CHAPTER 7

The HAWCs were spread in a thin line at the edge of the town. Kolchek crouched beside a tree and held the night-vision goggles up to his eyes. He scanned his target, room by room. The lenses made the skin around his eye sockets dark green as the optics captured the upper portion of the infrared spectrum emitted as heat instead of light.

Through brick and wood, he searched for thermal signatures. Finally, he shook his head. ‘Cold as a polar bear’s pecker. We’ve been stood up, boss.’

Bronson grunted. ‘Does anything ever go to plan?’ He pointed to Alex, Bill Singer and Sam Stozer, and then motioned toward the house. ‘Check it out. Everyone else: eyes and ears — something’s up.’

Alex nodded and turned to Stozer. ‘Forward advance with me. Singer on close cover.’

The night was turning even colder, and a light sleet had started to fall. The streets were unnaturally quiet.

Alex and Stozer ran for twenty paces together before peeling away to each take a side of the single-level dwelling. Singer came up behind them, giving cover, watching the dark areas of the nearby trees, the windows of the secondary dwellings over the fence, inside parked cars, and anywhere else that could be used as an ambush zone.

Sprinting across the frozen sludge, and crouching beside the old wooden shingles, they waited for a few seconds and continued along the sides of the house, peering in windows, until they arrived together at the back door. Alex placed an ear to it for a few seconds, while Sam waited beside him.

He checked around the doorframe; there was a small gap underneath. Reaching into one of his belt pouches, he removed a slim device with tubing wrapped around it. He unwound it, switched on the device, and the tiny screen lit up. Next, he slid the end of the tube under the door. The small screen showed the contents of the room — dark, no movement. Alex twisted the tube left and then right, looking back up at the doorframe and then toward its handle — no traps he could see.

Wrapping the tube around the device again, he slipped it back into his pouch. He stood up and motioned for Singer and Stozer to position themselves on either side of the house — they wouldn’t all go in the same entrance. If there were some hard targets concealed inside, better to make it a little harder for them to take a HAWC down.

Alex pulled his shortest K-bar and inserted its tanto chisel blade in between the lock and doorframe. He pushed hard: the wood crunched and the door swung inward. He pulled his sidearm, a Sig-Sauer 226, and clipped a sound suppressor over the end. He came in low and fast, keeping the gun up in front of him.

The first thing Alex noticed was the smell: blood, burnt flesh and excrement — the smell of human torture. The three HAWCs, all in now, moved quickly through the rooms, noting the damage to the house and the bodies. Alex pressed a stud in his ear and whispered.

‘Three down, all non-Package. Signs of extreme interrogation; assume our primary Package either taken or gone elsewhere.’

‘Confirmed,’ Bronson responded. ‘Continue investigation for signs of secondary Package.’ Alex pulled a small Geiger counter from a pouch and snapped it to a band on his wrist. This allowed him to keep his gun up in a two-handed grip while reading the signals off the small flat box. They were only slightly higher than normal; this suggested the secondary Package might have been there, but was now gone.

Bill Singer stopped over the smallest body. ‘Jesus Christ.’ The boy had probably been tortured in front of his parents. He was missing seven of his fingers — either he’d lost that many before they talked, or his small heart had given out, his usefulness exhausted. Not standard Russian military tactics… More like GRU.

This is why we are right, and they are wrong, Alex thought darkly. Anger boiled inside him.

He moved on past Singer, around the room, noting the blood-spray patterns and the disarray caused by the search. He put his finger to his ear again. ‘Party’s over; whoever was here has long gone.’

Bronson’s reply was immediate. ‘Pull back.’

Alex lowered his gun. Stozer appeared beside him and made a brief cutting motion across her throat — also nothing.

Singer was still kneeling over the kid. Perhaps he reminded him of his own son. He crossed himself and his lips moved in a silent prayer. Alex shook his head. The man definitely needed to get out of the unit; he had too much to lose.

Stozer holstered her weapon and shrugged. Alex was about to call the team to order when he saw Singer reach down and turn the boy… just a fraction, perhaps just to see his face, who knows… but it was enough.

Alex barely had time to yell: ‘Stop —!’

The hook pinned into the flesh of the boy’s cheek pulled tight on its wire thread. The high-energy explosion that followed carried enough percussive power to blow out every window, half of the walls, and lift the roof right off the old house. Alex found himself in the side yard, with Stozer sprawled beside him. She spat out blood, but got up with her gun leveled. Their suits were tough enough to absorb most of the impact, but they’d be covered in bruises for weeks.

