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
The chairman leaned on the table with both hands. “I called this meeting to give everyone a heads-up on what’s about to happen. The FBI will be raiding the compound tomorrow at fourteen-thirty hours, local time. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force will conduct the raid, so we can count on a certain degree of media fallout. Something of this magnitude can’t be kept from the press for long. We’re hitting that compound at full force tomorrow. I’ll brief you afterward on the status of James Ortega, the Semtex, and the teams that conduct the raid. Until then, thank you all again for coming on such short notice.”
The committee members stood, gathered their belongings, and silently filed out of the room.
Watson started to leave. Stone stopped him. “Not you, Leaf.”
Watson faced the senator.
Nathan McBride’s father gestured toward a chair. “Have a seat. I’ve been in touch with the president. We have a few things to discuss.”
* * *
Nathan and Harv’s flight helmets crackled to life with the approach controller’s voice. “Helicopter Five-November-Charlie, contact Sacramento Executive tower on one-one-nine point five. Frequency change approved. Good night.”
From the left seat, Harv pressed a preset button containing the tower’s frequency and pulled the transmit trigger. “Sacramento Exec, Helicopter Five-November-Charlie is with you with information sierra.”
The tower’s response came back immediately. “Helicopter Five-November-Charlie, radar contact confirmed. Maintain heading and speed for landing on Taxiway Hotel. Advise upon two-mile final.”
Nathan made a slight course correction and eased the collective down a hair. Harv acknowledged the tower’s instructions. Although they could speak to each other any time they liked through the intercom system, Nathan hadn’t felt like talking much. He knew Harv was aware of his mood. There was little he could hide from his friend. He appreciated the distance given at times like this, but sooner or later, Harv would mention it, saying something like,
You’ve been a little quiet lately, is something bugging you?
Nathan planned on telling his friend what was bothering him, he just didn’t feel like doing it now.
As if on cue, Harv spoke. “You’ve been awfully quiet since we left San Diego. Want to talk about it?”
Well, there it was, out in the open where it belonged. No avoiding it now. “I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about Ortega’s grandson, how much time’s passed since his last check-in.”
“You figure he’s been compromised and interrogated.”
“It pisses me off thinking about it. They probably tortured the shit out of the poor kid. Maybe still are.”
“That’s not the only thing bugging you.”
Nathan didn’t respond, didn’t have to.
“It’s how far Greg and Frank are willing to go to save James. You’re wondering why your father didn’t go to the same lengths to find you.”
Harv had hit pay dirt. That’s exactly what he’d been wondering. For many, many years. During his four-day crucifixion, he’d had lots of time to think about it. Hour after hour, then day after day, he kept waiting for the cavalry to arrive, hoping for the cavalry to arrive,
for it to arrive. Toward the end, his prayers changed and death had been welcome.
Nathan nodded. “I just don’t like my father knowing of our involvement. It makes this whole thing… I don’t know, seem dirty.”
“Come on, that’s not fair. The CDT is a vital part of the nation’s security. It’s an important job, being the chairman. Of course he’s involved.”
Nathan said nothing.
“Despite how you feel about him, Ortega was right. He is a good man.”
“He’s a politician. It’s all about money. The size of his damned war chest. Kissing babies is total BS. It’s all about campaign contributions. Television and radio time. Mass mailings. What’s the biggest issue facing a career politician? The economy? Crime? Unemployment? Illegal immigration? It’s none of those things. It’s getting reelected to another term. Can you believe he has the balls to send me campaign contribution letters?”
“Come on, that’s not fair either. Your dad cares about all those issues.”
“I suppose you’re right. Sorry, I’m just venting.”
“Your father, he really does that?”
“The fund-raising thing? He sends you letters?”
“Yeah, he does.”
“I’d call it reaching out.”
“I call it reaching for my wallet.”
“Do you send him money?”
He knew he couldn’t lie to Harv and get away with it. “Yeah, I do. The maximum amount allowed for an individual. Every year.”
“No wonder he keeps sending them.”
“It’s no different than any other profession,” Harv continued. “People want to keep their jobs. It’s hard work being a politician, especially on the federal level. They make a lot of personal sacrifices.”
