swore in frustration.
“The dogs aren’t picking up anything,” one of the bomb squad agents relayed through the transmitter. “I’m going to do a quick X-ray of the truck’s container just to be sure.”
“Ten-four, Agent Oswald,” Leslie replied.
Not wanting to wait any longer, Griffin sought out the two Secret Service agents he’d had staking out the warehouse. Mark Phillips trotted out from one of the nearby buildings, presumably the one where the sniper had fired his fatal shot.
Phillips shook his head when he saw Griffin. “Nothing. Not even a gum wrapper up there. I cordoned it off anyway. Maybe the forensics team can find something that will help.” Phillips dragged in a lungful of the night air. “That wasn’t an easy shot to make,” he said. “Whoever pulled the trigger was a trained sniper. A damn good one.”
Griffin made a mental note to check with his buddy from their days at West Point, Adam Lockett, a former army sniper who now served as a commander on the Secret Service Counter Assault Team. It was Adam’s job to know who and where the best shots in the world were. Keeping tabs on his competition was a source of pride for Adam who considered himself to be at the top of that list of the world’s best shots.
“I still can’t figure out why the shooter didn’t take more people out,” Phillips said. “Hell, he could have decimated the New York field offices of both the Secret Service and the FBI in one round.”
Griffin stared at the warehouse where the bomb-sniffing dogs sat at attention while their handlers x-rayed the truck with handheld machines. “That wasn’t his mission. This group is arrogant. Whatever we find in that truck will be sterile as the day it came from the factory. The tools can be replaced. As long as they have The Artist, they can set up shop somewhere else.” He kicked at a lamppost in disgust.
Two black sedans with sirens flashing rounded the corner and came to an abrupt stop in front of Griffin. He blew out a heavy breath, having no doubt each car contained the director of both agency’s field offices. Steve Kass, the Secret Service field director of the New York office, alighted from his car first.
“What the hell happened, Keller?” he demanded as the FBI field director made his way out of his car and over to where Leslie was still trying to keep charge of the scene. “You told me this was as close to a sure thing as it gets. I’d assumed we would arrive in time to see you leading out counterfeiters in handcuffs.”
“It would seem someone didn’t want to leave behind anything that could incriminate the rest of the gang,” Griffin said. “Including the driver.”
“The truck is clean, Agent Morgan,” the bomb squad agent relayed thru Griffin’s earpiece.
“If there were something in that truck that could lead us to The Artist or this group, we’d be sifting through shrapnel right now,” Griffin told his boss. He gestured to the crowd forming at the back of the parking lot. Apparently, there were more people working late in the industrial park than he’d counted on. “Phillips, take Silva and whomever else you can grab and start interviewing those people. I want to know what they saw and heard. After you get their names, forward them to the joint operations center in DC for cross-check. Let’s make sure everyone is who they say they are.”
“You think our shooter might not have left?” Director Kass quietly asked when Phillips walked off.
“At this point, I don’t know what to think anymore,” Griffin responded. “But I’m not taking any chances. Let’s go see what’s in the truck.”
Just as Griffin suspected, the truck contained boxes of ink and linen paper used for printing money. A high-pressure intaglio printing press, carefully wrapped on shipping pallets, sat at the rear of the truck, seemingly mocking Griffin. While this kind of printing press was expensive and difficult to come by, the group had proved they could get any and all materials they needed to successfully make fake money. The Artist’s talents for creating bills that were nearly indistinguishable from the real thing were the component of their operation that was priceless.
Leslie came up beside Griffin and discreetly touched his arm. She knew how important solving this case was to him. “We’ll take the truck back to the lab and dust it for prints.”
“The only prints you’ll likely find will be that guy’s.” Griffin gestured to the kid who’d been driving the truck, now stretched out on a gurney, awaiting a body bag.
“Still, it’s worth a shot.” She gave his arm a squeeze and went to talk to her team.
Griffin wandered over to the gurney and stared down at the deceased driver whose license identified him as twenty-year-old Jamal Issacs, from Freehold, if in fact that was his real ID. Griffin wondered how a kid from Springsteen’s hometown got mixed up with a counterfeit gang made up of crooks based in Greece.
“Whoever took that shot must have been a Red Sox fan,” the medical examiner joked from behind him. With his gloved hand, he reached around Griffin and lifted off the baseball cap, gesturing to bullet hole before dropping it into an evidence bag. Having grown up in Boston, Griffin came from a long line of Sox fans, but the sight of the desecrated Yankee cap didn’t alleviate any of his disgust over the current situation.
