A STOUT MALE Spaniard ignores the brass knocker and bangs his fist on a hand-hewn mahogany door. His partner stands one step behind and glances around, furtive and wary. Less than a minute passes. Impatient, the Spaniard bangs on the door again, this time he thumps with both fists.
"Open the door. It's urgent!"
Inside the rural farmhouse, Sarah Klyne peeks between the drapes and observes two nearly identical stud-muffins. Both men stand hatless and unsmiling on her porch, sweating and uncomfortable in the humid air. Copy-cat gray suits, shaved sidewalls, short black fuzz tops both heads and screams military, or Colombian National Police maybe.
Sweat drips off her brow. She drops the drape, wipes her face and neck with a towel, and lifts a wooden safety bar that lies across the doorjamb. She peers out through a slit, anchors her boot against the door sill.
"Can I help you?"
"Sarah Klyne?" She nods affirmative. "We need to speak with you. It's about your husband."
"Jake? What about him, he's out hunting."
Motionless, both men stare for a second to two, a tough violent life lining each face. Both men glance at one another, as if carrying bad news.
"Oh, no! Is something wrong? Where is he?"
"He's safe ma'am. We'll take you to him." The Spaniard shows her a badge but pulls it away before she can read its numbers or the office it represents. Both men take a step forward. "May we come in?"
Sarah holds up a palm then slaps dust off her gardening shorts. "Just give me a second, and I'll change clothes."
She backs away, pushes the door shut, and silently drops the bar. Well trained, she turns quickly and opens a closet, grabs a Go-bag, races through the kitchen and out the rear door, punching buttons on a silver key disk as she leaps off the porch.
The dark green Land Rover burps its welcome. The locks pop. Another button, a perfectly tuned engine automatically fires up and idles. Sarah whips open the door, tosses her bag inside, and hops into the driver’s seat. The SUV spins out the driveway, wet brown muck kicking up mud beneath the wheel wells.
Reflected in her rear-view mirror, both men turn the corner and slide to a stop, then spin around and race back toward the black SUV idling in the front yard.
Both stud-muffins enter the schoolyard then push into an old converted barn containing two mixed-grade classrooms, and march past a horse stall with a glass partition that masquerades as an administration office. The Spaniard ignores the check-in sign and the woman seated behind the glass. Without asking permission, both men push through a door into one of only two classrooms and approach the teacher.
"Where are the Klyne kids?" The Spaniard looks around, studying each child. Nothing but thin brown faces topped with black unruly hair stare back at Ricardo Duran.
He scans the classroom and sticks a bark of authority in his voice, an attempt to intimidate. "Which of you kids are Klyne? Speak up!"
Rural Colombian children that have seen too much strife in life ignore his question. One teen in a rear seat speaks out above low chatter among others quickly embracing this unexpected opportunity to socialize.
"You're not really police. Leave us alone, we're learning," the teen says, and points a smile at the intruder, unafraid. The kids all giggle at the bravado one of their own exhibits.
Hannah Gillian places a piece of chalk in its slot, turns away from the blackboard, and places her fists on her hips. "They're not here. They didn't come in to school today." The teacher lies with no fear, takes a step forward, lifts her chin. "Get out of my classroom!"
She's confronted these crooked Colombian officials in the past, other days, different reasons. Sarah Klyne barely beat these guys to her children, and left the schoolhouse only four minutes earlier.
Duran steps closer, clenches a fist, his cheeks red with anger at her impertinence. He opens one hand, prepares to slap the lie off.
Gillian pushes up on her toes and gets right in his face, defiant. "Go ahead, slap away if it makes you feel like a big shot, but you better break my neck Ricci Bitchie, or I'll call my brothers the minute you cross that threshold, and you'll never see them coming!"
Duran hates that childhood nickname, but holds himself in check, pondering repercussions, and brothers, and past retaliations over the years.
The fake cop spins on his heel and follows his partner out the door, slamming it shut behind him. Mistiming the slam, the door hits him in the right heel and bounces open again. A flurry of giggles follows him out, infuriating him even more.
Six miles south of the schoolhouse, Sarah aims the Land Rover toward the neighboring farm and her best friends. The four-wheeler bounces and slides along the unpaved country road, churning up bits of gravel and muck in two rain-filled tire tracks that define the trail.
Sarah follows the instructions her husband drilled into her time and again, spins into a hard left and accelerates toward an entrance gate now only a quarter mile away.
A hundred yards ahead, a black four-door pickup sits sideways and blocks the trail. She brakes hard, and nearly slides into a ditch, slams into reverse and starts backing down the road. An identical black truck turns the corner, slows and rolls up behind her.
Lined with dense jungle and a muddy ditch on each side, Sarah lurches to a stop in the middle of the road. Nowhere to go.
