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Chapter Three

The keys turned out to be for a dark green Explorer and he pulled out of the park quickly, stopping only long enough to grab his jump bag where he'd left it. He thought about evidence he'd left behind. Probably enough to convict him. Fingerprints on the back of the van, if they dusted that. Yeah, they would; he'd left footprints on the bumper for sure. And not even Athens PD was going to miss those. He'd kept all his magazines, expended and unexpended, but there were sure to be prints somewhere. On the coffin, too, come to think of it. Damnit, he wasn't a natural criminal type. Well, might as well hung for a sheep as a lamb, he wanted to find the container vehicle and make sure he'd read the documents right.

To get to Atlanta from there the quickest way was to get on the 10 loop and take it to 316. That led to I-85 and a couple of ways to get to the airport. He'd never been to the cargo side of the airport but he wanted to eyeball the damned thing.

He took the bypass fast, pushing the Explorer up to nearly a hundred and weaving in and out of traffic. He was going so fast that he nearly missed the exit for 316 but caught it just in time, the vehicle swaying perilously as he decelerated for the cloverleaf spiral. He'd decided that if he spotted the vehicle he was going to do something to attract police attention. Ever since 9/11 aircraft had been heavily controlled. But if the aircraft was controlled by the muj, as it probably was, if it got off the ground it was a flying bomb filled with hostages. Better to make sure the truck got stopped before much more could be done to them.

He was headed down 316, fighting the light traffic and, more importantly, the traffic lights, when he passed the turn for Ben Epps airport. He was concentrated on the road ahead of him but out of the corner of his eye, as he blew through the red light, he caught a glimpse of truck lights up the slope to the airport. A fast head check and he cursed luridly.

"Okay, did the fuckers lay a red herring?" he muttered to himself as he pushed the vehicle up to speed, looking for somewhere to do a U-turn. "Or did I read the damned things wrong?" He was sure the truck he'd seen was the same cargo container. It had the logo and in the brief glance he'd gotten he'd thought he saw the bent part in the door.

There was an opening in the median and he pushed the SUV into a tight turn, cutting off a truck that nearly went into the median with a blast of horn, and heading back to the airport.

There was a sign for cargo, which he hadn't even realized went in and out of Ben Epps, and he followed it. However, as he passed around the end of the runway he could see a guard post. He wanted to call the police, wanted to report what was going on and direct the proper guys to the right place. But he also still hoped he could avoid arrest. He could probably walk, even on torturing the kiddie tango. But "probably" versus twenty years, maybe life, maybe even death . . . that "probably" was looking mighty thin.

He took a Y corner to the right and continued past the guard post, headed for an apparent circuit of the airport. He could see the cargo container and this time he got a clear view of the back and the dent. It had stopped by a jet and was already unloading coffins onto a lift-truck.

"Motherfuckers," Mike muttered. Once that plane got into the air, if anyone tried to catch it, it was going to be bad. Fifty dead girls, by his quick estimate. Maybe 9/11 all over again. Muj weren't supposed to be able to get control of aircraft coming into the U.S. And he'd spend forever and a day trying to find a number that he could use with a satellite phone. "Hello, overseas operator? I'm trying to find the emergency number of Athens, Georgia, police department. No, Georgia, not Greece. No, the state in the United States, not the country . . ." No.

He was in a portion of the circle road that was partially screened and he cut his lights and pulled to the side using the parking brake. He put the satellite phone in his jump bag and did a quick mental check of the contents. Besides some notebooks, his laptop and the like, it had an eclectic selection of material. Bottle of water, two power bars, toiletry items, a small thermal survival blanket, small flashlight and a change of underwear and T-shirt.

He opened the door, slipping a toothpick into the stud to keep the interior lights from coming on, and dropped out of the vehicle to the ground, closing the door quietly. He knew what he was planning and he didn't like it. But he couldn't contact the police in time to keep the plane from taking off and once it was out of American airspace, tracking it would be problematic. It wouldn't be headed for anywhere in the Americas, that was pretty certain, so it would have to refuel somewhere. And it was likely that anywhere it refueled, it could get its tail number and transponder changed.

