Burying the Past
Copyright© 2019 by Lumpy
Highland County, Virginia
The helicopter trip to western Virginia reminded Taylor strongly of his days in the service. Looking at the slightly older, early generation Blackhawk, Taylor imagined the FBI must have bought them off of either the military or from a defense contractor with unsold inventory. What it did have, was just as much noise as he remembered. Even with mic’d headphones it was still hard to hear what anyone was saying.
These were probably only used by tactical teams and not by normal agents since Whitaker seemed unfamiliar with its foibles. After a few attempts at conversation she gave up and looked out the window as they flew across the countryside.
The leader of the tactical team that had been assigned to back them up was more prepared, and had gotten the very short briefing out of the way before they boarded the choppers. Since they didn’t know if they were walking into a hostile environment, Whitaker was in overall command; although from the way the team leader had briefed them, he didn’t seem to know that.
Taylor had met his type before. Guys whose roles in the service were primarily ops oriented like Rangers or Force Recon who saw every problem as a nail in search of a hammer. While most of the Green Berets that Taylor had served with did go on to similar careers, often with private contractors, in security or some type of law enforcement, their mentality was different. Army Special Forces were trained as soldiers first, of course, but they spend a lot of training and even more of their careers, tasked with activities such as interfacing with local leaders in their regions or training irregulars in places where the U.S. government didn’t want a lot of American boots on the ground but still wanted to have influence.
There was a small, private airfield a few miles outside of the wildlife preserve that they’d been cleared to use. The tactical team would hold there and get the choppers refueled, while Taylor and Whitaker went with one of the park service rangers to look around the area and see if they could find where Bennett had been.
While Taylor appreciated how fast they were able to get to the area, cutting a five to six-hour drive down to just over an hour, he wasn’t sure all of this was necessary. It seemed unlikely that, even if Qasim had met Bennett in the remote area, he would have stuck around once she was loose. Taylor had heard him berate his lackeys about lax operational security when he was being held by Qasim’s guard, and it was clear that Qasim knew once Bennett was back in society, there was a chance she’d get picked up and lead authorities right back to the area.
He agreed it was a good lead and they needed to check it out, he just didn’t think he needed ten heavily armed men and a military grade helicopter sitting around while they looked into it. Not that he had tried to argue the point. It wasn’t his money being spent, or at least not directly, and he did appreciate having actual backup handy. They’d been caught totally flat-footed by the attack in Amberville, and had there been more than just a couple of guys there, things could have gone very differently for them.
The airfield turned out to be a dirt strip with a small hanger, currently housing a single prop plane, and a couple of concrete buildings. He did notice a tanker truck sitting next to the hanger that looked a lot newer than its surroundings and wondered if the FBI had arranged for them to be there or if it belonged to the people who owned the airstrip. He didn’t actually know much about the operations of aircraft, either civilian or military, beyond his experiences as a passenger, so he didn’t know if the Blackhawk needed a different higher quality gas than the smaller planes at this airfield regularly would use.
Next to the tanker was a rugged looking SUV with park service emblems on the door along with several layers of dirt and mud. When they landed, the helicopter crew chief slid open one of the large side doors letting Whitaker and Taylor out. As they headed towards the park ranger the tactical team unloaded behind them and began whatever preparations they were going to do while they waited to see if they were needed.
Taylor and Whitaker both had military-grade handheld field radios with which he was very familiar. He was pretty sure he’d even carried this exact model, at some point in his career. They didn’t have as much range as an actual backpack mounted field unit but they’d cover about six miles, which was enough for the area they were searching. If they did end up getting out of range, they could always borrow the radio in the rangers SUV. Taylor had checked already and there was no cell service, which wasn’t surprising since this was quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
While the wilderness preserve was stand-alone, bracketed by private lands on all sides, those were in turn surrounded in every direction by national and state parks. Besides a few farms nearby he’d seen on the flight in, there weren’t any towns he’d seen and the roads were all small county roads without even gas stations or other places to stop, which limited the needs for cell phone providers to put up towers.
“Officer Shelby?” Whitaker said as they walked up to the ranger.
“Yep. I’m guessing you’re Agent Whitaker.”
“Yes, Sir. Did they tell you what we’re looking for?”
