NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA
KYLE SWANSON LEANED ON the white railing of the deck on the second floor of his house as the sun edged down toward the horizon and wondered if he had time to get out in the surf one last time, paddle down to the Wedge, ride a few sets, and get back before it got too dark. Madeline, his girlfriend of the past two weeks, was coming over after her shift in a beachfront restaurant and was expecting him to grill some tuna while she whipped up a salad. They would drink cold cerveza and eat on the open patio with the glass doors all the way open, with a fresh ocean breeze coming in while music spilled into the night. They might take a midnight dip, and he would be dazzled by her body in that red bikini with her blond hair reflecting the moonlight. After that, a strategic retreat to the big bedroom to make love while boarders, bladers, dog walkers, tourists, and other lovers strolled the boardwalk out front, unable to see them.
No, he decided as he rubbed the freshly painted railing. He didn’t have time for that one last swim, and he and Maddy would have to part in the morning, but it had been a hell of a leave. The United States Marine Corps wanted its top sniper back on duty.
His telephone rang, as if it had been waiting for just the right moment to ruin the idyllic mood. A glance at the screen showed Lieutenant Colonel Sybelle Summers was calling from Washington. “Hey,” he said.
“Are you out of the lazy vacation mode yet?”
“Did I ever tell you that you have a sultry voice?”
“I am your superior officer, Gunnery Sergeant Swanson.”
“But we slept together once, Sybelle,” he said. “Remember? A rainy night in France?”
“I’ve never been to France. You must be thinking of your current chippie, what’s her name? Michelin, like the tires?”
“Her name is Madeline, and your memory is slipping. I thought you and I had a deep and special relationship.”
There was a slight, pleasant change in her tone. “Some people just are not that memorable.” They both laughed.
“Sybelle, why are you bothering me on my final evening of leave? Gimme a break, girl. The sun is just about down, I’m drinking beer, watching the beach, getting ready to grill a dead fish, Maddy is coming over, and the California weather is perfect. Washington, where you are sitting, is clogged with snow, according to the Weather Channel. I don’t want to come back.”
“Quit whining, Kyle. You built that big house and now you start acting all rich instead of like the raggedy-ass jarhead you are. Maddy, is it? Maddy? Is she out of high school yet?”
“Here’s a suggestion; why don’t you come out here instead? No snow.”
“Miss Maddy Michelin would be upset if I did that. Let’s get to business. You are wanted back here right away.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon anyway, Sybelle, and I can’t get back any faster than that.” He tilted back the longneck bottle of Corona beer, which was getting warm. The sky had deepened into a band of solid orange that was being chased by the heavy purple night coming from the east, and the sun was moving so fast that it seemed to be falling.
“Change of plans. A plane will be waiting by the time you get out to John Wayne. I’ll meet the flight here, then we go directly to a meeting. Take this thing off speakerphone.”
He closed the speaker and picked up the receiver. “OK. I’m listening. This line is not secure.”
“Really? I had no idea. Does Maddy know that?”
“Can you get to the point?”
“Some of your father’s friends have contacted the boss, and they want us to talk to a guy lives out on the Maryland shore. We’ll drive out from Andrews.”
That was a jolt. It was her way of advising him that Sir Geoffrey Cornwell in Great Britain apparently had pulled the original string to start this ball rolling, and that was Kyle’s real other life. The man had been a colonel in the British Special Air Service Regiment before a broken leg forced him into retirement. Refusing to be shelved, he had set out to design technical applications and new weaponry for the military, and was on the cutting edge when the War on Terror dollars started to flow like cheap wine. Eventually, he persuaded the Pentagon to lend him a sniper for technical assistance on a unique project to develop a new kind of long-range rifle, the Excalibur. They had sent Kyle Swanson over to England, and before long, the project was successful, and Jeff and his extraordinary wife, Lady Patricia, who were childless, had found a new friend in Kyle Swanson, an American orphan.
Over the years, through some very good times and some very bad and dangerous times, they unconsciously knitted together as a family. Sir Jeff branched into other fields and had a golden touch for business, and although Kyle remained a Marine, he was brought into the business, too, for the Pentagon liked having its own liaison man in the thriving Cornwell pipeline. It had been a special day for Kyle when the Cornwells adopted him as their son.
