Authors: M. L. Buchman
Thank you for purchasing this eBook
At Sourcebooks we believe one thing:
BOOKS CHANGE LIVES
We would love to invite you to receive exclusive rewards. Sign up now for VIP savings, bonus content, early access to new ideas we're developing, and sneak peeks at our hottest titles!
Copyright Â© 2016 by M. L. Buchman
Cover and internal design Â© 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Paul Stinson
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systemsâexcept in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviewsâwithout permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
All brand names and product names used in this book are trademarks, registered trademarks, or trade names of their respective holders. Sourcebooks, Inc., is not associated with any product or vendor in this book.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
Also by M. L. Buchman
The Night Stalkers
The Night Is Mine
I Own the Dawn
Wait Until Dark
Take Over at Midnight
Light Up the Night
Bring On the Dusk
By Break of Day
Flash of Fire
Richie Goldman eased back into the darkness.
Most of the Bolivian farmworkers were sitting around the nightly campfire, eating their
âmeat-, veggie-, and quinoa-stuffed pastries. He'd learned to pretend that their food didn't agree with him. It gave him an excuse to duck into the trees frequently, though he'd actually learned to enjoy the local food almost as much as a good New York pastrami on rye.
Some of the farmhands were idly chewing on a strip of
charque de llama
; the llama jerky lasted forever despite the jungle heat. Others chewed on coca leavesâlittle more than a low-grade stimulant in that form, and it grew in lush abundance all across the hillside above their camp. Refined cocaine was too valuable for mere farmers, but chewing the leaves was practically a national pastime. Street vendors had piles of them in all the cities.
Richie had tried it, thinking it would help him fit in, but found the taste so astringent that he had no problem just tucking it in his cheek and only pretending to chew. Others on his team had found similar tricks. Only Duane had flat-out declined, but his formidable silence made it so that he wasn't an easy man to question. The locals let him be.
Once out of the firelight, Richie met up with Duane. That left the other three members of his Delta Force teamâChad, Carla, and the team leader, Kyleâstill at the fire making sure that no one followed them into the darkness.
He and Duane spoke softly in Spanish about nothing in particular as they strolled along the edges of the coca fields they'd been working for the two weeks since their arrival. A thousand hectares, almost five square miles of coca plantation in this farm alone. They'd been building up to this one for six months; it represented almost five percent of Bolivia's coca production. They'd be gone in a few more days.
And that would be the last day of this farm's existence.
Only two more measurements to take. They strolled the edge of the field like a pair of
walking off the day. Their feet were nearly silent on the rich dirt. To one side was thick jungle, with no two trees alike. A massive kapok, a spindly palm, and a fig tree that was bigger than the Goodyear blimp sitting on its butt were crowded together. Beneath them were banana, rubber, and a hundred other small trees he couldn't identify in the dark, but the rich, loamy scent was lush with life. The leaves rustled, whether on the light breeze or due to some passing band of monkeys, he couldn't tell. To the other side, there lay row upon neat row of man-tall coca bushes with their thick leaves ready for harvest.
When they reached the southwest corner of the main field, Richie ducked down low while Duane kept watch. He pulled a GPS tracker out of his boot, checked that he had a valid and stable reading, then recorded the numbers. He slipped it back into his boot, and once more they were just two shadows strolling the line.
The two of them had originally bonded during the six-month training course for The Unitâas Delta Force operators commonly referred to themselves. They had discovered a shared inner nerd over various triggers for different types of explosives, which was Duane's specialty.
the team's chief nerd was Richie's specialty.
Duane's deeply laconic nature made for a very lazy conversation, a rhythm which Richie had come to rather enjoy. It felt as if they blended better into the night that wayâthe occasional bat flitting by with a quick
of wings, the dry grass rustling against their calves, and two guys down on their luck sharing quiet commiseration.
Kyle and Carla were a couple now, and it was rare to have a conversation with one and not the other. And
conversation involving Carla was more like a debate match than a conversation. The lady was intense. Amazing, beautiful, and incredibleâ¦but intense. And Kyle and Carla's relationship was like that too. Richie had never seen anything like it, had never imagined it was possible. When the two of them were together, the day became brighter. His parents had always been his ideal of a good relationship, which was solid and stable, but Kyle and Carla made it look like a heck of a lot of fun too. For the first time, Richie was forced to recalibrate the standards of what he hoped for from his own future.
