Triple Cross

Mark T. Sullivan

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

 

Monday, December 31

 

TRUE WINTER HIT around eleven a.m. that New Year's Eve. North winds slanted in, bearing temperatures in the low teens. Iron clouds followed, casting a pale and crystalline-gray glow across the west flank of the Jefferson Range in southwest Montana.

 

Three construction helicopters chugged east toward the remote mountains over a valley cut up into cattle ranches and spliced by a river that ribboned through it. As they closed on the foothills, hail and snow peppered the choppers. Visibility worsened. The pilot in the lead airship grew agitated.

 

"We're gonna hit big-time snow and crosswinds," he said into his microphone, glancing at the hard-looking man riding next to him, dressed head to toe in snow camouflage and wearing a climbing harness. "Sure we can't postpone, General?"

 

The general turned his head, revealing the rocky face of a man in his early forties framed with shoulder-length brown hair. "We have a schedule," he replied icily. "It will not be compromised."

 

The pilot felt the general looking at him and glanced his way again. What he saw in the general's eyes rattled the pilot, made him feel like he was expendable.

 

"Get ready for one hell of a ride," the pilot said finally.

 

They gained elevation and entered the clouds. Visibility was less than two hundred feet. Crosswinds buffeted the chopper and it lurched sideways. The pilot fought for control as the helicopter bucked, shuddered, and jolted. Several of the fifteen other snow-camouflaged passengers in the bird's hold muttered and cursed.

 

"Gonna be worse at ten thousand feet," the pilot said, gritting his teeth. "I can't guarantee you'll get on the ground alive."

 

"Abort the first landing zone," the general said. "Use the secondary."

 

"It's a long hike," the pilot said.

 

"It is what it is," the general said.

 

The pilot got on his radio and called the orders to the other two helicopters. He turned south with the winds. The buffeting ebbed, but visibility remained pea soup. Twice the pilot got too low in the dense clouds and almost clipped the tops of lodgepole pines with his struts. Despite the icy air seeping in the doors of the helicopter, sweat kept beading on his forehead and dripping down his nose. The pilot had flown fifty missions in Iraq and had been twice engulfed in sandstorms in the air, but those experiences were nothing compared to the whiteout conditions he was facing.

 

The general, however, seemed largely unmoved by their predicament. His expression was burned in place, an attitude of calculating, grim determination. He peered back into the chopper's hold. There was an acidic odor wafting from in there and he recognized it as the scent of soldiers contemplating their mortality. His attention swept over the men and women sitting on benches, strapped to the helicopter's inner hull. The majority of them wore one version or another of the general's facial expression—expectant and focused.

 

Three of them, however, looked out of place—more fearful, more tenuous than the rest of the crew. One man, two women. All of them sitting together, their eyes darting from one to the other. The general caught the eye of the woman closest to him. Early twenties. Cute rather than pretty, short and athletic, her sandy hair was roped up in dreadlocks and a hoop ring pierced her nose.

 

"Are you ready, Mouse?" the general asked.

 

Mouse gazed at the general as if he were some kind of prophet, saying, "It's time to make them pay for the hell they've inflicted on people."

 

Approval rumbled through the helicopter's belly. The pale blond man beside Mouse spoke with a thick French accent. "Time to light the fire under their fat asses."

 

"It is, Cristoph," the general agreed. "Rose? Are you not well?"

 

The miserable-looking brunette with the big nose sitting next to Cristoph said, "If this shaking keeps up, I'm going to puke all over myself. I'm not used to this kind of crap. I don't know if I can do the rappel into the second zone."

 

The general's features hardened. "You'll do it or I'll throw you out the door."

 

Rose moaned and hung her head between her knees. The general's attention moved deeper into the cavity of the helicopter to a massive black man with a basketball-like head sitting atop crossbar shoulders.

 

"Truth, get your troops ready," he said. "Landing zone two."

 

Truth wiped a boxing mitt of a hand across his muzzle. "Lighten loads?

