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E. J. Robb Books

A Richard Steele Novel
E.J. Robb

GETTING OFF A PLANE that had just landed in Washington, DC a passenger, unencumbered by any luggage, made his way through the terminal. He didn’t carry so much as a briefcase. As casually as he was dressed, it was hard to believe that the passenger, Richard Steele, would be meeting with the second most powerful person at the Department of Homeland Security.

The Section Chief for the Office of Special Investigations reports directly to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and is generally considered to be the Secretary’s righthand woman, especially since her people averted a major calamity by preventing three domestic bombings earlier this year. Right now Cynthia Simmons, the Section Chief, could do no wrong. But here, in Washington, DC, that could all change at any moment—and likely would, unless Steele could help, again, with her latest problem, whatever it was.

Steele had no idea what Simmons wanted, but when she sent Agent Robert Allen of the Cleveland office to Steele’s home to personally invite him to Washington, DC, he wasn’t about to refuse. He owed the OSI and Simmons, in particular, a large debt that could take the rest of his life to repay. Getting in a cab at Dulles Airport, Steele prepared for the twenty-minute ride to the meeting. On the way he recalled how he got involved with the DHS, and the OSI in particular.

Two key people at the OSI knew Richard Steele was responsible for nearly twenty killings. They couldn’t prove it since everyone connected to the cases, except for Steele, was dead. On the plus side, Steele was the key to helping the OSI prevent bombings in Austin, Texas and rural Kentucky. He also saved the life of Cynthia Simmons when an assassin was sent to kill her while she was visiting Kansas City.

The OSI and Richard Steele certainly have had a strange relationship thus far. Simmons had summoned him to a meeting in Washington for the third time. The other two times it was important, and he was able to help. A smart woman, she must believe he could help her again.

Having arrived at his destination, the cab ride and reverie time was over.

After paying the cabbie, Steele was engulfed with hot, humid air as he exited to the bright DC sunlight. It was late August and miserable. The flight left Cleveland early in the morning, but with the travel time he didn’t arrive in DC until late morning. The heat and humidity would be much worse in a
few hours.

Standing out front of the Gothic-style DHS Headquarters, he couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the responsibility the people inside this building had—they’d sworn to protect America. His chest swelled slightly as he realized he’d been asked here to help them fulfill their solemn obligation.

As soon as he entered, the realization of where he was and who worked there became obvious. Unlike the Kansas City field office, which Steele had been in several times, no one here knew him or cared who he was. Security protocols would be followed.

First they called the Section Chief’s office to be sure he was expected. When his visit was confirmed, he was photographed and given a badge. His badge was red, meaning he needed to be accompanied everywhere he went inside the building. The lobby was secured by armed DHS guards stationed at the elevators, reception desk and the waiting area. These were well but trained ex-military who meant business.

Sitting quietly, he waited for his escort. A couple of minutes later a young man in a suit appeared and requested that Steele follow him. Entering the area where the elevators were, both men passed through a full body scanner. Steele’s cell was confiscated. It would be returned when he exited the building.

“You guys are really serious about security.” Steele’s comment was meant as a compliment.

“That is our business, after all. But this is nothing. You should visit us sometime when Secretary Dixon is here. It would take an extra ten minutes just to get this far.” The young man was clearly proud to be part of the DHS and pleased that Steele recognized their efforts. Changing subjects, he asked, “Do you know Chief Simmons?”

Inside Steele chuckled to himself, but he realized it was a natural question. “Yes, we met a couple of times in Kansas City.” The young man—Darrick Thompson, according to his ID badge—immediately became more animated. “Then you’ve met Agent Preston? He’s a bit of a legend around here since the thing at the Performing Arts Center. It never made the newspapers, but he single-handedly took out ten terrorists.” Darrick was very pleased
that Steele was associated with one of the young man’s heroes.

A wry smile crossed Steele’s face. He knew that there were only six terrorists, and that he and Preston were in the Performing Arts Center together. He also had been around enough to understand that stories like this took on a life of their own changing over time. Pleased that Preston was thought of so
highly, Steele responded, “Yes, I know Agent Preston. Louie and I are old friends.” Steele couldn’t resist using his pet nickname for Lewis Preston. He knew if Preston got wind of this conversation, he would pay big time. Preston hated the nickname Louie.

The elevator dinged, announcing their arrival at the twelfth floor. The last time Steele got off an elevator on the twelfth floor to see Cynthia Simmons, he had to kill a man who was intent on shooting the Section Chief of the OSI. It was unlikely that would be necessary this time.

Entering the outer office of the woman tasked with running the OSI, Steele was asked to wait while a very efficient assistant met with Simmons. The assistant, Marlene Stone, returned a moment later and asked Steele to follow. But instead of going into the Chief’s office, he was led to a small conference room that was accessible from both the outer office and Simmons’ private office. Simmons was already seated with a manila file folder in front of her. The file was closed and her hands were clasped together, keeping the folder firmly in place. Steele entered, he couldn’t help smiling. He was happy to see her.

In turn, Simmons’ eyes sparkled when she saw him enter. She gave him one of her patented smiles that really made you feel welcomed. “Good to see you, Steele. Please be seated. Can I get you anything, a Diet Coke perhaps?” Her smile widened as she said the last part. In their first few meetings, she’d learned that Richard Steele preferred to be addressed just as Steele, and he didn’t drink alcohol or coffee. He got his caffeine from Diet Coke.