It was pointed basically towards him with most of the activity taking place at the back. There were no lights on in the cockpit so the pilots wouldn't be looking in his direction. There was a perimeter fence, but that was no problem. The guards might see him, the tangos might see him. Either would probably keep the plane on the ground, good, but also put him in prison, bad. But if he could figure out where they were going, he could vector in a rescue op.

He paused just a moment to think about that one as he crawled to the fence. He had trained for rescue ops, but never actually done one. However, in his training, he'd never once done one clean. No matter what, the hostages always ended up shot to shit. It was one of the team mantras: "It sucks to be a hostage."

But that was probably how it had to go down. If the police reacted right now, the plane could probably force its way off the ground. Police didn't think in terms of "it must not take off." And even if they blocked it, the pilots were probably aware that it was a potential "martyrdom operation" and they'd slam the plane, somehow, and kill the girls.

Follow, recon, lead in support. If he could call 911 direct, he would. But as it was, there just wasn't time for anything but . . . stupid heroics.

He'd gotten to the fence and cut the lower section with his knife, then wriggled under, pulling his jump bag and the MP-5 behind him. He was in a dark portion of the field; it was dark most of the way to the plane. Slow or fast? There didn't look to be many more coffins to load and the pilots might turn up, and look out or turn on their landing lights, at any time. Fast.

He sprinted across the open area, staying low, willing no one to see him, until he reached the nose-wheel. No shouts of alarm, no change in the regular action of loading. The plane was a 727 and he'd briefly studied it, and other, aircraft with a view to taking them back from hijackers. Again, not a primary mission but one that they trained on occasionally. If he recalled correctly, there was a hatch behind the nose-wheel assembly that led to the cargo compartment. From the cargo compartment, the plane could be accessed through a small tunnel, and another hatch. If the compartment was pressurized. They'd have to pressurize it to ensure the girls lived; the coffins had not been pressure sealed nor did they have air. Okay, get into the cargo compartment and he'd be golden.

He lifted himself up into the nose-wheel assembly and found a ledge to stand on. As he did he heard the engines start to whine.

"No pressure, we're good," Mike muttered. There was the hatch, appropriately marked. There was just one problem. There should have been an operating lever, actually a sort of horseshoe thingy, on the outside. But this hatch was smooth. Either he'd messed up on his recollection or this one was a different design.

"Motherfucker," he muttered. "What now?"

He heard an engine approaching and ducked up into the darkness, looking around wildly. When the nose-gear raised, he was going to be squashed like a bug. Even if he avoided that, the way that planes like this climbed, he'd not only be in an anoxic condition, without enough oxygen to stay conscious, possibly so little that he'd take brain damage, but it was likely he'd get the bends. Sudden reduction in pressure is sudden reduction in pressure and just as a SCUBA diver can't come up quickly after a certain amount of time because of nitrogen saturated in his tissues, being exposed in a plane in a fast climb can cause the bends. In a HALO jump, the cabin was slowly depressurized. This bird wasn't going to ascend slowly.

There was a ledge that had half of it marked in yellow with the words "Stay Clear" and the rest was just plain metal. With any luck, at all, the plain metal part wouldn't be filled with nose-gear. The truck sound had been a follow-me that hooked up to the nose assembly and turned the plane around.

He lay down on the metal and pulled out his thermal blanket, wrapping it around himself. Then he hooked the MP-5 to the jump bag and put the latter under his head.

"This is a truly bad idea," he muttered as the plane started to taxi. He thought about what he could have done. Instead of going into the airport, go to a convenience store and call 911 from a payphone. That might have worked, if they'd reacted quick enough. Too late now. Try the sat phone? They'd just shoot down the plane. Lots of dead girls. He didn't want that on his conscience or the conscience of the pilot that had to take the shot.

He pulled the jump bag around and fumbled out an aspirin tablet and his water. He took the tablet and washed it down and then put everything away as the plane moved into takeoff position. Sometimes aspirin helped reduce the bends. Anything would help. Oh, his poor abused joint; they were not going to like this.

