Who Dares Wins Publishing
      Thriller Sampler










       Years ago, Horace Chase was told that an effective sniper was a man who could shoot
another human being on nothing but an order and stop; also on order. The stopping is important.
       He’d been told he was one of those people.
       Which was why, years later and several shots in between, he was currently sitting on top
of his rucksack, on top of the snow, on a foothill leading into the Medicine Bow Mountains of
Wyoming, looking through a night-scope mounted on top of a sniper rifle, scanning his new kill
zone. The chopper that had just dropped him off flew away to the north. It was just after dark and
the moon had not yet risen.
       Chase felt almost at peace for the first time in a long while.
       He turned off the scope, pulled his head back and looked up at the stars and then the
surrounding terrain. The High Plains were off to the east; the Rocky Mountains leading north up
to the Grand Tetons behind him. Closer at hand was a rock spur, behind which he was hidden;
and laid out below him was a valley, running perpendicular to his position. According to the map
there was a road running through the valley.
       The road was only noticeable because it ran straight and level next to a small creek. It
was unplowed and nothing had moved on it since last snowfall, which he had checked over the
radio on the chopper flight here earlier today. To the right/south the road came up a wide valley.
To the left/north, it climbed to the pass and the valley narrowed to an opening between two
peaks, both taller than the one Chase was on. He had about five miles of visibility to the south
and less than a mile to the north. There were a network of trails beyond the pass that he knew his
targets if they came through his kill zone could turn onto. This would make observation and
tracking from the air near impossible.
       The intelligence on the targets he’d received on the flight up from Boulder, Colorado, had
been terse and to the point: A Larimer County Sheriff’s Deputy had pulled over a truck on north-
bound Route 287, about eighty miles south of where he was sitting. According to witnesses, the
deputy had been shot several times with an automatic weapon by one of the occupants of the
truck. It then sped away, leaving the deputy on the side of the road, like so much road kill. An
update just before exiting the chopper reported that the deputy was DOA at the hospital in Fort
         There was a crackle of static, and then a voice spoke in the small receiver in Chase’s right
ear hooked to the satellite radio in his ruck. “All team members, this is Hammer.” Chase
recognized the call sign and the voice: Fortin, his team-leader. “The latest. The dashboard
camera in the deputy’s patrol car was checked. It confirms Wyoming plates on the truck. The
passenger used an automatic weapon. AK-47. We ran the plates. The registered driver is in the
FBI database; a Patriot.”
         Chase knew that the Patriots were a small, but dangerous, militia group in central
Wyoming that had defied both the local, state and federal authorities’ dozens of times over the
past decade.
         His team-leader’s voice continued. “We have no idea why these Patriots were in
Colorado, but we want to make damn sure to catch them before they got back to their stomping
grounds or else they’ll just hunker down in their bunkers in the Mountains with their heavy fire-
power. Vehicle is a red Chevy Blazer. Two men inside. According to the video camera on the
sheriff’s dashboard, the driver shot the deputy first as he approached. Then the passenger got out
and finished the job with a burst of AK-47 fire. The passenger is a big man, approximately six-
two, large bushy black beard, wearing khaki pants and a black windbreaker.”
         There was a brief moment of static, and then Fortin continued. “The Wyoming State
Police thought they had the border sealed up tight, but the truck just ran a roadblock on the
Wyoming border. Three state troopers wounded. They’re ours now. Out.” The radio went silent.
         Chase pulled a pair of binoculars with a built in laser range finder out of his pack. He got
the distance to the road. Eight hundred and ninety two meters. He adjusted the sniper rifle’s
scope for the distance. He checked wind. He’d been on enough ranges and parachute drop zones
to be able to estimate wind speed within a mile an hour. Five or six miles per hour out of the
north. At the distance, Chase was from the road, which meant a three-click adjustment left on the
         Chase put the M-21 to his shoulder, turned the scope on and sighted in on the road. He
held it there for a few seconds, and then scanned left and right, the scope illuminating the view.
Nothing moving. There were no headlights, no sign of civilization along the road or anywhere
within view for that matter. There wasn’t even a phone or power line. Chase could have been on
the dark side of the moon. He pulled back the charging handle, letting it slide forward, loading a
round into the chamber.
       Chase put the crosshairs on the two-inch thick branch of a pine tree on the far side of the
road. He cleared his mind, letting go of everything other than the sight-picture inside the scope,
the press of the stock against his shoulder and cheek, his finger lightly resting on the trigger.
Chase could feel the steady beat of his heart, a rhythm that he picked up. He let out a breath and
then didn’t inhale. Right between heartbeats, his finger gently squeezed the trigger.
       The 7.62 match grade round splintered the branch.
       The rifle was zeroed.
       Now the wait. One of the tenets on his counter-terrorist team was to always play a wild
card. To do something, anything, that the bad guys wouldn’t expect. Chase, freezing his ass off
on this mountainside, was certainly the unexpected.
       There was a crackle of static, and then Fortin spoke again, this time directly to Chase.
“Snake Eater, this is Hammer. Rest of the team is on the ground in their positions. We’ve got the
FBI HRT team on the ground. They can be at your location in ten minutes. Your mission is to
delay if the targets come by you.”
       Ten minutes could be an awfully long time, Chase knew, but it was better than being two
hundred miles behind enemy lines.
       “Hammer, this is Snake Eater. Roger that,” Chase acknowledged, the mike wrapped
around his throat picking up the words and sending them to the satellite radio. “I’ll be hanging
       “Out here.”
       It was going to be a long and cold night even for late April. Chase pulled a parka out of
his pack and put it on underneath his combat vest, then sat the pack between his butt and the cold
ground. He’d managed sixty-eight hours in a similar situation with two other men on his Delta
Force team on the Afghan-Pakistani border, deep in bandit country before some drug smugglers
stumbled across his element. That led to a ten-hour long firefight before a Night-Stalker chopper
got them out of there, all three bleeding but alive.
       Chase closed his eyes. He rolled his head on his shoulders. He didn’t like the situation. A
good sniper needed surveillance in position well before having to take a shot, usually at least
twenty-four hours. If the bad guys came up the valley, he’d have scant minutes to react with only
an hour or so of surveillance.
       He put the night-scope back to his eye and scanned beyond the road, to the ridge on the
other side. He worked in small sections, left right, from the top of the ridge down. He paused
when he saw a line in the snow coming over the ridge, directly across. Slight, but visible even at
over a mile’s distance.
       It could be a deer, he thought, as he followed the line down about thirty yards. It
disappeared into a copse of trees.
       And no line came out of the copse.
       Something had gone into those trees. And not come out. Since the snow fell during
daylight. Chase scanned the dark patch of woods but saw nothing. His kill zone was the road, but
he kept his attention on the copse for almost ten minutes, only occasionally shifting back to the
center of the valley.
       Chase blinked. A pair of headlights appeared to the south, moving north on the closed
road about five miles away. Chase spoke: “Hammer, this is Snake Eater. I’ve got movement on
the road. Coming this way.”
       There was a long silence. Too long. Chase looked through the night-scope. A Chevy
Blazer, two figures inside.
       “This is Hammer. Go ahead.” Fortin sounded distracted.
       “I’ve got the target closing.”
       Now Chase knew he truly was in trouble, as he’d never heard Fortin swear.
       “Need back-up,” Chase prompted.
       “The HRT team is up around Casper, near the North Platte. State troopers got called on a
possible sighting.”
       Four miles.
       “They’re in the wrong place.” The North Platte, if he remembered rightly from the map,
doubled the distance the support team was from Chase. Twenty minutes. The truck was moving
slowly through the snow, but not that slowly. They’d pass by in about ten.
       “They’re also low on fuel,” Fortin added. “They have to land in Cheyenne to top off.”
       Chase didn’t say anything. It was his situation, but Fortin’s problem. Chase could sit still
and let the truck pass and he wouldn’t have a situation, then Fortin would. They could always
say nothing; no one would have expected Chase to be here.
       “How long?” Chase asked.
       “They’re reporting twenty-five minutes.”
       “The target will be out of sight by then. There are other roads once they cross the pass.
We might be able to track them in the snow, probably not. They might split up. Or they’ll go to
ground and cover up.”
       Three miles.
       Chase shifted from the truck to that track on the far ridge and then to the copse of trees.
He could feel his pulse picking up and he closed his eyes briefly and forced his breathing back to
       The radio was silent. It occurred to Chase that the State Patrol might well have been
called in after a Chevy Blazer near the North Platte, but that it was a decoy. Contrary to many,
Chase had a lot of respect for the capabilities of some of these militia groups. The really hard-
core ones had a lot of ex-military men in them. There were some guys who weren’t too happy
about being double-crossed about going into a war in Iraq.
       Chase shifted left and immediately saw a second pair of headlights carving into the valley
from the north, coming over the pass. A black HMMWV with a plow had cut a path through the
deep snow in the pass. Chase didn’t believe in coincidences. More Patriots, meeting their
buddies, clearing the way for them. He twisted the focus, not thrilled with what he was seeing.
The HMMWV had been modified with the rooftop used on military versions, meaning it had a
circular hatch, which was now open. On the ring around the hatch, a machine-gun was mounted.
       “Hammer, this is Snake Eater. I’ve got a second contact,” Chase reported. He knew
Fortin was probably on the radio, trying to get more help, permission to proceed, etcetera,
etcetera, but Chase didn’t have time for bureaucratic bullshit right now. “HMMWV came up
from the north with a plow and a machine-gun in a turret. These are definitely our people.”
       “Wait one.”
       Chase needed more from Fortin than that but he held his tongue, knowing his boss knew
that. Or hoping he did.
       Someone was now standing in the HMMWV’s hatch, holding on to the machine-gun,
which Chase recognized as an M-60.
       The numbers for that gun had been drilled into Chase as a plebe at West Point: length
43.3 inches; weight 23 pounds; maximum effective range mounted 1,968 yards; rate of fire 550
rounds per minute cyclic. It fired the same 7.62 mm NATO round that Chase’s rifle did, but a
hell of a lot faster, rattling off hundred round belts while his magazine held twenty rounds and
only firing as quickly as he could pull the trigger.
       There was a flag tied off on the large radio antenna poking up from the rear of the
HMMWV. Chase stiffened as he recognized the shape and image on it: a Cavalry guidon with a
large shield in the center. The First Cavalry Division. That had been Chase’s first assignment in
the Army, when he was still in the Infantry.
       Chase turned off the scope and glanced over his shoulder. No way could he make it over
that ridge under fire and he didn’t have much cover here. And there was that trail in the snow
across the way.
       Chase pressed his eye against the site and turned it on. He sighted on the man in the
hatch. He wore a heavy coat and black watch cap. A scarf was covering the lower half of his
face. Chase knew the smart thing to do would be to take him down first. Take out the most
dangerous threat.
       “Can you stop them?” Fortin finally asked.
       “I can stop the Blazer,” Chase acknowledged, “but they can make it on foot to the
HMMWV. And I would be engaged by the M-60.” Which meant he’d have to take them all out.
       Chase had been school-trained at the Special Forces school where it wasn’t called sniping
but SOTI: Strategic Observation and Target Interdiction. Most people who didn’t know better
thought that was army-bullshit for blowing someone’s brains out from long range, but actually,
they really did focus more on shooting things than people. One well-placed shot can ground a
hundred million dollar jet fighter or take out a microwave relay tower. Occasionally a person
might be a strategic target, and they were trained to do that too. In fact, Chase knew shooting
people was easier than shooting things, with the objects; you had to know the vulnerable points.
With people, a round through the head did the job.
       “The HMMWV is another story,” Chase added. “Might be armored.”
       “Stop the Blazer,” Fortin ordered.
       “And then?” Chase asked.
       “The HRT team will be there in twenty-one minutes.”
       Uh-huh, Chase thought to himself. The Blazer was less than a mile away, the HMMWV
the same distance the other way. Chase looked at the copse of woods and in the glow of the night
vision sight, he saw a flicker of light. The smallest of things and it was gone as fast as he saw it.
Someone else might have wondered if they saw anything at all, but Chase had no doubt.
       Someone was in the wood-line. Someone was looking through a night-vision scope just
as he was and had pulled their eye back from the scope for just a moment, revealing the glow.
Mirroring him. Chase turned off his scope and crawled to his right ten yards, taking a new
position in case he’d been spotted by whoever was over there. He put his eye back to the scope
and turned it on.
       Chase swung back to the pick-up. The driver was flashing the high beams, greeting the
       “The FBI will be too late,” Chase told Fortin.
       “I’m calling off their bird then. You have free fire.”
       The two vehicles were less than half-a-mile apart.
       Chase did the math. Two at least in the HMMWV, if not more out of sight. Two in the
Blazer. That was a lot of fast shooting at long range. The guy on the machinegun was the
pressing threat.
       Except for the ghost with the night scope in the woods across the way.
       Chase took several deep breaths. He swung back to the Blazer. He could clearly see the
silhouette of the two men in the front.
       The two vehicles met. The man with the beard got out of the Blazer, AK-47 in one hand
as he went up to the HMMWV. He shook his head and looked angry. Chase sighted on the
murderer’s face, his finger on the trigger.
       He could feel the rhythm of his heart.
       He exhaled.
       He shifted the sight back to the copse of woods.
       He could see nothing.
       But someone was there. Mirroring him. Waiting.
       For what?
       A ghost in the machine, Chase thought. Gumming up the works.
       Chase exhaled once more, finger on the trigger, then he pulled his finger away from the
thin sliver of metal that dealt death and wondered for a moment if perhaps he wasn’t part of that
narrow slice of humanity any more.
       Then where did he fit?
       CHAPTER 1

       The old man sat alone in the darkness contemplating failure on a scale that historians

would write about it for centuries, and the subsequent inevitable need for change. He was one of

the most powerful people in the world, but only a few knew of his existence. His position had

been born out of failure over sixty years previously, as smoke still smoldered above the mangled

ships and dead bodies in Pearl Harbor. For over six decades he had given his life to his country.

His most valuable asset was dispassion, so he could view his own recent failures objectively,

although recent was a subjective term. He realized now it had all begun over ten years ago.

       His office lacked any charm or comfort. There was a scarcity about the room that was

unnerving. The cheap desk and two chairs made it look more like an interview room in an

improvised police station than the office of a man so powerful his name brought fear throughout

the government he served in Washington. The top of the desk was almost clear. Just a secure

phone and a stack of folders.

       There were, naturally, no windows. Not three hundred feet underground, buried beneath

the ‘crystal palace’ of the top secret National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. And not

that he could have used windows. The few who knew of the organization sometimes wondered if

this location was what had led to its name. While the CIA made headlines every week, the Cellar

was only whispered about in the hallowed halls of the nation's capitol. It might have been located

underneath the NSA building but it was an entity unto itself answerable only to its founding

       The room was lit only by the dim red lights on the secure phone. They showed the scars

on the old man’s face and the raw red, puckered skin where his eyes had once rested. There was

track lighting, currently off, all three bulbs of which were over the old man’s head and angled

toward the door. When on, they placed his face in a shadow and caused any guest to squint

against the light. The few who had the misfortune to sit across from him didn’t know whether the

lighting was placed in such a way to blind them as if he was, or to hide the severity of his old


       He was not a man given much too sentimental reflection, but he knew his time was

coming to an end, which made him think back to his beginning, as he knew all things were

cyclical. He opened a right side desk drawer and pulled out a three dimensional representation of

an old black and white photograph. He ran his fingers lightly over the raised images of three

smiling young men dressed in World War II era uniforms—British, French and American. He

was on the right. The other two were killed the day after the photo was taken.

       He left the image on the desktop and reached for the files. The ones he wanted were the

first two. He placed them on his lap. Paper files, the writing in Braille. He’d never trusted

computers, even though there were ones now that could work completely on voice commands

and read to him. Perhaps that was part of the problem. He was out of date. An anachronism.

       They were labeled respectively Gant, Anthony and Masterson. He ran his fingers over the

names punched on the tabs. He was patient. He had waited decades for plans born out of seeds he

had sown to come to fruition. Quite a few similar plans had failed, so there was no reason to

believe this one would succeed. But this plan was in motion now, initiated by an event he had

had nothing to do with, the way the best plans in the covert world always started to allow

       Despite his gifts of dispassion and patience, he felt a stirring in his chest. It puzzled him

for a few moments before he realized he was experiencing hope. He squashed the feeling and

picked up the phone to set another piece of the puzzle in motion.
        CHAPTER 2

        Neeley had not anticipated waiting to kill people to be so boring. Staying well back in the

darker shadows, out of the dim reflection of the few working streetlights, she scanned the ghostly

quiet alley. She used the night vision portion of her retina just off the center of vision as Gant

had taught her. There was nothing moving. A dumpster, an abandoned car and intermittent piles

of refuse dotted the pitted concrete between the two abandoned tenements. There was a way out

on either end. She could hear the rumble of traffic from the Bruckner Expressway a few hundred

yards away.

        Neeley had been here for a day and a half and she could superimpose from memory the

details that the night refused to divulge to her naked eye. Looking right, a couple of miles to the

east, she could see the aircraft warning lights on top of one of the towers of the Bronx-

Whitestone Bridge crossing Long Island Sound.