Nathan knew all too well about the great Stonewall McBride’s personal sacrifices because he was one of them. He had an absentee dad during his childhood. Deep down, he’d come to terms with it, but there was still a sliver of resentment left over, like the smell of an extinguished candle. He didn’t hate his father, he just didn’t feel any kind of familial bond with him. How could he? He hardly knew the man. Diane Ortega’s comment was still fresh in his mind.
Your father’s a lot like Frank, and you’re a lot like Greg.
“You should cut him some slack,” Harv said, “maybe try to patch things up.”
“You know, you’re the only person in the world I’d let say that to me, besides my mother.”
“Why do you think I said it? You need to hear it. He’s getting up there.”
Nathan said nothing.
“For your mother’s sake.”
They flew in silence for several minutes.
“Thanks.” He turned on the Bell’s landing light a little early as a courtesy to the tower. They were now a bright spot in the sky, easy to see. “You did a great job on the radio through LA’s bravo airspace. You want to make the landing?”
“I do, but stay close to the controls, okay?”
“Will do.” Nathan spotted the airport’s beacon and made a tiny course change to put them on a straight-in final. Even as experienced and seasoned as he was, spotting the green-and-white flashing beacon of their destination airport at night was always a welcome sight. “Okay, she’s yours. You’ve got the controls.”
“I’ve got the controls,” Harv echoed.
“I’m on the radio,” Nathan said.
In the distance, Sacramento looked like a million multicolored jewels laid out on black velvet. Visibility was good at fifty miles plus, a positive aftermath of rain. At two miles, Nathan keyed the transmit trigger. “Helicopter Five-November-Charlie’s on a two-mile final.”
The tower gave them clearance to land on Taxiway Hotel.
Harv made a near-flawless approach, handling the two-and-a-half-ton Bell 407 with precision and confidence. His only hitch was slowing the helicopter down a little early. It wasn’t dangerous, but on a busy day with multiple aircraft in the pattern, the tower would probably ask for an expedited landing, meaning
get your butt in gear and land
. Harv set the ship down near the large white
painted on the tarmac just west of Taxiway Hotel as instructed. Two other helicopters were parked in the transient area, one of them a California Highway Patrol bird, the other a Department of Forestry firefighter. Nathan went through the shutdown procedure, cooling the engine and flipping avionic switches. The four seventeen-foot rotors slowly wound down.
“Nice job,” Nathan said, taking off his helmet.
While Nathan went through the shutdown procedure, Harv got out and checked the baggage compartment. He knew his friend was making sure everything was secure. Their duffel bags contained everything they’d need for tomorrow’s operation. Nathan’s Remington 700 was in a separate aluminum case. The duffels held their ammunition, binoculars, spotter’s scope, transmitter detector, woodland MARPAT uniforms, backpacks, bottled water, and perhaps the two most important items, their ghillie suits. A sniper’s ghillie suit was an amazing piece of gear. Once donned, it broke up the sharp-edged outline of a human body by employing thousands of shaggy, tattered pieces of fabric that hung in random disarray from every square inch of its surface. The wearer ended up looking like the Swamp Thing from the classic comic book series. Harv returned with their overnight bags.
“Did you know Frank Ortega had a daughter?” Nathan asked. “I’d always thought Greg was an only child.”
“What brings that up?”
“I saw a picture in Frank’s office.”
“It’s a sore subject. She was killed fifteen or twenty years ago. She’d just passed the bar exam when it happened, the very same day, as I recall. Some kind of traffic accident.”
“That’s a bad deal. Sorry to hear it.”
“It was really bad for awhile. Greg never talked about it. It was too painful. I think he was pretty close to his sister. He took her death really badly. We didn’t talk for over a year. I didn’t push and he didn’t need any pressure from me.”
“I can imagine.”
When the main rotor stopped, Nathan made a final shutdown check of all the systems and switches before climbing out to join Harv. It was a cool evening with a light wind. In an unbroken tradition, he gave the Bell an affectionate pat on the fuselage after locking her up. They walked in silence toward the terminal.
