First Chapter: Existential Threats by R. Lawson

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Existential Threats

Title: Existential Threats (Book 4 of The CIA International Thriller Series)
Author: R. Lawson
Publisher: Independent
Pages: 345
Genre:  Thriller/Espionage

The CIA’s incoming Director of Counter Terrorism, Biff Roberts, is inheriting a multitude of challenges. For starters, there is the existential threat of a nuclear Iran. Added to that, the Middle East has become enmeshed in a surge of radical religious extremism ranging from fanatical Muslims of the Islamic State to the Taliban, groups who commit unspeakable atrocities using violence to pursue their atavistic goals. Syria’s civil war could result in Assad’s weapons of mass destruction getting into the hands of the splintered groups of Islamic Jihadists fighting there. This radical ideology has now spilled over into Africa with furious intensity.

And as if these international problems were not enough imminent threats to confront, Iranian mullahs have issued an Islamic death warrant fatwa on Biff, and those hoping to see it through are chasing him to the ends of the Earth.

Things move closer to home when CIA intelligence discovers that Iran has dispatched Mahmoud Abu Javari, the notorious IED bomb maker to the U.S.  Biff now faces a Homeland threat of 9/11 proportions and has to thwart a bomb plot in San Francisco without knowing the target or timing for the planned act of terror.

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First Chapter:

CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, ITALY

New Year’s Day

The assassins hid behind a huge boulder above the timberline, giving

them an excellent view of the ski slopes below.

 

“In the red parka at the top of the Tofana piste,” the handler, Rashid,

said, spotting the target first. He spoke in Arabic with a distinctive French

inflection, his calm voice belying his excitement. “Look to the right side of

the slope. He’s just inside the tree line, leaning on his ski poles and talking

with the woman and her children. See him?”

 

Beside Rashid, Mustapha frowned as he peered through the scope of his

rifle. “Your binoculars have a wider field of view,” he complained. His accent

was foreign to Rashid, an African version of Arabic that fell heavily on

Rashid’s ears. In addition to disliking his accent, Rashid found Mustapha’s

facial tattoos—tribal markings apparently—distasteful. But Mustapha had

a reputation as a skilled shooter and he seemed dedicated to their mission.

 

“Big guy, blond hair,” Rashid said as he laid his Bushnell binoculars

on the hood of their snowmobile and pointed. “About six hundred meters

down to the right. Use my binoculars if you can’t spot him.”

 

“Okay, now I have him,” Mustapha said, grinning. “He’s much bigger

than I imagined, good target. But there’s a tree branch in the way

now. I’ll wait until he skis out to the first mogul, then I’ll have him in my crosshairs.”

 

* * *

Biff Roberts stopped at the top of the Tofana run, enjoying the rest and

the magnificent early morning view of Cortina below. The gondola had

dropped them off at over ten thousand feet, and after traversing over

to the piste, they were even higher. It was easy to get winded at this

altitude.

 

“Let the youngsters go first, Patricia,” Biff said. “I doubt we can match

their pace.”

 

“Okay, Biff,” Patricia said, smiling warmly. Patricia DeBartola was

in her fifties, but Biff thought she looked better than most women thirty

years younger. Like him, she kept herself in great shape, another reason

they were a great match.

 

Biff was enjoying a rare break from work before the next big step in his

career. After four decades in the CIA, he was about to take on his most challenging

role yet—as the head of Langley’s clandestine Counterterrorism

Division. He was looking forward to getting started, but first he wanted to

spend time with Patricia and get to know her kids better.

 

“Watch out for ice on the downside of moguls at this hour,” Patricia

told him. “It’s so easy to catch an edge when you check and turn downhill.

And although it’s a black diamond run, it’s really not too difficult if you

control your speed. That’s essential. Rest if you start to tire.”

 

Patricia could see from Biff’s smile that he didn’t mind her advice. But

she realized she might be overdoing it.

 

“Don’t do anything crazy trying to impress me, okay?” She smiled to

try and hide her concern. “I know how you are sometimes.”

 

Maybe I do worry too much, she thought. But she was an expert skier

and this was a challenging slope. Biff was strong and athletic, and he’d

told her he could ski, but could he handle this steep hill? She didn’t want

to jeopardize their holiday vacation with an injury. In retrospect, maybe

she shouldn’t have brought him up here, but the Tofana chute was her

children’s favorite run, and the view was absolutely spectacular. She would

just have to watch him closely.

