Homeland Terror by Don Pendleton by Don Pendleton - Read Online

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Homeland Terror - Don Pendleton

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Sykesville, Maryland

It was Mack Bolan’s second day at the Wildest Dreams Covert Ops Fantasy Camp. So far he’d been impressed by the camp’s regimen, which approximated the Stony Man blacksuit trainee program back at his own base of operations in Virginia. Already he’d undergone rigorous exercise workouts, field drills, martial-arts seminars, and an afternoon devoted to countersurveillance techniques and evasive driving maneuvers.

For the blacksuits, tests of this sort were more of a review, as most were culled from law enforcement or the military and had already proved themselves fit, as well as competent to engage the enemy. In sharp contrast, the two dozen initiates at the fantasy camp were, with few exceptions, unprepared for the physical challenges they’d coughed up nearly four grand apiece to take part in at the former Fort Hadley Army base. Most of Bolan’s bunkmates were a motley crew of Walter Mittys, overweight desk jockeys and delusional Rambo wanna-bes who, by the end of the week, would no doubt welcome a return to the humdrum of their nine-to-five jobs. Not surprisingly, within five minutes of lights-out, everyone in the barracks—including the few campers who’d weathered the day’s challenges without collapsing—had surrendered to exhaustion and was fast asleep.

Everyone, that was, except for Mack Bolan a.k.a. the Executioner.

He lay still a few minutes longer, then quietly slipped out of his sleeping bag and threw on the camou fatigues he’d been issued shortly after arriving at the camp the previous day before under the name Mel Schiraldi. With his dark hair trimmed to a buzz cut and his cobalt-blue eyes cloaked by a pair of brown contact lenses, Bolan bore a passing resemblance to the real Mr. Schiraldi, a Baltimore fitness instructor who’d made his reservations with Wildest Dreams more than three months earlier. Schiraldi had been convinced to let Bolan take his place in exchange for an all-expenses-paid Caribbean cruise and five thousand dollars in spending money, all courtesy of the Sensitive Operation Group’s discretionary fund. A small price to pay, SOG director Hal Brognola had reasoned, to allow Bolan to infiltrate the fantasy camp without drawing the suspicion he would have received as a last-minute walk-in.

Once he’d dressed, Bolan quietly carried his boots past the other bunks. Moonlight shone through the barracks windows, illuminating the wooden floorboards. Bolan took care to step on the joints where the wood was hammered down tight and less inclined to creak under the weight of his hard-toned, two-hundred-plus-pound frame. It was a trick Bolan had picked up through his years of stalking the omnipresent beast he called Animal Man, a beast that at various times had taken the shape of everything from Mafia hit man to al Qaeda terrorist. This night, Bolan was out to stalk yet another manifestation of that beast.

The rear doorway of the barracks opened onto a crushed-gravel path that wound through thickets of overgrown bramble to the latrines. It was late spring, and the small stones were cold against the Executioner’s bare feet. Once he came to a break in the shrubbery, Bolan abandoned the path and headed through tall grass to a knoll canopied by the branches of an ancient magnolia grove. Bolan paused at the base of one of the trees and donned his socks, then pried loose the thick heels of his customized boots.

Each of the heels was hollowed out to form a storage cavity. One heel contained a set of foldaway lock picks and a miniature earbud transceiver. Wedged into the other cavity was the closest thing to a weapon that Bolan had at his immediate disposal: a palm-sized neoprene plastic box that contained a high-powered flashlight, GPS transmitter and a firing tube loaded with a single .22-caliber round. Bolan hoped to complete his mission without being drawn into a firefight, but if it came to that, the minigun would at least be a step up, however small, from taking on the enemy unarmed.

Bolan extended the transceiver’s retractable flex mike and clicked it on before planting it in his ear. Within seconds he was in contact with Stony Man pilot Jack Grimaldi.

I’m on the prowl, Bolan whispered.

Gotcha, came the tinny reply through his earbud. GPS signal’s coming in strong.

Stand by, then. I’m going in.

Bolan tapped the earbud, shutting down the transmission. He quickly snapped the heels back into place, then slipped on his boots and made his way to the last of the magnolias.