Alex worked his jaw, feeling rather than hearing a ringing in his ears. He rushed back into the smoking ruins. Singer’s legs stuck out from under a pile of rubble, and Alex pushed aside the broken planks of wood that covered his upper body.

‘Ah shit.’ The body was missing its head — the only part of Singer not protected by the armored suit.

He mouthed the words: ‘Singer down — place was fucking booby trapped.’ With his ears ringing, he wouldn’t be able to hear Bronson’s reply either, but didn’t really want to. He could guess what it would be: you took them in; it was your job to bring them all out. He should have guessed they’d set a trap for them. He knew Singer had a kid, and that gave the man a blind spot. He’d walked them right into it.

He switched the comm. off.

Blinding anger welled up inside him. Stozer grabbed his arm and Alex pulled it away so forcefully she took a step back. Taking a deep breath, he held up his hands to show he was okay. He looked back down at the headless body.

‘Singer shouldn’t have come — he fucked up and now he’s lost everything. He should have quit sooner. D’you think his kid’s going to be proud?’

Stozer frowned. ‘Would you quit? Would it be that easy? We’re not in some sort of pay-by-the-month social club, Alex. You know that.’ She stepped in closer to him.

‘I reckon if I had something important to quit for.’ Alex thought of his own father and gritted his teeth. One minute we’re all happy family and the next Mom’s so broken down she won’t even talk about it. His face was blank. ‘Yeah, I could quit.’

Stozer gripped his arm. ‘Let’s make ’em pay. C’mon.’

He nodded and knelt beside the body, sliding back a panel on Bill Singer’s chest and entering a string of numbers into the small keypad. Immediately the suit began to smoke. Its camouflage effect ceased and the flesh inside began to shrivel.

Alex stood and turned without a word, kicking a hanging board out of his path — all reason for stealth having been ripped away. Stozer waited for him.

‘Let’s go.’

* * *

Bronson withdrew them a mile to the south, keeping them running at a solid pace, before raising a hand and pulling them into a tight circle. His HAWCs’ faces still showed commitment, impatience and plenty of anger, but no lack of clarity or frustration. Good, he thought.

When they first regrouped, he had spoken a few words for Bill Singer. Was a good man, was about all he said. There’d be time for eulogies later. They all knew they needed to stay focused or they’d all end up anonymous bodies on some deserted Chechen road.

He looked at Alex Hunter. His second in command was staring at the frozen soil; Bronson could tell he was still seething inside. Hunter was smart, unparalleled in combat, and had enough guts for ten HAWCs, but there was something inside him that was a little too turbulent. The man couldn’t let go. In the HAWCs you had to be cool and clinical, not some bloody avenging angel. He’d put it in his report and let Hammerson have a think about it when they got back.

The packages were still in play, but now it seemed it might take a firefight to retrieve them. It also meant they were potentially a step behind the GRU. Tough bastards, but he knew they could go through them if need be. They’d taken a dent, but they were still fully functional. He looked at each of the HAWCs in turn as he spoke.

‘Listen up, people: the torture means they were seeking answers in a hurry. Means when the bad guys entered the property, they did not find what they were looking for. Package is still in play; mission is still go.’

The team nodded.

Bronson placed a small electronic tablet against a tree at head height and opened its map of the area, pulling the image back to a higher orbit.

‘This is where we are. Now, if I was Dr. Khamid, on the run and scared, where would I go?’ Bronson used a finger to move the map image to the left, and then drilled down on magnification. ‘I’d go home, of course.’

Bronson used two fingers to open the image. A town even smaller than Urus-Martan was displayed. He tapped it and turned.

‘Katyr-Yurt — about ten miles west-northwest, and still four hours until sunup. Let’s move, double time.’

* * *

Denichen Khamid lay flat under an oily canvas sheet in the back of the truck. The old Kamaz bounced over ruts and fissures in a road that was more a river of shallow mud.

Yuri, the truck’s driver, made a guttural sound in the back of his throat loud enough for it to carry through the open window — it was not one Khamid wanted to hear. It meant he had either spilled his vodka or there was trouble. A whisper from the cabin resolved the question.

‘Roadblock — Russian.’