 

“You got it, lady,” Biff said. “I promise to take it nice and easy.” Biff

didn’t want her worrying about him today. Biff’s work meant he was

often in danger, but this was time to relax and get to know her family

better.

 

Patricia glanced at her daughter. “Alessandra, I suggest you go first, in

case you fall. Your brothers will follow to pick you up.”

 

Her daughter remained silent, not taking the bait.

 

“Right, Enzo and Donatello?” Patricia added. “You’ll look out for your

baby sister? She might be a bit rusty.” Alessandra had given birth last year

and missed the ski season. “Be sure to keep a close eye on her, okay?”

 

“No problem, Mom,” Enzo replied without hesitation, smiling widely.

 

Unlike his sister, Enzo appreciated his mother’s sense of humor, which

was often half in jest, half in earnest.

 

“Same old predictable Mom, looking out for her brood,” Donatello

said quietly beside Enzo. Donatello leaned on his ski poles, raring to go.

They had both heard that refrain for years, to look out for their baby

sister.

 

“Yeah, right, Mom,” Donatello said loudly. “No problem.” He replied

like a good son should, no matter his age. Their dad had disciplined

them well.

 

“Doubt we’ll keep up with her, though. She’s definitely the

best downhiller in the family, maybe the town,” Donatello reminded

her, as if she wasn’t cognizant of that well-established fact after all these

years.

 

‘Baby sister’ had been a top notch ski instructor on this mountain

and the winner of many alpine competitions before she married ten years

ago and started her family. Now the mother of three, Alessandra still

had a cult-like following of aspirant young female skiers in Cortina who

stopped her on the streets for her advice on training exercises and hints

on succeeding in timed trials.

 

At Donatello’s remark, Alessandra just politely smiled, shunning the

time-honored family banter, and pushed off. She checked adroitly on the

first mogul and swiftly weaved her way gracefully down the fall line, starting

the five-thousand-foot vertical descent to the Dolomite village in the

valley below.

 

Biff watched her glide effortlessly down the steep slope, darting

through the moguls like a rabbit, changing direction unpredictably but

smoothly.

 

“The whole scene is definitely like an edited Warren Miller ski clip,”

Biff observed. “Good show.”

 

“She’s a talented skier,” Patricia replied. She was clearly proud of her

family, especially her daughter, and rightfully so.

 

“She doesn’t look a bit rusty to me,” Biff complimented.

 

“She’s still got it at thirty, hasn’t lost a move.” She nodded to her sons.

“OK, boys. Go catch her, if you can.” Patricia laughed delightedly, realizing

she hadn’t been this happy in years. She had been nervous about

having the kids meet Biff, but everything was going wonderfully.

 

The brothers immediately set off after their sister, laughing. They were

strong, athletic skiers but lacked their sister’s grace as she short turned in

the fall line, taunting them to catch her.

 

“A classic display of sibling rivalry?” Biff suggested. “You raised some

great kids, Patricia. Look at them go, having a ball.”

 

“Thank you. This is always a big part of our family New Year’s tradition.

They’re trying to make an impression. They intend to test you out as

a prospective stepfather, so heads up.”

 

“Natural thing to do, I suppose.” Biff smiled down at Patricia. “You

sure scored impressively with my family last week.” Patricia had gone to

Arizona with him for Christmas festivities. “You turned Caroline’s life

around, thank God.”

 

Patricia smiled, pleased. “She just needed some motherly TLC. I

understand what she’s going through.”

 

“You gave her helpful insight, dear,” Biff said. “It’s been a whirlwind

experience introducing our kids, judging if they’ll accept our relationship.

Like you said, so far, so good.”

 

Less than a year ago, Biff’s wife and childhood sweetheart, Mary Beth,

had been gunned down by an assassin, in place of Biff. Many years ago,

Patricia’s husband, the Italian ambassador to Israel, had been assassinated

by Hamas while visiting Gaza on a peacekeeping mission. It was that

shared experience of traumatic grief that had brought Biff and Patricia

together so quickly and so intensely. His children, rather than angered at

his finding love again so soon, seemed to understand all the more that life

was short and precious, and should be lived to the fullest. Patricia’s kids

seemed to want the same happiness for their mother.

