New horror novel from Paul Dale Anderson
Here's a brief look at the opening chapters of Impossible:
© 2015 Paul Dale Anderson
He knew they were coming to kill him, and he was prepared. Five teams of highly-trained assassins had already tried to kill him and failed. Additional teams would keep on coming until one of them eventually succeeded.
Jack had two handguns—nine-millimeter Berettas--in his coat pockets and a scoped rifle outside in the van. He didn’t want to kill another entire team unless he absolutely had to. They were, after all, government agents merely following orders and only doing their jobs the way they had been trained. None of the other five teams, however, had offered him a choice. He didn’t think the sixth team would, either.
“Let me warm that up for you,” said the waitress holding a carafe of hot coffee in each hand. “Regular or decaf?”
“You take it black, right?”
“Yes, please. You can put the cream and sugar away. And I’m ready for my check as soon as you can bring it.”
“You don’t want dessert?”
“I’ve really got to run,” said Jack. “But I will finish my coffee first. You make really good coffee.” He felt he needed the caffeine if he wanted to be at his best when the latest batch of assassins came to kill him. He hadn’t slept in two days, and he didn’t think he’d get a chance to sleep for another two days. He cooled the coffee down with an ice cube from his water glass. He didn’t know how much time he had left before they tracked him here, so he better not dilly-dally. The first team tried to hit him in New York, and Jack had been on the move ever since. If he wasn’t safe hiding in a city of eight million people, he wasn’t safe anywhere.
The first couple of teams had been incredibly sloppy, and he had eliminated them neatly and efficiently without leaving evidence either he or they ever existed. The last two teams were much better prepared, and he had to steal a van in a Boston suburb to make a getaway after disposing of a dozen or more bodies. He swapped plates with a car in Ohio, and took back roads to Indiana where he stopped to grab a quick bite to eat at this out-of-the-way truck stop on the outskirts of Indianapolis. He figured he had less than an hour before they pinpointed his present location and came to take him out. He wanted to be gone before they arrived. Too many people had already died, and he didn’t want to feel responsible for causing collateral damage to innocent civilians.
But the sixth team had access to accurate intel, and they were waiting for him in the parking lot when he exited the restaurant. He sensed their presence an instant before their laser sights zeroed in on his six-foot frame. He moved so fast they never knew he was already someplace else when a hailstorm of hot lead passed through the empty space where they had just seen him. He snapped their necks from behind, taking all three out one-at-a-time, as they tried to retarget what must seem to them a ghost. He dragged their bodies to the back of the van, policed up their spent brass, and drove off. No one at the truck stop saw what happened. Jack would drop them into Lake Michigan when he skirted Chicago. He’d make certain their bodies were never found. They would have done the same for him if he’d given them half the chance.
Jack was tired of killing, and he wanted the killing to stop so bad that he was willing to take risks. There was only one man Jack knew who had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it stop, and that man had grown old and was said to be retired from government service. His name was Bill Kelton, and the last Jack heard Kelton had moved to a hick town in Illinois, ninety miles northwest of Chicago, where no one knew his secret past. If Bill Kelton could retire, perhaps it wasn’t impossible to think that Jack Maguire could retire, too.
* * *
Every sane person knows it’s impossible to take an ordinary person straight off the street, hypnotize him, and order him to kill. That type of stuff works only in motion pictures and sleazy paperback novels. Everybody knows it’s impossible in real life because the CIA and Bill Kelton wanted everyone to think it impossible.
Bill Kelton, the chief architect of disinformation regarding limitations and failures of Project MK-Ultra and its numerous successors, had worked for the CIA for more than forty years in a huge variety of special capacities. Kelton was a cognitive-behavioral psychologist who originally signed on with the agency because they promised to pay for his post-doctoral education and forgive all his previous school loans. Bill Kelton owed a fortune in federally-subsidized college loans by the time he completed his dissertation, and when the government promised to forgive a portion for each year he worked for the Agency it seemed like a godsend. For Kelton, and also for the Agency, it was a marriage made in heaven.
Kelton found he obtained significantly different results if he played with people’s minds without first obtaining implied consent than he obtained when subjects knew he was conducting mind-altering experiments. Implied consent—telling subjects in advance the purpose of the experiment and warning of possible complications--always skewed experimental outcomes. That was especially true with the kind of experiments Kelton conducted. Bill Kelton was a control freak who never let anyone or anything, least of all Nuremberg and Geneva conventions, interfere with experimental outcomes. He found the agency was the perfect place for him to conduct experiments on human subjects. Kelton had already established his bona fides before the twin towers toppled on 9-11. Bill Kelton was perfect for what the agency needed done. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.
Not only had Kelton successfully programmed teams of assassins to kill on command, he developed ways to extract information from foreign subjects, implant post-hypnotic amnesia so those subjects never knew how much they had willingly revealed, and return them to their own countries with embedded commands to self-destruct when ordered. Kelton knew how to plant false memories and erase real memories within minutes of talking with a person. He could do it face-to-face or over the phone. Bill Kelton became America’s secret weapon in the war against terrorism. And, because he was so top secret, the agency kept him under wraps and only rarely allowed Kelton to act in the field. As far as anyone knew, Bill Kelton spent his entire career inside the behavioral studies laboratories at Langley.
Only a handful of people in the agency were privy to what Kelton had already accomplished, and only two men, other than Kelton himself, knew what Bill Kelton was capable of doing now. Knowledge was accumulative, and Kelton had learned as much from his failures as he had learned from his successes. He had made his share of mistakes over the years. But most of his mistakes had eventually been erased and Kelton was reasonably certain there were no dangling loose ends that might trip him up or eventually hang him.
Bill Kelton was sixty-eight years old when the Agency forced him to officially retire. He no longer worked in government service and he hadn’t lived in D. C. or surrounding environs for more than two years. He resided in a small house, a seventy-year-old Cape Cod on a street named West Gate Parkway in a quiet subdivision of Rockford, Illinois, a mid-sized Midwestern city within an hour’s drive of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. As far as any of his neighbors knew, Bill Kelton was a reclusive retiree living on a fixed income. None of the neighbors noticed the miniature infra-red security cameras mounted beneath eaves on all four sides of the Cape Cod nor motion detectors buried in the front and back yards. None of the neighbors saw the sophisticated electronic equipment installed inside the Cape Cod because none of the neighbors had been invited inside since Kelton moved in. The satellite dish on the grey-shingled roof looked exactly like a digital television receiver and nothing like a sophisticated communications uplink. Neighbors, most of whom were older themselves, assumed the younger men and women who occasionally visited Kelton were his children or possibly his grandchildren. Visitors appeared to range in age from early twenties to mid-forties, and the men were all powerfully-built and the women exceptionally beautiful. They all drove the same kind of cars—the same kind Kelton himself drove—new, black, non-descript American-built mid-sized sedans with out-of-state plates. Neighbors thought Kelton was lucky to have such a large family who stayed in touch with the old man in his declining years.
When Bill Kelton’s house exploded, taking out most of the block along with Kelton’s brick Cape Cod, surviving neighbors were surprised to be grilled at length first by FBI Special Agents and then by homeland security personnel. U. S. Army Corps of Engineers demolitions experts deployed explosives-sniffing dogs to search through the rubble while men wearing camouflage battledress walked surrounding streets with metal detectors, picking up bits and pieces of God only knew what.
Local newspapers and television stations reported that the explosions were the result of a natural gas leak caused by sixty-year-old supply pipes that must have corroded and burst. A flame from a water heater likely ignited gas accumulating in the basement of Kelton’s house. Multiple explosions occurred as gas continued to feed the flames until the gas company cut off service to the entire area. It took seventeen hours for all the fires to be extinguished, and some of the flames had burned hot enough to melt metal. Nothing remained of Kelton’s house but scattered bricks and smoldering rubble.
First responders interviewed said they had never seen such complete devastation before. No one within range of the explosions survived. One of the firemen who had served in Afghanistan said the scene reminded him of a war zone.
Neighbors had expected one of Kelton’s children or grandchildren to arrange a funeral or memorial service for the old man, even though nothing remained to be buried. If such a service occurred, it was held elsewhere and none of the neighbors notified.
Sixteen people were identified, eulogized, and buried. Kelton was not among them.
No one knew much about the old man who had purchased the brick Cape Cod on West Gate Parkway two years previously and was only rarely seen. He seemed a nice enough fellow, although he had never bothered to introduce himself to neighbors nor invited anyone in for a sociable drink. He minded his own business and acted as if he were preoccupied with his own thoughts. Some of the other neighbors were introverted, too, and no one thought ill of the man just because he hadn’t made friends of his neighbors. In fact, few people thought about Bill Kelton at all after he was gone. Within a week after the explosions occurred, bulldozers had removed all of the rubble from the eight houses that had burned, the lots were seeded over, and the quiet neighborhood returned to normal. Life went on. Bill Kelton was forgotten. For sale signs appeared on the vacant properties, and new construction would soon replace the eight houses that had burned to the ground.
Half-way around the world, Bill Kelton gave orders to activate the nine men and women his former neighbors had mistaken as his children and grandchildren. Kelton had never married a woman because he felt married to his job, nor had he fathered—at least to his knowledge--any biological children. In a way, Kelton supposed, the nine activated subjects were indeed his children. He had taken ordinary men and women and trained them to be highly-efficient killing machines.
