The Wrong Girl
They couldn’t just assume after finding the one container, that the girls had been offloaded. Taylor thought it was the most likely answer, since just shuffling them from one container to another made no sense, but they still had to check the entire ship.
They were checking yet another container, this one also matching the manifest, when Taylor felt the deck vibrate as the ship’s powerful engine put the vessel into motion.
“Are we moving?” he asked the guardsman nearest him.
“Yeah. Daniel’s team found a container full of what looks like stolen electronics. We can’t be sure until we check, but there’d been a BOLO on a missing shipment of electronics that was hijacked near Jacksonville. It and the signs of smuggling were enough for the Skipper to order the ship turned around. The exec came over twenty minutes ago with a small crew to get the boat headed back to port.”
“Ohh,” Taylor said. It hadn’t occurred to him the Coast Guard got law enforcement notices, but it made sense.
“It also means once we hit port we’ll have a lot more people to help us search this thing. It would take us days to search this thing, even if we emptied the cutter of everyone who currently isn’t on duty to help.”
“Excellent point,” Taylor said.
He had been considering that very thing before the ship had started moving. In his gut, Taylor was positive Mary Jane wasn’t on the boat anymore, but he had to be sure. And yet, every minute he spent checking the containers on this vessel, the farther away whoever took her could get.
Taylor kept searching until they got back to port.
As they passed the artificial breakwaters and into the docks Taylor made his way over to the side railing. The sun was just cresting over the horizon, bathing the sky in a dizzying array of colors. In the early morning light, he could make out a virtual army of various law enforcement agencies waiting where the Ship would be berthed. As they got closer Taylor could make out FBI, more of the Coast Guard and even ICE.
“This is going to be a big haul,” Whitaker said from behind him, startling Taylor.
“So far, we’ve found a container full of what looks like stolen weapons, another of electronics, and even one full of weird plush toys. Some of it is stuff that’s illegal, both here in the US and to import into Russia, while other stuff looks like the owners were trying to avoid paying duties.”
“Any sign...” Taylor said, the question left unspoken.
“No. Both the Coasties and the Bureau are sending in more manpower to search, but I don’t think we’ll find anything. However, this is going to be a decent sized bust, once the powers that be decide who gets to claim it. We’ve found ten containers of contraband so far, and we’ve got a lot more to look for. And hopefully, once we get the crew in for questioning, we can find the person in the port who helped them. Because it’d be hard to load this much crap and have no one notice unless you had help on the inside.”
“If she’s not here, we’ve got to keep going. Waiting to make sure she isn’t here hurts our chances.”
“I know, but we have to do things in steps. Don’t worry, we’ll have enough manpower to clear the ship in a few hours.”
As the ship docked completely and the gangplank lowered, Taylor watched the captain of the Petrograd and his crew being marched off by the guardsmen into the waiting arms of the FBI.
“I’m going to call the senator,” he said to Whitaker as they walked off the ship, handing the rest of the search over to the new people.
His voice was weary, a combination of pushing himself for more than a day and knowing he’d have to tell a mother he had been unable to find her daughter. His legs were weary, and he dropped into the seat of one of the FBI cars Whitaker appropriated from its owner. He’d been pushing himself on crappy ship’s coffee and capsules of caffeine one of the guardsmen had on her.
“OK. Where do you think she is?” Whitaker asked.
“I think she’s still headed to Russia. Pulling the girls off was a last-minute thing. They got tipped off, and had to act fast. But looking at that container, they’d planned on her staying there until she got to St. Petersburg. They may have had to adjust their plan, but their end goal probably hasn’t had to change. I’d bet money she’s still headed there.”
She just nodded slowly, looking over her shoulder at the cargo ship now crawling with law enforcement.
“I’m going to make this call, then I need to crash. I’m beat.”
“Yeah,” she said, giving Taylor’s shoulder a squeeze.
“You can stay,” he said.
Taylor wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t feel like making the call by himself.
It only occurred to Taylor it was early morning and the senator was probably not in her office after he dialed the number. To his surprise, a slightly drowsy but still nearly robotically cheerful Loren Dashel answered the phone.
“Loren, I need to talk to the senator.”
“Mr. Taylor, I appreciate your urgency, but it is very early still. If you could call back at business—”
“I know she left instructions to put me through. You did your thing, and tried to put me off. Good boy. Now connect the call.”
“Hold a moment please,” Dashel said, his voice barely containing his annoyance through the speaker.
Taylor couldn’t help smiling. He didn’t have anything against Dashel, but it was a small victory to get that shell to crack, even just a bit. Of course, messing with the man just to annoy him and get a reaction was a jackass thing to do. The look Whitaker gave him suggested she agreed with Taylor’s assessment that he was a jackass!
