I was an FBI agent at the time, assigned to a field office in a city I can’t name because of the non-disclosure agreement I had to sign before leaving the bureau, forbidding me from divulging anything specific about current or former FBI cases. Makes telling a true story a problem, so I have to emphasize that while the facts are true, anything that might identify persons or places has been cleverly concealed.
It was nearly 9 o’clock on a chilly and foggy Wednesday night in November. I was assigned to a kidnapping and extortion squad. My partner was Special Agent A. The night supervisor’s name was Supervisory Special Agent B.
A and I were the only agents in the squad room at that time of night, trying to catch up on paperwork. We weren’t quite finished when SSA B hurried into the room, his face red and his breathing rapid.
“Christ, am I glad to see you,” he began before stopping to catch his breath. “As a matter of fact I’m glad to find anybody with a badge and gun still here this late.”
Dammit, I muttered under my breath, knowing what was coming and more than ready to go home after a day that had started not long after dawn.
“What do you need, boss?” my partner asked before I could kick his ankle under the table.
“Babysitters, sounded like on the phone. Something about guarding a witness who’s supposed to testify tomorrow. All they gave me was an address, and told me to have someone there by 10:30. You better get moving.”
He turned and headed for the door before turning back.
“Jesus, I almost forgot the most important part. They want you to bring a few things. I’ll have to open the gun vault for you to get them.”
The gun vault? Suddenly I found myself once again wanting to kick Special Agent A, this time in the balls. We followed SSA B to the elevator and went down two floors to the gun vault. As you might imagine, it was filled with weapons of every description, from short-barrel revolvers to rifles powerful enough to bring down an elephant. B turned to us. “You’re going to need night-vision binoculars and AR-15s.”
I stared at him. Submachine guns for babysitting? Must be some baby.
“How many?” I asked. “Will we need an SUV?”
“Just two of each. You’re the only ones who’ll be using them.”
I felt my eyes widen but said nothing and a few minutes later we were on the street. The address B had given us was not far from the office, and we got to the house early and parked directly across the street. It was getting colder outside and the persistent evening fog had worsened, but not enough to keep us from getting a good look at the miserable choice some idiot had made in selecting an appropriate place for hiding an important witness. The house was far too large, for starters. Seven-thousand square feet at least. Five or six bedrooms, huge glass windows, three balconies, a forest of trees filling the front yard. We sat back to wait and ten minutes later a black Lincoln Navigator pulled up in front of the house.
My partner and I retrieved our gear from the trunk of the car, and started across the street. Before we could get close to the Lincoln a tall black man the size of a refrigerator got out of the car and met us halfway. We showed FBI credentials all around and he introduced himself as Special Agent X from the R field office and head of the detail in charge of guarding the witness. I told him we knew nothing about the case or what we were expected to do.
“It’s pretty simple,” X began. “Q is the long-time accountant for a corporation owned by LCN.” Suddenly my fatigue disappeared. Hearing that name had a way of doing that. “We’ve got Q by the short hairs,” X continued, “and he’s decided to give up his bosses rather than die in prison. LCN isn’t pleased. They’ve sworn to kill him before he can testify tomorrow. We’ve kept him hidden for almost a month and we’ve got to keep him alive for one more night. We’ve used agents from local field offices across the country to help the three people with me. Looks like you two are the lucky ones tonight.”
“What would you like us to do?” I asked.
“The comfy part. My team and I will be out here in the cold, walking the perimeter with night-vision gear. No one should be able to get past us, but you two will be inside just in case.”
I nodded, and we followed him to the Navigator and the four people waiting for us. Everyone exchanged names, including Q, a short, thin, 60-ish guy with slumped shoulders, a small suitcase, and an overall appearance of absolute hopelessness. X turned and headed up the long driveway to the front door. Q was the first to follow and the rest of us fell into line. Inside, we stopped for an instant before X led us toward the broad staircase on our left, up the stairs and down a carpeted hallway. We stopped at the fourth door on the right and X opened it.
“This is your bed for the night,” he told Q. “It has its own bathroom. I’m going to lock you in.” Q shuffled into the room and X locked the door before turning to me and my partner. “My guys know exactly what to do,” he said. “You two will stay in this hallway.” He pointed to the large windows at both ends of the hall. “One of you at each end. That way we’ve got eyes on both the front and back yard.” He paused. “Fog’s going to be a big problem, but if you see anyone but us, radio me. Worst-case scenario, there’s going to be a lot of shooting.”
A moment later my partner and I were alone. A stared at me. “How many trees you figure around this house?” he asked, a rhetorical question I didn’t bother to answer.
“Fog’s going to get worse,” he said. “Only four guys out there. The back of my neck is starting to tingle.” He paused. “The key to my retirement plan is being around long enough to qualify.” I nodded. I was thinking the same thing.
“I’ll take the backyard first,” I told him. “We can switch every hour or so.”
We took our positions. At first, through my night-vision binoculars, I couldn’t see much more through the fog than a green smudge. After a few minutes my eyes adjusted, and I could make out shapes, then individual trees, then our perimeter guards. But the view was nowhere near good enough for what we were trying to do. The guards could see much better, but that was cold comfort. The fact was there weren’t enough of them in these conditions. My stomach tightened as I considered another scenario. What if the bad guys didn’t intend to show up at all? What if they already knew about the house and had planted explosives? They wouldn’t even be around when the house disintegrated. I told my brain to shut up. How could the bad guys possibly know about this house? Suddenly my stomach got even tighter. LCN had infinite resources and unimaginably brutal ways to get whatever they needed.
An hour later it started raining.
Now our night-vision equipment was useless. Neither A nor I could see anything useful. I called X. He told me it was getting worse for them, too, and our job was to monitor their radio traffic for any report of movements they couldn’t identify. We did so and there were many such warnings. Each one sent a shot of adrenaline through me and afterwards left me more and more drained and exhausted. The cycle repeated itself all the way till dawn, when a sopping X came back inside, grabbed Q, and along with his crew piled into the Navigator and disappeared without a word.
My partner and I staggered to our car and beat it out of the neighborhood. I’m not sure what was going through his mind as we headed toward a favorite restaurant for breakfast, but I know damn well what was going through mine. During my career I had spent countless nights sleeping on the floor of surveillance vans or in the cramped front seats of bureau cars. Cold, hungry, and peeing into empty soda bottles. Miserable. But I never remember being scared. Until last night.
FBI agents are never supposed to admit to being frightened but I’m not an agent anymore, so I can safely come clean with you. From the moment I looked through my binoculars at the green tableau in the backyard of that house and realized how little control I had over the outcome of our situation I was scared shitless.
And that’s my story, the premise of which is that you can be scared to death and still carry on, and that courage in the face of danger is no more heroic than showing up and forcing yourself to do what has to be done.
By the way, you should know that Q did testify and did do serious damage to LCN, after which he disappeared into the witness protection program. Several weeks later I saw a small article in the newspaper, not much more than a barely noticeable headline and fewer than a hundred unremarkable words reporting that Q had died in an automobile accident, and giving a short summary of his life as an accountant.
There was no mention of his notorious testimony.
Gene Riehl is the author of Quantico Rules and Sleeper, thriller novels that feature FBI agent Puller Monk. A former FBI agent himself, Riehl specialized in foreign counterintelligence and espionage during his law-enforcement career. He has served as the on-air terrorism analyst for a major broadcast group representing the CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox television networks. He lives in La Jolla, California.