A tense countdown.
And a deadly plot that threatens countless
Agent Marcos Caracas dangles from a cliff in the rugged no-mans region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Spotting the rifleman below, Marcos hides a tape in the cleft of the cliff and leaves an urgent voice mail, setting off a chain of dangerous events. Now its up to Special Agent Steve Alstead and Chapter 16, the FBIs counterterrorism unit, to stop the scheme of an al Qaeda splinter cell...before its too late.
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Fuel the Fire
Chapter OneLA County Tactical Operations Command Center Los Angeles, California Friday, 4 September 2223 hours, Pacific Time
The room was the size and style of an elementary school cafeteria. In it 60 to 70 FBI, SWAT, and other law-enforcement personnel scrambled about, making last-minute adjustments, tweaking and fine-tuning.
Computers, maps, and light tables displaying sketches of buildings and aerial photos showed every aspect of the plan that had been in the works for the last three weeks.
Four separate organizations-the FBI, LA Sheriff's Office, the Glendale PD, and Chapter 16, the FBI's elite counterterrorism unit-had converged with nine teams to conduct the early morning raid. Inner- and outer-perimeter positions had been determined over the last 48 hours.
A life-size mock-up of the floor plan of the house used by the Glendale 5 terrorists had been taped on the linoleum of the sheriff's activity center. The five entry teams, comprised of five men each, practiced the scenario numerous times, minding their fields of fire. Old walls were thin. Every inch of floor space had to be so familiar that each member of the entry team could perform the operation blind.
Hospitals and emergency medical technicians were on standby.Evacuation plans were created for getting neighbors out safely.
This was the ultimate, the climax, the pinnacle of all Homeland Security operations-hundreds of man-hours, constant 24-hour physical and electronic surveillance. Gathering every fiber of evidence before a puff of wind might blow it away. Stopping a runaway freight train headed for a crowd. This was what it was about: busting a terror cell in its early operational stages.
But even against terrorism there were rules, guidelines. Law enforcement in the twenty-first century was no longer about good and bad guys the way kids played cops and robbers. Counterterrorism operations were no longer merely against the bad guys themselves but against diplomatic considerations and political correctness. Lifesaving investigations were sometimes impeded by the very laws created by the people the operations were striving to protect.
One toe over the line, and America could lose the successful prosecution of a suspect ... or even lose thousands of lives. This was the reason the best of the best had to be so good. The prowess of the FBI's HRT-Hostage Rescue Team-and other elite SWAT organizations extended well beyond marksmanship. Each member of the team had to know the tools on his belt like the fingers on his hand, had to instinctively understand the use of force continuum as automatically as breathing.
It was almost easier to be a bad guy, Steve Alstead mused as he lifted a stack of photographs. As Assault Team Echo 1 leader of Chapter 16, Steve burned the images of the Glendale 5 in his mind.
Members of a radical al Qaeda splinter cell called Allah's Will, the Southern California-based men were involved in a reported plot fast approaching completion. All of them were young Middle Eastern men between 24 and 33. And all of them were willing to die for their cause. Two had been linked to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
Steve considered the limitations-all the hoops his team had to jump through to get the bust. It wasn't simply about going in with guns blazing and taking names anymore. Until the Patriot Act, without exigent circumstances, one almost had to ask the suspect's attorney for permission to investigate. Furthermore, gleaning intelligence, pulling off a successful investigation, and then making the case stick flat out took a miracle these days.
In spite of everything, Steve felt lucky. He had a solid team and a great support system. Steve glanced over at Special Agent Anton Brown, Chapter 16's Echo 2 leader and Steve's closest friend.
Anton gave him a confident nod, suggesting, These guys are nothing. Piece of cake.
Steve knew there was more to the big man's look than arrogance. By this point in their relationship, Steve and Anton had driven a lot of miles together. It had been Anton who had helped Steve hold it together when his son had been kidnapped by a terrorist. And Steve had been the one who had sat by Anton's side in the hospital while they waited for news about his baby girl. Now the time Anton had waited for was fast approaching, and this reality gave him an extra edge of confidence. When this operation was finished, Anton would be returning to Bethesda, Maryland, after more than two years of living apart from his son and estranged wife. Steve was glad for Anton, even though he'd miss him. The two shared an undying devotion to their faith and their families, even when times were tough.
After all the years of working together, Steve could read Anton's thoughts as clearly as road signs. Paralleling their mutual bold sense of duty were their strong feelings of caution, a high respect for justice, and a real understanding that things could go badly at any time. Living in the twenty-first century meant that the good guys didn't always win.
Carter Thomas, a short and squatty, muscle-bound, bald-headed humorist, tapped a mug shot with his middle finger. "That's the one I want, right there."
Steve's trance was broken. "Mabrouk?"
"Raggedy punk ringleader," Carter replied, an edge of barely controlled tension marked by his nervous humor. "Just look at his wannabe tough-guy sneer. I'd love to play dentist with that smile."
Steve chuckled softly at Carter's hard-nosed approach to life. His constant wisecracks were entertaining, if unconvincing. "You may get your chance tonight," Steve threw in.
