Echo of War416
Echo of War416
Dinaric Alps, Bosnian region of Austrian Hungarian Empire, 1918. When four Allied soldiers discover a biological weapon that could devastate the world, they take a vow to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Ever since, the deadly substance—code-named Kestrel—has been guarded by the descendants of those four brave men, each with the mission of keeping its existence a secret . . .
Chesapeake Bay, United States, 2003. The wife of former CIA director Jonathon Root has been kidnapped, and no one except Root himself knows who carried out the crime or why. His grandfather had been one of the soldiers responsible for stealing Kestrel, and now a group of Bosnian terrorists are trying to force Root to hand it over.
Enter Agent Briggs Tanner. His mission: follow a trail through the Alps, to the heart of where it all began. At risk: Millions of lives, starting with his own.
Praise for Grant Blackwood
“Fast-paced and filled with action. . . . Fans of international political, military, and espionage tales will want to read Grant Blackwood’s novel.” —Midwest Book Review for Wall of Night
“The action and intrigue keep accelerating without any attempt to brake.” —Clive Cussler, #1 New York Times–bestselling author for End of Enemies
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|Series:||The Briggs Tanner Novels , #3|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
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Rappahannock River, Virginia, 2003
Briggs Tanner awoke to scent of rain blowing through the open window. His first thought was coffee, which was quickly followed by first swim, then coffee. The exercise habit wasn't entirely welcome this early in the morning — especially on this, his first day of a week's vacation — but it was ingrained and he knew better than to fight it. There were worse habits, he knew.
He sat up, placed his feet on the floor, and peeked out the window. On the horizon lay a dark line of squall clouds, their bottom edges feathered with falling rain. Below his window, a wooded embankment swept down to the cliff-enclosed cove over which his home — a vintage lighthouse he'd adopted from the Virginia Historical Commission — stood, and beyond the cove, through a notch in the cliff, lay the river proper — though this offshoot of the Rappahannock was more lake than river, measuring five miles from shore to shore.
Tanner opened his closet, took his wet suit off the peg, slipped it on, then trotted down the loft stairs to the living room and into the kitchen. He prepped the coffeemaker, set the timer for forty minutes, then grabbed his cell phone and stepped out onto the deck.
The cell phone trilled; he flipped it open. "Hello."
"Briggs, it's Walt."
"Mind if I come by on my way to the office? I need ... some advice."
There's a switch, Tanner thought. Aside from subjects of an outdoor nature, Walter Oaken's knowledge was encyclopedic. That which he didn't know, he learned. Whether trivial, vital, or somewhere in between, Oaken absorbed it and filed it away for future use. He was, Tanner had decided long ago, an information pack rat.
"Sure," Tanner said. "Come down the pier when you get here."
"You're swimming? You're going to catch pneumonia."
"It's always possible."
"Want me to bring coffee?"
"It'll be brewing when you get here."
"See you in a while."
Tanner sat down on the edge of the pier, cupped the drag floats to his ankles, then lowered himself into the water. He gasped at the chill. Though it was already mid-June, his cove saw little current, so the winter chill tended to linger until early August.
The urge to climb back out was strong, but he quashed it and kept treading water, waiting for the chill to subside. At forty, Briggs had noticed his what the hell are you doing voice wasn't as faint as it used to be. Whether the voice was that of wisdom and maturity or just the complaints of early middle age he wasn't sure. First swim, then coffee, he told himself.
He pushed off and began stroking toward the gap.
As with every swim, within a few minutes his mind cleared, the blood began to surge through his limbs, and he slipped into a rhythm. He felt the drag of the float behind him and stroked a little harder, enjoying the exertion. Getting stronger, he thought. Better than even a week ago.
Three weeks earlier his doctor and physical therapist had proclaimed him healed — though on occasion he still felt a twinge from the wounds. The worst of them had come from a pair of AK-47 bullets fired by a squad of very angry Chinese soldiers. The first bullet had torn through his buttock and blasted out the front of his thigh; the second had punched through his back, rupturing his diaphragm and spleen.
