The Last Line

A Novel

Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer and William H. Keith

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
 
 
SECTOR CHARLIE 1-1
SECRET CIA TRAINING FACILITY
0225 HOURS, EDT
13 APRIL
Night—as impenetrably black as only a moonless and overcast night in the woods can be. Captain Chris Teller lay full-length on the ground, probing the smothering darkness around him, every sense alert. There’d been no sound to warn him, nothing but the usual chirp and whir and peep of insects and lovesick amphibians at the pond just up ahead, but there was something …
There, he caught it again as he inhaled—the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke just perceptible above the mingled scents of leaf mold, earth, and stagnant water. His pursuers wouldn’t be stupid enough to smoke in the darkness; he was probably smelling it on someone’s uniform.
Someone very, very close now …
Yes … just ahead, a shadow against shadows. Using averted vision, looking to one side of the figure instead of straight at it, he could make out the shape of a man leaning against the trunk of a massive tree. The head was heavy and misshapen beneath the brim of his boonie hat.
A Klingon, wearing NVD—night-vision device.
Teller waited, not moving, scarcely breathing, not even looking at the man standing nearby. Play sneak-and-peek with the bad guys long enough and you became convinced that the opposition could feel you staring at them. The answer was not to stare at them, and to make the mental noise of a rock.
Patience. Steady nerves. He was prepared to outwait the guy, however, to lie on the chilly ground for an hour if need be. He’d done this before …
Christopher Thomas Teller had been with the Department of Defense for eight years now, as a case officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Directorate. A captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, he’d seen action in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in combat zones where it was sometimes tough to figure out who were the good guys and who wore black hats.
Since he’d started working for the DIA, that was more of a problem than ever.
A sharp hiss of static and a burst of unintelligible words sounded from the tactical radio holstered on the man’s combat harness. “Yeah,” he said. “Red Three.”
More crackling mutters, and then the man said, “Negative. Nothing here. Sector Charlie one-one is clear.”
While Red Three was distracted by the radio call, Teller, wraith silent, rose and eased forward. The man was angled away from him, his field of vision sharply restricted by the night-vision device over his face. Teller knew he would get just one chance …
“Copy that,” Red Three said. “Out.”
Teller took the last three quick steps and struck, using the heel of his hand.
Karate chops to the neck are pure Hollywood, all for show and largely useless. What knocks a man unconscious is not the blow itself but the force of the brain slamming against the inside of the skull. Strike high and from the side, aiming just above the temple, and if the target is relaxed his head will jerk sharply enough to rattle the brain and induce immediate unconsciousness.
It was a martial arts technique that Teller had practiced long and exhaustively. You didn’t actually need to use much force—in fact, too hard a blow to the temple could kill—but your accuracy had to be perfect, especially when the bull’s-eye was covered by an NVD harness and the brim of a boonie hat.
Red Three slumped; Teller caught him as he fell and silently lowered the body to the ground. Swiftly, he dragged the night-vision device from the man’s head, checked the man’s pulse, then pulled a penlight from his pocket and peeled back the eyelids, first one, then the other, making sure to shield the light with his hand. Both pupils were the same size, thank God. If Teller had misjudged and fractured Red Three’s skull, it would not have been good.
Again Teller smelled cigarette smoke, stronger now, and grinned. Most smokers had no idea just how much their clothing and breath stank to nonsmokers. A good thing, too; he’d very nearly walked into this one in the darkness.
The night would no longer be an obstacle, however. Putting away his light, Teller slipped on the night goggles. Sweet. The unit was an AN/PVS-21, one of the newer Gen III Omni IV systems that let the operator see both with direct vision and with light intensification, as well as by infrared. He flipped the left-side monocle aside; he wanted to keep his night vision in at least one eye. As he switched the unit on, the surrounding forest seen through the right-eye optics became twilight-bright in green monochrome. He could see still black water thirty meters ahead—the millpond. The heads-up display projection overlaid the image with a compass bearing, waypoint, GPS data, and other useful tidbits. To the left, a bright white star bobbed slightly as it moved through darkness.
