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24 Declassified: Head Shot
The following takes place between the hours of 3 A.M. and 4 A.M. Mountain Daylight Time
Red Notch, Colorado
The Zealot compound's front gate was chained, padlocked, and wrapped with the police's yellow-and-black Police: Do Not Enter tape.
The Toyota pickup truck that had driven Jack Bauer here from Denver stood idling about twenty feet from the gate, facing it with its headlights on. Jack said, "The police didn't leave any guards behind?"
Frank Neal said, "Why guard the henhouse when the chickens have already flown the coop?"
Jack countered one old saw with another. "Why not? They locked the barn door after the horses were stolen."
Neal made a sound that was half snort, half chuckle. Then he got serious. "The forensics teams have already come and gone. Local law enforcement's already shorthanded on account of Sky Mount and don't have any men to spare to station out here in hopes that Prewitt and his strayed lambs will come straggling home. That goes for us, too." By "us" he meant CTU/DENV, the outfit to which he was assigned.
Jack pointed out, "You're here."
Neal said, "Thanks to you." It was not an expression of gratitude. "You're the one who wanted to see the compound as soon as possible. Besides, I'm the in-house expert on Prewitt and his cult, if only by default. Lucky me. Who needs sleep?"
"Sorry to pull you out of bed at this hour. Thanks."
Neal made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "The boss says cooperate, so I'm cooperating." His boss was Orlando Garcia, head of CTU's divisional headquarters inColorado covering the state's Rocky Mountain corridor. "I was up anyway. This whole business has got everybody working overtime. Sure stirred up a hornet's nest."
He reached into a side pocket of the red-and-black-checked jacket he was wearing, fishing out a key ring. "I've got the keys from Taggart, one of the state cops working the case." Neal cut a sidelong glance at Jack. "He thought it was a waste of time to go poking around here in the dead of night, but he's cooperating, too."
Jack said, "What do you think?"
Neal said, "I think I better go unlock the gate." He got out of the cab on the driver's side.
Jack had his own opinion on the subject. He was only recently arrived in the state and wanted to see the compound for himself at the first possible opportunity and this was it. He wanted to get a feel for the site and the terrain, and there was no substitute for firsthand knowledge. Call it the hunter's instinct, the need to physically experience the stalking ground.
Prewitt and his Zealot leadership cadre, an inner circle numbering more than two dozen men and women, had pulled their disappearing act at approximately this time last night. They hadn't gone alone. Two agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms who'd been keeping the site under surveillance had vanished at the same time.
Either set of disappearances, that of the cultists or of the ATF agents, would have set off alarms among officialdom, especially in light of the heightened security attendant on the Sky Mount Round Table conference set to convene later on Friday, this day. Not far from here, more than two hundred of the richest and most powerful individuals in America, if not the world, were already gathering to meet in conclave from Friday through Sunday.
The vanishment of both the Zealots and the agents had thrown a shock wave into the array of law enforcement and national security personnel assigned to protect the three-day conference.
Jack climbed out of the passenger side, glad for the chance to stretch his legs after the ninety-minute-plus drive out from Denver to this site in the foothills of the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.
Here, at early Friday morning in the last week of July, the air was cool and crisp, a far cry from the thick, choking heat of Los Angeles that Jack had left behind no more than twelve hours ago. He was glad he'd thought to wear a light jacket for this late-night trip into the hills of Red Notch.
He was in his mid-thirties, sandy-haired, clean-shaven, athletic. He didn't feel athletic, though; he felt off his feed, with an oncoming headache knotting behind his eyes.
The compound was dark, except where the pickup's headlights shone through the gate, an eight-foot-tall construction of chicken wire stretched across a wooden beam framework. The secluded retreat was ringed by a chain-link, barbed-wire-topped fence. Prewitt was a man who jealously guarded his privacy and that of his followers.
Jack looked around. The area was dark in all directions, as far as he could see. The compound was the only sign of human habitation in these parts, save for a two-lane blacktop road at the foot of the rise. A winding dirt road linked the hilltop site to the paved roadway. The compound was presently uninhabited and the paved road was empty of all other vehicular traffic.
The Zealots' mysterious disappearance was part of the reason that Jack had been detached from his post as Special Agent in Charge of CTU/L.A. and assigned to temporary duty—TDY—here in the Rockies. Part of the reason, a big part, but not the only one.
Keys jingled as Frank Neal went to the gate, moving in front of the headlights, casting a long, weird shadow deep into the compound. Neal, a heavyset, fortyish African American, was an investigative agent assigned to CTU/DENV, the organization's regional field office in this sector.
CTU, the Counter Terrorist Unit, was a component of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Agency's founding charter back in 1947 had restricted its operations to foreign soil, prohibiting it from engaging in domestic activities in the United States. Cold War realities had ensured that that prohibition was honored more in the breach than the observance. The nightmare of 9/11 had finished off what remained of those antiquated laws, brushing them aside like cobwebs.24 Declassified: Head Shot. Copyright © by David Jacobs. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.