There wasn’t Muzak this time, just silence as Taylor waited. Probably because Dashel had to call her and transfer the call or do a conference call thing. He had no idea how the rich and powerful did things.
“Did you find her,” the senator said when the line reconnected.
While she sounded sleepy as well, she was clearly wide awake. Taylor wondered if she’d been awake all night as well.
“No, Senator, we didn’t. We found out she, and some other girls were loaded onto a cargo ship bound for Russia. With the help of the Coast Guard, we intercepted the ship and searched it. We found evidence she had been on the ship, but it looks like she was moved. We don’t know yet if she was moved to somewhere else on the ship, or transferred to another ship once they were out of port. We have the vessel back in port, and the FBI and Coast Guard are still working to search the rest of it.”
“You don’t think she’s on there, do you?”
“No, Ma’am. I believe she was taken off and is on her way to Russia.”
“So she’s gone?” the senator asked, her voice quavering.
“I’m not giving up yet, Ma’am. I have a guy over there I know from back in my days in the service. He might put me on her trail.”
“This would be from Operation Rear Guard?” The senator asked, and Taylor’s face froze in absolute stillness.
Even though he hadn’t thought about the events ten years before, his mind couldn’t help but race back. He’d been in Special Forces less than a year, and in the army less than three, when his team was sent to Russia, ostensibly on a cross-training initiative with the Spetsnaz, the Russians answer to the Green Berets and Navy SEALs rolled into one.
His team was part of the 10th Special Forces, whose specialty was Russia. At one time it had been the premier group within Special Forces, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorism in the Middle East, that distinction had switched to the 5th Special Forces Group.
When they’d arrived in Moscow, they learned they weren’t there for training, but rather had been loaned to the Defense Intelligence Agency for joint operations in Chechnya. A DIA source had gotten wind of a nuclear warhead stolen from a rather poorly guarded silo by underpaid troops, which had been sold to Chechen rebels for what would have been pennies on the dollar. The Chechen’s, in turn, were trying to sell the warhead themselves, needing money more than they needed a large-scale weapon. The source had sent back a recording of a meeting between the Chechen’s and a representative of a rather aggressive branch of Al Qaeda to arrange for the sale of the warhead. Unlike the Chechen’s, Al Qaeda was adequately funded and had a burning desire for just that type of weapon.
The DIA had made a deal that they would share the intel with the Russians if the Russians agreed to let an American team in on the operation. The DIA, at the time at least, had a low view of the Russians’ ability not to screw it up and a deep-seated fear of that type of weapon ever getting into the hands of Al Qaeda.
Taylor remembered thinking he didn’t see what the DIA’s concern was. The Russians he dealt with were as competent as any US soldiers he’d known. But, as it so often did, the mission had gone sideways. One member of his team and four from the Russian team had been killed and several from both teams wounded when it was over. But they’d gotten the warhead back, and the American public had never known how close Al Qaeda had gotten to obtaining a nuke.
He couldn’t help but wonder how many more missions like that, still buried under DOD or CIA oaths of secrecy, had taken place. How many more times the US brushed up against unparalleled destruction no one would ever know about.
“Ma’am, how do you know about that,” he said, switching off the speaker.
Whitaker’s eyes squinted as she watched him, her investigator brain starting to kick into overdrive at the hint of something secret. Taylor held up a finger and stepped out of the car, away from Whitaker.
“John, I sit on the intelligence committee. I’ve seen your file. The full one, not the slimmed down one your FBI friends got.”
“Yes, Ma’am, it was from then. The person I know was in charge of the Russian team.”
“Good. Mr. Solokov is with the FSB now, so he should give you any help you need.”
Taylor was stunned by how incredibly well informed the senator was.
“Yes, Ma’am, that’s what I was hoping.”
“Do you think you will find her?”
“Maybe. I’m guessing they are still headed for St. Petersburg. They have a pipeline in place for this kind of thing and aren’t going to go through the cost of setting up alternative operations if it’s not compromised at that end. If I can manage to swing a visa in the next couple of days, I might actually beat the ship. I’m not sure, but I think it should take them a week or more to make the crossing. That gives me some time to finally get ahead of them. I’m hoping the extra time can be used to catch them as she and the girls with her are being taken off the ship. Of course, it all depends on how long it takes to get into the country.”
“I can handle that for you. I might need a few days, but I will ensure you get into the country. I will, of course, make my plane available for you as well.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“I just want my girl back, John.”
“I’m trying, Ma’am.”
