Upstate New York
Half a mile from the Canadian border,
somewhere west of Lake Champlain
The explosive noise of the guns had set off a chain reaction, sheets of wet snow dropping from the limbs of the pine trees surrounding Jeremy Fisk. Even after the gunfire stopped, Fisk could hear limbs snapping, snow thudding to earth, a circular cataract expanding, fading away from him like ripples in a frigid pond.
And then the endless forest … went silent.
My God, thought Fisk. They’re all dead.
Ten minutes earlier
The Swedes were late. Maybe they weren’t even coming.
Detective Jeremy Fisk of the NYPD Intelligence Division hated upstate New York. Hated the whole idea of it. Even though he had lived all over the world during his childhood, he had spent most of his adult life in New York City and had the passion of the convert for his adopted home. And as a confirmed New Yorker, he despised upstate on principle. Upstate was hillbillies and trailer parks and suicidal deer that plunged heedlessly into the headlights of your car, forcing you to swerve into the nearest ditch. Upstate was country living. Upstate was wilderness.
People who didn’t live in New York thought the entire state was paved from one end to the other. Far from it. In fact, the northern part of the state was as rural as Indiana or Kentucky. And right here, where Fisk and the feds were sitting, there weren’t even hillbillies or trailer parks or deranged deer. Nothing but trees. Trees and snow. Trees and snow and four citified cops waiting to arrest a couple of Swedes sneaking over the border from Canada.
Fisk sat in the backseat of the unmarked Jeep, snow sifting down in heavy waves like shoals of tiny gray fish. The dirt road, now six inches deep in snow, was one of dozens of logging paths, unofficial border crossings that wormed back and forth like scars through the seemingly endless forest between the Saint Lawrence and Lake Champlain.
“They’re not gonna show, Fisk.” The driver of the car was an ICE agent by the name of Ralph Carver. “I guarantee you, those Swedish sons of bitches are sitting in a nice warm room at some Best Western in Montreal watching cable porn.”
A DEA agent, Ari Schaefer, sat to Carver’s right. FBI assistant Special Agent in Charge Mary Rose Palestrina sat in the backseat with Fisk, an empty Thermos and Fisk’s holstered Glock between them.
It was the usual federal alphabet soup of agencies who didn’t like or trust each other—the perfect recipe for a law enforcement disaster.
“That’s assuming these jokers aren’t just a figment of Fisk’s imagination,” the DEA agent, Schaefer, added.
The feds didn’t believe that the NYPD was capable of scooping them on a solid international terrorism lead, so they’d been baiting him relentlessly for four hours. Thus far he’d managed to resist the urge to tell them to kiss off. It was his source, his information—his case if you got right down to it—but the mandate across law enforcement agencies was to cooperate, to share, if only to show the media and informed citizens that fighting terror was a team sport. It was Fisk’s show, it was Intel’s interdiction, but still ASAC Palestrina acted like she was running the show. They tried to treat Fisk like a guest at his own party.
“I mean, look at this crap,” Carver said. “What kind of idiot would go out on a day like this?” He was running the wipers nonstop, the heater blowing full blast. They could see okay out the front window, but the side windows were starting to get choked with snow, obscuring their view of the road down which the Swedes would be approaching. The car was pulled off the shoulder slantwise, so their best view of the road was from the side windows.
“Goddammit,” said the DEA guy. “I have no visual. Whose turn is it?”
“Mine,” said Fisk. It wasn’t, but he was tired of being cooped up in the car. He suspected it was the egos clouding up the windows as much as their breath. Carver handed him the fragile pink plastic windshield scraper that was their only defense against the heavy white blanket, and Fisk pushed open the door and climbed outside.
The door closed and the silence was a balm. He stood still, exhaling a plume of thick carbon dioxide, refreshed by the cold. The temperature was hovering just below freezing. Heavy, wet snow had formed a crust of ice over every surface of the car, and Fisk began hacking away at the windows.
Fisk was starting to worry. Two suspects were supposed to be making the run across the border from Canada into the States—Swedish Muslim militants smuggling radioactive isotopes for an explosive they planned to detonate in New York City sometime in the next three weeks. If anybody had told him six months ago that there was such a thing as a Swedish Muslim militant, he would have laughed.
But nobody was laughing now, not after Magnus Jenssen had come within an eyelash of blowing up President Obama at Ground Zero last year. Fisk himself had personally stopped the bomber. Now two more members of the same cell in Sweden, undeterred by their comrade’s lack of success—and, in fact, motivated by his capture and pending trial—were on their way into the States carrying about half a gram of a highly toxic, highly radioactive isotope of the element polonium-210.
Half a gram didn’t sound like much. But one ten-thousandth of a gram was enough to kill a human being.
