My wheelchair jerked back and forth as we struggled for the gun, her face contorted into a wild grimace. She let go with one hand and tried to hit me in the head. I managed to turn my head, but still took a glancing blow. Somehow, I still held onto her gun hand, which she pushed downward, once again aided by her other hand, trying to point the weapon at me.
The light was right on us now. I heard another shot from the woods, but I paid no attention to what was going on. I was busy trying to keep from being shot in the face.
I twisted desperately with both hands, but I could see it was a battle I wasn’t going to win. I’m not weak; I have strong arms, from propelling myself in a wheelchair all day. And she wasn’t a big woman. But standing over me, using her lower body, she had too much leverage.
She leaned forward, putting her weight into the effort, and the gun slowly moved to within inches of my face.
I let go with my left hand, reached down and grabbed the left wheel of my chair, and yanked it sharply. Now leaning forward, she lost her balance, firing the gun as she stumbled. I yanked on the wheel again as I pulled her forward. She tripped over the footrests, landing on her hands and knees, then rolled over, pointing the gun at me.
She had me, point blank.
“Now eat this,” she said.
When you have a run-in with your employer, you usually figure the worst they can do is fire you. But when your employer is the US Department of Justice, you know your fate could be a lot worse than just being canned. Federal prosecutors have a lot of power, and if they decide to bring it to bear on an individual, well, that’s an individual you really don’t want to be. I inched north on the I-710 toward downtown LA, wondering if I was on my way to becoming that person.
Phase One of the process had been completed half a year ago, when I had been quietly eased out of my job as an assistant US attorney for the central district of California. The reason? It depended on whom you asked. If you looked at the official record, my departure was deemed advisable for medical reasons. Like most lies, that one contained a kernel of truth; I was in fact beginning to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. If you asked one of the bigwigs, off the record, they’d say I was insubordinate and not a team player. That, too, was false, unless you considered showing unusual initiative to be insubordination. If you asked me, my real offense had been showing up the aforesaid male bigwigs. They simply couldn't abide a good outcome resulting from ideas that did not at least look like theirs, produced by people who didn’t at least appear to be them. I'd tried my best to stay out of the limelight and deflect credit, but it hadn't worked.
One of the most perturbed officials had, unfortunately, been the biggest bigwig, US attorney Dave O’Shea, who had been all set to nail a political rival for running a bid-rigging scheme. That operation, however, had been proved to be minor, receiving little publicity, compared to another massive, illegal scheme I’d uncovered at the same time. The resulting embarrassment had greased the skids for my exit. And the call this morning from Susan Hecht, O’Shea's assistant, had chilled me.
“Ms. Wilkinson? Mr. O’Shea would like to see you this afternoon.”
As I drove, I was still racking my brain, trying to think of anything I could have done to get on O’Shea’s bad side again. I had been involved in solving a murder in Minnesota but had successfully kept my role out of the media. The experience, however, had been traumatic, and I’d nearly been killed. I’d spent most of the time since my termination recovering from the resulting PTSD and had been largely successful. Thanks to intensive therapy, medication, rest, and the passage of time, I now considered myself healed. More than that, my relationship with my boyfriend, James Carter, had been mended. I’d been fortunate. The last thing I needed now was further trouble from Dave O’Shea.
I suddenly jammed the hand brake lever forward, screeching to a full stop, narrowly avoiding a collision with the stationary car in front of me. I exhaled as my heartbeat slowly returned to normal, trying to pay attention to my driving as the traffic resumed its crawl toward downtown. But my thoughts soon returned to the upcoming meeting, beginning with its location. Susan Hecht had told me the meeting was not at the US attorney’s offices in the federal courthouse, but in another building down the street. She’d repeated the location for emphasis, making it clear I was not to go to the courthouse. The mystery deepened.
I found a handicap space in a ramp adjacent to my destination. Then I unclamped my wheelchair, extended the ramp, and rolled out into the garage. With a few minutes to spare, I stopped on the first floor and checked out the directory to see who occupied this nondescript office tower. The tenants included several government agencies, some law firms, and a few marketing companies. I saw no listings at all for the fourteenth floor, where my meeting was to be held.
With clammy hands, I got onto the elevator, reached up, and pushed the button for fourteen. Suite 1418 was at the end of the hallway. I rolled down and saw a young man posted at the door. He wore an FBI class A uniform: dark suit, white shirt, muted tie. He opened the door for me, saying nothing. I paused, then went inside.
Three people sat at a rectangular table in a windowless conference room. Sitting nearest to me was a strikingly beautiful woman with Asian features. She sat across from US attorney Dave O’Shea, a stocky man with dark, unruly hair.
I was surprised to see the third person, a clean-cut, powerfully-built man in his early fifties. Lieutenant Dan Howard was the homicide commander for the Newport Beach Police Department. I'd had a run-in with him two years ago, when he had erroneously arrested my boyfriend, James Carter, for murder. To his credit, he had forthrightly assumed responsibility for the mistake, but I assumed he still had no love lost for me. And what was he doing here?
