The Maze

The Maze - Catherine Coulter

Available in...

HardCover Nov 2003
PaperBack Apr 1998
Audio Jul 2008
FBI Academy
Quantico, Virginia

She would get to the top of that rope if it killed her. And it just might. She could actually feel each individual muscle in her arms pulling, stretching, feel the burning pain, the rippling cramps that were very close to knotting up on her. If that happened, she’d go sprawling to the mat below. Her brain already felt numb, but that was okay. Her brain wasn’t climbing. It had just gotten her into this fix. And this was only the second round. It seemed as if she’d been climbing this rope since she was born.

Just two more feet. She could do it. She heard MacDougal’s steady, unhurried breathing beside her. From the corner of her eye she saw his huge fists cover that rope, methodically clamping down one fist over the other, not consuming that rope as her usually did. No, he was keeping pace with her. He wasn’t going to leave her. She owed him. This was an important test. This one really mattered.

"I see that pathetic look, Sherlock. You’re whining even though you’re not saying anything. Get those twerpy arms working, pull!"

She grabbed that rope just three inches above her left hand and pulled with all her strength.

"Come on, Sherlock," MacDougal said, hanging beside her, grinning at her, the bastard. "Don’t wimp out on me now. I’ve worked with you for two months. You’re up to twelve-pound weights. All right, so you can only do ten reps on your biceps, but you can do twenty-five on your triceps. Come on now, do it, don’t just hang there like a girl."

Whine? She didn’t have enough breath to whine. He was goading her, doing a good job of it actually. She tried to get annoyed. There wasn’t a pissed bone in her body, just pain, deep and burning. Eight more inches, no, more like nine inches. It would take her two years to get those nine inches. She saw her right hand pull free of the rope, grab the bar at the very top of the knotted rope that was surely too far for her to make in one haul, but her right hand closed over that bar and she knew she’d either do it or she wouldn’t.

"You can do it, Sherlock. Remember last week in Hogan’s Alley when that guy pissed you off? Tried to handcuff you and haul you off as a hostage? You nearly killed him. You wound up having to apologize to him. That took more strength than this. Think mean. Think dead-meat thoughts. Kill the rope. Pull!"

She didn’t think of the guy in Hogan’s Alley; no, she thought of that monster, focused on a face she’d never seen, focused on the soul-deep misery he’d heaped upon her for seven years. She wasn’t even aware when she hauled herself up those final inches.

She hung there, breathing hard, clearing her mind of that horrible time. MacDougal was laughing beside her, not even out of breath. But he was all brute strength she’d told him many times; he’d been born in a gym, under a pile of free weights.

She’d done it.

Mr. Petterson, their instructor, was standing below them. he was at least two stories below them; she would have sworn to that. He yelled up, "Good going, you two. Come on down now. MacDougal, you could have made it a little faster, like half the time you took. You think you’re on vacation?"

MacDougal shouted down to Petterson since she didn’t have a breath in her lungs, "We’re coming, sir!" He said to her, grinning so wide she could see the gold filling in a molar, "You did good, Sherlock. You have gotten stronger. Thinking mean thoughts helped, too. Let’s get down and let the other mean dudes climb this sucker."

She needed no encouragement. She loved going down. The pain disappeared when her body knew it was almost over. She was down nearly as fast as MacDougal. Mr. Petterson waved a pencil at them, then scribbled something on his pad. He looked up and nodded. "That was it, Sherlock. You made it within the time limit. As for you, Mac, you were way too slow, but the sheet says you pass so you pass. Next!"

"Piece of cake," MacDougal said, as he handed her a towel to wipe off her face. "Look at all that sweat on you."

If she’d had the energy, she would have slugged him.

She was in Hogan’s Alley, the highest -crime-rate city in the United States. She knew just about every inch of every building in this town, certainly better than the actors who were paid eight dollars an hour to play bad guys, better than many of the bureau employees who were witnesses and robbers alike. Hogan’s Alley looked like a real town; it even had a mayor and a postmistress, but they didn’t live here. Nobody really lived here or really worked here. It was the FBI’s own American town, rife with criminals to be caught, situations to be resolved, preferably without killing anyone. Instructors didn’t like innocent bystanders to be shot.

