Excerpt

ASSURED RESPONSEã
by Joe Weber

A December 2003 Release from
Ballantine, Presidio Press

THE WINSLOW ESTATE

When Scott and Jackie arrived at the residence of Hartwell Prost, his longstanding butler answered the door. A trim, distinguished looking gentleman with impeccable manners, Zachary always had a genial smile to offer guests.

"Miss Sullivan-Mr. Dalton, what a pleasure to see you again."

"It's good to see you," Scott said while Jackie extended her arms.

Zachary responded with a gentle embrace. "Please come in. Mr. Prost is on the veranda."

"How have you been?" Scott asked as Zachary led them through the expansive foyer.

"I've been splendid," he replied without turning around. "Thank you for asking."

They followed Zachary to the roofed back porch extending half the length of the mansion. When Jackie and Scott stepped outside, they detected the distinctive whiff of mesquite smoke.

Hartwell was sitting in an Adirondack chair, sipping a beer and puffing on a Cuban cigar. Next to him was a wooden tub filled with assorted brands of beer buried in ten pounds of crushed ice. The brick, four by eight-foot grill was loaded with an array of barbecue selections, including beef, chicken, ribs, and turkey. The mesquite smoke, mingled with Prost's favorite barbecue sauce, gave off a pleasing scent that whetted the appetite.

The serving table was loaded with several side dishes, Spode bone china dinner plates, freshly polished silverware, finger bowls, and stacks of cloth napkins the size of kitchen towels. Hartwell's chef, a large, raw-boned woman with a pronounced Bostonian accent tended the barbecue and the simmering pot of baked beans. Though Molly McCallister never attended a formal culinary school, she could match any chef de cuisine in quality of preparation and presentation.

Prost extracted two beers from the sea of ice, placed them on the table, and then dried his hands on a towel. He stood to great his guests and reached for Jackie's hand. "How was the flight?"

"Great, smooth as silk," she said with a wide smile.
Hartwell firmly shook Scott's hand. "So, you're the captain of your own bird now?"

Scott chuckled. "Yeah, the real captain is shorter than I am."

Hartwell laughed good-naturedly. "I hope you're hungry."

"Starved," Jackie admitted, surveying the abundant array of food. "Looks like we'll have enough for seconds."

"Molly never runs short on food," Hartwell said with a hint of pride. "After one of her spreads, Zachary and I eat leftovers-at least three days worth."

Without fanfare, Scott placed a bottle of 1987 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon on the dining table.

Hartwell opened the beers and handed the first one to Jackie.
She raised the palm of her hand. "Thanks, but I'll stick with iced tea. We have to fly home tonight."

"Nonsense," Hartwell said, handing Scott a beer. "You can stay in the guest lodge and head home tomorrow."

Scott caught Jackie's quick smile. "Sounds great," he said. "I'll call the FBO and tell them we'll be staying overnight."

Jackie handed him her cell phone while he fished the Signature Flight Support business card out of his wallet.

"Don't worry," she said under her breath. "I packed a bag for us. It's in the back seat."

"You think of everything."

"Someone has to," she said with an innocent look.

When Scott completed his call, they fixed their plates and enjoyed the old-fashioned barbecue dinner. Old-fashioned that is, except for Scott's bottle of Cabernet and a bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone wine from Hartwell's private stock.

After the meal, Molly and Zachary cleared the table while Hartwell charged his guest's wine glasses. "Let's take a walk."

Scott and Jackie picked up their glasses and followed Hartwell. Prost led them past the swimming pool and tennis court to a large, ornate gazebo. After they were seated on the raised deck, Prost cast a look across the pond at the two horse stables.

With his gaze still fixed in the distance, he began the conversation. "I'll bring you up to date, and then we'll explore our options regarding Zheng Yen-Tsung. A Dallas police officer found the vehicle we believe Zheng was driving."

"Are you sure it was Zheng?" Jackie asked.

"No, but the vehicle was stolen and then abandoned at Love Field. It's a white Buick Century identical to the one witnesses described. The window on the driver's side was blown out, and there were two streaks of blood on the driver's door. We're betting it will match the blood of the Fort Worth policeman."

Scott caught Hartwell's eye. "As it stands now, we really don't know if it was Zheng?"

"True. And that leads me to the next subject. Are you familiar with the name Saeed Shayhidi?"

Jackie recognized the name. "Isn't he the billionaire shipping mogul?"

