The Wrong Girl
Whitaker finished giving her orders just as Taylor hung up with the senator.
“She has her jet waiting to take us to Miami,” he said as she walked up.
“Fine,” she said. The look on her face told him she hadn’t forgiven Taylor yet for not letting the FBI deal with everything. “I rode with them out here, so I’ll ride with you.”
She headed to his car without waiting for an answer, and he followed in her wake. Taylor drove straight to the airport. There was a few minutes confusion as they were redirected to a separate area of the airport designated for private and corporate jets, which they quickly had sorted out. Less than two hours from hanging up with the senator they were sitting in plush leather seats of the sleek jet, taxiing off the runway. While Whitaker made a call from the phone set into the small table next to the couch she had chosen to sit on, Taylor watched as the plane parted the cloud layers that blanketed Washington, threatening to cover the city in another layer of snow.
Red and orange filled the sky as the sun made its way over the horizon. Taylor considered how far they were behind Mary Jane. Over the last year, he’d had a good run and successfully tracked down a good number of people, but there had been a small handful he’d been too far behind and reached too late. He was afraid this was going to be one of those, his mind going to a blond girl from Texas he and Whitaker had been too late to save.
“So who’s this contact,” Whitaker said, the phone back in its base and her eyes looking at him intently.
“A guy I met when I was in Miami, shortly after I got out of the service.”
“When you were chasing that Federal witness?”
“Yeah. She had been snatched, and I was trying to find this Russian named Yuri who ran women from Eastern Europe.”
“I read about him in your file.”
“Yeah, well, they managed to snatch her, and I was trying to track them down. I knew about this group of redneck skinheads who had done transportation work for him, and so I went and braced one of them.”
“Wait, your contact is Ronald Templeton?”
“I have no idea. I just know people call him Ronny.”
“He’s the one who told the feds you tortured him.”
“I may have been ... overly exuberant in my questioning.”
“So when you said you had a contact...”
“I meant we’d go and convince Ronny to tell us what he knows. He was neck deep in smuggling girls from the port to work in the sex trade across the country, working with the Russians no less. I may have screwed up the crew who was doing it a year ago, but they were replaced by gangsters from overseas. Guaranteed they’re back in action. And if they have a pipeline for dealing with girls smuggled into the country, I bet they use it for American girls going the other way. Which is the only thing that makes sense for why they’d take her all the way to Florida.”
“I’m not going to let you torture anyone, John.”
Taylor just shrugged. It’s not like he went out planning on hurting people, but these guys were all directly involved in destroying lives. Ronny didn’t bother him any more than shooting Gregor in the feet, as he’d done several hours ago. These guys knew what kind of life they were getting into, and compared to how other criminals might deal with them, Taylor was using kid gloves.
“Hopefully he’ll cooperate,” was all Taylor said.
Whitaker looked at him dubiously, but let it drop. She wasn’t stupid. She knew how Taylor operated, but she had so far turned a blind eye to his more ... extreme, methods of finding people. He knew that wouldn’t hold if he did it in front of her. He would just have to find another way to get Ronny to talk.
It was fully night when they landed. Whitaker had secured a dark Lincoln town car which was waiting for them by the plane’s hangar, courtesy of the Miami field office.
Taylor had to look at a map to reacquaint himself but had no trouble getting to Ronny’s house at the end of the long dirt road Taylor remembered. Before he’d left Washington, Taylor had made a few calls of his own, just to make sure Ronny still lived there. Everything Taylor found said he did.
The lights were on in the house, and two other cars were sitting out front when Taylor and Whitaker pulled up. As they got out of the car, Taylor put his weapon in hand, although he kept it tight against his leg, trying to seem innocuous. Considering the company Ronny kept, Taylor had thought it best to be prepared. Seeing him, Whitaker followed suit.
Trying the front door, Taylor found it was unlocked and pushed the door open, walking in. A man sitting on a couch facing the door had half a sandwich shoved in his mouth when he saw Taylor.
“What the hell,” he mumbled. Half-chewed pieces of sandwich fell onto his shirt.
“Ehh, don’t,” Taylor said, lifting his weapon as the man made a move to get up.
A second man walked into the room, carrying a plate of food that crashed to the floor as he saw Taylor.
“Holy shit!” Ronny said, frozen in place, eyes wide with fear.
“Ronny, my friend. How are you?”