Today she and three other trainees were going to catch a bank robber. She hoped. They were told to keep their eyes open, nothing else. It was a parade day in Hogan’s Alley. A festive occasion, and that made it all the more dangerous. There was a crowd of people, drinking sodas and eating hot dogs. It wasn’t going to be easy. Chances were that the guy was going to be one of the people trying to blend in with the crowd, trying to look as innocent as an everyday guy, she’d stake a claim on that. She would have given anything if they’d gotten just a brief glance at the robber, but they hadn’t. It was a critical situation, lots of innocent civilians milling about and a bank robber who would probably run out of the bank, a bank robber who was probably very dangerous.

She saw Buzz Alport, an all-night waiter at a truck stop off I-95. He was whistling, looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. No, Buzz wasn’t the bad guy today. She knew him too well. His face flushed scarlet when he played the bad guy. She tried to memorize every face, so she’d be able to spot the robber if he suddenly appeared. She slowly worked the crowd, calm and unhurried, the way she’d been trained.

She saw some visitors from the Hill, standing on the sidelines, watching the agents’ role-playing simulations. The trainees would have to be careful. It wouldn’t look good for the Bureau if any of them killed a visiting congressman.

It began. She and Porter Forge, a southerner from Birmingham who spoke beautiful French without a hint of a drawl, saw a bank employee lurch out of the front doors, yelling at the top of his lungs, waving frantically at a man who had just fled through a side door. They got no more than a brief glimpse. They went after him. The perp dove into the crowd of people and disappeared. Because there were civilians around, they kept their guns holstered. If any one of them hurt a civilian, there’d be hell to pay.

Three minutes later they’d lost him.

It was then that she saw Dillon Savich, an FBI agent and computer genius who taught occasional classes here at Quantico, standing next to a man she’d never seen before. Both were wearing sunglasses and blue suits and blue-gray ties.

She’d know Savich anywhere. She wondered what he was doing here at this particular time. Had he just taught a class? She’d never heard about his being in Hogan’s Alley. She stared hard at him. Was it possible that he was the suspect the bank employee had been waving at as he’d dashed into the crowd? Maybe. She tried to place him in that brief instant of memory. It was possible. Only thing was that he didn’t look at all out of breath, and the bank robber had run out of the bank like a bat out of hell. Savich looked cool and disinterested.

Nah, it couldn’t be Savich. Savich wouldn’t join in the exercise, would he? Suddenly she saw a man some distance away from her slowly slip his hand into his jacket. Dear God, he was going for a gun. She yelled to Porter.

While the other trainees were distracted, Savich suddenly moved away from the man he’d been talking to and ducked behind three civilians. Three other civilians who were close to the other guy were yelling and shoving, trying to get out of the way.

What was going on here?

"Sherlock, where’d he go?"

She began to smile even as the other agents were pushing and shoving, trying desperately to sort out who was who. She never lost sight of Savich. She slipped into the crowd. It took her under a minute to come around him from behind.

There was a woman next to him. It was very possibly about to become a hostage situation. She saw Savich slowly reach out his hand toward the woman. She couldn’t take the chance. She drew her gun, came right up behind him, and whispered in his ear as she pressed the nose of the 9mm SIG pistol into the small of his back, "Freeze. FBI."

"Ms. Sherlock, I presume?"

She felt a moment of uncertainty, then quashed it. She had the robber. He was just trying to rattle her. "Listen to me buddy, that’s not part of the script. You’re not supposed to know me. Now, get your hands behind your back or you’re going to be in big trouble."

"I don’t think so," he said, and began to turn.

The woman next to them saw the gun, screamed, and yelled, "Oh my God, the robber’s a woman! Here she is! She’s going to kill a man. She’s got a gun! Help!"

"Get your hands behind your back!" But how was she going to get cuffs on him? The woman was still yelling. Other people were looking now, not knowing what to do. She didn’t have much time.

"Do it or I’ll shoot you."

He moved so quickly she didn’t have a chance. He knocked the pistol out of her hand with a chop of his right hand, numbing her entire arm, bulled his head into her stomach and sent her flying backwards, wheezing for breath, landing in a mass of petunias in the flower bed beside the Hogan’s Alley Post Office.

He was laughing. The bastard was laughing at her. She was sucking in air as hard and as fast as she could. Her stomach was on fire. He stuck out his hand to pull her up.

"You’re under arrest," she said and slipped a small Lady Colt .38 from her ankle holster. She gave him a big grin. "Don’t move or I guarantee you’ll regret it. After I climbed that rope, I know I’m capable of just about anything."

His laughter died. He looked at the gun, then at her, up on her elbows in the petunia bed. There were a half dozen men and women standing there watching, holding their breath. She yelled out, "Stay back, all of you. This man’s dangerous. He just robbed the bank. I didn’t do it, he did. I’m FBI. Stay back!"

