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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The 19th Element - John L Betcher


Western perceptions notwithstanding, the Afghan War did not put Al Qaeda out of business. And despite American bragging to the contrary, Al Qaeda has even conducted successful operations inside the U.S. after 9/11.

It is true that western forces have succeeded in thwarting a number of attempted attacks. But from Al Qaeda's perspective, even worse than failed operations are the West's unbelievably effective cover-ups. Westerners blame nearly all of Al Qaeda's successful offensives on internal malcontents. Gang wars. Freedom Fighters. Drug cartels. Anarchists. Radical extremists. These are the "criminals" who receive the credit for attacks that, in reality, are Al Qaeda's victories.

Although the premier international terrorist organization is very much alive - and deadly - the name of Al Qaeda no longer strikes fear into the hearts of the western world. Of what efficacy is a terrorist group lacking the ability to terrorize? Al Qaeda faces a serious public relations problem. World fear of Al Qaeda is at an all-time low.

There is only one solution. To regain global prominence, Al Qaeda needs an operation so high-profile, and so public, that the world cannot be duped by cover-ups.

It needs something nuclear.

"The 19th Element" is also available for Kindle
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Wednesday, May 6th at Red Wing, Minnesota.

Tuesday's discovery of a dead body washed up on the Mississippi River shore just north of Red Wing had turned the small town into a press Mecca. Television and print media crews from the Twin Cities and Rochester converged on the murder scene, each vying for the most gruesome, and attention-grabbing, visuals possible.

News helicopters swooped up and down the river valley, past the grassy riverbank where the swollen spring currents at the confluence of the Prairie River with its larger counterpart had deposited the corpse.

The body was that of an older man - in his sixties, the Ottawa County Medical Examiner had estimated. Police hadn't released the probable identity of the victim. And despite photographers' best efforts, the only crime photos that made the nightly news programs were of boaters in small craft, gawking in the river channel, and of four Ottawa County Sheriff's Deputies hoisting a vinyl body-bag from the weedy beach into their covered flatboat. The remainder of the news footage showcased well-dressed reporters, looking serious, and speaking with concerned voices about the tragic discovery near the small Minnesota town.

But all that was yesterday.

Today was Wednesday and I was at my office. Becker Law Office. James L. Becker, Attorney-at-Law. Nearly everyone who knows me calls me 'Beck.'

I arrived at this lawyering gig via an unusual route. Following my retirement from more than twenty years of sub rosa military intelligence operations, my wife, Elizabeth, and I decided to move our family to my childhood home of Red Wing. Beth and I had agreed at the time that the relatively crime-free life in rural Minnesota would be a plus for our girls. Having me working near home more of the time would reduce my family's justified worries for my safety. And I could blend in seamlessly in my old home town.

Lawyering would be a fairly easy professional transition for me. I already held a largely-unused law degree from my pre-Agency days. The segue into small town private practice would not be difficult.

So five years ago, Beth and I, and our two children, Sara and Elise, had picked up our lives and come here to live in Red Wing, a Mississippi River town of about twenty thousand. In this setting, we were able to use our real names. And we hoped to regain for our family a sense of normalcy.

Although being an attorney is not difficult, it can be less than exciting. For the sake of appearances, I maintain the cover - but we really don't need the money.

Our family financial situation is a bit more favorable than most, owing entirely to an invention I had patented during my tenure on 'the Team' - a radically new aerodynamic design for sniper bullets.

A change in the shape of a bullet might not seem like much. But after extensive testing, a government defense contractor had happily purchased my patent for quite a lot of money.

Later, I was pleased to learn that incorporation of the bullet design into new sniper rifles allowed a reliable 'kill shot' at up to a mile and a half - a significant improvement over the traditional .50 caliber long-range projectiles. A win-win for both me and the military.
Of course, the defense contractor got the glory. But that wasn't important. Glory is fleeting and fickle. Neither to be sought nor trusted.

Given our financial independence, my new 'job' is really just my new cover. My true vocation really has no proper name. I guess you could say I am professionally wayward. At least, I like that description. It implies a Huck Finn sort of freedom, combined with a Tiger Woods drive for excellence - minus some of Tiger's extra-curricular pursuits, of course.