“Yes Ma’am they did, and I think I might know of something. Since Highlands is a wildlife preserve and not a national park, our focus is on maintaining the local wildlife’s natural environment. What that means for you folks is there are no permanent buildings outside of the onsite park office and parking just off the county road. There are however these two old warehouses that used to be used by one of the coal companies back in the fifties that were bought by some giant corporation years ago. Since it’s the only permanent structure right next to the parklands, it would already be your best bet. A couple of the local farmers have mentioned seeing traffic around there recently. I thought you folks might want to check that out.”
“Is that kind of traffic unusual? You said it was bought by a corporation. Could it be the owners preparing to use or sell the buildings?”
“Not unless they wanted to tear them down and build new ones. I’ve helped the sheriff chase kids out of there before, and the place is a death trap. The ceilings are partially caved in and nature’s starting to take back the whole area. No, I don’t think it was the owners that were hanging around. I didn’t see them myself, mind you, but from the descriptions I was given, I wouldn’t think they were on the up and up.”
“They’re always parked so you can’t see them from the road unless you’re really looking for them or happen to see them coming or going, all the cars are older ones, or rentals, and everyone was dressed weirdly. That kind of thing.”
“How were they dressed weirdly?” Taylor asked.
“I don’t know. Like I said, I didn’t see them myself. I just know that’s what people have said. I guess they mean in such a way like they don’t look like they belong there. Honestly, I’d talked to the sheriff and he thought they might be meth cookers. He’s checked it out a few times, but the people always hightail it before he shows up. He went through the buildings but didn’t find anything obviously out of place anyways. After a few weeks of that he just gave up since he wasn’t having any luck. I only really thought of them when I got the call you folks were headed out here.”
“It seems like our best bet. Can you go ahead and drive us out there?”
“Sure thing. Hop in.”
The drive didn’t take long, as the buildings were on the same side of the wilderness preserve as the airstrip, making it only a few miles down the road. That actually worried Taylor. Helicopters, even military ones, don’t fly at tree level unless there is an operational reason to do so. From a safety standpoint not only was it more dangerous to fly that close to the earth, as pilot or mechanical errors can have an outsized effect when flying that close to the ground, but pilots also had to watch for increased chances of bird strikes and people using things like drones, both of which could cause a crash if the helicopter rotor blades were somehow damaged.
The higher altitude they came in on would have also made it fairly visible when descending to land, and a Blackhawks’ silhouette couldn’t be mistaken for a private aircraft. Anyone seeing it would know that either the military or some law enforcement agency using military aircraft had landed just down the road. If Qasim was using these warehouses he would have kept someone on watch, maybe only for passing cars and not aircraft specifically, but it wouldn’t have been difficult to spot the landing chopper.
That all meant that if this location was what they were using, they’d either be prepared for visitors or already leaving, assuming they hadn’t left as soon as Bennett finished her visit.
The ranger pulled over in what seemed to Taylor was the middle of nowhere. On one side of the single-lane road was a not very dense wooded area and on the other was a field growing some type of short green plant Taylor couldn’t recognize in unevenly spaced rows. The truck was as far off the road as the ranger could make it considering there was an irrigation ditch on one side and trees on the other just shy of a bend that disappeared to the right, turning towards the wooded area.
“Around that corner and about a hundred yards down are the warehouses.”
“I’m assuming if we just continued on down the road we’d be in plain sight?” Whitaker asked.
“Yep. they’re in a small clearing in the woods opposite from the Jessup’s farms. For whatever reason, the administration that designated the protected woodlands went around the property rather than roll it up with the rest of the preserve. With the open farmland across from the buildings, it’s impossible to drive up to the buildings unseen, which is why people noticed the cars pulling in a few times. They park behind the warehouses between the buildings and the tree line so the cars themselves are out of sight once they’re parked. As soon as we go around that bend they’d be able to see us if they’re looking. This road doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic so they’d probably also hear us.”
“Couldn’t they hear us when we pulled over here?”
“Nah, the trees work to deaden some of the noise, and direct it out to the fields. They might hear something, but it would be hard to tell where it came from and would sound like machinery in the fields. It’s not till we get around the trees that the sound is clear enough to tell it’s a car.”
“I’m guessing you were thinking of stopping here and going around through the trees to come up on the buildings from behind?” Taylor asked.
