Authors: Andrew Peterson
Tags: #Snipers - United States, #Mystery & Detective, #Intelligence Officers - United States, #Intelligence Officers, #Fiction, #Suspense Fiction, #Undercover Operations - United States, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Undercover Operations, #General, #Espionage, #Snipers
Two seconds later, an invisible brick smashed her torso at the same instant the air cracked.
She struggled with the truth.
Before blacking out, the last thing she saw was Ernie lean under the helicopter and smile behind his gag.
* * *
The high-power rifle report ripped down the canyon, echoing off thousands of exposed limestone ledges. Nathan and Harvey hit the deck simultaneously.
From the prone position, Nathan whipped around. “Harv!”
“I’m okay. You?”
“Okay.” Nathan pressed the transmit button. “Grangeland, you copy?”
“Grangeland, do you copy?”
“Harv, form up. I think Grangeland’s down.”
Harv ran in a crouch over to Nathan’s position and settled in.
“That was rifle, not a handgun.”
“Agreed,” Harv said.
“I’m going back. Stay here and keep your head down.”
“She’s dead, Nate.”
“I’m going back. Radio silence from now on. We have to assume Grangeland’s radio’s compromised.” Nathan knew changing frequencies was useless: The devices had scanners and would automatically switch to any active channel.
“We should go together.”
“Harv, the endgame is at that rock formation down the canyon. It all comes together there. Ernie will tell Leonard there’s only two of us out here. They’ll try to take us down and recover the money. Leonard knows if he doesn’t get his money now, he never will. He won’t leave without it.”
“Shit,” Harv said.
“I’ll stay on the north side of the canyon and try to flush them down the south side. I doubt Leonard has a ghillie suit, but he’ll be in a woodland combat uniform. Ernie will be easier to see in his civilian clothes. Stay concealed and wait for me.”
“No matter what happens, I won’t leave the north side of the canyon. If you get seen or pinned down, give me three quick shots with the Sig and stay put. I’ll come get you.”
“Nathan.” Harv shook his head. “Man, we’re brothers. Closer. I just want you to know… Aw, shit.…”
Nathan grasped both of Harv’s shoulders. “Keep your head in the game. We’re going to win.” Nathan opened and closed the bolt of his rifle in two crisp movements, chambering a round. “They don’t stand a chance.”
* * *
He forced his mind away from Grangeland and concentrated on stealth. Moving from tree to tree, bush to bush, and boulder to boulder, Nathan worked his way back upstream to the west, always staying in deep shadow. In one sandy streambed feeding the main creek, he had to drop to his belly and crawl across the open ground. He hated being exposed, even though his ghillie suit made him all but invisible. The thirty-foot-wide area of sand offered only thinly scattered buck brush for cover. From the opposite side, he’d have a three-hundred-yard visual look at helicopter through its eastern tree cover. If Grangeland was down, it was good bet Ernie would be long gone. It was also a good bet Ernie would tell Leonard everything he’d seen about his captors. Leonard would now know what kind of weapons they carried, what they were wearing, and the direction they went. He hoped the bastards wouldn’t take time to destroy his helicopter. It was more likely Leonard would make a mad dash, free his brother, and get back into cover as soon as possible.
Once out of the sandy wash, Nathan crawled the last few yards through thick underbrush and oak fallout, being careful not to bump any bushes or dead branches. He also kept an eye out for ants. Crawling through a fire-ant nest was never a good idea. He felt stinging and dampness on his right arm. The stitches had torn and he was bleeding again.
Ignoring the renewed pain in his arm, he cleared his thoughts and put himself into Leonard’s head. I’ll take the high ground on the opposite side of the canyon with the sun to my back. The enemy knows I’m here, he heard my shot. McBride will double back to check on the woman and Ernie. When he approaches the helicopter, I’ll nail him from a bench rested position on the southern rim of the canyon.
Wrong, Leonard. Sorry to disappoint you.
Secured in deep shadow, Nathan slowly brought his rifle up, shouldered the weapon, and flipped the front and rear lens caps up. Three hundred yards distant, Grangeland was down. Her back was to him. He steadied his rifle and tried to determine if she was breathing. He couldn’t tell. She looked like a lifeless heap. Wait… Movement. A slight motion of her left arm. Her hand lifted above the sand for a moment before falling. Nathan kept watching until he saw her move again.