A black SUV eases in behind the rearmost truck. The two suits that chased Sarah from her home a half hour ago climb out. She gathers her son and daughter onto her lap, tears dribbling down both cheeks.
The stud-muffins push Sarah and her kids into the SUV and back straight out. One truck driver bumps her Range Rover into the ditch, and then both black pickups follow the SUV out toward the highway.
* * *
Breathing heavily from his run, a man wearing well-worn military fatigues steps out of the bush near the gate and stares down his driveway for a few seconds, evaluating. Wasting no time, Jeremy Blind shoulders an M1 carbine. His first shot blows thru the back window, a second follows directly behind it and the pickup driver slowly leans forward as if falling asleep. The truck veers into the ditch and punches into a tree, its horn blaring.
The passenger climbs out, pulling a Berretta out of its holster. A third bullet exits the carbine, enters one ear and spins out the other, spattering blood and bits of brain on the passenger side window and hood. The man drops straight down in the mud, twitches a time or two, then lies silent and still.
Blind sights again, then kneels, takes an extra second, and fires twice more, and his target slumps over in the second pickup and veers into the muddy ditch at the same instant the SUV and its passengers spin out onto the highway and speed away. His final shot barely dings the rear fender of the SUV speeding away.
Three down. The Tracker trots down the trail and checks all three head-shots then investigates both pickups. He punches a speed-dial on a hand-set, speaks into it briefly.
Half hour later, two ancient tow-trucks and a spotless Chevrolet van arrive and begin the cleanup.
* * *
Jacoby Klyne drops a small pig onto the porch surrounding his home and leans a crossbow against its railing. Once a top-level Special Forces Ranger, Klyne now wears two false labels, felon and escaped convict.
Wanted in the United States for murder and drug sales - an extraordinary and complicated mix-up he can't dispute without United States federal agency assistance. The Feds ignore his requests, so he remains incommunicado in Colombia, a neighbor and best friend to Jeremy Blind, also known as The Tracker and formerly employed by the United States federal ICD agency, an international black operations and espionage division attached to the Department of Defense.
He examines the tire tracks crossing his front yard, finds the safety bar on his front door engaged, the Go-bag gone, the back door hanging open, and dual furrows where the Land Rover spun out and raced down the driveway.
"What the fuck!"
TWO FINGERS AND A THUMB spin the dial left, right, left, two complete circles right, picking a number each time, and stop at number eight. A small steel door set into a concrete reinforced wall at shoulder height springs open. Henry Bates glances over his shoulder at an empty room, deposits a set of documents inside, then shuts and locks the safe.
He exits the security room and heads down a wide corridor lined with translucent office cubicles. A few shut and locked, most open and active, a line-up of phones and computers keep his staff busy and fill a long and secretive work day.
Bates crosses the investigations complex, enters a corridor, and pushes in through an office door. Dark block letters on a white plaque announce the office belongs to the Intelligence Coordination Division Director. Beneath that title, a removable name plate spells out Henry Bates.
The door swings shut behind him. He drops into a seat behind his desk, opens the top drawer and withdraws a file filled with memos, field notes, and photographs.
The door bangs open so hard it bounces off the wall. Special Agent Nichrico Pepperton takes two quick steps, drops a single page on his desk. A bright red 'Top Secret' stamp glares up at him. Nikki side-steps the desk and swings a right hand. Completely unexpected, the first slap knocks Bates sideways. He slips off his chair, catches himself on the window sill, and raises an arm. Not quick enough.
Nikki bumps the chair aside, her left palm connects, and a second pop carries out into the empty corridor. Bates scoots along the wall, a bright pink splotch appearing on each cheek.
"Back off Nikki!" Bates barks the order at his second-in-command, the Texas twang even more apparent when he's upset. "It's not your decision."
"Told you to leave him alone, Henry!" Nikki struggles with a choice, contains her rage, but denies herself an easy killing blow. "I told you, 'No', and you put him in play anyway!"
She steps closer, lifts her right hand, another hard slap on the way. Nothing deadly, they're friends and colleagues, nearly lovers once years ago but not quite. Bates has a wife and Nikki shut it down immediately, before it began. The two professional ICD agents developed an excellent working relationship, and a friendship emerged.
Bates slides sideways and springs to his feet. He blocks the next blow, grabs her wrist and wraps her up in his arms. He pushes Nikki back toward the desk, but before he can follow through, she ducks and spins free, twists his right arm up behind his back, and plants his chin and chest against the wall. She kicks his right ankle over his left, her knee locks his calves straight and immobile, then she leans in and applies steady pressure.
Trapped, balanced on one foot, Bates can't wiggle free without his own weight spraining or possibly breaking his ankle. Five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier, Bates struggles and strains, then slumps in place. His entire body sags. Beat and he knows it.
Nikki holds the title for best unarmed combatant in the entire spy network, and won the Nationals - three times - then quit competing. No longer a challenge.