If not for a combination of dumb luck, a touch of hypothermia, and a battle-hardened Russian field surgeon, it would have ended much differently. But it didn't, Tanner reminded himself. Good to be alive.
After twenty minutes of swimming he stopped and glanced over his shoulder. A mile away, through the gap in the cove, he could see a lone figure standing on the pier: tall, gangly, blue blazer hanging from his frame like a lab coat ... Walter Oaken's silhouette was unmistakable.
Tanner gave him a wave, got one in return, then turned and began swimming back.
When he reached the pier, Oaken leaned down, cautiously offered a hand, then backpedaled as Tanner levered himself onto the planks. Oaken wiped his hands. "Wow — it's cold."
"You're an idiot, you know that, don't you?"
So I've been told." Tanner dried his hair then tucked the towel into the collar of his wet suit so it formed a hood. He gestured to the other towel he'd laid on the planks. "Sit down."
Oaken did so and handed him a cup of coffee. "How far did you go?" "Couple miles; give or take."
"I see your Rudbeckia Hirta is coming in well. I think Bev's got some of them planted somewhere."
Tanner smiled. Only Walt, a man who wouldn't stick his hands in the soil on a bet, would be able to name black-eyed Susans by their scientific name. "I transplanted them in May; they were getting a little too much sun. How's Charlie?" "Hairy and loud."
Charlie, a yellow labrador puppy, which had been rescued from the pound, had been Oaken's Christmas gift to his daughters. The idea of Oaken, avid indoorsman that he was, dealing with a rambunctious puppy never failed to amuse Tanner. "Admit it: You love him."
"I like him."
"Uh-huh." Tanner sipped his coffee. "So, what can I do for you?" "Yeah, well ...," Oaken started. "Bev and the girls want to go camping."
Tanner did his best to suppress his smile. "I see. With you?" "Yes."
"Can I come watch?"
"Very funny. What am I gonna do? Camping ... Jesus, I'll probably kill myself setting up the tent."
"No problem," Tanner said. "I'll give you a list. Have you got a notebook?"
"Sure." Excited at the idea of having something to pigeonhole, Oaken took out his notebook, uncapped his pen, and nodded. "Ready."
"First — and this is crucial —"
"You're going to need a flannel shirt."
Oaken started scribbling.
"Something checkered ... red and black. And a hat — coonskin, preferably, with earflaps."
Oaken stopped writing and glanced sideways at him. "That's not funny."
Tanner clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I have everything you need. A couple hours from now you'll be a regular Danger Don."
"You mean the guy on TV? The adventure nut with the death wish?" "That's him." Tanner's cell phone trilled and he answered. "Hello."
"Briggs, it's Gill."
Gillman Vetsch was a friend from Tanner's precivilian days. Once a month they got together for coffee or lunch. "Gill, how are you?" "I need to see you."
Something's wrong, Tanner thought. Despite the tragic turns Vetsch's life had taken, he was one of the most upbeat people Briggs had ever known. The tone in Gill's voice was anything but upbeat now. "Sure, give me an hour. Can you give me a clue?" "Not over the phone."
The line went dead. Tanner disconnected.
Oaken said, "Bad news?"
"I don't know," Tanner replied. Yes, definitely bad.
Gill Vetsch and Tanner had been two of the original members of ISAG, or the Intelligence Support Activity Group, Vetsch having been recruited from the Secret Service, Tanner from the Naval Special Warfare community. Founded by the CIA, ISAG was an experimental program designed to address what was seen as a gap in the U.S. intelligence community — namely, special operators who could act not only as commandos, but also as hands-on intelligence gatherers.
Culled from all branches' military and civilian elite units, ISAG operators were put through a grueling two-year course that turned them into what insiders called "warrior spies," men and women as comfortable hunting terrorists through the jungles of South America as they were running agents in Bratislava. Disbanded due to Pentagon politics shortly after its conception, ISAG produced only sixty graduates — the only sixty to survive the program's 90 percent attrition rate.