        She picked up a bulky rifle and pressed the scope on top to her right eye, twisting the

switch to the on position. After a moment's hesitation, the black night gave way to bright green

and she no longer needed her memory for the details the technology provided. Completing a

second overall scan from her location in a corner apartment in the abandoned tenement, Neeley

then zoomed in on the three locations she had noted during thirty-six hours of observing.

        Two of the three men had arrived together four hours ago, just as darkness had slid like a

curtain across the alley. Neeley had watched the two set up in separate rooms, on the second

floor of the derelict building across the street.

        The third man had shown up twenty minutes after the first two. If he'd tried the building,

he might have bumped into the first two, but this last man wasn't very smart. He'd positioned

himself inside the dumpster on the alley floor, leaving the top wedged open so he could observe
the street, south to north. She gave the man an 'A' for effort, getting among the moldy garbage

inside the large container, but an 'F' for tactical sense. True, the dumpster had a good ground

level field of fire, but the man was trapped in a steel coffin if it became necessary to relocate.

The two men in the building had the high ground, always a tactical advantage and the ability to

move. Of course, they lacked the element of surprise but Neeley mentally gave them a few points


       Through the scope, she could easily see the glow of one of the men across the street

covertly smoking a cigarette, obviously thinking he was secure since he was well back from the

window in the darkness of the room. The burning glow, barely visible to the naked eye, showed

up like a searchlight in the night-vision scope. She shifted left two windows. The second man

was watching the dumpster through a pair of older model, army-issue night-vision goggles. PVS-

5s as near as Neeley could tell at this distance.

       Nothing else was moving in the street and Neeley didn't expect to see anything until the

deal went down. Alleys in the South Bronx were places even most bad people stayed away from

at night. A few blocks to the south, prostitutes haunted the streets and docks of the Hunts Point

section but this area was a no man's land. Which was why the two sides had chosen it.

       The man across the street put out his cigarette. Neeley lay the rifle down and slid back

from the window. Pulling a poncho-liner over her head, she completely covered herself. Only

then did she peel back the Velcro cover on her watch, and check the glowing hands. Twenty

minutes to twelve. She considered the situation. At least six hours of darkness left. Neeley hadn't

allowed herself to sleep since arriving here a day and a half ago. She'd drunk the last of the

coffee from her thermos a while back and now her eyes burned with fatigue. Given the presence

of the advance guards, odds were the deal would go down soon. She decided to take a calculated
chance and pulled a pill out of her pocket. Popping it into her mouth, she washed it down with a

swig from a water bottle. Four hours of intenseness. She would need at least an hour, preferably

two, on the flip side of the deal to get out of the immediate area and be reasonably secure.

Neeley reaffirmed the decision she had made during mission planning: 0300 and she was out of

here, deal or no deal. Survival first and stick with the plan.

       Her pulse quickened as the speed hit the blood stream. Neeley pushed aside the poncho

liner and crammed it into a stuff sack, placing the sack inside a small backpack. She felt around

the floor with her hands. Nothing left out. Just the pack and rifle. Methodically, she did a mental

inventory of her actions of the past day and a half and all the equipment she had brought with

her. The room was sterile, everything accounted for. Rule number four: Always pack out what

you pack in. There were some rules you just couldn't break and the remembrance of one of

Gant's rules brought a wry smile to Neeley's lips.

       Neeley laid the pack down three feet inside the window and sat on it, laying the rifle

across her knees. She was used to waiting. She'd spent most of her thirty-two years learning that

patience was a virtue; a life-saving one.

       She picked the rifle back up, the feel of plastic and steel a familiar one. It was an

Accuracy International L96A1, a venerable sniper rifle of British design, firing NATO standard

size 5.56mm by 51mm rounds, each of which Gant had reloaded to reduce velocity to sub-sonic

speeds. A bullet that broke the sound barrier made a cracking noise as it left the muzzle and the

special load eliminated that noise. On the end of the barrel was a bulky tactical suppressor, which

absorbed the other large noise source for the rifle, the gasses that came out of the end of the

barrel upon firing. In essence the suppressor was a series of washer-like baffles around the end of

the barrel that took the force of the expelling gasses. It was good for about ten shots before it had
to be retooled. The combination of the two made the rifle almost noiseless to operate although

they did drastically reduce the range and change the trajectory of the rounds, both of which

Neeley was prepared for after many hours on the range firing it.

         A pair of headlights carved into the northern end of the alley. Neeley tried to control the

adrenaline that now began to overlap the speed. She watched the car roll slowly down the alley

and come to a halt, the dumpster and its hidden contents thirty meters ahead.

         Looking through the scope, Neeley saw one of the men in the building across the street,

the one on the left, speak into his hand.

         The car was an armored limo. Another pair of headlights came in from the south. This

one was a Mercedes. Not obviously armored, as it rode too high for that. It came to a halt thirty-

five meters from the limo, headlights dueling. The dumpster flanked the Mercedes, to its right


         The doors on the limo opened and four men got out, two to a side. Three had

submachineguns. The fourth a large suitcase. The Mercedes disgorged three men, all also heavily

armed. One went back and opened the trunk.

         "I want your man out of the window up there," one of the men from the Mercedes yelled.

The guy in the dumpster had seen the glow from the same cigarette that Neeley had. This also

confirmed that the man in the dumpster had communication with the Mercedes.

         After a moment's hesitation, the man with the suitcase pulled a small Motorola radio off

his belt and spoke into it. A minute later, the man who had been smoking walked out of the

building and joined the other four.

         "Satisfied?" the suitcase man yelled back.

         "Yes," the chief Mercedes man answered.
        Neeley adjusted the scope's focus knob, zooming in. The remaining man across the way

was now resting the bipods of an M60 machine gun on the windowsill. She shifted back to the

standoff in the alley.

        The men from the Mercedes unloaded two heavy cardboard boxes from the car's trunk

and stacked them ten feet in front of the headlights. The five men from the limo side moved

forward, fanning out, the man with the suitcase in the middle.

        Neeley placed the crosshairs of the night-scope on the head of the suitcase man. She

began to note the rhythm of her heart. The tip of her finger lay lightly on the trigger, almost a

lover’s caress. She slowly exhaled two-thirds of the air in her lungs, to what Gant had called the

natural respiratory pause, and then held her diaphragm still. In between heartbeats she smoothly

squeezed the trigger and, with the rifle producing only the sound of the bolt working in concert

with a low puff from the barrel suppresser, the 7.62-millimeter subsonic round left the muzzle. In

midstride the target's head blew apart.

        Reacting instinctively, not knowing where death had winged its way from, the other four

men swung up their submachineguns and fired on the Mercedes crew. The dumpster man replied,

only to be lost in the roar of the machine gun in the window. In the ensuing confusion, and on the

same paused breath, in between new heartbeats, Neeley put a round into one of the limo men.

        After ten seconds of thunderous fire, an echoing silence enveloped the street. All the

Mercedes men were down. The M60 had swiss-cheesed the dumpster. Two of the limo men were

still standing.

        Neeley took another breath and slowly exhaled, then paused. In between the next three

heartbeats she fired three times. First round, a headshot blowing the M60 gunner backwards into
the darkened room across the way. Second and third rounds finishing the two left standing before

they even realized that death was silently lashing out of a window above their heads.

       Satisfied that all were down, Neeley pulled out a red lens flashlight and searched the dirty

floor of the room. She collected the five pieces of expended brass and placed them in a pocket on

the outside of the backpack, insuring the Velcro cover was tightly sealed. She listened to the

earpiece from the portable police scanner in her pocket as she swung on the backpack and started

down. She was on the street before the first call for a car to investigate shots fired came over the

airway. The police would not respond with any particular alacrity. Shots fired were common

calls in the South Bronx at night. Cops tended to band together here and only became excited if

the radio call was ‘officer down’.

       As she headed toward the Mercedes, movement from one of the bodies caused her to

swing the muzzle up; one of the men was still alive. Neeley watched the figure writhing on the

ground for a few seconds. She stepped forward, and with one boot, shoved the body over,

keeping the muzzle pointed at the man's head. The man's stomach was a sea of very dark, arterial

blood: gut shot. Neeley's training automatically started scrolling through her consciousness,

outlining the proper procedures to treat the wound.

       The bulky barrel of the rifle mesmerized the man’s gaze. Looking above it, into Neeley's

dark pupils, his own widened with surprise. They searched for mercy in the depths of Neeley's

thickly lashed eyes. Neeley's entire body started sweating and the adrenaline kicked up to an

even higher level. The muzzle didn't waver.

       The round entered a small black dot between the man's eyes. The bullet mushroomed

through the brain and took off the entire rear of the head, spraying the dirty street. Neeley
watched the body twitch and become still. She automatically scooped up the expended brass

casing and stuffed it into her pocket.

          Moving to the cardboard boxes, she pulled a thermal grenade out of one of the pockets of

her loose fitting black leather, knee-length overcoat and pulled the pin. She placed the grenade

on top of the boxes and released the arming lever, pocketing both it and the pin. Acting quickly,

trying to make up for the seconds lost dealing with the wounded man, she tore the briefcase out

of the limp hand still holding it and jogged to the end of the alley. A subdued pop and a flicker of

flames appeared behind her as two million dollars worth of cocaine began to go up in flames.

          Satisfied she was out of immediate danger, and before reaching the corner, Neeley

twisted the locking screw and broke the rifle down into two parts. She hung the barrel on the

inside right of her coat and the stock on the left, securing them with specially sown in bands of


          Turning the corner, Neeley settled into a steady, swift walk. From the confused babble on

the scanner she had six to eight minutes before the first police arrived.

          She made three blocks and then turned left. Here were the first signs of life. This area

was more populated, but still well within the urban battle zone known as the South Bronx.

Covert eyes watched her as she moved and Neeley slid a hand up, loosening the 10mm Glock

Model 20 pistol she wore in a shoulder holster.

          Her purposeful stride and appearance deflected any thoughts of evil intent from those

lurking in the shadows. Neeley was tall, an inch shy of six foot. She had broad shoulders and a

slender build. Her short, dark hair had seen better days and could use styling. Her face was all

angles, no soft roundness, with two very dark eyes that took in everything in her surroundings.
She moved with a sense of determination, her long overcoat half open, allowing her easy access

to the weapons inside.

       Two more blocks, no interference encountered, and she reached her parked pick-up truck,

nestled among other battered vehicles. She unlocked the door and threw the suitcase in. The first

sirens were wailing in the distance as Neeley got behind the wheel and cranked the engine.

       For the first time she paused. She held her hands in front of her face. They were shaking

slightly. Neeley took a deep breath and held it. The vision of the man looking up at her flickered

across her eyes, then was gone. She shivered; shaking her head in short violent jerks, then was

still again. She put the truck into gear and drove off.

       Sticking with the route she had memorized, Neeley drove, keeping scrupulously to the

speed limit. After ten minutes of negotiating side streets, she reached an on-ramp for the Cross

Bronx Expressway and rolled up it, heading northeast for New England.

       The suitcase on the passenger seat nagged at her. Neeley held her patience for two hours,

until the city was over eighty miles behind her, and she was well into Connecticut, just south of

Hartford. Finally, she pulled into a rest area. Parking away from other vehicles, Neeley turned on

the dome light and put the suitcase on her lap.

       She checked the exterior for any indication it was rigged. Nothing. Flipping both latches,

she slowly lifted the lid an inch. She slid a finger in and carefully felt the edges. Then she opened

it all the way. A wadded piece of cloth lay on top, covering the contents. Neeley peeled the cloth

away. Stacks of worn hundred dollar bills greeted her. She didn't count it. She knew exactly how

much was there.

       Finally accepting she was safe, Neeley allowed herself to think of Gant. She wondered

how it would have been to open the suitcase with him. She knew he would have been proud of
her. Gant had talked about this mission endlessly. He had a source, someone he called his Uncle

Joe, although he said the man was not family by blood, who had called him just two weeks ago

with word of this meet. Somebody who must have owed Gant a lot, but Neeley understood

owing Gant.

       She remembered all the nights she had lain with her body curled into his. Talking about it

and perfecting the plan. Every ex-Green Beret's dream, he'd called it.

       Neeley closed the suitcase and with it the memories of Gant. There was still much to do.
        ONE YEAR AGO

        In the night there is death.

        It was one of the first lessons they had taught the Sniper and he had never forgotten it.

Night is a common denominator regardless of terrain, enemy or mission. It will always come

with the movement of the planet. He knew how to move unobserved, like a ghost, in daylight,

but the night was his special friend.

        He was dressed in a one-piece flight suit dyed black, underneath the full body ghillie suit,

which consisted of burlap strips woven into green elastic. The natural color and uneven surface

of the ghillie suit allowed him to blend in perfectly with his surroundings. He’d been in the same

position for three days. His urine smelled of the jungle as he’d eaten only local food procured

from it for a month prior to this mission. He’d had no need to defecate because he’d stopped

eating two days before being infiltrated by covert Nightstalker helicopter into this Operational

Area along the Caribbean coastline of Colombia close to the border with Panama. On one

mission he’d gone eight days without the need. It wasn’t just the lack of food either.

        His cheek was pressed against the stock of the sniper rifle, his shooting eye closed and

resting on the rubber, his other, free eye, open. It was a position he could hold for a very long


        The other two members of his team were within ten meters of his position. His Spotter

was to his left and slightly upslope with a better view of the road that approached the village

across the valley. His Spotter was located on the back slope of the ridge-line, covering him and
the Spotter from the rear. He had neither seen nor heard them since they’d settled into position.

That ended as the small earpiece crackled with static, a signal from the Spotter.

       The Sniper’s open eye spotted the headlights along the narrow mountain road on the

ridgeline across from him, over a mile away. Three sets which agreed with the intelligence.

Another unusual thing as the intelligence had come from the CIA, a source he’d found to be

notoriously unreliable. Working with any of the alphabet soup organizations always entailed a

certain degree of carefulness and there were a tangle of them operating here in South America.

       He twisted the on knob for the satellite radio in his backpack. The small dish it was

attached to was twenty feet over his head, set in the branches of the tree covering his position,

with a clear uplink. It was the first thing he had done upon arriving at the site after determining it

was secured. He had not moved since climbing down, winding the thin green connecting wire

around a vine.

       “Falcon, this is Hammer. Over.” He knew his two teammates could hear the transmission

also as he radioed back to their superior, as everything he said was picked up by his throat mike

and transmitted over the short range FM radio they all had.

       The reply was instantaneous. “This is Falcon. Go ahead. Over.”

       “Three vehicles moving in. Over.” He closed the non-shooting eye as he turned on the

thermal sight bolted on top of the rifle. He slowly opened his left eye and blinked, as it was

flooded with a spectrum of colors. He could see the hot engines of the vehicles on the road.

Shifting right, he noted the dull red glows of cooking fires damped low in the village. Orange

forms indicated people sleeping inside of huts. He’d counted seventy-six the previous night.

       His earpiece came alive. “Close to dawn. Over.”
       He knew what the Colonel meant. In less than thirty minutes they’d lose their friend, the

darkness. He also knew what that sentence implied. They could pull out and leave the mission if

they felt they couldn’t accomplish it without being compromised.

       The Sniper didn’t move. “Do I still have green? Over.”

       “Still green. Over.”

       People were stirring in the village as the sound of the approaching vehicles reached them.

       The Sniper wrapped his left hand around the stock, forefinger inside the trigger guard.

The heavy barrel was supported by a bipod. His right hand was on the scope, adjusting the

sensitivity. He’d zeroed in the thermal sight just before infiltration. He’d fired the weapon in

many different situations so he knew how the bullet would act with the drop to the village. His

nostrils flared as he sniffed and his eyes scanned the nearby vegetation for the slightest

movement. No wind.

       Two trucks flanked a Land Rover as they pulled into the center of the village and came to

a stop. He watched as a dozen men piled out of the back of each truck and began herding the

people out of their shacks and into the common area. At this distance there was no noise from the

village, just the sound of the jungle all around.

       They were efficient. In less than ten minutes all the villagers were corralled like cattle

into a dark red blob in the center of the village. Except for two. He watched the heat signatures

making their way through the village away from the crowd. Strange. One was human. A child

from the size. The other was smaller, lower to the ground and leading the child.

       A dog. A half-smile crossed his lips as he realized that. And moving smart. Not dashing.

Slinking, hiding, like a ghost leading a ghost. The kid was smart too, mimicking the dog. The
Sniper visually followed them as they worked their way, avoiding the men with guns running


       “Good dog,” he mouthed, the sound not even heard by a rat five feet away or picked up

by the throat mike.

       Very smart. It must be a very smart dog. And a very trusting boy. The Sniper tightened

his left hand around the grip. His finger lightly touched the trigger as one of the men with guns

was on an intercept course, but he held back as the dog paused, the boy right behind freezing,

and the danger passed. They moved again.

       They were in the jungle.

       He abruptly shifted back to the village, the heat images getting blurred with the first rays

of sun cutting horizontal lines across the scope.

       “Time,” Spotter said.

       The voice in the Sniper’s ear was flat, apparently without concern, but an unsolicited

transmission like that from one of his teammates, the first word spoken since they’d settled into

position, indicated the concern.

       “Hold,” he ordered.

