Authors: Andrew Peterson
Tags: #Snipers - United States, #Mystery & Detective, #Intelligence Officers - United States, #Intelligence Officers, #Fiction, #Suspense Fiction, #Undercover Operations - United States, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Undercover Operations, #General, #Espionage, #Snipers
“He still got screwed. He was real bitter about the whole thing. It’s all he ever talked about. He swore to get revenge someday. I told him he should just forget about it and move on. After he hooked up with his older brother, I never heard from him again until his call the other night.”
“Did you believe him, about getting revenge?”
“Yeah, I did. Still do. One thing about Ernie, he don’t forget about shit like that. At the time, I felt sorry for him. I don’t now, but I did back then.”
“So what changed?”
“I did. I decided I wasn’t going to put up with his shit anymore. After he got out, he was worse than ever. He was always yelling and screaming. I could never do anything right. Nothing was ever good enough for that man.”
Nathan didn’t want to pursue this line, he already knew about Ernie Bridgestone’s pathology. “Is there anything else you can think of that might help us find him?”
“Do you mind if we put a trace on your phone, in case he calls again?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Nathan grabbed a pen from his shirt pocket and wrote his name and cell number on a napkin. “If Ernie calls you again for any reason, tell him Nathan McBride is looking for him. Remember it. Nathan McBride.”
“I’ll remember, but I pray I never hear from that piece of shit again.”
“I need your help.”
“Forget about it, I’m not doing nothing to put me or Janey in danger.”
“There’s a million-dollar reward.” That got her attention. Then he took a few minutes to lay out his plan and her part in it.
“I don’t like it,” she said, “even with the money you’re offering me over and above the reward, which I might or might not get.”
“If it doesn’t work, you still keep my fifty grand, if it works, you’re a million dollars richer.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Nathan stood. “He murdered twenty-four people.”
She lit another cigarette. “I said I’ll think about it.”
“Remember, if he calls, don’t talk to him on your work or home number. Drive a few miles down the road and find a pay phone. Make sure you’re not followed. Write the number down and arrange a time for him to call you back. After he calls, wait a few minutes before calling me. And be sure you mention my name, Nathan McBride.”
“What so damned important about that?”
She squinted her eyes and took another hit on the cigarette.
“Also, if he calls, verify that Janey’s his daughter.”
“I don’t like that either.”
“Think about it, Amber. Put the pieces together.”
She was quiet for a few seconds. “You’re thinking he’ll want to see her.”
“What makes you think he gives a damn? He never has before.”
“That’s true, but he didn’t know about Janey.”
She didn’t respond.
“Janey’s outside. Don’t give her a hard time for talking to me. I didn’t give her a choice. She’s just trying to do the right thing. I hope you will too. Let her drive you home. If you get behind the wheel, those two over my left shoulder will probably arrest you.”
She looked in that direction. “Thanks for the heads-up.”
Nathan left her sitting there and walked over to the clean-cut guys. “It’s a little warm in here for Windbreakers.”
They didn’t reply.
“She doesn’t know where he is.”
Keeping his eyes squarely on Nathan, the man sitting on the left slid his right hand into his waist pack. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“You’re dressed right, but your hair and clothes are too clean. It makes you stand out in a place like this.”
They glanced at each other, their expressions neutral.
Nathan continued through the bar, waved to the toothless bartender, and received a middle-finger salute.
Outside, he found Henning with his Glock drawn. All six patrons who’d bolted out the rear door were neatly lying facedown in the alley, arms out their sides. “Looks like an undersized catch,” Nathan said. “I’d throw them all back.”
“How’d it go in there?”
“About like I expected. Sheldon doesn’t know where he is. She confirmed he called, though. Gave us permission to tap her phone in case he calls back.”
“Well, that’s something.”
They started across the parking lot.
“What about us?” one of the barflies asked from the concrete.
Henning turned back. “Take off.”
Watching them scramble in every direction, Nathan was reminded for the second time in as many days of a real-life
episode. Back at the sedan, Nathan opened the door and let Janey Sheldon out. “Your mother needs a ride home. Don’t let her drive, okay?”
