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
Now less than two body lengths away, the animal kept coming. Being concealed in his ghillie suit didn’t matter. The cat’s eyes weren’t guiding it.
Something else shot through his mind. Movement. The cat was a damning source of movement, and movement is what catches the eye.
* * *
From deep shadow on the south rim of the canyon, Leonard followed the lion through his rifle scope and smiled. It seemed to be following an invisible scent. Quite possibly his opponent. He watched the animal pace the length of a fallen log and approach the edge of a dry streambed that fed the larger stream in the middle of the canyon. It froze for a few seconds before stepping out into the sand.
* * *
If Nathan were going to shoot this lion, he’d better do it within the next two seconds while he still had the angle to manage the shot from the hip. If he wasn’t precise with his aim, he could easily blow a hole in his own foot. Damn it, he didn’t want to kill such a magnificent predator. In many ways, they were just alike, but his own survival and that of Harv’s took priority. He also knew as soon as he pulled the trigger his cover was blown because if his first shot wasn’t fatal or severely crippling, he’d have to shoot the animal a second time, and possibly a third. The first report would alert Leonard to his general location, but the second and third reports would pinpoint him. He might was well stand up and wave a flag.
Both his options were equally unpleasant.
He could lie here and be mauled to death, literally eaten alive or he could shoot the cat, and in turn be shot himself. All things being equal, he preferred the second option, but it had already expired. The animal was directly beside him now, he no longer had the angle to shoot it.
He heard the sound of its paws on the sand.
He buried his face into his shoulder and stopped breathing. If he played dead, maybe it would lose interest and move on. Deep down, he knew it was wishful thinking. A mountain lion will just as soon scavenge for food than hunt it.
The cat brought its face to within inches of Nathan’s head.
Its hot breath penetrated the strips of his ghillie suit and brushed the skin on his neck.
It issued a low, growling murmur deep in its throat as it realized it had found the source of the fresh blood. An easy meal.
The cat issued a second, more forceful growl and jabbed Nathan’s neck with a paw. It was funny what the human mind was capable of thinking at times like these. With bizarre detachment, Nathan thanked God it had missed his wounded arm, but that thought died when he felt cool air on his skin. The cat’s jab had opened a hole in his ghillie suit.
The animal pushed again. Harder.
His lungs screaming for air, Nathan continued to play dead. If things kept going like this, he wouldn’t have to play dead.
When he felt the cat’s sandpaper tongue lick the back of his exposed neck, he’d had enough.
With as much strength as he could muster, he simultaneously issued a war cry, the loudest, most fierce sound he could make. He snapped his body to the left and cracked the cat in the nose with the butt of his gun.
* * *
Leonard watched the animal traverse the sand and stop at some sort of low shrub. It lowered its head and sniffed. Had it lost the scent? If it had been following someone, where were the tracks? Looking for human footprints, he swung his scope back to the edge of the underbrush where the cat had emerged, cranked it to maximum zoom, but saw only the cat’s footprints.
At the left edge of Leonard’s magnified image, he caught sudden movement. He swung the rifle back. “What the fuck?” he said aloud. The mountain lion jumped six feet into the air. When it landed, it bolted away from the shrub at a full gallop.
The shrub went vertical and began sprinting across the sand. Not a shrub, a ghillie suit and a damned fine one at that. “Oh, you’re good,” Leonard said. He placed the crosshairs slightly ahead of the green mass.
And pulled the trigger.
* * *
Nathan’s timing had to be perfect. He needed to vary his speed as he ran. Now! Five feet from the safety of cover, he hit the brakes and nearly skidded to a stop. A split-second later, he heard the telltale crack of a supersonic arrival. Out in front to his right, the sand exploded from the impact. If he’d kept running at the same speed… Using his left hand, he pointed the Sig at the ground slightly left and ahead of his path and fired five shots. The sand burst into the air. It wasn’t much cover, but it would have to do. He dived into the underbrush on the opposite side of the wash and scrambled behind the thick trunk of an oak. He pressed his back against its form as a second bullet tore past his position on the left.
