By Greg Rucka
Read by Rob Shapiro
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Retired Delta Force operator, Master Sergeant Jonathan “Jad” Bell, is Wilsonville’s lead undercover security officer. The threat begins with the announcement of a hidden dirty bomb, but quickly becomes something far, far worse.
Trained since the age of seventeen to save innocent victims from impossible hostage situations, Jad scrambles to assess the threat and protect the visitors. He will come face to face with a villain whose training matches his in every way-and presents a threat Jad may not be able to stop.
MARIO VESQUES was sure he was going to make it, right up until he saw the knife in the dog’s hand.
He had no idea where the blade came from; what he did have was just enough time to realize he was in trouble, and then the cartoon animal was lunging at him in a way that Vesques recognized, had seen before, but yet couldn’t immediately place. Only as he got his left forearm up for a cross-block, felt the tip of the knife nicking skin as it split his sleeve, did it click.
Modern Army, as taught at Fort Benning, Georgia, courtesy of the United States Army; and through the adrenaline rush he saw the irony that he and whoever was wearing the Pooch suit shared the same pedigree. The absurdity of it all—Vesques in his maintenance coveralls and this man in his dog suit, right paw missing to reveal a Caucasian hand and the blade it held—that they had shared, at some point, the same masters, perhaps the same history, perhaps even the same instructors. That they might’ve, somewhere, sometime, stood together as brothers in arms.
But the blade was stabbing at him again and again, and Vesques was backpedaling now, stumbling once more through the door he’d just exited, the compressor room off the Flashman West maintenance tunnel, the one running east-west the length of the park. Dimmer light within, after-hours power management, and Vesques knew the room was a death trap, that there was no way out of it other than the one the dog now blocked.
The whole thing had been a fluke, what had seemed to be, finally, a stroke of good luck that had turned inexplicably, absurdly bad. Six weeks almost Vesques had been working the park, placed there just to make sure things stayed safe, that no one got bold, got any bright ideas. Six weeks working on a whisper that nobody believed would pan out—and he didn’t, either, to tell the truth, thought it another wild-goose assignment. But he did his job, the job he was trained to do, and tonight—tonight—he had thought about maybe checking the compressors, just to be sure. He hadn’t known what he was looking for, but intuition had said, hey, air-conditioning, put something into circulation, and he had listened, because in training they had told him that intuition was more often what would save his life than take it.
Except this time.
After-hours staffing, maintenance and custodial working one to six, nobody supposed to be around except other men and women wearing the same coveralls Mario Vesques now wore. Which was why, when he saw Pooch heading into compressor 4, off Flashman West, well, that was definitely worth checking out. Which was why he’d waited until Pooch had emerged again after two minutes, had headed down the tunnel and disappeared, before going to take a look himself.
Shining his flashlight over and around the ductwork, the pipes and compressors, even getting down on his belly until the beam revealed a shape just poking out from behind the compressor itself. Reaching, straining for it, and his fingers had closed on the tail of a nylon duffel bag. Pulled the bag free, looked inside. A folded, paper-thin jumpsuit. A gas mask. A disassembled pistol, and Vesques guessed that was how it had entered the park, one piece at a time. A cell phone, but that wasn’t the jackpot, as far as he was concerned. The jackpot was the radio, military-grade hardware with not one but two extra batteries, and that meant there was a plan in place, one that required communication and coordination, and this was only one part of it.
So he zipped the duffel shut and he put it back where it belonged, and on a whim swept his light around the room one more time, into the dark corners. Reflected light jumped back at him.
He’d gone in for a closer look, seen that his flashlight had bounced from the screen of a disposable cell phone, and that the phone wasn’t alone. Wired up, and good, a proper IED, but a small one, so small he could barely find the charge on it. The phone itself taped to a small plastic baggie, and powder in the baggie, and his throat had gone dry at that. Not the explosive, oh, no, that wasn’t what made his stomach cramp; but that powder, whatever that powder might be, he was sure that was trouble.
Trouble enough that it was time to go, time to make the call and report what he’d found. Time to maybe get the operators in here, people who knew what they were doing with biological agents and IEDs and the like.
Left it where he found it, and he’d backed out of the room, turned, and seen Pooch ten feet away.
Holding a knife.
Tools on his belt jangling, flashlight still in hand, Vesques brought it up, across, trying to club at the hand holding the knife. Hitting high, what should’ve been a bone-crushing blow lost in the padding on the costumed arm, and now Pooch was slamming into him, full-body, the same costume cushioning the impact but doing nothing to diminish the weight. They fell back together, Vesques dropping the flashlight, both hands seeking the knife, and then the white heat bursting through his vision.