       Three figures were at the forefront of the men holding automatic weapons, facing the

villagers. The sniper pulled back from the rubber eyepiece and opened his other eye. There was

no more than just the tint of dawn to the east. He pushed a button on the bulky sight on top of the

weapon, shifting from thermal to telescopic.

       The gun was large, almost six feet long and weighed over thirty pounds. Thirty-two point

five pounds without bullets to be exact. He had the number memorized along with many other

strange facts that the vast majority of people walking the face of the planet had never been
exposed to. A ten round box magazine was fitted into the receiver, holding bullets that matched

the gun in size, each round a fifty caliber—half inch in diameter, over six inches long—shell. A

round that had been designed in the early part of the twentieth century for anti-tank use. Tanks

were smaller and lightly armored then. Flesh and blood was still the same.

       Modern science had been applied to the weapon system though. These rounds were

specially designed around a very hard, depleted-uranium core that gave them the capability to

punch through lesser metal. On one mission he’d fired through a quarter inch steel plate taking

out a thermal image on the other side.

       He pressed his eye against the rubber and waited as his pupil adjusted and the sun rose,

accepting that he had lost the advantage of darkness.

       “Time,” Spotter repeated.

       The Sniper knew he was violating what they had agreed upon in mission planning, but he

was in command and circumstances had changed. Spotter was simply doing his job with the

reminder. The Sniper ignored the radio. He could see the three now. The center man was the

target. The one on the right was also Colombian, but the face didn’t register. With a twitch he

shifted left to the third. An American. He knew it as surely as the weight of his gun. Wearing

khakis and a light bush jacket. LL Bean visiting the jungle.


       He’d served with men who’d gone for the green, flag be damned. His right hand twisted

the focus, closing the visual distance until he was next to the man.

       The man reached inside his jacket and pulled out a cigarette. A flash of gold. A badge.

       The Sniper pulled back from the sight. “ID the man on the left?”
         “He has a badge,” the Spotter replied. “But I don’t recognize him. I think the badge is

DEA but hard to tell at this range.”

         The Sniper keyed the satellite radio. “Falcon.”


         “I’ve got an American agent here in the village with the target. Possibly DEA. Over.”

         “Wait one.”

         A minute passed. The Sniper leaned forward and looked. Two of the armed men had

pulled an old man forward, forcing him to kneel in front of the center man. The Sniper knew

what was coming. It was as inevitable as the sun coming up. The silence in his ear stretched out.



         The fact that neither of his teammates spoke either was a testament to their training as

they dealt with a situation that was deteriorating with every passing minute.

         In the village, the center man pulled out a pistol, pressed it against the old man’s forehead

and pulled the trigger all in one movement without hesitation. The blossom of blood and brain

was highlighted in the scope as the body slowly fell backwards, landing awkwardly, the knees

still tucked under. The Sniper had seen much death and it was never dignified.


         The word from the satellite radio hit the Sniper almost as hard as the shot had the old

man. “Say again. Over.”

         “Red. I repeat. Red. This is no longer your Operational Area. I say again, not your OA.

        A woman was dragged forward. The Sniper could see her mouth open, screaming. The

center man put the muzzle of the gun against her forehead. The Sniper could see her speaking

quickly, telling the gunman whatever it was he wanted to know.

        After a minute the man turned to a couple of his cohorts. Two came forward, grabbed an

arm each and dragged the woman into a hut. Again, what was going to happen was almost pre-


        “Sir?” The Sniper said the word as if it were a question.

        “Command Authority says red. They’ve redrawn the lines. DEA has this area. Over.”

        The Sniper watched as a young man broke from the cowering group running toward the

hut and was gunned down with a burst of automatic weapon fire. “You know what’s happening,


        “I can imagine.”

        “This is our mission. We owe these people. They did what was asked of them.”

        “Somebody’s running something. Something high level. This mission is the DEA’s now

with no interference. Politics.”

        “That’s bullshit,” the Spotter said, the voice picked up by the satellite radio and

transmitted. “People are dying. People who trusted you.”

        “Orders,” the Colonel repeated. “The line has been drawn. You’re out of your area of

operations. Exfiltrate immediately. Out.”

        Other women were being dragged into huts to be raped. Sunlight glinted off a machete as

one of the invaders brutally beheaded a cowering old man. That released them all like sharks

smelling chum and the blood flowed.

        “We need to go,” Spotter said.
       The Sniper shifted the scope away from the rape and carnage to the far hill. He adjusted

the thermal sight to accommodate the growing sunlight and then turned it on. He searched, the

sight penetrating the jungle until he spotted the two small red dots. He scanned the space

between the escapees and the village, freezing when he saw three men moving in the jungle.

Professionals. He knew that. Making sure there were no witnesses to the massacre. These were a

different caliber from the men raping and hacking in the village.

       “Hammer?” The Colonel’s voice had an edge to it. “Are you pulling back? Over.”

       “In a second,” the Sniper replied.

       “Damn it, Hammer. Don’t screw this up. This is bigger than you.”

       “Let’s go,” the Spotter said, echoing Spotter.

       The Sniper centered the reticules on the trail man’s head. He then adjusted ever so

slightly for the lateral movement. He let out his breath, didn’t inhale, felt the rhythm of his heart.

In between beats he squeezed the trigger. The round was just out of the muzzle as he shifted to

the second, waited as his heart surged once, became still, pulled the trigger, shifted, heart-beat

and then fired for the third time.

       “Pulling back now. Send in our ride. Out.” The Sniper tugged on the antenna wire and the

satellite dish toppled out of the tree into his hands. He folded it and slid it into his rucksack with

one practiced movement. He could hear yells and knew the men below were heading his way,

reacting to the shots. He pulled the ghillie suit off and shoved it into a stuff sack, which went

inside the rucksack. He placed the three bullet casings in the sack.

       His fingers were steady as he knelt and unscrewed two butterfly nuts holding the bulky

barrel to the gun’s receiver. He slid the two parts into padded plastic containers on either side of

his rucksack, and then retrieved an MP-5 sub-machinegun that had been strapped to the top.
There was nothing left at the site as he threw the sixty pound pack holding gun, radio and other

gear over his shoulders and set off into the jungle at a controlled sprint, the Spotter and Security

falling in beside him without a word.

       They could hear shots as the mercenaries fired wildly while giving chase.

       The Sniper’s right hand held the MP-5, finger resting on the trigger guard, the safety off.

“Falcon, this is Hammer. Over.”

       The helicopter pick up zone was less than a kilometer ahead. The chopper was supposed

to be on station just over the border in Panamanian airspace. Less than five minutes flight time.

If the Colonel, who was on board the chopper, had ordered the pilot to move when the Sniper

had asked, it should be in FM range.

       He heard only the slight hiss of static indicating the radio was on.

       “Falcon, this is Hammer. Over.”

       “You screwed up, Hammer, damn-it.”

       The sniper abruptly stopped. The other two men came to a sudden halt also. They heard

some more shots. Closer now. And from the noise they could tell a large group was moving

through the jungle about three hundred meters to their left.

       “Say again? Over.”

       “I ordered you not to take action. We can’t cross the border now. Orders. We’re returning

to base. You’re on your own. Out.”

       “Falcon? Falcon, this is Hammer. Over.”

       There was no reply.
       The Sniper considered their options. The pickup zone was no longer a viable destination.

The mercenaries were between his team and the border. But any other direction took the three of

them further into Colombia.

       Both men were watching him, waiting.

       “North,” he ordered.

       They turned to the right, for the sea, and began running.

       The 5.45 mm round hit the Sniper just behind his left temple at such an angle that the

bullet ricocheted along the skull and exited off the back of his head without penetrating.

       The Sniper fell to the jungle floor, blood pouring from the wound just as a Claymore

mine exploded, knocking the other two men down.


       FRIDAY, 3 AUGUST 1945

       5:24 A.M. Local

       "Quickly!" The officer barking the orders wore the white uniform of the Japanese

Imperial Navy but the tunic was stained with sweat and dirt. The reason was obvious as he added

his strength to the work party fastening the large crate in the back of the truck to a crane's hook.

       A man standing on the deck of the submarine echoed the naval officer's words.

"Quickly!” This man did not wear a uniform but his demeanor brooked no argument. His eyes

blazed darkly at the workers and a long straight scar ran down the right side of his leathery face,

disappearing under the collar of the black shirt he wore. Through a tear in the shirt, the officer

could see part of a tattoo that covered the man's chest. Large, black ominous waves were etched

into the skin with the red orb of a sun looming behind them.

       The man was standing next to a midget submarine, which was bolted to the deck, just aft

of the conning tower. Behind the midget sub, a special sled rested on a cradle. The sled was

designed to fit the rectangular crate. The cradle had been hastily welded to the steel deck, the

work finished just moments ago. Cables were lying on the deck, waiting to join the sled and crate

to the midget submarine.

       The officer cast an anxious glance landward to the northwest, up the long valley floor. In

the dim light of early morn, he could see the flash of artillery and he knew that it wasn't Japanese
tubes firing the rounds. They could all hear the rumble of non-stop heavy firing echoing off the

tall mountains that framed the broad river valley.

       It was the Russian way to use a sledgehammer to open a walnut. The Germans had been

experiencing it for years on the eastern front and now it was Japan's turn. There had been no

formal declaration of war yet. The Russian bear had not officially joined the American eagle to

pick over the remains of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but the officer knew

the Russians weren't fools. They wanted what was in this valley, most particularly, what was

currently being loaded onto the submarine and a trivial thing such as declaring war wasn't a

factor. The Kremlin could always do that later. Just as the Russians had gobbled up as much of

Eastern Europe as possible before the end of hostilities in the west, they were beginning to do the

same here in the east.

       There was little in the valley to stop the Russians. Forces had been stripped down to the

bare minimum in Korea. The greatest need for men was in Japan to await the impending

American invasion of the homeland and further north in Manchuria. The officer had even heard

rumors of desperate negotiating by Japanese officials with the Russians in an attempt to form a

last minute alliance. Obviously, from the sound echoing down the valley, the Russian bear wasn't

biting the offered bait. In fact, if the crate had been one of the bargaining chips put on the table in

those negotiations, that offer might have precipitated this assault. The officer knew much of what

was at stake and he could tell none of the enlisted men working for him. They would find out


       The officer had been here for two years and he knew that not only the crate but also the

entire area was enticing bait for the Russians. Hungnam was an industrial city with a river

running through it opening onto a small harbor facing the Sea of Japan. The river formed a valley
sided on both the north and south by very steep mountains. Further west, where it sounded like

the Russians now were, this river and others had been damned to form hydroelectric plants to run

the numerous factories dotting the valley floor. The landscape was bleak, almost all the trees cut

down, a result of a deliberate program begun by the Japanese when they occupied Korea in 1904

to denude the entire Korean peninsula so guerillas would have no place to hide. It was a dark

landscape, made even more so by the filth pouring out of smokestacks and the piles of debris and

rubble that the factories discarded. The Japanese occupiers had no use for the land other than

what it could produce to support the Empire.

       "Carefully!" the officer exclaimed as the crate lifted off the floor of the truck. He put a

hand on it, helping to guide it across the dock. The crate went over the edge of the pier and then

slowly lowered down. It slipped between the waiting arms of the sled. The man on deck quickly

ran chains over the wood, securing the item inside. He then attached two cables from the back of

the midget sub to the front of the sled the crate was on. There wasn’t a single member of the

crew in sight; all were below decks, anxiously waiting to get underway and get out to sea.

       Hooking the edge of the chain over a bolt and securing it with a lashing of rope, the man

quickly walked forward to the conning tower and climbed up the external ladder. He turned and

looked at the officer and briefly raised an arm in salute. The he was gone, the clang of the hatch

closing overlaid on the sound of the Russian ordnance coming closer.

       The submarine immediately began moving, heading out into the harbor. The officer had

no tie to wait. Another truck with similar crate slowly rolled up in a swirl of dust. An open-bay

landing craft pulled into the slot the submarine had filled. The officer began barking orders,

getting the crane hooked up to the crate. As it was being lowered into the waiting boat, the

officer spread a glance toward the mouth of the harbor. The conning tower of the submarine
slipped underwater and disappeared as he watched. Perhaps it would beat the Russian ships that

were coming to seal off the exit. He turned his attention back to the task at hand. The landing

craft settled a foot deeper in the water as the weight of the crate came to rest on its floorboards.

         The officer heard the drone of airplane engines. He turned landward. A Mitsubishi

“Betty” bomber, converted into a cargo plane, labored up into the early-morning sky and skidded

to the north, barely fifty feet above the dark wave tops. Damn those scientists, he cursed to

himself. They were running. But there was no way the men inside that plane could be taken by

the Russians. Death was a good option, but the knowledge the men on board that plan held could

still be useful so they were being taken away. The plane disappeared around the shoreline to the


         “The other boxes!” the officer ordered.

         The men didn’t need to be told to handle these smaller crates gingerly because they could

all read the markings on the outside: high explosive and detonators. The formed a human chain,

passing the munitions down into the launch.

         As soon as the last box was in place, the officer jumped down and cast off the bowline as

a seaman cast off the aft. The officer didn’t spare a second glance at the work crew and soldiers

left behind on the shore.

         “Go!” he ordered the coxswain.

         The launch slowly picked up speed, heading into the harbor. The officer looked u0p as a

pair of planes roared by the overhead. It was now light enough to see the red star painted on their

wings. The office cursed his own pilots and his own leadership. This should have been the

number one priority for protection, but they were practically defenseless.
        The Russian planes banked and leisurely began strafing the shore, firing into the work

party, which was scattering. The officer knew there were Russian ships coming. That was the

only reason the pilots were ignoring the launch. When the submarine had come in just after

midnight, the captain had told him that Hungnam Harbor would shortly be cut off by sea.

        The submarine could only fit the one crate on deck. There was no plane with enough

power to take off with second heavy crate even if they could get past the Russian fighters. There

were no options left except this last one. The officer pounded a fist onto the side of the crate,

ignoring the splinters and the blood that ran forth. If only they'd had more time! But there was

still hope, the officer reminded himself. He thought of the last glimpse he'd had of the submarine.

There was also the plane that had left earlier and the knowledge that was on board it. There was

always hope.

        He turned his attention from the fighters to the course ahead. Two thousand meters from

the dock, there was a small, rocky islet in the middle of Hungnam Harbor. It had a pebble beach

on the landward side, the rest of the island being a pile of rocks with only a few lonely birds as

inhabitants. It was toward that beach that the officer directed the nervous and confused coxswain.

The crew could see the explosives piled onboard. The officer knew their first guess had been that

he was going to use the launch in a kamikaze attack against the Russian ships at sea. This

beaching was an unexpected turn of events and they were uncertain as to whether it was a good

turn or not.

        The officer would have liked to go out among the Russian ships. But he could not take

the chance that the project would not work and the crate be captured. He also had to give the

submarine a chance to make it clear. Everyone's head snapped up as a very loud and much closer

explosion reverberated across the water. On the side of the near mountain on the south side of the
valley, a large cloud of dirt and rock bellowed into the air. The cave from which they had taken

the two crates earlier this morning was now sealed. Secondary explosions followed, destroying

the road carved into the side of the mountain that had been the only access to the cave, further

isolating the site.

        The officer nodded and whispered a swift prayer for those who had just died. His military

staff was dead and that secret was safe at least. He felt no sympathy toward the men now

entombed in the mountainside. They had done their duty, now he was doing his.

        The bow of the boat grated on the pebbles and they were beached. One of the Russian

fighters flew over to investigate, its pilot leading the way with a barrage of bullets from the

machineguns in the wings. The bullets churned up water then onto the beach, only a few hitting

the boat. Two sailors fell wounded and miraculously none of the explosives' boxes were hit.

        The officer ignored the screams of the wounded men as he ripped off a piece of wood on

the side of the crate. He reached in and began working, his fingers following a procedure he had

memorized over the past week under supervision of the scientists.

        The fighter made another pass, then, confirming that the launch was beached, left to pick

more lucrative targets in the valley. They were leaving the launch to the ships that were coming.

        The officer had a small electric wire on a reel. He attached one end to the object inside.

With that, the officer was done with the crate. He quickly had the surviving crewmen stack boxes

of explosives around it, wiring each box for detonation as quickly as it was stacked.

        He connected all the firing wires, then unreeled a length of detonating cord up over the

edge of the boat, onto the shore, while also unreeling the electric wire. He moved back fifty

meters, the other sailors joining him. He wired the detonating cord into a firing box. Only he
knew the explosives were the backup. If the object inside failed, he had to insure the crate would

not be found intact.

        The officer hooked the electric wire into a small hand cranked generator. He checked to

make sure the generator functioned and all was ready. The sun had now cleared the horizon.

        The officer turned to the east, the direction of the Emperor, and bowed. Then he cranked

the small handle. In the microsecond before he was consumed by the flash, the officer rejoiced. It

worked and there was still hope! Then he, and all in a half-mile circle were gone, obliterated by

the blast.

        In the skies above, the planes were consumed by the fireball. Out at sea the Russian

Admiral in charge of the flotilla steaming for Hungnam at flank speed was left to wonder at the

mushroom cloud that rose up over the shore.


       25 NOVEMBER

       1:00 P.M. Local/ 1800 ZULU

       The man in the high-backed chair was hidden in the shadows cast by the halogen desk

light. A thin sheaf of laser-printed pages was the only object on the desk in front of him. A hand,

the skin withered with age, slowly reached out and angled the first page so it could be read.