"One in the same." A smile of satisfaction crossed Hartwell's face. "We have hard evidence that he recruited terrorists from the al-Qaeda network. This came from two senior al-Qaeda leaders recently captured near Khowst, Afghanistan."

"What's Shayhidi's profile?" Scott asked.

"He's a cleaver, cautious man who takes great pains to conduct his affairs in a stealth mode, but he's made a few mistakes recently."

Prost retrieved a fresh cigar from his shirt pocket. "Pryor to the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Shayhidi was recruiting key members of al-Qaeda and key figures from other international terrorist organizations."

Hartwell's mouth quirked in wry remembrance of the secret meeting in the Canadian Maritimes. "Just prior to the Usama bin Laden-Taliban campaign, the Russians agreed with us on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons near Afghanistan. Actually, at the military air base in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, along with three other locations in the area."

He paused to light his cigar. "In turn, we assented to Russia deploying several tactical nukes around Chechnya. One of our CIA retirees, a savvy Central Asian expert named Dennis Stambaugh, was recruited to oversee the Russian deployment. Stambaugh was having a late-night dinner with the senior Russian nuclear expert when the Russki, well into his cups of vodka, bragged about his former military boss selling suitcase nukes to one of Shayhidi's right-hand men.

"That was our first big break." Prost inhaled the aromatic smoke and slowly released it. "The NSA has been using an updated version of Echelon, the name is still classified-let's just call it Echelon II. They're using it to monitor Saeed Shayhidi's e-mail and phone conversations to three members of his terrorist network."

Jackie, who was knowledgeable in the world of electronic monitoring, was surprised by the unexpected disclosure. "I didn't know they had a new version of Echelon. Must be an incredible leap forward for NSA to keep it under such tight wraps."

"Oh, it's a quantum increase in technology," Hartwell said with a knowing smile. "The new system is designed to deal with some of the thorny encryption problems we ran into with the earlier version. It still has some bugs, but we're slowly working them out."

Hartwell flicked ashes from the end of his cigar. "Shayhidi has no idea what we know, but I can assure you, we have a major problem brewing."

Jackie and Scott exchanged a questioning glance.

"Echelon II, our unmanned aerial vehicles, and our space-based assets have produced a windfall of intelligence about another campaign of terror aimed at America, even more ambitious than the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The primary link in the chain of evidence clearly ties Shayhidi to the planned attacks."

Hartwell reached into his pocket, then unfolded a piece of paper. He handed Scott the picture of Shayhidi that included his physical description, and information about his ties to various terrorist-related crimes.

Prost finished his wine. "From what we know, again using the technology of Echelon II, satellites, various recon assets, and UAVs, his terrorist cells in the U.S. are preparing to embark on an all-out assault on American soil. And, we believe he is preparing to bring in hundreds of reinforcements for the "sleepers" who are already here."

Jackie had a question. "Can't we stop them at our borders?"

Hartwell sighed. "We're still being invaded almost daily by members of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations."

"The border problem should have been fixed by now," Jackie insisted."

"They're making progress, but it's like one person trying to plug forty holes in the dike. It's going to take a lot more people and assets. According to the CIA, hundreds of "freedom fighters" are pouring into the US every month. The newcomers are distributing an "Encyclopedia Jihad" that contains elaborate bomb-building instructions and other advice for newly trained insurgents."

"The Montreal connection?" Jackie suspected.

Hartwell shook his head in frustration. "Yes. That's a serious problem for us. In the last few years, Canada has become a "Disneyland" for terrorists, estimated to be five to six thousand strong."

Prost leaned forward in his chair. "Many of them, including female "Tigresses" with degrees from MIT, Stanford, Brandeis, and other prestigious schools are arriving in Montreal. They make their way to the Canadian Rocky Mountains on the western side of the Continental Divide. From there, they are filtering across the border at night and disappearing into Washington, Idaho, and Montana," he said through a cloud of cigar smoke.

"From what we know, they live inconspicuously. Canadian law enforcement officers recently apprehended two Islamic extremists outside the Sunnah Al-Nabawiah Mosque in Montreal."

"The ones with the explosives?" Jackie asked.

"That's right. One of them, Ahmed Abun-Nasr, was a member of Egypt's Vanguards of Conquest. Abun-Nasr has assassinated three Egyptian politicians who were pro-American and outspoken about it. Shayhidi is one of his supporters.

"At any rate," Hartwell continued, "these two thugs had counterfeit US visas, fake birth certificates, and phony Social Security numbers. They also had a station wagon filled with enough high explosives to bring down the Empire State Building."

