“The Amendment Killer” by Ronald Barak
Tuesday, May 6, 6:30 am
We have your granddaughter. Here’s what you need to do.
Thomas T. Thomas III reviewed the language. Again. He closed the phone without hitting send. Yet.
He stared through high-powered binoculars from atop the wooded knoll. As always, the girl hit one perfect shot after another.
Cassie Webber. Age 11. He’d been tailing her for three months. It seemed longer.
She was chaperoned everywhere she went. Two-a-day practices before and after school. Her dad drove her in the morning. He watched her empty bucket after bucket and then dropped her off at school. Her mom picked her up after school, ferried her back to the practice range, and brought her home after daughter and coach finished. Mom and daughter sometimes ran errands on the way, but always together. Even on the occasional weekend outing to the mall or the movies, the girl was constantly in the company of family or friends. Having someone hovering over me all day would have driven me batshit.
His childhood had been different. When Thomas was her age, he walked to school on his own. And he lived a lot farther away than the girl. His daddy had never let his driver chauffeur him around. Wasn’t about to spoil him. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Didn’t spoil me that way either.
He kept telling himself patience was the key. But his confidence was waning. And then, suddenly, he’d caught a break. The girl’s routine had changed.
She started walking the few blocks between school and practice on her own. Dad dropped her off at morning practice and Mom met her at afternoon practice instead of school. Only a ten minute walk each way, but that was all the opening he needed.
Everything was finally in place. He would be able to make amends. He would not let them down.
She completed her morning regimen, unaware of Thomas’s eyes trained on her from his tree-lined vantage point. No doubt about it, he thought to himself. She was incredibly good. Driven. Determined.
He relieved himself, thinking about her. A long time . . . coming. Haha! As the girl disappeared into the locker room, he trekked back down the hill, and climbed into the passenger side of the van. He returned the binoculars to their case. He removed the cell from his pocket, and checked the pending text one more time.
Moments later, the girl emerged from the locker room, golf bag exchanged for the backpack over her shoulders. She ambled down the winding pathway, waved to the uniformed watchman standing next to the guardhouse, and crossed through the buzzing security gate. She headed off to school.
Without taking his eyes off her, Thomas barked at the man sitting next to him. “Go.”
Tuesday, May 6, 7:00 am
Eloise Brooks stared at Cyrus and shook her head. After more than 50 years of marriage, she understood everything about him there was to understand. Still: “I take the time to make you a nice breakfast. The least you could do is eat it while it’s hot.”
She held the warm cup of tea in both hands. “And can’t you talk to me, Cyrus? Why do you treat me like I’m not here? Like I’m some kind of a potted plant.”
Cyrus moved the eggs around on his plate. Speared a bite of fruit, swallowed it, but showed no visible pleasure in it. “I’m eating. What do you want to talk about? You think the couple cut from Dancing With The Stars last night deserved to be sent packing?”
“Should have got the hook weeks ago. You dance better than he does. Even with your two left feet.”
He didn’t answer. She knew why. “What’re you thinking about? Esposito? Whether 50,000 is enough? Your two left feet?”
“All of the above.”
She gazed at him but said nothing. Notwithstanding his apparent disinterest in the plate of food in front of him, his appetite—and his imagination—were never-ending. He loved upbeat music and dancing. And sports. He couldn’t carry a tune or dance a lick. Except for an occasional round of golf, his sports these days were mostly played out in front of the television. But that didn’t stop him from daydreaming. He danced like Fred Astaire. He sang and played guitar and harmonica like Bob Dylan. He moved around a tennis court like Roger Federer.
However, Eloise knew his real passion in life was the law. He had enjoyed a distinguished legal career, first as a trial lawyer and then as a U.S. District Court judge. Now retired from the bench, writing and teaching, and occasionally trying a case that got his hackles up, when it came to the law, those who knew Cyrus Brooks knew he was second to none. Amazing how sometimes he exuded that—with confidence bordering on arrogance—but at other times did not. More so since Frank Lotello had been shot, and barely survived.
Brooks sat there fidgeting restlessly with the newspaper. Eloise reached over and put her hand on his. “You’ll be great, Cyrus. I need to walk Ryder and get dressed, so we can drive into Court together. Please make sure Maccabee’s dishes have enough water and dry cat snacks.”
Arguments in the case were scheduled to commence in barely two hours. The chance to appear before the United States Supreme Court was rare, even for Brooks, but to do it in a landmark case that could permanently change the U.S. political landscape was unparalleled.