“Dude. No. I...” Ronny babbled, holding up his hands defensively and starting to back away.
The guy in the chair remained seated, his eyes on Whitaker as she pointed her weapon at him while Taylor turned his attention to Ronny.
“Ronny, how’s that a way to greet an old friend? Why don’t you come and sit next to your buddy?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I haven’t asked you anything, yet.”
“I got out, man. I swear. Please don’t kill me.”
Ronny was visibly shaking, and his friend was eyeing him with a surprised look. Of course, I had promised if I had to come back and visit him, I would kill him. And I’d made sure he believed me.
“Just answer my questions, and we won’t have a problem. Of course, my promise still stands if you jerk my chain. Now, I know you haven’t shaken off your old occupation that easily.”
“No, really, I quit all that, man. The Russians were more pissed at me than you were. I’ve gone straight, I swear.”
He was sweating, looking at a stack of boxes against the front door. Taylor looked over at a stack of DVD players, all in identical boxes, still sealed, then back to Ronny.
“I don’t give a shit about that, Ronny,” Taylor said, hooking a thumb at the boxes. “I already knew you were a lowlife. What I care about is a missing girl. She was in a truck, with a couple of other girls that came here from DC, last weekend. I know you have to still have some contacts with people involved in that.”
“Well,” he said, giving his friend the side-eye, “I’ve heard—”
“Shut the f•©k up, Ronny,” the friend said, starting to stand.
Taylor hit the man in the face with the side of his gun. He collapsed back into the chair clutching his nose, trying to stem the blood flowing from it.
“Don’t do that,” Taylor said, then turned back to Ronny. “Go ahead.”
Ronny was silent, staring at his friend. Taylor tapped him on the leg with the muzzle of his pistol, causing him to jump.
“Ronny?” Taylor asked.
“I heard about a ship. It was supposed to leave tomorrow for Saint Petersburg. I heard they had a bunch of trucks coming in all this week and were going to load the girls in a shipping container or something. I swear I’m not involved in that at all. It’s just stuff I’ve heard around.”
“Do you know the name of the ship?” Whitaker asked.
“No idea. Just that it leaves tomorrow, and it’s going to Saint Petersburg, out of the port, here.”
“Ronny, if you want to stop getting visits from guys like me, you should get out of this shit entirely. Drop the skinhead bullshit, stop stealing shit, and go to a trade school or you’re going to end up dead.”
“Yeah, man ... yeah,” he said, looking relieved as Taylor and Whitaker started backing out of the house.
The bleeding man just sat, glaring daggers at them. Taylor kept his weapon out until he got to the car and was backing along the driveway. Whitaker was on the phone when they turned out on the street.
“It’s Loretta. We have a possible line on her, but I need a list of all ships bound for Saint Petersburg scheduled to leave tomorrow out of the port of Miami. Yeah, I’ll wait.”
She switched the phone over to the speaker and waited while the guy on the other end accessed the information.
“OK, got it. Only one ship on the schedule for departing the port tomorrow. The Petrograd is a four-thousand-ton cargo ship listed as transporting industrial machinery.”
“We’re on the way there. Notify the port we want that ship held until we arrive. Inform the Coast Guard we have information the ship is being used for smuggling and get me a quick response team out of the Miami office to the port. We’re...” she paused and looked at Taylor.
“Forty minutes,” he said.
“Forty minutes out. Make sure the Coast Guard knows we want to sweep the ship for contraband.”
“Got it, boss,” he said and hung up.
It took them just over an hour. Even with the sirens, Taylor hadn’t realized were built into the car until Whitaker flicked them on, they could only do so much with traffic. It was still early in the evening, and they hit a combination of rush hour and people headed to Miami Beach.
They still managed to beat the FBI team, not that it mattered. They were directed to meet the dock master at one of the berths by the gate guard that checked trucks in and out of the shipyards. When they arrived, they found a harried looking man and no ship.
“Where the hell did it go?” Whitaker said as soon as she got out of the car.
“The captain changed their itinerary suddenly about three hours ago. They were already out of the port and miles offshore when your people called.”
“Dammit,” she said and headed back to the car.
“Did you see anything weird being loaded?” Taylor asked.
“I wasn’t supervising the loading, but who knows. We load cargo containers that have cleared customs and are all sealed. We never see inside the containers. We could be loading anything on these ships.”
