corcovado | quiet nights of quiet stars
“What’s this?” Elizabeth said, taking the rifle from the range instructor.
“It’s a modified Model 70.”
“It’s a sniper rifle. And since you had the best overall score on the range, the chief wants to see how well you handle this.”
“Yes,” the instructor said, and not a little sarcastically, “now. Maybe while the sun’s still out?”
“Yessir,” she said, taking the rifle. It was at least twice the weight of the M16 she’d used on the rifle portion of her three weeks at the FBI Academy’s range, where she had “aced” all three parts of the program: pistol, rifle and shotgun. When she’d taken a first on Hogan’s Alley the range superintendent took note and asked to see her overall scores, then he’d called Washington. Shooters like her, he knew from decades of experience, only came along once in a blue moon.
She took the weapon, opened the bolt and checked the chamber, saw it was clear. “What’s it chambered for, sir?”
“.308, but you’ll be using a hot load this morning, and…it kicks like a mule,” he added, grinning at her – watching her reaction.
“Yessir.” Her voice was full of confidence and that unsettled her instructor.
“Need a coat?” he asked. “It’s cool out this morning.”
“I’m good, sir.”
He liked her. Hell, he thought, everyone liked her. PMA, Positive Mental Attitude – and she had it in spades. Never complained, always calm, even out in the swamps when a water moccasin swam by; and she was a real team player – an empath, to boot. He was hoping she’d do good out here, he’d told himself as they walked along, if only because he might get to spend more time with her down in Georgia.
‘Yeah,’ he sighed inwardly, ‘I like her – a little too much…’
They walked from the armorers shack over to the main range, and she noted the Chief was already out there – standing with several men she’d never seen before – and one man was dressed in black BDUs, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. They all had binoculars either in hand or around their necks, and they were all staring at her.
“Here,” the instructor said as he held out a plain white box. She counted twenty hand-loads inside, and they were pristine, the tips some sort of deep red-colored plastic-like material. “Take five,” her instructor added.
“Prone. Use sandbags or the bipod. Your choice.”
“Yessir.” She looked downrange, saw one target set-up at 500-yard mark, then turned and felt the wind on her face. She made a few adjustments on the rifle’s scope then loaded the weapon, still looking around, still checking her surroundings – just like her grandfather had shown her all those years ago. She finished loading the cartridges, looked around one more time, then gently laid the weapon down before she knelt behind the sandbags.
Her first shot missed dead-center by a quarter-inch, and the man in the black BDUs nodded – as he grinned. Her next two rounds were centered, her shots so well-placed after that she was only making one hole a little larger.
“Okay, I’ve seen enough,” the man in the BDUs said to the Assistant Director of Operations. “When can I have her.”
“She graduates on the third.”
“What’s her class rank so far?”
“First. By a wide margin.”
“What does she want to do?”
“New York. She been on the trafficking program for years.”
“Anyone talk to her about this yet?”
“No, she’s all yours.”
“Gee, thanks. I think,” ‘Zeke’ Cromwell said. “Now?”
“Might as well get it over with. One way or another, she goes to Georgia with you – but try to let her think it was her choice.”
Cromwell looked at the woman as she stood. No self-satisfied grin – and she was looking right at him. Like she understood he was the only person out there who recognized what she had just done.
Maybe because he was.
He’d only seen shooting like this a few times in his career. As head of the Bureau’s Tactical Rifle Squad, he was in charge of training all the Bureau’s so-called snipers, only now they were down to a bare minimum – with very little in the pipeline. They needed fresh talent, and her kind didn’t show up all that often.
He walked over to her, took the weapon from her hand and looked downrange through the scope.
“Fair shooting,” Cromwell said. “Ever use this weapon before?”
“Uh-huh. Let’s take a walk,” he said, slinging the rifle.
He was sweating – profusely – holding himself up on the bars under each hand, letting the prosthetic take all his weight – again. He felt his knee give out and caught himself before he fell – again – then he cursed – again.
“Your nerves are raw, Jim. It’ll be a few more weeks, so you’re just going to have to tough it out.”