When they were first married, Eloise often attended Cyrus’s court appearances, both to show her support and because the judicial process was new to her. Now long accustomed to Cyrus’s legal adventures, Eloise was a less frequent visitor to the courtroom. Given the importance of this case, she told Cyrus the night before that she planned to attend.
He looked up absently with a gentle, distant smile, still fixed in some far-off place, no doubt grateful for her efforts to distract him, and bolster his confidence. “Macc’s snacks? Sure.”
Tuesday, May 6, 7:20 am
Cassie left the practice range, looking momentarily at the clock on her phone. School began at eight. She had plenty of time.
She strolled along the familiar middle-class neighborhood route to school, sticking to the tree-hugged, concrete sidewalk. Well-kept houses on modest-sized manicured lots, one after another, adorned both sides of the paved street that divided the opposing sidewalks.
Mouthing the words to the song streaming through her earbuds, she made a mental note of a few questions from her morning practice to ask Coach Bob that afternoon.
Using her ever present designer sunglasses—a gift from her grandparents—to block the sun’s glare, Cassie texted her best friend Madison:
Hey, BFF, meet u in cafeteria in 10. Out after 1st period to watch ur mom & my poppy in S Ct—how dope is that? 2 excited 4 words!
As she hit “Send,” she was startled by the sound of screeching tires. She looked up from her phone and saw a van skid to the curb a few houses ahead of her. A man in a hoodie jumped out and charged straight at her.
She froze for an instant, but then spun and raced back in the direction of the clubhouse. “Help! Help!! Someone help me!!!”
As she ran, she looked all around. No one. She saw no one. The guard kiosk was in sight, but still over a block away. Does he want to hurt me? Why? Why me?
Hearing the man gaining on her, she tried to speed up. If I can just get close enough to the gatehouse for someone to help me. She glanced back, shrieking at the top of her lungs, just as the man lunged. He knocked her to the ground, shattering her glasses in the process. “What do you want?! Leave me alone! Get off me!!!”
She saw him grappling with a large syringe. “No!” She screamed even louder, clawing and kicking him savagely—until she felt the sharp stab in the back of her neck. Then nothing.
Tuesday, May 6, 7:30 am
Steve Kessler, CEO of The National Organization For Political Integrity, NoPoli for short, was sharing breakfast with the two of them: Anne Nishimura, host of the prime time nightly news at NBN-TV, and Christopher Elliott, head of the litigation department in one of D.C.’s most politically connected and prestigious law firms. Kessler would have preferred to be somewhere else. Almost anywhere else. But the NoPoli Board had prevailed.
And so here he was, in Nishimura’s well-appointed mobile dressing room parked opposite the U.S. Supreme Court. NBN had landed the exclusive rights to broadcast the first-ever Supreme Court case to be televised live, beginning later that morning.
They were there together so she could introduce the two men and explain how their role was to maintain a balanced perspective and to prop her up throughout the broadcast. To make her look smarter than she already seemed to be.
Elliott’s law firm generally represented Washington’s deepest pockets, including NBN. Which no doubt explained his presence. Elliott had appeared with Nishimura before. In his rigid three-piece suit, his allegiance in the case would no doubt rest with Congress. Which he often lobbied for many of his firm’s clients.
Nishimura quickly became familiar with Kessler. She knew how to be charming. The occasional flick of her hair, the lingering glances, and the brief touches on his wrist and arm were not lost on Kessler. She had his bio, knew he was married. Maybe just her way of getting me to relax.
Speaking to Elliott, she said: “I first met Steve when I covered the constitutional convention NoPoli convened to adopt the 28th Amendment to our Constitution nine months ago. NoPoli put on quite the show, filled every seat in the New Orleans Superdome. No coincidence that NoPoli held its convention on the 4th of July weekend.”
Elliott interrupted Nishimura’s speech. “It’s actually now officially the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Our firm represents Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. We assisted it in acquiring the naming rights to the stadium.”
“How interesting, Nishimura responded. “In any event, the idea of an amendment was Steve’s baby. When we landed the rights to televise Congress v. NoPoli, I called Steve and convinced him to help us with the broadcast.”
Kessler didn’t care for the attention. “Thanks for the credit, but it would never have made it to the convention floor without the leadership of NoPoli’s Board, particularly Cyrus Brooks and Leah Klein. Leah did the actual writing.”
“I’m sure you’re just being modest, Steve. To keep the playing field level, I also asked Chris to join us. He graciously agreed.”
Elliott nodded, mostly to himself, smiling slightly, saying nothing. Kessler responded in kind. He looked at his watch, bored with the small talk. In a few minutes, they would move to the television platform inside and high above the courtroom. Where they would record background info to air just ahead of the live broadcast. He wondered how the three of them would get along once things started heating up.
