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
A pause. “Did you kill him?”
“Now would I do something like that?”
“I’m deeply hurt by that comment.”
Silence on the other end.
“I didn’t kill him,” Nathan said. “The circumstances didn’t warrant it.”
“I would’ve helped.”
“There wasn’t time. I broke a few traffic laws getting there and a few bones after I arrived.”
“Bones or laws?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Radius, ulna, and a nose. Nothing serious.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you. Now, is everything okay with you?”
“I’m fine. But Frank Ortega’s not. He’s worried about his grandson.”
“Frank Ortega? The former FBI director?”
“Who’s his grandson?”
“Third-generation FBI. He’s currently undercover inside some kind of arms smuggling racket.”
“What kind of arms?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Up north. Lassen County. Nate, he’s missing. Ortega wants our help. I didn’t promise anything, but I said we’d meet with him.”
“What, tonight?” Nathan heard his partner sigh.
“Yeah, tonight. Hold tight. I’m already on my way.”
Nathan’s Clairemont home was similar to every other on the block, meticulously landscaped with a pastel stucco exterior and tile roof. What set Nathan’s apart was its state-of-the-art security system. Some would call it overkill, but Nathan called it an indulgence. He and Harvey Fontana owned a company that installed such systems. Why shouldn’t he own the best?
A metallic-blue Mercedes pulled into Nathan’s driveway and its driver climbed out. Harvey, the same age as Nathan, stood six inches shorter. His light hazel eyes were an extreme contrast to his tanned, Latino complexion. Gray hair was definitely winning the battle. Nathan thought Harv had the classic look of a politician, but wouldn’t hold that against him.
“You know I’m here,” Harv muttered. He sounded like James Earl Jones with a Spanish accent. “The least you could do is meet me outside.”
“I am outside,” Nathan said.
Harv whipped around. “Damn it, Nate. I hate it when you do that.”
“Why do you drive that big thing?”
“I’m a big man, I need a big ride. What’s it to you?”
“You’re an average-sized man.… Everywhere.”
“It’s good to see you too, Nate.”
“How’s the family?”
“If you’d visit once in awhile, you wouldn’t have to ask.”
“You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Nathan’s tone changed. “From one to ten, what’s the urgency of tonight’s meeting with Ortega?”
* * *
They drove south on I-5, enjoying a comfortable silence. After a few miles, Harv merged east onto I-8.
“You get a chance to look at the financials I sent last week?”
“Our net worth went up another eight-hundred grand this quarter.”
“I know money bores you, but honestly. You own a helicopter, for cryin’ out loud, and your home in La Jolla is to kill for.” Harvey shook his head. “If you ever get truly bored with your share of our company, you can always sell it to me.”
“Don’t worry, it’s yours for free when I kick the bucket.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk that way. My world is much more interesting with you in it.”
“So,” Nathan’s tone signaled a change of subject, “you and Ortega go pretty far back.”
“I know his son, Greg, better. He was doing Middle East satellite intel for the CIA at the same time we were in Nicaragua. He transferred to counterterrorism work in the FBI eight years ago.”
Nathan said nothing. He already knew all of this. Harv was setting a stage.
“He’s a good guy, okay?” said Harvey.
Nathan didn’t respond. He fully planned on helping Frank Ortega, but had some nonnegotiable conditions.
“I couldn’t have rescued you without Greg’s help,” Harvey continued. “I know you know that. But Greg knows it too. We spent long nights studying satellite imagery together. He volunteered his time freely, without strings. I owe him, Nate. Big-time.
They rode in silence for the rest of the trip. Everything Harv said was true, and Nathan didn’t resent it being said. Harv had saved his life. He wouldn’t have lasted another day in that damned cage. In fact, he had no memory of being carried three miles through the jungle. Mercifully, he’d been in and out of consciousness, mostly out.
During their botched mission, Nathan had sacrificed himself to ensure Harv’s escape. They’d been surrounded by guerilla soldiers hell-bent on capturing them alive. They separated to give themselves the best chance of making it out, but Nathan had doubled back to cover Harv’s exit. He’d purposely given his position away by firing shots to draw the mercenaries away from Harv.
Bottom line? He and Harv were closer than family and either of them would give their lives for the other—no questions asked. If helping the Ortegas was that important to Harv, Nathan would be there for him.