Khamid’s stomach fluttered with fear and he tried to make himself as small as humanly possible.

The old truck whined to a halt and a barking voice ordered Yuri from the cabin. Khamid lifted one edge of the canvas just a fraction. He saw two young Russian soldiers walk Yuri around the front of the truck and then came the impatient click of fingers followed by a single word — identifikacija — they wanted his papers.

Yuri stepped back, felt in his pockets and pulled his wallet, making a show of dropping it. Khamid knew what he was doing — giving him a few extra moments. He slid out the back of the old flatbed and crabbed his way into the bushes beside the rutted road. Slipping over a small barrier of built-up branches and dirty snow, he rolled down the small embankment on the other side. He guessed he was still a few miles out from Katyr-Yurt, but as long as heavy snow didn’t start to fall, or a pack of wolves didn’t take an interest in him, or if he didn’t get hopelessly lost, he might just survive.

He hadn’t thought through a long-term plan, but knew that as long as he had the disk, the Americans would come for him. He just needed to make sure he stayed alive long enough to make contact. They will come, they will come — his repeated thought was becoming more like a prayer.

He got to his feet beside the trunk of a tree frosted with snow, and paused to get his bearings. He looked up: no stars or moon — good for hiding, but he would have liked just a few stars to guide him.

‘And now we walk,’ he whispered to himself, confident if he kept in line with the old road, he should make it to the village by morning.

Khamid stepped out from behind the tree, and only took a single step before a blow to the back of his head made him finally see the stars he had missed. Everything went black.

* * *

Khamid was tied to a chair. The Russian captain stared into his face as he went through his pockets.

‘Did you know you speak when you sleep?’ He grinned and tilted his head as though expecting an answer. He went back to his search. ‘Your language is good, but your accent… I think you are not really from here… Perhaps not even from Grozny.’

He tugged free wrapped packets of dried biscuits, and a small flask of water. He dumped them onto a table and pulled Khamid’s jacket open and twisted the label around to read: ‘Gieves & Hawkes? Hmm, very fancy… And a long way from London. Imported perhaps… Or maybe you are imported, my friend? People who wear expensive foreign clothes and creep around in the dark are usually rich men hiding from someone… Or maybe spying on someone, hmm?’

Khamid stayed silent, staring at the ground, wondering when the light would go on in the captain’s head, and his identity would be revealed. While the soldiers guessed at who he was, he would be granted another few minutes. Must get away, his mind raced.

‘Looks like a teacher, or maybe a dentist.’ The thin lieutenant opened a packet of Khamid’s biscuits and started eating them. His face lit up. ‘Are you a dentist?’ The man smiled weakly, showing a row of gray teeth, edged with black. After a few seconds his smile faded and he continued his slow chewing.

He grabbed one of Khamid’s hands and turned it over. ‘Soft; not a fighter. Perhaps you are a scientist bomb maker.’ He lifted the hand and sniffed the fingers. He shrugged and turned away. ‘No smell or staining from nitrates or sulfates, so perhaps not a bomb maker… or he was smart enough to wear gloves. He looks smart enough to me.’

The captain rounded on Khamid and planted one large hand on each of the arms of the chair.

‘WHAT IS YOUR NAME? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?’

Khamid shrunk and refused to meet the man’s gaze. He hoped for the most part the aggression was a bluff, as the average Russian military person wanted to be in Chechnya as much as the Chechens wanted them there.

This squad was probably just performing a sweep as part of their peacekeeping duties — trying to root out rebels and extremists, and, most importantly, trying hard not to get shot in the back when they took a leak in the dark.

‘Ach, why do I bother? You are not my problem. We’ll let Moscow work you out.’ The captain pushed up off Khamid’s chair. His explosive theatrics of a few seconds ago had totally dissipated now he deemed the show was over. He picked up a towel and wiped his hands, perhaps wiping his hands of their captive at the same time. He turned to the skinny lieutenant.

‘We’ve avoided Moscow long enough; make contact and tell them we’ve picked up a possible infiltrator.’ He nodded back over his shoulder. ‘And seeing you’ve finished off his dinner, you will find him some food and water. Then lock him in the carrier. He can go back to base in the morning and they can send him on to the city.’

Khamid remained still, but his stomach churned. He needed to break free — once in Moscow, there would be no escape.

The lieutenant drew his pistol, and, holding it in one hand, untied Khamid’s hands. He tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Get up.’

