Lakeside , Washington
Low-light binoculars sighted the target one thousand yards beyond the rural highway. From his brown Ford sedan, hidden amidst a copse of evergreens, the Avenger scanned the perimeter of the sprawling steel mill rimming the seaport and adjoining town of Lakeside, Washington. At a distance, the gray face of the building melded with the shore, and the mill’s imposing blue roof seemed to fl oat on the coastal waters of the Pacific.
He watched and waited for the precise time. After years of methodical planning and skillful preparation, the moment had arrived: the execution of his mission. The catalyst that would launch the first phase had been chosen for its varying range of damage capability. Exacting retribution from the guilty would not play out pretty; righteous justice seldom did. Administering just punishment was neither for the weak nor the merciful. Admittedly, to master that art had been a challenge, but eventually he had become proficient at it, practice naturally breeding perfection, and he could not tolerate anything but perfection.
The Avenger lowered the binoculars to rest on his thigh. Glancing at his watch, a smile curled his lip. He could be a patient man where duty required and, in particular, where rewards promised to be so immensely gratifying.
Dave Mickels patrolled the northwest quadrant of the 450-acre steel mill. Lengthened light from the summer evening aided his inspection, checking surveillance cameras and alarms, protective lighting systems, looking for any potential problems. All seemed in order. So why was he uneasy tonight? With a green felt-tip marker, he recorded the final data and signed off on quadrant 4.
Dave nodded to a group of workers who were leaving the scrapyard’s central distribution point. Rounding the northwest corner of the building, Dave stopped—struck by a sudden feeling he was being watched. His Marine Corps training in demolition and intelligence had taught him to trust his instincts—had taught him to be the best. Then and now, being the best had to be fact, not attitude. Industrial Security Services (ISS) provided the security network for Trenton Steel Industries’ West Coast mills. They maintained a tight-security base here at Lakeside, but like the other Trenton facilities, there were no tall chain-link fences topped with coils of rusted-out razor wire that guarded the perimeters of the mill.
Dave’s relaxed demeanor belied a keen awareness of his surroundings. He detailed the security checklist in his hand and, at the same time, studied the outlying area; a hundred yards beyond the mill was a concrete employee parking lot, and beyond that a rural highway skirted the town proper and the residential areas lying west of the mill. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Dave moved on to secure clear zones, checkpoints, and access control systems. The uneasiness had not lessened. Maybe it stemmed from the phone call he’d received from an old marine buddy. How did you say no to a man who’d saved your life? You didn’t, even when saying yes might mean suicide for both of you. He’d argued and given reasoned alternatives to his friend’s plan. In the end, Semper Fi had ruled. Always faithful.
Perimeter secured, Dave checked the illuminated dial on his watch. Gray shadows of nightfall were closing in as he headed toward the main entrance to the mill. It was 9:15.
Dave spotted Tim, his shift supervisor, standing near the general manager’s office, a glass-encased box in an airship like room aptly dubbed the Zeppelin. The constant buzz of mill activity reduced Dave’s greeting to a slight nod and a quick hand motion in the direction Tim was to follow.
Midstride—a fraction of a second—
WHOOM . . .
For a frozen moment, all activity ceased.
Then shock gave way to action. Employees rushed to begin emergency evacuation procedures, while Dave and Tim hurried toward the commanding alarms.
Just outside the shipping department’s storage area, a covey of workers brandished fi re extinguishers as puffs of smoke belched from Deadly Vengeance 3 the room. Dave approached the man wearing the orange supervisor’s badge. Bill Walters appeared calm and in charge, though he wore a slightly dazed expression. Dave remained silent while Bill, not in the mood to dispense niceties, stared at the upsurging smoke. Evident from the wail of sirens, firefighters and police were arriving in force. Dave figured Pete Erickson, general manager of the Lakeside mill, wouldn’t be far behind.
Fire trucks, aid vehicles, and police cars ripped down the highway past the Avenger’s covert position. Spectators were already gathering: bored teenagers suddenly finding action on a Friday night, neighboring residents popping out from their comfortable spots in front of television sets to goggle over the commotion.
The Avenger knew the investigation would be puzzling; not enough evidence to indicate criminal action, yet enough to warrant some suspicion. Uncertainty would hold steady until he was prepared to strike again. Pity he could not stay longer, but there was much work to be done.
Fortaleza , Brazil
Jake Trenton’s body protested the intrusive sound. Blindly, his palm assaulted the snooze button. When a second whack at it failed to produce silence, a resentful eye opened to the red glare of the digital clock: 3:55 a.m. Now wide awake, Jake grabbed the phone off the bedside table.
“Jake. Pete Erickson here.”
Jake sat up, relieved to hear a casual tone in Pete’s voice. Reflexively, he converted to Washington time: midnight. Not a social call.
“What’s it like there in paradise?”
“Peaceful,” Jake replied. “At least it was.”
“Hey, I’m not interrupting a hot date, am I?”
Jake ignored the question. “Why the call, Pete?”