 

“We better catch up with them,” Patricia said. “I see them waiting

downhill for us, joking around. Look, they’re waving to us to come on.

Let’s go. Try and keep up.”

 

“Keep up with them?” He grinned. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

 

“Well, let’s try and not let them out of sight. You’re next, I’ll follow.”

She smiled, thrilled at the positive start to their vacation and family

introductions. After her family tragedy, she’d doubted if she’d ever be

deeply happy again. Yet in Biff, she’d found someone to spend the rest

of her life with, someone who had experienced a similar misfortune.

Empathy drew them together, and the whole was greater than the parts

that bonded them.

 

“Be patient,” Biff said. “It’s been a while since I last skied at Tahoe.

And I’m not in your kids’ class, believe me. But it’s just like riding a bike,”

he added, smiling. He took off, bouncing off the first mogul, trying to

imitate her kids’ skillful execution of a check turn and hot-dogging it.

 

Despite Patricia’s warning, he immediately caught an edge on the

mogul’s icy downhill side. Biff lost his balance and began to fall.

 

His fall was a fortunate event as it turned out. Just as he began to slip, a

.223 caliber bullet ripped through his left shoulder, sending red fragments

of his insulated parka flying. Groaning in pain, he crashed head over heels

downhill between the steep moguls.

 

Patricia noted the muffled sound of a gunshot fired through a suppressor

from uphill an instant before Biff fell. Despite the silencer, the rifle’s

resonance followed instantly through the clear mountain atmosphere. She

had heard that unforgettable “bap” sound before, and her years of association

with Mossad conditioned her response. She glanced furtively uphill

at the ridge. She saw no one, but suspected more incoming fire.

Had the shot caused Biff’s awkward spill? It all happened too quickly

for her to tell.

 

“Biff!” she called as she immediately skied to his assistance, not fearing

exposing herself to danger. He could be shot, and she had to help him.

 

* * *

Before the shot was fired, Biff’s security detail was less than thirty meters

away on the other side of the ski run, directly across from Patricia. They

had arrived on snowmobiles rather than skis.

 

Tim Cochran, Biff’s CIA bodyguard, had been instructing the four man

security team, explaining to the two Italian intelligence operatives

and two Italian commandos about precautions they must observe during

Biff Roberts’ weeklong vacation in Cortina with Patricia DeBartola and

her family.

 

Admiral Delaney, the director of the CIA, had made it very clear to

Tim to allow nothing to disrupt Biff’s ski holiday. The admiral wanted

Biff to enjoy a vacation before assuming leadership of Langley’s clandestine

Counterterrorism Division. The admiral had insisted on even tighter

security ever since Iranian mullahs had issued a death warrant fatwa on

Biff almost two years ago. This decree had resulted in several prior assassination

attempts.

 

“No more close calls,” the admiral had ordered. “Take all security

measures. He’s a very valuable asset we can’t afford to lose.”

Biff’s security had already been a priority, and for his visit to Cortina,

Patricia had arranged for additional security as a precaution.

The gunshot caused a fierce, instantaneous reaction from the security

detail.

 

“Jesus Christ!” Tim exclaimed, interrupting his briefing. “Biff’s down!

Sniper on the ridge!”

 

The security team already had their guns drawn and ready.

 

“He fired from his position at eleven o’clock,” Tim added, pointing,

“above the timberline. The shot came from next to the huge boulder, the

one jutting out.”

 

“I’ll go assist Biff and Patricia,” Tim said. “You guys cover me, and

then go after the shooter.”

 

Tim hopped on his snowmobile and drove rapidly across the trail to

Biff. Tim could see Patricia huddled over him, hunkering down for cover

between the steep moguls, helplessly pinned and still exposed to any more

shots from the ridgeline above.

 

 

Other skiers had figured out what was happening and were quickly

clearing the slopes, skiing downhill or back along the trail that led to the

gondola.

 

Salvos from the security detail’s MP5 semi-automatics flew over the

now evacuated slopes and hit the boulder uphill, covering Tim. Once they

assessed Tim was secure, the four men started up the hill, two on each

of the two snowmobiles. The passengers fired shots along the way at the

boulder.