It took the taxi twenty minutes to arrive, and twenty minutes after that, they were checked into the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sacramento for the night.
* * *
The following morning Nathan met Harv in the lobby of the hotel just after sunrise. Over breakfast, they talked briefly about their expectations regarding the raid, in particular about what Frank Ortega had said about not being able to guarantee their presence at the raid would be known. Nathan wasn’t concerned, in fact, he preferred it that way. They were used to working alone.
After breakfast, they returned to Nathan’s room, where they took a closer look at the file Frank had provided. They reviewed every little detail, from topographic maps and aerial photos to the military personnel files on the Bridgestone brothers. Internal FBI memos, along with James Ortega’s transcribed reports, were also studied. It was a lot to absorb, but when they were finished, they had a pretty good picture of things. They retired to their rooms to catch some last-minute shut-eye before the afternoon raid.
Unfortunately, sleep didn’t come for Nathan. Staring at the ceiling, he couldn’t get his mind off James Ortega and what the poor kid could be going through at this very moment. In agony. Alone. Frightened. Hopeless. It really burned him picturing the Bridgestones doing anything they wanted. Was James tied to a chair, wired with electrodes? Screaming until his throat bled? Nathan closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts. There was nothing he could do for James right now. They had to find him first. Deep down, he hoped the kid was dead, not still being tortured. He made a promise to himself: If the Bridgestones had tortured James Ortega, they were both dead men.
Later that morning, Harv drove the rented Tahoe over to the airport, where they retrieved their gear from the helicopter. Within ten minutes, they left Sacramento behind. Once they’d cleared the city, it was an easy cruise north on Highway 70 through Marysville and Oroville until it turned northeast into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and became a designated scenic highway. The road gradually climbed into one of California’s greatest natural treasures. Oaks and grassland gave way to hundreds of thousands of acres of pine forest. An hour later, Harv found their turn onto the logging road they’d identified in the aerial photos. Using his handheld GPS device to find the exact spot they wanted, Harv followed the gravel track for eight miles before he pulled the Tahoe off the road and parked it deep within the trees where it wouldn’t be seen by a passing vehicle.
They quickly changed from civilian clothes into their woodland MARPAT combat utility uniforms, which would merge them into the native colors of the forest. They exchanged their shoes for combat boots. Nathan had cut one of the cleats away from his right boot while Harv’s left boot had the same missing cleat. Their footprints would be distinct and recognizable in the event they had to separate for any reason.
Harv secured his Kowa spotting scope along with twenty-five stripper clips, each clip holding five rounds of hand-loaded .308 ammo, into his backpack while Nathan inspected his cloth-wrapped Remington 700 sniper rifle from end to end. Each of them made one final check of all their gear, making sure nothing was left behind. Harv removed two Sig Sauer P-226 pistol belts from a duffel and handed one to Nathan. Next, they tied their ghillie suits onto their backpacks. The last thing they did was apply green, brown, and black body paint to their exposed areas of skin.
Nathan didn’t talk during this part of the operation—it wasn’t necessary—but still he noticed the occasional glances Harv was giving him. They were both thinking the same thing. It didn’t need to be vocalized. They’d come to terms with it over a decade ago. Harv patted his shoulder. It felt good. Reassuring. He couldn’t imagine his life without Harv. He nodded a silent approval to his partner.
Harv locked the Tahoe and put the keys atop the right front tire. They didn’t want an untimely jingling in a pocket. Although the sound was inaudible to humans, it wasn’t to dogs and dogs were always a concern. Shooting an attacking dog was a surefire way to give away your presence. Besides, Nathan really liked dogs, more than most people.
All set to go, they started up the mountain, keeping fifty feet of lateral separation between them. Although getting footholds was easier due to the damp earth from last night’s storm, it was still a difficult climb over decomposed granite, sand, and loose rock. After several hundred yards, they took a breather. Nathan motioned Harv over to his position.
“Time,” he asked.
Harv slid his sleeve up and looked at his watch where he’d smeared soap over the dial to prevent a glint of light from the sun. “Thirty-seven minutes.”