The woman stood up, and I was surprised to see she was about six feet tall. So am I, but people don't really see it. She extended her hand. “Ms. Wilkinson? I'm Special Agent Wendy Nomura. It’s nice to meet you.” We shook, and she gestured toward the table. “I believe you know these gentlemen.” O’Shea and Howard nodded to me.
FBI, US attorney, and a cop who hated me. This was looking worse by the minute.
“Doris Penny Wilkinson,” Nomura said. “Do you go by Doris?”
“I prefer Pen.”
I had a feeling she knew full well what name I preferred, along with a lot of other things about me.
“Our first item of business,” Nomura said, “concerns the confidentiality of this meeting.” She handed me a sheet of paper, with a space for my signature at the bottom. The sheet contained an agreement committing me not to disclose a word of anything I might learn at this meeting, with all kinds of dire consequences if I did. I hesitated, suspicious as hell. But I didn’t want to get into further trouble before the meeting even started. Nomura handed me a pen, and I signed.
The FBI agent took the document from me. “Thank you for coming. There are a couple of things we'd like to show you.” She switched off a bank of lights, darkening half the room, and gestured toward a screen on the wall. I rolled over for a better view while Nomura sat down at the table and tapped the touch screen on a laptop.
The picture of a man appeared on the screen. He was handsome and distinguished, with grey-flecked dark hair, wearing a gray pinstriped suit. “His name is Paul Landrum,” Nomura said. “He runs a large hedge fund called Techinvest Partners, which is based here in LA.”
Another slide appeared, showing a cluster of office buildings. A sign identified the complex as the corporate headquarters of DSI, Inc. “You may have heard of DSI,” Nomura said. “It's a large defense contractor. It develops technology and weaponry that's essential to national security. The headquarters campus you see is in Huntington Beach. Techinvest Partners—Landrum’s company—owns forty percent of the shares of DSI.”
I nodded. What the hell did any of this have to do with me?
“Landrum doesn't run DSI,” the FBI agent continued. “The CEO is a man named Pat Dalton. But obviously, as the largest single shareholder by far, Techinvest is very influential. They control four of the nine seats on the board of directors. Landrum is a vice-chairman of DSI and has an office at headquarters, but his fund has many other investments as well.”
“DSI, with Techinvest’s support, has agreed to buy a smaller defense company called Hulbert, whose technology is even more advanced than DSI’s. The sale is set to close forty-five days from now.”
Nomura paused. “Are you with me?”
“I guess so,” I said.
Nomura glanced at Lieutenant Dan Howard, who nodded. O’Shea hadn’t spoken.
Nomura said, “I'm going to play a recording of a phone call, which was received at the FBI two weeks ago.”
She tapped on her laptop again, and I heard a woman's voice, coming from the computer's speaker. She sounded young. And scared.
“You need to know,” the voice said. “Paul Landrum is not who he appears to be. He has secrets, and he's dangerous. You need to know this before the Hulbert deal closes.”
Nomura tapped her computer, then looked up at me. “That’s the entire call. We didn't know the identity of the caller. The call came from a burner phone, and went directly into our department, not to a tip line.”
“And your department is?”
She hesitated. “Counterintelligence.”
She slid the laptop across the table to Howard, who used the keyboard to bring up another screen. Another slide appeared. I gasped.
A woman’s body lay sprawled on a hardwood floor, her head in a pool of blood. My stomach did a back handspring. “Who is she?” I whispered.
“This victim’s name was Keri Wylie,” Howard said. A new slide flashed up, showing a picture of an attractive young woman in her early thirties, with short, dark hair, and a smile that looked genuine but with a touch of sadness.
“She was found a week ago,” Howard continued. “She was shot in her home on Balboa Peninsula, a small house where she lived alone. No witnesses. Keri was thirty-three and worked as an attorney at DSI.”
My mind raced. “Was she the one—”
“Yes,” Howard said. “It was she who called the FBI about Paul Landrum. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
“And this Landrum—”
“Has an alibi. A solid one. He was at a business meeting in Chicago, with plenty of people to vouch for him. Keri did have occasion to do some work with Landrum, and one co-worker at DSI acknowledged that their relationship had seemed strained recently, but they didn’t know why.”
“And,” Nomura added, “no one has any idea what ‘secrets’ Keri was referring to.”
Howard nodded. “We should add that there was no forced entry.”
“Somebody she knew, then,” I commented.
“The odds would support that, yes. It was a very solid door with a peephole. As a matter of routine, we contacted the FBI, which didn’t have anything for us right away. But a couple of days later . . .” He looked at Nomura.
“Lieutenant Howard’s inquiry about the murder came across my screen,” she said. “When I saw that the victim worked for DSI, I remembered the call about Landrum. So, we checked out the voice with people who knew Keri, and sure enough, it was her.”
Good Lord, I thought. Before I’d even realized it, I was already down the rabbit hole halfway to China.