* * *
Leonard missed. Before he could reacquire, the sand in front of his target erupted, obscuring his view. He heard five quick pops, like firecrackers going off, and knew his mark had fired a handgun into the sand to provide a smoke-like screen. Clever move. In combination with his motion and the irregularly shaped ghillie suit, it worked. Estimating where he thought his target would be, Leonard sent another bullet before pulling back to relocate.
* * *
Harvey heard the report of the rifle roll down the canyon in a crackling reverberation that lasted for nearly five seconds. Then he heard five quick handgun shots. A few seconds later, he heard a second rifle shot. What the hell was going on?
The tiny speaker in his ear went off. “Five-by-five, Harv. Stay down, he’s on the south rim. I’m coming to you.”
* * *
As Nathan made his way upstream along the tree-covered bank toward Harv’s position, the small speaker in his ear came to life. “
That was some trick with the mountain lion. How’d you manage it?
Nathan instantly knew who it was. “The money’s not worth it. Walk away.”
“Fat chance.” A short pause, then, “You leaving her there to die?”
Nathan saw no point in responding to that.
“The shot isn’t immediately fatal,” said Leonard. “But the longer she lies there…. Well, you get the picture. I guess you have a decision to make, don’t you?”
Nathan clenched his teeth and felt rage begin to boil again. Leonard Bridgestone had purposely gut-shot Grangeland. He couldn’t let Leonard know how much saving her
life meant. He had to play it cool. If he showed even the slightest concern, it would both embolden and empower his enemy. Choosing his words carefully and grateful Grangeland no longer had her radio, he called Leonard’s bluff.
“She’s nothing to me. I’ll sacrifice her before I let you walk.”
“Bullshit. She’s a looker. I can’t imagine you didn’t notice that.”
Nathan could feel the tension building. He had to turn it back on Leonard. “Speaking of sacrifices, why’d you serve Ernie up?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know damned well what I’m talking about. You placed him where you knew I’d nail him.”
Leonard didn’t respond right away. “
Was it that obvious?
“He was your brother. How could you do it?”
“He gave me up, I could never trust him again.”
“He gave you up under torture. But that’s not the real reason, is it?”
“Is your love of money so perverse that you’d feed your own brother to the wolves to keep it all yourself?”
“The way I figure it, you did him a favor. Did the world a favor.”
“What’s the matter, Lenny, you don’t have the balls to clean up your own mess?”
“I used him rather than waste him. I might have found you from the shot you took. You got lucky, McBride.”
“You’ll never leave here with your money. I’ll make sure it gets donated to charity. How about the Purple Heart Fund? You’ve got two of them, don’t you?”
“Give my regards to Ernie when you see him in hell.” Nathan turned off his radio.
* * *
Fifty yards from Harv’s position, Nathan issued his signature warbling whistle. Harv returned it and he worked his way up to his partner’s hiding place.
“Damn, it’s good to see your sorry ass,” Harv said as Nathan crouched down beside him.
“Sorry I’m late, I had an argument with a local.”
“I heard your exchange with Leonard. A mountain lion?”
“Tell you about it later.”
“Is Grangeland alive?” Harv asked.
“Yeah. I saw her moving. There’s no way to know the extent of her wound.”
“We can’t let her die, Harv. Getting Leonard isn’t worth her life.”
“Yeah, but she might die anyway. Or he might go ahead and kill her. He served up his own brother on a silver platter.”
“Here’s the plan. I’ll create a distraction down here and bring Leonard to my position while you work your way back to Grangeland and fly her out of here. He can’t be in two places at once. If he’s on this end of the canyon, he can’t be watching the chopper.”
“I can’t leave you out here alone. And I’ve never flown that thing solo.”
“Harv, I have to kill him. He’s still got a lot of Semtex. We can’t risk him coming after us, or worse, coming after your family. You know that. You’ve got dozens of takeoffs and landings under your belt. You’re ready. Use the checklist for startup. Get her light on the skids before you lift off. You can do it.”
“It feels like I’m abandoning you. You’re bleeding bad.”
“You’re saving Grangeland’s life. I’ll be okay. Leonard doesn’t stand a chance against me. He has to die, Harv. For your family’s sake.”
“Promise me you won’t follow me up that canyon and cover my ass at your own expense again.”
“Here, take four of my Sig mags. I won’t need them and you just might.”