       11 JUNE 1930



       The smooth marble felt cool to Cadet Benjamin Hooker's hand. He gazed up the shaft of

Battle Monument to the stars overhead, then up the Hudson River where the hulking presence of

Storm King Mountain loomed to the left, a darker presence against the night sky. It was a view

that never failed to raise a strong feeling of attachment and sentiment in Hooker's heart.

       That feeling was immediately followed with an uncertainty that had two causes. The first

was that tomorrow he would graduate and be leaving his home for the last four years. The

second was the written message he'd been given by a plebe earlier in the day. The words had

been simple and direct: "Trophy Point. 2130 Hours." There had been no signature, but the paper

was written on stationery inscribed with office of the Commandant of Cadets.
Hooker momentarily played with the notion that the note was an elaborate prank set up by his

classmates; but he knew he dared not be here, on the chance that the message was legitimate.

Although why the Commandant would want to see him at such a strange place and time left him

at a loss.

        Hooker knew he held a special place in his class of 241 cadets. He was ranked second in

academic standing and was the fifth recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship in the history of the

Academy. Tall and thin, with an angular face that most of the women coming to the Academy for

hops found appealing, there was about him a sense of intellectual reserve and emotional

distance from others that counteracted his physical attraction. He had straight brown hair that

was at the very limit the regulations would allow-- unusual for a man who otherwise followed

every rule and regulation to the letter. His eyes were black and when they focused on an

individual they had the ability to make that person feel that they had 100% of Hooker's attention.

Many a long-suffering plebe had felt the harsh caress of that gaze during a hazing session in

Hooker's room.

        Those same eyes flickered across The Plain to the barracks where his classmates were

spending their last night as Cadets. There was a distinct feeling of excitement and anticipation in

the air. Although Hooker shared in it, he had different expectations for the immediate future.

While his classmates would go to various officer courses and then report to Regular Army units

scattered all over the world, Hooker was heading to England for two years of study at Oxford

before becoming part of the "real" Army. Although the prestige of the scholarship was great, he

was concerned about the possible negative effect those two years out of the active army loop

might have on his career.

        "Good evening, Mister Hooker."
       The voice caught Hooker off-guard, his thoughts already halfway across the ocean. He

stiffened as he recognized the figure silhouetted in the glow of lights around The Plain. "Good

evening, sir," he automatically responded.

       Colonel William B. Kimbell's physical appearance was in concordance with his martial

reputation. West Point, class of '14, Kimbell had been blooded on the fields of Europe in the

Great War, earning a Silver Star for gallantry. The Colonel had been wounded three times, but

each time had returned to the fight until peace had arrived before a fatal wound. As

Commandant, Kimbell was in charge of the welfare of the Corps of Cadets, and because of that,

ran every aspect of their lives outside the classroom.

       "Beautiful, isn't it?" Kimbell said.

Hooker automatically knew that Kimbell was referring to the overall view-- regardless of

direction. To the north, the Hudson and Storm King framed a scene many artists had captured on

canvas. To the east, across the river, lay Constitution Island, the far anchor point for The Great

Chain that had been stretched across the river during the Revolution to stop the British from

moving on it. To the west, at Plain leioning, but promptly answered. "The 10th of July, sir."

       "Where are you sailing out of?"

       "New York, sir."

       Change it. Sail out of Savannah. I want you to go to Fort Benning before you leave."

Hooker remained silent, waiting for the Commandant to clarify his command.

       "Do you know Colonel Marshall, the Deputy Commander of the Infantry School at

Benning?" Kimbell asked.

       "I heard him speak in March when he came up here, sir. The topic was--"

"Yes, yes," Kimbell interrupted. "I was at the lecture too. Marshall is a most fascinating man. He
has some interesting ideas," he added cryptically. "And he's not even a Graduate, did you know


         "I understand he graduated from theVirginia Military Institute, sir."

"That's correct. Not quite the same thing as the Academy but they do an adequate job with what

they have," Kimbell conceded. "Indeed, it's to our advantage that Marshall's not a Graduate."

         Our advantage? Hooker thought. He felt a slight trickle of sweat run down the back of his

stiff dress grey uniform coat.

         Kimbell was looking up the river. "Marshall's got vision, Hooker. He's no fool. He was in

the War with me and he saw what happened afterwards. Even with two years to prepare we

weren't ready for France. We lacked the proper training and we most certainly did not have the

proper equipment. Many good men died because of that. And then we came back and the first

thing they did was gut the Army. And we're back where we were before the War, even worse in

many ways.

         "This Briand-Kellogg Act," Kimbell shook his head. "As if by signing a piece of paper

they can outlaw war. Hell, Hooker, I don't like war but my job is to be prepared to fight and to

win. Now the President signs this treaty and seems to think everyone else in the world is going to

abide by it. Well, you and I know they will not. So it is our job to be prepared, no matter what

those damn civilians in Washington think.

         They use the state of the economy as an excuse to justify what cannot be justified. The

national defense must always be the number one priority. It cannot be tied to the vagaries of

those fools on Wall Street. We must be beyond that."

         Colonel Kimbell let loose a few puffs from his pipe. "What do you think, Hooker?"
        Hooker didn't have to think about his answer. "I agree, sir. It's our duty to defend our

country and that means being as well prepared as possible in peace-time, as well as being ready

to give our lives in war if that is required."

        Kimbell nodded. "Yes, but that first task is difficult, given the short memories of most of

our politicians." He reached out and tapped Hooker on the shoulder. "Colonel Marshall and I

talked for a long time in March. He's in a very good position at Benning. He's in charge of all

tactics instruction and not only does he see the students who go through the Infantry School, he

also gets to know all the instructors."

        Kimbell turned back and faced Hooker. "Every few years we are going to select someone-

- someone special-- among the Corps. Someone to do a different sort of job that will be very

important." Kimbell paused and Hooker felt his heartbeat slow down and time seem to stand

still. He felt on the verge of a great destiny. One that had been written fust for him.

"I told you that not all of us can be at the front of the troops. That's why I want you to see

Colonel Marshall. Why I've chosen you to be the first one. Colonel Marshall will tell you what is

expected of you. What your country expects of you. Do you understand?"

        "Yes, sir."

        Kimbell slapped Hooker on the shoulder. "Good. Good. Well, you need to go back to the

barracks and get some sleep. You've got a big day tomorrow. The biggest day of your life so far,

if I remember my graduation correctly."

        "Yes, sir." Hooker watched as the Commandant walked off toward the officer quarters on

the northwest side of the Plain. Alone again with his thoughts, he realized that the past four

years had prepared him for this moment. The rigorous academics, the physical conditioning, the
hazing, the forge of high demands that had made him what he was. And now the future beckoned

for him to serve his country-- his army-- in the way his abilities were best suited.

       He didn't know what Colonel Marshall would ask of him, but Hooker knew he was

prepared to give all just as the 2,230 names inscribed on Battle Monument-- the name of every

officer and enlisted man of the Regular Army killed in the Civil War-- had given all. He also

understood from the recent conversation that the statue at the top of the monument, representing

"Fame",was not to be his lot. He was going to be asked to serve in another capacity and, while it

brought a momentary rush of regret, he also accepted it with the same fortitude that had served

four hard years on the Plain.

       Hooker used his right hand to remove his class ring from his left ring finger. West Point

was the first school in the country to adopt the use of class rings, beginning with the class of

1835. The Academy tradition was that while still a cadet, the ring was worn with the Class Crest

turned toward the heart. After graduation, the ring is turned and the Academy Crest is closest to

the heart. Hooker turned the ring in the moonlight, watching the stars reflect off the black onyx

stone, then he slipped it back on, Academy Crest turned in toward his heart.

       "Fanciful, but dangerous," the old man muttered, removing his reading glasses. "We have

all copies?" he asked in a louder voice from the shadows, holding the pages up.

The aide had stood silently on the other side of the large wooden desk, unmoving while the pages

had been read. "We have all that were sent out, sir. The author still has the original."

       "Is this all of it?"

       "That's all that was sent, sir."

       “And this is being submitted as fiction?"
        "Yes, sir. It's just a book proposal right now. We believe that's all that is written."

The gnarled fingers crumpled the pages. "You were right. This must be stopped." As the old man

threw the wad of paper toward the trash can, the light glinted off the black onyx set in the large

ring on his left hand. "We need to know where she got this information. Then take care of it and

the author."

"Yes, sir."


28 NOVEMBER 1995

2:32 A.M. Local/ 0432 ZULU

       "One minute! Lock and load!"

       In the glow of his night vision goggles, Major "Boomer" Watson could see the hand

gestures reinforcing the words of his executive officer, Captain Martin-- one finger up, then palm

slapping the magazine well of the AK-74.

       The Soviet-made Mi-24 Hind-D shuddered as the pilots reduced airspeed and crept even

lower to the heavily wooded Ukranian countryside, until they were flying less than twenty feet

above the highest tree-tops. Boomer reached up and slightly adjusted the focus on his AN-PVS-7

night vision goggles, using the forward bulkhead separating the eight Delta force troopers from

the pilots up front, as his reference point. In the green glow of the inner eyepieces, the other

occupants of the blacked out cabin showed up clearly, the men similarly outfitted in long Soviet

style overcoats, night vision goggles, AK-74s, and combat vests bristling with the tools of death.

       Boomer knew the pilots were wearing their own goggles up front in order to fly the

Russian aircraft well below minimum safety zones. He wasn't overly worried. The pilots were

from the top-secret 4th Battalion of Task Force 160-- the Nightstalkers-- and were more than

proficient in their job of flying captured and "appropriated" foreign aircraft.

       Instinctively, Boomer slid a 30-round plastic magazine out of a side pocket of his load

bearing vest, slipped the back lip into the magazine well, then levered it forward, locking it in
place. He smoothly slid back the charging handle on the right side, chambering a 5.45mm round.

His thumb flicked over the safety, ensuring the weapon was still on safe.

"Ten seconds!" Martin yelled from the right door.

       Boomer stood, letting the folding stock AK dangle on its sling and grabbed both sides of

the open left door. He peered out, ignoring the chill night air blown down by the rotor wash.

Getting oriented, he recognized the landing zone from the satellite imagery they'd hurriedly been

fed minutes before loading at their base in northern Turkey. On time and on target.

The LZ was on a mountainside and the only way the pilots could get in close without having the

tips of their blades hit dirt, was to put the nose in, touching the front wheels, while keeping the

tail up in the air, level. As soon as the wheels touched Boomer jumped out, landing in waist high

grass. He ran to the side ten paces and hit the ground, weapon pointing into the darkness. As

soon as the last man was out, the sound of the turbines increased and the helicopter lifted and

was gone, leaving a deep silence.

       Boomer got to his knees and pulled a Global Positioning Receiver (GPR) out of the top

flap of his backpack. He popped up the small integrated antenna and twisted the activating key

on the side. No larger than a portable phone, the GPR fit in the palm of his hand and the small

screen quickly glowed with data received from the network of satellites the Department of

Defense had blanketing the planet. By finding the best four satellites in the night sky, the GPR

could pinpoint their location to within 10 meters. Boomer punched the POS key and was

rewarded with grid coordinates confirming that they were exactly where they were supposed to


       Despite the visual confirmation prior to landing-- and trust in the pilot's navigating skill

along with the chopper's own GPR-- Boomer had long ago learned the importance of double-
checking. "Assume means make an ass of you and me!" Boomer had heard more than once in his

twelve years in the Special Forces and Delta Force and he'd had those words confirmed on

several missions. He punched the NAV button and the route information he had memorized was


235 D MAG. 2.3 Km

2.1 Hours TOT

EL +256m


       Boomer stood and turned clockwise until the bottom line changed to read ON COURSE.

He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the other members of his team were all accounted for,

and then he moved off in the indicated direction. They had slightly over two hours to get to their

target and it was downhill most of the way.

       The team had been dropped off along a mountainous ridge line in the Southern Ukraine

that ran parallel to a two lane tar road between the town of Senzhary and the Province Capital at

Barvenkovo. The road was their goal. Their target would be traveling this road between 0430

and 0530. Or at least that's what the intelligence dinks doing the mission briefing had assured

Boomer. He himself had little trust in the wisdom of those who kept their rear end comfortably

ensconced in chairs and didn't have to live-- or die-- based on the accuracy of their information.

That was left to Boomer and his team. He grimaced slightly as he remembered the Colonel from

the Joint Chiefs of Staff office, his nametag identifying him as Decker, who'd given them the

mission briefing. In Boomer's opinion, the man would have been more comfortable in a three
piece suit on Wall Street than wearing camouflage fatigues at a secret forward staging area in the

mountains of northern Turkey.

        Boomer especially remembered the flash of the large diamond set against black hematite

in Decker's West Point ring as he slapped the pointer on the satellite photo of the ambush area

pinned to the briefing room wall and assured them that their target would be traveling along this

road. Boomer couldn't remember the last time he'd worn his own West Point ring. As a matter of

fact, he couldn't quite remember where the ring was. Hopefully it was somewhere in the one

room apartment he kept back at Fayetteville, North Carolina for the few weeks in the year he was

actually back at his home base.

        The terrain steepened and, through his goggles, Boomer could see the dark snake of the

road ahead and below. He halted briefly, the team mimicking his actions, and did another GPR

check. Checkpoint One. On course and ahead of schedule. Less than a thousand meters from the


        "Let's split," Boomer whispered, the acoustic mike built into the transceiver clamped on

his head transmitting the message on low power FM to the other seven men. The whisper did

little justice to his normally deep voice. It was a voice that instilled confidence in listeners. An

advantage for a man who led others into death and destruction.

        Boomer and his commo and security men-- headquarters element-- moved to the left, the

two men falling in place and covering his flanks. Captain Martin, the team executive officer,

went off to the right with the remaining four team members to set up the kill zone.

The headquarters element scrambled down the hillside, staying under cover of the pines that

covered the rock strewn ground, until they reached a small knoll overlooking the road. Boomer

crouched behind the trunk of a tree, one of his men going off to the left to provide far left flank
security, the other settling next to the team leader. Boomer scanned the deserted stretch of road

fifty meters away and ten meters below.

         "Bronco, are you in position? Over." he asked over the FM radio.

"Roger, Mustang," Martin replied. "In position. At my mark, I'll turn IR on for your


         Boomer peered off to his right.

"Mark. Over."

         Boomer spotted the brief glow as Captain Martin illuminated an IR flashlight-- invisible

to anyone not wearing goggles-- then just as quickly turned it off. "Roger, Bronco. I've got you.

How's it look? Over."

         "Good field of fire. Good cover. Palamino Element is at the road installing their toys.


         "Roger. We'll keep an eye open for the target. Mustang, out."

         Boomer lay down on his stomach in the pine needles at the base of the tree, pulling the

Russian overcoat in tight around his neck. It was cold, somewhere in the low thirties. He looked

to his lower right along the road and spotted the silhouettes of the demolitions men, Palamino

Element, at work. He checked the time on the GPR: 0413. Seventeen minutes before the

estimated target window. Boomer tapped the shoulder of the man lying next to him. "Are we up

on SATCOM, Pete?"

         Staff Sergeant Peter Lanscom nodded. "Five by." He handed over the small handset for

the satellite communications radio.

         Boomer pressed the send button on the handset. "Thunder Point this is Mustang. Over."
       The reply from Turkey was immediate. "Mustang, this is Thunder Point. Go ahead.

Over." Boomer recognized Colonel Decker's voice.

       "We're in position. What's the latest from the eye in the sky? Over."

"We're getting live downlink from an INTELSAT on your target, Mustang. You've got two

vehicles en route your location. A car in the lead and a bus following. Just as briefed," Colonel

Decker couldn't help adding. "They're approximately twenty-two klicks from your position,

moving at about sixty kilometers per hour. Over."

       "Roger. Out." Boomer replied. He returned the handset to Lanscom. The math was easy:

twenty-two minutes, give or take a couple. Nothing to do but wait. He glanced down the road.

The demo men were done.

       Boomer hissed in a lungful of cold air, trying to still the churning in his stomach. The

flash of white teeth was framed in the moonlight by his naturally dark skin, an inheritance from a

grandmother on his father's side who had been a full-blooded Cherokee. His black hair, a few

inches longer than allowed by regular army regulations, had just the slightest tinge of grey at the

temples. His eyes were so dark as to appear black, but more unusual was the warmth they

emanated regardless of Boomer's mood. While Boomer's overall reputation as a clam, likable

individual was valued by friends and acquaintances, it matter little to the organization that

received the bulk of his time and attention.

       Boomer was a long way from home. He'd grown up on the Upper West Side of

Manhattan, where the George Washington Bridge touched New York City. Boomer's earliest

memories were of his mother taking him on walks in Fort Washington Park along the banks of

the Hudson beneath the high arch of the bridge. She'd taken him there when he was ten years old

after receiving the telegram that his father had been killed in action in Vietnam. That was in
1969, prior to the Army instituting the policy of having notification officers deliver the grim

news. At that time, the Army had simply sent telegrams and had them delivered by cab drivers.

