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
Near the left edge of the sandy bowl, half-concealed by a small patch of brush, he saw Leonard working the bolt of his rifle, chambering another round. Only his head and shoulders could be seen. Nathan took one click off the elevation knob and steadied his rifle.
* * *
Sudden realization hit Leonard. Hit him hard. If McBride had been a Marine scout sniper, there was no way in hell he’d be sloppy enough to reveal his position by bumping against a bush, firing handgun shots, and letting his field glasses show.
He chambered another round and scanned left and right for the real Nathan McBride.
Assuming McBride had fired the handgun at arm’s length, he searched both sides of the fallen trunk but saw nothing until a very slow movement caught his eye on the left edge of his scope, farther and higher than he had imagined McBride could be.
He centered the crosshairs on the movement and felt a chill rake his body.
Well-concealed near the top of an enormous root ball, Nathan McBride was lined up on him.
The movement he’d seen was McBride’s left hand, waving good-bye.
In slow motion, he saw McBride’s rifle wink.
Half a second after the muzzle flash burned his retina, he sensed an impact on his forehead.
* * *
Nathan’s rifle bucked against his shoulder, but he hadn’t anticipated the level of agony it would cause. His vision grayed, then quit altogether. Blind and helpless, sudden dizziness and nausea hammered him. He remembered this sickening feeling well, recalled it with hideous clarity from his days spent in a Nicaraguan cage. He was seconds from passing out. How high was he perched in this root ball? Five or six feet? High enough to snap his neck on impact. As gravity pulled him headfirst toward the ground, his right leg slipped and hung up in the interior root tangle.
He felt and heard his shinbones snap.
Tib-fib. One-two. Oh man, that’s a bad deal.
I’m so sorry, Harv. Sorry I let you down.…
Just before his head struck the earth, Nathan Daniel McBride closed his eyes, and for the second time in his life, waited for the mercy of death to take him.
“ETA one minute,” General Mansfield said.
Flanked by two Black Hawks, Harvey flew Nathan’s Bell 407 toward the canyon. Sitting next to him, Mansfield was coordinating the approach as the V-shaped formation of helicopters screamed over the town of Dupuyer. Harvey glanced at his watch, early by nearly twenty minutes. Nathan would just have to deal with it. No way in hell Harvey was waiting the entire two hours.
“We don’t know what to expect up there,” Harvey said. “We could take ground fire from Bridgestone. He could do some real damage with a sniper rifle.”
“That’s true, but if your partner is still alive, Bridgestone won’t fire his weapon and give away his location. We don’t have a lot of options at this point. I’m not willing to put men on the ground until we know what’s going on.”
“Agreed,” Harvey said. “We’ll be lucky to see anything at all. If they’re engaged in a sniper fight, we won’t see either of them.”
“We should make a pass down the length of the canyon. Either McBride will signal us, or Bridgestone will shoot us. I hate to say this, but if Bridgestone managed to kill McBride, he might be long gone and it might be difficult to find your partner down there.”
Harvey didn’t want to think about that possibility. “Let’s have your two birds fly the southern and northern rims of the canyon while we fly down the middle.”
“Good plan.” Mansfield passed the orders along.
The three helicopters cleared the canyon’s rim and flew directly over the original landing zone where Nathan had set down. The Black Hawk on Harvey’s right peeled off to fly the north rim of the canyon. The Black Hawk on the port side made a similar maneuver toward the south rim. Harvey slowed the Bell and expertly followed the canyon’s streambed at thirty knots.
When he rounded the last horseshoe bend and had the rock spire in sight, the radio crackled to life. “
Civilian Delta, Rescue Alpha has a man down on the south rim. He looks dead.
Before Mansfield could respond, Harvey pulled the transmit trigger. “Rescue Alpha, what is the downed man wearing?” Harvey looked up to his right where the Black Hawk was orbiting in a tight circle above a bowl-shaped sandy formation on the rim.
“Can’t say for sure, but it looks like digital desert.”
Harvey felt relief wash over him. “Do you see anyone else? Our man is wearing woodland MARPAT under a ghillie suit.”
“Negative, the casualty isn’t wearing a ghillie suit.”