The original plan for the takedown had included six members of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team tactical unit, an Intel drone, a Border Patrol helicopter, and a team of ICE agents. But the HRT unit’s van had encountered one of the aforementioned suicidal deer on the way up north, causing the driver to swerve and the van to slide off the road, where it overturned, putting one of the team members in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder and ending any chance of the HRT team participating in the bust. The helicopter full of ICE agents had to abort due to the miserable visibility, and the drone was grounded, according to the civilian contractor, “due to suboptimal control surface functionality,” which was jargon for “remote control airplanes can’t fly in snow.”
So now it was down to the four people in the Jeep. On the positive front, the DEA guy had showed them the trunk guns he had requisitioned for the takedown: an AR-15 and a Remington 870 tricked out with so many lasers and flashlights and optical gizmos that it looked like something out of a science fiction movie. If things really went south, he’d said magnanimously, Fisk could grab the shotgun. “The AR’s mine, though, bro,” he’d added. “Nobody touches my AR. She’s my sweetness.” He’d picked up the carbine and dry-humped it comically. “Aren’t you, baby? Aren’t you? Huh? Yeah, talk to Daddy, you sweet little bitch.”
This was the quality of agent they had dispatched to the Canadian border with Fisk.
After a minute of chopping away at the snow, the cheap pink snow scraper snapped in half, slicing Fisk’s little finger. Fisk cursed and threw the broken scraper on the ground, then stared at the pieces, breathing hard. He would have traded half the gizmos in the trunk for one long-handled ice scraper.
For a moment Fisk vibrated with frustration. The extraordinary silence enveloped him, and he invited it in, hoping for some calming, some perspective. He stood motionless and just listened.
No motor noises coming from the direction of Canada. No voices. No nothing.
It occurred to him that he had never been anywhere quite this silent. Not once in his life. It wasn’t just the remoteness of the place. It was the snow itself. It acted like the acoustical baffling in a recording studio, sucking up every scrap of sound in the universe. For a cosmopolitan guy like Fisk, it felt more than a little eerie. It felt like that part in a movie when the sound track drops out … when you know something big is about to happen.
But there was something about it that was beautiful, too. The sun was going down and the entire landscape had faded into a curtain of soft gray: a blanket of cold, clean fleece. He could see only a short distance in any direction. It was difficult to even judge just how far he could see. Fifteen yards? Thirty? He’d heard of whiteout blizzards where you couldn’t see a car length in front of yourself. So this wasn’t that bad.
It was no kind of day, he reflected, to be taking down bad guys.
Bank robbers love snowy days. Fisk remembered from his days as a rank-and-file NYPD cop, every snowstorm meant at least a half-dozen note jobs. Because the perp could walk into the bank wearing a ski mask or ski goggles without drawing undue attention, and once the alarm was hit the police response time was easily four times the norm. He remembered fondly the brilliant spray of orange against a pure white canvas of fallen snow in Murray Hill, from a dye pack that exploded: bank crime deterrence as public art.
The windows were still coated with icy snow. Fisk dug the broken pink stub of the plastic scraper back out of the snow. The end of the scraper had broken off into a knife-sharp point. It had sliced his finger pretty nicely, cutting right through his leather glove. Fat drops of blood fell one by one into the virgin snow. He made a fist to allow his ruined glove to soak up the blood, and stood there, absorbed by the silence.
He realized that he didn’t really want to get back in the car. A bunch of alpha personalities trying to top the others with stories of how tough they were, what great cops they were, how they’d been the best guy on their football team in high school, the toughest guy in their platoon in the army. Blah blah blah blah blah. That stuff got real old, real fast. And the FBI agent, Mary Rose, the fastest sprinter at Fordham and the top shooter in her class at Quantico: she was the worst one of all.
Fisk checked his watch. Theoretically the pair of Swedes should have been here more than half an hour ago. Maybe they just weren’t coming. Waiting out the storm. Like reasonable people.
As he stood there stamping his feet in the cold, he felt pressure against his bladder. Another good reason to kill a few more minutes outside the car. He cocked his head and listened. No car engines, no sinister Volvo full of terrorists crunching down the road …
For a moment he considered the effect of warm urine on the ice-crusted windows. Kill two birds with one stone. He decided he wasn’t that stir crazy yet. He hadn’t cleared the windows on the other side of the car, but with the wipers going, they could still see out the front of the Jeep. And it would only take him a minute.
As he walked out into the snow, he was surprised at what a struggle it was to move. He felt ridiculous and awkward, high-kneeing his way through the drifts. But it was better than trying to piss in a Poland Spring bottle with Special Agent in Charge Mary Rose Palestrina sitting next to him bragging about her marksmanship.
The walking was slow, the snow forming around each deep footstep, gripping his boot. The high-stepping felt ridiculous, and he made a pledge to no longer make fun of people who wear snowshoes.
The trees stood brown and black just beyond the curtain of snow falling in front of him. He looked back once, the silver Jeep barely visible. He might have had trouble finding his way back if not for the stark red dots of blood he had left in the snow like a bread-crumb trail.
