Read Chapter Sixteen of An Encounter in Atlanta, free online book, by Ed Howdershelt, on

From his station at the ballroom doors, Cade almost didn't spot Mandi among the others when the women first paraded onto the stage. As his gaze passed over them, one of the women flicked her eyebrows at him and grinned. Cade studied her a moment longer, then nodded and grinned back.
Phyllis had slightly altered Mandi's face and body in ways so subtle that Cade could only guess how she'd done it. All he could say was that she didn't look much like herself.
When the ballroom had been filled to capacity and then some, the lobby was cleared and all the double doors were closed. Cade and the others stood in front of the doors.
Slightly muffled by the doors, Cade heard the announcer blather for a while about the purpose of the event being to honor the woman who'd saved Atlanta, then footage of the event was announced, followed by a video playback of the previous night's car-juggling exposition.
Apologies were made that Mandi, herself, couldn't be there, assurances were made that she'd receive a complete recording of the event, and the announcer wrapped up his stage time by turning the show over to a woman, who announced the three prizes to be awarded by the convention and segued the announcement into an introduction of the contest judges.
At last they got down to the look-alike competition. Knowing the general routine each woman would perform, Cade could envision them strutting from the wings to model their outfits by turning around once, then moving across the stage to make room for the next contestant.
The male announcer eventually came back on stage to say that there would be a brief pause as the votes were counted and introduced another display of Mandi Steele video footage with thunderingly loud, dramatic music.
"Bogey on camera three," said Donna Carter's calm voice in Cade's earpiece. "The upstairs hallway. He came in through a side door and he's heading for the escalators. Computer says he's a ninety-five-plus face-match. Blue backpack, jeans, yellow shirt, white sneakers. He's wearing a 'staff' badge."
"Everybody stay tight," Alan said unnecessarily, "He could be a diversion."
"Another bogey... and another match," said Carter. "Again from a side door. Computer says he's definitely Mohammed Nassir from the red list. Blue shirt, green backpack. Jeans and gray sneakers. Another 'staff' badge."
As the escalator carried the men into view, Pierce said, "The blue backpack belongs to one of the two Hassans on the orange list. His other hand's empty, so he's going to have to reach into the bag. Same with Nassir."
The men on the escalator stepped off at the bottom and walked together for only a few paces toward Bartow's door before Hassan said, "I will meet you later. I must sit with some friends," and changed course toward the middle doors.
"Hassan's heading for Cade," said Bartow. "Looks like we get Nassir. Evans, do it."
"Copy," said Evans as he and Pierce stepped from concealment behind a table with a tall cardboard display and ran toward Nassir and Hassan.
Hassan broke into a run and reached under his baggy shirt as he approached Cade's duty station. Cade drew his Glock and prepared to take him down if necessary as he watched Pierce approach Hassan from the side, but Pierce launched himself to land on Hassan and bore him crushingly to the floor over twenty feet from Cade's doors.
Cade stayed in his doorway and looked to see how Bartow and Evans were faring with Nassir as Pierce struggled with Hassan. They weren't faring well.
Evans had rushed Nassir, but Nassir had hopped into the air and kicked him in the face, then landed facing Bartow and dropped flat, kicking at Bartow's leg.
There was a loud, sickening snapping sound and then Nassir was on his feet again and veering right for Cade with a MAC-11 autopistol aimed at him.
Cade quickly backed deep into the doorway. Grinning as he rushed forward, Nassir thought that Cade had panicked and ducked inside the ballroom. He was wrong.
As soon as Cade was out of Nassir's line of sight, he knelt as low as possible next to the wall and aimed upward at the space where Nassir seemed most likely to appear.
The instant Nassir's rushing form blocked the light from the lobby, Cade fired twice so quickly the separate sounds of the shots were almost indistinguishable, then he dropped his Glock and heaved himself at the MAC-11, shoving it upward as he rose to his feet.
The ugly little machine pistol sprayed the ceiling of the alcove, firing itself empty as Nassir pitched forward. Cade heard crunching sounds and felt bones collapse in his grip as his fingers met his palm around Nassir's thick wrist.
From somewhere in his mind came the thought, 'Well, damn. She was right.'
Cade continued his motion with Nassir's arm, glancing to see that the MAC's breech was open and showed no brass as he grabbed and opened a ballroom door to shove Nassir's gun hand through.
Closing the door on Nassir's wrist, Cade threw his weight against the door hard enough to nearly close it completely, then yanked it open again to grab Nassir's gun hand and haul his arm and the MAC back into the alcove.