And of course Ernie was gone. Anger began to flare, but he forced it aside and slowly pivoted his rifle through an arc covering a one-hundred-yard radius centered on the helicopter. Nothing. No movement at all. Approaching the helicopter was suicide, an obvious trap. He couldn’t make a mad dash to Grangeland and tend to her. Not against a trained shooter like Leonard.
Gritting his teeth at the fire in his arm and leg, and at Grangeland’s situation, he backed away from his current position and tucked himself behind a fallen log offering solid cover from the south rim of the canyon. He couldn’t leave Grangeland. Nor could he save her. He could almost feel Leonard’s rifle scope sweeping back and forth past his location.
Two can play this game….
Moving with a caterpillar speed, Nathan maneuvered himself into a cross-legged position and bench rested his cloth-wrapped weapon atop the log. He began slow, sweeping scan of the canyon’s opposite rim beyond the helicopter, zigzagging back and forth from the ridge down, concentrating on rocky spots with deep recessed shadow.
There. A flash of white.
Possibly Ernie’s T-shirt. He swung his rifle back and focused on a spot where two huge slabs of fallen limestone formed a narrow triangular area of shadow.
There it was again.
“Got you,” Nathan whispered.
Through his Nikon scope, Nathan watched as Ernie slowly ducked up and down with a pair of field glasses in his good hand and a handheld radio in the wounded hand. The white flash Nathan had seen was the gauze wrapping on Ernie’s hand. Good ol’ Ernie had wisely removed his white T-shirt, but overlooked the gauze.
He turned the elevation knob of the scope, counting ten clicks for a four-hundred-yard, slightly elevated shot. He gauged the wind as calm, maybe two to three miles an hour from the northwest. He’d be shooting into the wind so he didn’t make a correction.
“You’re blowing it,” he whispered to Ernie. “You’re being too regular with your movements.” Every fifteen seconds Ernie would come up from his hiding place, focus on the helicopter for five seconds, and then duck back down.
Nathan placed the crosshairs where Ernie’s head would appear in the next ten seconds and waited.
Ernie didn’t come back up.
Well after the fifteen-second interval had passed, there was still no Ernie. What the hell was he doing? He couldn’t leave the crag of rock without Nathan seeing him. Thirty seconds went by.
Have I been made? Shit. No way. No way Leonard’s seen me. Not in this soldier’s
A full minute.
Patience, he told himself. Breathe in deeply. Let it out slowly. In deep.… Out slowly.…Stay focused. Ernie’s still there, he’ll be back up. Patience.…
After ninety seconds, Nathan had his answer. It was almost as if Ernie had sensed Nathan’s presence, for when he reappeared, the bright white gauze on his hand was gone. But it was too late.
“That’s a bingo,” Nathan whispered.
The Remington 700 bucked against his right shoulder and sent a white-hot jolt of agony through his stitched wound. For a few seconds, his vision blurred and dimmed. When it cleared, he didn’t see Ernie, but he saw what was left of him on the limestone wall behind his hiding place—the unmistakable pattern of a head shot.
“Promise kept,” he whispered. “Marine to Marine.”
Feeling the sudden flood of moisture on his arm, he knew the wound was open. How long did he have before blood loss became a concern? He couldn’t worry about that right now because the struggle had just begun. Removing Ernie was moderately helpful in the battle against Leonard Bridgestone, as much psychologically as logistically, but there was no safe transit past an entrenched sniper. Leonard was playing a waiting game, counting on Nathan’s compassion for Grangeland. Leonard would know his sole means of transport and communication was the helicopter, so his opponent would also be counting on that to draw him into the kill zone.
Sorry to disappoint you, Leonard, but that’s not happening
Nathan saw another way. To reach Grangeland, he’d need to create a diversion, and that meant getting back to Harv. Two against one, they might just pull it off.
Like oozing molasses, Nathan slid himself away from the log, hunkered down behind its cover, and slung his rifle over his shoulder for the return crawl to the east.
Hang in there
Grangeland, we aren’t going to abandon you.
How much time had passed since she’d been shot? Twenty minutes? Thirty? He wasn’t sure. He thought back to the image of her prone form and didn’t recall seeing any blood. She’d been wearing her dark-blue FBI Windbreaker to conceal her piece and her ballistic vest. Her vest was probably the only reason she was still alive. How long did she have?