Shortly before the ax fell, Tanner was prepping for an overwatch job — ISAG's term for a standoff bodyguarding assignment — when his late wife, Elle, fell ill and miscarried their baby. Vetsch stepped in, took over the job, and sent Tanner home to be with her.
Three days later in Bucharest, Vetsch was gunned down by a sniper on a street outside Cotroceni Palace. Left for dead, Vetsch watched helplessly as the kidnappers bundled his charge into a van and sped away. He survived, but barely, as the bullet missed his heart by inches and severed his spinal column at mid-lumbar. When he emerged from surgery he was paralyzed from the waist down.
Surprising no one, Gill rebounded with gusto and adjusted quickly to what he termed "a little bump in the road of life." Tanner had visited him shortly after his release from the hospital. Gill immediately saw the guilt in Tanner's eyes.
"Don't even think it, Briggs," Vetsch told him. "It was plain bad luck, nothing more. You had no business being in the field. Elle needed you, you needed her. Hell, you would've done the same for me. Don't forget: I'm luckier than you are. Whoever was behind the trigger, he was aiming for the heart. A couple inches either way and goodbye. Big picture: I'm alive."
"I know, Gill, but Christ —"
"If it makes you feel any better I'll let you come over once a month and wash my wheelchair. Deal?"
Despite himself, Tanner smiled. "Deal."
"Now I've got a favor to ask."
Though he wasn't going to let Bucharest ruin his life, Vetsch explained, it had set him thinking about his then fifteen-year-old daughter, Susanna. "Mary died before we had a chance to choose godparents for Susanna. I know it'd make Susanna happy; she loves you. What do you say?" Tanner opened his mouth to speak, but no words came.
"And no," Gill continued, "I'm not asking because I think you owe me anything. I'm asking you because you're the most loyal, trustworthy son of a bitch I know. If anything happens to me, or if Susanna needs you, you'll be there. Am I wrong?"
"You wanna think about it?"
"There's nothing to think about, Gill."
"Good! Now go get the hose — there's some dirt on my wheels."
And with a mutual laugh, it was done. In the space of five minutes, Tanner had not only gained a goddaughter, but had seen courage and forgiveness epitomized by a man who had every right to hate life.
Vetsch lived in Willowbrook, Virginia, in a two-story saltbox he and Mary had bought shortly before Susanna was born. Vetsch had always been a woodworker by hobby, and after the accident he'd had a wheelchair-accessible shop built behind the garage. Filled to the rafters with equipment that would have made Bob Vila envious, the shop was Vetsch's haven.
An hour after leaving his home, Tanner pulled into Gill's driveway, got out, and walked around to the shop door. "Over here," Briggs heard. He turned.
Vetsch was sitting on his deck, staring into the distance. Tanner walked up the ramp. Vetsch didn't turn. His eyes were unfocused and red-rimmed. His face was covered in stubble.
"Gill?" Tanner placed a hand on his shoulder. "Gill?"
Vetsch turned and looked up at Tanner. "She's gone, Briggs."
"Susanna. She's gone."CHAPTER 2
Royal Oak, Maryland's eastern shore, Chesapeake Bay
The weather was cooperating, Risto was pleased to see. A good omen.
Given the target's secluded location, they hadn't dared risk surveilling it from the ground, having had to instead rely on copied maps, aerial photographs, and blueprints they'd obtained at the Wicomico County Courthouse. This would be their first true glimpse of the house. Now, as the boat glided toward shore, a fog began to settle over the water, obscuring all but the house's yellow porch light, which seemed to float in the mist.
"Stop here," Risto whispered.
At the wheel, Grebo eased back on the throttle. The electric trolling motor went silent. The other men waited, watching their leader, who stood staring into the fog. After thirty seconds, one of them whispered, "Risto?" Risto held up his hand for silence, then cocked his head. The eerie bong of a navigation buoy echoed over the water. In the distance, a dog barked. Then silence. Tendrils of mist swirled over the water.
"Anchor," Risto ordered. "Quietly."
