Operation: Austin – Chapter One


It says Gary P Booker Jr., Booker Security Consulting, on his business cards, but he rarely hands one out. Most people who contact him either know who he is or are blindly reaching out through a secured channel, having heard there might be someone on the other end who would help them in a desperate hour of need. He often wondered why he even has business cards, an analog remnant in a digital world, but on a rare occasion, handing one out came in handy.The term cybersecurity consultant made his work sound very neat and tidy; and it usually was, but other times it got really messy. That is what this story is about; a time when things got really messy.

It was a Monday night in the middle of July. The temperature in Eastern Washington had been characteristically hot, hovering around 100° most days. Gary did not mind; he had air conditioning although he didn’t like to use it. Rather, he preferred wearing fewer clothes with quick dips in his pool.

Since he lived alone most of the time, he had little need for clothes unless his teammates, or his housekeeper or her seventeen-year-old daughter were around. Lately, he had spent a lot of time alone. Actually, technically, he did not live alone, but his dog Jax did not care if Gary worked nearly naked or not.

He was up late into the evening, digging through an Asian chat room on the Dark Web, the real name of which is TOR, or The Onion Router. The system has many different uses, actually, but it is popularly known for being the secure place criminals use to communicate. Referring to it as The Dark Web is sensational, and the media loves to sensationalize things. Besides, nobody wants to hear about some technical process of encrypting messages in layers, especially with a boring name like The Onion Router. The Dark Web sounds much more mysterious and dangerous.

He had been monitoring a situation in Davao City, on the Philippine Island of Mindanao. There had been some mention of possible terrorist activity in a dark group he surfed occasionally. That was enough to send him digging through the notorious, online, back alleys of society looking for clarity on the matter. The Philippines is fifteen or sixteen hours ahead of his local time zone, depending on daylight savings time. That was why he was sitting in his office, naked in the warm summer evening. Normally he would be in bed, trying to out snore his dog, which would be laying on a big pillow in the corner of the room.

The phone rang, breaking his concentration. Irritated someone would call at this hour, he looked to see who it was. The screen simply said: John. Calling unexpectedly was not unusual for his best friend. If he and Layla were not actually in Ellensburg with Gary, they might be anywhere in the world. When that was the case, John frequently poked his head up above ground, wanting to chat. He normally did not call at 11:00 p.m. though. Curious about a call at this hour, Gary picked up his phone and touched the button.

Hey Big John, what’s up? You ok?”

“Yeah, boy, all good now, but I have a situation, and I need your help.”

Gary had known John Byrne for years; he was one of those hard-to-describe people. The closest comparison Gary could think of was Stallone’s character in ‘Get Carter’; Gary often wondered if that character had actually been modeled after John’s notorious career as an enforcer and collector for the Casino industry. John would not stick out in a crowd, but when an immediate and lasting impression needed to be made on someone, he’s the man many powerful people called.

People who knew him said John was the most interesting person they had ever met. A very common comment about him was, “Somebody should write a book about all of the stuff he’s done, but nobody would believe it was true.”

One of the most amazing stories about John, happened years ago when he lived in Seattle. John had been an All-American football and basketball player from New York. Through an odd series of events, with no dancing experience, he ended up in Seattle dancing the lead in The Nutcracker Ballet.

During that time, he was working out at the famous Eagles Gym and there was a heavyweight contender in town, training for a title fight. Finding sparring partners was proving to be a challenge. At a trimmed down weight of 180 pounds, John decided to go a few rounds in the ring with the future champ. At the age of sixteen he had been the sparring partner for the middle weight champion of the world, so he knew his way around the inside of the ring. Plus, he once wrestled an 800-pound brown bear, so, hey, how tough can a 228-pound boxer be?

That was how John became the regular sparring partner for a future heavy weight champion of the world, a guy who out weighted him by almost fifty pounds.

Eventually, he ended up in Las Vegas, working as a bartender. One afternoon, he bounced an entire motorcycle gang out of an off-strip casino. The feat was witnessed by the guy who did all of the collecting for the big casinos in town. John was hired on the spot, and for the next five years, he and his boss ran the security and collection business in Sin City. These are just a few of the dozens of unbelievable stories which could be told about John Byrne.

John, and Gary, along with John’s team of handpicked mercenaries, collected intelligence for governments, provided security for wealthy clients, performed hostage extractions, and handled special situations where criminals needed to be dealt with efficiently and permanently. They are not in the Law Enforcement business; they leave those cases to the authorities. Those same authorities called John or Gary, however, when they needed permanent resolution on cases they could not or would not touch. John and Gary were in the justice business, and right at that moment, John was on the phone, and Gary was curious.

“Must be serious. How can I help?” Gary asked.

“I’m in Las Vegas on a deal. It’s cleaned up, but there is a girl; her name is Paige, she’s almost nineteen. Things got complicated Gary; I couldn’t leave her there. She doesn’t have any family, and I need to find a place for her to stay. Someplace safe and quiet. Can you take her in for a while?”

