The four HAWCs moved along the line of parked vehicles in Surkhaiki Street. Fifty feet farther down the road was number fifteen, their destination. Like most of the houses, it was a modern weatherboard on wooden stilts. Out the front there were three wooden steps, with a small shrub on either side shielding the area underneath from prying eyes — a good hiding place. Again, Alex scanned the line of roofs and black windows. Several were open a crack. He held up his thermal scope: cold as Jack Frost’s tomb.
They’d maintain radio silence until they had something to report. Alex pointed to Kolchek, then to the steps. The man took off, staying low.
Kolchek knelt beside the steps and reached underneath. Almost immediately, he pulled free something wrapped in a dirty towel. The package looked monumentally heavy. He gave Alex the thumbs-up.
Kolchek slung his gun over his shoulder, needing both arms to carry the package. As he turned, he grinned — but only for a moment.
His head kicked back.
Kolchek fell heavily, the leaden canister bouncing off his chest. Immediately, Bruda’s booming gun shattered the silence, erupting like a thousand thunderstorms all around them.
* * *
Bronson frowned at the clipped instructions from the incoming chopper. They’d been pulled. He’d given coordinates that would set it down right on the main street — he doubted the average Chechen would come out to investigate a military chopper coming down in the center of their town. It would still take them an hour to arrive; he’d give Hunter a little bit longer to finish the job.
Khamid sat nervously, his eyes darting back and forth.
Khamid looked at him with a sort of weary gratitude, then suddenly jerked upright. His eyes widened. Bronson reached instinctively for his gun.
With his other hand, he snatched at the loop of razor wire that swung over his head and pulled tight. Even with his Kevlar glove, it bit deep into his fingers. A massive booted heel stomped down on his gun hand, breaking bones and pinning it to the dirt.
Khamid cowered in fear. There would be no help from the little man, but Bronson didn’t expect any. He grunted with pain as the garrote sliced through to the bone of his knuckles. The force being exerted was enormous.
A deep voice whispered in his ear: ‘Hurts, da, little man?’
Sweat and blood spat into the air as the first of his fingers fell away. The pain was nauseating, and he could feel himself sinking under it. With his last conscious breath, he croaked at the scientist, who was scrabbling backward, shaking his head as though denying what he was seeing.
Khamid staggered to his feet and fled. Bronson’s assailant laughed as the HAWC felt his now fingerless hand fall by his side.
The wire at his throat didn’t hurt at all.
* * *
From down the street, every window, every corner and rooftop seemed to contain a black-clad figure. The zip-zip of flying bullets sounded like a swarm of insects.
Johnson was across the road, firing up at the snipers, and Stozer had her back to the car beside Alex.
‘Have to be. They were there, concealed, but didn’t show up on the thermal scope; must have been hiding behind heat shielding. I count about thirty. There could be more.’ Alex ducked down lower behind the car. ‘They were expecting us — so much for Khamid’s theory on being invisible.’
‘And we led them right to the package.’
Alex nodded, glancing across at the package beside Kolchek’s body. ‘And we’re not going home without it.’
Stozer gave him a hard look. ‘That’s suicide.’
Alex seemed not to hear her. A hundred feet behind them, Bruda’s Gatling gun ceased its roaring, the shell drum whirring at the back of its barrel. Alex gestured, palm down, then whirled his finger once in a circle: suppressing fire, total area. Bruda nodded and pulled the remaining drums from his pack and fastened them to his belt. Each of the big double drums together held over a hundred rounds, and he had plenty.
Alex turned back to Stozer. ‘They’ve got thirty, maybe forty men. We’ve got Bruda with an AA12. I’d say we’ve got them outnumbered.’
As if to punctuate his point, Bruda stepped onto the street. A bullet smashed into his shoulder, making him grunt with annoyance. The big man didn’t falter. He planted his thick legs and pulled the trigger; the whirring boom started again.