"God . . ." he muttered as the engines revved and the plane started to move. "No, St. Michael. St. Michael, patron saint of all warriors of the air and of the sea, we've got a really screwed up situation here. These girls don't deserve what they're in, no matter how bad they've been. And, well, I could use a little help here. I know I'm not the greatest example of your name, but I'm on a pretty good mission and I think that should count for something. St. Michael, patron of paratroopers, protect us all. And please don't let me get so bent I can't do my job at the other end!"

The last was shouted over the blast of wind coming through the open nose assembly and Mike really hoped that he wasn't going to simply be picked up and washed out by it. There wasn't anywhere to hold on, just smooth metal. Suddenly, the nose came up and they were in the air. Then there was a sound of hydraulics and he could see the assembly coming up.

"And please don't let me get squashed like a bug!"

"Holy shit."

Special Agent in Charge Barry Conway had seen his share of murder scenes. The FBI didn't have murder as one of its jurisdictions, but they got called in on special cases. And this case had "special" written all over it.

"What do we have so far?" he asked the detective from Athens PD.

"We've got two witnesses," Detective Sergeant Jason Nix replied with a shrug. "The female victim, Ashley Winters, is being remarkably uncooperative. Her description of the perp keeps shifting around and she's not sure she really saw him shoot anyone, including the torture victim."

"That's because she's protecting him," Conway replied. "Wouldn't you?"

"I'm not particularly happy with the unknown perpetrator," Nix admitted. "I've got ten dead bodies on my hands, one torture victim and two females who had been kidnapped, one of them drugged, the other one beaten and molested. I want to know what his connection is to all of this."

"His connection appears to be that he killed most of the terrorists that were involved." Conway sighed. He liked bank jobs. Tracking down a bank robber was straightforward FBI work. Domestic terrorism, that was okay. You got somebody on the inside, got your intel and rolled them up. Foreign terrorism ops got really complicated really quick. The Patriot Act had helped, at least he wouldn't have to jump through hoops figuring out which particular action was simply illegal, kidnapping for example, and which was terrorism . . . kidnapping for example. The way things used to be structured, it was like he had to have two separate brains that were not permitted to link the national security information with the criminal information. If for no other reason, he was a big fan of the Patriot Act. It also meant he could say . . .

"We've got jurisdiction over the case from here. We've got terrorism and kidnapping with transit, possibly across state lines."

"The girl said the perp said that they were going to Atlanta airport," the detective replied. "It's the one thing she's clear about."

"And did you put out that alert?" Conway said, quietly.

"Not yet," the detective said. "We're waiting for some corroboration."

"Do it," the FBI SAIC said, bluntly. "Do it now. Before the damned plane gets in the air."

"Okay, if you say so," Nix said with a shrug. "But, again, I want to know how this guy knew. I think he was working with them and they had a falling out. That fits the situation better than an unknown superhero rescuing the damsel. That shit doesn't happen."

"There you have a point," Conway admitted.

"This looks more like . . . well," Nix stopped and shrugged. "This looks like a really violent bad drug deal to me. I think he was getting shafted by them, maybe he was their lookout or something, and he decided that he could get away by offing all the witnesses."

"Why keep the torture victim alive?" Conway asked.

"Maybe he didn't know enough to bother?" Nix said, shrugging. "I'm going to go call in the all points on a cargo container heading for the Atlanta Airport, possibly carrying hostages. You know how many cargo containers move through Atlanta?"

"I've actually got that number on my computer, somewhere," the SAIC admitted. "It's just part of the background of how lovely my job is since any one of them could be a truck bomb. Call it in, I want to talk to the victim."

"The torture victim?" Nix asked.

"No, the kidnap victim, the victim victim. The 'torture victim' is a fucking terrorist. Period. So he got shot in the leg. See me crying."

He walked over to where the young lady was sitting in a chair, a frustrated police woman by her side with a notebook open filled with obvious gibberish.

"Hi," Barry said, smiling as pleasantly as he could. "Officer, could you give me a moment alone with the young lady?"

"Not alone," the police woman said with a sniff. "That would be a violation of procedure."

"Then stand across the damned room," Conway said coldly. "Among other things, we have jurisdiction now and your 'procedures' are my procedures."

When the woman was gone he perched himself on the desk and shook his head.

