The Rescue (Ryan Decker) by Steven Konkoly
Ryan Decker wiped the perspiration from his face with a damp, threadbare hand towel. A futile gesture he’d repeat again in a few moments. The temperature inside the dank motel room pushed ninety degrees, the rattling air conditioner unable to keep up with the extra demand imposed by his teammates and a table packed with overtaxed computer towers.
Luckily for him, the two-day stay at La Jacinta Inn was rapidly approaching an end. Barring any unforeseen difficulties, they should be packing up within ten minutes. Gone in less than twenty.
“GHOST just crossed phase line Charlie,” said Brad Pierce, the team’s second-in-command.
“Tell them they need to pick up the pace,” said Decker. “SPECTER crossed Charlie a minute ago.”
“They know what they’re doing.”
“I know,” said Decker, confirming GHOST’s position on the flat-screen monitor.
GHOST, a five-man team of seasoned hostage-rescue operators, had the tougher approach, crossing several hills and ravines from their drop-off point north of the target house. The thicker scrub and occasional tree in the hills would camouflage their approach and allow them to nestle in closer to the Bratva “distribution center” than SPECTER, which would have to cross nearly a hundred yards of flat, sandy ground to reach the house.
SPECTER was the direct-action assault team, assigned to clear a path immediately outside and then inside the target structure for GHOST. Comprised of six former SWAT and Special Forces operators, they would arrive from the south and split into two groups of three, to enter the house from opposite sides. GHOST would closely follow whichever team encountered the least resistance and execute the hostage-rescue phase of the operation.
Decker had outsourced the hostage-rescue team from an exclusive word-of-mouth-only group that specialized in “actively opposed asset recoveries.” His in-house hostage-rescue team was top-notch, but the men and women he’d hired for this mission were the absolute best in the business. You didn’t cut corners with the life of an influential US senator’s daughter on the line.
Deborah Payne, his lead tactical operations coordinator, spoke without moving her eyes from the screen. “SPECTER reports no obvious movement in the house. All dark.”
“Thermal imaging?” said Decker.
He didn’t like that. A few guards would be active, even at two in the morning, especially given what the long-range surveillance team had confirmed earlier in the day. Fifteen children and teenagers had been moved into the house during the morning. Decker had planned to move on the location last night—but when he learned that more kids were on the way, he delayed the mission by twenty-four hours. He couldn’t leave these children in the hands of the Russian mob.
The isolated Riverside County compound served as a Bratva collection point for children abducted from the greater Los Angeles area. Abductees were inspected and evaluated over the span of a few days, then assigned to various categories for distribution into the Bratva’s human-trafficking network
The senator’s daughter could endure one more day of captivity to save this newly arrived “crop.”
“Dammit,” muttered Pierce. “I told you it was a bad idea to wait. If the place is empty, we’re screwed.”
“It’s not empty,” said Decker. “We’ve had a team watching the place for three days. She’s there.”
“What if she’s not?”
“Then our intelligence is wrong, and she was never there.”
“The intel is good,” said Pierce.
“Then we have nothing to worry about. Only the driver and escort crew left with the delivery van. Just like they always do.”
“As far as we could tell.”
“They’ve never concealed a transfer at a location like this before,” said Decker. “Hell. They barely disguise what they’re doing in the middle of the city—in broad daylight.”
“I’m just saying we have a lot riding on this one.”
“We always have a lot riding on these,” said Decker.
“You know what I mean.”
Decker nodded. “I do. Everything will be fine.”
Pierce didn’t look convinced, and Decker started to have his own doubts. He shook his head. No. The kids were there. The guards were there. Senator Steele’s daughter was there, and if she wasn’t, the Bratva had moved her long before Decker received the information asserting her presence at the house.
He’d been entirely frank with Senator Steele and Jacob Harcourt from the start: too much time had elapsed since the girl’s disappearance, the FBI had produced no physical evidence, and no ransom note had been delivered. The likelihood of finding Meghan Steele was nearly nonexistent. Nearly.