Khamid got to his feet and stretched. He was glad he hadn’t brought the disk with him. Not that he could have carried it any farther; his back and shoulders were still screaming from the torturous weight. By now they would have opened it, despite his protests, and exposed them all to its strange effects. They would have all ended up as dust stains in the snow.

He was pushed out into the cold — he guessed that dawn could not be far away now, as the night seemed at its darkest and his body screamed out for rest. Even though his plan was unraveling, and fatigue was dragging on him, he knew he needed to be alert to any opportunity to escape. Being watched by one skinny, underpaid and underfed soldier presented the best chance he’d have.

The lieutenant led Khamid to a large military truck at the outskirts of the camp. Most of the soldiers now slept, and the troop carrier itself was covered in a tarpaulin of camouflage canvas. Shoving him into the back, the lieutenant ordered him to sit on one of the long metal benches that ran down each side. An iron ring was fixed to the support struts on the frame every few feet. The soldier pulled Khamid’s arms behind his back and fastened an iron cuff to his wrist. Its long chain was threaded through the ring, and then his other wrist was cuffed.

He closed his eyes. The truck was cold, and he felt his nose begin to run, snot freezing on his upper lip. The lieutenant reached into a storage cabinet behind the cabin and pulled a few blankets free. He placed one over Khamid’s knees, another over his shoulders. Khamid lifted his head.

‘Thank you.’

The soldier looked down into his face. ‘It is no trouble. You know, I wish you were a dentist. My teeth hurt.’

Khamid smiled. ‘Hot salted tea. Swill and spit. It will ease the ache for a while.’

‘Yes?’ He searched Khamid’s face for a moment, perhaps looking for signs of deception, and then nodded. ‘I’ll try it.’ He turned to the storage cabinet, again rummaging through its contents.

Khamid sagged in his seat and stared out at the snow-covered roadway and on to the impenetrably dark walls of the forest.

A movement caught his attention — a tiny creature that looked like a black worm with a single red eye snaked about half an inch into the back of the truck and reared up at him. It hung there for a moment or two, then pointed its red-rimmed head toward his Russian minder. The lieutenant still had his back to the rear of the truck as he crouched over the cabinet, pulling out and examining different items from its shelves.

In an instant the worm withdrew and in its place a mountainous figure in a white uniform lifted himself into the truck. Khamid blinked; while he watched, the uniform turned dark gray to match the truck’s interior. At six and a half feet tall, the figure moved with a speed and silence that belied his bulk. He crossed to the lieutenant in two steps, wrapping an enormous arm around his neck and chest.

The Russian gurgled and was still. The giant figure lowered the unconscious soldier onto the bench next to Khamid. Reaching into a pouch behind his back, he withdrew a squat set of pliers. He pulled Khamid forward and reached behind him.

Khamid saw the muscles strain in the man’s arm; then there was a popping sound and he was free. The man put his finger to his lips; leaping from the truck, he crouched and looked back, motioning for Khamid to follow him.

Khamid hesitated for only a second. What could be worse than where he was heading? He eased himself down off the back of the truck and allowed the man to lead him into the trees.

* * *

‘Dr. Denichen Khamid?’

The small man flinched as Bronson towered over him. He could see the fear in his eyes. Khamid sat mute, his body crumpled with exhaustion. Alex knelt beside him, placed a hand on his shoulder. Khamid hunched up as if waiting for a blow.

Sam Stozer pushed in front of Alex and spoke softly over her shoulder. ‘Back off, Frankenstein. You’d be enough to scare anyone this time of the night.’ She offered Khamid a small canister of water. ‘We’re American, sir; you contacted us, and we’re here to help you.’

The Chechen looked up at her. ‘American.’ He visibly relaxed, as if tight wires in his shoulders had been cut. ‘Yes, yes, I am Khamid… Dr. Denichen Khamid. I called for you.’ He took the water and swallowed several mouthsful, pausing to gulp air as if he had been holding his breath.

‘Dr. Khamid,’ Bronson prodded. ‘Where is the package — the cell? Are you still in possession of the power cell you mentioned?’

Khamid nodded. ‘Yes. But I hid it. I can’t let them have it… They’re looking for me; they’re all looking for me. I thought that I would be taken back to Moscow to be tortured. I thought…’ His eyes widened. ‘You need to get me out. I need… I need…’

Bronson leaned closer and took hold of him, shaking him gently. Alex could tell the time for civil conversation was over.