The first time he’d said “Easy for you to say,” his therapist, a second Gulf War vet, and a double amputee had lifted up his pant legs and shown him exactly what he was up against. He’d nodded his resolve that day and been pushing ever since. Every time he rolled from his room at the VA down to the PT facility he got another lesson in resolve, in the brute determination needed to beat this kind of self-pity, this type of mind-raping depression.
After a week of this Ted showed up, back from Boston for a long weekend, only this time he had a girl with him when he walked in his room.
“Dad?” Ted said, knocking on the door. “You up?”
He was still sweating, still trying not to cry from the pain. “Paco! You made it! And who’s this?”
“Dad, this is Susan. Susan, Dad…I mean, Jim.”
She was a little shy, he could tell that much, but she was a looker. Bright brown hair, deep brown eyes – kind eyes, he saw. An Empath. He held out his hand and he watched her come and take it. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
She nodded. “You to. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Nothing good, I hope,” he said, smiling. “Take a seat, both of you.”
“Dad, you need some water?”
He nodded his head. “This ain’t the Ritz, Paco, that much is for sure,” he sighed, still smiling, as Ted poured the glass of ice water.
“How’s it going so far?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know. No frame of reference, I guess.”
“Mind if I take a look?” she asked, and he looked at her, then at Ted – who only shrugged.
“And why would you want to do that?” he asked.
“I did my undergrad in PT, I’m a first year.”
“A first year?”
“I’m curious,” he said. “Are you two friends, or is this a business call?”
“I love your son, and I think he loves me. I hope that answers your question.”
“We met last year, Dad, before all this went down. Things have kind of taken off since I got back.”
“I see. Well, what do you want to look at?”
“The incision, sir,” she said as she rolled up his pajama leg. She looked it over, palpated the area then nodded. “Some adhesions, and I think I feel a staple.”
“A staple?” he said, feeling a deep well of anger suddenly erupting.
“Mind of I go talk to the floor nurse?” Susan said.
“No, not at all.” He watched the girl walk out of the room then turned and looked at his son. “What’s this all about, Ted?”
“She was kind of the resident genius with a lot of the pre-meds last year. She was helping me with the M-CATs.”
“Oh? How’d you do?”
“520s. I think I have a shot, anyway. If I don’t get in first try I think I’ll try that flight school out in Phoenix.”
“Good. If you do well Ben will get you an interview.”
Ted nodded. “What do you think of her?”
“Hell, Paco, I just met her…?”
“You always told me first impressions are the most important.”
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?”
“Compassion and empathy. That’s what I see.”
Ted smiled. “That’s Susan, to a ‘T’.”
“Is this serious?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that…” but he stopped when Susan and an intern walked into the room.
“Okay, show me what you felt,” the intern said.
He held up his stump and Susan palpated the area again. “Here,” she said. “There’s already some tissue encapsulation, and it feels warm to me.”
The intern felt his stump and nodded his head. “It’s a wonder no one’s caught this…” he sighed. “Okay, off to X-ray,” the intern said as he walked from the room.
His temperature was 101, and climbing.
She stepped off the train in White River Junction, saw James and Jimmy standing by the old red brick station – then her boy rushed up to her, wrapped his arms around her legs and she bent over, picked him up and help him close.
“Oh…Jimmy-boy,” she whispered. “Oh, how I’ve missed you…”
Her husband was soon beside them, looking at her as she’d expected he would…a little bemused, more than a little wary. She’d written him before the Bureau had whisked her off to Georgia, before two months of what amounted to an abbreviated Special Forces sniper school. This was an unexpected new direction, she’d written him. Unexpected, in so many ways.
James felt a twinge of regret as he read her letter, wondered if he’d finally lost her.
Now she had a week off, one whole week off before she had to return to D.C.
They drove up to St Johnsbury as an early winter’s snow began falling, and she held on to her son, holding him close, missing the happy innocence in his eyes more than anything else…
James had insisted, when told of her assignment, that they would never tell Jimmy about all this. It would warp his view of who and what his mother was, he’d told his wife, and she had agreed – in the moment seeing into her husband’s ambivalence about the assignment. She had been recruited with one purpose in mind: to help infiltrate Chinese gangs on the Lower East Side in order to disrupt the flow of slaves, usually women, into the country. After years on the state task force, after years of threats and intimidation, she’d known she had to either quit – or take it to the next level. When she thought of all the woman in the pipeline, like the hundreds of half-starved, completely terrified women she’d interviewed over the years, she knew she couldn’t turn back. So, she’d gone to Quantico.