Arms crossed, Carter leaned on the table. "Why're you so calm? What're you on? Sleeping pills? How can you be so cool right now? We're gonna crack some nuts tonight!"
Steve yawned as his body settled into complete peace-the sinking swell before the crashing wave. He and Carter had had this conversation before, but Steve said it again. "Prayer, man."
Carter shook his head in denial. "You know I don't believe in that stuff."
"What stuff? God?"
"What needs of mine has God ever met? And if there was a God, why would he allow trash like these fellas-" Carter smacked the photos with the back of his hand-"to threaten my life and the lives of innocent people?"
Steve considered the question objectively. "Maybe he's waiting for the free will of people like you and me."
"Maybe if we all listened-I mean really listened-to what he had to say, the world would be different."
Carter sighed, then grinned since he'd been outsmarted. "Well, maybe someday I'll have to try that."
"Sooner is better than later," Steve claimed.
Carter simply rolled his eyes. "Preach it, brother."
"I'm serious, man. Could be life or death for all of us in a matter of seconds. You need more than body armor in this job-you need God on your side." Steve's hazel eyes intensified. "What if tonight's your night to go? What happens then?"
Carter's expression tightened and suddenly turned as serious as Steve's.
Just then the group was called to attention by the LA FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force Special Operations Director (SOD), Carl Davis. With a wide head like a bulldog's and his hairline receding just enough to make his thoughts that much more aerodynamic, Davis's physical presence commanded attention. "Before we load up and gear up, I want to say, Great job. All of you." Steve knew that Davis was well aware of the dangers the entry teams and all involved in the operation faced. "From our investigators to our assault teams, you guys have thought of everything. Covered every aspect of the plan in exhaustive practice. You painted a picture of the future good enough to rival a psychic hotline."
The packed-out audience laughed in chorus. Steve grinned. SOD Davis had the men pegged psychologically. He knew that when men are close to the edge, sometimes a little humor is the only rope to keep them from going over.
Then Davis's tone changed. "You are here and you are prepared, and you are the best at what you do."
Steve scanned the room. Hang Fire, Mooney, Snake, Chapter 16's Executive Director Morrison, and Anton were a few of the familiar faces. All the others Steve didn't know personally, but they had proven their quality of character over the preceding days of training.
"We're up against it ...," Davis continued, though Steve's thoughts drowned out his remaining words.
It was a fine line they'd been casting: letting the Glendale 5 terrorists feed freely in the ponds of LA, while risking one getting off the hook and swimming away. Steve hoped they wouldn't miss a single critical piece of intel that might blow the whole operation; he prayed the five would lead them to even bigger fish.
It reminded him of fishing with his Uncle Earle when he was 12, on the big lakes in Oklahoma. "Why not just eat the minnows?" Steve had asked, referring to the six inches of live, wiggling bait.
Clean-shaven with messy hair, a big belly, and overalls, Uncle Earle had threaded a giant hook through the perfectly edible fish. Then he had said wisely, as he worked his tobacco chew, "Ya gotta use big bait if ya wanna catch big fish."
Steve remembered disbelieving that the minnow would bring in a real trophy, so he had prayed silently to at least bring in something. Five minutes later both he and Uncle Earle had been astounded when little Steven pulled in a 27-inch bass.
"I told you 'bout havin' faith in that big bait!" Uncle Earle had said, shaking his head and chuckling.
Steve smiled at the memory. Then his attention returned to Davis's words. "You men have been hired to save this country one action at a time. So believe in your cause and your mission ... believe in yourselves."
When the applause subsided, Davis brought the men back on point. "Almost time to roll out. Time to find a quiet place."
* * *
Palmdale Warehouse Palmdale, California 2238 hours, Pacific Time
The warehouse location was satisfactory for his purpose-a mile from the interstate and in a vacant industrial park. Its windows and doors were intact. The building was not an abandoned, rusted-out derelict but the victim of a recent economic downturn. There was even a gate to the yard at the rear of the property, hidden by the structure from the frontage road.
Patrick Dennison wheeled his faded tan '85 Chevy pickup out of sight and turned off the ignition. He surveyed the premises. For a time only his brown eyes were in motion. His skinny, motionless body appeared much less animated than the jovial Social Distortion skeleton decals in his rear window.
Patrick waited a considerable length of time. No guard dogs emerged from the shadows to bark at him. No elderly, emphysemic, chain-smoking, minimum-wage, rent-a-cop stumbled out to demand his business. The place was really vacant. For protection the landlord apparently depended more on the lack of anything worth stealing than on the razor wire topping the mesh fence.
Despite Patrick's thin arms and 130-pound frame, six feet of rusty chain dropped away from the gate with one snap of the bolt cutters he produced from his trunk. He laughed at the padlock on the warehouse's rear roll-up entry door before dismissing it with the same tool.
Inside the building the power was off, but that was to be expected. Patrick's flashlight showed him all he needed to know. Stray beams bouncing back from the bare metal walls illuminated his pale skin and freckles, revealing the red tones in his otherwise mousy brown hair.