 

“I’ll go straight up the tree line, Luigi,” Gino, the driver of one snowmobile,

radioed to the other vehicle. “You two flank them to the right of

the boulder and cut off the cross mountain escape route in that direction.

I’ll call for an evac helicopter for the wounded and a security chopper to

join the chase!”

 

“Roger that, Gino,” Luigi responded. “Be sure to give them our GPS,

it’s a big mountain. Can’t afford to waste a moment.”

 

“Got it. Keep firing while we head them off at the pass.”

 

They sped uphill on their snowmobiles, firing their semi-automatic

Heckler & Koch submachine guns at the sniper’s location. The constant

barrage did not allow the sniper to return fire at them or their colleagues

trapped on the slope below.

 

“Foxtrot One, Gino here,” Gino said through the radio. “VIP down.

Repeat, got an American VIP down on Tofana piste, coordinates 46

degrees 33’ 40.96”N and 12 degrees 3’ 49.85” E. Need emergency evac

chopper stat. Dealing with a gunshot wound, undetermined severity, on

ridgeline near top of piste.”

 

“Read you,” the response from Foxtrot One came almost immediately.

“Requesting med evac stat for GSW. Coordinates punched into our computer.

What’s going on up there, Gino?”

 

“Big time Whisky Tango Foxtrot situation. Pursuing shooter at ridgeline,

less than five hundred meters uphill. Sniper attempted assassination

of a high-ranking visiting CIA officer who is down.”

 

“A sniper nailed a CIA officer on a ski holiday?”

 

“Sniper cleverly jumped us. Anticipate firefight, so request air support

from a second chopper to stop the shooter from escaping across Tofana

ridge northwest of our present position. Shooter boxed in by cliffs off piste

to the southeast. Suspect he’s not a lone wolf, probably has handler acting

as a spotter. They must have a snowmobile, only way to access that area.

Obviously they’re armed and dangerous, so come prepared, pal.”

“Read you loud and clear, Gino. Some frigging New Year’s! We’ll be in

the air in less than five with a couple of our best sharpshooters.”

“Grazie, over and out, amico.”

 

* * *

Up on the ridge, Rashid watched the target fall, but too soon.

“The American fell just as I fired!” Mustapha complained. “I winged

him, but I doubt he’ll bleed out. Shall we wait for another clear shot? I

can’t miss from this distance.”

 

“You just did, you donkey!” Rashid cried. Mustapha’s likely nonfatal

hit had blown their element of surprise. Rashid watched the

woman join the target, and a man on a snowmobile rushing to their

assistance. Not all the infidels were cowards apparently. But their bravery

would cost them their lives.

 

“Our assignment is to kill this infidel,” Rashid said, “and we must not

fail. They are pinned down now. Kill all three of them.”

 

An incoming volley of bullets interrupted their plans, forcing them to

duck behind the granite boulder. The bombardment of 9mm caliber bullets

sent fragments of rock flying over their heads as dangerous secondary

missiles.

 

“Stay down!” Rashid called out. “Our target must have arranged a

security team. Judging from that barrage, we’re seriously outgunned.

I didn’t anticipate this… We missed our chance to take him down

unaware.”

 

“Sorry, I blew it. But the target fell as I shot!” Mustapha’s whining

was grating on Rashid’s nerves. Rashid forced himself to remain calm and

focus on achieving their goal despite this complication.

“Forget it, too late now,” Rashid snapped. Their commander had

warned them that this Roberts fellow had a reputation for escaping tight

spots. “Now, we have another problem,” Rashid added, “surviving long

enough to get another shot at him.”

 

“I’ll nail him next time,” Mustapha said.

 

Rashid could hear the motors of two snowmobiles growing louder

as they sped up the hill, relentlessly firing at their position. Rashid knew

they had no chance of taking the shooters out in their present position.

For now at least, they must run.

 

Rashid, still keeping low, retreated toward their snowmobile, yelling,

“Let’s get out of here!”

 

* * *

 

“How bad are you hurt, Biff?” Tim asked as he ducked down next to Biff.

Tim checked Biff’s carotid pulse with his left hand, his Browning 9mm

ready in his right.

 

Biff groaned. Patricia was crouched by Biff’s other side, compressing

his wound with her scarf.

 

“He took one to his left shoulder and he’s still losing blood,” Patricia

said. “It all happened so quickly!”