“I’m going up there,” Harvey said. He applied collective and climbed to the rim of the canyon. Fifty yards south of Leonard’s body, he saw a sandy patch of clear ground surrounded by waist-high brush. He taxied over, made a landing, and throttled the RPM down. “I’ll be right back. You’ve got her?”
“I’ve got her,” Mansfield confirmed.
Harvey climbed out and sprinted across the rocky terrain, weaving his way through the brush and larger rocks littering the landscape. Overhead, the loud roar of the orbiting helicopter drowned out the Bell’s engine noise.
Leonard Bridgestone lay facedown at the edge of the canyon’s rim. The back of his head was gone. From the look of things, his rifle had been shouldered when Nate nailed him. Harvey stepped behind Bridgestone and lined up on his position. Bone, scalp, and brain matter had been sprayed across the sand, and from the fan-shaped pattern, Harvey could approximate where the shot had come from. He sighted down Leonard’s body and made a mental note of a huge downed oak near the streambed. Twenty seconds later, Harvey was strapped in and lifting off. When he descended into the canyon, there wasn’t a good place to set her down except the wet sand of the streambed. In the center of the wash, nearly a foot of water still flowed.
“General, can one of your pilots test this LZ before I set her down? I don’t have enough experience to try it.”
“No problem.” Mansfield called Rescue Bravo down to their location and ordered it to check the stability of the sand near the bank of the stream.
Harvey taxied Nathan’s Bell away from the LZ so the Black Hawk could take his place. Thirty seconds later, the Air Force helicopter was hovering over the moist sand. Its pilot carefully settled onto the wet surface, gradually putting more and more weight onto its skids until it was fully down. The skids sunk only a few inches into the wet sand before stopping.
The pilot radioed the results before lifting off again. “You’re good to go, Civilian Delta. Shouldn’t be a problem lifting off again.”
Mansfield cut in. “Rescue Bravo, set down and prepare for a medevac.”
Harvey hovered over, set the ship down, and started the shutdown procedure. Since General Mansfield was coming with him, he didn’t want to risk the helicopter vibrating itself down into the moist sand by leaving its engine idling. It took an endless two-and-a-half minutes before the engine was cool enough to cut its fuel for shut down.
“Nice landing,” Mansfield said. “Not bad for someone without a rating. Let’s go find your friend.”
With General Mansfield following, Harvey thrashed his way through the brush at the creek’s northern bank and approached the fallen oak, but Nathan wasn’t here. Panicked, he looked around. Nothing. But this had to be the place. Then he saw something, something out of place. Nathan’s Predator knife, sticking straight up with its blade driven into a large branch attached to the fallen tree trunk. Harvey approached the knife and saw Nathan’s Sig Sauer handgun tied to the top of the same branch. He frowned. A fishing line was attached to the trigger and looped around the butt of the knife. On the ground next to the branch lay Nathan’s ghillie suit with a crude wooden cross inside. A broken pair of field glasses was attached to the crosspiece. A second fishing line, also attached to the crosspiece, was cleverly looped through a V-shaped area of one of the fallen oak’s branches. Harvey now knew that Nathan had set up a dummy decoy, and from the look of the shattered binoculars, Leonard had taken the bait.
From over Harvey’s shoulder, General Mansfield looked at the setup and whispered, “I’ll be damned.”
The two fishing lines were running out to the southeast, following the trunk of the fallen tree. Harvey worked his way along its length, maneuvering himself over and under dead branches until he saw a prone leg and combat boot screened by a boulder. He also saw blood, lots of it.
No. Dear God, no!
Harvey ran the remaining distance, thrashing through the underbrush.
His lifelong friend was lying at the base of a huge root ball. Not moving. Two bloody spikes of bone were protruding through the material of his MARPAT just below his right knee. The fabric was soaked with blood, so was his right shirtsleeve and the upper half of his shirt.
“Aw shit, Nathan.” He crouched down and held Nathan’s head with his hands. “You can’t be dead. You can’t be.”
Nathan spoke without opening his eyes. “Harv, what the hell are you doing? You’re gonna give General Mansfield the wrong idea.”
“Damn you, Nate, you scared the shit outta me.”
“I feel terrible.”
“You look terrible.”