Tasting copper in his mouth.
The vibration of his head hitting concrete again, the blurred flash of Pooch looming over him, human hand and dog’s paw, the knife gone. His hair tearing. Kicking back, struggling, and then the world losing sound, vision splintering, as his skull was bashed into the floor.
And his last thought, bitter and angry, as he saw Pooch’s insipid, eternal grin.
“JUST HOW old are you?” Bell asks.
She stops, her back to him, arms raised, T-shirt exposing bare back to bra. It’s ten at night in Skagway, Alaska, the start of July, and sunlight still hints the sky, slants through the blinds at the window, touching pale skin and painting it bronze. Then she finishes the movement, draws the shirt over her head, discards it with a toss as her black hair falls down her back. She half turns, grins at him, pure mirth.
“Old enough,” she says.
This is probably true, Bell thinks, at least in the abstract. Most of the summer population up here are college kids, working forest-service internships or manning the cafés and storefront industries that cater to the regularly scheduled cruise ship arrivals. Tourists come like clockwork, swarm through the town like worker ants in a managed rush for souvenirs and photographs, retreat before dinner for their all-you-can-eat floating buffets. This girl, she’s at least twenty, Bell figures, though he could be wrong; gauging ages has never been his strongest suit. Height, weight, distinguishing details, those he can record and repeat at the drop of a hat, nearly twenty years of training having turned the act into one of instinct. But ages? He’s never gotten the hang of that, and it’s been nagging him for the last two weeks of flirtation with this young woman who’s been pouring his morning coffee at the Black Bean. Now she’s unlacing her hiking boots, and not unintentionally giving him a view of her cleavage, and Bell has to admit that her cleavage, like the rest of her, is more than a little alluring.
Boots, kicked off, land in the corner, and she straightens to face him while reaching around to unfasten her bra. She’s grinning like before, white teeth visible in her growing smile, an amusement that again has Bell wondering at her age. Young enough that sex is a game, something only ever played for fun. It’s been a long time since he stood in front of someone like this, to do this, and instead of feeling older than she, now he’s feeling suddenly younger, adolescent and hormonal, and he resists the urge to mock himself.
“Why?” she asks. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better.”
That gets a laugh, and she begins unbuttoning her Levi’s.
“You going to watch or get undressed?”
Bell thinks that getting undressed is probably the best idea.
There are two sniper teams positioned around the market square, two men to each, and Bell has command. They came in at night unseen, buried themselves amid wreckage and refuse, two rifles, two cones of fire, and a long wait for a killing that may not come to pass. CIA intel fed through JSOC and into the field, and four operators are now in a place they technically shouldn’t be, waiting to kill a very, very bad man. It is a dawn that calls for precision work.
“Spell me,” Bell says, taking his eye from the scope, lowering his head, blinking fatigue away. Despite six hours of motionless waiting, his body feels fine, relaxed and steady. It’s the eye that needs the regularly scheduled maintenance. Beside him, Chaindragger shifts from behind the spotting scope, settles behind the rifle. Somewhere across the square, Cardboard and Bonebreaker are doing the same thing, alternating watch to stay razor-ready.
Sun rises, bleaching the world with heat, the square coming alive. Old men with white beards and ageless women swathed in black, children beginning to spill from homes and hovels, raising dust as they play. Bell watches as six of them begin kicking a soccer ball they’ve made from plastic bags and all the tape they could scrounge up. It’s a good ball. When the smallest of the players pounds a kick into it, it flies true.
Bone’s voice comes into his ear. “Warlock? Vehicle, White.”
Bell swings the spotting scope to the north side of the square, picks up the vehicle instantly. It’s a battered Benz thirty-plus years past warranty, rusted panels and peeling paint. The car coasts to a stop, squeezes between a Transit van and a donkey cart, idles. A Toyota pickup slides past. The Benz rolls forward another twenty meters or so. Stops again, now alongside the largest of the fruit-and-grain stalls on the square. Door opens.
“That him?” Chaindragger murmurs.
Bell stays on the man, the weathered skin and scraggly beard. Boy’s eyes in a man’s face.
“Red,” Bell says, and he keys his mike. “Red. Negative target.”
Confirmations come back. Bell watches the man vanish into the crowd, disappear forever.
There’s silence, but Bell knows they’re all thinking the same thing.
“Warlock?” Bone says, finally. “This is some fucked-up shit.”
Bell says nothing for several seconds before rolling to his side and reaching for the sat phone that leads back to Brickyard. “Fuck it,” he says. “Sending it uphill.”