“Yes, I’ll take a Diet if you have one. It’s good to see you as well. I’m glad to see you’re not superstitious about the twelfth floor.” Steele was surprised at how happy he really was to see her.

Cynthia Simmons was fortyish, and an attractive woman. Not beautiful in the traditional sense, but pleasant looking with those wholesome ‘girl-next-door’ features. He’d last seen her right out front of this very building several months ago. Since that time, there hadn’t been a day go by where he didn’t think of her. Not just think about, but more accurately fantasize about, her. He was still trying to figure out how she felt about him. He was torn as to whether he should tell her how he thought about her every day.

Steele knew better than to let her sweet and innocent appearance fool him. She was a hardnosed federal agent who took her responsibilities very seriously. There was no doubt in his mind that if you crossed her, you would be cut up into little pieces and summarily disposed of.

“I don’t think you’ll have to shoot anyone here. At least, I hope not.”

Briefly she remembered standing in her shower at the Marriott in Kansas City as Tommy Sloan prepared to kill her. A moment later, Sloan’s head exploded. Steele had an uncanny knack for recognizing potential danger. She could still recall how shaken she was after Steele killed Sloan. She also remembered Steele, with his arms around her, as she stood naked in the shower. Steele, on the other hand, went into the bedroom and turned on the television to watch the nightly news, totally unaffected by the whole thing.

They looked at each other for a moment, then Simmons said, “I need your help. Do you remember what KYTES are?” She pronounced KYTES as kites.

“I remember the principle, but I don’t remember what the acronym stands for.” In fact, Steele remembered precisely what the acronym was. He just liked listening to her voice.

“It stands for ‘Keep Your Team’s Exit Secure’. Periodically we need people outside the DHS and OSI to get involved with assignments that are, by their very nature, risky. Should one of these assignments go bad, we cut the KYTES string and let them drift away. We essentially disavow them, thus protecting the OSI team from any adverse political blowback.” Simmons stared at him for a moment to see if he clearly understood what she was saying.

“You want me to do something that you can’t or won’t assign one of the OSI agents to do. If it goes badly, then I’ll be on my own. Is that about right?” He wasn’t upset that she would put him in this position. On the contrary, he was intrigued.

“You understand the concept perfectly. I want you to help us with a small problem. It isn’t likely to be dangerous, but we don’t actually know the complete scope of the illegal activities.” Simmons paused to see if there were any questions. Steele  looked at her and tilted his chin toward her, indicating she should keep going.

“As you may know, we are the Internal Affairs Department for all the twenty-some agencies under the DHS umbrella. Most of the internal work is mundane—background checks, who’s sleeping with whose wife, information leaks and the like. Unfortunately we have a situation now that may be more complex and deeply rooted. If not stopped immediately, it could affect how the public perceives the ability of the DHS, and TSA in particular, to protect them. I think you can help.” Her body language said she really did need help, and to divulge any more information, he would have to commit and jump on board.

“I owe you big-time and I’m on semester break, so tell me what you need.” Steele was an unusual individual. Besides being able to kill efficiently, a skill he learned as a recon Marine and honed to a fine edge in Marine Sniper School, he was also a student at the Ohio State University extension in Cleveland. He was a student teacher as well. Since he was getting his Master’s degree in philosophy, he taught a class in Applied Logic based on the philosophy of Enrico Fermi.

He doubted either of those were the skills she needed.

“We are investigating whether TSA employees are involved in stealing luggage. KCI is different than many airports. At KCI you have to carry your luggage to the screeners. If a checked bag is flagged after it has been scanned, the TSA will do a hand search. It is opened, checked, and then there is a notice placed in the bag telling the owner we went through it and thanking them for their understanding. In Kansas City we have had an inordinate number of complaints of bags that just disappear. We want it stopped, and I don’t have time for a protracted investigation.”

“I want you to go undercover and find out what is going on. I want answers, and I want them yesterday. And before you ask, the reason I’m going outside on an internal investigation is that the Kansas City TSA staff would potentially recognize any of the  OSI agents stationed there. Also, we are stretched pretty thin, so I don’t really want to bring in an agent from another city. Everyone is busy working on other cases.” Simmons stopped,
indicating it was time for Steele to comment.

“I’m in,” was all he said.

She reminded him that he had a signed confidentiality agreement on file, and that it would be enforced if necessary. She proceeded to read him in, first going through the entire file on her desk and then summarizing the situation.

“Bags are checked at the Kansas City airport, and then they just vanish. The bags are all sports-related items. Things like golf clubs, skis and high-end fly rods. It doesn’t seem like there would be any money in it but the good stuff, like the clubs and skis, can go for two thousand dollars a pop. There is no theft from luggage—it’s just the sports equipment that is being targeted. In the last six months the OSI estimates over twenty thousand dollars in sports equipment has gone missing.”

“Airport security has watched to see if anyone is trying to walk out with luggage they shouldn’t have, but nothing. The lost luggage just seems to vaporize into thin air. The luggage is certainly a problem, but if there is a hole in the system that could be exploited to create a bigger security issue, the OSI wants to know and fix it at all the airports nationwide.”

Simmons explained that the OSI would set up a cover to get him access to the ramp area and baggage handling. To Steele it seemed pretty cut and dry. He suspected he would have the answers Simmons wanted in a matter of days. It looked like a couple of idiots trying to make a few bucks on the side. He could not have been more wrong.

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