Bandit Country: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 3
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The murky underside of a terrorist war . . . Joe Johnson finds himself in the crosshairs of a Northern Ireland serial sniper who is awaiting the US president’s arrival. And the 29-year mystery around an IRA killer’s gruesome death deepens.
“The twists and intricate story lines were incredible. A real page turner.” — Amazon reviewer.
Ex-CIA war crimes investigator Johnson is up against a ticking clock as the sniper’s body count rises and the president and UK prime minister prepare for a G8 world summit near Belfast.
Eventually, Johnson and his ex-MI6 colleague Jayne Robinson uncover historic hidden files, documents and dark secrets from three decades earlier that certain high-flying public figures would rather remained unread.
The investigation climaxes with a helicopter drama in the skies over Belfast.
Bandit Country—the third book in the Joe Johnson series—dives into the murky depths of historic conflicts between British security forces and the IRA, as well as the illegal US-based fundraising and weapons smuggling operations that armed the terrorists.
See how Johnson battles to uncover hidden truths from the past to prevent another devastating crime today.
Release date: February 9, 2018
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 478
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Bandit Country: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 3
Wednesday, December 19, 1984
Crossmaglen, Northern Ireland
Dessie Duggan felt his heart rate slacken as he exhaled slowly yet again. Time seemed to stand still as he squinted into the high-powered telescopic sight and squeezed his finger, light as a lover’s caress, on the trigger of the forty-three-inch sniper rifle.
Even through the scope, the target he was aiming at looked tiny. There was no margin for error here. The physical effort required to pull the trigger was minimal, but every time he took a shot, his head seemed to burst outward under the mental pressure, the concentration.
The explosive sound of the weapon firing carried unimpeded across the flat, rain swept fields. A quartet of crows that had only just settled at the top of a leafless oak tree to Dessie’s left took off again, squawking in alarm, and headed south toward the border with the Irish Republic.
Dessie, who lay prone on a short length of tarpaulin, remained still and glanced up and down the smooth matte-black metal casing of the FN FAL semiautomatic rifle, its twenty-one-inch barrel pointing toward a small copse almost five hundred yards away at the top of a slight incline.
He removed his earplugs, turned his head, and looked at his father, Alfie, who stood behind him, peering through a powerful spotting scope mounted on a monopod, toward a sheet of white printer paper pinned to one of the distant trees. After a few seconds, Alfie nodded. “Hit.”
“About bloody time,” Dessie said, his voice low and soft. He ran his hand through his cropped black hair.
“You control that breathing, son, you control your gun. Simple as that,” the older man said. “Otherwise it controls you. And then you’re finished.” He scratched at the gray and black stubble that sprouted under his chin and began to remove the scope from the monopod.
“Are we done? No time for another?” Dessie asked.
Alfie looked at his watch. “No. Been here twenty minutes already. It’s way too long. I need to disappear, and anyway, Patrick’s car will be here in a minute. We don’t want to make him late for the airport. Then my car won’t be far behind.”
He inclined his head toward the very tall, angular figure of Dessie’s oldest friend, Patrick McKinney, who stood behind him, arms folded. His hair had grown long and he’d recently dyed it black. He had a new beard and was wearing a pair of black-framed glasses. They’d been in the same junior school class and had grown up with a republican fire inside them that wouldn’t go out.
It was just past three o’clock in the afternoon, and the dregs of the pale winter sun, now down near the horizon, were casting long shadows.
Dessie stood, pushed the FN’s safety up, and removed the empty magazine. He slid the rifle into a long black case, together with the remaining cartridges, and zipped it up. Then he picked up the spent cartridge cases and quickly folded the tarp. “Okay, let’s go.”
The three men walked around the clump of rhododendron bushes that had hidden them from view and went back along the rough farm track toward Coolderry Road, the single-lane road four hundred yards away.
By the time they reached the road, a blue Ford Cortina that had pulled onto the shoulder next to Alfie’s Land Rover stood waiting, its engine running.