The first persons Kelton targeted to die were the two men at the agency who knew about Kelton’s history, one of whom had obviously ordered the drone strike on Kelton’s West Gate Parkway house. They, too, were Kelton’s children. Since Kelton wasn’t certain which man was responsible, he decided to take out both.
Edward Meadows hated John Maguire with a passion. Meadows desired to see Maguire dead, but Maguire was a real hard man to kill. Ed’s previous attempts all failed. This time, however, the outcome would definitely be different because Meadows intended to take care of Maguire personally.
If you wanted a job done right, Meadows knew, you needed to do it yourself. Seeing wasn’t always believing in Langley’s land of lies where deception and misdirection were the names of the games everyone played. Edward Meadows had seen a lot and accomplished much during the twenty-plus years he had clawed his way up in the ranks of the Agency to get where he was now. He believed little of what he saw and a whole lot less of what he heard. He needed to actually be there in person, to do it himself, so he could be absolutely certain it was done right. He needed to physically touch Maguire’s dead body, check for a pulse, and cut off Maguire’s head to keep for a souvenir. He wouldn’t believe Maguire was really dead until he held Maguire’s head in his own two hands.
Maguire was one of Kelton’s “boys,” Kelton’s second success story. That made Maguire next to impossible to kill.
Meadows, of course, had been Kelton’s first success at human engineering, the prototype for Maguire. Ed Meadows was an in-house Agency volunteer, the lone survivor of three original in-house experimental subjects. The other two, safely dead and buried while Ed still lived, had been easy to eliminate. Although Ed would never be the nominal CIA Director because he didn’t want the title, he covertly ran the agency like an invisible puppet-master who pulled everyone else’s strings from behind the scenes. In order to secure his position of power and eliminate competition, Ed had forced Kelton into retirement and far away from D. C. before finally taking Kelton out with two hellfire missiles fired from an Agency drone.
Kelton had devoted ten years of his life to perfecting Meadows before Kelton turned Meadows loose and started fresh with Maguire. Meadows was Agency Assassin one-point-zero. Maguire was the newer, much-improved version two-point-oh. With Kelton gone, Meadows was reasonably certain no third generation super-assassins would exist.
Maguire, of course, was next on Meadow’s list to be eliminated. John James Maguire—known as “Jack” to his friends and “Black Jack” to his enemies--had been a decorated army officer, a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Maguire, unlike Meadows, had no idea what he had volunteered for when he came on board. Eddie Meadows occasionally observed Jack’s initial conditioning program, amazed that a human being could undergo such drastic changes in such a short time. It took almost ten years for Meadows to transform completely, and it only took Maguire two. Unfortunately, Kelton had prohibited any witnesses, including Meadows, from observing upgrades to Maguire during the second year of transformation. Meadows had only a vague idea of Maguire’s present capabilities, and it scared the hell out of him.
Kelton used something called Neurolinguistic Programming, a combination of covert hypnosis and classical conditioning, on both Meadows and Maguire. Kelton began by establishing close rapport with the subject in order to bypass the critical factor of the human mind. Mirror neurons mimicked body language, speech patterns, even breathing rate, and Kelton, a keen observer of body language, attained rapport quickly and easily by imitating the subject’s position, posture, inhalations and exhalations, eye movements, and language patterns. Once rapport was firmly established, Kelton began leading the subject with an extended yes-set. Every time the subject agreed with what Kelton said, Kelton achieved more control over the subject’s thought processes. Then came the elaborate anchoring process and selective mind scrubs. By the time Kelton finished erasing former memories and imprinting new patterns of behavior, it seemed like the subject had no mind at all of his own. Kelton had surreptitiously substituted his will for the subject’s will.
The next step in an elaborate twelve-step transformation process created a super-mind to replace the mind that was lost. Eighty-seven percent of the normal brain’s capacity was unused, and Kelton devised ways to create new neural pathways to tap unexplored human potential, essentially rewiring the human brain to be more efficient. After Kelton’s experimental treatment, Meadows was aware of things other people weren’t. Ed now had not only six senses but seven, could multi-task in ways he never knew were possible, and he could consciously regulate his body temperature, heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. He had to assume Maguire could do the same.
Gradually, however, without the constant reinforcement of Kelton’s subliminal commands, Ed’s own mind—which was never truly lost but remained a hidden observer relegated to the occipital lobe--assumed executive control again. Kelton had badly miscalculated by neglecting to reinforce Ed while Kelton was concentrating on Maguire, and by the time Kelton eventually remembered to add regular reinforcements, it was already too late. Ed’s supermind instantly recognized what Kelton was attempting to do, and Ed merely pretended to be susceptible to Kelton’s suggestions. Once Meadows reacquired a will of his own, he wasn’t about to relinquish it to anybody.
Maguire, too, must have regained his memory and his own will after a time because he suddenly dropped off the radar and went rogue. Maguire became much too dangerous to let live, and Meadows sent teams out to track Maguire down and take him out. None of the six teams came back to report Maguire’s death or even his present location. In fact, none of the teams came back at all.
Meadows had to assume Maguire effectively eliminated six entire teams of highly-trained assassins, and Ed shouldn’t have been so surprised. Maguire had been conditioned to be the most effective killing machine in the world. The only person capable of taking out Maguire was Meadows.
So Eddie had to get his own hands dirty, put himself at risk, and do the deed himself. Before Maguire was operative, Ed Meadows had been the Agency’s number one assassin. He had successfully assumed multiple identities and eliminated threats to America in all corners of the globe. He was a trained sniper, and he knew 1001 ways to kill a man with his bare hands. No one in the Agency was more ruthless or dangerous than Edward Meadows. And he wanted to keep it that way by eliminating Maguire.
So where was Maguire? Where had he gone to ground? Meadows studied Jack’s personnel file and looked for clues to Jack’s present whereabouts in the man’s past. John James Maguire, born thirty-four years ago in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago’s far north side, was the youngest of eight children, six girls and two boys. Maguire’s father had been a Chicago cop, killed in the line of duty when Jack was six. His mother was a stay-at-home mom who died of cancer while Maguire was fighting in Afghanistan, and Jack didn’t learn about his mother’s death until long after the funeral. Maguire had earned his bachelor of science degree in management while completing ROTC at the University of Illinois at Chicago and his masters while in the service. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry upon graduation from UIC, served a variety of assignments stateside, went to Iraq for a year as an advisor, and spent three combat tours in Afghanistan. He was recruited by the Agency in Afghanistan and willingly volunteered to be an experimental subject in the Agency’s super-sniper program. Kelton personally chose Maguire out of a dozen possible candidates because of Maguire’s superb physical condition, high GT scores, and promising psychological profile. Maguire stood six-foot-one, weighed 176 pounds, had short brown hair and robin’s-egg blue eyes, several body scars from wounds sustained in battle, and an honest desire to serve his country. Maguire’s IQ before conditioning was 142, and 193 after conditioning. That was six points higher than Ed’s IQ after conditioning.
Maguire’s parents were both dead, and his brothers and sisters were now married and scattered over various parts of the Midwest and deep south. Jack had no family or home left to return to. The Army had been his home for nearly ten years, but Jack was out of the Army now. Where would someone like him go to ground if he felt threatened? He hadn’t come back here to Langley. Where else would he go?
Would he try to find Kelton, his surrogate father? Perhaps. What would Jack do when he discovered Kelton was dead? Would he suspect the Agency was responsible? Would he seek revenge for the death of his mentor?
One of the advantages of having a supermind was the ability to play out an infinity of possible scenarios in one’s mind’s eye all at the same time. Meadows could instantly sort through each and every one of those possibilities and settle on the most probable. Ordinary minds worked sequentially and couldn’t handle more than seven—give or take one or two—possible scenarios at any given time. Ordinary minds took forever to work through all of the possible scenarios by only examining seven, plus or minus two, at a time. But enhanced minds utilized seven to the seventh power times more brain power than ordinary minds. Enhanced minds simultaneously processed information both sequentially and in parallel, digitally and sensationally, seeing and analyzing each of the individual parts and the entire whole at the same time. Both hemispheres worked separately and also in tandem, simultaneously logically and intuitively, to determine the most probable course of action. A man with an enhanced supermind was always at least seven steps ahead of everyone else.
The first logical place to begin to look for Maguire was Rockford, Illinois. Jack, aware agency assassins were hunting him, would likely seek out his surrogate father to learn why. Just as it had been easy for Ed to track down Kelton’s hideaway in the Midwest, Jack could certainly do the same. If Jack wasn’t still in Rockford, Ed could pick up his trail and track his current whereabouts from there.
Edward Meadows ordered an Agency Learjet to transport him to the Greater Chicago-Rockford airport. He also ordered a car rental to be waiting for him when he landed.
It was time to tie up loose ends.
Jack Maguire stood out like a sore thumb. He was--according to the barista, a petite college-age girl with beautiful jet-black hair in a ponytail and a great smile--“the only person ever to order a large regular black coffee in a Starbucks.”