“He had this in the front seat with him,” the medical examiner continued. “Must not have wanted it rolling around in the back.” He pulled out a three-foot-long cardboard tube; the kind used to carry blueprints.
Griffin’s interest was immediately piqued. He grabbed a pair of latex gloves out of the evidence kit and pulled them over his fingers. Gingerly, he took the tube from the medical examiner and pried the plastic cap off one end.
“They look like paintings.” Griffin gently drew the rolled-up canvases out of the tube. Leslie made her way over, and Griffin handed her the tube while he spread the paintings out on a table at the back of the bay.
“So, our artist actually is an artist,” she said.
“Not unless our artist is the reincarnation of Jean Paul Monet.” Griffin shuffled the canvases. “Or Paul Cezanne.”
“A forger, then?” Director Kass asked.
Griffin looked up to see both field directors had joined Leslie and him at the table.
“Most likely. That’s probably how he got drafted into designing ‘forged’ money,” Griffin said. But something wasn’t sitting right. Something about these paintings seemed familiar.
Leslie fingered the corner of one of the cut canvases. “I never figured you for an art enthusiast. How do you know who painted them?”
“My mom’s an art teacher. She’d bribe me with hockey tickets if I’d go to a museum with her.” He smiled at the memory. “The best Mother’s Day gift I ever gave her was a private tour of the White House with the curator…” His voice trailed off, and a chill ran down his spine. Griffin suddenly remembered why these paintings looked so familiar. He’d seen them all hanging in the White House.
He sorted through the canvases again, checking their backs. “Holy shit,” he murmured. “It can’t be.”
“Can’t be what, Agent Keller?” Director Kass demanded.
“I don’t think these are forged,” Griffin said. “I think they’re the originals. And I’m pretty sure they were stolen from the White House.”
Everyone around him started talking at once.
“Are you sure about this?”
“How could someone get inside the White House and steal a painting without anyone noticing?”
“Aren’t these things rigged with some sort of alarm?”
All their questions were valid, but there was a bigger question that consumed Griffin. “How many others are missing?”
“Agent Keller, we still don’t know definitively that these aren’t forgeries,” Director Kass said. “Before we jump to any conclusions, why don’t you take these down to the forensics lab at DC headquarters and have an expert check them out. With any luck, they might be able to grab a fingerprint from these. Agent Morgan and the FBI can keep working the case from here.”
Griffin hesitated. He didn’t want Leslie and her team grabbing his collar. But this gang of counterfeiters had been methodical and thorough so far. His gut was telling him Leslie wouldn’t find anything of use in the truck. The paintings, on the other hand, just might lead to something. The Secret Service forensics lab was the best in the country at finding trace evidence on an item—fake money, in particular. The director was right; it was worth a shot. If nothing else, while he was back in DC, he could grab a beer with Adam and check out the sniper angle.
“I’ll drive down tonight.” He rolled up the paintings and carefully slid them back into the tube, except he couldn’t quite make them fit the way they had before. Griffin pulled the paintings back out and laid them on the table before turning the tube upside down and shaking it. A white cloth fell to the floor.
“What’s that?” Leslie asked.
Griffin reached down and carefully picked it up, shaking it out as he did so.
“It’s a dish towel.” His gut clenched when he caught sight of the monogram on the towel. “From the White House kitchen.”
The group was somber as Griffin shoved the towel into an evidence bag. “I’ll head out now if you don’t mind, Director,” he said.
“Be sure and brief the agency director first thing,” Director Kass said.
Nodding to the field office director, Griffin headed for the SUV he and Silva had arrived in forty-five minutes earlier.
“Agent Kellar,” Leslie called after him.
He stopped in his tracks and turned to face the FBI agent who was his sometimes lover. The stark contrast of the bright lights of the warehouse bay against the dark night left her in silhouette so that he couldn’t make out her expression.
“Don’t forget to brief me as well,” she commanded, hands on her hips.
He was pretty sure that was code for “call me.” Griffin wasn’t in the habit of calling any woman except his mother. And despite a few exerting nights in bed, Leslie didn’t warrant being added to his phone log. It seemed a trip to DC couldn’t have come at a more strategic time.
End of Excerpt