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 two agents hustled back toward the compound, the lead man talking into his mike as he ran.
“I only saw three guys,” Nathan said. “I got one of them, but the other two are still in the main building. One of them has a rifle and he’s a shooter.”
Gifford turned away and spoke quietly into his mike. He turned back toward Nathan and Harvey. “I’ll be honest. I was resentful you two were going to be here, but now I’m glad you were. We would’ve made this a night raid otherwise. It’s no secret who’s missing.” Gifford issued a hand signal to the woman SWAT member, and she hustled over to their position. “Cover us.” He addressed Nathan and Harvey. “You two, you’re with me.” Gifford began walking deeper into the forest.
Nathan exchanged a glance with Harv before following. When they were fifty yards away, Gifford stopped and faced them. He reached into his pocket and gave Nathan a slip of paper with a handwritten phone number on it.
“Call me in six hours. If you’re willing, I’ve got a special job for you guys tomorrow night.”
“A tunnel?” Senator Stone McBride’s irritation couldn’t be concealed. Gripping the telephone too tightly, he continued. “And nobody knew about it?”
Leaf Watson hesitated before answering. “I’m afraid not, sir. I think it’s fair to assume if Special Agent Ortega has seen it, he would’ve reported it.”
Stone had sent Watson out to California on a red-eye for a firsthand report. Now he couldn’t help but wish he’d gone along with him.
“I have FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Larry Gifford with me. We’re on speaker, Senator.”
“Nice to meet you, ASAC Gifford, even under the circumstances.”
“Thank you, Senator,” Gifford said.
“Any sign of James Ortega?”
“No,” Watson said.
“I want the entire property searched. Bring in whatever resources you need. I want that compound torn apart. Dogs, whatever it takes. I want James Ortega found.”
“Yes, Senator. I’ll see to it personally.”
Stone rubbed his eyes. “What about the Semtex?”
“I’m looking at several pallets of wooden crates stacked head high.”
“Just over sixteen hundred pounds.”
“Did we get all of it?”
“We’re pretty sure ten crates are missing. About four hundred pounds.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Stone said. “The raid nets us over three-quarters of a ton of Semtex and the youngest Bridgestone brother, but in the process we lose one of your men, four hundred pounds of Semtex, and the operation’s two ringleaders. Not a great trade-off, I’m afraid.”
An uneasy silence hung on the other end.
Larry Gifford broke it. “It could’ve been a lot worse.”
Waiting for Gifford to continue, Stone said nothing.
“We had a sniper team on the south rim of the canyon. They saw a compound member with a radio remote, put two and two together, and fired a shot out in front of my SWAT team. Fortunately when the claymores blew, we were on the ground. We could’ve lost a dozen more agents.”
“Is that the official story?” Stone asked.
“Good, let’s keep it that way.” Stone knew the truth and knew that both Gifford and Watson also knew the truth. His son fired that warning shot. Chalk up another victory for cold-blooded snipers.
“Tell me about this damned tunnel.”
Gifford continued. “Before storming the main building, we fired flash bangs and tear gas, but they were long gone. On the inside west wall of the main building, the concrete had been saw cut, then removed with a jackhammer. We found a small room below the slab reinforced with railroad ties. It connects to nearly a mile of thirty-inch diameter concrete pipe. Must have cost a small fortune. They attached skateboard wheels to the undersides of water skis and used them like toboggans to traverse the tunnel.”
“They didn’t haul four hundred pounds of Semtex through that tunnel yesterday.”
“We think it was moved several days ago, just after Special Agent James Ortega went silent. The tunnel ended in the tree line to the west of the compound nearly a mile away. We followed their footprints another half mile and found camouflaged netting they’d used to cover off-road quad-runners. The tire tracks extended to the west down the valley. We think someone met them on a logging road about fifteen miles away. The quad-runner tracks ended there. They probably loaded them onto a trailer or hauled them into the bed of a truck. We’re checking that angle, asking at every gas station and convenience store in the area if anyone remembers seeing them, but it’s a fairly common sight—quads in trailers, I mean. We’re doing our best to piece together the chain of events.”