 

“Keep up the pressure,” Tim said. “If you tire, I’ll take over. His pulse

is strong, although rapid. Can you move your arm, Biff?”

 

Tim quickly evaluated the extent of Biff’s gunshot wound. All the

while he kept his pistol ready, just in case. Thankfully, his men were shooting

their automatics while in hot pursuit, keeping the sniper from firing

on their exposed position.

 

“Hurts like hell, but I can move it,” Biff said. “I think the sniper just

winged me as I fell off the mogul. I don’t think he got nerve or bone.”

 

“Chopper’s on the way, boss,” Tim said. “I can hear it flying up from

the valley.” Tim could see Biff was sweating despite the cold mountain air

and in a lot of pain, but trying to tough it out.

 

“Good news, pal,” Biff said. “We’re sitting ducks.”

 

“Our security team is covering us and going after them. Hear that

MP5 fire uphill?”

 

“Yeah, quite a racket. Sure glad they tagged along.”

Biff grimaced as he inadvertently slid another yard downhill, Patricia

sliding with him and still keeping pressure on his wound. The sharp pain

in his shoulder radiated down his arm. He groaned as the next mogul

stopped his skid.

 

“We’ll get you to our hospital, Biff,” Patricia reassured him. “We have

excellent surgeons there. You’ll be fine.”

 

She was amazed they were both so calm. Moments ago they had been

blissfully enjoying the family outing, now they feared for their lives. Then

again, he was quite accustomed to danger. So was she, though to a lesser

extent. They’d both faced life-threatening situations in the past.

 

“Good thing I fell off the mogul, Patricia.” He managed a weak smile,

seeing her worried expression. He hurt, but wasn’t afraid. He didn’t know

why not. He felt detached from reality. All that time in combat and he’d

never been shot. One casual ski trip and he was down, wounded. But why

here of all places? This vacation had been a closely kept secret. Someone

must have set him up.

 

Biff’s admission that he slipped on the mogul answered Patricia’s

question about why he fell. She forced back tears. He was wounded and

still managed to make a joke. Even with a security detail, someone had

nearly killed him on a mountaintop. And he might still die. She gave a

silent prayer that God wouldn’t allow her to lose another good man.

“Hang in there,” Tim said, back at his side. “We’ll get you safely out of

here, boss.”

 

“I know you speak from experience, Tim,” Biff said, aware that Tim

had been shot twice in his career. “I’m just a first timer trying to tough it

out.” Biff grinned weakly, trying to defuse some of the tension. He noticed

Patricia looked almost apoplectic with concern.

 

“Just tough it out, you got that right, boss! You know I took a hit in

Tel Aviv last year and Iraq before that, and I’m still here.” Tim patted Biff’s

uninjured shoulder. “You helped me then, now it’s my turn. You’ll recover,

just like I did.”

 

Tim tried to reassure Biff and Patricia with small talk. Tim only hoped

the sniper remained pinned down, unable to get off potentially fatal follow

up shots. Their security detail had failed to suspect, much less prevent,

the assassination attempt. Despite his encouraging words, Tim was

well aware of the stark reality: they were trapped in a precarious position,

dangerously exposed, with no way to safety.

 

* * *

 

“Can’t go back the way we came,” Mustapha said. They hadn’t gotten very

far before Mustapha brought their snowmobile to an abrupt stop.

The pursuing snowmobiles had split up a short time ago, attempting

to cut off their escape. One now raced toward them from that direction,

the passenger firing at them, but not yet close enough to hit them.

“We can’t go downhill either,” Rashid said. Another snowmobile was

headed directly up the slope at them. “Our only option is off piste to the

southeast.”

 

Mustapha frowned. “That’s unmarked territory. I saw signs warning

about dangerous cliffs.”

 

“Cliffs are less dangerous than those heavily armed guys firing at us,”

Rashid retorted, as the men rapidly closed in. “Go! Now!”

 

* * *

 

“Foxtrot Two, come in,” Gino said. “We got them in sight, two men heading

southeast off piste on a black snowmobile at top of the Tofana ridge.

We’re in pursuit, but they’re out of range.”

 

“Read you, Gino,” Alberto answered. “We’ve got two sharpshooters

aboard. Not to worry. Bastards won’t get away.”

 

Gino was glad it was Alberto on the way. Alberto was a top pilot,

known for being able to maneuver his chopper skillfully in the toughest

conditions.