Decker’s World Recovery Group got extremely lucky after a long month and a half of searching. Needle-in-a-haystack lucky. The odds of finding this needle twice would be nonexistent once the Bratva learned what happened here. This would be Decker’s last shot at finding the senator’s daughter.
“GHOST is in final position,” said Payne.
Decker took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. “Give them the green light.”
“SPECTER. This is TOMBSTONE. You have a green light to breach the house. GHOST, advise when you start the hostage-rescue phase.”
Decker watched the SPECTER team leader’s bouncing feed as the operative reached the back door. The other half of his team was on the other side of the house. Several seconds passed as the team prepped small explosive charges that would blow the door off its hinges.
“SPECTER Two ready for breach,” announced a gravelly voice.
“Copy that. SPECTER One ready. Stand by to breach,” said the team leader. “Two. One. Breach.”
The simultaneous flash of the door charges was followed by rapid, confusing camera movement. A few seconds later, the video feed stabilized. A tightly clustered, night vision–equipped group of operatives appeared in the far left corner of the feed, panning their rifles around a large common area featuring a combined kitchen and living room. The team leader’s camera pointed at a padlocked door leading to the other half of the house.
“Something’s off,” said Payne. “No guards.”
His teams must have been detected on the way in. That was the only explanation. Decker had a bad feeling about what they’d find on the other side of that door. Pierce muttered an obscenity, shaking his head.
“Bring GHOST up and breach the padlocked door immediately,” said Decker.
Payne relayed the orders, and the body armor–clad operatives swarmed forward to attach the explosive charges. GHOST team stacked up along the wall next to the door, waiting for SPECTER to finish their job
Pierce tapped his shoulder. “We have company,” he said. “FRONT DOOR has a tight convoy of Suburbans and Town Cars turning onto Florida from Santa Fe. Heading in our direction.”
FRONT DOOR was a two-person surveillance team situated on the roof of a realty business across the street from the motel. They had a commanding view of Florida Street and the front entrance. Another team sat on the roof of a two-story building behind the motel, ensuring nobody could sneak up on Decker’s command center undetected.
“Do you want me to delay the breach?” said Payne.
“Hold on, Deb,” said Decker, turning to Pierce. “How long until the vehicles reach the motel entrance?”
“Ten seconds max. They’re moving fast.”
The time would feel like an eternity for the teams at the target house, but Decker needed to know what they were up against from the vehicles outside the motel before making a final decision.
“Any sign of similar activity near the target house?”
“Negative,” replied the operations technician seated next to Payne. “GRAVEYARD reports all clear.”
It had to be the FBI. Agent Reeves, the special agent in charge of the Steele case, had protested WRG’s involvement from the start, embarking on an immediate campaign of harassment that had required the senator’s intervention. Reeves had picked the worst possible moment to renew his vendetta.
“Tell them to breach in twenty seconds unless they hear otherwise,” said Decker.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” said Pierce.
“If a bunch of Russians jump out of those vehicles, I’ll assume the worst about the house and withdraw the team.”
“You haven’t already assumed the—” Pierce began. “Hold that. BACK DOOR reports heavily armed teams on foot approaching the back of the motel. FBI stenciled in bold letters on their ballistic shields.
“Has to be Reeves. The senator will have his badge for this,” muttered Decker.
“What are we doing?” said Payne.
“The operations center stands down. Only the operations center,” said Decker. “Tell GHOST to breach the door now and rescue the hostages. Then transfer command of the operation to GRAVEYARD. Let them know we’re compromised.”
“Copy that,” said Payne before transmitting the orders.
Red strobe lights flashed through the thin cracks between the window shades as tires screeched in the distance.
“FRONT DOOR reports heavily armed personnel exiting the vehicles and heading for the motor court entrance. FBI stencils confirmed,” said Pierce. “What now?”
“We disarm and walk out with our hands up. Immediately,” said Decker, removing his pistol from a concealed hip holster and tossing it on the bed.
“What about the surveillance teams?” said Pierce.