“Keep after it.” Stone paused a moment before asking, “Did you see my son during the raid?”
“Yes, he approached our teams after the claymores went off.”
“What did you think of him?”
“I’m… not sure what you’re asking me?” Gifford asked
“What was your impression of him?”
“He was definitely in his environment. He seemed comfortable in a high-stress situation. I’m glad he was on our side, that’s for sure.”
“That sounds like Nathan.”
“He’s an incredible soldier.
an incredible soldier. He’s given a lot for his country, more than I’ll ever know.”
“That’s true, he has.”
“I offered him another job.”
“I need someone to talk to the Bridgestones’ cousins living on the outskirts of Sacramento. They’ve been in and out of jail most of their lives. A week before the raid, we put their farmhouse under surveillance. They might know something or the Bridgestones might call them or show up there. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth pursuing.”
“So Nathan’s to
“Yes, a friendly fireside chat.”
“Uh-huh. And I suppose he can
to these Bridgestone cousins in a way your people can’t? Is that about the long and short of it?” Stone knew Gifford wouldn’t respond, so he continued. “I see. Then this conversation we’re having never took place.”
“I think that would be best, Senator.”
“Nathan’s your man, then. Anything you need, Special Agent Gifford, you talk to Special Agent Watson directly.”
“Thank you, Senator, I will.”
Stone had one last question for Gifford. “Do you believe James Ortega is dead?” He waited through a brief silence.
“I want to believe he’s still alive, but it’s unlikely. The Bridgestones tried to frag my entire SWAT team. If James Ortega was discovered, they would’ve interrogated him and killed him outright. I can’t see any reason they’d keep him alive. My people have searched every building within a five-mile radius of the compound, but he’s nowhere. We’ve also set up roadblocks on every road leading in and out of here. We’re bringing in cadaver dog teams tomorrow in case he’s buried up here. Later today, I’ll have two FBI helicopters searching the area out to a twenty-mile radius coordinating with CDF and Lassen County Sheriffs’ horseback teams on the ground. We’re doing everything possible to find him with the limited resources we have available.”
“I’ll call Sierra Army Depot’s commander, see if he can muster a couple of platoons for you. Maybe a Black Hawk or two.”
“That would really help. The more people we have up here searching, the better chance we have of finding him.”
“If it’s any consolation, Special Agent Gifford, I’m going to nail those Bridgestone brothers to a cross.”
“Thank you, Senator,” said Gifford. “I’ll be there with the hammer.”
* * *
It promised to be another long day for Nathan and Harv. Yesterday, after speaking with ASAC Gifford, they’d received some stitches and small field dressings on their legs. Sitting on their wounds hadn’t been especially pleasant during the flight back to San Diego, but other than that, the flight had been uneventful. They’d arrived well after dark. Then, early this morning, they met with the Ortegas at a coffee shop in Mission Valley and given them a complete update on the Freedom’s Echo raid, including their latest phone updates from Gifford. Although disappointment was evident in their voices and body language, they seemed encouraged by the new assignment Nathan and Harv had accepted.
After the Ortegas, they again went their separate ways and agreed to meet back at Montgomery Field at 1800 hours for the return flight to Sacramento. Harv told Nathan he needed to make a brief stop at the office to follow up on some potential contracts before heading home to say happy birthday to his oldest son, Lucas.
Nathan needed sleep. He could barely concentrate. One rule he’d taken to heart while in the Marines: Sleep when you can. He’d had less than six hours of shut-eye in the last two days and he faced another long night of flying. He needed to call Mara and find out if Toby had caused any additional problems. He dialed her cell number from memory.
“Any sign of our problem child?”
“No, nothing at all. I really think he’s gone for good this time. Karen said to say thank-you for the money. A handyman’s there now, fixing the walls and replacing the sliding glass door. Karen said she wants you to upgrade the security system with that new mobile link stuff.”
“That’s a good idea. Tell Karen we’ll hook her up.”
“You’re a gem.”
“Take care, Mara.”
Maybe he’d read Toby right after all. A few miles later, his phone rang. It was Harv. “What’s up?”
