SWAT sniper Ben Geller discovers the shocking truth behind the worst hostage siege in the history of the Pacific Northwest
While trying to juggle his failing marriage and a burgeoning affair with another officer, SWAT sniper Ben Geller must also deal with the increasing enmity of his nemesis within the police department, his partner and fellow sniper Bob Slater.
Everything pivots around a staggering revelation during the worst hostage crisis in the history of the Pacific Northwest. After a hostage is killed and the suspect inexplicably disappears from SWAT’s impenetrable perimeter with the fifteen-million dollar ransom, Geller makes a discovery that rocks his department and his team to the very core. Only then does his hardest job begin – that of proving what he knows, while trying to keep his family, and himself, alive.
In the final standoff, the only clear lines between good guy and bad guy are the crosshairs of the scope through which one sniper must take aim at the other.
Red and blue stroboscopic flashes knifed their way into the room through the venetian blinds and ricocheted off the frightened faces surrounding me. Sticking to the shadows with my back to the wall, I crept to the window and peeked between the slats.
The police officer was still as I had left him, facedown on the porch near the front door where he had fallen. The two cops with guns drawn who had been hiding behind their cars earlier were now gone, although the cars were still there. I watched their light bars flash against the backdrop of cloud cover. It had stopped raining about the time I had shot the officer, seven or eight minutes ago.
The weather was typical for the Pacific Northwest in mid-December, and I was glad that I was indoors. It was a small comfort.
That the cops were gone was a bad sign. I knew it meant the SERT team was here, and I wasn't surprised I couldn't see them. But they were here. Hiding. Watching. Preparing. It was unnerving, and it meant my time in the house was limited.
The police cars, with their flashing red and blue lights, were the only visible sign that my hostages and I weren't alone here. But even as I thought this, a trail of angry red sparks arced in front of my window. The source was a gray canister slightly larger than a soda pop can, which had come from around the corner of the house. The sparks left a brief trail of diminishing lighted arches as the canister bounced on the ground and rolled to a stop between the fallen officer and the house. Moments later, the sparks gave way to thick, dark white smoke the color of the pregnant clouds.
A gentle breeze blew the curtain of smoke across my window, fully obscuring my view of the downed officer. Whoever had thrown the canister had very good aim. Through the smoke, I saw more sparks and another canister, and the smoke doubled in thickness.
Three minutes and a third canister later, I heard noises. Through the drifting smoke I saw fleeting images of gun barrels, then, black-clad officers in helmets and masks standing behind them. There were at least two of them, materializing and disappearing like ghosts unsure if they wanted to carry out a haunting. Something was going on behind them, but I couldn't see what.
I had no illusions about what would happen if they saw me. I was so scared I didn't move a muscle. The assault I expected never came, and then the officers' ethereal images disappeared.
Six or seven minutes later, the smoke stopped and the air cleared. The downed officer was gone, and so was everyone else.
“Okay,” I said to those in the room, my quavering voice betraying my nerves, “everyone circle around me.” Reluctantly, my little group of hostages—a man, a woman, and their two children—gathered close to me as I positioned myself in the corner of the room farthest from the door. The pistol I held motivated them; the deer rifle I'd found in the couple's bedroom would motivate the police, I hoped.
I looked at my watch. One-fifteen p.m. I'd been in here for only twenty minutes. I hadn't had time for breakfast, and realized I was getting hungry. It had been a long morning.
“Anything good in the fridge?” I asked the woman.
At 2:40, the living room window crashed inward, causing my hostages and me to jump. I thought maybe the end was at hand and tensed my grip on the pistol. But instead of black-clad men bristling with weapons and testosterone, a black plastic box flew through the broken window and skidded to a stop on the carpet among the shards of glass. I stared at it dumbly, half wondering if it was going to explode. We made a little audience of sorts, my hostages and I, looking at it, expecting something of it. It didn't disappoint us. It began to ring.
I had the girl fetch the box and bring it to me. A thick, shielded cable trailed behind it. I opened the box to reveal a simple telephone handset packed in hardened, phone-shaped foam. I picked it up.
“Uh, hello?” I said stupidly, as if perhaps a friend of mine might be calling to invite me over to watch a game.
“Hey there,” said a cheery, crystal clear voice. “This is Bo Pinter, of the Stratton Police Department. Who am I talking to?”
I hung up the phone and closed my eyes. I wasn't going to do this.
It rang again.
Come on, I thought, exasperated. I picked it up again.
“Hi. This is Bo again. Hey, is this Ben? Ben Geller? I'd like to make sure you're okay in there; maybe see if you need anything, or if anyone needs, like, a doctor or something. You guys all okay in there?”
He sounded so damn cheery. He was sitting in a warm room somewhere, probably drinking a latte and listening to the stereo. His life wasn't in jeopardy, his freedom wasn't gone. He wasn't in any danger whatsoever. And he knew my name. He probably knew a hell of a lot more than that. Basically, I was screwed.