“After the first call,” Nomura said, “we took a close look at Landrum—really put him under the microscope. After the murder, we questioned him, along with a number of top management and legal personnel at DSI. We found nothing that would raise any alarms.” She glanced over at Dave O’Shea.
The US attorney leaned forward, hands clasped on the table. “Pen, would you be interested in coming back to work for us on a short-term basis? It wouldn’t be legal work, strictly speaking. We’d be your official employer, but you’d be supervised by the FBI. We’d make it worth your while financially.”
I was speechless.
“As you know,” O’Shea said, “we’ve had mixed reports about your ability to function as a team player. We have a job in mind that would have no place for freelancing. Staying with the program would be critical. And if you can’t, the consequences wouldn't be internal discipline; it would be prosecution and incarceration.”
He let that sink in, and then stood up, nodded, and left the room.
I was left with Howard and Nomura, and we were silent for a long moment. Finally, I said, “Excuse me, but what the hell was that all about?”
Nomura took a sheet of paper out of a file—my file, presumably. “You’re proficient in HFA ClaimTrack software, version 4, is that right?”
I wasn’t sure what I’d expected her to say, but it sure as hell wasn’t that. “Yes,” I said. “I used it when I worked at North Central Bank in Minneapolis.”
“ClaimTrack 4 categorizes and claims made against a corporation, both in litigation and prior to that, am I right?”
She returned the sheet to the file. “We need to find out what Keri Wylie meant when she made that call about Paul Landrum. If he presents any national security risks, we’ve got major headaches, especially when DSI’s takeover of Hulbert is completed.”
“DSI’s law department has an opening for a paralegal, whose chief job it is to track and categorize claims using HFA ClaimTrack, version 4. The job has been vacant for some time, and we have it on good authority that they’re feeling some urgency about filling it. Would you like to apply?”
“Because it would give us a set of eyes and ears in the department in which Keri worked. It’s also adjacent to the company’s executive row, where Landrum has his office. You’d work on finding out what secret of Landrum’s Keri may have discovered.”
I tried to process this. “You want me to work undercover?”
Nomura and Howard both nodded.
I was flabbergasted. “What on earth . . . how would it work?”
“We’d get you an identity and a legend—a background story—to go with it.”
“You mean I’d have a phony name and identity?”
I nearly laughed out loud. “That’s crazy. With the wheelchair, right here in my home city—I’d stick out like a sore thumb. Somebody would make me right away.”
Nomura’s response was measured and patient. “You’ve raised two issues, but they’re really the same one. The wheelchair is a problem only if it causes somebody to think of Pen Wilkinson. In fact, it’s my understanding that people in wheelchairs tend in some ways to be invisible.”
She was right about that, I thought. And even when paraplegics are noticed, a lot of people tend to see them as slow, weak, and generally unthreatening.
Nomura continued: “If anything, a wheelchair would divert attention from your identity. People would wonder about your disability, not your background. So that raises the second question—would anybody recognize you? We don’t think so. Your friend James lives in Newport Beach, and you spend some time down there. But your job was up here in LA, in an unrelated legal field. You live in Long Beach. You’ve never worked in the defense industry. You’ve only lived in California for about three years. There are more than eighteen million people in the LA combined metro area. Just for good measure, we ran your name through all our data banks, and cross-referenced it with DSI and everybody we know who works there. We came up with no associations.”
The FBI had obviously given the idea considerable thought. “What happens if somebody does recognize me?” I asked.
“You confess. You admit you were out of work and needed a job, so you gave a phony name and background to apply.”
“What reason could I give for doing that?”
“That you were convinced the US attorney’s office had blackballed you, and because you were afraid that if you’d told the truth about your background, DSI would have considered you overqualified and rejected you.”
Both reasons were very plausible, I thought. I didn’t know if O’Shea and his people had actually put out the word to steer clear of me, but they certainly could have. And I was definitely overqualified for the DSI job, just as I had been when I’d done the same work at North Central Bank, which had hired me for a totally unrelated—and sinister—reason. That helped answer the question of why I couldn’t simply apply for the paralegal job as Pen Wilkinson. I was overqualified. And, of course, my background as a prosecutor might spook any wrongdoers I came across.
Howard spoke up. “Look, all they could do is fire you, Pen. And you’re going to quit after six weeks, anyway.”
I thought some more. It just might work. It also drove home the reality that I was essentially a nobody in this sprawling metropolis. No one would recognize me.
“Why me?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you want a trained agent for a job like this?”
“Absolutely,” Nomura said. “But unfortunately, we’re pressed for time. Very pressed. The Hulbert deal closes in six weeks. That job in Legal is open now, and we have nobody skilled in that specific software. You’re a trained prosecutor. You’ve worked for the Justice Department. Whatever political problems you had as an AUSA, no one has ever doubted your competence. You’re available. We need you now.”
Now. I had a million questions, a million concerns, a million preparations. “How much time do I get to think it over?” I asked.
“We’d like to do the job application tonight.”