 

“That’s cliff territory they are heading for,” Gino said. “Serious crevasses,

the damn fools. You’re right, no hope of escaping now, they’re

trapped.”

 

“Understand. Our ETA is less than three minutes. We’ll close in on

them together.” He paused. “Think they’ll surrender?”

 

“Doubt it,” Gino answered. “They’re most likely fanatics. I’ve been told

the VIP who was shot has a bounty on his head, a death warrant fatwa.”

“What the fuck is a fatwa?” Alberto asked.

 

“Some Islamic thing issued by Iranian mullahs for some transgression

this CIA guy Roberts supposedly committed,” Gino said. “Serious shit,

man. They chase you to the ends of the earth.”

 

“Like that Salman Rushdie thing in the eighties?”

 

“Serious as they come, amico. They’re big on creating maximum terror,

like striking on the busiest ski day of the year. Bet we’re dealing with

nut jobs who won’t surrender.”

 

During the briefing, Tim Cochran, the target’s CIA bodyguard, had

told the team the history on Biff and why a security detail was needed.

Roberts had screwed up several major Iranian Revolutionary Guard

operations in addition to knocking off a couple of Quds Colonels with

Mossad’s cooperation right in downtown Tehran. Tim had referred to

them as covert ‘targeted assassinations.’ Roberts had become their recurring

nightmare, so the mullahs issued a death warrant fatwa on him.

Iranian agents had been after him for two years, but he had somehow

managed to foil all of their attempts to kill him.

 

“This will provide lots of chatter for Cortina’s New Year’s get-togethers.

This crap’s bad for the town’s brand, not chic or dignified.” Alberto

laughed at his own joke.

 

“No kidding, man,” Gino replied. “This is right out of a movie. The

VIP from Langley is here with Patricia DeBartola. The guy’s some kind

of international legend. We’ve got to bring these guys down if we want to

keep our jobs.”

 

“Consider it done. The former ambassador’s wife is involved in this

mess?”

 

“Yeah, apparently Patricia DeBartola and Roberts are an item now.

Our job is to protect them and we’ve already screwed up. No more snafus,

okay?” Gino paused. “I can hear your chopper now.”

 

“Coming over the Tofana di Mezzo peak at 11,000 feet as we speak.

Got you spotted.”

 

“Okay, Alberto, got a visual of your chopper now. Direct the chase

from the air and keep us on track. No way those bastards will escape in

that terrain.”

 

* * *

“Where the hell are we?” Mustapha said as he brought the snowmobile to

a halt. He scanned the remote wilderness for signs but saw none, just a few

scattered old cabins and shelters. There were no trails to escape on either,

just rocky crags and seemingly endless snow drifts.

 

“We’re lost, that’s where we are,” Rashid said grimly. He couldn’t see it

yet, but he could hear a helicopter closing in. “And we’re in big trouble if

we can’t elude them somehow.”

 

Rashid knew there was little chance of escape at this point. But maybe

they could at least inflict some serious damage before they were done.

“Better switch with me so you can get a shot off,” Rashid said. “Maybe

you can bring them down by hitting a critical section, or the pilot.”

 

“Okay. But I thought you weren’t experienced at driving this machine?”

“There are not a lot of snowmobiles in Beirut,” Rashid replied scornfully,

“but would you rather be dead? Shooting them down is our only

chance.”

 

* * *

“They’re in the black snowmobile heading for the cliffs,” Vince, the copilot,

said in the pursuing helicopter, directing Alberto’s attention. “They’re

changing drivers, over by that crag at nine o’clock, just past that old shelter.

Now they’re taking off again.”

 

“I see them.” Alberto veered the chopper, rapidly closing in on that

direction at low altitude. Alberto could tell the bastards didn’t know what

they were doing, driving in in that terrain at such a reckless speed.

“Almost on top of them,” Vince said. “Spot ‘em yet?”

 

“Shit!” Alberto suddenly saw a man with a rifle–pointed right at them.

“He’s going to fire at us. I’m altering course. Look out, Vince!”

 

Alberto made a rapid course correction, changing the chopper’s profile,

making it tougher for the shooter.

 

“Get ready, sharp shooters,” Alberto commanded, “firefight going

live! Quick, take ‘em out as soon as I reposition the chopper.”