So if Sir Jeff, who was always helping out clandestine operations for the United States and Great Britain, was behind this thing—Kyle still didn’t know what it was—then Swanson would consider it important and worthwhile. The problem had probably gone from Jeff to his friends within the British intelligence service and perhaps even into the prime minister’s office before leaping over the pond to the White House. That was enough for Swanson, but a last night with Maddy would have been nice.
Kyle paused. “So General Middleton himself is ordering me back?”
“Not that boss, Swanson. The big boss. Anyway, Task Force Trident is now involved.”
That more than aroused his curiosity, but he couldn’t swallow it whole. “You want me to give up my final night, fly coast-to-coast, get off the plane a few hours before I would get there anyway, and go straight to work in Maryland? That urgent?”
“Damned straight, Gunny. Consider yourself back on the government dime.” She ended the call.
“Aw, man.” Kyle folded his phone and returned it to his pocket. The rim of the sun was almost totally gone, sinking into the Pacific Ocean. It was the moment he always watched for but usually missed, because it happened so quickly. Then there it was, for only a heartbeat, a brilliant sparkle of emerald as the final rim of the sun disappeared. Maybe it was an omen, he thought, an official ending to his two weeks of peace and quiet. Now it was back to being the triggerman for Trident.
Reluctantly, he hit the speed dial number to give Madeline the bad news of the broken date. He had to leave right away, he tried to explain, and no, he couldn’t say where, and no again, sorry, but he didn’t know when he would be back. She was totally unsympathetic and went from angry to cold as fast as the green flash had blinked out. “Look, Maddy, I’ve built this damned house right on the beach. You think I’m going to let it stand empty? Of course I’ll be back. And I’ll call you the minute I arrive; even before I arrive, I promise.” She said something extraordinarily vulgar and hung up on him.
* * *
TWO HOURS LATER, HE was the only passenger aboard a small executive jet that was hauling him from John Wayne Airport outside of Newport Beach, heading to Andrews Air Force Base, just over the Maryland line outside of Washington, D.C. Swanson was in the wide, soft seat and had already finished reading the Time and Newsweek magazines that were in the seatback. It was a government plane, so there was no flight attendant, but he could fix a drink on his own in the galley, and somewhere over Missouri he would probably test the shrink-wrapped turkey and cheese sandwich.
Both magazines had covers showing the mobs demonstrating in the cities of Egypt, and their lead articles were about the latest treacherous political storm that was roiling that ancient country. The situation was deteriorating, just as it had been when he began his leave thirteen days earlier, just as it had been doing for years, if not centuries.
He tossed the magazines onto the empty seat across the aisle, settled back, and tried to puzzle together why he was being called back so suddenly. Sybelle’s guarded conversation had given him only some very broad parameters for consideration, but they were startling. First of all, she had mentioned Sir Jeff, and also had said it was the big boss calling him home, and emphasized “big.” His actual commander in Task Force Trident was two-star Marine Major General Bradley Middleton, and the general’s only boss was whoever happened to be the president of the United States.
More than a decade had passed since terrorists had flown fuel-packed civilian airlines into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and the Pennsylvania dirt. In response, the entire U.S. government had reshaped itself both at home and abroad to make sure such attacks never happened again, and that gave birth to the behemoth Homeland Security Department. Even that wasn’t enough, because the inevitable bureaucratic friction soon appeared along the seams of the various departments. Numerous plots had been foiled since 9/11, involving crude devices like explosive shoes and underwear, which proved the system worked as long as people remained alert and paranoid enough to maintain their vigilance.
There were always going to be maniacs out there who would try to kill Americans, but airplane hijackers had lost their advantage. The nature of air travel had changed dramatically: Now there were tedious searches by TSA workers before boarding, flight attendants would willingly die rather than open the cockpit door, and every passenger on the plane, from a semipro athlete to a college girl, was ready to jump on a hijacker like a pack of crazed dogs. The willingness of a terrorist to give up his life to achieve his goal was of no use when his targets were equally as willing to die to stop him.
The military had also finally changed to accept the talents of Special Forces; elite operations like the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy SEALs, and the futuristic technology of remote-controlled drones, had changed the landscape of the battlefield. The Pentagon had met the challenge of terrorism head-on, as had the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the rest of the alphabet agencies.
Nevertheless, there were still holes in the protection net, for publicity, budgets, congressional oversight, and the huge numbers of people supporting and carrying out any operation always tended to multiply over time. The heroes had become known. It had been a short step from that inevitability to the creation of Task Force Trident by people who still cared fervently about secrecy.