An infrared target—another Klingon wearing an infrared wand on his utilities about fifty meters off. Teller was going to have to be careful if he wanted to stay unobserved.
He still had a long way to go.
AIRFIELD COMMAND POST
SECRET CIA TRAINING FACILITY
0234 HOURS, EDT
Marine Lieutenant Colonel Frank Procario glanced at the big clock on the wall, then back at the computer screen. “Face it, Clarke,” he told the older man seated at the monitor. “Your people have lost him.”
“Not freakin’ likely,” James Edward Clarke replied. He was staring at the monitor as though willing the screen to provide him with more information. An airstrip, running southwest to northeast, appeared at the bottom; the sprawl of the pond was above, to the north. A half-dozen points of light described a rough circle in the woods southwest of the pond, and Clarke pointed at the circle’s heart. “We know he’s in this area, right here. He can’t manage more than a half mile an hour or so, not in the dark over uneven ground, not unless he wants to break an ankle. We’ll get him.”
Procario gave a humorless grin. “We’ll see.”
Officially, these woods were part of a highly classified training facility, so secret that the government wouldn’t even allow it to be named. To anyone in the know, however, it was “the Farm,” a rural base tucked away out of sight within thousands of acres of thickly wooded land, close by a broad and slow-moving river. On the other side of a busy interstate running past the perimeter fence, a popular tourist center celebrated America’s heritage. A million tourists wandered that historic site each year, never guessing that the main entrance to the covert CIA training facility even existed nearby. Case-officers-in-training routinely used the downtown area of the tourist site as a classroom where they could practice shadowing, brush passes, mail drops, and the other esoterica of tradecraft.
Since the early fifties, some eight thousand acres of the Farm had been given over to woodland, with isolated buildings and training facilities scattered across the property, all but lost among the trees. In the past few years, though, trees had been coming down by the hundreds, and earthmovers had been carving out acre upon acre for new buildings and roads. The War on Terror had been causing the black-ops budgets to boom, and the Klingons had been making the most of it.
Plenty of woodland and swamp remained, however, more than enough for training classes such as this one.
The session was a fairly standard E&E exercise, escape and evasion. They’d driven Teller out in a Humvee and dropped him off at the side of a road three hours earlier. This night’s objective was straightforward—orienting alone across three miles of woodland and swamp with a compass. Teller’s goal was the 5,000-foot airstrip located a little more than a mile south of the millpond. The catch came in having to make the trek in pitch blackness while evading a half-dozen CIA instructors, all of whom were wearing high-tech AN/PVS-21s and coordinating their movements by tactical radio.
Still, Procario had known Teller for a long time. “I’ll put my money on Chris Teller anyway,” he said after a long moment.
“Bullshit. We’ve got the bastard boxed in.”
“That,” Procario said, his grin broadening, “is exactly when he’s at his most fucking dangerous.”
SECTOR CHARLIE 1-1
SECRET CIA TRAINING FACILITY
0240 HOURS, EDT
Teller watched the moving infrared target a moment in silence. Getting caught didn’t bear thinking about. Farm instructors had been known to zip-strip trainees they caught, put them through a mock interrogation, even beat them up in the sacred name of verisimilitude. Classes like this one weren’t just about proving you could avoid contract security bully-boys like Red Three. They were to demonstrate means of surviving after you were caught.
Chris Teller had already decided that he would be having none of that, thank you. His trainee days were over. He’d been through the Farm’s basic indoctrination course eight years ago, and he’d attended several specialization classes since. His presence here this weekend was nothing more than MacDonald’s latest attempt to make life as unpleasant as possible for him, something the woman seemed to regard as her sacred duty.
Right now, though, MacDonald wasn’t his problem. He had five Klingons on his tail, and they were going to be royally pissed when they found out what he’d done to Klingon number six.