They pulled into Frank Ortega’s driveway at 11:50 pm. It was a steep climb, snaking up to a Mediterranean Spanish-style home with a terra-cotta roof. Lit with spots, mature palms lined both sides of the driveway, creating an impressive colonnade. A dark Ford Taurus was parked in front of a detached, three-car garage. Nathan figured it for an FBI vehicle, probably Greg Ortega’s ride. The white stucco house was big, but not overly so, and the classic symmetry of design was pleasing to the eye. A wheelchair ramp had been constructed to one side of the entrance, bypassing the steps up to the front door. As their Mercedes rolled to a stop, a Rottweiler bounded out from the side yard and challenged their intrusion.
Nathan opened his door.
Harv put a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe you should wait until Frank comes out.”
Nathan slid out and took a step forward, addressing the dog in a near whisper. “Easy now. You’re not in charge here. I am.”
“Come on, Nate, get back in. That dog’s going to tear you to pieces.”
He took another step forward. “I’m not afraid of you. Settle down. Now.” The dog backed up a step, unsure of its standing with this new arrival. Hearing something Nathan couldn’t, it raised its ears and turned toward the house. Nathan looked up just as two men appeared at the front door, the older of the two in a wheelchair: former FBI Director Frank Ortega.
Its docked tail wagging, the dog trotted up the driveway, turned up the wheelchair ramp, and sat by its owner’s side. The man patted the dog’s back.
Nathan had met Frank Ortega once before, but couldn’t remember where. Maybe a political event. They walked over as the two men came down the ramp, one rolling, one walking.
Harvey spoke first. “Hello, Frank.” They shook hands. “This is Nathan McBride.”
“It’s an honor to meet you again,” Nathan said.
“The honor is mine. You’re an unsung hero, Major McBride.”
“I appreciate that, sir, but I’m retired now.”
“You’ve earned the title, and please call me Frank.”
The man issued a firm handshake, overly so. Nathan figured it was a gesture saying
be in a wheelchair, but I’m still a force to be reckoned with
. Frank Ortega had kind, brown eyes behind a pronounced brow line. The former director was thin, but not slack. There wasn’t the slightest hint of a belly under his white buttoned shirt. He wore tan slacks with penny loafers that looked brand new. Although he did his best to hide it, his face looked taut with tension.
Frank’s son, Greg, strongly resembled his father. He had the same eyes and brow line, just twenty-five years younger. Nathan guessed his age at fifty, plus or minus. Greg wore a dark jogging outfit and running shoes.
Harvey gave Greg a hug. “Greg, this is Nathan McBride.”
“Pleasure,” Greg said, shaking hands without a smile.
“The same,” Nathan answered. Greg’s handshake wasn’t as firm and he spent a fraction too long looking at Nathan’s face. Nathan didn’t resent the staring. He’d gotten used to that over the years. It was just a natural reaction to seeing the damage.
“Tell me something, McBride,” said Frank. “How did you know about Scout? Most people are intimidated by Rottweilers.”
Nathan didn’t mind being called McBride. Frank Ortega would be in the habit of speaking that way. He’d been the FBI’s top man under two presidents.
“Body language,” Nathan said. “When a dog is going to attack, it lowers its head, crouches down, and curls its lips back. Scout was barking, but he wasn’t singularly focused on me. He knew you’d be coming out the door, so he was dividing his attention. By approaching him, I established dominance.”
Frank nodded a silent compliment.
“I like dogs a lot. They’re amazing animals. They give affection and loyalty freely.”
Frank Ortega looked at Harvey, but said nothing.
Nathan sensed the tension thicken. He hadn’t intended the comment to be suggestive of their current situation, but he wasn’t going to backpedal from it.
“Let’s go inside,” Frank said.
Nathan watched as Frank easily maneuvered up the ramp and through the front door. He was also acutely aware of being studied by Greg. The surveillance was subtle, but steady. Understandable. From what he knew about Greg, the man rode a desk. Nathan hated offices and avoided his own as much as possible. First Security Incorporated was Harv’s deal, and he gave his partner complete freedom to manage everything. Although an equal owner, he had neither the desire nor the temperament to be actively involved in a complex business.
