By Eric Elmburg and M. Rutledge McCall
(Coming in late fall, 2020)
“Feels like ‘Homeland’-meets-‘Yellowstone’… a political scenario that seems frighteningly real. …draws you in and keeps you transfixed. …McCall (who wrote the book from an original story idea by Elmburg) paints rich, compelling word pictures. …a maddening cliffhanger. …a great team.”
– Shane Baéz, President, CAM Artistic Management, Los Angeles
Written by M. Rutledge McCall
Whenever Jack Steal goes out in public, he goes with two, maybe three vehicles at most, depending on the situation. Never travels in a convoy or motorcade; doesn’t want to draw attention to himself or get bunched up.
The follow vehicle, or vehicles, are civilian cars. Older model Fords or Chevy sedans, tan, white or black, nondescript, blend in with traffic.
In two-vehicle situations, Charlie Winrock, the Comanche, drives the follow vehicle, and White Sky, Charlie’s cousin with the foot-long braided ponytail, rides shotgun. They trail behind Jack’s armored Humvee a bit. Close enough to catch up and intervene if there’s a problem, far back enough that it isn’t obvious they’re together.
If it’s a high security op like this one, they use three vehicles. The follow car hangs back, and the third vehicle shadows on a parallel route the next street over or as near as possible, so the team will be virtually undetectable, yet close enough to assist one another if they encounter trouble. Which they always expect.
All three vehicles keep in regular radio contact. All six men have their mobiles set to walkie-talkie function so base and travel team can hear everything that’s happening at all times.
Everyone wears body armor on every op, no exceptions. SOP—standard operational procedures.
Today, Marine Staff Sergeant Don Gray is driving Jack in the old first-generation diesel Humvee. Sky and Charlie are each driving a separate follow car, and each have a Marine guard with them, riding shotgun. Charlie and his Marine guard are following Jack’s Hummer. Sky and his Marine guard are shadowing Jack’s car from a block over.
The route was mapped out in advance, and the exact plan detailed and rehearsed—who Jack is meeting, when, where, and for how long.
A time and place has been set up for this meeting with four leaders of the Patriot Crusaders in a rough section of OKC, at the Sierra Crossings housing complex on North Gardner street. This situation is considered a high-security high-risk op because the PC group is well-armed and their intent is unknown.
This particular meet is set for six in the morning. Jack requested that because he usually starts his day at four and wants sufficient prep and travel time. So they were underway at five.
Jack always wears a Corps baseball cap and battle fatigues to these type of meetings, carries a sidearm—a 9-millimeter Glock 19 automatic—in a shoulder rig beneath his brown leather bomber jacket, so he won’t alarm the citizens.
A couple miles from the projects, a dented cruiser rolls past and the two mustached cops inside nod at Gray, see Jack and smile. Jack and Gray nod back, simpatico.
They slice through grungy hoods with cluttered dirt alleys behind shotgun houses not much wider than their own front doors. Wary sunrise workers perched in a diesel-puking, graffiti-slathered bus eyeball the Hummer as they drift past.
The sun is just cresting the horizon as they approach Sierra Crossings on North Gardner. The air is crisp. Not many people on the streets. Practically none.
The projects are a haphazard maze of worn, block apartment buildings, six and eight stories tall, in need of paint and repair. Unkempt dirt yards strewn with litter and broken toys. Big Wheels, many with broken axles, seem to be the most popular toy. Plus the odd matted old teddy bear here and there.
Jack rereads the jacket on the Patriot Crusaders group as they drive. Intel had determined that there’s at least a fifty percent chance the group is more sympathetic with the United States government. Jack wants to meet them personally because they’ve been ramping up their mayhem and he wants to see if he can quell their possible anxiety about what the clean break is all about.
Jack is surprised to read that the group is comprised mostly of Army Rangers based at Canon Air Force Base in New Mexico, and that there are civilians in the group as well.
He looks over at Sergeant Gray and says, “These PC guys are Rangers?”
Gray glances at him, says, “Most of them, sir. I mentioned that at the briefing the other day, the day Curt left. But you were…”
His voice trails off.
Jack looks at him a moment, then back at the road ahead and says, “Yeah. I guess my head was out of the game that day. If they’re based in New Mexico, why are they in OKC?”
“My guess, sir? It’s either a big group, or they travel around a lot, doing their shit.”
“Report says they’re sympathetic with the federals. Do you think they are?”
Gray lets out a breath, thinking and checking road signs as they near the site.
“I got a hunch they don’t like you, sir. They’re Rangers. You had that big thing a few years back when some Rangers got killed on an op.”