Trident was invisible by military standards, with a total roster of only five people, including General Middleton, who ran the show. The offices were in a hard-to-find area of the Pentagon, and the budget came out of Homeland Security via the Department of Agriculture. The team was far outside any chain of command other than Middleton’s reach to the president.
Sybelle Summers was the ops officer, and Master Gunnery Sergeant O. O. Dawkins handled the administrative end, working the inner paths of Pentagon power. Double-Oh could borrow anything in the arsenal, from individual troops to stealth bombers for a Trident mission. The team’s only non-Marine was a squid, Commander Benton Freedman of the Navy, a quirky geek whose proprietary electronic net could kick the combined computer butts of Google and Facebook without breaking a sweat. They called him “the Lizard,” a corruption of his college nickname of “Wizard.” Swanson handled the wet work. Few people even knew about Trident, but the president always knew where they were, in case they were needed. Like now.
He left his seat, went to the head with his Dopp kit, and studied his reflection as he shaved. Swanson was not a big man, standing five feet nine inches, and weighed exactly 176 pounds, with sandy brown hair. Only yesterday, he had been a beach bum wearing baggy board shorts, and now he was back in his Trident uniform of jeans and a dark blue sweatshirt. His Marine dress blues, on a hanger in Washington, carried the three gold stripes and two rockers on the sleeves to denote his USMC rank of gunnery sergeant, with rows of ribbons and awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He loved the uniform and the Corps, which had been his home during long years of training, fieldwork, and assignments around the world and had taught him the trade of the sniper. In doing so, it had honed him into a fierce weapon.
He seldom wore the blues these days; he worked in places where he dressed the part he was playing. Jeans and sweatshirts today, maybe a business suit tomorrow, with authentic credentials to match the character.
Swanson cleaned his face of leftover lather, replaced the razor, then picked up the alleged sandwich and a can of tomato juice on his way back to his seat. The sandwich was tasteless. He took a few deep breaths, and his mind continued the shift back into the counterintelligence mode. It was like time travel, bridging the freedom he had enjoyed during the past few weeks back into the complex and deadly world of Trident, where only the mission existed.
He went to sleep to the hum of the dual engines, leapfrogging in time as the plane moved eastward. The four-hour flight would arrive in Maryland seven hours after he left California. Three hours he wouldn’t get to live.
* * *
THE DESCENT TO LAND at Andrews was swift. The plane circled quickly and dropped into the approach path of the most exclusive airport in America, the one that Air Force One, the president’s official plane, called home. It was too dark for Kyle to see the trees when the little jet’s tires squealed as they caught the runway. The front tilted down until the forward wheels made contact, the reverse thrusters screamed, and the brakes clamped hard to slow the bird.
“We’re here, Gunny,” said the copilot as he stepped out of the cabin. “The flight OK for you?”
“Anytime the landings come out even with the takeoffs is good by me,” Kyle replied with a grin.
“Ain’t it the truth.” The pilot popped open the small hatch and dropped the stairs. “Snowing out there. Watch your step going down, it’ll be slickery.”
Sybelle Summers was waiting on the tarmac nearby beside an old Ford Crown Vic with a single blue light blinking brightly atop its roof. She was as tall as Kyle, with a classic face that never carried much makeup, and snowflakes were catching on the black hair cut to collar length. She wore leg-hugging stretch twill black pants and soft boots, a white sweater of Irish wool, a gray scarf hung loosely around her neck, a rock of a Rolex, and a lot of attitude. The only woman ever to pass the Marine Recon course, she had become a special ops and counterterrorism expert and was on a fast track to someday become a general, if she lived that long. There was nobody Kyle would rather have at his side if the going got rough.
Tonight, she had her game face on. A worn black leather gun belt was buckled around her waist, and a big gold badge flashed on her right hip, just in front of the holstered Glock 19.
“Working undercover, Lieutenant Colonel Summers?” he asked.
She thrust a padded nylon briefcase at him. It was zipped closed. “Homeland Security creds for you tonight and your .45 Colt ACP, loaded and racked with one in the chamber. Grab your gear and get in the car.”
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“This guy we were meeting tonight? He’s dead.”
Copyright © 2013 by Jack Coughlin with Donald A. Davis