Pete sucked in a breath then exhaled resolutely, an action that ushered in his serious side. “There was a minor explosion in the mill around nine-thirty tonight. Structural damage was minimal. No injuries.”
Thank God for that . “Cause?”
“Not sure. Origin was in the storage area outside G bay. The explosion caused a small fire.” Pete hesitated. “Or vice versa. At any rate, with sprinklers triggered and a quick response by the mill’s fire crew, it was out in minutes. The security company called me straightaway.”
“You’re there now?”
“Yeah. I followed the fire chief around like a trained dog, you know, so I could answer on the spot questions. And what did I get for my willingness to help?” Pete muttered a curse. “He told me to ‘go about my business.’”
Jake smiled at the image of Pete being anyone’s trained dog.
“Investigators say it could be a couple hours before they’re finished. And who knows when any final reports will be forthcoming? I figured you’d want to know as soon as possible.”
“You’re right, and I appreciate it.”
“It’s weird, though,” Pete said. “Explosions caused by breakouts, faulty equipment, electrical breakers exploding—that happens, but in a storagearea? Can’t figure it.”
Silence fell while both men contemplated the probabilities. Pete spoke first. “The authorities are being thorough, interviewing every employee on shift. I know they have to investigate all possibilities, but I don’t like where some of their questions are leading.”
Arson investigators, as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), were required to investigate cases involving blast damage and industrial fires. Every industrial facility had to deal with these agencies from time to time, but they could be a royal pain in the neck, but Jake said, “They’re routine questions, Pete.”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t have to like ’em though.”
TSI’s general managers assumed total responsibility for whatever happened in their mills, regardless of circumstances, and Pete took that responsibility to heart.
“You haven’t given any young lady’s father reason to be angry, have you?”
“That’s not funny, Jake,” Pete said.
Jake chuckled. “Thanks for handling things there.”
“Just doing my job, boss.” The cocky air was back. “Hey, Jake?”
“You never answered my question. Did I interrupt a date? Is she that exotic-looking model you’ve been seen with on the beaches of Brazil?”
Jake said nothing.
“We get the papers here in the sticks, you know. How much of what’s in print is true?” “I hear we’ve had an influx of applications for general manager.”
“You couldn’t find anyone better than me, especially one who wants to live near a dot on the map of Nowhereville.”
“I thought you liked it there.”
“Oh, I do. The women here are desperately looking for a strong, rugged man to fill their lonely hours.”
Jake laughed. “And you’re happy to oblige.”
“I do what I can.”
“I’ll be in my office by 7:30. If you hear anything before then, call me at home.”
“What time is it there anyway?”
“Would it matter?”
Jake ran long fingers through his dark hair. Abandoning the idea of sleep, he visited the bathroom, slipped on a T-shirt along with the sweatpants he’d slept in, grabbed a pair of socks and running shoes, and jogged downstairs. A run on the beach always cleared his mind.
Outside the two-story colonial home surrounded by coco and babassu palms, Jake inhaled the heady scent of salt air carried inland by the temperate breeze. In the fruit-laden bird feeders, colorful tanagers spat with each other, competing for breakfast. Voluptuous floral gardens framed the short path to the sea cliff. He took the gradual slope down the twenty-foot bank at a brisk pace, his long stride breaking into a run alongside the gentle slap of waves on the shoreline. Jake concentrated on the rhythm of his footsteps drumming on the sandy beach, all thought suspended,keeping a steady pace, breathing balanced and controlled; he was in the zone, adrenaline pumping.
Not until an arc of brilliant gold surfaced on the horizon did his steps slow, then halt. Strata of fiery red, orange, and yellow burst across the skyline as the sun continued its rise and the day dawned gracefully. He loved it here. The beauty of the verdant lands, the exquisite hazy-blue mountains and lush forests, the vacillating moods of an aquamarine sea—easy to understand why it was so often equated with paradise.
Jake continued his run, soon matching his previous pace. It didn’t seem possible only three years ago Trenton Steel Industries had initiated a feasibility study for operating a mill in South America. TSI was an international company with its import/export of steel products, but this was their first major step to producing steel outside the United States. Brazil’s rich natural resources made it a viable location for their operation. Jake had worked on the dream along with many others who’d poured countless hours and energy into developing this project. The first heat of steel, that furious glow of hot metal in motion had been their collective reward. The flat-products minimill located on the northeastern coastland, near the port city of Fortaleza, was now fully operational, producing hot-rolled, cold-rolled, and galvanized sheet.
To his right, two hundred feet off the beachfront, Felipe’s Buggy Shack stood as Jake’s two-mile-run marker. At Felipe’s, tourists could rent motorized buggies and zip along the beach or storm the sand dunes. Jake made a wide turn and headed back home. The run had helped him sort things out, as it always did, and he’d come to a decision. He couldn’t put his finger on why exactly, but he shared Pete’s concern over the ambiguous cause of the explosion and felt a pressing need to be back in Washington.