Dessie paused for a moment. The hour just spent with his father had been their longest time together in the previous thirteen months. It had been the same ever since the old man and Patrick had gone on the run, ducking and diving, following their escape from Long Kesh, the Maze prison southeast of Belfast, along with thirty-six others. Most of the escapees had long since been recaptured.
Alfie and Patrick stood on the wet grass and faced each other in silence. Alfie held out a hand and Patrick shook it slowly, then scratched the scar that ran down the right side of his face, below his cheekbone.
“Go well, Patrick,” Dessie’s father said. “I hope Boston is kinder to you than Belfast. A new life. We’ll all three work together again soon, I know it. Don’t let the bastards get to you.”
Patrick turned to Dessie and briefly embraced him, then stood back and nodded before climbing into the Cortina. “Tell the council I’ll still be looking to help. Funds, weapons, whatever.” He looked at Dessie. “And you,” he said. “Keep practicing. I’ll miss you, big man.”
With that he pulled the door shut and was gone.
Dessie and Alfie watched the Cortina head east toward Larkins Road and the back route past Thomas “Slab” Murphy’s farm over the border into the Republic. No sooner had it disappeared around the bend than another car, a green Rover 3500, came toward them from the same direction.
“Okay, time to go again,” Alfie said. “I’ll see you next month then, son, all being well.” He pointed toward the small copse of trees. “I want you getting four out of five by then. And you’d best go get that target.”
The Rover drew level with them and stopped.
“Try and enjoy your Christmas. Tell your mother I love her.” Alfie hugged his son before reiterating his usual parting refrain. “And if I don’t see you again, keep up the struggle. No surrender. Okay?”
Alfie eyed his son steadily. Dessie hesitated, looked down, and finally nodded. Only then did his father climb into the front passenger seat and close the door.
It was pointless asking his father where he would be for Christmas. He wouldn’t have been told yet. Shuttled from one safe house to another, usually by night, he slept on mattresses in back bedrooms, attics, and basements. Probably no more than a couple of days in each place, at most. It was no life for a fifty-two-year-old. Dessie’s mother, Megan, was on Valium to cope with the stress of it.
The driver slotted the Rover into gear and accelerated quickly westward along Coolderry Road.
Dessie stood next to the long wheelbase Land Rover, which belonged to the family farm, and watched the car until it was around the corner behind the woods and out of sight.
He looked at his watch and eyed the rough track that headed north off the lane through the fields toward the copse. He’d better do the sensible thing, as his father suggested, and take down the piece of paper he’d been aiming at.
That was when it happened.
From behind the woods, where the Rover had disappeared, came the insistent clatter of semiautomatic gunfire. Not just from one weapon but several.
Then a pause. Followed by more gunfire.
A cloud of dark smoke climbed from behind the trees into the winter air and drifted slowly in the breeze as Dessie sank to his knees.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Belfast International Airport
“We’re going on a detour first, before I take you to the apartment,” Michael Donovan said. He wedged himself into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and rapidly accelerated out of Belfast International Airport’s pickup zone.
“Where?” Joe Johnson said. He yawned. It had been a tedious twenty-hour journey from his home in Portland, Maine, via Boston and Amsterdam, and he’d only managed a fitful sleep on the plane.
“South Armagh,” Donovan said in his lilting Ulster brogue. He glanced from beneath a set of spiky black eyebrows across to Johnson in the passenger seat.
“Yes, I want to show you Crossmaglen and Drumintee. Just a quick visit.”
Johnson raised an eyebrow. “That was a trouble spot, years ago, wasn’t it?”
“Yep. It’s still not exactly a safe haven.”
Johnson looked at his host. “So why are we going there?”
“You need to get a feel for this place. It’ll help explain why I’ve brought you over here,” Donovan said. He swung right at the traffic circle and headed south down the A26 toward Craigavon and Armagh County, instead of east toward Belfast as Johnson had expected.
“I thought you’d done that. You’ve said what you want me to do, roughly.”
“Yes, but some more background would be useful.”
Johnson had been getting emails from Donovan for several months urging him to head to Northern Ireland. Donovan ran his own business, matching foreign investors with companies in Northern Ireland that needed funds to grow.