Downhill from his position was a cinder-block storage building no larger than a one-car garage. Earlier in the day, while driving a BMW Z3 on an obstacle course through the surrounding foothills, Bolan had glimpsed a Ford pickup truck pull up to the shed. The road had quickly led him beyond view of the vehicle, but once he’d finished his road test—deliberately nudging a few pylons so as to not advertise his expertise behind the wheel—Bolan had passed the compound just as two men transferred a heavy crate from the truck to the outbuilding. Judging from the crate’s apparent weight and coffinlike dimensions, the Executioner had felt certain that he’d confirmed that the fantasy camp served as a cache for stolen arms reported missing three days earlier from the U.S. Army’s proving grounds in nearby Aberdeen.

Such thefts were disturbing enough when they involved firearms and conventional ammunition. But in this case, along with an assortment of M-16s and government-issue autopistols, the thieves had gotten their hands on an even more worrisome weapons trove. The implications of the heist were grave enough to earn mention in the daily intelligence brief that had crossed the President’s White House desk the morning after the incident. The President, in turn, had placed a priority call to Stony Man Farm, putting into motion the plan that now saw Mack Bolan roaming the fantasy camp grounds in the guise of fitness guru Mel Schiraldi.

The Executioner lingered a moment at the top of the hill, waiting for the moon to disappear behind an incoming bank of clouds. Drifting on the faint breeze was the smell of barbecued chicken. Bolan shifted his gaze to a two-story clapboard building nestled between the foothills a hundred yards away, near the same mountain road where he and the other campers had earlier tested their driving skills. Smoke trailed up from behind the building, which had once served as the Army base’s administrative headquarters and now housed the Wildest Dreams faculty. Bolan assumed there had to be some sort of patio behind the building with an outdoor grill. He also figured the camp staff was likely having a late dinner.

Like him, they’d barely broken a sweat during the day’s activities, and he knew it would be awhile before they all turned in. Their rooms were in the same building, though, and the previous night when Bolan had staked out the quarters, no one had ventured out once the lights had been dimmed. The only other personnel to be concerned about were guards posted out near the main entrance to the complex, but the gate was nearly a quarter mile away, hidden from view behind the bramble and magnolia trees.

The lax security led Bolan to believe that the camp organizers were confident their fantasy enterprise allowed them a means by which to hide in plain sight and pursue their ulterior business without drawing scrutiny. Clearly, the founders of Wildest Dreams—retired Marine Sergeant Jason Cummings and longtime Mercenary Quarterly editor Mitch Brower—were unaware that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had recently linked them to trafficking in black market arms, not only with overseas soldiers-of-fortune, but also a number of U.S.-based militia outfits, including several fringe groups advocating an overthrow of the federal government. Bolan, like his SOG counterparts and the President himself, was concerned that the Aberdeen weapons heist signaled the approach of that day when the militias crossed the line from mere propagandizing to carrying out their threats of armed insurrection.

Once the clouds fully obscured the moon, Bolan broke from the trees and started downhill. Halfway to the storage building, he froze. Behind him, he heard the sound of an approaching car. He was near the camp’s outdoor workout area and quickly took cover behind a stack of old tires used for agility drills. Moments later, the twin beams of the BMW Z3’s headlights swept across the grounds. The sports car was heading down the road that led to the main building. The Executioner ducked still lower as the lights passed over him. Clutching his paltry minigun, Bolan held his breath and listened intently for any sign the car was slowing.

The BMW purred steadily as it drew closer. Bolan was on the driver’s side of the road and, as the Z3 rolled past, maintaining its speed, he peered out and caught a glimpse of the man behind the wheel. It was Mitch Brower, the Mercenary Quarterly editor, a square-jawed, middle-aged man with close-cropped gray hair and sideburns. In the passenger seat was a woman. Bolan’s view was too obstructed for him to get a good look at her other than to note that she had long, straight hair and lean features. She and Brower were talking to each other, clearly unaware they were being watched.

Bolan waited for the car to pass, then crawled to the cover of a chest-high length of concrete sewer pipe half-submerged in a shallow, man-made pond. As part of their training the day before, he and the other campers had been forced to slog into the pond’s icy water and then crawl through the pipe wearing a full backpack. The Executioner had aced the test and then gone back in the water a second time when one of the campers had been overcome with claustrophobia halfway through the pipe.

Staring past the pipe, Bolan watched Brower pull around to the side of the building and ease into a parking space between a Chevy Suburban and Jason Cummings’s Hummer H2. Also parked in the lot were an open-topped Jeep and a handful of older cars whose crumpled frames were a testimony to their use in demonstrations on how to bypass roadblocks and crash through gates and fences.