Chad, on the other hand, talked about women and nothing but. He thought women were great sport, and if he hadn't been so successful with them, Richie would have discounted half of what he said. Chad somehow always ended up with the hot women and seemed to leave every one of them smiling; his successes were short-lived and he claimed that's the way he wanted it. He just didn't have the greatest conversational range on other topics.
Duane was the one most like Richie on the team. They came from professional backgrounds; they both had grown up in nice neighborhoods with good schools, corporate executive fathers, and involved mothersâRichie's was a housewife who did a lot of entertaining in support of Dad's job; Duane's was a family-law attorney. It was almost like he and Duane were related, separated only by New York versus Georgia respectively and an entirely different hereditary line.
“I don't know, brother,” Duane was saying. “How did Chad sweep up Mayra?” They spoke Spanish for both the practice and to protect their cover story.
It wasn't typical of them to discuss women, but Mayra was the hottest, most-built Bolivian beauty they'd seen in the eleven coca farms they'd worked over the last six months. Their Delta team had been quietly roving the countryside, posing as itinerant workersâex-pat Americans down on their luck. Their assignment had been to blend in, precisely map each field's location, and then move on with no one the wiser.
“Chad makes it look so easy.” Richie didn't exactly envy Chad's insane success with women. It was too slick, too casual, and too easily forgotten. But he wouldn't mind having at least a few of those skills himself for when the right woman came alongâso she wouldn't pass on by before he could untie his tongue.
“Maybe he is hung like horse,” a voice said out of the darkness. Rolando faded into view, a battered AK-47 over his shoulder catching the moonlight and an even more worn radio at his hip.
“You got patrol tonight. Sorry,
,” Duane said more easily than Richie could have. Rolando was one of the most dangerous of the coca farm's guards. The others joked that he loved his gun more than his mother.
“No big deal. But I was
close to spreading Mayra.” He held up two fingers so close together the moonlight couldn't slip between them. “Like so before he come along.” Then he shrugged. “Maybe when he gone.”
With Rolando it was hard to read if that meant he was expecting them to just leave or if Rolando was planning to accidently shoot Chad some night soon. Richie reminded himself to tell Chad to watch his back around Rolandoânot that Chad was easy to surprise. He might be a complete womanizer, but he'd also grown up on the wrong side of the Detroit streets.
The first option was unlikely, because once a person came to work on a coca farm, it was very hard to leave. There were hundreds of booby traps set around the perimeter of the fields. They were intended to keep raiders and government men out, but the lethal wall was not far into the jungle and it did just as effective a job of keeping the workers in. The main road in and out was always heavily guarded, except for a few minutes around sunrise a couple days from now, which is when the Delta team would be leaving.
They traded some more sympathy with Rolando, all agreeing that it would help if Chad wasn't such a good guy as well.
Richie knew better.
Chad was one of those guys who was everyone's friend and most people assumed that's all he was. But he had also come by his nickname, The Reaper, because he was a stone-cold killer when he needed to be.
Richie and Duane continued their walk, leaving Rolando to watch the night. They stopped and chatted with two more guards before reaching the one corner of the field they hadn't had a chance to exactly locate yet.
He and Duane stood for at least ten minutes, talking about the backbreaking work of tending the vast plantingsâwhich in truth wasn't as tough as a typical day of Delta trainingâand watching over each other's shoulders.
Duane finally shook his head in answer to Richie's earlier question. They were alone.
Richie knelt quickly and pulled out a small, high-powered radio, unfolded a tiny parabolic dish antenna, and aimed it upward. He checked his watch, shifted the antenna to point toward the constellation Virgo, and pinged their full set of GPS data coordinates up to a satellite that should be in that vicinity. By using a directional antenna and sending all of the data compacted into a single short burst of information, their signal should be undetectable.
Many coca fields were heavily protected from above as well; acre after acre of camouflage nets hid the cash crop. Others, like this one, were hidden so deep in the mountains that it was easier to find them from the ground, following leads and tips rather than aerial photos.