And now, this unexpected new journey.
After dinner that night she’d stayed up with Jimmy, telling him about Washington, D.C. and all the sights she’d take him to see when it got warmer, and she’d seen echoes of her own innocence in his eyes. She’d seen firsthand how lucky they were, her family – and all the other innocent, wide-eyed families in the United States. How lucky they were not to have children swept up in the same dragnets as the girls she’d encountered along the way – broken lives waiting to be hauled off to some foreign country and sold off as slaves. When she’d learned what these women were forced to do…
Hatred was not too strong a word, yet at one point she realized she was beginning to hate humanity. Cartels in Asia and Eastern Europe rounded up these women, shipped them to willing parties all over the world, wherever there was enough money to sustain trade in human flesh –
And now, Hoover and Dulles had agreed…the US was going on the offensive. A concerted effort was being made to identify the ringleaders of these cartels – globally – and if they couldn’t be compromised or taken into custody, they would be eliminated.
And when, after her recruitment, she’d learned about the program, she’d had no problem signing on. Enough was enough, she told herself, and James, too. All this misery had to end, one way or another, because if drugs kept coming into the country…
Well, everyone from Eisenhower down knew everything would be lost. The girls, she knew, were just the means to an end. Opium and heroin were the end, and in every way possible the dam had broken, and product was flooding in.
He came out of his latest surgery feeling more defeated than ever before, and he resumed his battles in physical therapy ward with lingering resentment boiling over. He had lost more than seventy pounds since the summer before, and his face was a gaunt, faded mask, a gray caricature of the man he used to know. And now, after a month of more hellish agony, to cap it all off it was Thanksgiving week, that All-American orgy of gluttonous over-consumption, and Ted was bringing Susan to Altair, again.
Because he was going home today, too. To Altair, for the first time since he’d left Desolation Sound.
His bags packed, his prosthetic on, his canes at the ready – just in case – he was still not ready when Ted and Susan knocked on the door. His son looked worried when he came into the little room, so he looked at her. She looked a little too resplendent in a rosy-cheeked way – like she was pregnant, he thought – suddenly, and as he looked into her guileless eyes he wondered. That would explain the look of baffled misery in his son’s eyes, wouldn’t it?
And then a third face slipped into the room…that red-headed doctor from Canada, the family doc that had come out to the boat…who had become such a huge part of his life in the months since.
‘Why is she here?’ he wondered, as his eyes went from the physician’s to his son, and back. ‘Ah…collusion…’
“Dad?” Ted asked when he saw his father’s reaction. “You okay?”
“Hey, doc,” he said, smiling at Brigit, then nodding to his son.
“Hi there,” the physician said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Ah, no, but to what, then, do I owe the pleasure of all this company?”
“I asked her to come, Dad,” Ted said. “Didn’t want anyone to feel left out.”
“Left out?” he asked, his face a blank.
“You know…the odd man out…three’s a crowd…that kind of thing?”
“You ready to go?” Brigit asked, moving protectively to his side.
“As I’ll ever be,” he said as he forced himself up, taking almost all his weight on his right arm – with his left on the bed-rail. He put his wait forward and winced, then grabbed his son’s shoulder. “Lead on…” he panted, “just not too fast.”
“You got it, Pops,” Ted whispered. “Susan, could you grab his duffel?”
He didn’t hear a reply, only the searing wave of lava running up his right thigh into his back – then he saw a nurse out in the hall, with a wheelchair – and he sighed as another wave, this time of relief, rolled over him. He put his hands out and almost fell into the chair, and he felt his hands shaking, perspiration running down his forehead as helping hands gripped him, helped him settle in the chair.