‘Please, tell me you didn’t hide it in the house back in Urus-Martan.’ Bronson’s eyes bore into the scientist and Khamid shook his head.

‘No, no, I couldn’t. The Saidullays had already risked enough for me. I might have put them in even more danger. When I received word that the Russians were closing in, I took off and hopefully led them away. Did I?’

The HAWC team stayed silent. Khamid obviously didn’t know that the family had been wiped out.

‘Where, then?’

Alex answered for him: ‘Katyr-Yurt.’

Khamid nodded.

Bronson straightened. Pulling his GPS from its pouch, he ran his fingers across the display. ‘Katyr-Yurt: seven miles, west — heavy terrain. We move, now.’ He glanced back at Khamid. ‘We’ll be moving quickly; you must keep up, sir.’

He didn’t wait for a reply but instead turned to Stozer. ‘Leave them a little surprise — courtesy of Bill Singer.’

She smiled grimly. ‘My pleasure, boss.’

* * *

A weak sun was just turning the sky a cold steel gray in the east when Borshov and ten of his Spetsnaz killers entered the military camp, each of them still wearing their cyclopean night-vision lenses. The regular soldiers who were awake backed out of the way as the giant and GRU Special Forces strode amongst them.

Borshov walked toward one soldier who had been eating salted beef from a tin; the food now stuck in a throat suddenly gone dry. The soldier rose meekly, trying to stand to attention, but his knees trembled under him. His head only came up to Borshov’s big, bearded chin.

‘Where is your commanding officer?’

The soldier mumbled and pointed to the edge of the camp where a large camouflage tent was set up. Borshov turned and strode toward it.

At the entrance, most of his Spetsnaz formed up in a line, their backs to the tent, guns cradled in their arms. The tent might have once belonged to the squad leader, but now it belonged to them.

Borshov pushed into the tent with two of his men. Captain Serkargov was at a field table with two young officers; at a seat nearby, a thin lieutenant held a damp cloth to his throat.

Serkargov straightened with an audible intake of breath as Borshov loomed like a colossus in the center of the tent. His huge bulk dominated the space and he spoke slowly, almost as if bored.

‘Where is the prisoner?’

Serkargov blanched. ‘Escaped. . He attacked one of my men. .’ He motioned with his head toward the lieutenant.

Borshov eyed the seated man for several moments before crossing to him, his huge body moving slowly. Low-pitched words rose from deep within his barrel chest.

‘Sore neck, yes?’

The man nodded, lifting the damp cloth to reveal heavy bruising. Borshov placed a hand gently on his shoulder and moved around behind him. He grinned at Serkargov.

With startling swiftness, Borshov grabbed the lieutenant by the hair. Wrenching back his head, he drew a slim black blade across the man’s throat, opening a second mouth, which vomited blood onto the floor of the tent.

Serkargov’s eyes bulged and behind him one of his soldiers gagged. His braver counterpart managed to unclip his sidearm, before fear and indecision stayed his hand.

Borshov let the lieutenant crumple from the chair. ‘There is no room for incompetence in battle. This man betrayed his country, his unit and his dignity when he allowed a civilian to overpower him. This type of fool loses wars.’

Eventually, Serkargov’s head jerked into a terrified nod.

‘Good, now we understand each other.’

* * *

Borshov’s Vympel moved like hunting dogs over the terrain surrounding the Russian military camp. After fifteen minutes their circular search pattern had coalesced into a narrow corridor heading northwest.

Borshov stepped onto the trail and watched one of his trackers picking through the mud, crushed grass and puddles of frozen water.

‘How long?’

‘Maybe. . three hours. Five big men, one smaller, maybe a woman — all skilled at concealment. The scientist was with them.’

Borshov nodded. ‘Which direction?’

The man nodded to the northwest. Borshov looked into the distance, his eyes narrowing.

‘Where will you run to, little Chechen piggy, with your pack of wolves? And who are these wolves — Israeli, English, American?’

He hoped they were Special Forces; they took a long time to die, and he was yet to make one beg for mercy.

‘Let’s go, we have a wolf pack to catch.’ He whistled and pointed at two of his men. ‘Get out in front; pick up the trail.’