Jack tipped the girl an extra buck, carried his coffee to a small table in the rear of the restaurant where he could watch other patrons and the front doors at the same time. He tried his best to look like just another mid-level executive stopping off for a cup of joe on his way home from the office. As he sipped from the paper cup, his bright blue eyes covertly scanned the Starbucks on Rockford’s far east side, not far from the I-90 tollway entrance, for possible threats. Most of the tables were occupied by women of all ages chatting with female co-workers after their work-day ended. Seeing nothing to rouse his supermind’s suspicions, Jack tried to relax but couldn’t. Something didn’t feel quite right, but he wasn’t able to identify what was wrong.
John James “Jack” Maguire was tired of living on the edge, always ready to fight or flee as the situation warranted. Jack wanted nothing more than to become an ordinary human being again, to actually be, and not simply pretend to be, a mid-level executive in a big corporation, to fit in, to have family and friends and a home and a nine-to-five job. He wanted out of the constant kill-or-be-killed hell he lived in. He wanted a world that was stable and safe, a world where he could converse with friends over coffee in a Starbucks without the worry he and his friends were targets. Was that too much to ask? He had hoped Bill Kelton could make that happen, but Kelton wasn’t where Jack had expected to find him. Kelton’s house had been demolished after a freakish fire caused by a massive gas-line explosion took out the entire block of middle-class homes. Neighbors said Kelton had been inside when the house burned to the ground, but Jack didn’t believe for one moment that Kelton was dead. Kelton may have grown old, but he was far from senile or helpless. Jack bet Kelton was long gone when the house exploded.
No one—not even super-soldier Jack Maguire—had ever managed to catch Bill Kelton completely by surprise. If, as Jack suspected, someone had tried to take out Kelton with a smart bomb, Kelton would have known it was coming even before launch and executed an elaborately-prepared escape plan.
Hadn’t Bill Kelton drilled it into Jack’s head to always have an escape plan handy for every occasion or contingency? Kelton had contingency plans coming out his ass, even contingency plans for contingency plans. “If this happens, execute plan A,” Kelton had patiently taught Jack. “If plan A doesn’t work, execute plan B. If plan B doesn’t work, execute plan C. If that happens instead of this, then execute alternate plan A.”
Kelton juggled all kinds of escape plans in his head, and so did Jack. Paranoia was one of the unfortunate side effects of developing a supermind. If ignorance was pure bliss, then knowing that there were actually people out there who intended to kill you was pure hell, a kind of constant torture that kept you always on high alert, ready to fight or flee at the slightest provocation. Jack suspected Bill had experimented on sufficiently expanding his own mind even before he began to experiment on Agency volunteers, and Bill’s own supermind had plenty of time to evolve over a great many years of trial and error. Bill had been around the Agency for nearly half a century, much longer than most, and he had survived because his supermind could outthink everyone else—including the best and brightest--around him. If it were true, as Bill had so often claimed, that the effects of enhanced intelligence were accumulative, then Kelton’s mind must be more highly developed than even Meadows’ or Maguire’s. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could catch Kelton unawares. Okay, Jack had to admit, it was possible. But it was highly improbable.
Bill Kelton hadn’t invented the idea of a supermind and he certainly hadn’t been the first to experiment with mind control. Soviet psychologists, going all the way back to Ivan Pavlov, had toyed with the idea. Sri Aurobindo and Vedic scholars, both ancient and modern, claimed superminds had been quite common in previous epochs, and they would again be common someday in the far future. Kelton had stolen ideas from his esteemed predecessors (Bill called it “utilization” instead of “theft”) and he added twenty years of CIA-financed covert research at Harvard and McGill to the mix. He tossed in Ericksonian hypnosis, regression techniques, and human engineering for good measure.
Kelton had been a genius even before he began practicing self-hypnosis and meditation and playing mind games. Today, Kelton’s IQ was probably off the charts. Kelton was too smart to be killed.
So, if Kelton were too smart to be killed, then where was he now? Certainly not in Rockford, Illinois. Jack had combed the entire town from top to bottom, interviewing neighbors and reading news accounts of the fire in microfilmed back issues of the local newspaper at the main branch of the Rockford Public Library. Everyone in town thought Kelton had died in the blaze.
One of the neighbors had asked Jack if he were Kelton’s son, and Jack had said he was Kelton’s adopted son. It seemed, according to neighbors, that Kelton had several other “adopted” sons and daughters who had visited him regularly before the fire. Bill may have retired from the Agency, but he hadn’t stopped working on his pet project.
Who would want Bill Kelton dead? Jack knew it wasn’t unusual for retired Agency personnel to die suddenly of stokes or heart attacks. “The dead tell no tales, reveal no secrets” had been an unofficial Agency motto, and it was acceptable practice to kill any agent who could be compromised now or in the future. Agents who were captured and interrogated by the enemy were often targeted for termination, and agents who left the Agency were sometimes terminated shortly after their employment ended if they had knowledge of sensitive ongoing projects. Was the Agency responsible for Bill’s house burning down? It seemed not only possible but highly probable.
Even paranoids had real enemies, and Kelton had evidently continued his experiments after leaving the Agency. That was tantamount to going rogue, and Kelton must have known he’d signed his own death warrant, just as Jack knew he had signed his own death warrant when he failed to stay in contact with his Agency handlers.
“He who is not with us is against us” was another of the Agency’s unspoken mantras. Jack knew for certain he had been targeted for elimination when the first team of assassins came looking for him. He saw them long before they saw him, and he was able to take out all three assassins cleanly, quietly, and quickly. The second team got much closer, and they might have nailed Jack if he hadn’t been anticipating a second attempt. Whoever sent the third team was fairly high up in the Agency because the third through sixth teams had access to more accurate intel. The poor fools in the first two teams had absolutely no idea of Jack’s capabilities. They had been told only that Jack was an agent who had gone rogue and needed to be eliminated. Teams three through six were fully briefed on Jack’s exceptionally-high IQ and special training. Only a handful of people at the Agency had access to that information. Someone high-up, if not the Director then someone close to him, put other projects on hold to make Jack a priority.
What a terrible waste of assets, thought Jack. If they had already tried to kill him six times and failed all six times, he knew whoever wanted him dead wouldn’t stop trying to kill him until it was a fait accompli or until Jack wiped out all of the available agents or eliminated the guy at the top, whichever came first. Jack was tired of killing. All he wanted now was to return to being an ordinary person living an ordinary life in some out of the way place. If they left him alone, Jack would leave them alone.
When the Agency had initially approached him in Afghanistan during his third tour, Jack was severely sleep deprived after surviving twelve days of constant fire from Taliban. He’d seen all of his men killed or badly shot up by Taliban bullets, and he had taken two bullets to the chest himself. Weak from hunger, lack of sleep, and loss of blood, Jack had no clue what was real and what wasn’t. Surrounded by death and dying for days, Jack felt as if he had already died and gone straight to hell.
Suddenly, true to their name, three Agency “spooks”—one spotter, one observer, and one shooter--appeared seemingly out of nowhere, taking out twenty Taliban insurgents with accurate sniper fire from more than a mile away. Jack was sure he was dreaming. Jack hadn’t heard any of the silenced shots that slammed into the surprised faces of Taliban fighters as, one by one, enemy towel-heads were literally blown apart. The rest of the Taliban ran for their lives, but sniper-fire pursued them relentlessly. The sniper picked off twenty more with deadly-accurate headshots before the remaining Taliban dropped their weapons, raised their hands, and surrendered.
Dead men tell no tales, and the spooks took no prisoners. The observer stepped forward to grease Taliban with automatic weapons fire while the sniper finished off the rest with headshots.
Jack had never before seen shooting like that, and when the spotter approached Jack in the medevac chopper and asked if Jack wanted to volunteer to join an elite new Agency sniper program and learn to shoot like that himself, Jack immediately agreed. He was discharged from the Army the same day he signed the Agency contract, and Jack was immediately flown to a high-tech hospital in Germany where he got the best medical treatment possible.
“My name’s Bill,” announced the old man who showed up in Jack’s hospital room three days after surgery. Bill was average height, about five-eight, average build, and his thinning brown hair was tinged with intruding strands of grey. Bill Kelton was in his mid-sixties back then, about the same age Jack’s father would have been had Jack’s father lived. Jack thought Bill looked and sounded more like a college professor than your typical spook. But, then, spooks weren’t supposed to look or sound like spies, were they?
When Bill shook hands, he gently placed his left hand over their clasped hands like a used car salesman sealing a deal. “How are you feeling, my young friend?” Bill asked as he took a seat next to the bed. “Much better, I expect, than you felt in Afghanistan.”
“I don’t feel much of anything,” Jack said. “They have me on a morphine drip.”
“Fentanyl,” said Bill. His smiling brown eyes seemed open and honest, and Jack couldn’t help but like the old guy. “You’re on fentanyl now. Fentanyl is a hypnotic, much stronger and much easier to manage than morphine or other opiates. We took you off morphine before you went into surgery.”
“Are you a doctor?” Jack asked.
“I’m a psychologist, Jack, not a medical doctor,” said Bill. “But I’ve been working with your regular doctors to assure you recover quickly, easily, and completely because your country needs men like you, Jack. We’ll have you out of the hospital in no time at all, and then you and I shall work together one-on-one. We’ll begin with assessments to determine your qualifications for special assignments. Then we’ll start some serious training. Tell me, Jack, why do you want to be an Agency sniper?”
“I saw what one man could do with a rifle. He took out more Taliban in ten minutes than my entire platoon took out in ten days of fighting. I want to be able to do that, too.”