"That Colt isn’t bureau issue."

"Shut up. No, you so much as twitch and I’ll shoot you."

He’d made a very small movement toward her, but she wasn’t going to let him get her this time. He was into martial arts, was he? She knew she was smashing the petunias, but she didn’t see any way around it. Mrs. Shaw would come after her because the flower beds were her pride and joy, but she was only doing her job. She couldn’t let him get the better of her again.

She kept inching away from him, that Colt steady on his chest. She came up slowly, keeping her distance. "Turn around and put your hands behind you."

"I don’t think so," he said again. She didn’t even see his leg, but she did hear the rip of his pants. The Colt went flying onto the sidewalk.

She was caught off guard. Surely an escaping crook would turn tail and run, nit stand there looking at her. He wasn’t behaving the way he should. "How’d you do that?"

Where were her partners?

Where was Mrs. Shaw, the postmistress? She’d once caught the designated bank robber by threatening him with a frying pan.

The he was on her. This time, she moved as quickly as he did. She knew he wouldn’t hurt her, just disable her, jerk her onto her face and humiliate her in front of everyone, which would be infinitely worse than being actually hurt. She rolled to the side, came up, saw Porter Forge from the corner of her eye, caught the SIG from him, turned and fired. She got him in midleap.

The red paint spread all over the front of his white shirt, his conservative tie, and his dark blue suit.

He flailed about, managing to keep his balance. He straightened, stared down at her, stared own at his shirt, grunted, and fell onto his back into the flower bed, his arms flung back.

"Sherlock, you idiot, you just shot the new coach of Hogan’s Alley High School football team!" It was the mayor of Hogan’s Alley and he wasn’t happy. He stood over her, yelling. "Didn’t you read the paper? Didn’t you see his picture? You live here and you don’t know what’s going on? Coach Savich was hired just last week. You just killed an innocent man."

"She also made me rip my pants," Savich said, coming up in a graceful motion. He shook himself, wiping dirt off his hands onto his filthy pants.

"He tried to kill me," she said, rising slowly, still pointing the SIG at him. "Also, he shouldn’t be talking. He should be acting dead."

"She’s right." Savich sprawled onto his back again, his arms flung out, his eyes closed.

"He was only defending himself," said the woman who’d yelled her head off. "He’s the new coach and you killed him."

She knew she wasn’t wrong.

"I don’t know about that," Porter Forge said, that drawl of his so slow she could have said the same thing at least three times before he’d gotten it out. "Suh," he continued to the mayor who was standing at his elbow, ‘I believe I saw a wanted poster on this big fella. He’s gone and robbed banks all over the South. Yep, that’s where I saw his picture, on one of the Atlanta PD posters, suh. Sherlock here did well. She brought down a really bad guy."

It was an excellent lie, one to give her time to do something, anything , to save her hide.

Then she realized what had bothered her about him. His clothes didn’t fit him right. She leaned over, reached her hands into Savich’s pockets, and pulled out wads of fake one-hundred-dollar bills.

"I believe ya’ll find the bank’s serial numbers on the bills, suh. Don’t you think so, Sherlock?"

"Oh yes, I surely do, Agent Forger.’

"Take me away, Ms. Sherlock," Dillon Savich said, came to his feet, and stuck out his hands.

She handed Porter back his SIG. She faced Savich with her hands on her hips, a grin on her face. "Why would I handcuff you now, sir? You’re dead. I’ll get a body bag."

Savich was laughing when she walked away to the waiting paramedic ambulance.

He said to the mayor of Hogan’s Alley, ‘That was well done. She has a nose for crooks. She sniffed me out and came after me. She didn’t try to second-guess herself. I wondered if she’d have the guts. She does. Sorry I turned the exercise into a comedy at the end, but the look on her face, I just couldn’t help it."

"I don’t blame you, but I doubt we can use you again. I have a feeling this story will pass through training classes for a good long while. No future trainees will believe you’re both a new coach and a crook."

"It worked once and we saw an excellent result. I’ll come up with another totally different exercise.’ Savich walked away, unaware that his royal blue boxer shorts were on display to a crowd of a good fifty people.

The mayor began to laugh, then the people around him joined in. Soon there was rolling laughter, people pointing. Even a crook who was holding a hostage around the throat, a gun to his ear, at the other end of toen looked over at the sudden noise to see what was going on. It was his downfall. Agent Wallace thunked him over the head and laid him flat.

It was a good day for taking the bite out of crime in Hogan’s Alley.