“I just had the damnedest conversation with the office.”
“Gavin said a big guy came in and applied for a job yesterday. I believe she used the word
. She said his right arm was in a cast, and he looked like he’d gone ten rounds with George Foreman. You know anything about him?”
“I did.” Nathan listened to the sigh on the other end.
“Think he can pass a background check?”
“I have no idea, probably not.”
“You must really hate me.”
“Consider it a personal challenge.”
“I’ll run the check myself. You could’ve told me.”
“Must have slipped my mind.”
“Do me a favor and get some sleep. I don’t want you nodding off at the stick tonight. Waking your ass up is hazardous business, especially in a helicopter.”
“It’s called a cyclic, not a stick.”
“How was your son’s birthday party?”
“I missed it. I was tied up with a national security issue up north in Lassen County.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Well, let’s see. You want the long or short version?”
“No surprise there,” Harv muttered. “I spent an hour removing toilet paper from my trees in the front yard. After that, I drained the pool. The water had mysteriously turned pink. But you know what the worst thing was?”
“His friends wrote
Happy Birthday Lucas
with gasoline on the front lawn and lit it on fire. Can you believe that? It wasn’t dangerous, but honestly. Today’s youth.”
“Don’t remind me. I’m making him replace all the burned grass. A pallet of sod’s coming tomorrow morning. Should keep him busy for most of the day. Candace grounded him for a month.”
“Oh that’s right, laugh it up. This is what happens when I turn my back for a few days.”
“If that’s worst thing he ever does, consider yourself lucky.”
“That’s not very reassuring.”
“What, you never did anything like that during your formative years?”
“See you at eighteen-hundred.”
* * *
At close to midnight, Nathan set the helicopter down at Sacramento Executive Airport in the exact same spot where they’d landed before. They were both suffering from major cases of flight fatigue and needed head call. A plain four-door sedan was parked near the hangars to the south. It looked dark blue or black, Nathan couldn’t tell which under the bland sodium light. Its headlights flashed once.
“Our FBI friends,” Harv said, removing his flight helmet.
“You ready for this?”
“Come on, it’ll be just like old times.”
“That’s what worries me.”
While Nathan went through the shutdown procedure, Harv retrieved a duffel and two overnight bags from the baggage compartment. The duffel held their gun belts, spare ammunition, night-vision visors, two Fox USMC Predator knives in ankle sheaths, a roll of duct tape, and two LED flashlights.
They climbed out and Nathan gave the helicopter an obligatory pat on her fuselage before locking her up. A man and a woman slid out of the sedan and walked toward them. The male agent was perfectly tailored in a dark polo shirt, pressed slacks, and expensive-looking shoes. The woman wore new blue jeans, hiking boots, and a white-buttoned shirt. Secured in waist holsters, they both wore Glocks on their right sides. The woman looked like the real deal, but her partner looked a little forced—like the picture of a fast-food burger on a menu board.
“Mr. McBride, Mr. Fontana? I’m Special Agent in Charge Holly Simpson of the Sacramento field office. This is Special Agent Bruce Henning.” Handshakes were made all around, and it was agreed to use first names. As they walked toward the sedan, Nathan evaluated his escorts. SAC Simpson was small and compact, but her demeanor said otherwise. She had a firm handshake and an aura of confidence surrounding her. Her black hair was shoulder length, not too long, not too short. It was… Just right. And she hadn’t reacted to the scars on his face. Henning had stared way too long, and Nathan got the distinct impression he resented outsiders being involved in bureau business. An understandable attitude, but too damned bad. The guy was medium height and build with perfect, blow-dried hair. There was intensity in his dark eyes and something else harder to pinpoint. Nathan didn’t like him.
“I’m very sorry about your man up at the compound,” Nathan offered to Holly.
“I appreciate that,” she said.
“What exactly are you authorized to do with the Bridgestones’ cousins?” Henning asked.
Nathan stopped walking and faced the man. Henning’s statement and tone were clearly designed to put him on the defensive.
Not on my watch and not from the likes of you.