“You will,” said Bill. “I guarantee it.”
Bill proved true to his word. Jack was surprised, however, to learn he was the only new person accepted into super-sniper training, and even more surprised when Bill devoted all of his valuable time and attention to Jack alone for nearly two years. Bill was always there, supervising Jack’s development, urging Jack on, showing Jack new ways to think, expanding Jack’s mind, turning Jack into an Agency assassin. Jack had already killed men in combat, so he had no aversion to killing his country’s enemies. Even when Bill ordered him to kill civilians--the politicians, religious leaders, and ideologues who sent armies into battle—Jack did so with no reservations.
Jack eventually met Ed Meadows, the super-sniper who had saved him in Afghanistan. Meadows was used only for the most important and most sensitive Agency missions, and Jack learned that Bill had ordered Ed to Afghanistan specifically to rescue Jack from the Taliban. That meant Bill must have had his eyes on Jack for some time before making a move to recruit him.
The Agency, of course, had access to real-time satellite surveillance, plus accurate intelligence from all of the military branches and multiple other sources that collected data, including Homeland Security and NSA. Analysts were able to track literally anyone from his last known location to his present position, although tracking often took additional time and extensive manpower expenditures. Bill said he had used drones to track Jack in Afghanistan, saw Jack was in trouble, and sent Meadows to the rescue.
Whoever now wanted Jack dead must have tracked him down with Agency drones and satellites before sending teams of assassins to take him out. After the third try on his life, Jack had instituted countermeasures to confuse analysts viewing satellite images. He entered buildings at random, going in one door and out another. He walked one direction, lost himself in a crowd, and walked another direction. He changed clothes and cars frequently. The Agency could still track him, it just took extra time that afforded Jack a window of opportunity to relocate elsewhere before someone came to kill him. As long as Jack kept on the move, he felt reasonably safe.
He had spent far too much time here in Rockford, and he knew he should get out of town immediately—go right now--before they tracked him straight to this Starbucks. But the temptation to sit for a few more minutes and enjoy a cup of freshly-brewed coffee in the company of ordinary Americans made Jack ignore the alarm bells of his intuition. Suddenly, all of his senses switched to high alert, shifting from Defcon Four to Defcon One in a single heartbeat, as his peripheral vision caught a fleeting glimpse of Ed Meadows exiting a rental car in the parking lot with an assault rifle in each hand. What the hell was Meadows, dressed in tactical gear and armed to the teeth, doing at a Starbucks in Rockford, Illinois?
The answer, of course, was quite obvious. The Agency sent Meadows here to kill a rogue agent named Maguire. Jack instantly analyzed his options, made a decision, and moved so quickly that normal eyes couldn’t perceive his motion nor track his trajectory. He was barely a blur to other people sitting in Starbucks as he exploded from his chair, flew behind the counter, grabbed the black-haired barista around her tiny waist with one hand, swept her completely off her feet, and carried her out the back door and out of the line of fire. When Meadows came through the front door with blazing guns spewing death, Jack and the slim black-haired girl were already gone.
Unfortunately, although Jack knew Meadows would leave no witnesses, there wasn’t time to rescue anyone else. Jack chalked the coffee drinkers up to collateral damage and thought no more about them.
What he did think about was the number and location of Meadows’ back-up team. How many men had Ed pre-positioned at the back door and where the hell were they?
Either they couldn’t see him as he exited the restaurant or Meadows was so certain he could catch Jack by surprise that he failed to guard the rear. The girl under Jack’s arm began to squirm out of his grasp as she realized she was being abducted, but Jack didn’t let her go until he reached his Dodge van and tossed her unceremoniously onto the back seat like a hundred-pound sack of cement. He quickly slammed the rear door and pressed the childproof-lock button on his remote. With the girl safely out of the way for the moment, Jack scanned the environment for threat as he raced around to the driver’s seat. He was out of the parking lot and on his way to the tollway when Meadows emerged from Starbucks and took a single shot at the fleeing vehicle. The high-velocity bullet slammed into the driver’s side window and out the passenger side, shattering the supposedly shatter-proof glass in both windows, barely missing Jack’s head by less than an inch.
The girl in the back seat screamed.
“You’re only alive because I chose to rescue you,” Jack said calmly, speaking just loud enough to be heard over the screams. “If you want to stay alive, please fasten your seat belt and remain quiet. Screaming won’t help either of us.”
The girl was either smart enough or scared enough to take the hint. She immediately shut her trap and fumbled around to marry the male and female halves of the seat belt. When Jack heard a metallic click, he knew the girl was safely buckled in.
Jack swung onto the northbound lanes of the I-90 tollway as he made a spot decision to head north to Wisconsin instead of east to Chicago. If they had read his file, as he was certain they had, they knew he was born and raised in Chicago. That’s the first place they would look for him.
So he drove in the opposite direction.
Cold wind whistled through the broken windows as Jack gunned the accelerator. The speedometer edged past one-hundred and ten miles an hour and the tachometer bounced into the red danger zone. Jack wove in and out and around late-afternoon traffic at breakneck speeds, pushing the Dodge van to its limits of maneuverability and endurance. The six-cylinder Hemi engine began to knock, and the frame shook and rattled.
He knew he had to get off this limited-access highway before Edwards mobilized pursuit or a cop picked him up on radar and tried to stop him. Or the engine blew a rod. He eased up on the gas, tapped the brake several times, and took the off-ramp at Roscoe going seventy miles an hour.
Which way now? East led to more populated areas while west offered a variety of back roads. West, he decided, though he had no idea where the road would eventually lead.
“Who are you?” asked a trembling voice, barely above a whisper, from the back seat. “Where are you taking me?”
“My name’s Jack,” he answered truthfully. “Right now we’re traveling west. Then we’ll turn north.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I want to get us as far away from the men who want to kill us as possible.”
“Why?” she asked again. “Why do they want to kill us?”
“They want to kill me because I know too much,” he said, meeting her eyes in the rear-view mirror. “They want to kill you because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I don’t believe this is happening,” she said. “I must be hallucinating.”
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s really happening.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “It’s impossible.”
“Why is it impossible?”
“One minute I’m standing behind the counter making a Chestnut Praline Latte, and the next minute I’m tucked under your arm and you’re running out the door and we’re being shot at. Things like that just don’t happen. You picked me up and carried me like I was practically weightless. How could you do that?”
“I work out,” he said.
“I knew that when I saw you,” she said. “You have big broad shoulders, a huge chest, and a neck like a bull. But I weigh 102 pounds. You picked me up with one hand. No one can do that, not even an Olympic weightlifter.”
“I can,” said Jack.
“No way,” she said. “I’m dreaming.”
“You’re not dreaming. You’re wide awake. You were wide awake when I picked you up, and you’re awake now. None of this is a dream.”
“Who are you?”
“I told you. My name’s Jack.”
“Look, Jack, you don’t need to treat me like I’m a dumb kid. I’m twenty-six years old. I have a master’s degree and I’m working on my doctorate part-time. What you did wasn’t normal. One moment you’re sitting at a table sipping plain black coffee and the next moment you’re carrying me out the back door and someone is shooting at us. I didn’t see you move, Jack. I felt you move, but I didn’t see you move. No one can move that fast, Jack. It’s not humanly possible.”
“I can move that fast.”
“How? How do you do it, Jack?”
“The motor cortex part of my brain was purposely rewired so my muscles react ten times faster than normal. I can easily deadlift my own weight with just one arm, twice my weight with both, and I can run a mile in less than a minute.”
“Someone purposely rewired your brain? Why?”
“I volunteered to be a guinea pig. I was a combat officer who wanted to win wars. I had seen a lot of my men killed in combat in Afghanistan, and I was very nearly killed myself. So I thought maybe, by becoming an unstoppable killing machine, it might be possible to put a stop to all that unnecessary killing. I was wrong. There’s never an end to killing. Killing only leads to more killing, never to an end of killing. Did the death of Saddam Hussein put a stop to the killing in Iraq? No. Did the death of Osama bin Laden put an end to Al Qaeda? No. There’s always someone else willing to step in to fill the power vacuum. Or someone who seeks revenge for friends and family. You kill one person, and two more appear to take his place.”
“Who tried to kill you at Starbucks?”
“The man who shot at us is a government agent. His brain has been rewired like mine.”
“Why does the government want to kill you?”
“I used to work for them. They made me what I am. Do you know where this road goes?”
“West to Freeport and Galena. Maybe all the way to Iowa.”
“We need to turn off the main roads,” he said. “Perhaps find a cowpath heading north. Someplace that doesn’t show up on maps.”
“What you need to do first, Jack, is to let me out of this car. Anywhere is fine. Just let me out. I’ll find a way to get home.”
“I can’t do that,” Jack said. “They’ll track you down and you’ll be tortured and then killed. You know too much for your own good. Like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care what you believe. It’s a fact. If you get out of this car, you’ll be dead within an hour.”
“So you’re just going to kidnap me and keep me prisoner? For how long? For the rest of my life?”
“I’m trying to save your life, girl.” He slowed the van and pulled off to the side of the road. “Okay, get out.” He hit a button and released the childproof locks on the back door. “You’re free to live or die as you choose.”
“You really think they’ll kill me?”
“And torture me? Why?”
“To learn what you know about me.”
