Part 2 of The Tempest Illusion by F T Moore
The California mountains, north of Malibu
1996: A Time unlike Today
Chauncey Harrington Kiernan — Chance, as he was called — pulled on his jogging shoes and re-wrapped the bandage he wore continually around his right knee. The sun peered over the hills of his ranch in the rolling canyons of the California coast, halfway between Malibu and the Point Mugu Naval Base. Steep rolling ravines ended in holes and shadows, rather than curving valleys. Multiple shades of yellow, red, and brown shrubs twisted over the flowing hills. In the distance, trees grew in mutant shapes, mixing palms with distorted bushes, quiltwork patches of forest green among the shades of yellow. Above, the sunny blue sky broke only for the ominous wingspan of a condor, gliding from hilltop to hilltop, searching for prey. Chance had chosen the highest point on the hill for his homesite, providing a glimpse of the crashing ocean in the distance. He had built the house with his own hands, modeling it after a Western -style log cabin. Chance Kiernan wasn’t you and he wasn’t me. He was a different species, not like us. He didn’t have the same feelings we have. He was more connected to the Earth than we are; a species suspended between animal and demi-god. Whatever humanity had been in him had been trained and sifted out.
Chance resigned from the military after his mission in Honduras. He had attained the rank of Lt. Colonel, through field operations in the Special Forces. Joint Special Operations Command, now, but Delta Force, then. He lived alone here on the ranch, but hired Marin, a Bolivian immigrant, to work with him every day. Marin lived in the bunker behind the main house, along with other ranch hands that Marin hired from time to time. Although Chance had undergone three operations on his leg, and years of physical therapy, he still walked with a limp. It annoyed him, to be less than perfect.
It was barely dawn. Chance jogged, as best he could while favoring his injured leg, the quarter mile to the edge of his land. He climbed his homemade obstacle course, lifting weights, stretching every muscle in his body. He enjoyed physical experience. He believed it to be communion with the Earth. He loved the thrill of feeling his senses. The sun burned off the morning haze, and Chance arrived at his target range. Chance considered his target shooting to be mental therapy. He used shooting to focus his mind, concentrating his intensity. When he focused his mind on form, aim, and skill, he knew he could keep his mind from racing into memories he didn’t want to recall. Whenever he felt tense, he returned to his shooting range to release energy, to focus his mental power. Only after his business of exercise and shooting was complete would he return to the cabin to prepare his breakfast. The life of a hermit suited him, and he expected that he would be alone forever.
It was mid-morning before he returned to the yard to begin the day’s work, steaming coffee in hand. Marin dragged the sheep they would slaughter into the work area. With a skilled strike, Chance slit its throat. Just then, the flock of geese Chance kept as pets honked a warning alarm. He dropped his bloody knife on the ground by the sheep’s carcass. Wiping his hands on his worn jeans, he got up off his knees. Reaching inside the screen door, he pulled his revolver out of its leather holster hanging behind the kitchen door; he inserted the gun, muzzle down, inside the back of his waistband. Hugging the wall, he tread slowly around the outside of the wood cabin to the front yard.
Joe Bridgewell crouched inside his rental car, parked halfway down the mud driveway where a large dog-sized gander lowered its neck in attack posture, squawking a threat. Joe’s eyes revealed the fear of the cornered.
“Normal people have dogs,” he yelled at Chance through the cracked open car window.
Chance smiled as he sauntered across the barren patch of land. Two black labrador puppies barreled out the screen door, yapping at the gander.
“I have dogs,” Chance responded.
As Joe timidly opened the car door, the gander ran away, honking and flapping. Joe brushed the dust off his vested blue suit.
“You know,” he said, “if you got a phone, I wouldn’t have to fly three thousand miles to talk. Who doesn’t have a phone, buddy? I can tell you the Avis people are going to have a fit when they see what that so-called road you built did to their Camaro.” Joe’s Boston accent hadn’t softened in fifteen years of life in Washington, D.C. His military-cut blond hair and tall, angular body fit perfectly in a three piece suit and wingtips.
Chance, dressed in cowboy boots and a plaid flannel shirt, looked every bit the refugee from an old Western movie. His reddish-brown hair cut a shade longer than Joe’s, but its thickness gave Chance a boyish look. With his trace of freckles, Chance, at thirty-eight, still left the impression he could, at any time, play a silly prank. “I have a phone,” he said to his friend. “It’s in the refrigerator. Keeps it from geo-locating when I’m not using it.”
Joe’s mind was still recovering from the drive up Decker Canyon Road, a daredevil experience of hairpin turns, steep inclines, and narrow edges, along a ledge that dropped straight down a crashing ravine. The road seemed more suited to donkey travel than a six-cylinder engine. Even the air in this place bespoke a place separated from the chill of the East Coast Joe had left behind only hours before.
Joe appeared disoriented to Chance, disturbed in a way that did not gel.
If it don’t gel, it ain’t Jello, Chance thought to himself. Words he lived by. The mantra of an assassin, staying alive by knowing the signs. His friend needed a beer, Chance decided. He looked at the low morning sun. Hell, it’s past noon somewhere, he thought, as he returned to the cabin’s kitchen and brought out a six pack.
“Take this with you while you change your clothes,” he said as he handed Joe a Killian’s Irish Red ale. “We got a lot of catching up to do.”