"What about the Border Patrol agents?" Scott interrupted. "Have we added more officers to that area?"

"About eighty as of yesterday, including three dozen more FBI agents disguised as vacationers or locals. But the border is still so poorly staffed that terrorists and explosives are slipping through on a daily basis. In the area we're most concerned about, there are close to sixty smuggling corridors, heavily used day and night, that have had their electronic motion and heat sensors destroyed."

Scott shook his head. "That's amazing, just amazing after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We have over nine thousand agents patrolling the two-thousand mile Mexican border and what, three-hundred, maybe four-hundred agents for the 5,500 miles of Canadian border?"

"Close to four-hundred agents," Hartwell said. "There are some places that aren't even patrolled. Many crossings in sparsely populated areas are closed at ten p.m. and left unattended until the next morning."

Scott looked at Prost and shrugged. "Terrific, put out the orange cones and head to the tavern."

"That's about it. Some of the sectors don't have jail space for illegal aliens, so they're released to await trial."

"You're joking." Jackie's eyes were wide in disbelief.

"I wish I could joke about it," Prost said. "The agents call the process their 'catch and release' program."

"While America sleeps…" Scott said with a touch of sarcasm.

"The president is working on the problem as we speak. As you know, our relationship with the Canadian government since the war in Iraq hasn't been exactly cozy. President Macklin and the homeland commander-in-chief are dealing directly with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and senior Canadian authorities. We're going to use forces from the Marines, Army, and National Guard units to help patrol the Canadian border until we can train more agents."

Prost hesitated. "At the other end of the spectrum, heavily armed Mexican soldiers and Mexican police are increasingly crossing our border to provide cover for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Violence is spiraling out of control. All of this is happening while Border Patrol agents are resigning in droves.

"The drug problem is especially prevalent along a 100-mile stretch of desert between the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Coronado National Forest. Mexican drug smugglers will account for eighty percent of the cocaine and fifty percent of the heroin that reaches the streets of America. During the past three weeks heavily armed Mexican soldiers, inside our border in Humvees, have fired on Border Patrol air units near Copper Canyon in California and Vamori, Arizona."

"And we're not doing anything?" Jackie asked.

"As of tomorrow afternoon or evening, depending on how long our meeting with the Mexican ambassador lasts, National Guard troops will be assisting the Border Patrol agents along critical areas of the Mexican border. Mostly crossing points."

Scott's curiosity was aroused. "What about the Posse Comitatus Act?"

"It's a genuine concern," Hartwell admitted. "Under the circumstances, many people on Capitol Hill are calling for a congressional review of the act. Involving the military in domestic policing is going to offend a lot of people, but the president has to do what's best for all the citizens.

"On top of everything else," Hartwell went on, "we have a serious problem brewing in our own backyard, our southern flank, Central and South America. Latin American countries are teetering on the brink of financial collapse and total chaos. Crisis seems endemic to that region and it's getting worse by the day.

"The biggest threat to the region is terrorism orchestrated by the pro-Castro, pro-Iraq radical regime in Venezuela. Terrorism and terrorist training camps are spreading like wildfire throughout Central and South America. The instability is moving many struggling countries into an anti-American, anti-free market direction.

"Elements of Hamas and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah have established terrorist operations in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The region has become a haven for Islamic extremists who have bombed Jewish and Israeli compounds in Buenos Aires."

Prost seemed tense. "In addition to that breeding ground, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are extremely active in training terrorists in the common border area of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. We have clear evidence that many of these tri-border terrorists from both regions are making their way by seagoing freighters to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then coming across our border in eastern Washington State."

Hartwell's expression hardened. "This terrorism problem is the reason I wanted to visit with you in person. President Macklin and I want to keep this information quiet until we're ready to make our move."

Prost cast his gaze across the wooded hills. "Homeland security is a priority at the White House and at the Pentagon. We don't want to create any undue anxiety for the public. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon catastrophes are still on people's minds."

"They're certainly on mine," Jackie said.

Hartwell puffed on his cigar and continued. "As a supplement to our undercover FBI agents on the ground, we would like the two of you, using a civilian helicopter, to concentrate on tracking these illegal infiltrators from the time they leave Canada until they reach their destination, or destinations. See if you can figure out where they're gathering and, most importantly, what their plans are."

Jackie and Scott shared a concerned look.

"What do you think?" Prost asked, sensing their lack of enthusiasm. "You seem concerned."

"We'll do the best we can," Scott said with a frown. "As you know, they slip in and out of the shadows like ghosts. Don't know how effective we'll be at tracking them."