Virginia Watson had had the driver take them down to the park and drop them off, the piece of

yellow paper gripped tightly between her clenched fingers. The news of Michael Watson's Medal

of Honor for actions on the last day of his life would come many months later, but on that bright

fall day nothing had mattered other than the intense grief Boomer could feel and see in his

mother. Boomer's emotions were more complex. His father had been gone for eight of the first

ten years of his life and Boomer's memories of him were blurry images of a large man dressed in

a uniform with a strange green beret that he wore cocked at an angle.

       Just as Boomer had sensed the grief that day, seven years later, he had sensed his

mother's disapproval of his decision to accept the automatic offer of an appointment to West

Point that every child of a Medal of Honor winner was given. Boomer's attitude had been that at

least something good had come from his father's death. Besides, he had rationalized, she couldn't

really afford to send him to college anywhere else. The idea of a free education and pay more

than satisfied his seventeen year old mind.

       His mother had already gone into debt to send him to Cardinal Spellman Catholic High

School in the Bronx. And though she would have preferred more bills rather than give another

man to the army, Boomer was not to be swayed. His easy-going attitude was blunted in this

regard and she accepted his decision.

       She'd seen this tenacity on the basketball court at Spellman. Despite his relatively short

height of 6'0" by basketball standards, he'd earned a starting slot on the Spellman varsity team by

outworking all the other players on the team and impressing the coach with his hustle.

What had really caught the coach's eye though, was Boomer's actions as a sophomore in a game
against perennial New York basketball mecca Power High School, alma mater of Kareem Abdul

Jabar. Boomer had been sent in after the starting backcourt had fouled out trying to guard

Power's all-city forward, later an NBA player. The coach had told Boomer to let the Power

forward have no free shots. Boomer had promptly stuck to the more talented player like glue,

hacking him severely every time he handled the ball, to the point where the Power player had

lost his temper and took a swing at Boomer. The fight that erupted had cleared both benches and

half the stands and resulted in Boomer and the Power player being ejected, but not before

Boomer had returned the swing and decked the other player. The action had surprised the coach,

but not Boomer's mother in the stands. She knew that, like his father, her son had a hard streak in


        The years had passed and now Boomer was lying in wait, a familar but always nerve-

wracking position as far as Boomer was concerned. As the countdown to action continued,

Boomer was shifting to his action mode, his nerves freezing over and a wary calmness settling

in. He grabbed the handset for the SATCOM radio again. "Angel, this is Mustang. Over."

The reply from the pilot of the Mi-24 was instantaneous. "This is Angel. Over."

"Status? Over."

        The pilot's laconic southern drawl was reassuring. "At hold position. All clear. We can be

there in a jiffy to pick ya'll up. Over."

        "Roger." Boomer checked the time display on the GPR. "We're probably going hot here

in five mikes. We're going to need you real quick then. Over."

        The Russian-made aircraft, appropriated from Saddam Hussein's air force during the Gulf

War four years previously, and the Soviet made weapons and uniforms, were a subterfuge to

influence any possible survivors of the ambush-- or anyone who might be in the area-- that the
events that were about to occur were the work of a renegade Ukranian militia group of which

there certainly were many. The only pieces of equipment that were not endemic to the area were

the GPR, night vision goggles and satellite radios, but if any of them were captured, there would

most certainly be a body captured also, at which time the foreign origin of the equipment would

no longer matter and diplomatic denial would take over.

         The muted roar of the helicopter blades sounded behind the pilot's voice. "No sweat.


         "Mustang. Out." Boomer glanced down the road, trying to catch the glow of the

oncoming vehicles headlights in his night vision goggles, where they would show up like

brilliant spotlights. Nothing yet.

         Boomer spoke into his FM radio. "Bronco this is Mustang. Status? Over."

Martin's reply was swift. "All set. Over."

         That meant Martin's team had the Soviet made PK machinegun set up and their RPG

rocket launchers ready. Contrary to the movies, Boomer knew a good ambush consisted of

setting up the kill zone, then backing off so that the weapons can effectively cover the killing

ground which must be too far for the ambushees to overrun. In this case, Boomer was satisfied

his men had all the little checkmarks in the manual of efficient killing ticked off.

         A faint glow appeared in the hills to the south: the reflection of the headlights. Boomer

picked up the handset for the SATCOM. "Thunder Point this is Mustang. Over."

         "This is Thunder Point. Over."

         "Request final mission authorization. Over."
        "Your mission is a go, Mustang," Decker said. "Authorization code Victor Romeo Two

Four. I say again, your mission is a go. Code Victor Romeo Two Four. Out." The radio went


        "There's gonna be some hurting puppies in a few minutes," Lanscom whispered, the

snout of his NVGs pointed down the road, picking up the glow, as he fingered his AK-74. This

was Lanscom's first live mission and Boomer could understand the younger man's nervousness.

He himself had been on several, but that didn't necessarily make it any easier. In fact, having

witnessed the effects of modern weapons on the human body did little to relieve the anxiety of

being on the receiving end.

        Boomer didn't bother trying to allay Lanscom's fears. Now that he had the final go, his

job was to concentrate on the mission at hand. The bus was carrying members of one of the

factions of the newly formed Ukranian parliament. A faction that was vehemently opposed to

following the guidelines of the standing agreements on nuclear arms reduction between the

United States and the Ukraine.

        NATO inspection teams that were in the Ukraine to ensure treaty compliance had

recently been forced to curtail their activities and the political situation was growing unstable. A

NATO team had been attacked two days earlier by a mob and the US Congress was getting very

vocal about sending 200 million dollars a year to the Ukraine to dismantle nuclear weapons

when the job wasn't being done. The Ukranian Parliament, defying the Ukranian President's

signing of the START II Treaty, was making vague threats of nuclear blackmail as the country's

economy slid into a morass. It was the politics of the mid-1990's and since military force was an

extension of politics, Boomer was here to extend the wishes of the United States government.
       Thirty-six hours ago, the issue reached crisis level. A Ukranian Backfire bomber flying

low level toward Iraq had been intercepted over Turkish airspace by two American F-16s

assigned to NATO. The Backfire had refused to land, and the F-16s had attempted to force it

down. The result had stunned the world as the Backfire disintegrated in a nuclear fireball, taking

with it the two American jets.

       According to the intelligence analysts, the Backfire had been caught while trying to

smuggle a nuclear weapon to Saddam Hussein's regime in exchange for desperately needed cash.

When confronted with the possibility of capture, the crew of the Backfire had chosen suicide.

The Ukranians claimed the aircraft had wandered off course during a routine training mission

and an on-board accident caused the explosion. It was a feeble excuse at best. No one seriously

believed that the plane could be that far off course and the experts pointed out that nuclear

weapons did not explode by accident.

       The incident infuriated Congress. Claiming treachery and deceit it demanded that the

START II treaty be scrapped. Boomer knew that in the biblical tradition of an eye for an eye, he

was here to inflict hurt on those that had harmed the United States. In this case the radical

politicians who had sent the Backfire on its fateful mission. Intelligence had placed them in a bus

on this road. Boomer and his team were here to kill them.

       Boomer wasn't exactly sure how his team's mission was going to affect things, but in a

few minutes there would be fewer people opposed to NATO gaining positive control over the

nuclear stockpile. Boomer, like most of his comrade in arms, drew no ethical lines when it came

to nuclear weapons in the hands of extremists. Using the cold calculations of the professional

military man, the potential body count of a rogue nuclear bomb weighed against the lives of the

men aproaching his kill zone left him with no qualms.
       The lead car came around the bend and into sight, closely followed by a bus. Boomer

twisted the focus knob on his goggles. The Ukranian flag flapped from the radio antenna on the

right rear of the car. It roared by, rapidly approaching the ambush area. Boomer looked at the bus

and blinked. There was some sort of emblem pasted to the right side of the bus, next to the door.

As the bus rumbled by below him, he tried to make it out; he could almost swear it was the

globe/compass marking of NATO.

       The car had entered the kill zone and the bus was less than thirty meters away from the

point of no return. Boomer knew he had less than two seconds to make a decision.

       "Abort!" he hissed into his radio. There was no immediate reply. "Martin, abort! Answer

me, goddamnit!"

       A bright flash split the night sky, followed immediately by the roar of an explosion as a

remotely detonated mine went off under the front tire of the lead car. The blast lifted the car

twenty feet into the air and tossed the crumpled machine off the road. A line of fire seared from

the area of Martin's team and slammed into the bus-- the warhead of the RPG rocket detonating

on impact. Designed to stop tanks and armored personnel carriers, the warhead tore through the

thin metal skin and exploded inside, blasting apart flesh and machine with equal ruthlessness.

       "Abort!" Boomer yelled helplessly.

       Green tracers licked out from the hillside disappearing into the ravaged body of the bus,

the crack of the PK machinegun filling the silence left by the explosions. Boomer could see men

crawling out the windows of the bus, trying to claw their way to safety.

       "Get the chopper here!" Boomer ordered Lanscom. He got to his feet and ran along the

hillside toward Martin's position. He slipped and fell, grabbing onto a sapling to keep from
rolling down the hill. As he got to his feet, he could hear the snap of AK-74s adding to the din of

the PK machinegun.

       Just as Boomer arrived at the kill team's position, the firing suddenly stopped. In the

sudden absence of the sound of killing, the screams of the wounded echoed up the hillside.

The members of Martin's team were standing, peering down, weapons at the ready, the barrel of

the machinegun glowing bright red. Boomer grabbed Martin on the shoulder and the Captain

turned, startled, a glazed look in his eye.

       "Why didn't you obey me?"

       Martin blinked. "What?"

       "I ordered you to abort, goddamnit!"

       Martin shrugged and pointed downhill. "They were in the zone. There was nothing else

we could do. It was too late."

       "You didn't have to fire up the bus," Boomer retorted.

       "What's the big deal?" Martin asked. "This was what--"

       They both froze as an eerie voice floated up the hill, crying out in English: "Oh God,

Help me!".

       "That's why!" Boomer yelled. "That was a NATO bus."

       The members of the kill team stared at him. Boomer was looking down the hill, thinking

furiously. Flames were flickering out of the engine of the bus. He could make out some

movement among the bodies lying around the shattered vehicle. There appeared to be one or two

unwounded men down there, dragging the hurt to the shelter of the drainage ditch on the far side.

Lanscom and the other man from his headquarters element came running up.

"Chopper's inbound, sir," Lanscom informed him. "Two minutes out."
       Boomer reached out and grabbed the handset for the SATCOM radio. "Thunder Point

this is Mustang. Over."

       "This is Thunder Point. Over."

Boomer's voice was harsh as he reported. "We've got a fuck-up here. We hit the target but it was

a friendly. Looks like a bus full of NATO inspectors. Over."

       Colonel Decker didn't hesitate. "Get out of there, ASAP. Over."

       "There's wounded down there. We need to help them. Over."

       "Negative, Mustang. Over."

       "Let me talk to my six. Over," Boomer said, trying to get a hold of his commanding

officer. “Your six is not available. Exfil immediately. You are not to render any assistance. You

are not to compromise your presence. That's an order. Over."

Boomer held the handset, unable to reply. He felt the gaze of the other members of his team upon


       Colonel Decker's voice took on an edge of anxiety at the lack of reply. "Mustang, do you

hear me? Mustang? Confirm that you will comply with your orders. Over."

"Let's get down there," Boomer ordered his men, dropping the handset.

       "Thunder Point says to exfiltrate," Martin objected, pointing at the radio.

       "And I say let's get down there and help who we can. We'll put the wounded on board the

chopper and take them back to Turkey."

       Martin shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir, but we have to obey orders."

Boomer stared at his executive officer. The sound of helicopter blades started to override the

cries of the wounded.
       Martin half lifted his AK-74, the muzzle vaguely threatening in Boomer's direction.

"You're going to have to shoot me in the back if that's what you're thinking," Boomer snapped.

He turned and started downslope. Behind him, Martin lowered the weapon and grabbed the

handset for the SATCOM radio, rapidly speaking into it.

       Boomer was less than twenty feet from the road, when the Hind-D changed its landing

pattern, roared up the road, and the 12.7 mm gatling gun in the nose opened fire. Boomer threw

himself to the ground as bullets tore through the carnage his team had wrought, effectively

finishing the job. The survivors were caught in the open and thrown about like rag dolls as the

heavy metal jacketed bullets tore into them. The helicopter banked and flew back, doing another

gun run, taking care of those who had hidden in the drainage ditch. The aircraft flared just

beyond the wreckage of the bus and slowly settled down to land.

       Boomer stood and stepped out into the road. He bent over the closest body. There was no

doubt the man was dead, his chest was torn open and half his head gone. Boomer checked the

pockets, then quickly ran to the other bodies. All dead and most unidentifiable. The rest of his

team came running down the hill toward the beckoning doors of the helicopter. Reluctantly,

Boomer turned and followed them, stepping up and through the door into the waiting womb of

the cargo bay. The helicopter immediately lifted and headed south to safety.

       Boomer had something in his hands, a small piece of plastic. Turning it toward the red

glow of the cargo bay, he read the lettering. He briefly froze and a look of anguish coursed

across his face. He stuffed it back into the pocket over his heart.

       Boomer spent the rest of the return trip in silence, ignoring the other members of his

team. The onetime Lanscom nudged him, holding out the handset of the SATCOM to answer an

incoming message from Thunder Point, Boomer simply pointed at Captain Martin and Lanscom
took the radio over to the executive officer, who spent a good portion of the trip speaking into

the handset. Boomer unhooked his FM radio and stuffed the ear-piece into his vest pocket.

        The noise inside the helicopter, loud enough to drown out any attempt at normal

conversation, made the ride a curiously silent one. Each man was coming off the adrenaline rush

of the action, and each was weighing the potential consequences.

        At the airfield in northern Turkey, the helicopter landed and was immediately directed

into a secure hanger where the doors swung shut, a protection from prying eyes. The helicopter

came to a halt and the sound of the engines decreased as the pilots began shutting the bird down.

The side door opened and a soldier stuck his head in. "The Colonel's waiting for you."

As the other members of the team stood up to exit the bird, Boomer grabbed Captain Martin's

arm and pulled him down into the seat next to him. "What the fuck happened back there, Pete?"

he asked, finally able to be heard.

        "What do you mean?" Martin asked, jerking his arm out of Boomer's grip.

"You told the pilots to strafe, didn't you?"

        Martin couldn't meet his commanding officer's eyes. "Those were our orders."

        "We killed our own," Boomer said. "You damn near killed me."

        "You shouldn't have gone down there, Boomer," Martin said. The younger man shook his

head. "It was messed up, but once the shit starts hitting the fan you got to play it out as it lays."

        "That's what you call it?" Boomer asked incredulously. "Strafing wounded friendlies?

Playing it out?"

        Martin nervously shrugged.

        Boomer poked him hard on the shoulder. "You ever pull a weapon on me again, I'll kill

       Martin exited the aircraft without another word. Boomer angrily got to his feet and

followed. In the hanger he walked to the brightly lit corner where the communications console

was set up and the maps were tacked to plywood walls. Colonel Decker was there along with

Colonel Forster, Boomer's immediate superior in Delta Force. Boomer's hand slid into the pocket

of the greatcoat he was wearing and reappeared with two pieces of cloth. He threw them down

onto the folding table in front of the two senior officers without a word. A small, blood-stained

American flag with a velcro backing along with a NATO blue beret lay there, frozen in the bright

glow of the overhead lights.

       Forster glanced at the patches, then at Boomer. "I heard. I'm sorry."

Boomer's eyes were locked on Colonel Decker's. He ignored the other members of the team as

they gathered around, Captain Martin keeping a safe distance away.

       "Do you have a problem Major?" Decker asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

Boomer stiffened. "No, sir, you have a problem. The target that you identified and confirmed for

destruction was a bus load of NATO officers from one of the inspection teams in-country. I took

that shoulder patch and beret from one of the bodies. An American body."

       "It was a mistake," Decker said. "We received some bad intelligence."

       "Bad intelligence?" Boomer was stunned. "I counted at least six bodies outside that bus

and God knows how many were inside."

       "It's done," Forster quietly said. "It was a mistake and it's done. Let it go, Boomer.

There's nothing we can do right now."

       Boomer twisted his head. "Let it go? Sir, my men just killed some of our own." His finger

pointed at the patch, shaking with emotion. "How the fuck could intelligence get that screwed

up? You were tracking that damn bus since it left---."
       "But we couldn't tell who was in it," Decker quickly interjected. "That was your job on

the ground."

       Boomer stepped back in surprise at the last comment. "My job? It was oh-dark-thirty in

the morning there. Those vehicles were moving about forty miles an hour into my kill zone. You

gave me final authorization for a go on the mission. I tried to abort," he said, throwing a hard

look at Captain Martin, "but it was too late by the time I recognized the markings on the bus."

       "Sounds like you made the mistake, Major," Decker said.

       Boomer took a step toward Decker, his eyes blazing.

       "Listen," Forster said, holding both hands up and moving between the two men. "Let's

not be getting into a pissing contest about whose fault things are. It's done. We've run seven

different ops here into the Ukraine and this is the first one that went wrong. I don't like it.

Nobody likes it, but our luck was bound to run out sooner or later. Let's be glad you all made it

back all right and we'll make damn sure something like this never happens again."