Twenty years ago, when they began as trainees in Delta Force, Joe and Chance never imagined they would someday be employer and agent. They’d been soldiers then, and they remained soldiers together for eight years. But, times had changed. Now Joe Bridgewell worked for the government agency which was in times past called the Intelligence Support Activity, a division of Army Intelligence. At least, that’s what his paycheck once said, although the changing names on the issuing side may have confused an outsider. Chance Kiernan worked for himself, a private citizen, who took a contract occasionally from a trusted friend. Regardless of the name of their employers, both knew they were the good guys. Both knew their intentions and motivations lived on the side of the law. Both knew, on the inside, they worked for the love of life. On the record books, some called them killers. On the book as they read it, they were guardians of life. Patriots, they considered themselves. Patriots to the concept of the United States of America. Loyal sons of the Homeland, who had stalwartly defended it with their lives.
Joe and Chance sat together outside on the sandy ground, sharing the six-pack. It was a brilliant, sunny day, but they could see rainclouds forming at the edge of the mountaintops.
“We’ve come a long way since Delta, buddy,” Joe said. The words flashed a picture of fire in a desert sandstorm at night. Too many scenes of fires flashed through Chance’s mind. He blocked the memories. Chance remained silent.
“We’re opening up a HUMINT opportunity,” Joe said, biting the end off a cigar he’d just pulled out of his shirt pocket. He reached into the same pocket and offered one to Chance. Chance took it, settled back to fiddle with it, avoided responding to Joe’s bait. HUMINT meant Human Intelligence. It was the part of spying that carried the danger. Chance loved this life. He enjoyed risk. He breathed for danger.
“When I learned about it,” Joe continued, “this HUMINT opportunity, I knew it was meant for you to do. I can’t see anyone else being up to it.”
Chance wasn’t talking. He believed in the power of silence. He continued to puff the cigar and sip the beer. Eventually, Joe would spit the whole story out.
“Anyhow,” Joe continued, as Chance predicted he would, to fill the void of silence, “this is a top level assignment. You’d have guys under you. They’d do . . .”
“I don’t teach. I don’t supervise. I don’t babysit,” Chance interrupted. “When I work, I work alone. I do what has to be done. I walk away.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe responded. “ Just humor me and hear me out, okay? Times are changing. Life is changing. War is changing. We’re getting old, pal, you and me. But we’re the experience to draw on. This is a hard nut to crack. We can’t leave the young guys to make their mistakes on their own. HUMINT went nearly dormant for too many years. They need us, to train and advise the next wave. The training’s been neglected. The young guys aren’t ready.”
Chance puffed. Then he swigged. Joe mirrored his actions.
“It’s more than an attack of anthrax, or a hijacked plane, or a bombed building. It’s more than tribal warfare, ” Joe said. “It’s bigger than the interests of the U.S., or its commerce.”
Chance felt a chill travel down the base of his spine. He’d heard Joe say this before. He hadn’t listened that time. In fact, he’d left the Army when he’d heard it. Paranoia, he thought, when Joe started down this road. Then, at a time of the height of Joe’s warnings, Chance was caught in a fire set to burn his house down. The fire was meant to kill Chance, but he escaped. He had serious burns, and spent months in the hospital. After that, he left the Army, and he moved out here. Years passed before he took a contract again. No explanation was ever presented for the arson at his house. No leads panned out. No criminals were found, no blame placed. For years, Chance searched for the answer, agonized over the framing of the question. The burns on his chest healed, but for a time, he almost lost his mind. The work saved him. When he worked, he could direct his anger, imagine he was getting his revenge. Maybe he would pursue Joe’s thinking now.
“What is bigger than the interests of U.S. commerce, meinKampf?” he asked Joe, blowing cigar smoke symbolically in Joe’s direction. “Nothing’s bigger than the interests of U.S. commerce.”
“The discovery of a code, my friend,” Joe answered, setting his beer can on the sandy ground beside him. He pulled himself up to be even with Chance’s eyes. “A code inserted on the authority of the highest levels of U.S. government. A code working against U.S. interests. A code with its finger on the trigger of our nuclear options, and the power to direct our forces in the wrong direction. A code that is right now in the hands of those who must not be allowed to handle it. A destiny code, we’ve called it.”
Chance shook his head. “Not buyin’ it,” he said. He spat on the ground. “Politics. I don’t do ‘em.”
“Then I’ll give you a more concrete example,” Joe said. “A code, planted in an electronic circuit. A transfer of a technology that allows our armed drones to be re-directed, to have their controls over-ridden. A code in a chip that scrambles our direction, re-assembles our databases, and confuses our communications. And the person with access to plant the code, is your target on this mission.”
Chance closed his eyes, rested his head back on the log wall. Flies buzzed around his knee, as he remembered the years of recovery. He felt the pressure to jump back in, take care of the problem, get control.
Chance knew some things about codes that few others knew. He knew things about human behavior that few others knew. He knew a few things even he wished he didn’t know. Unconsciously, he ground his teeth. Chance Kiernan did not want to know what Joe Bridgewell came here to tell him. He dropped his head into his hands.
“Tell me everything,” he growled.
Next post: Amsterdam, Holland. The American Embassy