Several of Donovan’s emails had mentioned continuing attacks by dissident Republicans on police stations, homes, vehicles, and individuals and especially the economic damage they were doing.
Donovan’s focus had been on how money was being driven elsewhere, which was hurting his business, and the police were not doing anywhere near enough to deal with it.
Johnson’s interest had been partly piqued by Donovan’s background as a former senior intelligence operator with the British army in Northern Ireland. He’d been a handler for informers within the Irish Republican Army, he’d said. For Johnson, an ex-CIA officer who’d played a similar role in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it had struck a chord.
The other attraction was that Donovan was offering 20 percent more than Johnson’s normal fees. And he’d paid for Johnson’s airfare.
Donovan’s large, fleshy left hand grasped the gear stick as he pushed his Audi 4x4 up into fifth.
“I thought the peace process had sorted out most of the problems, Michael,” Johnson said. “Isn’t it just a small group of nutters now, with no future?”
After decades of war between nationalist republican forces—who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of a united Ireland—and British security forces, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had led to the apparent decommissioning of weapons. As part of the agreement, the British government consented to a new arrangement in Northern Ireland that allowed the Irish Republic a say in what happened there.
Donovan laughed, causing the jowls of his double chin to wobble. “You can call me the Don, like most people. No need for Michael. And you’re joking. It’s smoke and mirrors, mate. The old IRA leaders, like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, might be wearing suits and ties these days, sitting in these fancy new Northern Ireland Assembly seats, but down at grassroots level, people still feel the same. The Catholics, the Republicans still want the British out of Ulster. These dissidents have still got guns, rocket launchers, and grenades stashed away in huge quantities. What they decommissioned in ’98 was the tip of the iceberg, a PR stunt. Forget it.”
He drove down the long, straight road past Maghaberry and onto the M1 divided highway, where he headed west toward Craigavon.
“Not far from here,” Donovan said, “down near Craigavon, a prison officer from Maghaberry jail was shot dead as he got out of his car at his golf course a few weeks back. Long-distance job by a sniper from high up on a hilltop. They think from around three-quarters of a mile away. Back in September, a guy who runs his own security company was also shot. That was another long-range job from a cliff top while he was walking his dog. A nasty business.”
Johnson frowned. “So the victims were Protestant, were they?”
Donovan nodded. “Yes, Protestant unionist guys but not particularly flag-waving types. Beyond that, there was no clear motive for either. We’ve had other killings, bombings of government offices, kneecappings. You name it. I mean, don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing like the dark days of the Troubles. We’re not going back to the ’70s, nothing like that, but it’s getting worse.”
Johnson glanced out the car window. “I’ve read about them forming a merged republican organization.” Prior to flying to Belfast, he’d gone through several high-level specialist reports on the Northern Ireland situation. All of them had mentioned a merger toward the end of the previous year between the Real IRA and other republican paramilitary groups, including Óglaigh na hÉireann, to form a larger entity, the New IRA.
“Yep,” Donovan said. “They were fragmented, but they’re becoming more organized. And it’s showing. Attacks are becoming more frequent and more aggressive. Make no mistake, there’s hundreds of them in the group now.”
“And who’s doing what about it?”
“That’s the issue,” Donovan said. “In some parts of Northern Ireland, like south Armagh, the police are still reluctant to police a lot of the time, though they’ll deny that. And of course, there’s been no army presence since mid-2007. As a result, it’s like the Wild West in some parts. That’s my problem. It’s shit for business. People don’t want to invest with all this crap still going on. I had an American guy over here in early November from California, looking at putting money—big money—into an aircraft
omponents factory, a new venture to supply Airbus and Boeing. Would have created hundreds of jobs. Then the prison officer gets taken out. There’s a bomb attack on a police station. He gets the jitters and jumps on the next plane back to San Francisco. And you can’t blame him.”
“So it’s a money issue for you?” Johnson asked.