“That was my plan.”
“That works for us. I don’t want to actually approach the buildings directly, just see if they’re occupied and then call in the cavalry.”
“Good. Seein’ the men you brought with you, I’m guessing these are more than squatters and I don’t feel much like gettin’ shot at.”
“Well, let’s get going I guess,” Taylor said, opening up his door and getting out, followed by Whitaker and the ranger.
The three of them headed into the woods with the ranger leading them on a wide loop to stay well clear of the buildings. As they’d headed into the woods the forest had grown denser, and the undergrowth more rugged, making it harder to walk in a straight line. Taylor had always considered himself to have a good sense of direction, but not being able to see the sun coupled with the zigzagging nature of their path had turned him around. He wasn’t particularly sure which direction they’d come from or which direction the warehouses were in.
“We’re not far from them now. Just like how it was when we came into the forest, it thins out as you get closer to the tree line. That means we won’t be able to just walk up to the cleared area and get as good of a view as you’d probably want. We’ll also need to stay down and move slowly. I’ll stop us while we’re far enough in that it’d be hard to see us unless you were really looking hard. That should let us get close enough to see what’s going on, without being spotted.”
“Do you think they have anyone patrolling the forest? It’s what I’d do if I wanted to make sure no one snuck up on me. Especially after seeing a military helicopter land nearby.”
“Maybe, but from what I’ve been told these folks didn’t seem the type that spends a lot of time in the woods. This stuff is hard to navigate through, if you don’t know how to find a path through it. If we move slowly, we should hear them before they see us, so I’m not worried.”
“Ok, lead on.”
The ranger crouched down and headed off in a new direction Taylor assumed was towards their destination. While they moved a lot slower crouched down Ranger Shelby proved correct as they hadn’t gone far before they could start seeing past the edge of the woods to two buildings about seven or eight feet beyond the tree line. Despite the warning, Taylor had still assumed they’d have gotten closer than they did when the ranger stopped them. He could see the buildings, but not clearly and there was still a lot of obstacles in the way.
“I don’t know if this is going to work. It’s hard to get a clear view from here.”
He reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a fairly small pair of binoculars, handing them to Taylor.
“See if these help. We can edge a few feet further, but much more than that, and someone looking into the forest might spot you. I wouldn’t risk it.”
They moved a few feet closer and then stopped near a large up-growth of underbrush that helped to further hide them. Taylor put the binoculars to his eyes and began to slowly pan across the direction of the buildings. Much of the view was blocked by trees, but the binoculars helped bring the slivers where there was still a clear view into focus. It took him a few minutes of going across the entire scene several times before he got a clear picture of what might be happening.
The first thing that stood out to Taylor was the building was definitely occupied, as he could see two older model cars behind the building. They weren’t overgrown and the windows were clean, which meant they probably weren’t just abandoned by the previous owners.
The buildings themselves were just as dilapidated as promised, although he thought the description of them as warehouses was a bit too generous. They looked more like old barns than anything else. They were perhaps a little longer than what he’d pictured when he thought of a barn initially, but they were much too small to be called warehouses. There were very dirty windows in a row along the top of the buildings right below the roof, most of which were broken. He could also see several sections of the roof along with the corners of the buildings with notable holes. Given their smaller size and obviously bad condition, he could see why none of the locals ever used the buildings themselves, and why it would seem odd for strangers to be using them now, at least not without a major overhaul.
“I think there’s still people in there and I don’t think they’re locals,” Taylor said, turning to Whitaker.
“We need to bring the tac team up before we move in. The guys at the water treatment had assault rifles. If there are more people here I don’t want to try and take them on by myself.”
“We don’t want to just have the helicopter drop them on the building or land out in those fields across the road from them. It would leave our guys sitting ducks and any chance at surprise would go right out the window.”
“I can call around and get a few guys I know to meet me at the airstrip with some cars. We should be able to get them all back here before long.”
“Let’s do that,” Taylor said. “I’ll let them know what’s going on and have them standing by and ready. Bring them up through the woods like you brought us, and we can take the place from behind. If we move out of the trees fast enough we should be on them before they have much of a chance.”
“We’ll stay here and keep an eye on the buildings,” Whitaker said.