He reached the first trees and, after laying the broken ice scraper on the surface of the snowfall, made quick work of his belt and zipper. Afterward, zipping up, he felt better, determined to shake off the stasis of the stakeout and power through this job to the next. He looked at his finger, the cut starting to clot in the cold, and was stooping to retrieve the broken ice scraper when the gunshots ripped through the silence.
Fisk instinctively reached for his Glock. Of course it wasn’t there. It was tucked away in the backseat of the silver Jeep some fifty yards away.
He felt a blinding surge of emotion—anger and self-recrimination and fear. Then more shots followed—a terrifying number of them, a fusillade of automatic weapons, burst after burst in efficient succession.
The shooting was accompanied by metallic thuds and the sound of shattering glass.
He had just started to run back when the sudden cascade of snow fell upon him, descending from the treetops, knocking more snow loose as it plunged to the ground with a hiss and a wet, inevitable thud. Fisk was half buried, and then more limbs cracked above and a second load of snow dropped, a chain reaction spreading all around him.
He dug himself out with his gloved hands. The top layer was loose, but the bottom was already compressed, and he chopped at it with the scraper, almost losing a boot as he pulled out his left leg. He picked up a jagged pine branch near him and charged out of the tree cover—into white blindness.
He knew he was looking in the right direction, but no silver Jeep. No noise either, nothing over his own rapid breaths: no gunshots, no screaming.
How many had he heard? Thirty? Forty? Fewer than ten seconds in duration, but the intensity had been shattering.
He was moving forward. Stumbling through the deep snow, assuming the worst.
It was an ambush. Had to be. Somehow the Swedes had caught the feds flat-footed, comparing war stories instead of watching for trouble.
He looked for his own footprints, already smoothing over under fresh snowfall. He saw a drop of blood, from his own finger, and knew he was headed in the right direction.
Then another controlled burst of gunfire. Fisk stopped and froze, listening. The sound was so crisp and near, everything seeming dislocated, eaten up quickly by the swirling snow.
Were those thumps behind him? Another small clump of snow dropped from the trees. He looked back at the dim black trunks. Then back in front of him.
Two figures. Barely visible. Slashes of color—black and brown—moving in the whiteness. Maybe a scarf, a cap … a weapon.
They were shooting at him now. They had seen his footprints leading away. They were following his blood trail. Their first burst had missed, two rounds thudding in the tree trunks behind him.
Fisk turned fast. He was vulnerable out in the open. Only distance would obscure him. He tossed the branch and tore back toward the trees, waiting for the next burst of gunfire.
It came just as he bladed himself behind the first tree. He looked back, unable to see them for the moment. Focus, dammit! He hadn’t heard a car motor, or the crunching of tires. The only thing that made sense was that they had left their vehicle somewhere and come on foot.
The silence was excruciating. Because it told him that, regarding the feds, the fight was over. If they were still alive, he’d hear something, yelling, anything.
The three people he had just been sitting in the car with, swapping boasts and drinking coffee—Ari Schaefer, Ralph Carver, and Mary Rose Palestrina—they were all dead. Of this much he was certain.
He had three brother law enforcement officers down.
And with this realization, his momentary confusion and self-disgust evaporated, replaced by a wave of cold, hard anger.
He glanced down at his hand. He was still clutching the sharp, broken stub of pink ice scraper. It wasn’t exactly a Glock 17. But it was something.
A burst of nausea. That’s how quickly the adrenaline surged. These two guys—if there were only two—were out to finish the job now.
Voices. Singsong, at least to Fisk’s ears. Fisk spoke Arabic like a native, fluent Spanish, high school French, a little German, a little Thai, some Bahasa Indonesia. His father had been a diplomat; Fisk had traveled a lot as a kid and had a natural ear for languages.
But he didn’t speak Swedish. He couldn’t tell what they were saying.
One man’s voice, low and terse. Another responding. They sounded near, almost on the other side of the tree … but it was a trick of the snow. They couldn’t see Fisk if he couldn’t see them.
They sounded like soldiers to him: calm, self-possessed. He could tell from the sound of the ambush that these two Swedes had military training, as opposed to being amateur goofballs who’d taken up jihad because they were bored with their jobs in IT.
His phone was in the car, too, charging. But it didn’t matter. Zero cellular service here in the ass end of nowhere. Mary Rose had a satellite phone, didn’t she? He needed that phone as much as he needed a handgun.
He saw the colors reappear, vague against the white. Under even sparse tree cover, their visibility would improve dramatically. Fisk tightened his grip on the broken plastic window scraper and took off running through the trees. The snow cover was more shallow here, around a foot deep. He expected gun reports at his back yet heard none.
He felt something expanding inside him, something he had experienced a half-dozen times before in his life but had never been able to put a word to. The threat of imminent death has a way of uniquely focusing the mind.