The woman let herself out of the car and walked at arm’s length from Brower as they headed toward the front walk. From the way she carried herself, the Executioner sensed that she was younger than Brower, but there was no suggestion of intimacy between them. She was more likely a colleague than Brower’s mistress Bolan figured. He wondered what role, if any, she might have played in the Aberdeen heist. There was no point dwelling on it now, however, he realized.

There was work to be done….

SO, WHAT’S THE VERDICT? Joan VanderMeer asked as she and Mitch Brower entered the converted administration building. The quarters were sparsely furnished, and there was little in the paneled front entryway other than a framed movie photograph of George C. Scott portraying General Patton and a bulletin board festooned with business cards and flyers posted by previous participants in the fantasy camp.

That chicken smells good, Brower responded evasively as he closed the door behind him. I hope there’s some left.

We just ate, remember? VanderMeer teased as she swept a strand of reddish hair from her forehead. The woman was in her early thirties, with pale blue eyes and a slowly fading spray of freckles across her upper cheeks. She looked like a genteel elementary schoolteacher, but the tone of authority in her voice suggested she didn’t need to be around children to show that she was in charge. In truth, there were few figures more influential in the militia movement.

And don’t change the subject, she added, engaging Brower with a smile that was as direct as it was disarming.

Brower grinned back at the woman. Over dinner down the road at a Sykesville diner, Brower had listened patiently as VanderMeer lobbied him on the merits of starting up a Web site to supplement the editorial content of his soldier-of-fortune magazine. She’d put forth a convincing argument—citing increased revenue from merchandising and a wider advertising base—and had offered to not only personally help set up the site but to also bring in someone who could maintain the site. Brower was old school when it came to favoring the printed page as the best means of getting his message across, but he knew there was a ring of truth to VanderMeer’s sales pitch. Furthermore, a part of him was resigned to the fact that his dwindling subscription base was due largely to the growth of the Internet. If he didn’t change with the times, Brower suspected that he would eventually find himself obsolete, along with the magazine he’d spent more than twenty years running.

You’re as headstrong as your father used to be, you know that? Brower told the woman as he led her down a long corridor to the dining room.

I’ll take that as a compliment, VanderMeer said. But you’re still not answering my question.

All right, all right, I give up! Brower said with mock exasperation. My God, woman, you’re more persistent than my athlete’s feet.

Just don’t get any ideas about rubbing some kind of ointment on me. VanderMeer smiled back at him. Unless I ask first, of course.

The pair shared a laugh as they entered the dining room. Jason Cummings and the rest of the fantasy staff were finishing their chicken dinners. Cummings was Brower’s age, a bald man with an antiquated handlebar mustache and nearly the same physique he’d had more than thirty years earlier when he’d played nose tackle in the Rose Bowl for Army. His eyesight hadn’t fared quite as well, but he was too vain for glasses; the crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes elongated as he looked up from his plate and squinted at Brower and VanderMeer.

Sounds like you got yourself another convert, there, Joanie, he said, smirking at the woman. Cummings had succumbed to VanderMeer’s sales pitch more than a year earlier, bringing her in to upgrade the fantasy camp’s Web site.

Something like that, Brower conceded.

Cummings was seated at the end of an elongated dining table. The four other men at the table, all in their mid-forties, were all absorbed with attacking the food heaped on their plates. Louie Paxton, a long-haired, potbellied veteran of the NASCAR circuit, oversaw most of the camp’s road tests. The man seated next to him, Xavier Manuel, had served four stints as a Marine drill sergeant, making him the natural choice to lord over the workout area. Similarly, Ed Charlie Chang’s years as a stunt double in Japanese kung-fu movies had given him the experience to run campers through a rudimentary course in the martial arts.

Paxton, Manuel and Chang had been hired solely to keep up the pretense that Cummings and Brower ran nothing more than a bona fide fantasy camp. They were well-compensated for their work, and even if they had reason to suspect Wildest Dreams was a front for other activities, their weekly paychecks left them disinclined to ask questions.