“Partly. I spent years as an intelligence guy in the army,” Donovan said. “It was interesting, but I got paid peanuts. I’m making up for it now, as a businessman. But I also don’t like people getting away with stuff they should have done time for, no matter who they are, which side of the fence they’re on. Guess I’ve changed my view on that over the years. When I was younger I looked the other way when it involved my own side. Anything went back then.”
Donovan glanced at Johnson. “That’s why I called you in. I’ve tried talking to the police, but they seem reluctant to act unless someone’s shooting at their officers. I’ve tried talking to journalists, but none of them have time to investigate stuff anymore. They’re all tied to their desks, under orders from their editors to write a couple of thousand words a day, and they’re scared of this republican lot, anyway. I’ve tried politicians, but they’re just bullshitters.” He shrugged.
“The journalists weren’t interested?” Johnson asked.
“A couple of them were actually very interested, in principle. They said that if I could bring them something concrete—names, evidence, and so on—they would have a look at it,” Donovan continued. “So again, that’s why I brought you in. I’d like to use the media to embarrass the authorities into action. But we need to make it easy for the journalists, so I want someone to do the spadework first.”
Now they were in County Armagh, and Donovan turned off the divided highway, heading south past Portadown and into the flat, rural countryside, punctuated with leafless winter trees, gray farm buildings, and isolated houses.
Donovan had interrogated Johnson thoroughly on his track record investigating historical war crimes, via email and during various phone calls, prior to flying him to Belfast. The Irishman had been particularly impressed with his work chasing down former Nazis and mass murderers from the Yugoslav civil war.
Johnson ran his hand through the short-cropped semicircle of graying hair that surrounded his bald patch.
“If you’ve got a passion for justice, then there’s a lot you can get stuck into here,” Donovan said, as he continued to drive south.
The Irishman continued driving along the A29 until they reached the Crossmaglen turnoff. Donovan pointed to a memorial on the other side of the crossroads. “That’s for the hunger strikers, the 1981 lot. Remember Bobby Sands?”
He swung the car right onto the B30: four miles to Crossmaglen, according to the road sign.
Johnson did remember the hunger strikes. He was only nineteen at the time but recalled the television pictures beamed from outside the Maze prison, southwest of Belfast, as Sands and several other IRA prisoners eventually died after weeks of refusing food and demanding special treatment, such as the right to wear their own clothes, arguing they were political prisoners, not criminals.
A few minutes later, they passed a petrol station and came to a dip in the road on a bend left, just before a dense clump of trees. Two cars were stopped in the middle of the road, one at a forty-five-degree angle, which meant there was no way to get around them.
Donovan braked and came to a halt behind the nearest of the two cars. “Looks like somebody’s broken down here. Or has there been an accident?”
As he spoke, a blur of movement in the trees at the side of the road ahead of them caught Johnson’s eye.
Suddenly, three men ran out from the shadows into the road about a hundred yards in front of Donovan and Johnson. The men were dressed all in black, each wearing a balaclava, two of them carrying handguns.
One of them held out his palm in front of Donovan’s car in a clear signal to remain still.
Donovan grasped the top of his steering wheel and jerked his bulky body forward. “What the hell’s going on here?”
Into their hearing came the distinctive high-speed clattering and thumping of a helicopter, drawing rapidly nearer.
One of the men in balaclavas crouched behind the farthest car, his gun pointed straight at Donovan’s Audi, another likewise from behind the nearest one. The third man strutted in a no-nonsense fashion right up to Donovan’s driver’s side window, carrying a sheaf of papers in one hand.
He jerked his thumb forcefully back, signaling Donovan and Johnson that they should get out of the car.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
The Police Service of Northern Ireland helicopter cruised in at a brisk 120 miles per hour over the random collection of green fields that spread across the County Armagh landscape like the shapes of a patchwork quilt.
The man sitting on the left side of the cabin, Eric Simonson, the chief constable of Northern Ireland, fingered his silver hair and looked out the window.
Clearly visible in the distance was the immense mass of Slieve Gullion, the ancient volcanic mountain that dominates south Armagh like a medieval fortress. The aerial view of sunshine splashed on the purple and gray rock and the green countryside reminded Simonson of an oil painting and always lifted his spirits.
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