The Lincoln squealed through a hard left turn, drifting in the slick intersection awash in the glow of headlights from angry oncoming traffic. It raced up Crescent Place and then past a small, unlit sign that read Townsend Government Services. After squeezing through electronically-operated iron gates still in the process of opening, it rolled up a winding driveway lined with bare cherry trees to a huge peach-hued brick mansion bathed in floodlights. Lee Babbitt climbed out of the Lincoln without a word to the driver and ran through the cold rain up the stone steps of the residence, passing through a door held open by a lean man in a sport coat.
In the round marble foyer of the building, two more young men with military haircuts and civilian clothing stood with Heckler & Koch automatic weapons hanging from slings over their shoulders. Before anyone spoke, a man in his late thirties, some decade younger than Babbitt, came rushing up a long hallway that led to the rear of the building. He wore a cardigan sweater and corduroy slacks, and an assortment of card keys and laminated badges bounced on his chest from a chain around his neck.
Babbitt met the younger man in the middle of the foyer, and his voice echoed off marble. "It's happening?"
"It's happening," the man in the cardigan confirmed.
"The assault is underway?"
"Infiltrating to target as we speak."
"One man? One man is going to hit that fucking fortress?"
"And it's him? It's our boy?"
Jeff Parks took his boss by the arm and quickly ushered him back up the hall. "We think so."
"You'll have to do better than that," Babbitt said. While he walked, he unfastened his bow tie and opened the top button on his shirt, freeing his thick neck. "There is more than one motherfucker out there who wants to stick a knife into the neck of Gregor Sidorenko."
The long hallway was trimmed in stained cherry, and the tastefully lit walls were adorned with fine art of the American West. There were Russell watercolors of cowboys on a cattle drive, regal George Catlin portraits of Native Americans, and a pair of Frederick Remington desertscapes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as a Remington bronzed buffalo statue on a side table lit by antler lamps.
As they rushed up the corridor, Babbitt pulled off his damp jacket and slung it over his arm. He asked, "How did we pick him up?"
"One of the UAVs was up on a calibration flight. No one expected activity tonight. It's Saturday; a party was in full swing at the target location until about an hour ago, which put three times the number of personnel on scene as normal. Plus, the weather's shit and the next illumination cycle isn't for two days."
"The ScanEagle pilot spotted movement a half mile off the coast. We tracked the signature for less than a minute before determining we were most likely looking at a singleton attack on Sid's property."
"Scuba? That water must be less than forty deg-"
"He's not swimming."
Parks stopped at a door and looked up to his boss with a grin. "You need to see this shit for yourself."
Parks scanned a card from his chain through a reader next to a heavy oaken door, then opened the door to reveal a staircase. He followed his boss down, the older man's patent leather shoes echoing in the stairwell. At the base of the stairs was another corridor; this one went back in the opposite direction, and it was, in contrast to the hallway above, narrow, dimly lit, and utilitarian, though its walls were also adorned.
As the two men hurried up the hall they passed several lighted shadow boxes of differing size. Inside the first ones were tintypes and wet-plate prints of severe, bearded men in black coats and top hats, hefting shotguns and standing alongside caskets propped up, dead men inside pine boxes looking back at the photographer with eyes covered with coins. With these photos were mounted artifacts of the Old West-faded telegrams, single-action revolvers, stirrups and handcuffs, even a man's dress shirt, torn and stained with old black blood.
Babbitt and Parks ignored the shadow boxes as they walked. They'd passed them countless times. "So we have no assets in place?" Babbitt asked.
"I established comms with Trestle Actual, told him he had twenty mikes to assemble his boys and kit up. They are thirty miles away in St. Pete on R & R, but no worries. The UAV will track the target through the exfil. We've found him." A satisfied smile. "We'll get him."
A display containing a costume beard and wads of deutschmarks taken from a captured Serbian war criminal was on their left now, and, on their right, a photograph of two men with wide smiles and thumbs up, their eyes obscured with superimposed black bands, standing next to a bleary-eyed and shackled Manuel Noriega in the back of a cargo aircraft.