       Decker picked up the flag and beret and stuffed them into his fatigue pants pocket, then

turned an emotionless gaze on Boomer. "Your boss is right-- we don't like it, but that's the way it

goes sometimes. There are things going on that you aren't cleared to know. We were obviously

fed false intelligence on this mission. It might even have been a deliberate set-up. A lot of

strange things have been going on since the interception of that Backfire. But it's done and we

need to make the best of it."

       "The best of it?" Boomer asked. "How can you make the best of it?"

"That's not your concern, Major."

       "It damn well is my concern," Boomer replied angrily.
       "Major!" Decker snapped. "That's enough." He turned to Forster. "I want this man

relieved of duties immediately."

       Forster bristled. "This is my command."

       "It won't be much longer if you don't do what I say," Decker warned.

       Forster glared at the other officer for several seconds before replying. "I'll take care of it.

You," he added, still looking at Decker, "watch what you say to my people. This was your

mission and you take responsibility for what happened."

       Decker pointed at Boomer. "I want him out of this area of operations before close of

business today." With that he turned and strode out of the hanger.

       Forster waited until he was gone, then faced his subordinate. "I'm sorry, Boomer."

From the tone of his commander's voice, Boomer knew what the words meant and he was

stunned. "You're going to let that asshole dictate what you do?"

       There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the air temperature in the eastern end of the

Mediterranean was eighty degrees. The temperature of the water was a comfortable seventy-

two. The surface of the sea was so smooth and flat that any disturbance of the water could be

spotted easily. The moon was almost full and reflected off the mirror surface, giving sixty-five

percent illumination, aiding any prying eyes.

       The American submarine lay eight kilometers off shore, due west of southern Lebanon.

It was dead in the water a hundred feet down. On the back deck, just behind the conning tower,

a hatch opened in the hull, leading to a pressurized compartment, the dry deck shelter, DDS,

which was bolted onto the deck.

       The two men climbing through the hatch into the DDS wore wet suits and carried their

gear in waterproof backpacks. As soon as they were inside, the hatch was closed behind them

and sealed.

       The two men ran through the preoperations checks on the vehicle tied down inside the

DDS: the Mark IX Swimmer Delivery Vehicle, SDV. The Mark IX was a long, flattened

rectangle with propellers and dive fins at the rear and a plexiglass bubble at the front for the crew

to see through. A little over 19 feet long, it was only slightly more than six feet wide and drew

less than three feet from top to bottom.

       After five minutes both men were satisfied with the craft. The batteries were at full

charge and all equipment was functioning properly.
       The divers slid inside the SDV, closing the hatches behind them. They hooked the hose

from their mouthpieces directly to the interior air valves to breathe from the vehicle's tanks.

       The man on the right spoke into the radiophone which was connected by umbilical to the

sub. "Amber this is Topaz. We are ready to proceed. Over."

       "Roger, Topaz. We read all green here. Over."

       "Request flood and release. Over."

       "Flood and release will be initiated in twenty seconds. We'll leave the porch light on.

Umbilicals cut in five. Good luck. Five. Four. Three. Two. One."

       The radiophone went dead. With a heavy gurgle, water began pouring into the dry dock

shelter. The pilot worked at keeping the SDV at neutral buoyancy as the chamber filled. Water

also flooded into the crew chamber inside the SDV where the two divers lay on their stomachs

peering out the front canopy. The Mark IX was a 'wet' submersible meaning that the only

waterproofed sections were the engine, battery, and navigational computer compartments. The

two crewmen could feel the warm water seep into their wet suits and they forced out small

pockets of air, trying to get as comfortable as possible in their confined space.

       Once the chamber was full, the large hatch on the end of the DDS slowly swung open.

The pilot activated the twin, three bladed propellers and the SDV cleared the DDS. The long

length of the submarine lay beneath them for another two hundred feet. Once in open ocean the

pilot directed the Mark IX up and down and from side to side using stabilizers, both horizontal

and vertical, that were aligned to the rear of the propellers. A throttle controlled the speed of the

blades and thus the sub.

       The second diver was the navigator and he was currently punching in numbers on the

waterproof panel in front of him.
       "Fixing Doppler," he announced over the internal communication link between him and

his partner. The computerized Doppler navigation system was now updated with their current

location, received from the submarine prior to departure, and would guide them on their

underwater journey, greatly simplifying a task that previously was a nightmare in pitch black

seas. The SDV also boasted an obstacle-avoidance sonar subsystem, which provided automatic

warning to the pilot of any obstacles in the sub's path; essential given that at their current depth

they could see little more than a foot and would be "flying" blind, trusting the Doppler and their

charts for navigation. The SDV had a pair of high power halogen lights facing forward but they

were not an option on this mission.

       "Course set. All clear," the navigator announced.

       The pilot increased power to the propellers and they were moving away from the sub,

heading due east.

       "What do you think, Chief?" the pilot finally asked, now that they were alone and out of

the presence of higher ranking officers. They both wore dive masks and mouthpieces. The

transmitter was wrapped around their necks, making the voice in the other man's earpiece sound

strangely garbled because the mouthpiece was held with the teeth while the speaker articulated

with his throat.

       The navigator, satisfied that everything was running smoothly, finally looked up from his

panel and across at his cohort. "The politicians and bureaucrats ought to get their heads out of

their asses and go public with this crap. That's what I think, Captain," Chief Petty Officer

McKenzie replied.
         "Always the big view," Captain Thorpe said with a low laugh that sounded like gargling

to McKenzie. "I meant what do you think about our chances of spotting the transfer, if there is


         "They'd be a lot better if we went in with a big hammer right from the start and knocked

these shitbirds on the head," McKenzie said. "I hate this sneaking and peeking crap. What I

really want to know is why I'm the navy guy and you're the army guy, but you're the one driving

this sled?"

         "Brains," Thorpe said. "Brains over muscle. You SEALs can do pushups until the sun

goes down but I'm a Green Beret. We got the brains and the looks."

         "Yeah, right," McKenzie growled. "If you're so smart, how come you're in here with


         That was a good question, Thorpe silently acknowledged. Although they were from

different branches of service, as McKenzie had pointed out, they had both, along with several

dozen other members of the military's elite special operations forces, been co-opted to form

covert Department of Energy SO/NEST teams: Special Operations Nuclear Emergency Search


         At least that was the official jargon on their orders and the explanation given to the

congressional oversight committee. In reality, he and McKenzie represented the spear point of

much more than simply a search team.

         They were the unit the Department of Defense used to patrol the world to keep the

cauldron of nuclear weapons and materials from boiling over. Regular DOE NEST teams were

designed to clean up the mess after a nuclear problem occurred. They were reactive. DOD

SO/NEST teams were proactive. People like McKenzie and Thorpe searched out potential
nuclear problems before they escalated and a mess had to be cleaned up. So far they had been

successful, but all it took was one failure and no one on the teams dwelled on that. The pressure

was intense and men serving on SO/NEST teams rarely lasted more than a couple of years before

they 'burned out.'

       Thorpe had been with SO/NEST for six months. McKenzie was the senior man in the

group, with over four years of experience. The stress had aged him.

       "You ever think about the insanity of what we do?" McKenzie suddenly said.

       Thorpe was startled. That wasn't exactly the sort of question one asked on the inbound

leg of a dangerous operation.   "It's our job," he replied.

       "Job?" McKenzie said. "Cutting grass, now that's a job. Being a doctor, that's a job. A

doctor does an operation that saves somebody's life everybody thinks he's a god. He gets paid

like one too.

       "We save millions of lives and what do we get? Shit, that's what we get. Hell, we don't

even get hazardous duty pay."

       "We don't get hazardous duty pay," Thorpe said, "because then the Department of

Defense would have to tell Congress what we do in order to authorize it. And what we're doing

is not exactly legal in the eyes of US or international law. Not only are we not supposed to be

operating overseas like this, it would scare the piss out of the civilians if they knew how close

things get sometimes."

       "Maybe the civilians need a scare," McKenzie argued. "Everyone thinks the world is

safer, now that the Cold War is over, but they're fooling themselves. Everything's gotten a lot

more dangerous. Too many bombs, too much nuclear material floating around. Too many

people playing shady games.
        "You know I got passed over on my last promotion, don't you? The promotion board

OK'd me, but then some fucking civilian oversight board noticed that I'd been at Tailhook. Fuck,

I wasn't even in the goddamn hotel when those aviators were doing their stuff. I was

representing SEAL Team Two at the convention."

        "Sorry about that," Thorpe murmured, keeping his eyes on the control panel. He'd known

McKenzie for the past six months, but had never worked this closely with him. Listening to him,

Thorpe was beginning to wish he wasn't on this mission with the man.

        "Fucking civilians," McKenzie said harshly, drawing a concerned look from Thorpe

across the flooded chamber. "They're talking about chaptering me out, taking away my pension.

We're the one's getting screwed while they sit at home and bitch about taxes and cut our fucking

benefits. Fuck them all."

        "Nav update?" Thorpe asked, trying to draw the older man's attention back to the task at


        After McKenzie gave him their present location, they both lapsed into silence. While his

hands were steady on the controls, Thorpe felt the tension in the rest of his body and had to force

himself to relax.

        Thorpe's six foot-two frame was cramped in the limited space allowed him. Under his

dry suit, his body was well muscled, the result of a fierce daily workout routine.

        His face, hidden by the mask he wore, was the deep brown of a man heavily exposed to

the harshest of the sun's powers. He already carried the deep lines and crevasses that signalled

late middle age. Only his blue eyes hinted that he was just thirty-four. If he had allowed his hair

to grow beyond the thick short stubble he favored, it would have been dark and liberally

sprinkled with grey.
       Next to Thorpe, McKenzie had a better length-wise fit at slightly less than five foot six,

but his barrel chest and massively muscled arms made it difficult for him to move around.

Before joining SO/NEST, McKenzie had carried the label of strongest man in the SEAL teams,

quite a feat among a group of men who prided themselves on their physical conditioning.

During physical training Thorpe had seen the older man bench press over three hundred pounds.

McKenzie had as much pride in his body as a two thousand dollar an hour model.

       Both men stayed as still as they could during the run in, trying to keep the trim of the

SDV steady.

       "Running clear," McKenzie eventually said in a level voice. "I put us at three klicks off

coast. Change heading to one, one, zero degrees."

       "One, one, zero, degrees," Thorpe confirmed, as he manipulated the controls. He glanced

at his partner. The earlier outburst seemed forgotten, as McKenzie's demeanor slid into an

automatic, professional mode.

       McKenzie checked some numbers. "ETA, forty minutes."


       The SDV slid through the water, the propellers leaving no trace fifty feet below the

surface. As they drew closer McKenzie directed Thorpe nearer the surface as the ocean floor

rose beneath them.

       "We have one hundred feet under us," McKenzie announced. "Thirty above.

       "Eighty down, twenty up.

       "Sixty down, ten up. Hold vertical."

       Thorpe slowed their forward speed and held their depth steady.

       McKenzie was watching his screen intently. "Forty down. Route still clear."
       Thorpe slowed until they were at a crawl.

       "I've got solid contact," McKenzie said. "Shoreline," he confirmed. "New heading,

eight, zero degrees."

       "Eight, zero degrees." The SDV turned slightly left.

       "Easy, easy," McKenzie muttered as he watched numbers tick off on his screen. "On my

mark. Ten down, ten up. Hold."

       Thorpe brought the SDV to a halt, then slowly let the craft sink until it rested on the

bottom, in twenty feet of water, two hundred yards from shore.

       Thorpe reached out and flipped a switch on the control panel. "Beacon on." He checked

what looked like a large wristwatch strapped to his left forearm. A small red dot glowed. "I read

the SDV beacon six by six."

       McKenzie did the same. "Six by six."

       Thorpe was doing everything by the book, following a checklist taped to the left side of

his compartment. "Begin shut down."

       Each man turned off their parts of the SDV until all that was functioning was the beacon

and the air supply.

       "Switch to personal air," Thorpe ordered before he turned off the SDV's air supply. He

glanced over. McKenzie pulled out his air hose, which also disconnected him from the internal

communication system. McKenzie gave him a thumbs up. Thorpe switched on his own

rebreather then flipped a switch cutting off the internal air.

       They pushed open their hatches and slid out, pulling their waterproofed rucksacks with

them. Leaving the Mark IX resting on the bottom, they swam toward the shore, the rucksacks

towed on six foot lines attached to safety lines at their waists.
       The two men ascended until they were just below the moonlit surface. Their fins

flickered back and forth, propelling them smoothly toward shore. Thorpe held a nav board right

in front of his face, following the azimuth determined from their mission briefing.

       After a few minutes both men could feel the sea change. They knew they were close to

shore from the increasing swell. Thorpe tapped McKenzie on the shoulder. McKenzie held

position while Thorpe surfaced. Thorpe rode a wave up and looked shoreward. He could make

out lights to the left but the shore ahead was dark. Thorpe hoped their underwater navigation had

been accurate. He returned to McKenzie.

       Together, they moved forward until they could feel the tips of their fins hit the bottom.

Thorpe edged ahead, the surf lifting him and then slamming him down into the sand. Before the

water pulled him back, Thorpe dug his hands into the sand and held his place, then scuttled

forward a few more feet. He could feel McKenzie behind him, pulling off his fins. McKenzie

then crawled to his side and Thorpe returned the favor. Each retrieved his rucksack and

unfastened the submachinegun tied to it, pulling back the slide and making sure there was a

round in the chamber, ready to fire, then pulling the muzzle plug out. They slipped an arm

through the shoulder strap of their ruck and lay at the edge of the surf, listening carefully.

       Thorpe stood and sprinted across the sand, McKenzie right on his heels. They reached

the concealment of the dunes. The dry desert air felt good against their faces, the only part of

their skin exposed.

       Thorpe carefully unsealed his ruck, making sure it made no noise. He pulled out a small

handheld device and turned it on. The GPR, ground positioning receiver, quickly accessed the

nearest three DOD satellites overhead and pinpointed their position to within five meters.
       "We're four hundred yards south," Thorpe whispered. He didn't think that was too bad

for an eight kilometer underwater infiltration. Both he and McKenzie donned their night vision

goggles. Thorpe waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the slightly green and depth distorted


       Thorpe shouldered his ruck. He stood and led the way, carefully moving through the

dunes to the north, McKenzie behind him and to the right.

       They now heard another noise over the pounding surf: heavy diesel engines. Thorpe

slowed, searching for the guards that would be near. A high dune lay across their path and they

crawled until they could just see over.

       "Shit," McKenzie muttered. Four large military-style trucks were parked with their open

tailgates pointed toward the beach. But the trucks were not the focus of McKenzie's comment.

Rather he was referring to the two tanks, one with its main gun aimed out to sea, the other

guarding the sandy road that led inland.

       "They're Merkavas," McKenzie said, confirming what Thorpe had already determined

from their distinctive shape. "What the hell are the Israelis doing here?"

       Thorpe didn't have an answer. His and McKenzie's need-to-know had only extended to a

rumor that there would be transfer of a large amount of weapons grade plutonium. The

plutonium, supposedly smuggled out of Russia, was to be delivered to the buyer this night on this

beach. They had not been informed who was doing the smuggling or who was doing the buying,

but the assumption that an Arab group was involved on the receiving end had seemed likely

since they were lying on Lebanese sand.
       Thorpe and McKenzie had no idea how even this limited information was obtained.

They had received only the filtered down classified version from Department of Defense

intelligence channels.

       Both men flinched as the seaward tank turned on its high powered searchlight. The beam

spread across the water and Thorpe was glad they had come in four hundred meters to the south.

He could see armed men walking around the perimeter, the nearest only twenty meters away on

the far slope of the dune.

       "What now, Mister Brains?" McKenzie whispered.

       "We get our air and ground support on station and we film," Thorpe said.

       "Those are Israelis," McKenzie hissed. "Not some ragheads. Something heavy is going

down here."

       Thorpe retrieved the handset for the small backpack satellite radio from his ruck. The

radio was hooked to a specially designed frequency jumping scrambler that made it impossible

for the transmission to be intercepted. "Heaven, this is Topaz. We are on target. Over."

       Heaven was the code name for their commander on board an aircraft carrier two hundred

miles to the west.

       "This is Heaven. Read you five by. Give us a description of what you have. Over."

       "Four deuce and a half trucks waiting on the beach. Also we've got two Merkava tanks

standing guard, so your people better have something to take care of that. Approximately two

dozen men on foot armed with automatic weapons. Over."

       "Did you say Merkavas? Over."

       Thorpe glanced at McKenzie who only grunted as he opened his ruck. "Roger. Over."
         While Thorpe was talking, McKenzie pulled out a palm-sized digital video camera with a

specially designed night lens. Instead of recording the image on film or tape, the camera

computerized and digitized directly onto a small CD-ROM disk. McKenzie began filming.

         After a few seconds of silence, Thorpe keyed the mike. "Request support stand by,


         "This is Heaven. Your support is standing by and coming on this channel. Call sign

Angel. Will be monitoring. Update us any changes. I still reserve final go. Out."

         Thorpe keyed the mike. "Angel, this is Topaz. Over."

         The voice that came over the air had a distinct dull roar in the background that indicated

the speaker was sitting in a cockpit moving at several hundred miles an hour. "This is Angel.

Standing by. We're four minutes out from your location and waiting. Over."