“Yeah, she’s gonna make it. You were right about her. She’s tough as nails.”
Nathan slowly brought his left arm up and looked at his watch, then let it fall. “You’re early.”
“So sue me.”
“Did I get Leonard?”
“Yeah, you got him.”
Nathan managed a smile. “It’s over, then?”
“Yeah, it’s over.”
Sharing a hospital room in Great Falls, Montana, Nathan McBride and Special Agent Grangeland were tired of watching the TV coverage.
FBI Director Ethan Lansing got his headline as promised. The two men at the top of his most-wanted list were dead, thanks to the highly trained professionals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In particular, to Special Agent Mary F. Grangeland, who was recovering from a gunshot wound received in the line of duty during the engagement against the Bridgestones in a remote area of western Montana. Every network covered the story. As a bonus, three million dollars in cash had been recovered from the scene, along with the balance of the missing Semtex.
Grangeland had insisted she be roomed with Nathan, even though hospital policy stated such male-female room assignments were against hospital policy. She didn’t care and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
After being stabilized in the emergency room, Grangeland had undergone emergency surgery to remove a ruptured gallbladder and repair a torn liver. Even though much of its kinetic energy had been absorbed by the ballistic vest, Leonard’s bullet had still passed through, missing her heart and lungs by less than two inches. Connected to machines monitoring every aspect of her bodily functions, Grangeland was outwardly in good spirits, but Nathan knew otherwise. This Ortega business had claimed another victim—alive, but another victim just the same.
Although Nathan’s upper bicep injury wasn’t serious enough to keep him in the hospital more than one night, the compound fractures of both his tibia and fibula were. Besides, he wasn’t going anywhere until Grangeland got back on her feet.
“It’s funny,” Nathan said to her. “I never knew your first name until now.”
“You never asked. I just thought of something horrible,” she said.
“What?” asked Nathan.
“Did James Ortega know the truth going in, or did he find out under torture?”
Nathan looked at Harv. “I hope he knew going in. Try to imagine what learning the truth under those circumstances would’ve been like.”
“It’s hard to think about,” she said.
Nathan spoke quietly. “I don’t hate Frank Ortega for what he and Lansing did. And technically speaking, they didn’t do anything illegal. Let’s all keep that in mind.”
Everyone fell silent for a moment.
“You know,” Grangeland said, “you guys don’t have to stay here and babysit me.” She looked at Nathan. “The doctor gave you your walking papers yesterday.”
“You trying to get rid of me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Good, ’cause I’m not going anywhere until Harv gets us that pizza he promised.” Nathan felt a little better now. At least he had Grangeland and Harv smiling again.
“Then will you leave?” She gave him an innocent look.
“You know, Grangeland, making comments like that is what keeps our relationship healthy.”
* * *
Nathan stayed with Grangeland for another day, grateful for the time off his feet. After Grangeland’s near-constant reassurances she was okay, he and Harv left Great Falls. Because Nathan’s right leg was in a fiberglass cast from knee to ankle without a rubber walker on the bottom, Harv did all of the flying back to Sacramento. In another week, Nathan’s cast would be replaced with a walking version. But for now, he had to avoid putting weight on it. On the flight south, he had to admit Harv seemed quite comfortable in the right seat, amazed what a few solo flights had done to boost his friend’s confidence. After landing at Sacramento Executive Airport, they rented a Taurus and Harv drove Nathan to Sutter Hospital under a deepening twilight sky. Harv dropped him off at the main entrance and said he’d be back in half an hour. Nathan used his aluminum crutches to maneuver himself through the automatic doors. Once inside, he diverted over to the gift shop for a quick purchase. It didn’t feel right visiting Holly empty-handed.
As he hobbled his way toward Holly’s room, his cell rang.
“Nathan, it’s your father.”
“Hi Dad, is everything okay?”
“I’m just leaving for a meeting with the president on this Bridgestone business.”
“You’re working late again.”
“Damage control. I’ve only got a minute, but I wanted to talk with you first.”
“I’m hoping to close the book on it.”
“Fine by me,” Nathan said. “Harv and I aren’t planning to do anything, if that’s what you mean.”
“Not everyone would take that position. You were nearly killed.”