“Roger that,” Chaindragger says with quiet emphasis.
The square continues filling up, full of life. The Benz isn’t the only car in the square, not by a long shot.
But all four shooters know it’s the only one that’s going to explode.
The last sunlight goes, replaced by a low moonrise, and she comes back from the bathroom carrying a glass of water, stops at the side of the bed. Bell, on his back, looks up at her, watches as she drinks, then brings the water to his lips as if aiding an invalid. He swallows, feeling thick and drowsy, out of practice in too many ways. The last time he had sex was with Amy, four months ago now, just after the divorce went final. A final fuck hurrah, making love with a passion that took them both by surprise. After, they’d lain together for half an hour in silence before she’d left his side for the last time, moving to dress.
“Why are we doing this again?” Bell asked.
“Because you’re a good lay,” Amy said. “And so am I.”
“Not my reference.”
“I know your reference, soldier.” She turned from his gaze to pull on her panties, an awkward modesty that transformed eighteen years of marriage, of intimacy, into wasted days. “We don’t love each other anymore.”
This girl, who’s not Amy, sets the glass aside, then slips back into the bed, rolling onto her belly, breasts pressing against Bell’s chest. He feels where her body has turned cool from the night air beyond the blankets, feels her stealing his own body heat to replace hers. She props herself up on an elbow, rests a cheek in her palm. With her other hand, she begins to tour his body. An index finger traces the puckered line along Bell’s left shoulder.
“How’d you get this?”
Bell turns his head to look at the scar, turns his head back to stare at the ceiling. “I got shot.”
“You were in Iraq?”
She laughs, concluding that nothing he says can be trusted. Drags a finger across Bell’s chest, then down, stopping at the right lower abdominal. “This one?”
Her hand moves lower, takes a slight detour, and she offers a naughty grin before continuing to his right thigh.
“Something sharp, yeah.”
Bell obliges. She examines his arms, takes his right hand in hers. He feels the slight brush of her fingertip between his thumb and forefinger, distant, as if from far away.
“This a callus?”
“That is a callus.”
“How do you get a callus like that? There?”
It’s a gun callus, earned by putting thousands of rounds through a pistol seven days a week, from morning to night to morning again. It’s earned on the range and in the Shooting House, live-fire exercises on endless repeat until shooting is like breathing, until missing is Not An Option, and it’s kept by taking that honed skill and applying it to the enemy. It is a killer’s callus, a warrior’s mark, an operator’s badge of honor.
He doesn’t say any of that.
“Yard work,” Bell tells her.
She looks at him, eyebrow arched, then bends her head so her hair brushes over him in a wave. He feels her tongue light between his fingers, her lips as she kisses her way along his arm, onto his back, where she stops again.
“Wasn’t too bad.”
“Does it hurt?” she asks. “Getting shot?”
He doesn’t answer at first. Thinking of Amy again, how she never once asked. How her face would fall and her eyes would turn dark, how her lips would draw thin and tight. But she would never make a sound. She never would ask.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Bell says.
Bell switches the sat phone off. Chaindragger’s heard just one half of the conversation, but he knows what’s coming, and still he hasn’t moved.
“Pack it up,” Bell says, and then says it again for the benefit of the radios.
“We got a VBIED parked down there—,” Bone starts to say.
“We are ordered to pull out.” Bell cuts him off. “Brickyard says mission abort, return to LZ Venus.”
There is another heartbeat’s pause, then the confirmations come back to Bell’s ear. Chaindragger is already at his knees, breaking down the rifle. A shout carries through the hot, still air, and Bell looks out at the square once more. Without optics, more than one hundred meters away, figures look like animation tests, waggling, hopping, running back and forth. He sees the makeshift soccer ball sailing through the air, bounce to a stop in front of the parked Benz.
“Sons of bitches,” he mutters.
Chaindragger looks up at him. Like Bell and the rest of the squad, he’s let his hair grow out, now to his shoulders, his beard a scraggly mass of black hanging from his coffee-dark face. Wearing the local color, the way all of them are, baggy trousers and a long shirt-coat to the thighs.
“It’s wrong, Top,” Chaindragger says. “We’re better than this.”
Bell blinks at him. Looks back to the square, the sun now high enough to give glare to the air itself, it seems. He sighs, knowing he’ll catch hell for this from every echelon between here and Florida.
“LZ Venus.” Bell pulls his pistol from where it’s been riding at the small of his back, moves it to the front of his pants, then heads for the stairs. “I’ll catch up.”