A few screeches and a "Holy shit!" greeted him from people seated just beyond the door, but he ignored them as he re-closed the door and kicked the door stops down. Picking up his Glock, he checked Nassir for signs of life. There were none.
Both rounds from the Glock had entered below Nassir's sternum only a few inches apart. Only one had exited his back; the other must have hit enough bone to stop it.
"Cade here," he said into his lapel mike. "Nassir's dead."
"Copy that," said Carter, stepping out of a maintenance room behind the escalators. "All clear. Help is on the way."
With their sirens and lights off, two ambulances pulled up outside the lower lobby street doors. Two pairs of medics rushed into the lobby and were directed by Carter.
An injection quieted Hassan almost instantly as two of the medics checked out Bartow. Cade got out of Carter's way as she marched toward him with a camera.
She took a rapid-fire series of pictures of Nassir, zooming in on the MAC-11, his wrist, his face, and then circling his body once before she slung the camera on her shoulder.
Turning to the medics, she said, "Okay, he's all yours," then she produced a man's handkerchief from her jacket pocket and used it to pick up Nassir's weapon. She moved to stand near Cade and look him over as the medics hoisted Nassir onto a gurney and pushed the gurney away.
"Get any blood on you?" she asked.
Turning completely around for her examination, Cade said, "Don't think so. He went down fast and hard."
As he turned back to face her, Carter said, "You look clean enough to me. Let's get out of their way," and thumbed at the glass doors to the street.
Two guys with janitorial gear hurried across the lobby and began cleaning up the blood in the doorway. As soon as they'd finished, another guy covered the bullet holes in the archway ceiling with a large cardboard poster that said, "Keep looking up!" and pictured a spaceship with a little green man leaning out of the cockpit to smilingly wave at the reader.
Bartow and Evans had already been helped to the ambulance and Royce and Davies had replaced them. Carter tapped Cade's arm to get his attention, then pointed at his now-clean doorway. He nodded and stepped over to take his position before the doors.
Cade said, "Some people saw me grab the MAC when I opened the door."
"We know," said Carter. "John's got someone on them. Are you okay, Cade?"
With a shrug, Cade said, "I could use a coffee."
Nodding, Carter said, "Yeah, me, too. Later, Cade. Good job," and turned to head back to her camera room.
Fifteen minutes or so later, Cade heard the announcer hand out the prizes for first, second, and third place. The other contestants were heartily thanked and given surprise consolation prizes in the form of twenty-dollar dealer's room gift certificates, then the band cranked up.
Through Cade's earpiece came, "Open the doors now," and he kicked the stops back up on his doors, opened them, and stood to one side of the alcove as people left the ballroom.
It was a short rush of people; some headed for the restrooms or the escalators, but most of those gathered in the ballroom remained seated because the evening's entertainment would continue until around midnight.
Maybe ten minutes later John made his way to Cade through the swarming people and eyed the alcove for a moment before he said, "Both backpacks were full of plastique. It didn't really matter which one got through."
"Kinda figured that."
"Carter's people had cameras on the doors. I've seen what happened. Good job, Cade."
Another damned 'good job'. Cade wished someone would maybe just once say something original, or even just 'well done', but he nodded as he replied, "Thanks. What now?"
"For you? Nothing, unless Dante or Carter have questions about what happened. Head to the ops room and file a report, then you're off duty. Mandi will be along after they finish with the news people and convention photos."
"How'd she do? Fourth? Fifth?"
Trying to look as if he hated to be the bearer of bad news, John said, "Sixth, I think. Sorry. She just doesn't look enough like Mandi Steele. Won herself a consolation prize, though."
With a grin, Cade said, "Big deal. That's like 'Everybody Gets A Ribbon' day at an elementary school."
Through his earpiece came Davis's, "John, Danvers needs a word with you."
Shrugging, John said, "Duty calls. See you later. Don't forget that report before you sign out for the night."
Cade nodded and took his earpiece off as he headed for the escalators. Stopping in the lobby for a free newspaper at the luggage desk, he took out his reading glasses and scanned the news, then dug out the comics as he waited for an elevator.
On the fourth floor he took his glasses off, dropped the newspaper in his room, and headed for the ops room, where he used one of the computers to fill out a report form.
As he was typing the last of a general description of events as he'd experienced them and making a point of mentioning the door closing hard on Nassir's wrist he felt Mandi's presence nearby and looked up as she entered the room.
He waved and smiled, she waved and smiled, then Cade turned back to typing and quickly finished the description and the report and printed copies for signing. Mandi came to stand by the desk
"So you type, too?" she asked, "How fast?"
"About sixty these days. John said you came in sixth."