My professionally wayward approach allows me complete freedom to select causes and goals; but once chosen, it also requires me to pursue all such matters with utter commitment and maximum preparedness. This combination of dedication and preparation has, thus far, assured my success in numerous challenging undertakings.
I am most certainly not a jack of all trades. I am, however, a master of many. Professionally wayward. I definitely like that.

At 9:30 a.m. it had already seemed a long morning at the law office. And I wanted to get the inside info on the floater murder. It was time for an informational visit to my friend in local law enforcement.

When I arrived at the Ottawa County Law Enforcement Center, a five minute drive from my office, the atmosphere was still electric in the wake of the previous day's gruesome discovery. So much so, that I had managed to slip through the usual administrative roadblocks and right into Gunner's inner office.

'Gunner' is Ottawa County's Chief Deputy Sheriff, Doug Gunderson. He's in his mid-forties, six foot, 180 pounds and in pretty good shape. Though he displays a hint of a belly, his body is mostly muscle. Gunner's round face, light complexion and short, reddish-brown hair are not atypical of many fourth-generation Scandinavian immigrants to this area of Minnesota.

Gunner is also one of the very few people in town who has any idea of my true life experiences as a covert intelligence operative during my twenty-year absence from Red Wing.

We had known each other in our youth, and had been casual friends in high school, but hadn't kept in contact until my return to Minnesota five years ago. On one occasion, a few years back, he had pressed me for details concerning my life after leaving Red Wing.

As a professional investigator, he can be irritatingly tenacious.

At the time, it hadn't been my first choice to let Gunner in on my secrets. But he was persistent. My gut told me I could trust him. And a friend in local law enforcement is not a bad thing. So I had elected to come clean about my government past - minus many details, of course. In return, he'd vowed to keep my secrets to himself - a promise he had faithfully fulfilled.

Since then, Gunner and I had 'cooperated' on a few cases. He operated by the book. I, by my own rules. The differing approaches created some conflict. But we shared common goals, and we understood each other well enough to make it work. As a side benefit, being involved with law enforcement activities satisfied my desire for more action than mere lawyering alone could provide.

Gunderson was seated at his desk, deeply absorbed in review of glossy crime scene photographs. He looked up when he heard my voice.

"So what's going on today, Gunner?" I inquired. "Things are hopping around here. Is Oprah planning a visit?" Gunner looked up from his work.

"Becker. Who let you in here?" He was trying to sound irritated.

"Always nice to be welcome," I said.

Following the exchange of further niceties, Gunner answered my question.

"You know damn well what's going on, Beck. Everybody from the Sheriff, to the Mayor, to the frickin' Press is all over our asses to solve this murder case. Deadline is yesterday.

"And of course, the big wigs've gotta fight over the jurisdictional issues. The State guys want in on the investigation. The FBI claims that it oughtta be in charge because the body was found in interstate waters. Actually, our own department has the best claim to the case, since it appears that the murder occurred on our dirt.

"So in short, it's a madhouse right now. No one is in charge. And despite all the activity around here," - Gunner made an arm motion circling his head - "not much investigating is really getting done."

I looked at him, feigning shock.

I'm pretty sure Gunner could sense my lack of sympathy for his bureaucratic hiccups. Gunner frowned at me for a few moments, then lightened up.

"Oh geez. You might as well have a seat," he said at last. "I need a break anyway."
Gunner motioned me to one of his side chairs.

It was stacked full with manila files.

I raised my eyebrows at him.

He returned the look. But the files didn't move.

So I cleared the chair myself, stacking the manila obstacles alongside a similar pile of files already reclining against the wall. Then I sat down.

Commotion continued in the hall outside his office.

With hands crossed comfortably over his torso, Gunner leaned back in the 1960s-vintage vinyl office chair, looking at me as if waiting for something to happen.

"So ...," I began. "Do you know who the unlucky fellow is . . . was?"

I could see that Gunner was trying to project cool and calm - but the butterflies were definitely fluttering in his gut. A murder in Ottawa County was a very big deal. But Gunner wasn't about to let his excitement overtake his professional persona.

"We're pretty sure it was a prof from the U of M Ag Lab at the Ottawa Facility," he said, locking his fingers behind his head.