He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking one of the American Spirits from her pack, when daylight begins to return. Dawn peeking through the blinds, as if hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto. She’s sleeping still, her lips parted slightly, as if, even in dreams, she remains mildly amused by Jad Bell.
Bell finishes the smoke, walks to the window, pulls the tilt cord, and the slats part and more light flows. He feels it on his naked body, stares out at the trees, wondering how much longer he’ll have to do this, wondering when it’ll end. He’s made his way from Baja to here in the last four months, left the day after the papers were signed. Hugging the coast north, sleeping in his car or in a tent or just under the stars, taking the odd job now and again. Video chats via laptop with Amy every week, mostly so he could talk to Athena. They didn’t have much to say; she was pissed as hell at him, and he couldn’t blame her. She was six when the war started, Bell remembers. Ten years is a long time.
Guilt flashes, and he turns to look at the girl in the bed, sees that she’s opened her eyes, is watching him. The smile is gone.
“You want to talk about it?” she asks.
“No,” Bell tells her, and turns back to the window.
Bell runs a circuit of the square, keeping eyes on the Benz, and he’s thinking the whole time that there’s a whole slew of reasons Brickyard told them to abort, and that getting atomized by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device is probably at the top of that list.
This is a fucking fool’s errand, Bell thinks. VBIED, and too many variables. Is it on a timer? Is it call-in activated? Radio detonated? And if one of the last two, then some son of a bitch is on overwatch with a phone or transmitter in his hand, waiting to press the button, and he will—he absofuckinglutely will—do just that thing if he sees Bell getting curious about the Benz.
Which means approaching that car is out of the question, at least for the moment.
“Black, clear,” Cardboard says in his ear.
“The fuck are you doing?” Bell has to turn to a building face, keeping his voice low.
“Black is clear,” Cardboard repeats, the hint of his Alabama drawl stronger on the last word. “South of the square is clear. And as we were positioned Red and Green, then your overwatch on that vehicle, Warlock, we must deduce, is on White.”
Bell looks to the south side of the square, then the west, then the east. Colors are direction: White north, Black south, Red and Green for east and west respectively. Nowhere does he see Bone, Chaindragger, or Cardboard, but that’s not a surprise; no more of a surprise than the fact that none of the squad has done as ordered. Bell shakes his head slightly, then realizes the building he’s sheltering in front of is on the White side, the north side, of the square. If there’s overwatch on the VBIED, it’s going to be in here.
“Guess I better take a look inside,” he says.
“I guess you’d better,” Bonebreaker says, and Bell can swear to God the man’s trying not to laugh at him. “Unless you want someone to come hold your hand, Top?”
“Think I’ve got this—”
“Target, target, target,” Chaindragger hisses, cutting in. “Approaching Green, say again, I have eyes on target.”
He showers after her. She lives light, the bathroom uncluttered, only essentials, and apparently makeup consists of an eyeliner and a lipstick, both courtesy of Burt’s Bees. When he’s dressed, she takes his hand, and they walk together to the Bean along streets that are just beginning to stir. Her hand is warm and slight, and his feels big around it, and when they turn the corner onto Broadway she leans her head against his shoulder, squeezes his upper arm through the overshirt he’s wearing. Fourth of July bunting and American flags still hang from houses. Bell looks back, can see the stacks of two cruise ships in the port. It’s early enough that the onslaught has yet to begin.
They separate entering the Bean, she disappearing behind the counter into the back to emerge half a minute later tying a barista’s apron around her middle. There’s a scattering of local color present, and Bell earns a nod from one or two, recognition. He’s been around just long enough that the outsider edge is beginning to dull, but still, he’s viewed as transient. She pulls him a double espresso, puts a blueberry muffin on a chipped plate for him, brushes the back of his hand with hers as he takes them. Bell moves to a table with a view of the window. There’s a copy of the Skagway News on a chair, and he takes it up, reads while listening to the growing murmur of conversation around him. Outside, the first tourists have penetrated this far, peering into windows as if visiting a zoo.
He finishes his breakfast and she slips out from behind the counter, bringing him a new cup, fresh coffee this time, and takes the empty espresso away. Fingertips brush the back of his neck as he turns, and when he swings his head to follow her, she’s looking back at him, the mirthful grin, full of promise for tonight. He can’t help grinning in response, then turns back to the paper, catches sight of a man he knows too well through the window, on the opposite side of the street, moving among the clots of tourists.
He folds his newspaper, sips his coffee, watches this man he knows step inside. Watches him stop at the counter, talk to her. A coffee to go. He exits again with paper cup in hand, turning right, past the window once more, then out of sight.
- On Sale
- May 22, 2012
- Hachette Audio