"You look, frankly, like you've been through hell."

"Thank you, so much," Ashley responded, pulling the blanket around her more tightly. "I don't know anything about the guy who did the shooting. I didn't get a good look at him. Sort of short, sort of tall, medium build, maybe a little thin. Sort of . . ."

"Spare me," Conway said with a chuckle. "I'm not after him. I could give a rat's ass about dead terrorists, miss. Tell me anything you can about what was going on. We've got missing girls, girls just like you. These days, the FBI tries really hard to stop this sort of thing and this time we screwed up. They got through. I want to know where the girls are going, how, anything you can tell me."

"There's probably a piece of paper on the desk," Ashley said cautiously. "That might have information. It was a container thing, a truck. Like they load on ships. But . . . somebody said it was going to Atlanta airport."

"That somebody might have read that off of the paper or he might have heard it after shooting the terrorist in the leg? Or is that too blunt of a question."

Ashley looked at him for a moment and then shook her head.

"I don't know anything about that. Just that you should be looking at Atlanta airport."

"Ashley, your name is Ashley, right?"


Ashley, I swear to God I'm not looking for whoever shot up these . . . assholes," Conway said, waving around. "But I need hard information. Would you please tell me what happened to get the information so I can verify it and check it?"

Ashley lowered her head and shook it, slowly.

"I think I need to talk to a lawyer," she said, softly. "Or the news media."

"Ashley, please," Conway said, getting off the desk and dropping to a knee. "I've got a time issue, here. The girls are being moved. You say to the Atlanta airport. Fine, we're checking on that. But I need plate numbers, container numbers, a plane number if it's available. I want to make sure we're not missing something. Think about the other girls, please. I won't use the information you give me against whoever saved you, if there was such a person, who might have been a short, tall, thinnish-fat man with a full head of receding hairline."

Ashley looked up at that and faintly smiled, then shrugged.

"Okay, the terrorist said the girls were being transported to an airport," she said, getting up and walking to the desk. "But he didn't know which one."

"You're sure?" Conway asked.

"I'm really, really sure," Ashley replied. "And there's a paper, somewhere, on this desk that said Atlanta airport. It was some sort of form," she said, reaching for the papers.

"Let me," Conway said, holding out his hand. He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a set of rubber gloves. Then he glanced over the top papers and picked up a cargo manifest.

"Says that they're being sent to the Atlanta airport," he said with a nod. "One problem."

"What?" Ashley asked.

"It's got so much bogus information, I can tell it's a fake a mile off. The weight of the vehicle is wrong, way too high, the container number is the wrong number of digits, the license plate doesn't match the standard parameters. It's a red herring."

"Damn," the girl muttered. "I guess Mr. Wonderful didn't know it all, then, did he?"

"Not that I know who you are talking about," Conway replied. He lifted some more of the scattered paperwork then pulled out the drawers. The top, center, drawer was locked but it opened to a screwdriver. He pulled out the file folder in the drawer and opened it, scanning the paperwork. Then he looked at his watch and grimaced.

"What's wrong?" Ashley asked.

"They left from Ben Epps airport two hours ago," the agent replied. "Even if we could figure out what airplane, quickly, they're going to be out of radar coverage. And five gets you ten, the listed destination for the plane is going to be bogus."

"What's that mean?" the girl said, worriedly.

"It means they're gone."

"I just love waking up to good news in the morning," President Cliff said, leaning back in his chair and looking around the Situation Room. "What do we know, what don't we know and what do we suspect?"

"We know that fifty females from the Athens, Georgia, area have been kidnapped and transported somewhere," the FBI director answered. "One of the persons who was involved in the operation has admitted to being in a terrorism cell. He says that it's an Al Qaeda cell, but he's very low level and that information would be suspect without other items. One of the dead terrorists is on the terrorism watch list and has ties to Al Qaeda. We suspect the subject females were loaded on a 727 at Athens Airport. The 727, tail number R2564F, had a listed destination of Rota, Spain. We know that it is outside our airspace at this time and we do not have a lock on its transponder nor did we have a lock by the time the information came out. The females were transported in coffins. One of the two rescued females had already been loaded in one. She was connected to an IV that had a mild dose of Rufinol in it, enough to keep her sedated for up to twenty hours. We suspect that the plane will not head for Rota but for some other location. We suspect that it may have its tail number changed at that location or the girls may be transloaded. We are tracking down the ownership of the plane as well as the background of the pilots. We have alerted Interpol to look for the plane."