“I don’t know anything about you.”
“You know enough. But it doesn’t matter. They’ll kill you because they never leave live witnesses to domestic ops. The Agency isn’t supposed to act inside the U S., so they have to tie up loose ends to cover their tracks. You’re a loose end. And so am I.”
“The Agency? Are you talking about the CIA?”
“You know you really need to seek professional help, Jack. You’re talking the way crazy people talk. The CIA simply doesn’t go around killing American citizens, Jack. That’s pure paranoia. What will your paranoia imagine next? The government can monitor our every move with drones and spy satellites? Or how about the CIA can control our minds? Will you want us both to wrap aluminum foil around our heads so the CIA can’t reach our minds with invisible rays?”
“I don’t have time for this,” he said. “Just get out. Go. It was nice knowing you.”
“You’re really letting me go?”
“Yes. Get out of the goddamn car.”
“No,” she said. She refastened her seat belt. “You need help, Jack. I don’t know if you’re crazy or telling the truth. If you’re crazy, maybe I can talk some sense into you and get you to see a doctor. If you’re telling the truth, I can help you find escape routes. I know this area, and obviously you don’t. There’s a crossroads about four miles ahead. Turn right.”
“Where will that take us?” Jack asked.
“Into Wisconsin,” the girl answered. “If you’re going to kidnap me, Jack, you might as well make it a federal case and drive me across state lines.”
“I’m not kidnapping you,” said Jack as he slid the gearshift into drive and pulled onto the road. “I told you you’re free to go.”
“Go where?” she asked. “My purse and coat are back at the Starbucks. You offer to drop me off way out here in the middle of nowhere in the middle of November? No, thank you. It’s too cold and too far to walk, there’s no bus service outside of town, I have no cell phone or money to call a cab even if I thought a cab would come this far to get me, and people may be trying to kill me. I’m not stupid, Jack.”
“So you’re willing to take your chances with a crazy man at the wheel?”
“You might drive like a maniac, Jack, but I didn’t see you lose control of the wheel at more than a hundred miles an hour. I don’t think you’ll have a problem going sixty-five.”
“What changed your mind about me?” Jack asked.
“The windows,” said the girl. “It took me a while, but I finally realized the bullet—a very real bullet that smashed both windows--was aimed at you or maybe even at me. But you didn’t panic, Jack. You didn’t freak out. I did, but you didn’t. You just kept driving. Like I said, either you’re completely crazy or you’re telling the truth about someone wanting to kill us both. I decided I can’t take a chance you might actually be telling the truth.”
“I haven’t lied to you yet,” he said. “My real name is John Maguire, but my friends call me Jack. What’s your name?”
“Sylvia. Sylvia Miller.”
“I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of this, Sylvia.”
“What happened to the other people you left behind in Starbucks?”
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
“You’re sure? How can you be so certain they’re dead?”
“I’m sure. The man I saw in the parking lot carried two automatic weapons with thirty rounds in each. He began eliminating targets the moment he entered Starbucks. How many people died in the restaurant? A dozen? Meadows doesn’t miss targets at close range.”
“He missed you when he shot at the car.”
“I was some distance away and the car was a fast-moving target. The people drinking coffee were all stationary targets, impossible to miss at close range.”
“Why did you save me and not any of the others?”
“I don’t know,” Jack replied truthfully. “I acted without thinking about what I was doing. I picked you up on my way out because you stood between me and the exit.”
“You didn’t choose to save me?”
“Oh,” she said.
“Maybe I saved you because I liked your hair,” he said after a moment of silence. “And your smile. You have a nice smile.”
That brought a new smile to Sylvia’s face. While one part of Jack’s mind concentrated on the road and another part scanned the environment for possible threats, still another part analyzed the girl in the rear-view mirror. She looked so tiny, so helpless. She was probably only five-two, a whole head shorter than Jack’s six-one, and she seemed even more helpless and more naïve than that entire school of teen and pre-teen girls Jack had once seen massacred by Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban violently objected to the education of girls, and they had made an example of the American-style school and the young women who dared attend classes. Weren’t those girls, their hajibs ripped apart by bullets, the same size and have hair the same color as Sylvia’s? Was that why he had felt protective of her from the first moment he saw her?
“Turn right at the next road,” she told him.
The narrow two-lane—where ancient blacktop was so badly pitted with potholes and the faded white strip that once separated the northbound from southbound lanes seemed nearly non-existent--barely qualified to be called a road and certainly didn’t qualify as a highway. Tall trees, skeletal-bare in mid-November, stood sentinel along both sides of the winding county trunk, while off to the right a fast-running stream that was not quite a river raced past in the opposite direction of the van. Jack slowed as the road curved west, then accelerated as the road swung north again like the unerring needle of a mariner’s compass. The sun had long-ago disappeared in the west, and Jack had to resort to bright beams to negotiate the hairpin twists and turns as the road paralleled the meandering river. The road snaked across the state line into Wisconsin without more fanfare than a dilapidated and bullet-pocked “Entering Rock County” sign deer hunters had used for target practice. Highway maintenance in Rock County appeared only marginally better than Winnebago County. Obviously, this county two-lane wasn’t used much even by local residents. Jack drove sixteen miles without encountering another car or seeing lights from a single farm house. Taking this road, especially with bright headlights, was an obvious mistake, almost an invitation to be found. Once again, Jack stood out like a sore thumb as if deliberately taunting Matthews and the Agency to find him and try to take him.
He heard the chopper coming from the south before he could see it, and he quickly pulled off to the side of the road and killed his headlights. The familiar whup-whup of a four-bladed Black Hawk grew louder as red and green navigation lights became visible. Red indicated the port-side and green showed starboard, indicating direction of travel. All helicopters flying in civilian airspace were required to run navigation lights at night, even military aircraft. Jack reached beneath the front seat and extracted a 7-mm Barrett model 98B. He focused the scope on the chopper and saw Ed Matthews looking down at him through his own scope from the co-pilot’s seat of the chopper. Jack fired first, and Matthews’ shot went wild, missing Jack by a country mile. The chopper shook violently when Jack’s high-velocity round deliberately slammed into and jammed the delicate rotor mechanism. Jack smiled as the helicopter spiraled out of control, the red and green navigation lights spinning around and around like animated Christmas tree bulbs. The bird plunged to the ground and the sky lit up like the Fourth of July as high octane jet fuel ignited on impact.
“Did you just shoot down that helicopter?” asked Sylvia.
“Yes,” said Jack. “There was a man onboard the chopper who would have killed both of us if I’d let him.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw Ed Matthews drawing a bead on me.”
“The same man who shot up Starbucks?”
“The same man.”
Jack stashed the rifle under the seat, switched his lights on again, and eased the van back onto the road. When he came to the next intersection, he turned left and headed west as fast as he dared drive. Neither said another word until after they crossed the Mississippi River and Jack stopped for gas at a Citgo station.
Sam Neely had been an FBI Special Agent for fifteen good years before he fucked up royally and found himself exiled to a tiny field office in downstate Illinois, destined to finish his once-distinguished career in relative obscurity. Rockford was as out-of-the-way as any place his supervisors could think to send bad-boy Neely. Nothing important ever happened in Rockford, and it was presumably a safe place to stash an agent whose curiosity often got the better of his judgment. Neely asked too many impertinent questions. He was an embarrassment to the Bureau, and bad-boy Neely was being punished.
But two things had happened in Rockford recently that Neely’s superiors hadn’t expected. One was the huge explosion that destroyed an entire city block of middle-class residences on Rockford’s southeast side in the blink of an eye. The other, a month later, was the deadly shooting at a Starbucks where thirteen people were gunned down in cold blood in less than ten minutes.
Neely hadn’t accepted Homeland Security’s conclusion that a gas leak, and not a bomb, had caused the horrific explosion that destroyed eight middle-class homes on West Gate Parkway in October. Nor did he accept the theory that Sylvia Miller’s jilted boyfriend, acting alone, had entered the Starbucks on East State Street with an assault rifle, shot each of the thirteen people drinking coffee inside the restaurant twice in the head, and abducted Sylvia Miller from her workplace without making lots of noise and being seen by at least one living witness. None of Sylvia’s friends even knew she had a boyfriend, much less a boyfriend who was an expert marksman. Only one bullet out of twenty-seven missed its mark, and that one had been fired outside the restaurant, presumably at a passing car. The shooter was obviously a trained killer, not some random nut-job, who used a suppressed weapon and took time to scoop up all of his spent brass—all twenty-seven shell-casings--before he left, the trademark of a professional hit-man or hit-team and not a frantic lover. But local law enforcement insisted the killer was most likely an angry boyfriend acting alone, and ATF--the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—concurred.
Rockford PD had notified Neely’s office in the Rockford Regional Federal Building and requested Neely’s immediate assistance in their investigation two hours before the ATF and Homeland Security arrived on the scene. Mass murders occurred so seldom in Rockford that police requested all the help they could get from a variety of federal and state investigators. ATF and DHS drove out from Chicago, but Neely was local.
Neely, unbeknownst to local law enforcement, had extensive experience investigating both mass murderers and serial killers in other parts of the country. In a former life, Sam Neely had been assigned to the FBI’s HRT (aka the Hostage Rescue Team, the counter-terrorism unit of the Critical Incident Response Group) where he received initial sniper training from Marine Corps scout-snipers. Neely became an expert in manhunt operations, and he had successfully participated in manhunts for the Boston Marathon bombers and assisted in dozens of other domestic terrorist apprehensions before he made the fatal mistake that destroyed his credibility and nearly ended his career.