“What happened in there?”
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Watch what you say in your apartment. Big Brother’s listening.”
“Just don’t let your mom get behind the wheel.”
“That’s it? You’re just gonna leave me here?”
Nathan slid into the backseat of the FBI sedan and looked at Janey. “Drive your mom home.”
Something occurred to him as Special Agent Andrews pulled away from the curb. Amber Sheldon hadn’t asked for any sort of protection against Ernie.
* * *
The drive back to Fresno’s airport was somewhat subdued. Nathan answered a few questions from Henning, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the presence of the two undercover agents in the bar. It didn’t pass the smell test. In fact, it stunk to high heaven. He didn’t want to think about the implications, didn’t want to believe what he suspected was true, that Holly Simpson had told Director Lansing of his plans.
The odds of any other explanation were astronomical. That left Nathan with a decision to make. Should he continue to share information with Holly? He found it difficult to believe Holly would knowingly betray him and act behind his back. It was more likely she had simply reported his plans to Lansing and Lansing had acted independently. Even if Holly had reported his activities to Lansing, she hadn’t done anything wrong. It was her job, and indeed her obligation, to report her activities to her boss.
One thing was certain, he wanted to talk to her alone, wanted the truth.
Starting with Lansing, he began to analyze and question everything. Lansing had placed a multilingual agent on the Lear to keep an eye on his activities. Given the stakes, it was a reasonable precaution, but it felt like an overkill. If Lansing wanted a watchdog, he already had one in the form of Bruce Henning. So why the doubled asset? An asset that not only spoke Arabic, but probably Russian as well. Did Lansing possess that level of mistrust? Did Lansing really think he’d speak to Harv in a foreign language to hide information? It didn’t make sense. There had to be something else going on, something deeper. What was Lansing hiding?
The more Nathan thought about it, the more uneasy he became. Had Lansing given him the use of the Lear strictly as a way to monitor and control his activities? He thought back to Holly’s comment in the piano bar. She’d said Lansing didn’t need him. Why would he? The director of the FBI had 31,000 employees under his command. She’d also said Lansing would want containment at this point, and his continued involvement would have serious consequences if it ever leaked. So why had Lansing brought Nathan in? Granted, the bombing in Sacramento had changed the equation, but did Lansing truly believe Nathan was the FBI’s best bet of capturing the Bridgestone brothers? An adage flashed through his head: Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. Was Nathan the enemy? If so, why? In the piano bar with Holly, he’d made it quite clear he and Harv were going to pursue the Bridgestones with or without the FBI’s blessing. Had Lansing allowed him into the investigation only to monitor his every move?
Nathan rewound to the beginning of his involvement in the operation. Freedom’s Echo and Semtex. James Ortega was discovered while undercover. The raid at the compound. The FBI’s field office being bombed. Semtex being used. Semtex still missing. Semtex. Semtex. He closed his eyes and let his head rest against the seat back. Aside from the dead FBI agents, the stakes of this case revolved around Semtex. How easy would it be to get the stuff? Even if Leonard Bridgestone had made contact with a Syrian official in northern Iraq, there was still a language barrier. Unless Bridgestone spoke Arabic, which he doubted, someone would’ve been needed to translate conversations. He made a mental note to check if Leonard spoke Arabic. Then, if a deal was struck, the Semtex would have to be smuggled out of Syria, but not without at least a partial payment, more likely the entire payment. Did Leonard have that kind of money back then? Nathan doubted it. So how had the deal gone down? Assuming Leonard had managed to find a translator and assuming he’d made a deal with a foreign national, probably a complete stranger, and assuming he had the financial wherewithal to purchase the Semtex in advance, why wouldn’t the Syrian official just keep his money and never deliver the explosives?
And how was the stuff smuggled out of there? Syria was high on the NSA’s watch list of terrorist-supporting states. Smuggling Semtex to a neighboring country like Lebanon was probably difficult enough, but smuggling it into the United States had to be a million times harder. It would involve lots of people. People to create fake documents and falsify cargo manifests. People to remove the Semtex from its stockpiled location. People to pack the Semtex into disguised crates. People to transport the disguised crates down to the shipping terminal. People to load the crates into a cargo container.