* * *
Harvey turned his head toward the sound of the shot. “Nathan,” he whispered. Did Leonard just kill Nathan, or did Nathan kill one of them? He considered moving back up the canyon toward the source of the report. Nathan could be down, wounded. Slowly bleeding out. If he stayed put, would he be condemning his lifelong friend to death? He wanted to use the radio, needed to use the radio, but Nathan had called for silence. He weighed the repercussions. Okay, Leonard had Grangeland’s radio, so what? He couldn’t use it to triangulate. The receiving transmission would be silent, coming out of Nathan’s tiny ear speaker.
Decision made, he pressed the transmit button. “Five-by-five?”
A few seconds later, he heard, “Five-by-five. Stay put. I’m coming to you.”
Relief washed over Harvey like warm wind. Although he doubted Leonard possessed Nathan’s shooting skills—only a handful of people in the world did—Leonard could’ve seen Nathan first and in a long-range sniper duel, the shooter who spots his opponent first, wins.
Nothing so simple had ever been more difficult.
* * *
Nathan didn’t blame Harv for breaking radio silence. From a tactical perspective, Harv needed to know he was okay and still in the fight. Had he been killed, Harv would have an agonizing decision to make: Stay and fight and possibly die, or bug out and possibly die. Nathan doubted Leonard would let either of them just fly out of here. Harv was a family man and had more to consider than his own life. But family or not, Harv would never abandon the fight if he knew his partner was still alive, Nathan was certain of that.
Nathan’s plan was simple. Since Leonard couldn’t be in two places at once, he and Harv would separate. He’d head toward the money cache while Harv doubled back to the helicopter. Through a series of purposeful ploys, he planned to lure Leonard to his end of the canyon, leaving Harv free to fly Grangeland to safety. He hoped Harv was ready for his first solo flight.
Setting that thought aside for now, Nathan crawled down the length of the fallen log, shouldered his rifle, and scoped the canyon’s southern wall. Although he had a pair of field glasses, he always used his rifle. If he saw his mark, he was instantly ready to send a bullet. If his opponent was on the move, he didn’t see any evidence of it. The few sandy areas he could see were virgin, lacking discernable footprints. He steeled himself for what lay ahead, that damned thirty-foot expanse of sand and brush. If he were going to get nailed, he knew it would happen out there. It looked as vast as the Sahara Desert, but there was no avoiding it and no way around it. He had to traverse it. Simple as that.
Moving no faster than a foot every five seconds, he started his crawl across the sand.
He ran the math through his head to distract himself from the pain and wet sensation in his arm. Thirty feet times five seconds per foot. One hundred and fifty seconds. Two-and-a-half minutes. That’s not so long really, after all, it’s—
Halfway across the sand, he froze.
Had he heard something behind him?
A crunch of leaves?
If Leonard was back there, he was a sitting duck out here in the open. He knew his ghillie suit transformed him into a shrub, but what about the tracks he left crawling out here? Moving his head slowly, he snuck a look over his right shoulder and was surprised when he didn’t see any deep tracks. He hadn’t remembered brushing them flat with his legs at he moved, but he must have. He’d done it on autopilot, on pure instinct from his old training.
I’ll be damned
, he thought.
There it was again.
A crunch of dried leaves.
He was certain this time.
Staring through the thinly spaced stalks of underbrush, he watched for any sign of movement. Expecting to see a pair of combat boots, a chill raked his spine when he saw the source of the noise.
A mountain lion.
And a damned big one. Two hundred pounds of solid muscle, sharp claws, and yellow ivory was a mere twenty feet away.
Taking slow, deliberate steps, the animal slinked forward with its head low, its eyes searching for the source of blood it smelled. Had the rifle shots awakened it? Nathan knew mountain lions were mostly twilight predators. The rifle shots should’ve spooked it, made it haul ass out of here, but a fresh blood scent triggered a powerful instinct, especially if it was hungry.
When it reached the edge of the fallen log Nathan had traversed a minute earlier, it sniffed the ground and froze. Then it looked him straight at him.
Go away, damn you. Go away!
Like something out of a developing nightmare, it took a step into the sun-bleached sand.
Moving as slowly as humanly possible, he eased his hand down to his gun belt and pulled his Sig Sauer. There was no way to unsling his rifle without significant body movement, which would certainly make the animal charge. It would be upon him in one bound. He searched his database of survival training on encounters with mountain lions.
was at the forefront of his memory.