The men tore away like dogs let off a leash. Borshov watched them disappear into the cold mist that swirled amongst the trees. The big man closed his eyes and tried to place himself in the heads of his quarry. They were on foot — and moving into dense terrain. An airlift would be more difficult. . so why there? Why northwest?

He lifted his dark bearded chin and sniffed deeply, as though trying to catch their scent. The scientist would slow them down. They would not be too concerned if they thought the best that would follow them would be regular army, but if they suspected they were being pursued by Special Forces and wanted to slow them down…

His eyes flicked open just as the explosion thumped deeply in the forest ahead. It was small, but concentrated, and the initial blast was followed by the whipping sound of tiny objects moving in a wave through the trees.

Like the rest of his men, Borshov dove to the ground as the shrapnel ricocheted around them.

In a second it was over. Shredded leaves floated to the ground, and the bark on the tree trunks was pitted and scarred. He got to his feet and exhaled, making a deep rumbling sound in his chest. He looked at the man next to him and motioned forward with his hand. The man trotted in the direction of the blast, this time with a little more caution. In a moment, he reappeared out of the mist and held up two fingers, drawing them across his throat.

Borshov nodded. ‘So, now we are introduced.’ He turned and clicked his fingers, pointed to his ear. A small phone was handed to him and he keyed a number into the pad. While he waited, he pointed to one of his agents.

‘Go back to our soldier friends. Get me some trucks.’

He turned away and spoke the code word, waiting while he was rerouted. He grunted his request.

‘Secure file search — the man I seek: tell me everything about him — open all databases. I want to know all, from when this pushta was born. His past, his recent…’ He grinned. ‘I already know his future.’

Borshov stepped back as the first of the broad, open-topped trucks crashed through the underbrush. He climbed into the front seat, some of his men jumping in the back. The rest clambered into the next truck as it arrived. Borshov held up one large hand, and the group paused while he received some further information.

‘So Khamid is also Khamidov.’ He grunted, nodded, then turned to the driver.

‘Katyr-Yurt.’

* * *

Alex smiled grimly at the sound of the explosion now many miles behind them.

‘That one’s for you, Bill — kick their asses in hell.’

In his gut he felt the anger again — it hardly ever left him anymore. His father had disappeared at an early age, just when he needed him. Then the fights had started — first at school and then just about anywhere he could find one. The military had harnessed that anger, given him an outlet, but it still festered like an infection below the skin. He hoped it would be different for Singer’s kid.

His jaw was clenched so hard it ached. He knew he should have been clinical, focused, but instead he wanted brutal revenge. He didn’t want to just engage the enemy; he wanted to seek them out, pulverize them, grind them down to shit and dust.

Alex shut his eyes, tried to calm himself. He should tell Hammerson… but then what? He’d likely be pulled from mission-ready status for assessment. No way, he thought. Instead, he concentrated on golden sands and sunlight on crystal clear surf. He could handle it; he could deal with anything. He just needed —

‘Hunter, you still with us?’

Alex’s eyes snapped open. Bronson frowned.

‘Focus,’ he grunted. ‘You and Stozer get out at point. We need to pick up speed and it’s getting a bit crowded.’ Since daybreak, the huge corridors of sunlight that streamed through the trees had closed in around them as the forest became denser. Having to check too many places for concealment would slow them down.

Alex nodded and turned to Stozer.

‘Fifty out front: double time.’ He started forward.

‘Yo.’ She followed him. They ran ten feet apart, slowing when they were fifty feet ahead of the other HAWCs.

She shot him a playful look. ‘Not getting any younger, Alex.’

‘I didn’t realize you were pacing yourself. You want to move faster?’

‘I was going to ask you the same thing.’ He could hear the smile in her voice. ‘If you’re ever going to buy me that drink, you’d better hurry; I’m fighting them off back home.’

He grinned. ‘You fight them off because you like to fight.’

‘And maybe you’re one of those guys who likes a woman to take control. I can do that too, you know.’

Alex laughed softly. ‘I’m sure you could. Right now, I’ve still got some stuff to shake off, but…’

She groaned. ‘Oh boy, still hung up on that kewpie doll, are you? What was her name, Angie? Wish someone carried a torch for me like that.’ Momentarily disappointed, she then seemed to grab another thought from the air.

‘Hey, jarhead, I’m still up for a drink. I’m betting one date with me, and anyone else will be history.’