The CIA did not play well with others. Among themselves, they referred to the Central Intelligence Agency as “the Agency” or “the Company” or even “the Firm.” Other U.S. intelligence services—and there were fifteen of them at the latest count aside from the Agency—referred to the CIA as “the Empire,” a term that inevitably had devolved into the villains of the popular science fiction franchise. The Klingons got the lion’s share of the intelligence budget, the Klingons got the attention on Capitol Hill when it came to procurements, and the Klingons didn’t like to share the goodies.
For a DIA case officer like Teller, working with the CIA was a necessary evil, something to avoid if possible, to get through quickly when necessary.
This time around, unfortunately, there’d been no avoiding it.
Thirty yards farther along, the ground began growing soft underfoot, the swamp dragging at his boots with each step. He kept going until he reached the water’s edge, then stopped, looking back. He pressed the SEND button on the tactical radio. “Man down! Man down!” he called. “Red Three’s in trouble, sector one-one!”
There was silence for a moment. Then, “Who is this?”
“Red Three is in trouble!” Teller repeated. He switched off the radio and began wading out into the pond.
The water was cold and utterly black. In the distance, he heard a shout—and his NVDs showed three infrared beacons converging in the woods behind him. Good. If he’d injured Red Three, he wanted the man to get treatment, and the call would also serve as a diversion. After a moment, he pushed off from the muddy bottom and began swimming. The AN/PVS-21 was waterproof to a depth of ten meters; getting it wet in a late-night swim wasn’t going to hurt the unit at all. He struck out with a breaststroke, moving slowly to avoid disturbing the water with more than a ripple. Someone might be watching the water, though he doubted it. Across the lake was exactly the wrong direction for someone trying to reach the airfield.
At least, it was for people trying to reach it through the woods. Teller had a different idea.
The pond was a brackish, irregular lake just off the nearby river. Teller was swimming down one of the lake’s inlets now. Five hundred yards to the northeast, lights showed on a wooded shore. There was a small suburban community there between the millpond and the river, according to the maps Teller had studied—houses belonging to the Farm’s permanent staff or used by long-term guests.
What he was about to try was almost certainly in violation of at least the spirit of tonight’s E&E exercise. He hadn’t exactly been ordered to stay on a particular route, but there’d been a clear understanding that he was to travel a more or less direct path southeast from the drop-off point to the airfield, sticking to the woods and swamps and staying clear of inhabited areas. The total trek was about three miles; he’d already traveled more than that, backtracking twice since midnight, then swinging well to the north and east to avoid his pursuers.
He maintained a slow but steady pace across the black water with scarcely a ripple to betray his movement. In the distance, shouts silenced the steady chirp of crickets. It sounded like they’d found Red Three.
Eventually his boots brushed against mud, and then he staggered up out of the lake, dripping. A few more yards through a sheltering privacy wall of trees, and he emerged onto a suburban street.
Most of the houses were empty; all were dark. One nearby house had a couple of cars parked in the driveway, a two-door Nissan and a Ford pickup truck. He pulled a small folding knife from a pocket in his utilities. The truck was the easier target—and as a bonus it wasn’t even locked. Well, why should it be? This small and quintessentially American community was located deep in the heart of one of the most secure and secret facilities in the United States.
A few moments later, he touched two bare wires to each other and the truck gunned to life. He wrapped the wires together, put the vehicle in gear, backed out onto the street, and drove off toward the southeast.
Fifteen minutes later, once again in the woods, he abandoned the truck at the side of a road, checked his compass, and started walking once more.
Ten minutes more on foot brought him to the airfield. There was some activity on the far side of the runway—vehicles with flashing red lights and a couple of military Hummers. The control tower building was brightly lit; a room on the ground floor had been converted into a temporary command center for the night’s festivities.
A pair of contractors met him outside the command center, rough-looking men in camouflage utilities and carrying M-4A1 Commandos. “Hold it right there, asshole,” one of them growled.