Jack pauses, says, “Right. The Cole op.”
Some things you pretend to forget.
He says, “But that’s no reason to hold a grudge. Not against me anyway. Cole’s the one messed that up.”
Gray says, “World doesn’t know that, sir. They only know the cover story he put out.”
Jack nods, instinctively reaches his right hand to his left pit holster, feels the butt of his Glock.
From his car a block over, Sky’s deep, distinctive voice, in his ever-so-slight American Indian accent with its clipped enunciation, comes over Jack’s and Gray’s phone mics, “Be careful over there, boss. Sounds like a bunch’a crazies to me.”
Charlie’s voice follows on the mobile, “All white men are crazies.” A pause. Then, “Not you, Jack.”
Oh… I did some crazy shit in Recon—worse in MARSOC, Jack thinks as his eyes scan the road ahead.
Jack says, “We’re good, Chief. Quick in and out six pack.”
He glances in the side rearview mirror, sees Charlie’s car inch up from seven to five car lengths back.
Out of habit, Jack taps his right knuckles twice against his chest to feel the Dragon Skin SOV-2000 body armor he wore on every field op back when he was in the Corps.
Gray looks over at him, says, “You worried about this meet, sir?”
“Naw,” Jack lies. “Just habit.”
The skin can dead-stop rounds fired from weapons like the AK-47s all the way to the HK-MPs, and slugs ranging from full metal jacket to steel core and just about any 9mm, so Jack knows he’ll be fine if something happens involving flying lead. But it makes no sense for his internal alarm to be nagging at him like it is. What can happen at a meeting with a bunch of rabble-rousers who probably just want a seat at the big boys’ table?
That’s when he sees the woman on the right side of the road, standing next to an old 1970 Chevy Impala with the rear driver-side tire lifted up on a ratchet jack, waving them down for help.
Gray slows a bit, looks at Jack, says, “Sir? Should we help her?”
For a chilly not even six o’clock in the morning, she’s sure dressed light, Jack thinks.
He nods at Gray to go ahead and pull over.
“Don’t want the citizens to think we’re a bunch of louts who don’t help damsels in distress.”
Gray slows and they roll toward her.
She’s rail thin and shivering in the cold.
As they pull in behind her, Jack wonders how a skinny girl like her managed to jack up that old hunk of iron.
“Sergeant, stop—stop!” he yells at Gray.
Gray slams on the brakes and the Hummer skids to a stop and six armed men swarm them, three on each side.
“I gotcha, boss!” Charlie calls in on the walkie from behind as M-14 auto rounds thud into Jack’s Humvee.
Jack yells into his phone, “Sky, get your ass over here!”
“On my way, boss!” Sky’s voice thunders on the line from a block over.
The slugs aren’t getting through but they’re spidering up the Hummer’s windows pretty bad.
Jack and Gray have their weapons up and they duck toward the center console as the automatic gunfire continues.
“Out back!” Jack yells and they both roll over two seat rows behind them and spill out the back door, right and left.
Charlie’s car, behind them, hits the gas, rams up onto the sidewalk with him and his Marine guard hanging Glocks out the windows, shooting at the three guys and hitting one.
The other two guys run back into the building they had rushed out of on Jack’s right side. Jack shoots one of them in the left leg just as he’s clearing the entrance, spinning him clockwise and dumping him onto the sidewalk.
“Drop the weapon and stay down!” Jack yells at him, aiming the Glock at his head and treading to him, two hands on the Glock, eyes flitting to the buildings around them.
Guy drops his gun, spreads his arms, lays back, breathing heavy.
Meantime, Sky’s car appears out of an alleyway in front of them on the left, slams to a stop in the middle of the road and he and his Marine guard are up and out, firing at the three guys in the road, hitting two of them.
As the third guy runs to the building on the left side, Jack’s driver shoots him in the left shoulder, which propels him in through the building door, but he stumbles and drops his weapon as he disappears from their sight.
All is suddenly quiet.
From flag-down to dust-settling, maybe ten, twelve seconds.
The girl is gone.
“Report!” Jack yells.
Four All clear sirs ring out, plus Gray, who’s at the back of the Hummer, covering their six.
“Casualties!” Jack calls out.
Charlie yells, “Missed us clean, sir. Covering one down on the south sidewalk, shattered left knee—hurt like hell for a few months. Two escapes, one hit lower right back, missed the spine—he’s damn lucky. They went inside the building.”