Normally when they made a victim extraction, it was for a client, and they knew where the kid was going. It was usually a girl, but occasionally a boy. Now John had a girl on his hands, and for some reason, there were no open arms to receive her and take her home. Gary and John usually worked together on these deals. This must have come together really fast because this was the first Gary had heard of it. He wondered where the intel came from, not that John had to report to Gary, but it seemed odd he had not heard about it before this call.

Gary had plenty of room; he lived alone in an enormous house near a small town in Eastern Washington. Since he was usually up to his eyebrows in some cyber investigation, it was quiet around the place, but he was not sure about taking in some problem child. After a few years of drama and adventure, his life was finally organized, with a routine he was very much in control of. The work they did involved extremely sensitive security, another reason not to have somebody around, but it was John, so…

“Is she on drugs? What’s wrong with her? Can’t she go to a shelter or something?”

“No, she’s been beaten up some. I was hired to recover a different girl from traffickers, and she was on site. She’s clean as far as I can tell, no tracks. Doesn’t seem the type. She was drugged at a party last weekend, ended up in a bedroom in the same house as my client’s kid. She just arrived in town from Idaho and wasn’t on-site long. She is new here and doesn’t have any place safe to go. I couldn’t leave her there. Besides, it seems like there was an explosion and devastating fire right after we left. The place burned to the ground. The other girl is back with her family, but this kid needs some place to go for a while. Someplace nobody can find her if they come looking.”

“Are they looking?”

“Not that I know of, but I’m not sure who knew about her, and eventually, someone will sort this out. If the cops get her, the perps will find her. She doesn’t know anything, and she can’t identify anyone important, but they won’t care about that. They need to think she died in the fire. If we don’t get her out of here, she’s a dead girl, and she seems like a nice kid.”

“There was a fire, eh? Strange coincidence!”

“Yeah, boy, really sad, it was a beautiful place. Horrible fire, a really hot one from what I hear. Probably completely burned the bodies we left there.”

The fact this conversation went from “I have a problem” to “We need to get her out of here” was not lost on Gary. He smiled; John knew he was a sucker for damsels in distress. It was what they did.

“Where is she now?”

“In my hotel room, sleeping.”

That would be the Rio, Gary thought, their favorite off-the-strip hotel. “Ok,” Gary was looking for the punchline. “Tell me again why she can’t stay at your place, I mean, just out of curiosity?”

“Well, Layla isn’t really big on me bringing home beautiful girls; besides, I’m not headed back; I’m flying out in the morning for Mexico.” He added, “She was going to come down with us, but the upcoming event for Wallace and Suzanne has her tied up so Rob, Paula, and I are headed to Rio on a bodyguard gig. Besides, I’m not exactly the safest guy to be around right now, and I need to clear out. You’re boring, you have a big place, a pool, and Paula’s not there working right now; you need some company. She will be safe with you.”

John knew Gary’s soft spots; after all of these years, they could read each other. This was not the first time he’d used the ‘There is a girl who needs help’ line. Usually, it meant ‘Gary, get your PayPal account charged up’, but something was different in his tone this time. Gary had that tingle which told him there was more to this deal than a down-on-her-luck teenager.

“Beautiful, you say?” Not that it made a difference, but John wouldn’t usually comment on it.

“Did I say beautiful? I meant fucking gorgeous.”

Gary thought for a minute. Sarcastically he thought it would be a real hardship having a beautiful guest for a few days, but he would suffer through it. If John could not use his friends, who could he use? Besides, John was right about Layla, what he did not mention was she would be the worst babysitter in the world. “Ok, she is here legally, right? Does she have some ID?”

“Yeah, she’s from Idaho. She was able to grab her purse on our way out the door. They took her cash, but they hadn’t gotten rid of her passport and driver’s license. We tossed her phone; she wasn’t happy about that, but she understands they could track her. She’s a pretty scared kid.”

“Ok fine,” Gary was already forming a plan. “You get her to Portland, and I’ll pick her up there in the morning. That will add some confusion to finding her. Any luggage?”

“Nothing. She has blondish hair, a UNLV tee shirt, and blue jeans; she’ll be wearing everything she has. Can’t go back to pick anything up.”

Gary understood. They do not leave loose ends; the deal went down dirty, he’s heading out fast and light, and she needs to do the same. “I’ll leave early in the CTS-V; it’ll make the trip faster and be more comfortable. Might need to get her some clothes on the way back. I’ll bill you for them. Text me with her flight info.”

John laughed. “Sure, get her some clothes. She’ll need them. Thanks, Boy, I knew you wouldn’t say no.”

“Yeah, yeah. I cannot wait to see how much you’re going to owe me for this one.”

They hung up; the text came about twenty minutes later. “Flight 1365 lands at 9:58, don’t be late.” There it was again… that tingle of anticipation.