“I’ve finished the fucking mission,” Teller said. He glanced at his watch—0314, well ahead of his 0600 deadline. “Game’s over. Let me through.”
“You’re damned right, game over,” the other merc said with a nasty grin. “You’ve got some people pretty fucking pissed off at you.”
“Including us, you son of a bitch,” the first merc said.
Teller studied the two. The CIA often employed contract soldiers—mercenaries—for its sentries, shit details, military ops, and, as tonight, its paramilitary training exercises. They were well trained and generally possessed decent to excellent martial arts skills. Teller might be able to take down one of these two, but not both, not after running through the woods for three hours and pulling a half-kilometer swim in the bargain.
The stuttering whop-whop-whop of a helicopter approached out of the darkness.
Those red lights—an ambulance. The helicopter must be a medevac chopper. Shit. He must have hit Red Three harder than he’d realized.
“Okay,” he said. “So where do we go from here?”
“I don’t know about the rest of us,” a new voice said from behind Teller’s shoulder, “but you are in a world of shit.”
It wouldn’t be the first time.
“So what else is new?” Teller asked.
SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY
WASHINGTON, D.C.
1345 HOURS, EDT
Galen Fletcher smiled thinly as the security guard patted him down, checking for weapons. How ironic. He lived in a country awash in guns, and he had to come home, to the nation’s capital, to be properly frisked.
The guard finished and waved him through.
“Thank you for your patience, sir.”
“Not a problem,” he replied, shrugging back into his jacket.
As he moved into the crowded entryway of the newly renovated Smithsonian Museum of American History, the warmth, the energy of the place enveloped him. The meetings at headquarters, which had begun at eight sharp, had continued straight through lunch and left him in a bit of a daze, so to help clear his head, he had decided on an afternoon walking tour of the landmarks along the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C. They’d meant so much to him when he was younger.
Long ago … when it was so much easier to believe.
Surrounded by chattering tourists with their cameras and backpacks, the CIA’s Mexico chief of station glanced around him, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the polished steel columns—gray hair, distinguished features, conservatively dressed in his usual navy blue Brooks Brothers suit and red tie. He was reminded of how much like an investment banker he appeared—like his father and his father’s father. He hadn’t chosen that path, though. His had been a life of clandestine intrigue, of service to his country.
Fletcher passed the glass display cases containing trinkets from the country’s past—a muscled G.I. Joe action figure, a chipped wooden cradle, a curvaceous Barbie in a black-and-white swimsuit—and headed up the wide staircase. He strolled through the second floor and stooped to inspect a letter by George Washington, squinting to make out the looped script.
If we consider ourselves, or wish to be considered by Others as a United people, Washington had scrawled, why not adopt the measures that are characteristic of it—Act as a Nation …
He smiled again, reflecting on his life, on a career in the service of his nation. His start with paramilitary and field operations training at the Farm, then the long climb through the ranks. The days of dust and sorrow in Beirut as a young case officer working to solve the marine barracks and U.S. Embassy bombings. His stint in Sudan—what a godawful place—trying to prevent the fall of the government to forces that would be less inclined to see things the American way. The trip to North Korea in 1994 with former president Jimmy Carter on his mission to defuse tensions there; that had been a close one, the time when he’d first recognized his own mortality.
Five years later, he’d had a closer brush with death, when he’d been deputy chief of station in Côte d’Ivoire. He’d helped save the life of the Chilean ambassador in Liberia during a tense stand-off with the Liberian monster Charles Taylor.
That encounter had earned him the CIA’s ultimate honor, the Intelligence Medal of Merit. Now, at a time when intelligence collection had never been more imperative to the security of the United States, he knew more than ever the significance of the honor bestowed on him. Honor was at the core of everything he had done, everything he had become, everything he truly cherished.