Nathan couldn’t remember ever seeing any type of product with a label stating
Made in Syria
. He knew Syria exported textiles and clothing, olive oil, and of course, crude oil. But anything leaving Syria on a direct path to the United States would be under much closer scrutiny than other exporting countries. It was unlikely the Semtex could be sent directly by container ship, so that meant the disguised crates would probably be sent to another country first, then transferred to another cargo container before being loaded onto a ship bound for the United States. Virtually all cargo containers were monitored and controlled by computerized inventory programs that both identified and tracked them as they were loaded and unloaded from ships. He supposed the Semtex could’ve been transported by a smaller private ship that met yet another ship out at sea, but how likely was that? And, again, how many people would be involved? Dozens? It simply couldn’t be done by two or three people. And it would be expensive. Nathan had no idea what a ton of Semtex sold for on the black market, but whatever the number was, he doubted it would be economical based on the scenario he’d just worked out.
The Syrian connection, now that he’d had time to think it through, was looking more and more unlikely. Okay, so if the Bridgestones hadn’t gotten it from Syria, where did they get it? Did someone within Freedom’s Echo have a connection to international arms smugglers? If so, who? Was the FBI looking at other members besides Leonard and Ernie? Surely they had to be. The bureau would be asking the same questions as Nathan: Where did the Bridgestones get the Semtex?
With the smell of Italian food still lingering in the air, Frank Ortega sat at his desk waiting for his phone to ring. When the damned thing finally bleeped to life, he looked at his Chelsea ship’s bell clock. Four minutes late. He pivoted his wheelchair and stabbed the speaker button.
“What the hell is going on out there?” he asked. Not
things in DC?
“We’re trying to sort it out.”
“Trying to sort it out? What kind of answer is that? They burned my grandson alive.”
“Frank, I’m as angry as you are. He was your grandson, but he was also my employee.”
“There’s a big difference.”
“Damn it, Frank. I know that. Your grandson isn’t the only casualty. I’ve got twenty-four additional unhappy letters to sign.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m… I’m so damned angry, I just want to kill someone.”
“I wish I could bring him back, unwind the clock, and start over. I’d do a lot of things differently.”
“Let me be clear, Ethan, I don’t blame you for any of this.”
“Maybe bringing McBride aboard wasn’t such a good idea. He complicates things.”
“Why? He’s under your control, isn’t he? He found my grandson.”
“Yes, but he also killed the Bridgestones’ kid brother. That was an unexpected twist with unexpected consequences.”
Frank tried to keep his voice calm. “He did exactly what I asked of him. You’d have a dozen dead SWAT agents if he hadn’t been there. I asked him to back you guys up and that’s what he did, to the letter.”
“You know I’m grateful for that. But the problem’s different now. It’s bigger, more public. What am I saying? Public? It’s worldwide news. And there’s over three hundred pounds of Semtex still missing.”
Ortega pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to keep the conversation on track. “All the more reason to have McBride on their trail, then.”
“It was that damned tunnel. If they’d shown it to James, he would’ve told us. As far as we knew, the Bridgestones had no way to get the Semtex out of there. Or themselves, for that matter. We had that compound under constant surveillance. This whole thing would be over if it wasn’t for that damned tunnel. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I should’ve anticipated something like this. Maybe I should’ve had choppers orbiting just over the ridgeline. I could’ve—”
“It’s not your fault, Ethan. I don’t mean to interrupt, but let’s stay on track. Do we keep McBride aboard?”
“At this point, I suppose we don’t have much choice. It’s all I can do to contain him. If he finds the brothers before we do, that’s great. But I don’t see that happening.”
“What’s he doing now?” Frank asked.
“He checked Ernie Bridgestone’s visitation logs from Fort Leavenworth before going out there. He spoke to Ernie’s former shrink, then came back and made contact with Amber Sheldon in Fresno, but she doesn’t know where Bridgestone is.”
Frank paused. When he spoke, there was a hard edge to his voice. “What did Sheldon tell him? Did she—”