Because mass murderers normally killed a whole bunch of people all at once and serial killers killed a whole bunch of people over an extended period of time, their MOs were distinctly different. Mass murderers were usually apprehended close to the scene of the crime, while serial killers had to be tracked, sometimes for years and across state lines, before they were apprehended and brought to justice. Once mass-murderers began their killing spree, they often stayed in the open and continued to kill until they were either killed by cops or committed suicide. Very few mass murderers lived to stand trial. Serial killers, on the other hand, carefully selected victims and attempted to hide both their crimes and themselves from view. Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer were prime examples, and they killed for years before they were finally caught, convicted, and legally executed (except for Dahmer, who was murdered by a fellow inmate while serving life in prison because once-progressive Wisconsin had no death penalty). Serial killers kept their cool while mass murderers erupted into the limelight and begged to die in a blaze of glory. Spree killers and mass murderers wanted their faces and names to be known by police and the public, and often their reasons for killing were less important than their need for recognition. They sought their fifteen-minutes of fame and thought killing people was the best—perhaps the only--way to obtain the attention they desperately desired and felt they deserved.
The fact that the Starbucks killer left no clues at the scene of the crime bothered Neely immensely. It indicated that the shooter intended to kill again and pre-planned his moves very carefully. He was too well organized to fit the profile of a typical mass-murderer.
It was true that twenty-six year old Sylvia Miller, a graduate student who worked part-time at the Starbucks, was not among the victims found at the scene. Miller remained missing, although her purse with money, credit cards, identification, cell phone, and the keys to her car and apartment were found in the restaurant. The silver Toyota Prius registered in her name remained parked in the parking lot outside the restaurant until impounded and thoroughly searched. Had Sylvia been abducted by the killer as the local police suspected? Was Sylvia a victim? Or was she a co-conspirator? Why wasn’t her body found at the scene? Had she fled on her own? Was she still alive and hiding from the killer? Or would her body only turn up after the killer finished doing things to her? Too many questions remained unanswered to Neely’s satisfaction.
What worried Neely now was the crash of a Homeland Security helicopter in a wooded area near the state line, barely an hour after the shooting at Starbucks. National Transportation Safety Board reported that the Chicago-based leased-from-the-National Guard helicopter had exploded on impact, destroying any evidence of why the bird went down. Pieces of metal were scattered hither and yon, and it appeared there were no known survivors. The burned body of the pilot had been recovered and identified by DNA, but there was no sign of a co-pilot or any passengers. That, in itself, was strange. Homeland Security said they had no record of why the helicopter was airborne nor its ultimate destination, which was highly unusual. The helicopter hadn’t been officially dispatched, and there was no flight plan filed. Government aircraft had extremely tight controls preventing unauthorized use, and the pilot—a veteran Army chopper pilot with thousands of hours under his belt before he left the Army to join Homeland Security—was mentally stable and had no previous history of bending the rules. It didn’t make sense that he would take off from the military side of O’Hare without a co-pilot and without an assigned mission and specific orders to be airborne. But that’s what Homeland Security claimed happened.
Neely couldn’t shake the feeling that all three events—the exploding houses on West Gate Parkway, the massacre at Starbucks, and the downed helicopter—were somehow related. Three such violent incidents, although two were officially listed as accidents, occurring in the same general vicinity within less than one month seemed highly suspicious. Neely smelled something very rotten in Scandinavia that stank to high heaven, and he was about to stick his nose again where his superiors said it didn’t belong.
So what the hell was really going on? Homeland Security had every right to be involved in all three investigations and ATF in two of them, but Neely wasn’t receiving the kind of cooperation he normally expected from sister agencies of the federal government. He recognized he was being stonewalled, but he had no idea why. There was definitely more involved here than met the eye, and it irked him that he was deliberately left out of the interagency loop. Homeland Security had classified their investigations top secret, and they claimed the FBI had no need to know.
Before 2001, the FBI had sole jurisdiction over all suspected acts of domestic terrorism. But after 9-11, terrorism became Homeland Security’s bailiwick. Homeland Security and the CIA worked closely together, and the FBI was treated like a poor country cousin who had to be invited only for appearances sake but wasn’t really welcome at the party.
The manhunt for the Starbucks killer remained ongoing and was now nationwide, although the search concentrated solely on locating the still-missing Sylvia Miller and her supposedly-armed-and-dangerous jilted lover. Sylvia Miller and her alleged boyfriend had fled the scene in a dark-colored Dodge van. Video cameras had captured the van and its license plates when the van entered and exited the tollway, but the van simply disappeared after leaving the Illinois Tollway a few miles north of Rockford. Bureau technicians were still trying to enhance recorded images to identify the faces of the people inside the van, but so far they hadn’t had any luck. The van and its plates had been reported stolen—the van from Massachusetts and the plates from Ohio—days before the shooting occurred in Illinois. And there was some kind of electronic interference generated from inside the van that kept video cameras from seeing through the windshield or the windows. It was as if the glass in the van had been replaced with two-way mirrors. The driver could see out, but no one could see in.
Neely discovered, quite by accident while interviewing employees at local bus stations and airports, that the crashed Homeland Security-leased helicopter had unexpectedly touched down next to a corporate Learjet at the Greater Chicago-Rockford Area Airport, remaining on the tarmac just long enough to pick up an unidentified lone passenger minutes before the chopper took off for its final fatal flight. The corporate jet, flown in from Washington’s Dulles International only a few hours previously, was registered to an international trading company headquartered in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. Neely knew, from his HRT years at Quantico, that the CIA had ties to several so-called international trading companies, most of which were merely convenient fronts for secret Agency operations. The private jet had returned to Dulles six hours after the shooting, four and a half hours after the chopper crashed thirty-five miles north of Rockford. What was the connection, if any?
Sam Neely had already stuck his nose into the Agency’s business once too often, and he nearly lost his nose, plus his precious gonads had been threatened with painful removal, the last time. Sam knew he couldn’t afford another run-in with the Agency, but he was certain the CIA was somehow involved in the Starbucks murders.
Neely felt the U. S. Government tried to juggle too many balls at the same time for the left hand to know what the right hand was doing. The U.S. Treasury ostensibly controlled the Secret Service; the Justice Department controlled both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Homeland Security was a separate cabinet department all its own; and Congress was supposed to control the Central Intelligence Agency with Oversight Committees. After the intelligence disaster of September 11, 2001, a new Director of National Intelligence position was created to coordinate all of the domestic efforts of the entire intelligence community. Unfortunately, there were far too many on-going operations for any one entity to manage effectively.
Many of those on-going ops had begun long before 9-11, and they grew ever more complex with each passing year. Wasn’t it Sir Walter Scott who wrote those immortal lines: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”? Those words were certainly more descriptive of the Agency than its official motto, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Not even the Director of National Intelligence, and certainly not most members of Congress, knew the truth of all of the tangled webs the Agency had initiated and never terminated.
The Agency was, by its very nature, a shadow organization cloaked in secrecy. Other countries, too, had their shadow organizations with fancy mottos: Russia had its KGB and SVR (“Loyalty to the party, loyalty to the motherland”), Israel had its Mossad (“Where no counsel is, the people fall”), China its Goanbu (“Serve the people”), India its R and AW (“The law protects when it is protected”), Britain its MI6 (“Semper occultis” – Always secret). There were so many players in the game it was impossible to keep score.
Though not ostensibly a shadow organization, even the FBI had its motto:”Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.”
What were Agency personnel doing for eight or more hours while an Agency jet was on the ground in Rockford? In the days before 9-11, because CIA agents were prohibited by law from carrying out clandestine operations within the continental United States, the Agency would have asked the Bureau to investigate alleged terrorist activities stateside, passing on vital information about potential threats from Agency and foreign sources directly to FBI agents. After 9-11, the Agency worked hand-in-glove with Homeland Security, ignoring the Bureau entirely. But Neely had reason to believe the Agency, or rogue agents within the Agency, routinely operated within the U.S., aided and abetted by Homeland Security personnel. Whether those domestic operations were officially sanctioned or not, Neely suspected they occurred with greater regularity than either agency acknowledged.
So, if there were a CIA agent aboard the Homeland Security chopper when it went down, why hadn’t that agent’s body been recovered and identified?
And why had that Agency Learjet left Rockford without everyone accounted for? Or had it? Had the agent on board the chopper survived? How? Such a thing seemed impossible, but Neely knew the Agency dealt in impossibilities daily.
So many questions, so few answers. Sam Neely’s curiosity was aroused. It was the same curiosity that allegedly had killed the cat. Unlike a cat, however, Sam Neely had only one life to live, not nine lives. Poking his nose where it didn’t belong could get a human killed. Sam had been warned once. He knew the Agency wouldn’t warn him again.
There is nothing quite so liberating, thought Edward Meadows, as taking a good shit when you’ve been constipated for a long time. Getting all of that crap out from inside you and flushed down the toilet felt as wonderful as going to confession if one were Catholic. Meadows was merely speculating, of course. He was raised Southern Baptist, and he had never gone to confession. Nor had he ever been physically constipated.