Sky says, “We weren’t hit, boss. Covering two down in the road, north-center, one shattered right elbow, he’ll survive. One lower right lung, pretty serious. One escape, left shoulder hit, he’ll be okay, ran inside the building, sir.”
This is the projects, rough area, lots of graffiti, low income housing. Six in the morning isn’t a traditional wake-up time for this particular zip code. A couple of people here and there are standing in the doorways of ground floor apartments, and a few curtains are pulled aside in others. Other than that, it’s quiet. These residents know better than to come rushing out to the sound of gunfire at dawn.
The two Marine guards are kneeling behind the fenders of their vehicles with M4 Colt carbines, covering the upper windows on the side of the building the other three guys ran into. But they won’t be in these buildings. They’re the wrong color. And judging by the gang graffiti everywhere, white guys in battle fatigues and full-auto assault rifles in this neighborhood will probably be outnumbered and outgunned by prison-hardened black and brown guys who’ll want them to get lost fast. They may have ducked back into the cover of the entrance hallway where they were hiding in wait, but they’ve definitely hightailed it out the back by now, after losing half their hit squad in less than a quarter of a minute against Jack’s team.
A lone crow squawks. The sky is a rich blue. The air crisp, fresh. It’s a nice day.
Other than the assassination attempt on Jack Steal.
They sweep the buildings to make sure the other three perps fled the area, then zip-cord and dress the wounds of the three captives, apply tourniquets and compression packs, and syringe the worst two with painkillers. Gray pulls out his mobile phone and snaps photos of each guy’s face, head-on, right profile and left.
Then they huddle up in front of the bullet-pocked Humvee.
They’ve been thrust into new territory. Ambushed by six guys, captured three of them, mid-20’s to mid-30’s, all members of the PC militia group Jack is supposed to have met here in five minutes.
“What’re we gonna do with these guys, sir?” Sky says, nodding down at the three prisoners sitting, leaning, lying against the curb, hands tied behind backs, except for the guy with the shattered elbow, who has his ankles corded.
“Call the cops?” Charlie says.
“I think we sorta are the cops right now,” Jack says.
He looks down at the guy he shot in the left leg, says, “Who are you guys? You with this Patriot Crusaders crew?”
Guy says nothing.
Jack notes an Army Rangers tatt on the guy’s right forearm, says, “You active duty, Ranger?”
“Why’d you guys do this? We’re not your enemy, Ranger.”
“Not what I heard, Captain.”
Oh. You’re one of those.
Calling Jack “Captain” gives them away cold and means two things. One, they know of Jack Steal. And two, they’re federals, or at least on the side of the US government. Which means the PC is against the breakaway. Armed enemies in their midst. Had Jack not seen the incongruities with their scantily-clad decoy, they would have pulled up, offered assistance to the damsel in distress like any good Marine would have done, and boom—four shots to four heads, close range, like that. Sky wouldn’t have reached the scene before the shooters ghosted.
We were damn lucky. No doubt about that.
The Ranger looks up at Jack and says, “You’re not better than us, you know.”
Jack says, “If you’re talking about in general, you’re probably right. Most people are no better than anyone else, really. But if you’re talking about this firefight, we’ll never know if we’re better than you. But we sure were luckier. Which would you rather be right now, Ranger? Lucky? Or you?”
A crowd begins to gather on the sidewalk half a block away. Not a large crowd, five, six people. All smiling and cheering them on. Problem is, they’re adjusting and aiming mobile phones to video Jack and his team.
“Should we call an ambulance, sir?” Gray says to Jack.
“Be faster if we take them in local,” Jack replies. He looks at his team, nods his chin in the direction of the prisoners, says, “Load ‘em in the Humvee and let’s move out.”
Jack and his men smile and wave to the locals, and load the trussed-up Rangers into the Hummer.
As Jack is sliding in, he winces and grabs his left side just above his hip bone. It’s wet. He looks down.
“Shit,” he says. “I got hit.”
Gray looks at him. “What? Where, sir?”
“Drive, drive. It’s nothing. I’m okay.”
He slams the passenger door, smiles and waves to the residents while pressing his hand to the wound, which he can feel is only a flesh wound, in-and-out, through the love-handle.
Not much love there.
They drop the banged-up army Rangers off at the local police precinct with instructions to charge them with attempted murder, get a doctor for them, asap, and hold all three for future prisoner exchanges. Which experience tells Jack might start happening soon.
Because it’s starting to look like it might not be such a clean break after all.
As the bullet-riddled convoy heads home to base, Jack thinks back to a little more than thirteen months earlier. To the last day of April. The evening just before President Cole’s 100th day in office… and the incidents that changed America permanently.