Red Mist, Chapter 17
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
The white Audi Q8 looked bigger than life as it approached the curb in front of the FBI building, dwarfing the Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics parked nearby. The tinted passenger-side window of the oversize SUV slid down, and the familiar face of Donald Rawlings smiled from the driver’s seat.
“Going my way, stranger?” he asked.
The slight morning chill produced clouds of white vapor from Max Koga’s mouth, as he took a step back to examine the full-size SUV, tuned by German aftermarket specialist ABT.
Paul Verdy had left earlier with CIA chief Andrew Roberts, taking the company helicopter to Las Vegas where they said they had a meeting with the energy secretary of Bosnia, so Rawlings, who drove into San Diego the previous evening, offered to take Max back to Los Angeles.
“What happened to the Camaro?” Koga asked, jumping into the passenger seat.
“Sold it. This was part of the Argon employment package. What do you think?”
"I like it, except for the black wheels. You should’ve left the stock ones on.”
Rawlings shot him a crooked glance. “It’s what makes this ride so special. People think I’m a baller or a rap star when I pull up in this thing.”
Koga laughed. “Like who, MC Hammer? When did he peak, the Eighties?”
Rawlings shook his head, “I’m gonna let that slide because you bought drinks last night.”
Traffic on Interstate 5 was relatively light, allowing them to reach the Orange County border in just over an hour. They discussed details of the Aqarib cell house, which Rawlings inspected after the raid and found nothing but a refrigerator full of food and dirty dishes.
When the Q8 entered Los Angeles County, he slowed the vehicle and exited the fast lane. "I think we got a tail,” he said, his eyes darting to and from the rearview mirror.
Koga turned in his seat. “Well, that didn’t take long. Motorcycle?”
“Negative. Why do you ask?”
“Never mind. How close are they?”
“Not too far. Maybe a few car lengths. It’s a beige Ford Explorer. Ring a bell?”
Koga shook his head, spotting the SUV for the first time in the side mirror. “Whoever it is needs a bit more practice staying hidden.”
“Who all knew you were going to be at the FBI building?” Rawlings asked.
“Only a couple of people besides you.”
Rawlings looked closer into his side mirror. “Whoa, there’s a sweet Asian lady behind the wheel, and she’s alone.”
Koga squinted to get a better look. “Now I definitely want to know who it is.”
“That makes two of us. Damn, I hope she’s after me and not you. What do you want to do?”
“Let’s find out who it is. Can you give me a small gap?” Koga asked, referring to a technique that would break visual contact from their pursuer for several seconds.
Rawlings smiled. “You got it, bro. Just like old times.”
He pressed down on the accelerator pedal, increasing his speed, then steered the Audi off the freeway and into a rural neighborhood in Long Beach. The Ford also sped up, keeping pace with the Q8, following it off the exit ramp. Rawlings made two successive right-hand turns and slammed the brakes.
During the few seconds the Q8 was out of visual contact with the Ford, Koga flung his door open and jumped onto the street, hiding behind a large oak tree on the sidewalk. The Audi continued forward before pulling to the sidewalk three blocks away, its hazard lights flashing. A moment later, the Ford Explorer drove past and parked a block behind the Q8.
The relatively upscale neighborhood was quiet, as most of its residents were either attending church or inside their homes watching football. The Explorer sat motionless on the side of the road with its engine still running. The illuminated brake lights indicated that the transmission was still in D, meaning that the driver was making sure she could flee the scene quickly at the first sign of trouble.
Koga crouched low and scurried to the back of the Explorer where he squatted and leaned against the rear bumper. He lifted his head and peeked into the cabin through the rear glass. The woman sat motionless in the driver's seat with her hands on the steering wheel, her gaze forward.
Convinced it was not the same person on the motorcycle from two nights before, Koga rose to his feet and causally walked to the Explorer’s driver-side door and tapped his fist on the window, causing the Asian woman to jump and clutch her chest. She looked to be in her early thirties, with long black hair parted to the side. She had a small attractive face with large brown eyes that looked up at Koga.
“Roll your window down,” Max said loudly, making a circular motion with his right hand as if he were cranking on a lever.
She pressed a button on the armrest, lowering the window. “What do you want?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. How about we start with why you’re following us?”
“I don’t understand what you mean. I just pulled over to respond to a text,” she said, holding up her smart phone.
Koga laughed. “Nice try. You’re as bad at lying as you are at tailing. I’ve already memorized your license plate, and my buddy has the cops on speed dial, so if you don’t tell me who you are and why you were following us, we’ll call the police.”
She stared at Koga, studying every detail of his face. “You don’t look much like your profile photo, do you?” she said, reaching for her purse in the passenger seat, which prompted Koga to take a step back.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said, unzipping his jacket.
“Take it easy, cowboy.” She slowly slid her hand into her bag and pulled out a wallet, which she opened, revealing an identification card that read Nicole Shan, Department of Investigations, FBI.