         "Roger," Thorpe said, "stand by. Over."

         According to their briefing, Angel consisted of several Harrier jets and four helicopters

full of heavily armed Marines flying in from the carrier. Thorpe knew the Harriers could make

short work of the tanks and the Marines could finish the job.

         Something slid into the light sent out by the searchlight. There was the sound of a strong

wind, then a hovercraft came into view, rapidly approaching the shore, coming up onto the beach

and blowing sand about. There were no markings on the vehicle.

         Thorpe pulled the mike close to his lips. "This is Topaz. We've a got a hovercraft

coming in. The deal is going down. Request Angel come on in. Over."

         The hovercraft pulled up directly behind the four trucks and slowly settled down. Men

ran up to the rear deck and began rolling barrels down a plank onto the sand and then four men

would lift each into the rear of a truck. The barrels were painted bright red.
          "Pay dirt," McKenzie muttered. "I'll bet you every cent of my measly salary that those

barrels contain cased plutonium."

          "I wouldn't take the bet," Thorpe whispered. "The question is, who's the supplier?"

Thorpe keyed the mike, wondering why he had not received a reply to his previous message.

"Angel, this is Topaz. We have positive confirmation of hot materials. Request Angel come in.


          "Topaz, this is Heaven. Negative. I am switching you over to call sign Loki. Take all

orders from Loki. Out."

          Thorpe looked at McKenzie in confusion. There was a brief break of static, then a new

voice came on. "Topaz, this is Loki, over."

          "This is Topaz," Thorpe replied.

          "Abort mission. Return to homebase. Over."

          Thorpe glanced at McKenzie. "This is Topaz. I say again. Confirm hot materials here.

Request Angel. Over."

          "Angel is heading home, suggest you do the same. Out." The radio went dead.

          "Fuck!" McKenzie hissed. "They've left us!"

          At that moment, they both heard a slight noise to their rear. Thorpe was still putting the

mike down and turning when he heard the low popping of McKenzie's submachinegun spewing


          Thorpe caught a glimpse of a figure tumbling back down the dune. Someone else was

there and a muzzle flashed. Thorpe didn't hear anything but he reacted instinctively, firing at the

       Leaving their rucks behind, Thorpe and McKenzie slid down the slope to where the

bodies lay, scanning the area for more guards. Both men were dead. They were dressed in khaki

and armed with automatic rifles with bulky silencers on top.

       McKenzie swore as he peered down at the face of the man at his feet. "They're Agency!"

       "What?" Thorpe said.

       "I know this guy," McKenzie said. "He's fucking CIA." McKenzie stood. "It's a set-up!

That's it. I've had it with this bullshit! No wonder they aborted us." McKenzie popped the CD

out of the camera and slid it into a pocket on the inside of his wet suit.

       Thorpe grabbed the chin of the man he shot and turned the face up. He spotted the small

boom mike attached the headset the man wore and immediately knew what that meant.

       He turned to McKenzie. "We've been made!"

       "What?" McKenzie said, then both spun around as the whine of a turbine engine revving

up came over the top of the dune, followed by the tip of a 105 mm muzzle.

       The Merkava tank was moving at thirty miles an hour as it crested the dune and it flew

almost ten feet before the heavy treads crashed down onto the sand.

       Thorpe and McKenzie barely had time to roll out of the way as the steel behemoth tore

by, showering them with sand and pieces of the dead bodies it had crushed.

       The driver of the tank pivot steered, reversing one tread while keeping the other going

forward and the tank abruptly turned. Thorpe fired on automatic, more a gesture of defiance than

with any hope of causing damage. The bullets ricocheted off the metal in a spray of sparks.

       "Run!" McKenzie screamed. "The water!"

       Together they scrambled toward the surf two hundred yards away. The tank ate up the

distance at four times their speed.
        "Split!" McKenzie yelled when the tank was less than twenty feet behind them. Thorpe

jigged left while McKenzie went right. With an instant decision to make, the driver turned left.

Thorpe looked over his shoulder and saw the blunt edge of the tank's front slope five feet behind

him. He dove into the sand, rolling onto his back and watching as the treads came toward him.

He rolled once more and the right tread clanked by less than a foot away.

        Thorpe was in total blackness and smothered with diesel fumes. Worse though, was the

overwhelming sense of weight on top of him, the metal bottom of the tank eight inches above his

body, the treads blocking movement to either side.

        The tank kept going and Thorpe reached up, grabbing a loop of the tow cable

overhanging off the back deck and was dragged through the sand as the tank turned around to the

right. The driver briefly searched for Thorpe's body. When he couldn't find it, he decided to go

after the other man.

        McKenzie was running like a halfback through the defensive backfield, cutting back and

forth, hoping to be able to turn quicker than the tank. But the driver was very good, matching

McKenzie's moves and closing the distance. At the last second, McKenzie did what Thorpe had

done, throwing himself down in a shallow ditch between the treads.

        The tank rolled over the trench and McKenzie was safe, directly between the treads, but

this time the driver was prepared. He slammed on the brakes, then pivot steered back and forth,

digging the treads down into the sand and moving the tank left and right in two foot arcs.

        McKenzie realized that if he didn't move soon the treads would settle down in the sand

and the bottom of the tank would crush him. He scrambled through the sand trying to get from

under the tank to the rear. At that moment, the driver unexpectedly did a ninety degree turn to the

        McKenzie couldn't move fast enough. The tread racing by caught his left forearm and

sucked it into the gnashing metal. If there had been a hard surface underneath, there would have

been nothing left of the limb, but the sand gave slightly.

        From his position still hanging on to the rear of the tank, Thorpe heard McKenzie's

scream over the roar of the engine Thorpe let go and rolled away, then got to his feet. The tank

was still churning sand, back and forth. Thorpe ran forward, timing his jump to coincide with

the tank's movements. He slammed onto the rear deck and grasped for a handhold.

        His left hand closed around a ridge of metal and Thorpe hauled himself up. He quickly

climbed onto the turret. The tank commander's hatch was slightly open, enough for the

commander to look forward. Thorpe pulled his 9 mm pistol out of its holster and stuck it in the

hatch and fired, hitting the commander in the side of the head, blowing brains and blood all over

the inside of the turret.

        Thorpe ripped open the hatch and dove in headfirst, sliding past the dead body. He was

firing as he fell and he kept firing as he hit the metal grating on the floor of the turret. When the

magazine was finally empty, the three man crew was riddled. Thorpe got to his feet as he

slammed another magazine into the pistol.

        The driver's dead foot slipped off the pedal and the tank came to a halt, engine still

rumbling. Thorpe was just climbing out the top hatch when he spotted the second tank, a quarter

mile away and closing fast.

        Thorpe dropped back down into the turret. He grabbed the tank commander's override

control lever and turned the turret, looking out the top of the hatch until he had the barrel lined

up. The tank was heading directly for him.
       Now he could only hope there was a round in the breach. Thorpe pulled back the trigger

on the front of the override. There was a blossom of flame from the end of the muzzle and the

blast blew back over Thorpe, a sudden surge of warm wind.

       The kinetic sabot round crossed the distance between the two tanks in less than one-tenth

of a second. It hit at the turret-body junction of the second tank, punched through the front and

punched back out the other side, leaving only two small, four inch circumference holes on the


       But the metal that had been in those holes killed the crew as the shrapnel ricochetted

around the inside of the tank, the armor protection turning deadly as it kept the metal shards

trapped on the inside like a swarm of angry bees. The crew was torn to shreds.

       One of the pieces of shrapnel hit the stowed rounds at the rear of the turret and ignited

one of them. The round blew, taking with it those packed next to and the turret popped off in the

tremendous secondary explosion.

       Thorpe climbed out and jumped over the side to the sand. He momentarily froze as he

spotted McKenzie, crawling with one arm toward the water, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.

Thorpe ran over and knelt next to him.

       "Oh, shit," Thorpe exclaimed when he saw the man's crushed limb in the glow of the

burning tank. McKenzie's left forearm was a mess of mangled flesh and bone, hanging from his

elbow by half-ripped tendons.

       "Go!" McKenzie hissed. "Get out of here."

       Thorpe pulled a length of parachute cord and a small mag lite out of his combat vest. He

wrapped the cord around McKenzie's upper left arm. Thorpe tied a square knot in the thin rope

as tight as he could, leaving the mag lite inside the knot. Thorpe then twisted the mag lite around
several times, cinching down the cord and cutting most of the blood flow with the makeshift


       Thorpe was reaching for his first aid packet attached to his vest to get some painkiller

when a string of tracers split the night, flying over their heads. He could hear voices in the

distance, shouting, getting closer, firing wildly into the night.

       "Go!" McKenzie insisted.

       Thorpe grabbed McKenzie and, with a surge of adrenaline, threw the bulky man over his

shoulders. McKenzie was protesting, demanding that Thorpe leave him behind, but Thorpe

staggered to his feet and headed for the surf.

       "I'm dead," McKenzie yelled in Thorpe's ear. "Leave me."

       Thorpe didn't have the breath to answer, his feet sliding in the sand as he ran for the

water. Another burst of traces went by, this time a bit closer.

       Thorpe hit the water running. As the water splashed up around his legs, he reached up

and grabbed McKenzie's safety line and hooked it into his own belt. He lowered McKenzie into

the water, then dove forward. The line momentarily brought him to an abrupt halt, then Thorpe

began the difficult business of swimming, pulling McKenzie behind him.

       Thorpe swam as hard as he could, trying to put distance between them and the shore.

Those on the shore were still firing wildly, the tracers whipsawing in all directions.

       After a couple of minutes, Thorpe pulled on the line and brought McKenzie in close to

check on him.

       "Leave me," McKenzie said, his face white from lose of blood. He'd popped his

inflatable vest because he was too weak to even float.

       "Shut up," Thorpe said as he continued to kick with his legs. "We'll make it."
       "My blood will draw sharks," McKenzie warned. "Go while you can."

       Thorpe hit the homer on his wrist and checked the direction. The SDV was to the

southwest. Thorpe grabbed McKenzie and pulled him along as he swam in that direction.

       "How far to the SDV?" McKenzie asked in a dazed voice.

       Thorpe looked at his monitor. "About hundred yards."

       "I can't dive," McKenzie muttered, then he passed out, his head lolling back on the


       Thorpe swam farther, towing McKenzie, and checking the homer again. They were over

the SDV. In the dark, Thorpe turned to look at McKenzie. The older man's face was white, the

muscles slack. As best he could in the dark and swell, Thorpe made sure there was no blood

passing the torniquet, and that McKenzie's face was out of the water. After letting the wounded

man go, Thorpe inserted the mouthpiece for his rebreather and dove. His own lacerations pulsed

with pain in the salt water, but Thorpe ignored them.

       He was at the SDV in half a minute. Forgetting the checklist, Thorpe powered up. He

retraced his route and surfaced. Kneeling in the hatch, Thorpe looked about. McKenzie was

nowhere to be seen.

       Reaching down, Thorpe gave power to the screws and anxiously began driving the SDV

in slowly increasing circles. The six foot swell knocked him against the side of the hatch and

made it difficult for him to see. The SDV wasn't designed to operate on the surface and

wallowed about like a pregnant canoe.

       Thorpe spotted something to his left and turned the SDV in that direction. Relief flooded

through him as he saw that it was McKenzie. Thorpe brought the submersible next to the

unconscious figure. He tied off his safety line to a hitch on the top, then slid into the water. He
paddled over to McKenzie and grabbed hold of the other man's safety line. McKenzie was still

alive, but barely.

        Then Thorpe felt something slide underneath him. He looked down. In the moonlight he

could see a large grey form lazily swim by. Glancing up, Thorpe saw the dorsal fin of an eight

foot shark less than two feet in front of him, slicing through the calm water. Thorpe kept his legs

moving as he watched the fin turn and head back. Thorpe pulled McKenzie to his chest.

        Thorpe rolled putting his body between McKenzie and the shark and he pulled on his

safety line, drawing them toward the SDV, expecting at any moment to feel the rip of razor sharp

teeth in his back.

        Thorpe reached the edge of the SDV and with a surge of adrenaline, shoved the older

man up over the side, rolling him into his cocoon. Thorpe swiftly scrambled up the same side.

Clinging to the top, he sealed McKenzie's hatch, then climbed over into his hatch, sealing it

behind him.

        Grabbing the controls, he adjusted the radar to home in on the submarine's beacon and

opened the throttle all the way.

        The top of the castle wall looked like black teeth against the night sky, the space between

the stone blocks where the soldiers of old had kept watch for approaching enemies. The castle

was set on a small hill with a commanding view of the surrounding terrain for many miles. It had

been built five centuries ago and rebuilt and added to many times over the intervening years.

        The castle, around which the small German town of Bad Kinzen had grown, held a dark

reputation. The people in the town rarely spoke of it openly. The SS had garrisoned a battalion in

the castle during World War II, appreciating the high ground and the numerous stone rooms they

could use to hold prisoners. In those rooms many resistance fighters shipped from France had

met their screaming deaths. In the rooms above the dungeon, young women had suffered their

own shameful fate at the hands of the all-powerful SS. It was a subject rarely talked about among

the elders in town except in whispers and after too much beer. The young didn't know the details

but they picked up the emotional drift and the castle held its own dark place in the minds.

        Before the war, the Kinzen family had controlled the castle for generations and there had

been whispers even then about what went on behind the massive stone walls. The Kinzen family

had held a recessive gene that had come out every couple of generations and led to madness and

perversion. Unfortunately, there was little that could be done about the madness as the Kinzen's

were the wealthiest and most powerful family this side of Stuttgart. Before the rise of modern

law, the Kinzen's had held sway over the town and practiced their depredations against the

citizenry inside the walls of the castle.

        Going back even before the Kinzen's, the castle, built in the late 1400's, had seen more
than its share of death as the religious wars washed back and forth across Germany. A Protestant

enclave had sought shelter behind its walls and held out for two years before Catholic forces

under the Emperor had starved them into surrendering. As they walked out under a white flag,

every Protestant man, woman and child had been thrown into the moat and kept down there by

spear point until all were dead. It was said at the end there was a pile of bodies with the strongest

on top, above the foul water, and the last man to die took over a week, standing on top of an

island of festering bodies, forced to drink the foul water even as his belly burst from hunger.

        Such was the history of Bad Kinzen Castle until the Americans took it over at the end of

World War II. It served first as the headquarters for the local military governor, then as the

Germans gained self rule, it became the headquarters for various US Army units, the last being a

Pershing missile battalion. There were numerous other American units stationed around the town

of Bad Kinzen as the headquarters for the Seventh Corps and US Army Europe were just down

the road in Stuttgart.

        With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the drawdown in forces, Bad Kinzen

took its own share of cutbacks in American troops. The Pershing missile unit was withdrawn and

the castle was empty once more. The Americans wanted to turn the castle over to the German

government but the debt-ridden federal government, still reeling from the negative economic

attachment of East Germany, preferred the rent rather than the maintenance burden of the castle,

so for the past eight years it had remained nominally rented to the Americans even though it was

no longer utilized.

        The castle had deteriorated over the years it was left abandoned. The massive stone wall

surrounding it was still intact, as it had been for hundreds of years, but the buildings on the inside

were dilapidated and falling apart. The moat, the deathplace of hundreds, was now dry and the
drawbridge had long ago been replaced by a permanent concrete bridge leading over the ditch.

The road went through the wall and into the large open courtyard. A fence had been put across

the bridge to prevent entry, but it had taken less than a week for a hole to be torn in it. The

facilities engineers from Seventh Corps repaired the fence every few months but by the end of

the next weekend another hole always appeared.

          Despite the removal of the Pershing unit there were still Americans near Bad Kinzen. The

7th Corps was headquartered at Stuttgart, although many of the soldiers were currently deployed

on peacekeeping missions to Bosnia and the Belorussia. The castle, off-limits to Germans

because it was in American hands-- and perhaps as much because of its dark past-- was a draw to

the teenage children of those American soldiers and it was they who tore holes in the fence as

quickly as it was repaired.

          Too young to drink legally, hassled by Military Police on post and German Polizie off,

the American teenagers went to Bad Kinzen castle where MPs never visited and the Polizie were

forbidden to go. The teenagers partied and hung close to each other, strangers in a distant land

with parents who were gone more often than they were home. They only had each other and they

clung to that.

          In a battered Camaro, two of those displaced youngsters were currently driving through

the winding streets of Bad Kinzen, heading toward the hill on which the castle stood. Kirsten

Welch was 16, a junior at the American High School in Stuttgart and she had been to Bad

Kinzen castle dozens of times in the past, the last four times with Tommy Pilchen, a senior at the

same school. But she had never been there on a weeknight and just the two of them. Always

before it had been the weekend and at least a dozen other dependent kids had convoyed to the

        But Tommy had said tonight was special when he'd asked her to go during lunch break at

school. Kirsten knew what that meant. Tommy's father was PCSing, army lingo for permanent

change of station, back to the States in a week and that meant Tommy would be gone soon.

        They'd been going together for three months and things had progressed to the point where

she had made sure that Tommy had condoms in his pocket before they left Pattonville Housing

Area earlier in the evening.

        It was late November and it got dark and cold early. Her contribution to the trip was

several blankets piled in the back seat of the car. A six pack of beer was on top of the blankets,

another prerequisite Kirsten insisted upon.