A weapons specialist, a gunslinger and sharpshooter, not a fighter, Bates stands no chance against her physical skills. Nikki releases her grip and steps back, turns and stares out the window at an overcast Baltimore skyline. Fat raindrops blow in and slide down the glass.
Both agents take a breath. The fight over for now, the rift already mending, the bond routinely respectful, sporadically antagonistic, often emotional, but always protective. Well, nearly always. A little occupational turmoil occasionally cuts an edge into a relationship that carries back more than fourteen years as federal intelligence agents. Professionals. Partners. Once the best operations team in the network under director and founder, George Hallingforth, currently retired..
"You blew it, Henry."
'I knew you'd argue it, but getting physical, that's way out of line." Bates straightens his shirt and tie, parks a haunch on the edge of his desk, and rubs his shoulder. "I could fire you for that. Assaulting a federal agent. That's a felony, Nikki."
"Never happen, and you know it. You're not that stupid, and you could never replace me." Nikki turns her eyes toward Bates and glares, "Besides, if you try, it will all come out and you'll be gone faster than me."
Bates spins his chair around and drops into the soft brown leather. "It's the only way he'll beat that murder beef. Klyne knows he can't do it alone, and if we don't help, they'll eventually find him, extradite him, and bring him back for trial."
"That's what he believes, Henry. It's not true. It's already done." She points at the document she'd tossed on his desk. "He's clear now, and you knew it!"
"But he doesn't know it, and neither does his state cop buddy. I just parked that release in our vault, and only we can access it. We can use it against him, dangle that carrot."
Bates curls up his lips at the thought. Devious methods. He learned the terms 'deceitful' and 'conniving' early on in his career. Henry Bates delights in the no-rules spy games.
"You've changed Henry. Turned into a weasel ever since you took over for Hallingforth." Nikki spins on her heel. "George would never have done it." The door slams shut behind her.
"Bullshit. George did it first, and we cleaned it up after," he tells the door. Bates fingers his cheek, rubs the pink sting, then pounds a fist on the desktop, scattering papers and photos in all directions.
* * *
Three hours later, Henry Bates knocks twice on a glass entry panel and pushes it open without invitation. Nikki Pepperton glances up briefly then continues reading a file, ignoring her supervisor.
"We've got to get past this one, Nikki. We've got work on our board that needs attention."
Nikki settles the folder on her lap. Straight black hair falls past her shoulders and surrounds a stunning Eurasian face and two dark brown eyes, slanted slightly. A Japanese mother and an in-port military father, the genetic combination of her mixed-race heritage produced a package that turns heads everywhere she goes, men and women both. Sometimes an advantage and sometimes not in her chosen profession. International espionage.
She rattles the folder. "I'm busy, Henry. What do you want?"
Bates runs his fingers over an inch of thick blond hair above a craggy, stress-lined face, huffs out a breath, returns her stare. "Klyne. He's right there, and we need him."
"Send someone else."
"There is no one else. Tracker refuses everything now, very pissed at us. Salvoni's in Italy and Fountaine's in France, both on assignment. Cooper lost a foot in Panama and lives in a hobo camp somewhere in the woods, mentally a bit fuzzy. He's no good to us. It will take too long to set it up even if we find an agent available somewhere, and this takes special talents. Klyne's right there Nikki, and has a history, and the skills. The targets know him, know how he got there, at least some of it, the parts we let out. It works. We won't have to build a whole new person."
Her eyes burn holes in the air between them. Bates loses the contest and turns away first.
"Why don't we just hop in the Lear, fly down there and shoot her? Like we did her cousin, pretty easy op. One day, one bullet, and we were back in time for dinner."
"Can't do that, Nikki. It's much bigger than one person. Barden Maine will just take over and we gain nothing. Take him out, and next in line sends us 'thank you' roses, and steps up. We need to take it down, all of it."
"If you involve Klyne, I'll kill it the same day."
"You don't have that authority."
"Think not? Watch me!"
Bates finally lifts his eyes and again returns her stare. "It's not that simple, Nikki. They took his wife, and her kids. I didn't put him in play, the Colombians did."
Nikki pops up out of her seat and spills the file onto the floor. "What! ... Why? ... How?"
"Teaki Martin. Martin wants Klyne to take over her drug distribution stateside. She still thinks he's a convicted felon, and a drug dealer. All part of that false murder conviction George ran on Klyne last year. For some unknown reason, disinformation maybe, she trusts his ability to run it. It's a set-up. She thinks Klyne will agree, and work for her once she rescues his family."
A look of disbelief flits across her face, her eyes glaze over, her lips flat-line, and a tear runs down her cheek. "Hasn't he been through enough, Henry? Why this? Why him?"
Bates shrugs, turns his palms up. "I didn't deal this hand, Nikki."