She sighed with mock regret and said, "Yeah, I just didn't look enough like me, I guess. Close, but no cigar."
As he signed the forms, Cade said, "Poor little you, milady. May I buy you a late dinner to ease your pain?"
"Getting hungry again, huh?"
"Yup." Lowering his voice, he said, "I found out what you meant by 'stronger' a while ago."
Matching his near whisper, Mandi smilingly leaned close and said, "Yes, I know. I was watching you. Those doors are only made of wood, you know."
Not particularly surprised that Mandi could see through things, Cade nodded his understanding, finished signing the forms, and stood up to take them to another desk.
When they arrived in Cade's room, Mandi headed for the fridge as she said, "There were no Atlanta police in the lower lobby, Cade. Not in uniform or out."
Nodding, he said, "I noticed that, too."
Opening a soda, she asked, "Why?"
Cade watched her sip the drink for a moment as he decided how to handle her question, then said, "Likely because they were asked not to be there."
After meeting his gaze for a moment, Mandi said, "A man was shot. Killed. Rightfully so, under the circumstances, but isn't that a matter for the local cops?"
"I'm not going to worry about it, Mandi. If you feel that something's not right, you'll have to talk to John."
She shook her head and said, "No, what I meant was; how is it the Atlanta cops weren't involved?"
Reaching for a soda of his own, Cade said, "Mandi, I think some long-standing rules are being bent. The terrorists are operating as small cells. They can scatter like cockroaches and pop up again anywhere, anytime, with explosives. We need more and better info about them, and I think Hassan's going to tell whatever he knows before the legal system gets him."
"A secret interrogation?"
Nodding, Cade said, "Very likely. Drugs, not torture. They're quicker, more effective, and they don't leave marks."
"And you're okay with that?"
"In Hassan's case, yes. He was caught with a backpack full of plastic explosive in a downtown Atlanta hotel and he was trying to get into a crowded ballroom to set it off. I flatly don't give a rat's ass how they get the info out of him. I also don't care whether the legal system gets him or not."
"What about Constitutional rights?"
Snorting a laugh, Cade said, "He was going to blow himself up, ma'am. His rights would have ended anyway. This way we may find out where he got the plastique, who funded the operation, who directed it, and more. If we turn him over to the legal system before we question him, we can only be sure we'll get his lawyer's name."
Mandi parked her butt against the fridge and said, "I see. So the Constitution no longer applies to all?"
"It should definitely apply to those who live by it. I'm personally not concerned about those who don't. The terrorists are all part of an insane religious cult, Mandi. They think it's their right and duty to blow themselves up in crowds."
He paused to sip, then said, "As I see it, the Constitution is really only capable of helping civilized people live together in peace. Terrorists aren't civilized, so we need a different rulebook to deal with them, preferably before they explode themselves in our shopping malls and schools." Gesturing around the room, he added, "Or our hotels."
"A lot of people would disagree with you, Ed. Not all Muslims are terrorists."
"I know that, and I'm not suggesting that they are, but you don't see any Jewish or Christian or atheist suicide bombers, do you? Only Muslims. The terrorists are hiding among their own kind, Mandi, and their 'own kind' aren't being very cooperative about turning them in. That means that some innocent people will be unnecessarily suspected and investigated because they happen to know or be related to the wrong person. That'll happen no matter how anyone feels about Constitutional rights. I think it's better to make an apology when necessary and risk a lawsuit now and then than to have to send condolences to hundreds of families when some Hassan or Nassir blows himself up at a convention."
Studying him, Mandi said, "Interesting. As much as you two are alike, John would have ended that with 'don't you agree?'"
"That's because John likes to hear people agree with him."
"And you don't?"
"Oh, sure, but I don't really care. I may tell you my views, but whether you agree with them is your business."
After another long look at Cade, Mandi said, "I see," and shifted off the fridge as she asked, "Are you ready to do something about dinner?"
Cade also stood up and said, "Great idea."
"Will they let you have one of the agency cars?"
Shrugging, Cade said, "Sure. No problem."
"Good. I think it would look better if we visit several fast-food places. It'll look funny if we order enough food for a party, then don't have a party. Especially if the food disappears."
"Good point. Chances are good that someone would notice something like that on this floor." He paused, then added, "They keep pretty close track of the pool cars, too. Might be better if we just rented something. Or flew."
With a wry grin, Mandi asked, "You want me to fly you from one burger stand to another?"
"No, ma'am. We'd fly to where there are a bunch of them close together, like at beltway exits along the Interstate. Then we'd walk. No vehicle records to worry about that way."
Mandi nodded. "Yeah. Okay. Sounds good."