One of the men crept to the bow and gently lowered the anchor over the side. As it took hold, the current swung the stern around. Risto grabbed the rail to steady himself, then raised his binoculars, waiting for a gap in the fog. After a few moments, a breeze swept over the water and the fog parted momentarily.
Surrounded by a low flagstone wall, the two-story Cape Cod was situated on five wooded acres at the tip of a peninsula fifteen miles from the center of the bay. The only access points were through the main gate on the landward side, and through a second gate at the head of a boat dock on the north side. On the south side were a swimming pool and a tennis court.
Risto could see light glowing through one of the second-floor dormer windows. As he watched, a man-shaped shadow passed before the curtains then disappeared from view. There you are, he thought. Safe and snug. Not for long.
"It must cost a million dollars," whispered Boric, the youngest member of the team.
"One point nine," Risto replied. He felt a fleeting pang of sadness for Boric. The necessities of war, Risto reminded himself. He laid a gentle hand on Boric's shoulder. "Now be quiet, boy."
Risto continued scanning with his binoculars until he spotted a lone guard patrolling the eastern wall. There would be three more, he knew. He kept scanning, picking them out one by one, until each guard was accounted for. He watched for another ten minutes, until certain each one's route was unchanged.
He lowered his binoculars. He was surprised to feel his hands shaking. Calm yourself; you've planned well. He turned to the other men. "It's time."
Raymond Crohn dearly loved his dog Pumpkin — more so than he'd ever admit to his wife — but the Welsh Corgi could be a true pain. Not only did Pumpkin have a bladder the size of a lima bean, but she was maddeningly fussy about where she did her business. Potty breaks were never a simple matter of opening the door and letting her roam the yard. No, Pumpkin had to be walked. Pumpkin needed to be encouraged.
It was shortly before eleven P.M. when Crohn pulled on his coat, hooked the leash to Pumpkin's collar, and stepped outside. If he hurried, he might make it back in time to catch the start of the news.
"Come on, Pumpkin," Crohn called as he started down the driveway. Fog swirled across the road, clinging to the trees and ditches. The treetops swayed and creaked in the wind.
After fifty yards, Pumpkin stopped beside a fern and lifted her leg. "Good girl," Crohn cooed. "Are we done?"
Pumpkin snorted and kept walking. After another hundred yards Crohn reached the flagstone wall that separated his property from that of his neighbors. Beyond the wall he could see the vague outline of the Cape Cod. Light glowed through one of the upstairs windows.
That's odd, Crohn thought. He'd never known them to be late-night folks, but rather early risers. Must be catching a movie or something, he reasoned. I wonder what — From over the wall Crohn heard a moan. Pumpkin stopped in mid-sniff, cocked her head, then let out a low growl and trotted behind Crohn's legs.
A leaf skittered across the gravel and disappeared into the darkness. There were a few seconds of silence, then another moan. What in god's name? Crohn thought. Legs trembling, he bent down and picked up a stick off the ground. He crept toward the wall.
"Who's there?" he called. "Is someone there?"
The bushes rustled. Crohn froze. Pumpkin growled.
Crohn's heart pounded. He gulped air, took another step. Pumpkin tugged at her leash. Crohn pulled her back, took another step. He drew even with the wall and raised the stick. He peeked over.
"Oh, good God ..."
A man lay sprawled beside the hedge. As though sensing Crohn's presence, the man swiveled his head toward Crohn and rasped, "Help ... get help."
Crohn's panicked call to 911 was routed to the nearest Wicomico County sheriff's deputy, who was performing DWI stops outside Catchpenny twelve miles away. Eight minutes after receiving the call, Deputy Jay Meriweather pulled onto the gravel road bordering the flagstone wall. Headlights picked out a man frantically waving one arm as he tried to rein in a dog with the other. Meriweather stopped the car, radioed "on scene" to his dispatcher, then got out. "Sir, did you —"
"He's there ... on the other side of the wall."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Echo of War"
Copyright © 2003 Grant Blackwood.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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