There was Brigit’s old Toyota Land Cruiser waiting out front and more helping hands lifted him up, and he saw Brigit take the wheel and drive through the U-W campus on the way to the lake. She knew, he saw, the way – and when she turned into the marina parking lot he knew she’d been here before. ‘How odd,’ he thought. ‘How much have I missed…?’
There were friends waiting by the gate, friends from Delta, and he felt a surge of gratitude as he looked at the wall of familiar faces. More hands took hold, familiar hands, and he fell back and let them carry him to another wheel chair, and he tried to hide his embarrassment but knew it wasn’t really necessary. Not with this bunch. Not now – not ever, he told himself. Down the ramp, through the gate, then there she was: Altair. Her hull still brightly gleaming, freshly polished navy blue. He saw more people on deck, too.
Then, the moment of truth, the thing he’d been practicing a week for. The steps – from the dock to the deck. He looked at them like he might a coiled mass of rattlers, then he looked down at his legs.
Okay. Let’s do it.
Someone held out a cane and he took it, pushed himself upright – then he reached out and took hold of a lifeline in one hand, the cane in the other – and he walked to the steps, never taking the first tread out of his sight. He lifted his thigh and pulled on the lifeline as he pushed off with the cane, then his left foot followed and he steadied himself.
Two more, he whispered from someplace deep inside. He pulled again, lifted his stump again as he pushed off with the left hand – and he was up one more.
One more to go, he sighed.
One more pull, one more push, then he was over the bulwarks, spinning to sit on the coachroof – aghast at the searing pain and almost out of breath.
And once…he thought he saw Melissa out there too, maybe wiping away a tear…but when he looked again only a memory remained.
It was a little after midnight when she went into Jimmy’s room…to check on him. Something had woken her. A noise, something out of place – and then she saw flashlights on the snow outside his window. Using what cover she could, she made her way to the window…
And saw half a dozen state troopers outside, hunched over, looking at foot-prints in the snow. Flashlights down the street, more police.
She went to her son’s bed and checked his forehead, and when he sighed she backed out quietly out of the room, put her shoes on and slipped downstairs to the front door. Two troopers were already there, waiting for her.
She looked at one of the men. Black suit, Bureau all over his face, and she nodded.
“Two men, a neighbor saw them and called it in,” the agent said.
“All white. Winter camo. Over their faces, too.”
One of the troopers said, nodding. “Yes, Ma’am. Both of them.”
Her stomach knotted as the implications washed over the scene. Blown already, but how was that even possible…? Unless…
“Any tire tracks?”
“Possible set, about two blocks over. And the local PD had a suspicious vehicle call on a tan Impala with New York plates earlier this evening.”
“That fits,” she said, nodding. “So, they called you?”
“Yes, Ma’am. We let D.C. know, too. There’s a lead on the vehicle. Possibly seen west of Woodstock, maybe headed for Rutland.”
“On Route 4? Jesus, could we be that lucky?”
“We’ve got both exits covered.”
“We need witnesses,” she said. “Try and take ‘em alive.”
The trooper nodded, but the agent’s face was a mask.
“Okay, what else happened? What are you not telling me?”
“An assistant AG was up in Burlington, she was run down by a car about five hours ago. A tan Ford, maybe a Fairlane.”
“Find the car?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Abandoned,” the trooper said, “up by the Canadian border, near Richford, I think.”
The trooper shook his head. “Torched. A body in the trunk.”
“Yes, Ma’am, working for NYPD, wearing a wire. That Assistant AG was running her case, had come up for a meet.”
“Pickering? Was it Stephanie Pickering?”
“Yes,” the agent said. “You know her?”
“For a few years, yes…”
She heard James at the door and turned, saw him standing in the doorway. “I’ll be back up in a minute,” she said.
“Yeah? Want me to put on coffee?”
“Could you?” she said, smiling.
“Yup.” She heard his sigh, then the door closed, gently. She turned back to the agent.
“Word is, Ma’am, that Mr Hoover is involved now. We’re supposed to keep you under surveillance.”
She nodded. “Tell your men coffee will be ready in a couple minutes. Back door.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” the trooper said.