“I know. Come back to Washington, and I will talk to you as soon as I have secured your access.”
Some of the hope had gone out of the senator’s voice as she hung up. Taylor could understand. Now he had to try to find her in a giant country, with a lot fewer resources than he had now, and without the benefit of knowing where she would be.
“What’s Rear Guard?” Whitaker asked as he got back to the car. “I’ve seen your file. It’s not mentioned in it.”
“Lola, I can’t tell you.”
“I’m an FBI agent. I have a security clearance.”
“Not for this. I can’t believe she let that slip on an open line. It was damned sloppy. But I swear, if I could tell you about it, I would. But the DOD does not play around with classified intel.”
“Fine. Keep your secrets. So what now?”
“She’s working on getting me a visa to get into Russia. I’m going to try to get ahead of them. I have a contact who might put me on the right track.”
Whitaker’s eyebrows lowered in a skeptical expression.
“Not a contact like Ronny. This one likes me, and owes me a favor from ... a long time ago.”
“From Rear Guard?”
“Drop it, Loretta.”
Whitaker rolled her eyes and gestured at the ship, “So do we wait for the search?”
“No. It’s going to come up empty, and we still have the senator’s plane. They can call us if something does turn up and we can come back. She can afford the gas.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Mostly because I gotta lay down before I drop.”
“Pansy,” she said, slapping him on the ass as she walked around him to the driver’s side of the car.
The plane was waiting at the airport just where they left it, with the same crew waiting for them as they boarded. Taylor seemed to remember hearing something about flight crews needing a set number of hours downtime, and he wondered briefly if they had found a hotel or something for the night and came back at a call from the senator.
When the plane was airborne, Taylor was leaned back in a plush leather seat, dead asleep, with Whitaker curled up in the seat next to him, head pillowed in his lap.
The next two days were a whole lot of hurry up and wait. Apparently, a last-minute visa, even at the request of someone so notable, was not something that could be whistled up overnight. As suspected, the search turned up more contraband, but no sign of the girls. Whitaker seemed pleased they’d at least stopped one pipeline of smuggling. Or at least she had been pleased until Taylor pointed out another was probably already being set up to take its place.
Taylor had already called Andre and told him he was on the way as soon as things were arranged, and given the Russian a rundown on what he needed. His friend promised he would do some preliminary work, under the radar of course since nothing was yet sanctioned, and invited Taylor to stay at his home if need be. He did extract a promise from Taylor to come by at least once. Taylor had never met Andre’s wife, and Andre felt it was time to rectify that.
On the third night after they’d returned from Miami, the senator made another appearance at their apartment, once again in her ridiculous disguise.
“Ma’am,” Taylor said by way of a greeting as she swept through the front and into their living room.
“That took longer than I’d hoped,” she said, handing Taylor a small blue passport with the word Diplomatic stamped above the usually solo Passport. “This is only temporary, and the State Department will rescind it in two weeks, but it should allow you to enter the country unmolested, and afford you at least some latitude. I’ve talked to a few contacts of my own, and they are aware you are coming, and why you are going to be there. While they are not overly thrilled, they have agreed to a minimal level of cooperation, although I’m not exactly sure what form that will come in. Sadly, our governments are not getting along well at the moment.”
“I understand. Just getting me in the country is enough.”
“You will be recognized as an official, although temporary, member of the US embassy in Moscow and will have diplomatic immunity. While that won’t help you very much if things get too far out of hand like they did in, say, Miami, it will allow you to enter the country with only a cursory examination through customs.”
“What she’s saying John, is you can’t go shooting gangsters in the streets this time,” Whitaker said helpfully.
“Yeah, I got that,” he said dryly.
He also understood the senator had said, in a very diplomatic way, he could go into the country armed.
“The jet is being fueled, now. I will have it at your disposal the entire time.”
“I should get packed, then.”
The senator reached out a hand and briefly grabbed Taylor’s hands, giving them a squeeze, before replacing her sunglasses and leaving the apartment as quickly as she arrived.
“Well,” Taylor said, looking at Whitaker.
“I wish I could go with you.”
“I know. But I’m sure she had to pull all kinds of strings to get me in, and I’m a nobody. I can imagine the trouble she would have had asking for them to let in an active duty Federal officer to conduct an investigation on their soil.”
Whitaker just nodded, but her expression was somber, “Please be careful.”
“You know me,” he said with a grin.
“I do. You’re reckless, you rush in without thinking, you’re—”
Taylor cut off Whitaker’s point by point recitation of his faults by kissing her. She was surprised for a moment before returning the kiss just as passionately.
“I know you worry about me. I promise I’ll be as careful as I can be.”