“Bo,” I said, exasperated, rubbing the sore spot between my eyes. “Don't call me again. Okay? If you call me again, I'm going to kill the little girl. Do you understand that? Do not call me again!” I slammed the phone down in an effort to scare him into thinking I was a dangerous killer. Inside, I wondered what I'd do if he called back.
He didn't. Score one for the bad guy.
By four, the sun was going down behind the house. The room I occupied was deep in shadow, and I sent the girl to the window to raise the blinds. I knew there was no way anyone out there squinting into the sun could possibly see into the back of the room. Just to be sure, I didn't move for fifteen minutes until the light was insufficient to read by, and then I picked up the hunting rifle. They—police, SERT, sharpshooters—were out there, and I was pretty sure I could find them. I decided to show them exactly who they were dealing with.
I sat on a dining room chair and balanced the rifle on the back of another chair, placed backward in front of me just for that purpose. It made for a good support. I scanned under the porch of the house across the street first but saw nothing. Then under cars, at the base of trees, in the windows, but still nothing.
I shifted my magnified gaze to the roof of the house across the street. There, at the base of the chimney, was something that didn't belong on a roof. The light was fading fast, and it took a second for my eye to adjust, but then I got it. It was like one of those random-pattern mosaic posters they used to sell in the malls—if you looked at it long enough, you saw the image your eye couldn't at first distinguish.
At the base of the chimney, silhouetted against the darkening sky, was a head. A head, which after I stared at it for a moment, became a head behind a scoped rifle. Both were covered with a tarp, and the rifle was pointed right at me.
Not today, I thought, no sir. In less than five seconds I zeroed in on the head and my rifle did the rest.
The shot was so loud in the closed room that it scared even me, and my little group of hostages screamed. My male hostage, an off-duty officer I work with on graveyard shift, recovered first. He smiled, and asked, “You get him, Ben?”
“He's gonna shit, you know.”
“Carlos! The children,” admonished his wife. Their two kids, 8 and 9 years old, giggled.
“I know,” I said. “I don't exactly think Slater considers me his favorite person.”
I plucked the portable radio from my back pocket and pushed the transmit button. “Geller to command post, you just lost your side-one sniper. One-two-zero yards off the one-one-two window, on the roof of the house north of the target.”
“CP to Geller, copy. CP to SERT, pack it in. Everyone meet up at the front door to debrief.” My hostages began filing out of the room, the kids chattering excitedly and Carlos Vega making jokes about the sniper I'd bested.
I paused to look out the window before emptying the rifle of the three remaining blank .308 cartridges in its magazine well. Men hitherto invisible began materializing from bushes and shadows all around the house, listlessly slinging assault rifles, 37 mm cannons, gas masks, shotguns, the heavy iron ramrod known as “the key,” and other SERT gear, and began moseying toward the house. I watched the marksman I had bested, Bob Slater, clamber angrily off the roof clutching his Steyr Mannlicher custom-built sniper rifle, his tanned skin and sharp-featured face darker than the clouds in the dusky half-light.
As Slater made his approach, some comedian from the entry team, which had been gathered around the side of the house and had performed the downed officer rescue, uttered, “Dead man walking.” Knowing Slater, I could imagine how pissed off he was at me.
A part of me loved that. Slater was what I refer to in police vernacular as an Adam Henry—an asshole—and I have to admit it made me feel good to one-up him. There has never been any love lost between us. He could take his dapper good looks, his little perfectly trimmed mustache, and his always-on-the-golf-course suntan and go screw himself for all I cared. He was the only cop in my police department I didn't like, and the feeling was clearly mutual.
Slater didn't like me because I was primary sniper on Stratton, Oregon's Special Emergency Response Team (synonymous with SWAT), and he was the secondary. He'd often made known his opinion that because he was the better shot, he should be the primary sniper.
The position was mine, not just because I was senior to him on the team, but also because he wasn't disciplined enough to take the more difficult, primary spot. Everyone knew I'd never shoot half as well as Slater. We were about the same age, but that's where the similarities ended.
I was a former Portland tax attorney who'd decided he'd rather chase crack addicts through back alleys and bust whores on the boulevard than save corporate clients tens of thousands of dollars exploiting loopholes in the law, and he was an ex-Marine competition long-range shooter. I was a family man—married with a daughter, and he was a loner without a girlfriend.
Last year, at the National High-Powered Rifle Competition at Camp Perry, Ohio, Slater had placed third in the country in long-distance shooting. Only two people in the United States were better shots than Slater, and I wasn't one of them. I was smart enough to know that once Slater overcame his immature attitude and got some discipline and SERT experience under his belt, Lieutenant Capelko would quietly move him into the primary position. I always figured that when that happened, I'd retire from the team.
Slater glared at me with ill-concealed contempt as I joined the rest of the team for the posttraining debriefing. I glared back, but I admit I was the first to look away.
“Okay, everyone, listen up,” said Capelko. “This is why we have training, so this stuff can happen here, not in the field. Let's find out what went wrong. Reid?”
Steven Reid, a member of the inner perimeter unit, said, “I could hear him more than I could see him. The blinds went up, and all I could see was some kind of motion in the back of the one-one-two window, so I reported it.”