 

"We're already stripped to the essentials. We're just going to have to suck it up."

 

The pilot shouted, "Quarter mile, General!"

 

The general twisted back to look out the windshield. The snow was falling like hundreds of white whirl pools on the radically steep, shale-strewn hillside. The footing would be treacherous.

 

"Hundred and seventy-five yards and closing," the pilot said, watching the readout on his U.S.-military-spec GPS.

 

Truth and two men moved several large rubberized duffel bags toward the side door, which they slid open. Frigid air and swirling snow blasted the inner cabin and brought with them the piney smells of the forest.

 

"There's your cliff !" the pilot cried.

 

The general spotted a narrow balcony of rock jutting from the woods, off the side of a gorge two hundred feet deep. He pointed at gnarled old pines growing off the near side of the point.

 

"Come about and keep your nose on those trees," he told the pilot. "If you're on your game, you won't shear the rear blades and kill us all."

 

The pilot squinted in fear and eased the stick forward. The chopper hovered forward over the stone balcony. Ever so slowly, trembling like a compass confused by magnets, the nose of the ship came around.

 

"Go!" the general roared.

 

A pair of climbing ropes were flung out the door. Truth lifted the rappelling rack attached to his chest harness, clipped it to the rope, and went out the open side door. He carried a heavy pack with several grenades strapped to the back. He slid from view. The others followed.

 

The general shouldered his pack last, put on goggles, and leaped out the door, sliding down the rope, swinging wildly in the wind. Truth held the rope at the bottom and helped the general off.

 

The general walked the razorback, holding his hands out from his sides like a tight-wire artist, then reached the main cliff and entered the woods on a game trail, moving toward voices ahead. Behind him, the rubber duffel bags were lowered successfully, the first helicopter lifted away, and a second chopper took its place, disgorging more troops and supplies.

 

The general slipped through the trees toward the bottom of the rockslide where his soldiers were gathering. He tugged at the brim of his white wool hat, transforming it into a hood with holes cut for eyes, nose, and mouth. He crept into the embrace of a snow-laden fir tree. In his camouflage, the general was for all intents invisible, listening, gauging the people he was leading, looking for any weakness.

 

In the clearing, a lanky man in his late twenties with dark features and a gold front tooth yanked off a glove and with his free hand tugged up the collar of his coat. "We're taking this to a whole other level now," he said in an Oklahoma twang. "This is goddamned throwing down the gauntlet. Declaration of fuckin' war."

 

Cristoph removed his round wire-rimmed glasses and wiped the snow off them. "The general is right, Dalton," he said. "We must act."

 

A tall, attractive Latina woman in her thirties put her pack down beside them, saying, "If not, the world will be doomed. Our children will be doomed."

 

"I've heard the speech, Emilia," Dalton said. "I'm here, aren't I?"

 

"Are you, Dalton?" asked a pit-bullish man with a glare like an axe falling and teardrop tattoos under both eyes. " 'Cause if you aren't, you should get the fuck out before the shit hits the fan. Start hiking. Town's only, what, forty miles?"

 

"Cobb, there's a difference between stepping inside the nut house and thinking about it," Dalton shot back. "We'll see who keeps it together when it goes psycho."

 

"Yeah, we will," Cobb said, giving Dalton a snake's half-lidded expression.

 

"This is no time for measuring penises," Mouse said, her voice rippling with emotion. "We can't lose sight of what this is for." She raised her fist. "Remember Seattle! Change the world!"

 

"We change it now!" Cristoph cried and pumped his fist.

 

The general smiled.

 

Truth and the men from the third helicopter came into the clearing dragging the rubberized duffel bags behind them. They opened the bags and distributed black 9mm Sterling submachine guns and bandoliers of ammunition.

 

The general stepped into the clearing, took his gun, loaded it, and then said, "Okay. Let's go teach the world a thing or two about justice, Third-Position-style."

 

Excerpted from Triple Cross by MARK T. SULLIVAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark T. Sullivan
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press

 

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