Tuesday, May 6, 7:40 am
Thomas glanced around to make sure there were no witnesses. He yanked the girl’s limp body and attached backpack into his arms. He stumbled to keep his balance. Her backpack opened and spilled its contents to the ground, a bunch of books and papers. Shit! Not so fucking easy. He hauled her to the back of the van. As if on cue, his accomplice, Joseph Haddad, opened the rear doors. Thomas managed to lift the girl up to Haddad, who pulled her into the cargo area. Thomas ran back and gathered up the books and papers from the sidewalk. He returned to the van and stuffed them in the backpack. He made sure its latch was now secure.
His breathing had become labored, but Thomas was more interested in the girl’s vitals than his own. He climbed into the van and checked her pulse. It was a little weak, but she seemed stable. He’d done his homework and opted for more of the drug than less. He wanted her out of sight as quickly as possible.
Thomas preferred to keep her alive. For now. Might help him control the grandfather. But if she ODs, so be it. Just a matter of time anyway.
He took stock of his wounds, acknowledged to himself how tough the brat was. He taped her mouth shut, placed a hood over her head, and handcuffed her to the inside of the van.
He downloaded the contents of her phone to his, verified the transfer completed, and then used the butt of his revolver to demolish her phone. He stored the remains in a plastic bag partially filled with rocks.
“Damn, Thomas,” Haddad shouted from the driver’s seat. “The hell you doing? We need to get the fuck outta here.”
Thomas ignored Haddad. He climbed outside the van with the plastic bag in hand and looked around again to make sure no one was watching. He hurried back to where he’d knocked the girl to the ground. He scooped up the scattered remains of her sunglasses, added them to the plastic bag, and returned to the van.
Satisfied that he had removed all evidence and that there were no onlookers he needed to eliminate, he scrambled into the passenger seat and stored his gun and leg holster in the glove compartment.
“Take the route I gave you,” Thomas said to Haddad. “Make sure you stay under the speed limit.”
Five minutes later, they crossed the Potomac. Thomas directed Haddad to pull over and stop. He rolled down his window, tossed the weighted plastic bag into the river, and watched it sink below the surface. Let’s see what anyone does with her damn Find Phone app now.
He looked over his shoulder and observed the girl. Nothing.
“Okay, let’s head to the cabin. Mind the speed limit.”
“When this is all over, you oughta think about renting yourself out as an echo.”
Thomas scowled at Haddad, but said nothing further.
Tuesday, May 6, 8:00 am
Nishimura looked into the camera. “Good morning, America. I’m Anne Nishimura of NBN-TV, joined by our two experts, Steve Kessler and Chris Elliott. We’re perched on our broadcast platform high above the floor of the United States Supreme Court. In less than just one hour, the Court will begin hearing oral argument in the landmark case of Congress v. NoPoli. The first case ever to be televised live in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because of the case’s importance, the Court has also scheduled two full days of argument instead of the customary one hour. NBN will bring it all to you—live, without commercial interruption—the arguments today and Thursday, and the Court-promised accelerated decision in less than one week. Next Monday.
The Court’s going to be very busy between the close of argument Thursday afternoon and the reading of its decision on Monday morning. A process that normally takes at least six months.”
Nishimura mentally ran through Elliott’s resume and then directed her first scripted question to him. “Chris, can you summarize for our viewers what this case is really about?”
* * *
Thomas had anonymously rented the cabin in the Maryland woods. By car, it was located about forty minutes outside D.C. Paying cash for one year in advance avoided the need for any references. In spite of Haddad’s impatience, they arrived at the remote destination right on Thomas’s schedule. “I’ll take care of the girl,” Thomas said. “Stay in the front room. Keep a watch out the windows.”
He pulled her from the van and carried her cautiously down into the basement. It would hardly do to twist an ankle or a knee, or fall down the flight of stairs altogether. He walked across the room, crouched, and dropped her on the bed.
She was still barely breathing, again bringing into question the amount of the drug he had used on her. If she woke now, she wouldn’t be able to make any trouble. The locks he’d installed were state of the art. He’d soundproofed the room. She could scream her pretty little head off. No one would hear a thing.
* * *
Elliott fidgeted with his tie, belying his carefully crafted calm exterior. “Happy to summarize the case, Anne. Congress filed suit against a grassroots organization known as NoPoli. The National Organization for Political Integrity. NoPoli was responsible for the unprecedented convention that claims to have lawfully enacted the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To curb a variety of abuses on the part of many, if not most, public officials. Congress wants—”
Nishimura cut in. “Chris, I thought all amendments to the Constitution have to go through Congress. Have I got that wrong?”