He looked at her for a moment. The suit she wore, dappled in different shades of the forest, hugged her athletic figure; the woman looked formidable, strong, attractive. He might like that drink after all. Not like he was being unfaithful.

‘Maybe just one, then.’

‘Sure, to start.’ She grinned — then froze. ‘Company.’

Crouching, Alex held up his fist, and then flattened his hand — the HAWCs behind dropped out of sight. Holding his breath, he listened: there it was, the whisper of a word or two, the soft sound of a gun being handled, the lid of a food tin being slowly peeled back. Good, he thought, not GRU, then. Professionals would never have made that much noise. He lifted a small scope to his eye and moved the spectrum up to thermal. One… two heat signatures. . with two bodies in each thermal grouping. The signatures were ten feet apart — a simple killing zone — and way too close together for an optimum ambush. Again, a good sign — amateurs, probably Russian military.

He turned to Bronson, held fingers to his eyes, and then pointed to the positions of the concealed soldiers. He then pointed at himself and Stozer, nominating their respective targets. He’d take the end team, the hardest to hit, having to pass the crossfire team to get to them.

Bronson nodded and made a downward stabbing motion with his fingers: no guns — knives only.

Getting down on his belly, Alex inched his way forward, slipping under logs, through the trees, his suit changing with the colors of the earth, leaves and wood around him. Stozer followed, keeping close. Alex knew that they wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to the ambush zone without being detected, but they didn’t need to. He just needed to get close enough to surprise and frighten the shit out of them.

He slowed when he was within forty feet. The soft murmur of voices continued. He reached down and pulled free his longest blade, the tanto edge K-bar — night-black and laser sharpened — it was more a cutting tool than a stabbing weapon, but with enough force it could be pushed through just about anything — and flesh and bone was easy.

Alex pulled one leg forward, tensing the huge muscle in his thigh, and counted down in his mind: 5–4–3–2… He exploded from his hiding place like a juggernaut, knife clenched in his fist.

He passed by the crossfire team on his left before they were even aware their perimeter had been breached. As Alex expected, once they got over their initial surprise, they brought their guns around on him. But Alex moved fast, and made a difficult target. Most importantly, he’d got their attention.

Before him, he saw two more barrels aiming at his chest — he had arrived at his own target group. Alex launched himself into the air as Stozer broke cover.

He landed hard, crushing one man flat, and swept his blade across the fallen man’s throat, cutting it to the bones in his neck. Before the blood had time to spurt, he had already lunged at the remaining soldier who, whether by skill or good fortune, managed to fire off a round into Alex’s upper body.

The sun burst through the trees. Everything went white.

Hammerson’s voice yelled in his head, louder than the bloom of red pain he felt in his chest: Never let them see you’re hurt, never stay down… and make them pay.

Make them pay, he remembered.

The Kevlar armor had taken the impact and diffused it across his torso. He probably had cracked ribs, but it was better than being dead.

If it had been luck the first time, the soldier had used up his quota. As he struggled to unjam his gun, Alex came back hard at him. The blackened knife, shining with blood, flashed upward and buried itself in the soft meat at the base of the soldier’s throat. It went in to the hilt. The man gurgled wetly as he sunk to his knees.

Alex took no pleasure in the kill; these men had been nothing but in the way. As he watched, the soldier’s eyes became glassy and clouded. He ripped the blade free and wiped it on the dead man’s jacket.

Stozer was using leaves to wipe blood from her chest and arms. Two bodies lay at her feet. She nodded to Alex. ‘We make a good team.’

Alex looked at the slashed bodies. ‘A bit untidy.’

Bronson brought the team forward.

‘We need to pick it up — if you two have finished gossiping, that is.’ He looked down at the circular burst on the front of Alex’s armor. It stayed black; the dappling mechanics built into the weave no longer worked around the impact area. ‘Medium caliber, and slowed down a little by the muffler. Still, that’s one of your nine lives gone, Hunter.’ He looked Alex in the eye and his own narrowed momentarily. ‘Lift your game — no one comes back from the dead.’

Alex grinned. ‘Only hurts when I laugh, boss.’

Bronson raised an eyebrow. ‘You laugh? I’ve never seen it.’ He pointed with his thumb along the trail. ‘Take us out again; I got the Doc.’

Alex nodded and turned, building quickly to a jog once again. Sam Stozer ran beside him.

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