"What about the shooter?" the Secretary of State Powers asked. "Do we know where he is or who he is?"

"We have not, yet, identified the shooter," the FBI director admitted. "We're still lifting prints from the scene. The one witness, Ashley Winters, is being notably uncooperative. . . ."

"She's protecting her rescuer," Dr. Minuet Kern, the national security advisor, pointed out.

"Obviously," the FBI director said, dryly.

"I don't blame her," Minnie said. "I'd do the same thing in her position."

"Well, it's not helping the investigation," the FBI director said, bluntly. "We need to find this guy and ask him some questions. Notably, how he was aware of the operation."

"I heard he went through the room like a buzz saw," Donald Brandeis said. The secretary of defense looked as if he'd had a full night's sleep, unlike the FBI director and the President, and he grinned at the image. "Just blew them away like they were cardboard cutouts."

"The shooter appears to be highly trained," the FBI director said. "Possibly a member of a SWAT team or military."

"Ten dead terrorists? All of them armed? One of him?" Brandeis grinned again. "That's not a SWAT team guy, that's SEAL or Delta. Maybe Ranger. There's a Ranger base near there."

"Whoever he is, we'll find him," the FBI director said.

"Just like Eric Rudolf," Brandeis jibed.

"Enough," the president said.

"Sir?" Minuet said. "This person, whoever he is, has killed ten terrorists and broken up a major operation. If they find out who he is, he's a target."

"Good point," the President said, nodding. "This case goes under national security restrictions as of now. No further investigation by local authorities, all investigation at TS Code Word level only. Understood?"

"Understood," the FBI director said. "The news media has already gotten wind of the shooting and that kidnapping was involved. What do we say?"

"Just that," Edward Travali, the chief of staff, said. "There was a shooting involving terrorists who had kidnapped one or more females from the Athens area. Talk to the victims and tell them that it's really important that, for the time being, they not say anything else."

"Don't threaten them with U.S. Code," the President interjected. "Just try to reason with them. If your SAIC can't reason with them, have him call me and I'll tell them why they have to be quiet about this. We don't want the name of the shooter coming out."

"And, in a way more important," Minuet pointed out, "we don't need them to know that we're trying to track the shipment. We don't even want them to know we're sure there is a shipment."

"And find the plane," the President said, definitely. "Find the girls. Where's the CIA director?"

"The acting director is out of town," Minnie pointed out. "His deputy was called but he lives out in Reston; he's still on the way in."

"Well, he's missed the meeting," the President said, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Tell him to find those girls. Call the NSA, the CIA and every other acronym down to the DEA and tell them that their number one priority is to find those girls. Don?"

"Mr. President?"

"We all know that they're probably headed for one of about six countries," the President said harshly. "I want plans dusted off for going into any of those six countries, with anything it takes, to get them out alive. Send out some sort of warning order. I want jets warmed up, I want Delta up, I want FAST and the SEALs and Marines and Rangers and everybody down to the CubScouts ready. Understood?"

"Understood, sir," the defense secretary said. "If it's Iran, Syria or Lebanon . . . well, it's not going to be easy, Mr. President."

"I don't care about easy," the President said, his face hard. "I'm not going to go through one hundred and forty-four days of 'the hostage crisis' on my watch. Understood? We're getting them out or we're taking down the country. We're not going to negotiate. Nobody does this to the United States. I don't care if they're in China. Nobody does this to the United States. Not and lives to talk about it. If they're in Iran, we're going to take the mullahs all the way out, once and for all. If they're in Syria, Basser Assad is going to be buried in an unmarked grave. If they're in the Hezbollah camps I will nuke those camps to the ground to get them released and if one hair is harmed on their heads those raghead bastards are going to wish that Allah had never let them be brought into the world. Religion of peace my ass."


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