Ten seconds later a “squirt” pinged back from The ActivityâAmerica's most clandestine military intelligence agency in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Another coca field had been accurately located and recorded.
Richie glanced at the return message quickly, checking that it unscrambled cleanly. Then swore when his eye caught on the last line.
“What?” Duane whispered.
Richie sent the “message received” squirt back, collapsed his little setup of equipment, and scanned the message fully before putting away his gear.
“Six hours,” was all he said. “All the way out.”
!” was Duane's response.
* * *
The living room was a complete shambles. It reeked with the bitter sting of spent powder, though not enough shots had been fired to cloud the room with smoke. The room was chilly, threatening to freeze the sweat on her forehead. The midsummer North Carolina heat hadn't penetrated the thick concrete-block wallsâwhich were painted in a rich brown, creating the worst visibility conditions for the exercise.
Staff Sergeant Melissa Charlene “The Cat” Moore did her best to keep the pure glee of the entire experience out of her expression as her three-person team moved through the room finishing the jobâand over the last six months, they had become
team. She'd fallen in as the natural leader despite being the only female.
Six months ago she had been the one sitting on this same worn couch, for which too much fake blue leather had died decades before. There were mismatched armchairs, a battered entertainment center, dining table, kitchen in the cornerâ¦the whole nine yards of a well-worn modern family great room.
There were three types of occupants.
The first were seven armed terroristsâall now dead with two shots each to the chest or three in the pelvic region for those wearing armored vests. As they'd fallen, they'd knocked over chairs and lamps. One had slid down the wall and taken a pair of cheap paintings with him. The woman in the kitchen with an MP5 machine gun had flailed back into a dish cabinet with a clatter far louder than the silenced weapons used by Melissa's team. It was immensely satisfying, even if all seven terrorists were mannequins.
The lights came back on and Melissa flipped up the night-vision goggles attached to the helmet that covered her blond hair. Her Kevlar vest was weighed down with a wide array of hardware, most of it spare magazines for her rifle and handgun. After so much training, it felt unnatural whenever she took it off rather than when she strapped it on.
The second type of occupants in the room remained paralyzed with shock. They were the five members of the most recent group to make it through the Delta Force Selection Process and had played the role of being hostages. They still sat in their chairs as if they'd been bolted there. Melissa barely managed to suppress a very un-Delta-like giggle.
She knew from personal experience that despite being trained soldiers, getting over that shock would take them at least a minuteâmore than long enough for her to complete her tasks and clear out. For that amount of time, her team could do practically anything they wanted, perhaps even pick the new recruits' pockets. She recalled that she'd certainly been in that level of shock when it had been her turn half a year before.
It had taken her team under three seconds to neutralize the room.
The shock of the “hostages” had many sources, the amazing speed and brutal application of force by the rescue team being the worst of it. Nothing in military training, not even Ranger School, could prepare a soldier for the ferocity a Delta team could unleash.
Mutt had breached the room's steel door with a large explosive charge and Jeff had killed the lights in the same moment.
Melissa then slid in a flashbang. It had done exactly as its name implied, releasing a blinding flash and an explosive percussion as loud as that of an M33 frag grenade but causing none of the damage.
Then their lightning attack with suppressed, night-vision-scoped rifles had capped off the mayhem.
Live ammo fired at much closer quarters than any other Army shooter would dare had riddled the bad-guy mannequinsârounds passing so close by the hostages' heads that it almost trimmed their hair.
That was the ultimate shocker to soldiers who thought they were already good but hadn't faced a Delta-style room clearing before. There was a whole other world of “better” that these new recruits had never encountered, despite a minimum of four years of military service.
There were only five “hostages” in the room. The monthlong test of the Selection Process to apply for admission to the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta training was brutal. This class had started with ninety-eight applicants.
Her own Delta Selection class had shrunk from a hundred and twenty-two applicants down to six who had passed. Only three of them had made it through the six months of the Delta Force's Operator Training Course, and Mutt had been from the prior class but torn out a knee halfway through his first try at OTC. Of her own class, only she and Jeff had made it through from the group of six who'd passedâtwo injury drops who would be back next time and two couldn't-hack-it drops.