“My guess is they’ve already been made. Probably under sniper cover. Tell them to raise their hands and stand very still. Wait for the FBI.”
Pierce relayed instructions and threw his pistol on the bed next to Decker’s. “None of this makes sense,” he said. “The house—and now this?”
He was right. It didn’t add up, but there was nothing they could do about it right now. The best they could hope for was a miracle at the target house.
“Any word from GHOST?” said Decker, his hand on the doorknob.
“Breaching in a few seconds,” said Payne.
He wanted to wait, but they needed to beat the FBI into the motor court or things would get complicated. “It’s in their hands now,” he said. “Everyone disarm and walk out behind me.
“I’ll switch the feed over to a wireless earpiece,” said Payne, standing up. “They might not notice.”
Satisfied that everyone was disarmed and ready, Decker opened the door and raised his hands, scanning the empty, weed-infested parking lot. Red strobe lights from a dark SUV penetrated the arched motor court entrance, reflecting off the ground-floor windows. He took several steps into cooler night air, turning his head far enough to see that everyone on the command team had followed. Doors on both sides of the motor court creaked open, and his internal security teams streamed into the parking lot.
All of his people stood in the middle of the lot, hands held high above their heads. A few seconds later, the courtyard swarmed with heavily armed, body armor–encased FBI agents barking orders. Decker followed their instructions, ending up facedown—with his hands zip-tied behind his back. He turned his head to the side, scraping his cheek on crumbled asphalt. A rifle barrel gently poked the other cheek.
“Don’t move,” said the agent, activating the flashlight attached to his rifle.
Decker closed his eyes, unable to keep them open in the blinding light.
A nearby agent yelled, “Over here,” and more light penetrated his eyelids.
“Ryan,” Payne whispered next to him. “The feed went dead.”
He turned his head. “What do you mean?”
The rifle barrel pressed against the top of his head. “Stop talking and stop moving. That’s your last warning.”
“The feed just flatlined,” said Payne.
“What part of shut up don’t you understand?” The agent standing above Payne pushed her head down with his rifle barrel.
“Where’s Decker?” said a familiar voice. Special Agent Reeves
Before anyone answered, the pavement shuddered once, the word earthquake thrown around the motor court by the agents.
“Isn’t that ironic!” said Reeves, his voice nearby. “An earthquake at the very moment Ryan Decker is shut down for good.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is coincidence,” said Decker, the rifle barrel pressing hard into his cheekbone.
Reeves squatted between Decker and Payne, a victorious grin plastered on his face. “What’s going on here, Mr. Decker?”
“We’re completely legit.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Reeves. “I imagine I’ll find some non-California-compliant firearms in these rooms. This looks like the kind of operation you’d want to protect with some serious firepower, given the people you’re bound to piss off.”
“Sounds like you’re the only one pissed around here. Everything is California compliant.”
“Well. I’m not interested in this half of the equation,” said Reeves. “I want the other half.”
“This is it. We’re conducting routine surveillance related to Meghan Steele’s kidnapping.”
“You’re doing more than following up worthless leads. Something big is going on nearby.”
One of the agents spoke up. “The woman here was saying something about a feed going dead.”
“Feed to who?” said Reeves.
A deep, window-rattling crunch cut off Payne’s smart-ass reply.
Reeves looked around the parking lot. “That better not be any of your handiwork, Decker. High explosives are pretty freaking far from California compliant.”
It all came together for Decker in the blink of an eye. No guards at the target house. Ground waves traveled faster than sound. The parking lot vibration, then, thirty seconds later, a massive, distant explosion. The house had been rigged with explosives. The Russians had known they were coming—well before Decker’s team arrived in Hemet.
It was the only explanation. But why didn’t they drive a truck bomb into the motor court at the same time and simply cut the rest of the operation down? All of this was related. It had to be. But how? The Russians must have tipped off the FBI, which brought him back to one of his previous questions: Why not vaporize everyone at once?
Decker’s vision narrowed with the realization that the command team had been spared for a reason. The Russians weren’t done with them.