“Roger that,” came the reply from the rear of the chopper. “Door open,

setting sights, locked and loaded.”

 

“Standby—”

 

A .223 caliber bullet whizzed through the helicopter’s front windshield,

barely missing Alberto. The heavy aeronautic Plexiglas shattered

and went flying through the cabin, driven by the bullet’s impact and a

seventy-knot icy headwind. The bullet ricocheted and tore through the

roof with a loud clang.

 

Alberto quickly assessed the damage, relieved to see the bullet

had missed any vital structures. He turned back to check on his

copilot.

 

Glass fragments had lacerated Vince’s cheek and shattered his aviator

sunglasses. Bright red blood streamed down his face for a few seconds,

but quickly froze in the subzero air. The air rushing through the large hole

where the windshield had been hastened the blood’s coagulation. Alberto

thought the copilot looked like some ghoul in a horror movie.

 

The helicopter rocked and lurched with the sudden turbulence. The

aircraft listed and began to spin. A less capable pilot might not have been

able to recover, but Alberto skillfully regained control as it lurched dangerously

leeward, avoiding a fatal pitch at this low altitude. He was good,

but one thing even he couldn’t do was fly a helicopter upside down.

 

“That was close!” Alberto said. “You okay, Vince?”

 

“Gonna live,” Vince answered, tossing his ruined shades aside. “Steady

the bird more, she’s still rocking all over. Let’s get this over with, Alberto.

Kill the fuckers!”

 

“Hurry!” Alberto ordered his two riflemen. “Take those bastards out

now, guys, in case I lose control.”

 

“Move toward two o’clock,” one sharpshooter replied, “and we’ll nail

them.”

 

“Roger that,” Alberto said as he quickly responded to their request.

“Doing my best to hold her steady.”

 

The sniper was aiming at them again, getting ready to shoot and bring

them down.

 

“I’ll take guy on the right, you go left,” one sharpshooter said.

 

His partner answered, “Roger that, on three.”

 

The chopper’s sharpshooters fired simultaneously, mortally wounding

the sniper before he could fire again, and seriously injuring his handler.

Alberto watched, still steadying the chopper, as down below the handler

lost control of the snowmobile, and it zigzagged wildly toward a deep

crevasse.

 

Gino and the ground security crew arrived on scene in their snowmobiles

just as the sharpshooters took out the would-be assassins. They

watched as the black snowmobile careened over the cliff and disappeared

from sight, both guys slumped over in their seats, one dead and one dying.

 

“Catch that, Gino? Happy trails!” Alberto cheered from above, watching

the villains plunge over the precipice. The snowmobile caught air

before falling spectacularly over a thousand feet between jagged peaks

and into an abyss of deep snowdrifts. There was a dull thud as the impact

sent a plume of snow splashing thirty feet into the air.

 

“Unreal!” Gino said, laughing. “Like something right out of an action

film! But now you’ll need a mountaineering team to dig them out for ID.

That’ll be a rat fuck, Alberto.”

 

“Need a new windshield first, experiencing control problems.”

 

Alberto’s tone grew serious. “Too dangerous to fly this whirly bird in this

condition, besides we’re freezing our asses off. Bastard almost took us out

with a direct hit, and Vince is hurt, but not critically. Promise to fish them

out before sunset, collect evidence, and get bodies over to forensics lab,

ASAP.”

 

“Yeah, better get moving. The big shots will be clamoring for information.

The sooner you retrieve the bodies, the better. A lot of folks will

be looking over our shoulders. Guaranteed international attention and

scrutiny by the spy agencies.”

 

“Bet your sweet ass,” Alberto answered. “It’s supposed to snow tonight,

so we’ll get right on it.” He checked the clock, seeing that it was only ten

o’clock. “I’ll change helicopters and pick up our search and rescue crew.

We’ve got a good coordinate read locked in on the crash site. Back in a

flash, as soon as I get Vince to a doctor.”

 

“Sounds like a plan.”

“By the way, Gino, got anymore VIPs coming to town? Not our

usual New Year’s Day. I gotta say you sure provided some excitement for

Cortina’s holiday crowd.”

 

“Yeah,” Alberto said, “this episode will get them buzzing for sure. Just

hope our asses don’t end up in a sling. That CIA hotshot better not die.”