“That’s precisely why we’re here, Anne. Congress brought this lawsuit because it believes NoPoli preempted the constitutionally mandated amendment process. It’s asking the Supreme Court to rule on that very question.”
Nishimura continued with Elliott. “What’s so important about this case that would cause the Court to break from a number of its long-standing traditions?”
“Congress v. NoPoli stands to change the political fabric of our country. It also contains a controversial threat to cut certain welfare entitlements. For those reasons, Congress requested an expedited hearing and decision. The Court agreed, in my opinion largely because the 28th Amendment makes the violation of any of its provisions a criminal felony. And given that the case may actually impact the lives of everyone living in the United States, the Court also increased the allotted argument time. And, in a groundbreaking first, ordered the case to be televised. Live, no less.”
Nishimura turned her attention to Kessler.
* * *
Thomas removed the hood, tape, and handcuffs, and the girl’s backpack.
She’d be dead in a week no matter how the Court ruled, but she’d be less of a nuisance in the interim if she didn’t know the fate that awaited her. Nicer digs would give her false hope. Besides, he’d had some time to kill—so to speak—before he grabbed her. And putting his design and construction skills to work while he waited beat working on crossword puzzles and was . . . oddly therapeutic: a stocked mini-refrigerator beneath a small open cabinet with two shelves and a microwave sitting on top of the cabinet. The air-conditioning system he’d installed was working fine. He’d also rigged a portable bathroom in the corner, fully equipped with toilet, sink, shower, and even a second, larger cabinet with a few changes of clothes and toiletries. Always like my ladies to smell nice.
Written instructions for her if she woke up were on the table next to the bed. He really did hope she was just sleeping it off. The grandfather might insist on some form of evidence that she was alive. And well. He took out his phone, snapped a few pictures of her. Live video would, of course, be a lot more convincing. But she wasn’t moving. The pictures would have to do if necessary.
* * *
“Also here to help with our coverage of the case is Steve Kessler, CEO of NoPoli. Steve, what can you tell us about the constitutional crisis created by NoPoli’s 28th Amendment?”
The cameras zoomed in on Kessler. He smiled politely at his host. “Well, Anne, not being a lawyer, I would prefer to leave the technical side of the case to NoPoli’s counsel.”
“That sidestep sounded very much like a lawyer to me.” Nishimura grinned, obviously enjoying the repartee at Kessler’s expense.
Kessler stiffened slightly. “Just being careful, Anne, not evasive. Chris is correct about what NoPoli is trying to do. And why. NoPoli—and the tens of millions of Americans who support us—believe that special interests have taken our government hostage, and rendered it dysfunctional. Too many members of Congress spending too much of their time and energy—and too much of our money—procuring too many special perks for themselves. Instead of responsibly running our government. NoPoli organized a constitutional convention to break the logjam and do a little repair work. Cut down on all the perks.”
“Amending our Constitution is a little repair work? I’ll say. Can you please tell our audience some of the details of how the convention was created and how it played out? Have we ever had a constitutional convention before?”
* * *
As Thomas shot the still pictures of the girl, he noticed a small device protruding from her pant pocket. He froze, scared he might have missed a second GPS monitor in addition to the one destroyed with her phone. He had an involuntary urge to turn and look behind him. At what?
Cautiously, he pulled whatever the object was away from her body, spotting an almost invisible, clear, miniature plastic line coming off one end of the gadget and disappearing under her T-shirt. Now more curious than cautious, he peeled back the girl’s top and saw the other end of the thin line—disappearing into her belly, no less.
His mind was racing. One question after another. What the hell is that? Steroids? Is this why she plays golf so well? Does she have health issues? Does she play golf like she does despite a medical problem? Is this thing sending messages somewhere? He wondered what would happen if he removed it.
He had to decide. If he left it in place, the girl was in control. If he removed it, he was in control. He grabbed the line where it entered her stomach, and pulled. It popped right out. Nothing. Just a couple drops of blood. Quiet. No alarm bells. At least none that he could hear.
Not happy. He hated loose ends. Literally.
He’d had no time to examine the contents of the girl’s backpack when it opened and spilled out on the street. He emptied it out on the bed next to her and sifted through the contents. He found a bunch of school items, including those he had previously spilled and retrieved when he’d seized her. And a zippered canvas bag. He unzipped the bag and peered inside.