The fourth staff member, Marcus Yarborough, was another matter. Hired based on a referral by Joan VanderMeer, Yarborough was in charge of the camp’s shooting range, trading in on his purported experience as a Navy SEAL marksman. Cummings and Brower had been told the man had done some trigger work outside the Armed Forces, as well, and twice over the past three years Yarborough had been contracted to kill fantasy camp participants who’d unwittingly stumbled upon evidence of clandestine activity. In both cases, the murders had been carried out after the victims had been lured from the premises: one wound up dead in a supposed hunting accident while the other’s death went down in the books as a suicide. Yarborough had carried out the hits without being told what evidence his victims had come across. He’d convinced Cummings and Brower that the less he knew about their illegal activities, the better. In return, he demanded the same discretion with regards to his past, about which he was resolutely tight-lipped.

Thin and clean-shaved, the sharpshooter rarely smiled and always seemed preoccupied with some grave matter that took precedence, at least in his mind, over what was going on around him. When introducing him to campers, Brower and Cummings took a good-natured swipe at Yarborough’s brooding nature and invariably referred to him as the Grim Reaper. The campers lapped it up, and the ex-SEAL commando was almost always mentioned whenever people wrote back to say what a good time they’d had at the camp. Yarborough was, after all, the embodiment of the cold, detached assassin they’d seen in countless spy thrillers.

By the time Yarborough finished eating, Cummings and Brower had left the dining room to confer down the hall at the camp’s administrative office. Joan VanderMeer had remained behind and was flirting with Louie Paxton and Eddie Chang, but when she finally caught the sharpshooter’s gaze, she twitched her head slightly, indicating the door that led out to the back patio.

Yarborough nodded faintly, then took care of his dishes and fished through his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarillos. There was no smoking allowed in the building, so Yarborough headed for the patio.

Got a spare one of those I could try? Joan called out to him, giving herself a reason to follow Yarborough outside.

Suit yourself, the marksman told her.

VanderMeer finished the joke she was telling the other men, then excused herself and followed Yarborough outside. The patio was little more than a small, square slab of concrete crowded with a couple of warped Adirondack chairs and a propane-fueled barbecue. Yarborough offered Joan one of his cigarillos, but she waved him off.

You know I hate those things, she told him.

Yarborough shrugged and lit up, then spoke through a cloud of smoke. You wanted to see me?

VanderMeer nodded. You know about the heist at Aberdeen the other night, right? she said.

Maybe, Yarborough replied. It’s none of my business.

You helped unload the crates this afternoon, VanderMeer said.

Doesn’t make it my business, Yarborough countered. A sudden cough rumbled up through his chest. The sharpshooter doubled over, as if trying to force the cough down. It didn’t work. He hacked violently, then spit into the gravel at the base of the barbecue.

VanderMeer couldn’t be certain, but it looked as if he was coughing up blood.

Jesus, are you okay? she asked.

Yarborough shrugged. Down the wrong pipe, he said. Don’t sweat it.

VanderMeer stared at Yarborough, then went on, Look, there’s something you should know. Not everything from that heist was stashed away in the shed here. There was one piece that—

The woman was interrupted as the door to the patio swung open and Jason Cummings poked his head out, a 9 mm Uzi submachine gun clutched in his right hand.

There you are, he told Yarborough. Grab a gun, quick!

Problem? Yarborough asked, grinding his cigarillo into the gravel. His coughing jag had passed as quickly as it had overtaken him.

Somebody tripped an alarm out on the grounds, Cummings said. They’ve broken into that storage shed near the pond.

THE ALARM WAS SILENT, but Bolan spotted the separated sensor pads above the door the moment he entered the storage shed. The entire system was rigged from the inside, and there was no way he could have spotted it prior to picking the lock, but still the Executioner chided himself for the oversight. I should have known, he thought to himself angrily.

Bolan fought off the urge to flee. Instead he tapped his earbud transceiver as he moved deeper into the enclosure, directing the beam of his palm-sized flashlight onto the crates stored against the far wall. There were more of them than he was anticipating—nearly a dozen in all—but only a few bore stenciling that linked them back to the Aberdeen proving grounds. By the time Jack Grimaldi’s voice crackled in his ear, Bolan had honed in on one of the stenciled crates and pried the wooden lid open.

What’s up? Grimaldi asked.

I tripped an alarm, Bolan reported, even as he was staring down at the cache of missing weapons he’d come to the fantasy camp looking for. The good news is I found the rocket launchers. All but one, that is.

Secured within custom-cut, foam-lined compartments inside the crate Bolan had just opened were three Army-issue M-136 AT-4