I noted the obvious perspiration under his arms.

"His wife reported him missing to the Cottage Grove Police early yesterday morning. And he hasn't shown up for work the past two days. Car's missing, too.

"Oh yeah." He paused for dramatic effect. Gunner likes drama. I think he watches too many cop shows on TV.

"There's a large amount of dried blood in the Lab parking lot. We're assuming it will match our victim."

I paused for a moment. Then . . .

"Seems a logical assumption," I said, bypassing the drama. "Have you got a name?"

Gunner looked a little wounded that I hadn't been more impressed with the big blood puddle.

Overcoming his mild disappointment, he leaned forward, referencing the notepad on his desk. "Donald G. Westerman, PhD. Home address is in Cottage Grove. We'll be inviting the wife to the morgue to identify the body as soon as we can make it . . . ah . . . presentable."

The killer had nearly severed Dr. Westerman's head from his body. Some tidying up was prudent before exposing the wife to her husband's corpse.

"Don't s'pose you found a weapon?"

"No such luck. The M.E. is trying to get us a description of the blade. But since it's a slash, that'll probably come back 'inconclusive.' In a stabbing, you can maybe get a cast or something. With a cut, usually its just whether the knife is serrated, and how thick."

Based on my experience with knives, Gunner was probably right about the forensics.
"And at present, no motive either?"

I had all the smart questions.

"Not really," Gunner continued. "Though it is interesting to note that the fellow's lab assistant has also failed to report for work since the murder."

He consulted his notes again.

"One Farris Ahmed. British exchange student in the graduate program at the U of M. Sent a couple deputies by his apartment. No one home. We're working on a search warrant."

In my former military career, I had once encountered a radical Muslim Jihadist who went by the name of Farris Ahmed. It was a common enough name in Arab countries - but given my past experiences, one might understand why this name did not sit quietly in my gut.

"What ethnic derivation is Mr. Ahmed?" I asked. "Muslim Brit?"

"Not strictly relevant, Beck. You know there's no racial profiling in this department." Ah. The company line.

Gunner gave me a steely stare. I waited.

"Officially, we have no word on Mr. Ahmed's ethnicity. We're a small department. We can't do everything at once, for god's sake. Anyway, we try to save the bigotry assignments for the BCA."

The BCA was the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the branch of the State Police charged with criminal investigations. They would likely take a lead role in the investigation, regardless of any Sheriff's Department protests to the contrary.

The mention of the name 'Farris Ahmed,' and the international background of the lab assistant, had further piqued my interest.

"Gunner. You would probably ask the BCA to do this anyway . . . but would you mind checking for any international telephone calls made from the vicinity of the Lab around the time of the murder? I mean, not just the assistant's phone, or the land lines, but anonymous, throw-away cell phones, too?"

"Why?" Gunner replied, leaning forward in his chair. "Do you suspect a connection beyond Minnesota?"

I didn't want to get Gunner off track just because my gut had a twinge - especially with no evidence at all of global foul play. But I wasn't going to ignore my instincts either.
"Well . . . the assistant was from overseas - just thought you'd want to be thorough."

Gunner looked me in the eye before continuing.

Gunner leaned back again in his chair. I surmised I was about to receive some wise advice from the seasoned law man.

"You realize, Beck, that the assistant may be another victim, and not at all culpable in this mess?"

"I suppose that's true," I conceded. "Still, I would appreciate your checking the phone call situation."

"All right, Beck. I'll ask the BCA to do it . . . as a favor to you."

Gunner pretended to think it was a dumb idea. But he has always been a bad actor. My concern wasn't so far-fetched that he was going to ignore it.

"'Course I can't guarantee that the BCA'll do anything about it. They don't work for me, you know."

Gunner aimed a forefinger across the desk at me.

"And if I catch any crap for making this request, you will owe me one."

I had gotten what I wanted. No point picking a fight.

"You have a deal. Thanks. And good luck with the investigation."

"Right. Thanks, Beck. I'm sure I'll be seeing you around."

"Oh, I think you can count on it."

And I left.


  1. Where did this come from? And is there more?

  2. Nevermind, I've caught on chapter one is from the The 19th Element. :D