Nathan stuffed them into his pockets. “Better give me the spool of fishing line from your backpack and your Predator knife too.”
Harv turned around so Nathan could dig the spool out. Harv then bent down and removed his ankle sheath and handed it to Nathan. Nathan strapped it onto his good left ankle.
“How long do you need before I call in the cavalry?” Harv asked
“Give me two hours from the time you turn the ignition. Worry about Grangeland, not me.”
“You won’t last two hours. You’re slowly bleeding out.”
“I’ll be fine. Get Grangeland to a hospital, Harv. Land directly on its helicopter pad.”
“Go on. No long good-byes.”
He smiled. “Get going. You’ll hear me popping off shots to bring Leonard down here. Be careful traversing that sand wash.”
“Nail his ass, Nate.”
“You can count on it.”
Nathan turned his radio on and pressed the transmit button. Distraction time. “You copy, Bridgestone?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“You mad at me for the ‘give my regards in hell’ comment?”
“Naw, it seemed appropriate at the time.” Bridgestone stayed quiet for a moment. “What’s your story, McBride? Why do you give a shit? Why risk your life over this?”
“Maybe it’s the good-versus-evil thing. Maybe I’m curious to know if good truly is stronger than evil.”
“Well, the last I checked, I didn’t murder twenty-four innocent people sitting at their desks.”
Nathan popped off two quick rounds at nothing. “Gotta go.”
“What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”
“You’ve got a quick wit, better hope you’re as fast with that rifle.”
“You’d better be. We’ll see you at your money stash.” Nathan had purposely said
. He turned off the radio, popped off two more shots, and moved away downstream. So far, so good. If Leonard was on the move, he couldn’t be stationary and actively looking for Harv. At best, all Leonard could do was stop every so often and make a quick sweep of the canyon. He’d never see Harv that way. Harv was too good.
Nathan took slow, deliberate steps through the underbrush, glancing over his shoulder for the cat. He knew the scent of his blood remained strong. Although he believed the animal to be long gone, he wasn’t willing to bet his life on it.
He estimated another five hundred yards or so before he had any chance of seeing the rock spire at the money stash. Up ahead, he saw where the canyon made a horseshoe turn to the north and knew the spire was around that bend on the right side. If he were Leonard, he’d pick a spot within three hundred yards of the spire, probably on this side of it, set up shop, and wait for his opponent to come to him. One thing was certain: Leonard had the speed advantage, even if Nathan chose to throw caution to the wind. His calf was killing him, almost as painful as his arm, but it wasn’t losing as much blood. The blood loss from his arm would soon become a concern.
Leonard had quickness on his side. In truth, he could run downstream along the southern rim of the canyon as long as he stayed back from the lip. Nathan wondered if Leonard would have time to retrieve the money before he even got there. Three million bucks in cash, just sitting out here, in the middle of nowhere. It seemed bizarre and hardly believable, but Leonard’s presence confirmed it. He was here to collect his cash, his lifetime’s worth of savings.
Nathan smiled, feeling a certain satisfaction at denying the murderer his money, but the smile vanished.
, he told himself.
Keep your head in the game
. As he dropped down to crawl through a section of low underbrush, he wondered how close Harv was to the chopper. They’d parted company… what? Twenty minutes ago? He should’ve looked at his watch. That omission had been careless. Maybe he was more injured than he cared to admit. He knew blood loss would soon take its toll in the form of shivers, nausea, and shock. He needed to end this battle. And end it soon. The early symptoms of shock were already evident. He had trouble concentrating and felt a little chilled. How long until his symptoms became crippling? Half an hour? Less? He doubted he’d last the two hours he’d asked for.
Approaching the horseshoe bend in the canyon, Nathan slowed his pace even more. He had to. The going was tough and he had to be careful not to disturb any of the tall stalks as he wove his way through. The good thing was that the growth was so dense here, he couldn’t see the canyon’s southern rim at all. Which meant he couldn’t be seen either. Step after step, he moved with slow precision, always watching where he placed his boots. A snapped twig or a patch of quicksand could ruin his day. He hoped he wouldn’t flush any birds either. Leonard could be twenty feet away and he wouldn’t be able to see him, but he would be able to hear him.