“Good enough,” said Capelko. “Slater?”
It was all too apparent that Slater was pissed. He's a pretty big guy, six one, 200, maybe 210, but he seemed to compact like a black hole right before he answered. When he did, his voice, gravelly as it was, at least was cool.
“Well, there was nothing for the first couple of hours. Then Reid reports movement in the one-one-two. I focus in on it, but all the movement's in the shadows in the back. I knew we were under a shot of opportunity, but I couldn't establish that it was Geller, so I couldn't shoot. Basically, that's it. Then I see a flash and I realize it's a scope reflection. I was just starting to back off the roof into my backup position when I heard the shot and you called the scenario over.”
“Okay,” Capelko said. “Of course, by then you were dead. Did you remember the prescenario briefing, when I told you there was a hunting rifle in the house?”
“Yeah, Vince, I remembered. That's why I started backing out of there,” Slater snapped, his eyes becoming noticeably darker.
“Right, well, just think about it. Geller?”
“You said you wanted this scenario to run like a real callout as much as possible,” I said. “You said it was mostly for the inner perimeter guys and to start training Slater as the secondary sniper. Well, being a sniper myself, I know that nothing ever happens right away and complacency always sets in. So, I didn't do anything for the first few hours. I wanted to ratchet up the tension for the team, so I didn't negotiate. Once it started getting dark, I just hung back in the shadows with the rifle, surrounded by hostages. I set the rifle up on the back of a chair and started scanning the obvious places a sniper might be.”
“Where'd you look first?”
“First, I scanned under the porch of the house across the street. That's where I would have gone. It was so dark under there, I knew I'd never see anyone camo'ed out and in that position, so I figured Slater would probably use it.”
I had to throw that in. I probably shouldn't have baited Slater, but this was much too fun.
“I was going to spend two or three hours just watching it if I had to,” I continued. “Knowing what it's like to sit that long in one position, I figured he'd eventually have to move, and then I'd nail him.
“But then, while scanning the whole area looking for the perimeter guys, I happened to check the roof.”
I shifted my gaze to Slater's eyes. “Bob, you were totally silhouetted on that roof. I looked at the chimney, and at first, I didn't see you. But then you moved your head around the base, and I could see you plain as day. Camouflage makeup doesn't make you invisible if you're highlighted against a lighter sky. So, I took you out.”
All eyes were on Slater. He wasn't very good at hiding his emotions, and he looked as if he wanted to answer me with a fist in the face.
Capelko turned to him and said, “Okay, Bob. You screwed up and got spotted. You know what that means. The rest of you take thirty and grab a bite. We'll do another scenario after dinner. Meet back here at eighteen hundred.”
I dawdled just a moment, screwing with my gear, but I really just wanted to gloat. “Shit, Vince,” Slater said to Capelko. “We're adults here. We're cops, not grunts in basic training. I got the friggin' point.”
“You wanted to be on SERT, Bob. Just do your pushups and don't complain about it.”
Slater got down and began doing pushups. Fifty was nothing for a guy in Slater's physical condition, but his attitude was that of a spoiled kid who was grounded from video games after school.
Afterward, Slater sat apart from everyone, eating his dinner by himself. I thought I might have a word with him in private, so I approached him.
“Bob, this kind of thing is the reason why you didn't get the primary sniper position and I did. Hell, everyone knows you can outshoot me, but that's really just the smallest part of the job. You have to be able to out think the other guy. I might be retiring off SERT in a year or two, and when I do, you'll move into the primary sniper position. But Vince won't put you there if he doesn't think you're ready for it. I know under that porch it's dirty and nasty and there are spiders, but you should have gone there anyway. Don't take the easy way out. You gotta think like a sniper, not just a shooter. Find the best position available with concealment, and once you're there, don't frigging move around so much. It was hard for me to learn, and I'm still working on it myself. Hell, you already know that from the Marines. No offense man,” I said, offering my hand. “Just a friendly word of advice, that's all.”
Slater glanced around. Nobody was within earshot but me. “Get lost,” he said, slapping my hand away. “You and Capelko think this team is some tough-ass unit. Let me tell you something. In recon I've seen shit and done shit and been places you can't even have nightmares about. This team? It's okay considering it's made up of civilians and all, but you compare it to the worst recon platoon, and you'd see what a Mickey Mouse outfit it really is. So, I don't need a fieldcraft lesson from you.”
“Just letting you know, Bob. Mickey Mouse or not, we've got standards, and Capelko runs the team as tight as he can. You don't get dirt under your fingernails every now and then, you aren't going to go very far, Marine or not.”
“Fuck you,” he replied. “Fuck you very much for your advice. I'll take it under consideration and give you my report in the morning.”
Shaking my head, I turned to walk away. As I did, I heard him mutter, “Asshole.” I took this to mean that Bob Slater wasn't in the mood to reconcile, let alone get any friendly advice from me.
That was the first time his animosity came out so blatantly, but certainly not the last. It was the beginning of a hostility that would stay with us to the bitter end.