But Meadows had made quite a mess when he tried to rid himself of excrement with a laxative. Not only had purging proved painful, one huge turd refused to flush. It still floated around in the toilet bowl where it could be seen, and Meadows had to do something fast to cover up the stink.
Though they certainly weren’t happy about losing a multi-million dollar surveillance helicopter and its veteran pilot, Ed’s cronies at Homeland Security agreed to contain the fallout from the failed attempts to nail Maguire. Meadows had been so certain he’d caught Maguire completely by surprise inside the Starbucks that he hadn’t bothered to secure the rear exit, a minor mistake that seemed major in retrospect. Ed wouldn’t make that same mistake again. Ed had entered the Starbucks and sprayed lead, but Maguire escaped by the back door moments before Ed cut down everyone inside the Starbucks. Ed had rushed outside in time to fire one fast round at the fleeing Dodge van, but he had misgauged Maguire’s acceleration rate and the bullet had missed by a hair. It was the first time ever that Meadows had missed hitting a target. How could he have misjudged Maguire’s capabilities so badly? Maguire was still alive, and that meant Maguire was still dangerous. Ed acted fast to rectify the situation.
When Ed tracked Maguire and got him in his sights a second time, Maguire beat him to the draw by a heartbeat. Ed had no time for a second shot as the out-of-control chopper spiraled toward the ground. If he wanted to stay alive himself, he had to evacuate immediately.
His supermind calculated drop speed and angle, and he leapt from the open cargo door of the modified H-60 fifty meters before impact. Any normal man would have broken every bone in his body jumping from that height, but Edward Meadows wasn’t a normal man. He hit the ground running. When the Black Hawk burst into flame, Meadows was safely running in the opposite direction as fast as his legs could carry him.
It took Ed four hours to run the thirty-some miles to the airport where his Learjet waited. He was too exhausted to do much more than contact his friends at Homeland Security and coordinate a cover-up. He ordered the plane to take him directly back to Langley. Killing Maguire would have to wait while Ed tied up some loose ends.
“Who is the girl Jack abducted from the restaurant?” Ed asked Roy Engles, a CIA mole inside Homeland Security.
“A twenty-six year old graduate student named Sylvia Miller,” Engles responded via encrypted transmission. “She worked at Starbucks part-time while she finished her doctoral dissertation at Northern Illinois University.”
“Any prior connection with Maguire?”
“None that we can find.”
“Then she’s excess baggage. Maguire will need to get rid of her. She may already be dead.”
“Why did he take her in the first place? Did he want a female hostage?”
“He doesn’t need to take hostages.”
“The girl will make him easier to find.”
Meadows laughed. “Maguire won’t be easy to find. He’s disappeared completely, and so has the girl. If he got rid of her, you’ll never find any part of her body that’s identifiable.”
“We know his car. It’s a dark blue Dodge van. We have the stolen Ohio license plate number currently on the van. We’ll get him. It’s only a matter of time.”
“By now, he’s driving something else. Neither Maguire nor the girl will look anything like you expect. The Agency trained this guy. You won’t find him unless he wants to be found.”
“He’s on the run. We have cameras on all the major highways and virtually every city in the country. We have eyes in the sky. We have his description. We have the girl’s DMV photo and a recent school ID picture. We’ll get him.”
“Shoot to kill,” said Ed. “He’s armed and dangerous. If you miss, you won’t get a second chance.”
“Why did Maguire go rogue?”
“That’s classified above your pay grade,” Ed said. “Stick to the cover story that he’s a deranged boyfriend. He was badly wounded in Afghanistan, he came home after three years in VA hospitals to find his girlfriend was screwing around behind his back, and he went bonkers.”
“Think the FBI will buy that?”
“Why not? We modified Maguire’s Army records to show he was medically discharged for battle wounds and mental instability. He really did spend time in a military hospital. Then he was confined and treated for PTSD for two years by a psychologist named Kelton. That’s all been officially documented. Of course, there’s nothing in the records that connects Maguire or Kelton to the Agency. I’m heading back to Langley. Keep me informed of your progress.”
Damn that Maguire! Ed didn’t dare reveal Jack’s true capabilities. Neither Homeland Security nor the FBI had a clue what Jack could do. Jack Maguire could out-think, out-guess, out-fox, and out-shoot any ordinary operative. He was a super-soldier, trained to operate quietly in urban environments or target anyone, anywhere, in any theater of operations without being spotted, much less captured or killed. He could go days or weeks without food or water, and he needed only an hour or two of sleep every other day to revitalize. He was physically and mentally superior to everyone who was hunting him, perhaps even superior to Matthews himself. It bothered Ed greatly that Jack had anticipated Ed’s arrival at the restaurant, and Jack had been waiting for Ed to show up clearly in his rifle sights before shooting down the DHS chopper. Jack, not Ed, had the element of surprise in his favor. Jack could have killed Ed easily both times, but he chose not to.
Why not? Ed wouldn’t have thought twice about killing Jack. That appeared to be a fundamental difference between the two men that Ed could exploit. Jack didn’t kill unless there was no available alternative. Ed never hesitated to take out a target.
Ed decided to reassess his adversary. He had been sure Jack would kill the girl and dispose of her body, because that’s what Ed would do if he found himself burdened with excess baggage. Ed had easily located Jack in the Starbucks and also on the back roads of Wisconsin by putting himself in Jack’s place and trying to think like him. Although Jack and Ed were a lot alike in so many ways—both were trained killers with enhanced mental and physical capabilities—Jack avoided creating collateral damage whenever possible. True, Jack had inadvertently killed the pilot of the helicopter by causing the Black Hawk to crash. But it was also true that Ed could have saved the pilot by taking the pilot with him when he jumped. It might have slowed him down, but it was doable. The pilot’s death was as much Ed’s fault as Jack’s, but the pilot was excess baggage Ed didn’t want.
Ed hadn’t thought twice about saving the pilot until he tried to think like Jack. Jack would have saved the pilot. Ed didn’t bother.
Was that why Jack had taken the girl with him as he exited the Starbucks? Was Jack simply trying to save her life? Didn’t Jack realize he could have spared not only the girl’s life but the lives of the thirteen others in the Starbucks, plus the life of the helicopter pilot, if Jack had simply killed Ed before Ed entered the Starbucks?
It dawned on Ed that Jack hadn’t killed Ed either time only because Jack felt he owed his life to Ed’s intervention in Afghanistan. Jack was paying back a debt. If Jack expected Ed to feel obligated to Jack for sparing Ed’s life a second time, he was mistaken. Ed never let personal feelings interfere with the mission.
So where was Jack now? He was headed north on back roads the last time Ed saw him, but Jack would have changed direction. Satellite feeds indicated the van went west, crossed the Mississippi River, and disappeared under the canopy of a Citgo station at a large Iowa truck stop. Jack drove the van into the station. But the van never emerged from beneath the brightly-lit opaque canopy covering the gasoline and diesel pumps from inclement weather. If the van left the station, none of the satellites picked it up when it left.
Nor was the van found when the station was thoroughly searched by teams of Homeland Security and FBI agents.
Double-damn that Maguire. He must have found a way to disguise the van so it wasn’t recognizable from the air. How could he do that? What Ed would do in Maguire’s place would be to drive the van up inside an empty eighteen wheeler parked at the truckstop while the trucker was inside the restaurant devouring a meal and taking a piss. The trucker wouldn’t have bothered to check his load before leaving because he wasn’t supposed to be hauling a load. Wherever that truck went, Maguire and the girl went, too. When the trucker reached his destination or he stopped for food somewhere again, Maguire could simply drive off in the van and the trucker would never be the wiser. Truckers only secured their semi-trailers if they carried cargo. All Jack needed to do was locate an unlocked and empty van with a built in forklift ramp, extend the ramp, drive the van inside, retract the ramp, and close the cargo gate.
Tracking the hundreds of trucks hauling semitrailers that stopped at the Citgo station would be doable but extremely time-consuming. By the time Ed located the right truck, the van and its two passengers would certainly have vacated the truck.
Ed visualized a map of the Midwest. How far could a truck go on a full tank of diesel? Better yet, how far could a driver go without needing to stop to take a piss? Ed drew imaginary concentric circles around the Iowa truck stop. The Iowa truck stop was in the center, and two hundred, three hundred, and four hundred mile radii extended into Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Somewhere, inside one of those circles and in one of those Midwestern states, was a blue Dodge van with two passengers. Ed ordered his analysts to use satellite feeds and sophisticated tracking software to locate the van. They had images of the van from earlier Illinois and Wisconsin feeds for exact shape, color, and size comparisons.
“I want that van found today,” Ed informed his chief tech. “Call me as soon as you get a hit.”
Ed also ordered a drone prepared with two hellfire missiles and sent to Iowa ASAP. As soon as Ed received coordinates on the van, he would launch the missiles. Jack was as good as toast, only Jack didn’t know it yet.
“I’m hungry,” said Sylvia Miller. She hadn’t eaten in more than fourteen hours and her stomach had just growled a loud complaint. “Why didn’t you let me order something from the restaurant at the truck stop when we were there?”
“We couldn’t chance your face being picked up on security cameras inside the building,” Jack explained. “Matthews can employ facial recognition software that’ll find your face even in a crowd.”