A quick survey was sufficient for now. Patrick returned the bolt cutters and flashlight to his trunk, shutting the lid above fading bumper stickers from the old rock bands Nine Inch Nails and Sex Pistols. He snorted at the memories the bumper stickers evoked. Where were the rest of his loser friends now, a dozen years after high school? Dead of ODs or HIV mostly, or stuck in dead-end jobs.
But Patrick was about to make a name for himself. He would make his mark at last.
Lee Harvey Oswald ... John Hinckley Jr. ... Mohammad Atta ... who had ever heard of them before critical moments when their plans unfolded? But who could ever forget their names now?
On his way past the front gate Patrick stopped once more to hang a fictitious street-number sign from the chain-link.
Driving off, he raised his fist in salute-the new owner had just taken possession.
Lasting fame was only hours away.
* * *
Suspect House Glendale, California Saturday, 5 September 0317 hours, Pacific Time
The quiet residential street in an older part of Glendale had been deserted most of the night, except for the cast of cops and FBI agents disguised as joggers, walkers, drunks, and moonlighters who kept continuous surveillance on the house while remaining in a constant state of motion.
Twenty-two more worked fixed positions of containment and outer perimeter, acting as lookouts who could also fence in any perps who attempted to flee. As for the rest, all were either part of the five Echo Teams or part of the Command and Control structure.
Clothed Tijuana-style, Anthony Sanchez, one of the LA JTTF guys, leaned under the open hood of a green '80s Ford van, similar to Scooby's Mystery Machine. With flashlight in hand, he'd spent the night pretending to be working on the carburetor, the ignition, the starter, the windshield wipers....
Two hours prior he had nearly awakened the entire neighborhood with a backfire after cutting the engine to coast in. An authentic touch if ever a cop on a stakeout had seen one. Every officer on the beat hopped out of his skin. Half pulled their weapons, thinking the sound had been gunfire.
Even Steve almost cleared the vehicle to leap for cover. Command and Control had to issue roll call to get everyone quiet again. With a total of 57 officers and agents in the field, it took five minutes to complete the list.
Sanchez wrenched and fiddled away, swaying the van ever so slightly. His efforts helped to disguise Steve's assault team, wiggling for every ounce of comfort they could find in the back of the cramped cargo space. Summer heat, along with 20 pounds of body armor and gear, added to the high price of leg room in the back of the beater van. It made for a long 2 hours, 14 minutes, and 43 seconds.
Twice Surveillance had informed Command and Control, aka Charlie, that a suspect had peeked through the blinds for a look at the van. The extra attention and fear of aroused suspicion prompted planners to adjust the Gas Company evacuation plan. The suspect house would not be getting the "dangerous gas leak" warning tonight.
Often in a dangerous bust, just prior to making entry, law enforcement evacuated neighbors to safety by sending men in gas-company uniforms to knock on doors. Residents were informed about a serious leak in a nearby gas main. They were told to evacuate or face a high risk of death or serious injury in the event of an explosion.
Residents actually faced a higher risk of immediate death by a stray bullet if a firefight broke out. Yet if an officer came through the neighborhood to tell the truth, many residents refused to leave. Many would watch from their windows, like targets in a shooting gallery, rather than find safety somewhere else.
Steve leaned from his confined position to spy Agent Sanchez's face under the hood. With all the time Sanchez spent banging and wrenching, Steve wondered if the agent wished he had a genuinely broken a part to fix.
"Charlie to all personnel," a female voice quietly squawked on the security-encrypted radio. "Neighborhood is clear. Suspect residence is dark. Prepare for entry."
Sanchez closed the hood in pretend defeat and started hiking to a position around the corner to the perimeter, where he'd help prevent any pedestrian traffic in or out of the area.
Steve tightened his tactical sling, making eye contact with each individual on his team.
The dark-skinned, tall, and lanky Special Agent Mooneyham nodded semivacantly. "I'm ready."
Special Agent Anton Brown, Steve's brawny HRT partner, winked and clicked his mouth.
Snake, the small and wiry West Coast HRT's covert entry man, nodded with the speed of a shivering Polar Bear Club swimmer after a January dip in San Francisco Bay.
Beads of sweat rolled down Carter's smooth head as he bit the candy off a Tootsie Pop. He yanked the stick from his mouth to point it at Steve. "Ready as a cat in a mouse maze."
Clicking into the net, Steve announced, "Echo 1 to Charlie, Echo 1 is ready for green."
"Copy that, Echo 1. Stand by for green."
Steve could hear the other four entry teams reply the same.
There was static on the radio. Then, "Charlie to Echo all, we have a final count of three Tangos in the residence."
Steve pressed the button on his left shoulder. "Echo 1 Actual, 10-4."
"Charlie to all perimeter positions. Be prepared to stop any approaching foot traffic. Also be advised that one suspect did not return to the residence."
Excerpted from Fuel the Fire by Jake Thoene Copyright © 2004 by Jake Thoene. Excerpted by permission.
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