        They parked next to a construction site at the base of the hill on which the castle stood.

Tommy threw the blankets over his shoulder and they walked the switchbacks up to the bridge.

Tommy held the fence while Kirsten squeezed through.

        They had spoken little on the ride down. Kirsten knew Tommy was thinking about going

back to the States and she was thinking about how much she was going to miss him. Having

been a military brat all her sixteen years, Kirsten knew it was the nature of things that friendships

were brief as each family moved every three or four years. But Tommy was more than a

friendship. He was her first boyfriend and considerable emotion and time had gone into this in

the past three months. She'd given him a special part of herself and now he was going to be

leaving with it.

        They walked across the bridge, and Kirsten halted just before the tunnel through the outer

wall. She didn't like Bad Kinzen. The tunnel opening looked like a gaping mouth to her, with

two portals above it set like eyes in the black rock. The wind blew and she hugged Tommy

closer to her.
       "I wish my Mom was working tonight," she said.

       Then they could have used her house as they had many times in the past. Her father was a

squad leader in one of the infantry battalions and he had been gone now for three months to

Bosnia-Herzegovina on the US's seemingly never-ending peacekeeping effort in the Balkans.

Her Mom worked in the housing area Burger King on a rotating shift, but tonight she was home,

curled in front of the TV watching the Armed Forces network and steadily drinking enough so

that she could pass out in an empty bed. Her only comment to Kirsten on her way out was to be

home before one.

       "Me too," Tommy said. He tugged her forward toward the tunnel. "But at least I got the

car so we could come here."

       As they walked into the tunnel, their sneakers squeaked on the rock floor and echoed off

the walls that closed over their heads. Water dripped from the stone, making slimy puddles.

Their pace picked up and then they were into the courtyard. Tommy led her toward a low

building built up against the stone wall to their right. It had been the headquarters for the

Pershing unit and was now littered with empty bottles, needles and used condoms. Some

enterprising soul had even hauled a stained mattress up here, but Kirsten didn't like it, thus the


       Tommy pushed open the door, which protested, loudly on its rusted hinges. Kirsten

scuttled by him into the dark interior. She quickly took the blankets, putting half on the floor, and

wrapping one over her shoulders as she sat down. She was small under the rough wool, just

under five foot-two, and weighing slightly over a hundred pounds. She had short hair that she

bleached blond and combed straight back with plenty of gel to keep it in place. A long earring

dangled from her right ear while a small gold ring adorned her nose.
        She could see out a broken window into the courtyard as Tommy settled down beside her,

pulling the blanket over his shoulders and pressing his body against her side.

        "Here," Tommy said, handing her a can from the six pack he had carried up along with

the blankets. She took it and popped the top. Despite the chill, she drank fast. If she'd ever

stopped to think about it, she would have realized she'd never had sex with Tommy sober. But

that was just one of many things that Kirsten and most other sixteen year olds had never stopped

to think about.

        Tommy pulled out a sandwich bag and waved it. "I got some good stuff off Pete."

        He began rolling a joint, much to Kirsten's irritation. She didn't like drugs, even just

grass. Too many kids at school were walking around wasted all the time, not even knowing what

class they were in and she knew every one of them had started with grass before moving on to

heavier stuff. And the heavy stuff brought with it other problems, like AIDs. Heroin was big at

school and readily available off post but the needles scared Kirsten to death. Tommy hadn't done

that yet, at least as far as she knew. She didn't ask, but she always covertly checked his arms for

any sign that he might have used a needle. She loved him but she wasn’t willing to die for her


        Tommy lit the joint and took a deep drag. He offered it to her, but she declined by taking

another deep gulp of her beer. He didn't push. They'd talked about it before and tonight, with his

departure looming in a week; it just wasn't worth talking about any more. She felt a rush of

sadness and pulled Tommy closer.

        A shadow passing by the window caught the corner of her eye and she stiffened.

        "Hey!" Tommy exclaimed, trying to dig her fingers out of his shoulder.

        "Someone's out there," Kirsten whispered.
       Tommy looked out the window. The courtyard was empty, lit by the glow of a half-

moon. "I don't see anyone."

       "I did," she insisted.

       "Well, someone could be up here. You know someone from school."

       Kirsten shook her head. "I don't want to be here. Let's leave. Please."

       She felt Tommy stiffen. "We just got here. We've got more beer and . . ."

       His voice trailed off but she knew the rest of the sentence. The condom in his pocket

wasn't going home unopened if he could help it.

       Something moved outside again. This time she was positive it was a man. "There!" she


       Tommy forgot about the condom momentarily. "I see him."

       The figure was medium height, a dark shadow in the courtyard, standing about forty feet

away. A brief glow, the person had lit a cigarette, then darkness. It was a man, not one of their

friends, Kirsten knew that but she could discern no details. Average height, slender build,

dressed in dark clothes. His hands had glittered strangely in the brief glow of the lighter.

       "Let's get out of here," she whispered once more.

       "He'll see us. Maybe he's an MP," Tommy said.

       "He's not an MP."

       "How do you know?"

       "He'd have a helmet on. A uniform."

       "Maybe he's Polizie."

       "He's not Polizie,” Kirsten was certain. “If he was Polizie he'd be in here already. Besides

they don't come up here."
        Kirsten felt the man already knew that she and Tommy were in here and he was waiting

on them. She couldn't see his eyes, but suddenly, staring at him, she felt colder than she'd been

all evening.

        "Shit," Tommy muttered, standing up, the blanket falling off his shoulders. He played

defensive tackle on the school team and topped out at six feet and a hundred and ninety pounds.

The figure in the courtyard didn't scare him. "I'll see who it is."

        "Stay here," Kirsten said, grabbing his hand.

        Her plea only served to irritate Tommy. "First you want to leave, now you want to stay.

Shit, Kirsten, we can't do anything with this guy standing around."

        "Let's just wait till he leaves," she said.

        "We don't have all night. I need to have the car back by midnight," Tommy said. He

pulled his hand free with more force than was necessary and walked to the door. He stepped out

and the door swung shut behind him.

        Kirsten was frozen. She knew she should follow, but she couldn't move. She heard

muffled voices, then silence. Footsteps approached the door. It swung open and her eyes fixed on

the figure that was silhouetted in the frame. Smaller than Tommy. The glint of eyes staring at her

froze her breath.

        "Where's Tommy?

        The man smiled, even white teeth showing in the shadowed face. "Busy."

        "Busy doing what?" Kirsten found control of her muscles and slowly got to her feet. She

still held the blanket tight, arms crossed in front of her chest.

        "Drugs." The voice was odd, without an accent, definitely not a German who had learned

English. Maybe American, but she couldn't place it and she had met people from all over the
states in her travels. There was a faint southern tint but it didn't seem right. There was also a

quality to it, as if the man had a cold and his nose was stuffed up.

         "What do you mean?"

         "It seems," the man said, now stepping into the room, "that your boyfriend would rather

do cocaine out there than be in here with a pretty young woman like yourself."

         Kirsten looked out into the courtyard, past him. In the small part she could see there was

no sign of Tommy. He wouldn't just leave her like this. She took a step backward. "What do you


         The man's smile hadn't abated. He held out a hand. "Would you like some?"

         There was small vial in his palm. It glittered in the light, made of some expensive metal.

Kirsten could now see that there were rings on each finger, numerous jewels reflecting the scant


         "I don't do drugs."

         The man pointed at her beer can and sniffed the air where the odor of the joint was still

noticeable. "Come now." His hand was still out.

         "I don't do drugs," she repeated. "I'm going now."

         She started for the door, but the man didn't move and she stopped before making contact.


         Kirsten felt the single word hit her harder than if he'd struck her with a fist. She backed


         I highly recommend what is in here,” the man held the vial out to her.

         "What do you want?"

         “Simply for you to party with me.”
       “What do you want?”

       "Would you like to go to a very nice party?" the man asked. "I have transportation to take

us there. We will be back before dawn. It is a party the likes of which I am sure you have never

seen. Very rich people. Very powerful people. A beautiful girl such as yourself, you would do

well to meet such people. You have a special look. I like that.”

       "I don't want to party," Kirsten said, her voice less strong than she would have liked. But

she could feel reality starting to slip away, as if she was watching what was going on in this dirty

room like a bystander. It was beyond the realm of her reality.

       "You were partying in here with that young man. Surely you can do better." He pulled a

ring off and held it out. Here. Take this as a token. There will be much more if you come with


       "Tommy!" Kirsten yelled. She slapped at him and the ring bounced into the darkness of

one of the corners of the room.

       The man's smile was gone, his lips now a dark slash. “Do not yell. It is very impolite."

       "I want to go!" Kirsten insisted. But she didn't move, because he didn't move.

       He put the vial in his shirt pocket. He pulled out a pair of thick gloves and slid them on,

over the rings on his fingers. His hand went to his waist and pulled out a knife. A long, strangely

curved knife.

       "Would you like to go to my party?" he asked in the same even voice. “Make your

decision now.”

       "No," Kirsten whispered.

       "You are very stupid," the man said. "You could have a very nice time. Others have."

       "I want to go home."
          "Last chance."

          "I want to go home. Please."

          "Drop the blanket.”

          Kirsten’s fingers tightened on the rough wool.

          “Drop the blanket and we will go into the courtyard and talk with your friend.”

          Kirsten forced herself to let go of the blanket.

          The smile was back on his face. “Very good. Now, come with me.”

          “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

          “Last chance,” the man said. “Come with me.”

          Kirsten backed up. “No.”

          “Then we will do this another way. Either way, it will be done.” The man's voice was

irritated. “Take your clothes off."

          "No," she said in a low voice.

          "To this you have no choice," he said. "You will either take them off and live or I will kill

you with them on. Do as I say and you will not be hurt."

          Kirsten believed him, at least that he would kill her if she didn't strip. She stared at the

blade, trying to see if there was blood on it, Tommy's blood, but it seemed to be clean, the blade

clearly reflecting a sliver of moonlight.

          The man took one step forward. "Now."

          She hesitated and the blade flashed in front of her and she gasped as a line of fire ran

down the left side of her face. She reached a hand up and pulled it away. It was covered in blood.

          "Nothing major," the man said. "It will heal. Do as I say and we won't have to do that

       Kirsten pulled her sweater off. She watched her own fingers unbuttoning her blouse,

surprised in a distant sort of way how steady they were. Why weren't they shaking? She

wondered. She could feel dampness on her cheek but no pain.

       She was wearing a black bra, a decision she had made knowing that Tommy and her

would be coming up here and how much he liked it and also how he could handle unhooking it

in the front. Tommy had gotten very frustrated and embarrassed when he couldn't unhook one of

her other ones and his resulting anger, trying to cover for his real feelings had ruined the

evening. So she'd worn this one so the evening wouldn't be ruined.

       She unhooked it. The cloth fell away, exposing her small, pointy breasts. The man had

not moved again once she started undressing and there was no sign that he took any interest in

her nakedness as she pulled her jeans down. She unbuckled her belt and unzipped her jeans, then

pushed them down before pausing. She'd forgotten to take her sneakers off and her jeans were

bunched at her feet.

       "Go to the window," the man said.

       She bent over to pull her sneakers off, but the man repeated his order.

       "Go the window. Now!"

       She shuffled over, arms crossed on her chest, until she was facing the window.She could

feel goosebumps on her naked skin. She could see the entire courtyard now and she saw a dark

lump on the ground about thirty feet away. Tommy! He wasn't moving.

       "Put your hands on the window sill."

       She could tell from the voice that he was right behind her. She put her palms on the

grimy wood.

       She flinched as she felt the point of the knife touch the outside of her left hip.
       "Back with your feet."

       She shuffled her feet back until the knife point on her left buttock stopped her. Now she

couldn't move, half-bent over, her weight caught between her feet and her hands on the sill. She

didn't know it, but it was the way police and counter-terrorism experts were taught to search a

suspect, putting them in a position where if they removed either hand from their forward support,

they would fall over.

       She heard some noises behind her. She knew she was going to be raped. Beyond that, her

mind refused to go. She focused on Tommy's body, lying on the stones. Was he dead?

       Something looped over her head and she gasped. Just what the man had wanted as he

tightened her blouse down over her mouth. She felt the cloth with her tongue as he tied a knot on

the back of her head. She panicked, sucking air in through her nose.

       Then she felt a hand on her rear, holding her steady. She could even feel the rings, the

bands pressing against her. She closed her eyes. Tommy and her had used this position before

and she knew what to expect.

       Or so she thought. She gasped with pain as the man's cock rammed up against her anus.

Tears flowed as he vigorously pushed in. Tommy had never done this and she felt as if she'd

been skewered. Through her pain, one thought flashed: did this man have AIDS?

       She opened her eyes and blinked out the tears. Her heart jumped. She saw Tommy move.

An arm stretching out, then the body twitching and shaking.

       The man behind her was slamming against her and she had to hold on with all her

strength to avoid going down to her knees. She could feel the flat steel of his knife slapping

against her right side with every stroke. The pain of his thrusts was terrible but also distant in a

strange way.
       Tommy was on his knees now, shaking his head. She could see darkness on his face.

Blood. Tommy stood and peered about, getting his bearing. Kirsten tried to scream but the sound

was caught in her blouse and all that came forth was a mewling noise.

       Tommy froze, his eyes locked into the window. Kirsten met his gaze and she knew he

saw her. Saw what was happening to her and the blood on her own face. Tommy looked about,

then picked up a piece of two by four and came striding forward.

       Kirsten wanted to look over her shoulder and see if the man had spotted Tommy but she

dared not. There was no sign that he had as his rhythm was getting faster, his breathing rough.

       Tommy was ten feet away now. Five feet. She could see his face, the anger on it. The

blood running down one side.

       Then Tommy's head exploded, blood and brain bursting forth, splattering Kirsten with

gore. Half of the head was gone as the body tumbled forward lifeless to lie right below her,

outside the window sill.

       The man had begun coming as Tommy's body fell. The man slammed against Kirsten,

pinning her against the window sill, grunting in pleasure. She hardly noticed, what sanity she had

left focused entirely on Tommy's body. There had been no sound of a shot, but there was no

doubt in her mind that that was what had happened. She looked up, across the courtyard, but

could see nothing. It was like a movie, unreal. Tommy had fallen in slow motion. Even the pain

in her rear was so far away now.

       A voice-- a man’s voice-- echoed in the courtyard, coming from the other side, calling

out to the man behind her in a strange tongue, one she had never heard before.

       She barely felt his hand reaching around her, his body pressed even more tightly against

her back. The hand had the vial in it and the lid was off. He pressed it against her nostrils. With
her mouth gagged, her next breath in sucked up the contents.

        She felt the man step back from her, the cool evening air against her naked back. Then a

spear of pain pierced her from the base of her skull to small of her back. Her body snapped

upright so quickly, bones cracked. She struggled for air but her lungs wouldn’t work. Her eyes

bulged forward, blood seeping out around the edges. Her fingers grabbed at the dirty window sill

so hard her nails broke, leaving bloody streaks on the wood.

        Kirsten’s body convulsed forward, slamming her neck down onto the broken glass still in

the window, her neck severed. She slumped forward, hanging over the sill. A small, unnaturally

small, trickle of blood came out of the severed carotid artery, dripping down onto Tommy's

body, the last thing her bulging eyes saw being the splintered bone and scrambled brains that had

been part of her boyfriend's head.

        The man had watched all this while zipping his pants up and putting his knife back in the

sheath. He looked at the vial in his hand and carefully screwed the top on. Then he placed the

vial back in his pocket. He removed the gloves and tossed them away. Reaching up, he pulled a

set of filters out of his nostrils, placing them back in a case.

        Using the jeans wadded between her legs, the man lifted Kirsten's legs and pushed her

over the sill, her body falling onto Tommy's. He walked out the door.

        He looked up into the shadows of the inner castle wall as the voice called out to him in

the same foreign tongue. “It worked?”

        The man pulled the zipper on his jacket tight against his throat, shivering from the chill

German evening and the damp air. “Yes.”

        The owner of the voice appeared, a tall man, broad in the shoulders, a rifle in his hands,

as he walked down the stone steps from the inside rampart. He twisted a screw just forward of
the magazine well on the weapon and the barrel was released. He slipped the barrel inside his

jacket, hanging it on a hook sewn into the material. The stock went on the other side.

          He looked at the two bodies. “Not much blood,” he noted.

          “It acted quickly,” the man with the rings said. “I think she was dead before she hit the


          “You’re certain it worked?” the other man sounded irritated.

          “It worked.”

          “You couldn’t have just--: the other began, but the small man cut him off.

          “It worked.”

          “All right.” The second man glanced at an expensive watch. “The meet is scheduled in

forty-five minutes. You cut it close.”

          “The meet,” the first man spit. “I am tired of doing his dirty work. Why must we do his


          “Because he tells us to.”

          “One of these days . . .” the first man let the sentence trail off, incomplete.

          The second man extracted a pistol from inside his large coat. He pulled the slide back,

chambering a round, then handed it to the other.

          “Why do I need this?”

          “Because now we are dealing with dangerous men, now, not children.” The man looked

about. “I feel something.” His eyes searched the dark ramparts. “Someone.”

          “Let us go then.”

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