“What about the cameras I saw trained on the gas pumps? Didn’t they record our pictures?”
“I scrambled them.”
Jack pointed to a small box with a tiny blinking blue light resting on top of the dash. “That handy little device interferes with wi-fi data transmission between the camera and the recorder. Unfortunately, this scrambler has a limited effective range of only fifty meters. If you’re really hungry, I do have some protein bars and bottled water stashed in the back of the van. I’ll get you some.”
Jack opened the driver’s door and the dome light came on. He walked around to the back, opened the hatch, and returned with two bottles of water and a handful of protein bars. When he closed the driver’s door, the dome light went out and the inside of the trailer seemed darker than ever.
After Jack had rolled down the cargo door on the semitrailer that was transporting them across state lines, Jack asked Sylvia to move from the back seat to the front. Jack said no one could see them inside the dark enclosure, but he wasn’t sure how far their voices might carry. He said it was better if she were close enough that they could speak in whispers, so Sylvia was now seated in the front passenger seat. Although it was pitch black inside the cargo bay, Sylvia was very much aware Jack was seated close enough to touch—or to touch her—and that seemed somehow both exciting and dangerous.
“They can listen in on conversations,” Jack whispered. “If you recorded a voicemail message on your phone, they have an identifiable voice print to track.”
“They can hear us inside the van even if the van is inside a bigger truck?”
“The NSA can hear you talk in your sleep inside your bedroom at home if they want,” Jack said. “The trick is to pick out your voice from the millions of other voices they can monitor. Once they have your voice print however, their computers can search for your unique voice and speech patterns until they find where you are. It doesn’t take long to determine your exact location if they know your voice.”
“So maybe we shouldn’t talk?”
“If we keep it to a whisper, we should be okay.”
Sylvia unwrapped a protein bar and nibbled at it. She wasn’t sure if it tasted more like peanut butter and honey or chalk covered with maple syrup. After wolfing down two of the sweet treats and drinking half a bottle of water, she told Jack she needed to use a bathroom.
“Number one or number two?” Jack asked.
“Both,” she said.
“You can’t hold it?”
“I have been holding it. Now I really need to go.”
“You’ll have to squat in a corner of the cargo bay,” Jack said. “I don’t know how long we’ll be in here, so pick a place as far away from the van as you can.”
Sylvia had the feeling Jack could still see her as she pulled down her pants and cotton panties in the dark and squatted as far away from the van as she could get. Was he watching her as she relieved herself? How much could he see in the dark?
Impossible, she told herself. If I can’t see him inside the dark cargo hold of a semitrailer, he can’t see me.
When she returned to the front passenger seat of the van, Jack suggested she try to sleep. She told him she didn’t feel sleepy. “How can you expect me to be sleepy when my whole life has been turned upside down? Yesterday morning I was a graduate student worried only about completing my Phud dissertation by next June. Then I went to my part-time job at Starbucks as I do at three every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. You walked in at 3:40 and ordered a large plain black coffee, which no one in his right mind ever does at Starbucks, and an hour later I’m being abducted and shot at. I haven’t tasted real food since breakfast yesterday, I’ve been wearing the same clothes for nearly twenty-four hours, and I have no privacy even to go to the bathroom because there is no bathroom. I’m trapped inside a freight trailer going God only knows where with a crazy man I saw shoot down a helicopter and kill the pilot and passengers. How could I possibly sleep?”
“What’s a Phud?” he asked, and she could hear a smile in his voice.
“You don’t care that I just called you crazy?”
“Not at all,” he said. “That’s the cover story the Agency created to explain what I’ve been doing for the past four years. I was supposedly institutionalized after being wounded and suffering a mental breakdown in Afghanistan.”
“Oh, great. I was right. I’m trapped with a real nut case.”
“What’s a Phud?”
“A Ph. D. A Doctor of Philosophy. People in the program call the degree Phud for short.”
“So what’s your field of study? I have a masters in management, but no one gets a doctorate in management unless they intend to teach. What do you plan to do with your doctorate?”
“I want to be a cognitive scientist. I’m doing my dissertation research on models of distributed memory storage in the human brain that have corresponding applications to computer systems. My advisor obtained a research grant that pays all tuitions and fees and a small stipend for grad assistants to do experiments. I work part-time at Starbucks only to pay apartment rent and buy food. Why couldn’t you have picked a Friday to come in for coffee instead of a Thursday? I would have been at the university running people through functional MRIs.”
“I am sorry I got you into this mess.”
“You should be. Any idea how we’ll get out?”
“Out of the trailer? We wait until the truck stops, then we drive out.”
“Will they still be looking for us?”
“Oh, yes. They won’t stop until either we’re dead or we kill whoever targeted us.”
“There’s no other way?”
“I thought there might be someone who could help me in Rockford, but his house burned up with him supposedly in it.”
“Oh. I think I read about that in the newspaper.”
“About four weeks ago. Just before the first team of assassins came after me in New York.”
“This isn’t the first time someone wanted to kill you?”
Jack laughed. Sylvia didn’t know what Jack found so funny about people wanting to kill him. Sylvia didn’t think it was funny at all.
“I really am sorry I got you into this,” he whispered, leaning close enough that Sylvia could feet his breath touch her ear. “But if I’d left you behind, you’d already be dead.”
“I suppose you expect me to thank you?” she asked.
“No thanks are necessary,” he said. “But I do expect you to stay out of my way when I have to move fast. I’ll protect you, if I can. I owe you that for dragging you into this mess. I’m the primary target so they’ll try to take me out first. Once I’m down, they’ll go after you. Do you know how to use a handgun?”
“No. I’m afraid of guns.”
Sylvia felt his hand gently touch hers, and she thought it was sweet that he wanted to hold her hand in the dark like two teenagers entering a tunnel of love at a carnival. She decided to let him hold her hand if he wanted, and if he tried to kiss her she wouldn’t object too much. Besides, she didn’t have much choice. She was trapped inside this fast-moving vehicle with an armed crazy man who admitted he was a trained killer. He could do whatever he wanted to her and she wouldn’t be able to stop him.
But he didn’t even try to kiss her. Cold steel replaced the warmth of his hand as she felt something heavy pressed firmly into the palm of her right hand.
“That’s a nine-millimeter Beretta,” he whispered in her ear. “It has a magazine loaded with fifteen bullets. There’s no round in the chamber, and the safety is on. The weapon won’t fire without a round in the chamber, and it won’t fire with the safety on. You chamber a single round by pulling the slide all the way back and releasing it. When the slide moves forward, one round is automatically stripped off the top of the magazine and fed into the chamber. The hammer is cocked, and the weapon is ready to fire as soon as you flip the safety lever up and squeeze the trigger. You aim by pointing the muzzle at your target. Don’t point at a man’s head or arms or legs. Point at his center of mass. Aim for the gut. If the recoil jerks the muzzle up, the round will still hit the heart or the head. I want you to keep that weapon in your possession at all times. Remember to slip the safety off and rack the slide before you aim.”
“I don’t want a gun,” she said.
“I don’t care what you want,” he said. “I care that you survive. A gun is only a tool, a piece of machinery, to help you survive.”
“I still don’t want it.” She tried to hand the gun back to him, but he refused to accept it.
“Take it anyway,” he insisted. “You’ll need it. That Beretta may be the only thing that keeps you alive if I’m not around.”
She held the gun in her right hand. It felt huge and heavy. She moved her tiny fingers over the ridges of a checkered plastic grip, encountered the slightly greasy feel of metal as she found buttons and levers. Like a blind man identifying an elephant, she tried to picture in her mind what her fingers found in the dark. There was some kind of metal ring guarding the trigger. There were rough ridges on the top edge of the hammer. She located what she thought were the safety and the rear sights. She wrapped her fingers around the grip and placed her index finger on the trigger. She had seen movies and television shows of men shooting guns. She imagined herself aiming at another person. She suddenly felt sick to her stomach.
Maybe consuming sweet-tasting protein bars on an empty stomach hadn’t been a good idea. Or maybe it was the odor of oil on gunmetal that made her queasy. Whatever it was, she didn’t like it.
“I have no place to put the gun,” she said, trying again to hand the Beretta back to him again.
“Slip it into the waistband of your pants.”
“It’s too bulky.”
She felt one of his hands slide between her pants and panties while his other hand grabbed the gun and shoved it down the front of her pants.
“It fits,” he said.
“It’s not comfortable,” she said, trying to get the gun out.
“Then move it to one side or the other, but keep it tucked in your pants where you can reach it when you need it. Remember to pull back the slide and release the safety before you aim.”
“It won’t go off inside my pants?”
“It won’t fire until you chamber a round and flip the safety.”
She moved the metal to her right side, but the barrel still pressed into her thigh and the handle pushed against her ribs. The bulk made her pants feel too tight.
“You’ll get used to carrying,” he said. “Before you know it, you won’t even notice the gun is there.”
She squirmed in her seat. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to feeling that kind of pressure against her hip.
She must have dozed off, because the next thing Sylvia knew was the truck and trailer had stopped moving and Jack was opening the car door. He had switched off the dome light, and he walked to the rear of the trailer in the dark. He raised the bottom of the cargo door a few inches and a sliver of sunlight showed Jack kneeling to peer outside. It was obviously after dawn on a new day. Sylvia must have slept for hours with Jack sitting beside her. How was that possible?