“So nothing out of the ordinary.”
“I guess it was crewed heavier than normal, but not crazily so.”
Taylor walked back to the car and found Whitaker on the phone talking to the Coast Guard.
“The ship is still in US waters, and the Coast Guard is going to intercept it. I turned our assault team around, they aren’t trained for taking a boat. We’re going to catch a helo out to the cutter that’s intercepting them. They’ve agreed to let us take part in the boarding. I just hope Ronny was right because this is a lot of manpower we’re burning. I’m going to look like an idiot if this is a wild goose chase.”
“Considering the sudden change of itinerary not long after Gregor ends up in custody, it seems like a pretty strong indication this ship is involved.”
“Or it’s just a coincidence.”
“I’m not a big fan of coincidences,” Taylor said, frowning.
She drove them to a landing pad not far behind the control center for the port. A handful of minutes after they had arrived, a red and white helicopter landed on the pad. A man wearing a red life preserver and a white helmet slid the large door on the side of the helicopter open and hopped out, waving them to get on board.
Taylor had a brief thought as he and Whitaker ran toward the chopper, ducking as they got near the blades. He never understood why people did that since those blades were well above the height of either of them and yet it was something Taylor had done every time he’d boarded one.
“Ma’am,” the man said as he hopped back in the chopper once Whitaker and Taylor were on board. “We’re about twenty minutes out from the Cutter. It’s making good time toward the cargo ship and will slow down long enough for us to drop you off. The skipper thinks they can intercept in under forty minutes.”
“Thank you, Guardsman,” she said, pulling the seat harness over her shoulders, and locking it in place.
The cutter must have been moving faster than the pilot estimated or the chopper must have been slower because it took them almost thirty minutes before the sleek white ship came into view. As the helo circled the ship to land, Taylor saw the front of the ship curved, with a white dome sitting on a raised platform just along from the boat’s tip, a long, thin gun tube protruding from it. He also noted a .50 caliber mounted ahead of that. It wasn’t up to the Navy warships Taylor had seen over his years in the service, but it wasn’t anything to sneeze at. Taylor also noticed the white foam that poured off either side of the cutter’s bow was subsiding as it slowed to allow the chopper to land safely.
The center of the boat had two towers, both topped by radio antenna and radar domes, a long section connecting them Taylor assumed was where the crew worked while stationed on the boat. The helicopter finished its circular pattern, coming in at an angle to the flattened back area of the ship marked off as a landing pad.
As soon as the helicopter landed, the back door was wrenched open by another guardsman, also sporting a white open-faced flight helmet, although he had added a bright yellow reflective vest on top of his uniform. Taylor and Whitaker clambered out of the helicopter and followed a waiting man in a smart blue uniform.
“The skipper’s waiting for you,” the man said as the aircraft lifted off behind them, angling to head back toward the coast.
Walking up the side of the boat, Taylor was forced to grip the steel gray railing as it began to rock sharply. They were ushered onto the ships small bridge where the captain sat in a chair behind a long bank of dials, knobs and screens showing data Taylor couldn’t make sense of. On either side of the captain, separated by a few feet of open space, were two crewmen busy doing whatever it is people do on boats.
Through the row of small windows in front of the controls, Taylor could see the white foam pouring off either side of the cutter’s bow as it cut through the waves, picking up speed.
“Agent Whitaker,” the captain said, reaching out a hand.
“Thank you for helping us with this, Captain.”
“No problem. We were just out of port when the call came in. The ship is only a few miles ahead. We should be there shortly. Once it heaves to, we will send a launch with armed men to secure the ship, followed by a second launch to help conduct the search once we’ve secured it. You will be allowed to go in with the second group.”
Taylor would have preferred to go in with the group that secured the ship, but that was mostly his impatience showing. He understood this wasn’t his area of expertise, and knew it was best to leave this kind of thing to the experts.
‘Although,’ he thought, ‘looking at some of these guardsmen, the experts seem awfully young.’
They stood next to the skipper, as he watched out the window and occasionally glanced at the radar or sonar screens, Taylor wasn’t sure which. Occasionally one of the two guardsmen manning the controls on either side said something in jargon Taylor didn’t recognize.
“We should see it in just a minute. Jones, radio the ship, please.”
“Yes, sir,” the guardsman at a third, much smaller set of controls against another bulkhead said.