Fletcher wasn’t sure what he was looking for in the museum—if, indeed, he was looking for anything at all. Reaching the third floor, he swung to his left, stopping with a cluster of people in front of a glass case to inspect a rickety high-back wing chair. Faded orange tweed, it looked like, with plenty of stains and a greasy spot where a head had once rested. Archie Bunker’s chair from the 1970s TV show All in the Family, the sign read.
Fletcher had been abroad during that turbulent period of America’s history, but he had watched as the nation had wrestled with its internal demons and had survived and endured—the ultimate demonstration of America’s greatness.
Later, when America—when America’s honor—was betrayed … Fletcher’s thoughts veered back to what he had discovered in Mexico at the end of his two years as the CIA’s chief of station there. In an instinctive gesture, he glanced around and touched his hand to his tie, ensuring it was straight.
Honor.
He had to do this.
Fletcher made his way out of the museum and down its snow-dotted granite stairs. It was chilly for mid-April in Washington, and a gust of wind seemed to claw its way underneath his coat. He’d not yet adjusted to the climate here after the humid heat of Mexico City, and he felt a chill in his bones that was as much psychological as physical. The cherry blossoms, though, provided an orgy of glorious pink among D.C.’s granite and marble edifices.
He struck out across the National Mall, the white dome of the U.S. Capitol Building rising on his left and the soaring Washington Monument on his right, the heavy gray of a leaden sky emphasizing their vibrancy. The magnificent sight brought back that first, sharp sense of patriotic wonder that had overcome him during his first visit to Washington at the age of seventeen. That had been … when? ’73? ’74?
A hell of a long time ago.
Fletcher took a deep breath, drawing in the chilly spring air before releasing it slowly and deliberately.
It was time.
With renewed energy, his pace increased. He headed toward the Smithsonian Castle. As he approached, he made the slight right off the frozen path to stride down the escalator of the Metro, brushing past those clinging to the handrail.
He was warm now in his own knowing, and he felt an inner glow as he pulled out the fare card from the inside pocket of his suit, put it into the turnstile, and descended the stairs to the tiled platform for the Blue Line train headed to Largo Town Center.
The lighted overhead sign indicated a train was approaching, and the embedded red lights on the granite platform edge began to flash as Fletcher moved up to stand with the rest of the crowd. He smiled graciously at the woman next to him, well dressed, with two children—a young boy and a toddler in a stroller.
“You know,” he said softly, “you have a beautiful family. It’s people like you who make this country great.” Surprised, the woman returned Fletcher’s smile. Before she could thank him, the roaring train thundered out of the tunnel. He patted the shoulder of the boy.
Then, in one graceful movement, Galen Fletcher stepped off the platform.
SOUTH MONTEZUMA STREET
PHOENIX, ARIZONA
1220 HOURS, MST
They called Phoenix the kidnap capital of the United States, the second in the world after only Mexico City. In recent years, the flood of illegal immigrants north across the border had brought with it a wave of crime, of kidnapping and extortion especially.
At nightfall, the coyotes had marched their human cargo northeast, deeper into the desert, until the light of a vehicle, an ancient and time-worn panel truck, had shone out of the dark. Saeed Reyshahri and the others had been crammed into the back of the truck and told to lie down under a tarp.
The heat and the stink of sweat and fear, the sobbing of the women, the nausea and disorientation all had been miserable. Hours later, they’d met with another, larger truck somewhere outside of Tucson, changed vehicles, and continued driving through the night, this time with a different group of coyotes in charge.
The smuggling operation appeared to be superbly organized, with chains of rendezvous and safe houses, vehicle switches, and well-armed gangs of men stretched across the desert, all the way from deep inside northern Mexico. The actual border crossing near Nogales had been through a network of lighted and well-ventilated tunnels several hundred meters long. Despite his concerns, at no point had Reyshahri even seen an American Border Patrol or customs officer.