Inside Frank’s home on the left, Nathan saw a small library. On the right, a sitting room with a beige leather sofa and matching love seat. Straight ahead, the kitchen. But what impressed Nathan the most was the stone floor. Staring in amazement, he stopped short of a fifteen-foot reproduction of the official FBI seal. Every aspect of the insignia was intricately re-created in a mosaic of colored stone. Inscribed within the seal were the words
Fidelity Bravery Integrity
A small, elderly woman approached from the kitchen. “Frank spent a fortune on it.”
Mrs. Ortega had shoulder-length silvery-gray hair and a kind, matronly face. Like her husband, she was thin, but not frail. With those oval glasses, she could’ve come directly from baking cookies or reading the
Wall Street Journal
Nathan winced as she strode across the symbol.
“We walk on it all the time,” she said, reading his expression. “It’s the floor, after all. I’m Diane. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. McBride.”
She offered her hand. It felt like warm bones in a velvet glove. “Please call me Nathan. This should be in a museum.” In the corner of his eye, he caught Greg shifting his weight. The man was strung tight and could be a problem. Probably would be a problem.
“Harvey,” Diane said.
Harvey bent and kissed her cheek. “It’s good to see you, Diane.”
“Would anyone like tea or coffee?”
“No, thank you,” Nathan said.
Harvey also said no.
Her son shook his head.
“Let’s talk in the library,” Frank said. He wheeled himself in that direction. His ride had no bells or whistles. It was a seat on wheels, as basic as they come. Nathan reevaluated his earlier assessment of Frank’s grip during their handshake. The man had a powerful grip out of necessity and the firm handshake hadn’t been phony or intended to show off at all. The man simply had strong hands.
Despite Diane’s comment, Nathan avoided stepping on the FBI seal as he followed. It didn’t feel right walking on it. Frank maneuvered himself behind his desk while Nathan, Harvey, and Greg sat in tan leather chairs arranged in a semicircle. Nathan studied the photos behind Frank’s desk. They displayed him shaking hands with five different presidents: Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Frank stood in the Carter, Reagan, and first Bush photographs and was in a wheelchair for the other two. Portrait-type pictures of his two adult children were hung on the wall to his right: Greg and presumably a daughter. Nathan waited through an uneasy silence while Frank reached into a side drawer and pulled out a thick file. Nathan looked at it, then back to Frank.
“I know your father well. We go back a long way.”
Nathan said nothing.
“He’s a good man,” Frank said quietly.
Nathan locked eyes. “We aren’t here to talk about him.”
Out of Frank’s line of sight, Nathan felt Harv nudge his foot. If Greg had noticed the gesture, he didn’t react.
“No, that’s true. We’re here to talk about my grandson. He’s MIA. Has been for several days now. He was undercover inside an arms-smuggling operation up in Lassen County. An outfit called Freedom’s Echo.” Frank paused for a moment. “How much do you know about Semtex?”
“It’s Czech-made plastic explosive.”
“That’s right. Extremely potent stuff. And we know for a fact that this group got their hands on some of it, a lot of it, actually. Around a ton. It was the last thing my grandson reported before he disappeared. It’s likely he blew his cover relaying the information.”
“That’s a bad situation,” Nathan said.
“And not just for him. Seizing the Semtex is critical. In the wrong hands, it could mean several more World Trade Center-type incidents. A few well-placed car bombs in the underground parking structures of skyscrapers could bring them down. Unlike the World Trade Center, there wouldn’t be time for an evacuation. The buildings would collapse with everyone inside.”
Nathan had seen footage of buildings being demolished with explosives. Implosion, he believed they called it. But if you changed the pattern and timing of the charges, the buildings could fall more like trees, taking out other buildings like dominoes. If the Trade Center towers had fallen sideways, it would’ve been worse.
“What exactly do you want us to do?”
Frank leaned back in his wheelchair and stared out the window like a man looking back on his life and wondering about all the things he could’ve done differently. “The FBI is about to send SWAT teams under the command of the Sacramento Joint Terrorism Task Force to raid the compound. They have two objectives. The first is to recover the Semtex if it’s still there and the second is to determine the fate of my grandson. But the main plan is to put Freedom’s Echo out of business before that Semtex disappears.” Frank locked eyes with Nathan. “You two were the best covert ops team this country’s ever had. I’m not patronizing you. I mean it, you guys were the best. What I need is for you to be my eyes and ears up there. I have a personal stake in this. It’s my grandson, my own flesh and blood. I no longer have the access I used to. I could make a call and get boilerplate information, but it wouldn’t be firsthand visual intelligence coming from a source I trust.”