A gold automatic pistol taken from one of Saddam's palaces was mounted in a case near the end of the hallway, and a row of photos of more men and even a few women, their eyes again blacked out, standing around men with bagged heads and shackles.
The hallway displayed the secret history of this organization, a force of outlaw hunters that reached back one hundred fifty years, and although neither of the two men hurrying up the corridor were thinking of it now, they fully expected to commission a new memorial very soon to commemorate the successful resolution of their current hunt.
At the end of the hall was a well-lit alcove, and here another man with a military haircut stood at parade rest next to a small desk. An HK submachine gun hung from a sling over his shoulder, and to his right, a heavy steel door was flush with the wall.
A small sign on the door read Signal Room-Biometric Access Only.
The guard at the door said, "Evening, Mr. Babbitt. Sweet tux."
Lee Babbitt placed his hand on a small screen on the wall next to the door. As he waited there for the biometric finger reader to confirm his identity, he acknowledged the man. "Al."
"Just say the word and we're wheels up."
Babbitt shrugged as he waited impatiently. "Trestle's turn at bat, Al. Jumper's on deck. You guys will get a shot next time."
A muffled click came from inside the door, and Al reached for the handle, pulling it open and allowing Babbitt and Parks to pass through.
As the two men entered, the guard outside shut the door behind them and the heavy lock reengaged.
This room was lit only by computer monitors and video screens; the opposite wall was half-filled with a ten-foot-wide and seven-foot-high plasma display, and small glass-walled offices ran off the left and right of the main area. A young woman in jeans and a Georgetown sweatshirt appeared in the dim glow and handed Babbitt and Parks wireless headsets, which they both donned. The room was mostly quiet, though alive with movement on every display. Men and women, some dozen in all, sat at their desks, attached by headset umbilical cords to communications equipment and computers.
Babbitt was still positioning his earpiece and pulling the microphone into place over his lips as he asked, "Time to target?"
A female voice came through his headset. "Feet dry in ten seconds. He'll be on the X in under five mikes."
Babbitt stared at the center screen. An infrared image was projected in the middle, and it was surrounded by digital readouts. Altitude, temperature, barometric pressure, compass heading, and wind speed.
He leaned closer, squinting at the image being tracked by the camera.
The female voice followed up her last transmission. "Feet dry. Oh three five six local time."
The cold sea had sharpened the relief of the target when it traveled over water, but now, over land, the image was less clear. A sensor operator flipped a button and the infrared signature reversed. Now the white-hot moving object became black-hot, the earth below turned lighter hues of gray, and the new picture clearly identified the target as a man under a small delta wing, with an engine pouring heat into the cold air behind it.
"What the hell am I looking at?" Babbitt asked the room, a tinge of marvel in his voice.
Next to him, Parks answered, "He's flying, Lee. It's a one-man air raid."
"Flying what?" Babbitt muttered, and he stepped closer to the screen. "That's not an airplane. Not a helo, either."
"No sir, it is not," Parks confirmed with a smile.
Four thousand four hundred fifty-two miles east of Washington, D.C., a small craft buzzed six hundred feet above snow-covered treetops, its thin fluttering wings reaching wide for lift in the unstable air and its sharp nose pointing toward its next waypoint, just under a kilometer away.
St. Petersburg glowed gray in the east, its waterfront lights barely penetrating the snow and the darkness. To the west was nothing but black. The Gulf of Finland. Open water all the way to Helsinki, nearly two hundred miles distant.
And directly ahead, a few pinpricks of light. The hamlet of Ushkovo was not much, just a dozen homes and buildings and a railroad station, but it was surrounded by the Lintula Larch Forest, so the lights on there at four a.m. made an easily identifiable waypoint for the man flying through the black sky.