"Just do your best, see what develops." Hartwell tapped ashes from his cigar. "We're using a great number of other assets, but we know there is no substitute for on-site human intelligence. President Macklin and I appreciate your direct situation reports, the unfiltered truth. Your sitreps are a real contrast to the watered down assessments we receive through various bureaucracies."

Scott and Jackie made momentary eye contact, but neither said anything. Both suspected not all the cards were on the table.

Prost exhaled a long stream of cigar smoke. "As usual, we'll provide anything you need, weapons, equipment, intelligence information, et cetera, just say the word."

Scott was already thinking about some of the base weapons of a SEAL platoon's firepower. "We like the H & K P9S, the Smith & Wesson 357, and the H & K MP5 submachine gun."

"Just make a list," Hartwell said evenly. "One other thing. If you locate any terrorist cells, we prefer you not act unilaterally, unless your lives are in danger. We want to have plenty of backup before we take on any of them."

"Understand," Scott said and then hesitated. "How closely are the president's people working with the INS?"

"Very closely. After the latest developments, he and General Jamison are working directly with the Canadians and the INS."

Scott caught himself before he spoke. "Sir, forgive me for asking, but couldn't the FBI handle an operation like this?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Is there a bigger problem?"

Prost vacillated a few moments, starring at the wooden deck beneath his feet. He slowly raised his head. "Actually, there is a much bigger problem," he said wearily. "I was going to wait until morning, after the president's daily brief from the CIA, to discuss it with you."

Hartwell locked gazes with Jackie and then Scott. "This is so confidential that only a handful of people know about it."

Silently, Scott and Jackie exchanged another glance.

"Four days ago, a U.S. Border Patrol agent stumbled onto a special-action cell of terrorists crossing the Canadian border close to the junction of the Idaho-Montana state line. There was a shootout and the agent killed three terrorists while he was calling for backup. When another agent arrived a few minutes later, he discovered his friend had died from gunshot wounds."

"How can you be so sure they were terrorists?" Scott asked.

Prost lowered his voice. "They left behind a Russian-manufactured suitcase-size nuclear bomb."

"You're kidding?" Jackie said.

"No. It's probably like the one Scott discovered onboard Sweet Life. Only this one has definitely been modified."

"How so?" Jackie asked.

"The timing device has been moved to accommodate a fabricated band of steel, actually four bands, that encompassed the weapon. The bands, which were not installed, appear to be a brace of some kind."

Scott met Hartwell's eyes. "Maybe they were used to attach the bomb to the shipping container, some kind of protective device."

"We don't know, but they're round, intersect at opposing poles at forty-five degree angles and bolt to the bomb."

Jackie's mind conjured images of nuclear weapons being detonated in the heart of New York City. "Do we know if any other nukes have slipped into the country?"

"Yes, we do," he answered in a hushed voice. "Through Echelon II we know the terrorists who were killed were members of one of seven teams smuggling nukes into our country. Each team was responsible for one bomb. We don't know where the other six groups are hiding."

The three sat in silence for a moment while the gravity of the situation impacted Jackie and Scott.

Hartwell finally broke the silence. "We have solid information, corroborated by intelligence on the ground, that these nukes originated in the Ukraine. A company named Yuzhmash, Ukraine's largest rocket maker, has a close defense-technology relationship with Syria and Iran. What we don't know is whether the bombs came from Syria or Iran. At any rate, we've been able to connect these seven nukes directly to Khaliq Farkas."

"Farkas?" Jackie and Scott asked in unison.

"Yes. Farkas is working for Saeed Shayhidi. On Shayhidi's orders, Farkas will activate the other six cells. We believe that time is near. That's why we need the two of you involved in this operation. Like I said, only a handful of people know about this. We want to keep this totally contained, away from Congress and possible leaks to the media. Don't want to spook the public or cause Farkas to go underground."

Hartwell allowed them to absorb the revelation. "Sure, the FBI can help to a point, but if push comes to shove and we locate these nukes, we don't want to have to get a search warrant. We can't afford to get tied up in legal quicksand and have the news hit the media."

Scott and Jackie nodded their understanding.

"As we receive more information, I'll be feeding it to you. For now, we want you to familiarize yourselves with the northwestern states where the terrorists are infiltrating the borders."

Prost took a long drag on his cigar. "The bottom line. Find Farkas and the nukes before Shayhidi activates the other six cells."

COPYRIGHT © 2004 by Joe Weber
Assured Response