Altair was all quiet now, all his friends gone. Ted had gone below a half hour ago, though Susan had waited for him a few minutes more. He sat in the darkness, sitting on the cockpit seat at the wheel – wondering if he would ever have any control over his life again, and he felt weird now, not at all tired. “I should be sleepy,” he said to the night…
Then he felt movement and looked forward, saw Brigit Sullivan up on the bow looking down into the black water, and he wondered what she’d seen. An otter, perhaps? A harbor seal?
Then she looked aft, saw him sitting in the cockpit – alone.
And she stood, came back to him.
“Busy night,” she said as she climbed over the tall coaming and settled-in next to him. “Did you ever think you had so many friends?”
A lot of people love you, Jim. You’re a lucky man.”
He looked at the remains of his leg and smiled at life’s little ironies. “Ah, is that what I am? Lucky?”
She leaned into him, put her head on his shoulder – daring him to push her away – but he put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. He relaxed for the first time all evening, and he smiled when the realization hit him.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked, her voice quivering a little.
“I’ve called about having Altair moved to Destin. I could commute to Atlanta from there, I suppose.”
“Is that what you want to do?” She felt him shrug and looked up at him.
“What about you?” he asked.
“What about me?”
“What do you want?”
“To be with you.”
And there it was. Three words – out of the night and into his heart. The three words he’d been hoping to hear for weeks.
“Have you found out anything on the immigration front?”
“I’m a physician. It won’t be a problem.”
“What about Florida?”
“I’m more concerned about you working again.”
“What about loading up Altair, just slipping free of all this.”
“You mean, like, just sail away?”
He sighed – and he felt her snuggle into his thoughts. “Would that interest you?”
“Me? Maybe so. I’ve done the medicine thing for twenty years. I could use a break, I think. What about you?”
“I don’t think I’m ready to call it quits just yet. I guess I love what I do too much to just walk away now.”
“Will it be the same? Training, I mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“So…Florida? Commute to Atlanta?”
“It feels right. Teaching, I mean. Maybe for a few years, then I can take full retirement.”
“I know. One of your chums explained it all to me. It would make a big difference, wouldn’t it?”
He nodded. “I’d at least be financially comfortable that way. Not have to worry about keeping Altair. If I cut loose now, it could be an issue in ten years. I’m also not sure this is the best time to leave Ted on his own, too.”
“Oh, Susan has him wrapped around her little finger.”
“I know. That’s what bothers me.”
“He’s had too many unanswered questions about to do something like this, so suddenly.”
“That other girl…Tracy, was it? What was that all about.”
“Just a stray we picked up by the side of the road,” he said as he thought of Vancouver, his voice barely a sigh.
“She was just one of those mistakes we make,” he said, thinking about her asking to see his pilot’s license, about a poor, frantic girl running away in the night, looking to take charge, somehow, while she still could.
“Do you know what happened to her?”
He nodded. “Yup. She’d been picked up, a teenager on the street in Sydney. Sold off to someone in New Orleans, I think.”
“Sold off? You mean…?”
“Trafficked. A slave. She broke free, was running from them when…”
“Apparently Chinese traffickers. They run drugs through girls like her for a while, then sell them off to their dealers, as human playthings – I guess. At least that’s the story I’ve been told. Anyway, most of ‘em end up dead after a few years.”
“So I’ve heard. Is that what Melissa does?”
“I don’t know what that woman does, Brigit. She’s a mystery.”
“Do you like her?”
“Like her?” he sighed. “I’m terrified of her.”
“Yup. Because I don’t know what her back game is. Because nothing’s what it appears to be where she’s concerned. And I don’t know what her relationship is to me.”
The Bureau shut down the Hong Kong operation before it ever started. Somehow the operation had been penetrated, maybe a weak link in the New York office, and now at least one federal prosecutor was dead, and now Pickering. And several informants, too. And the thinking was that professionals had been called in to take out her.
It was time, her supervisors told her, to move her family.
“Where?” she asked her supervisors.
“What about your husband’s father? Doesn’t he have a farm out West? Somewhere, like in New Mexico?
She thought of the old man, thought of him and that ranch of his, that ranch – and all those goddamn airplanes…
(c) 2018 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com || fiction, as always