The aircraft was a microlight trike, a hang glider with a tiny fiberglass open cockpit below for the pilot and a propeller behind to give powered flight. Courtland Gentry flew with his gloved hands on the control bar. His eyes darted between the lights ahead and a small tablet computer Velcroed to his thigh. The tablet kept him informed of his altitude, his speed, and his position by way of a GPS fix over a tiny moving map display.
He also had an anemometer attached to the center console, and this told him his wind speed every five seconds. It varied by as much as ten knots from one reading to the next as the coastal breeze buffeted the delta wing, however, so it wasn't providing him much in the way of actionable intelligence.
Court wore NOD's, a night observation device, but the monocle was high on his forehead now, stowed up in a way that made Court look like a unicorn. The night vision technology was better than nothing, but this unit was old and simple and the device only allowed him a forty-degree field of view. This narrow field, and a lens no doubt wet with the blowing snowfall, made the NOD's ineffective at this altitude, but he knew he would be forced to use it as he neared his target.
Court passed just west of Ushkovo, his buzzing engine just out of earshot of the sleeping villagers, then banked twenty degrees east to his new heading, deeper in the Lintula Larch Forest. He added power and pushed the bar forward slightly, and his microlight began to climb higher into the snowy air.
Ahead in the distance a new pinprick of light grew into a thumbnail of light as he closed on it. It was the town of Rochino, and just east of that a palatial mansion rose from the trees, four stories high and surrounded by outbuildings and other structures.
This was the target, the objective waypoint.
As he neared Rochino, Court reluctantly unfastened a wool blanket he'd lashed over his legs and he tossed it over the side, letting it fall away to the forest below.
Now he ran his hands over his body and in the cockpit around him, putting his hands on each piece of his critical gear, methodically making one last check that everything was both secure and positioned for easy access.
Over a black cotton fleece and black cotton pants that would have been no real protection from the cold without the wool base layers under them, Gentry had only a few pounds of equipment strapped to his body. It was not much gear, but Court had cut kit for mobility and ease of access, and he'd cut weight for speed.
He'd spent months preparing for tonight, and his load out reflected this. He wore a Glock 19 nine-millimeter pistol in a thigh rig with an attached silencer that reached all the way to his knee on the outside of his right leg.
On his lower back was a nylon pack that held two cables, each one attached to a climbing harness under his clothes, and they were both spooled around electric spring retractors. One of the cables was quarter-inch climbing rope; the other was a thicker bungee cord. Collapsible remote activated grappling hooks were attached to the end of each cord, with the rubber-tipped noses of the titanium hooks protruding from the nylon bag for quick access.
On his belt he'd strapped the controls for the retractors and the hooks, a cell phone-sized panel consisting of four small three-position levers.
Also adorning his utility belt was a multi-tool in a pouch and two black-bladed combat knives in quick-access sheaths.
He wore a small backpack stuffed with clothing and a medical kit, and on his black, low-profile chest rig, magazines for his nine-millimeter were fastened in Velcro pouches, as well as a 26.5-millimeter single-shot flare gun that looked like a snub-nosed revolver with a fat barrel. It was loaded with a smoke grenade, and several more ballistic smokes adorned his chest rig, held in place with Velcro straps.
On his right ankle Court wore a Glock 26, a subcompact nine-millimeter pistol. He was hoping he wouldn't have to go for the 26 since it was not suppressed, but Court had been around long enough to know to be prepared.
Back when he was with the CIA, his principal trainer's name was Maurice, and Maurice used to preach preparedness versus luck with a mantra, often shouted into Gentry's ear when he'd left something to chance. "Hope in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first!"
That visual never left Court when hoping for the best, or when preparing for the worst.
Court shivered in the cold; he missed that blanket already, but he ignored the discomfort, checked his altitude, and pushed the control bar forward again for more lift.
With a jaw fixed in determination he looked to his target in the distance, reached to his center console, and added full power to the engine.
Copyright © 2025 by Mark Greaney. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.