Just after dawn, however, they’d arrived here, in a grimy and run-down section on the south side of Phoenix. The pollos—“chickens” in the slang of the coyotes—had been herded into a dilapidated house, forced at gunpoint to strip in order to make escape more difficult, and locked up together inside one of the tiny bedrooms. They were guarded by three armed men under the apparent command of a harassed and shrill-voiced housewife with a baby and a toddler still in diapers.
Reyshahri retained a bit more freedom and at least a measure of dignity; they allowed him to sit in the living room with two of the coyotes and a too-loud television set tuned to a Spanish soap opera. Thanks be to Allah he would be leaving soon. A VEVAK agent code-named Kawrd, “knife” in English, would be arriving momentarily to bring Reyshahri’s forged ID and to pay the final installment of Reyshahri’s transport fee.
It could not possibly happen too soon.
“Hey, Arab,” one of the men said in English. He held out a brown bottle. “Wanna beer?”
Reyshahri could only shake his head. Alcohol was haram to good Muslims—strictly forbidden. Surely these animals knew that.
The coyote laughed and said something to his partner, eliciting a nasty grin. “They say you also no like women, mister,” the second man said. He jerked a dirty thumb over his shoulder at the guarded bedroom down the hall. “You maybe want one of the boys instead? That it?”
“Some of them muy bonito, man, very pretty,” the first said, laughing.
Reyshahri leaned back on the filthy sofa and closed his eyes. If he ignored them, perhaps they would tire of the sport and leave him alone.
The plight of the fifteen pollos in the party continued to weigh heavily on Reyshahri. The rape tree in the desert had only been the nightmare’s beginning. He’d heard stories from some of the coyotes during the trip north. One at a time, now, the migrants would be forced to call relatives, either back in Mexico or, often, here in the States, asking for more money. Each had already paid something between $1,800 and $2,500 American to get them this far—a fortune for impoverished families in Mexico. Now the coyotes were demanding more money. If the additional cash—“ransom” was the only possible word for it—was not paid, the immigrants would be forced to work for the cartel, or, worse, taken to a casa de la violencia and tortured, often with their relatives listening over the phone line. Human traffickers had been known—with horrible frequency—to send relatives hands or other body parts, or photos of their loved ones being beaten or sexually abused, in order to speed up the payments.
How in the name of Allah the most merciful had he fallen into this nightmare?
Smothered beneath the tarp, packed in with the migrants in the back of the panel truck, he’d missed Fajr, the morning prayer, but he had a feeling that prayer of any sort would be impossible until he got away from these men. God, in his infinite love and sense of ultimate justice, would understand. Surely he would understand …
A pounding on the front door brought him out of increasingly despondent thoughts, as the two coyotes pulled automatic weapons from behind the furniture. A moment later, the housewife led Ernesto Mendoza and another man into the living room.
“Hello, Arab,” Mendoza said. “I find your friend, see?”
Reyshahri didn’t know the other man, but he was dark and bearded and carried a large briefcase. “Salaam, Okawb,” the man said, using Reyshahri’s code name, “Eagle.”
Salaam, Kawrd,” Reyshahri replied. Sign and countersign. Kawrd nodded, then spoke in Spanish to Mendoza. He opened the combination lock on the briefcase and showed the coyotes the contents—ten thousand American dollars. Reyshahri noticed that Kawrd stepped back and put his right hand inside his jacket as they counted it; it was not at all impossible that the Sinaloan coyotes would take the money and demand more.
There would be other VEVAK men outside, armed and waiting. Mendoza couldn’t be that stupid …
“All correct, señores,” Mendoza said with a toothy smile. “It’s been good doing business with you, as always.”
As always. “Let us leave this place,” he said to Kawrd in Farsi. “It sickens me.”
Together, they stepped outside into the cool April air. Two more Iranian agents were waiting for them beside a rented car. One gave Reyshahri an envelope containing a U.S. driver’s license and citizenship papers.
Reyshahri didn’t relax, however, until they were well clear of the city.
The mission. He needed to forget the coyotes and focus on his mission.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Anthony Shaffer