The sniper rifle weighed fourteen pounds and was forty-two inches long, almost like a barbell. That was why you fired it mostly in the prone position. He carried it in his right hand. The collapsible bipod at the end of the muzzle was in the closed position. He moved quickly but methodically. One kill tonight. He had no desire for another. Not tonight.
He glanced back over his shoulder. Nothing except the darkness looked back at him. He was twenty feet from the tree line. From there a five-minute walk through the woods. A car waiting, a fast drive. Before the police could set up their roadblocks. He liked this area. Lots of ground to cover and not nearly enough cops to do it properly.
He stopped, turned back.
Sirens, yes, but something else. Something unexpected.
His left hand slipped to his waistband.
“Another inch with the hand and you can get a good look at your intestines.”
The man’s hand stopped right where it was.
Puller did not step clear of the trees. He had no idea if the other man was alone. He kept his MP trained on the target.
“First, take the rifle by the muzzle and toss it away from you. Second, lie facedown with your hands interlocked behind your head, eyes closed, and your feet spread-eagled.”
The man set the rifle stock-first on the ground, gripped the muzzle, and threw the weapon. It landed six feet away, thudding to the ground and spraying up grass and dirt.
“First part done. Now execute step two,” Puller said.
“How’d you get ahead of me?” asked the man.
Puller didn’t like the question, but he liked even less the tone in which it was asked. Unhurried, earnestly curious, but seemingly unmindful of the consequences of being caught. His gaze swept the field in front of him. Was there a spotter out there? A backup team to ferry the sniper away?
“Lucky triangulation,” he said. “Worked to the logical conclusion and double-timed it there.”
“Never heard you.”
“That’s right. Why take out Dickie?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Lapua rounds aren’t that plentiful around here, I would bet.”
“You can walk away from this, Puller. Right now. Maybe you should.”
Puller liked this change in tactics even less. It was like the other man was holding the gun on him. Offering him a free walk.
“I’m listening,” he said.
“I’m sure you’ve already considered it. You won’t learn anything more from me. It’s not my job to do your job.”
“Eight people dead now. Must be a good reason.” Puller slid his finger to the trigger guard on the MP5. Once it ventured inside the guard he would fire.
“You talk, there might be a deal.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You that loyal?”
“If that’s what you want to call it. I let you get to me. My fault. My responsibility.”
“Facedown. Last time I’ll ask.”
Puller lined up his shot. At this range the man was dead. He braced the MP against his right pec. With his left hand he toggled his forward M11 in a thirty-degree arc.
The man dropped to his knees. Then to his stomach. He started to interlock his fingers. But then his hand shot to his waist.
Puller used his M11 to pump one round into each of the man’s arms and then stepped to his left and behind a tree. His muzzle flash had given away his position. He had not gone for a kill shot because he didn’t have to. The man couldn’t have gotten off a clean shot at him. And now with his arms immobilized he wouldn’t be able to even point his gun at Puller. The man had gone for his weapon for perhaps two reasons.
First, he’d wanted Puller to kill him.
Puller had decided not to be so accommodating. He wanted a witness he could interrogate.
Second, he had wanted Puller to fire, revealing his position; hence Puller’s sidestep behind the tree.
He awaited incoming fire from another sector.
It didn’t come.
His glance shot back to the wounded man, who still lay there, blood gushing out from his arms. No arterial spray because Puller hadn’t aimed at that.
He noted a second too late that the man’s hand was under him. The shot rang out.
“Shit,” Puller muttered as he watched man’s torso jerk up and then come back to rest on the ground.
The bullet had come out the man’s back. Dead center. Contact kill shot in reverse. Self-inflicted.
Puller had just lost his potential witness. Whoever these people were, they were dedicated to something. Choosing death over life was not an easily made decision. It seemed the man had intended it all along. As soon as he knew he’d been compromised and was near capture.
Puller had relaxed for just a moment. It was almost a fatal mistake.
He blocked the knife with his gun barrel, but the man leveled a blow at Puller’s arm with his other hand and the impact knocked his MP5 to the dirt. Puller raised his M11, but a side kick from his opponent sent that weapon to the dirt too. The man came at him again, whipping the knife in different directions to confuse Puller. He was six-two, one-ninety, with thick dark hair, a lean tanned face, and the calm gaze of someone accustomed to killing other people.
But then was so Puller.
He pinned the man’s knife arm against his torso, dipped down, and slammed his head into the man’s throat. The blade dropped to the ground. Puller pivoted around, gripped the top of the man’s head with his right hand, and jerked it to the right at the same time he slammed an elbow directly into the left side of the man’s neck.
The man gurgled and blood started to trickle out of his nose and mouth.
“Give it up and you get to live, asshole,” said Puller.
The man continued to struggle. He kicked at Puller’s groin, gouged at his eyes. That was irritating but manageable. Puller wanted this guy alive. But when the man got his hand on Puller’s rear M11 and tried to jerk it free, Puller decided it was better to be alive without a captive he could question rather than dead.
Puller moved fully behind the man, looped one long arm, with the elbow up, around his opponent’s damaged neck, gripped his torso with his other arm, and pulled in separate directions. When he heard the man start to scream, he lifted him off the ground, whipped him around, and slammed him into the nearest tree. He heard the spine snap and he dropped the entire load to the dirt. Breathing hard, he stared down at the mess he’d made of a human body. He looked over at the knife. Serrated blade. Worn handle. Lots of use. His blood was supposed to be all over it. He felt not an ounce of remorse.
He glanced to his right.
He recognized Cole’s voice.
“Over here. Keep back. Got a dead sniper and his backup and there may be more. I’m okay.”
Ten minutes passed and Cole said, “Can we join you?”
Puller made one last scan of the tree line. “Okay.”
A few minutes later Cole and two of her deputies were within his sightline.
“To your right.” He stepped out to show his location.
Cole and her deputies scuttled forward to join him around the dead men.
Puller knelt down and eased the sniper over. “Shine your light on his face.”
Cole did so.
The deputy named Lou let out a gasp. He said, “That’s the guy who was pretending to live at Treadwell’s place.”
Puller rose. “I thought it might be.”
“How?” asked Lou.
“He matched the description you gave of him earlier. Now we know he’s as good at sniping as he is at killing up close.”
Lou looked at the other wrecked body. “What the hell did you do to him?”
“I killed him,” Puller said simply. “Before he killed me.”
“That was Dickie Strauss back there,” said Cole.
“What was he doing here?”
“Coming to meet me.”
Cole looked at the wounds on the back of the man’s arms. “Your rounds?”
He nodded. “The guy went for his gun. Thought he was trying to get me to kill him. I didn’t. Then he ate his own round. Should have seen that coming. But a guy wants to kill himself and he has a gun handy, not a lot you can do about it.”
“Guess not,” said Cole curtly.
Puller looked around and said, “Let’s secure the crime scenes. Call in Lan Monroe and whoever else you need. Then you and I can go talk.”
“Lots of things.”