The Spetsnaz Vympel ducked for cover as splinters of wood, broken glass and chips of concrete swirled around in the AA12’s hurricane of cordite and burning gunpowder.
‘Time to fly.’ Alex broke cover. Skidding to a stop beside Kolchek’s body, he looked at him briefly, but didn’t touch the fallen HAWC. He knew the small hole in the front of Kolchek’s skull would be nothing compared to the exit wound at the back.
Alex grabbed the package. He grunted — damned heavy. Clutching it to his chest, he stumbled back to Stozer. As soon as he reached her, she gave Johnson and Bruda a thumbs-up. Both nodded, and the big man ejected another empty drum from his gun. He didn’t have many left.
The Spetsnaz were staying down. Alex nudged her with his elbow. ‘Let’s —’
Before he could finish, a dark metal object, like a small hockey puck, landed on the car with a clank, and stuck there. A ring of red LEDs winked out one by one. Alex grabbed up the canister, sagging under its weight.
Stozer and Alex made it twenty feet back up the street before the mine exploded. It knocked them both forward, and they crawled into cover behind another parked car.
Across the street, Johnson emptied his magazine, then dove behind a car parked opposite. Though he moved quickly, he couldn’t avoid the limpet that sailed down and attached itself to something metallic in his backpack.
Cursing, Johnson tried to shrug himself out of his pack. The limpet exploded and flung him with a crunch into a brick wall. He lay still.
‘Fuck, they’re grinding us down!’ Stozer fired at the rooftops: as one Spetsnaz was punched backward, another took his place.
Alex shook his head — a nagging thought wouldn’t leave him. ‘They knew about Khamid and knew we were coming here… right here.’ He looked at Stozer. ‘They might have found the package long before we did. What if…’
Stozer fired again, but then spun quickly. ‘Alex don’t you dare. Don’t even think about opening that freakin’ casing.’
He gritted his teeth. ‘What if it’s empty? What if there’s nothing but C4 and thermite packed in here — just waiting for us to jump on the chopper, or get it back to home base?’
‘You heard what Khamid said that shit will do to you…’ She looked at Alex’s face, and groaned, seeing that his decision was already made. ‘Fuck.’ Stozer leaned back and banged her head hard against the car door. ‘Does anything ever go to plan?’
Alex laughed softly. ‘If it did, they wouldn’t need us.’ He gripped the lid hard and spoke through his clenched jaw. ‘You might need to back up twenty.’ He looked up briefly to where Bruda stood, just in time to see the big man turn quickly, as if something or someone was coming up behind him.
With night falling fast, Bruda couldn’t have noticed the shadow looming up behind him; the whirring of his Gatling’s empty drum masked the whistle of the rifle butt that crunched into the back of his neck. As he pitched forward, an enormous hand wrenched his gun from his grasp.
A lesser man would have been knocked cold, but Bruda’s neck was a thick column of muscle. He wasn’t so easy to fell. As he struggled back up to his feet, his assailant tossed aside both guns and waited.
‘Who the fuck is that?’ Stozer’s mouth hung open.
Without Bruda’s suppressing fire, the bullets had started flying again. Alex pressed the stud in his ear — nothing but dead air. ‘Bronson’s not answering. We’re on our own.’
He turned back to Bruda, who was trading bone-crushing blows with the Russian giant. Each man struck the other with enough force to crush a lesser man’s skull or ribs. Avoiding the other’s wild, lunging punch, Bruda delivered a side kick that would have split an oak door. It caught the Russian in the ribs, but instead of staggering him, those enormous hands wrapped themselves around the HAWC’s leg.
In one swift motion he brought his elbow down on Bruda’s knee. The crack was loud, even louder than the sound of bullets tearing through steel, wood and concrete.
He released the leg, which now bent at an odd angle. Only adrenalin and his training kept Bruda upright. The Russian lunged at him then, and raised his arm to block the big HAWC’s blow. As he did so, he dropped down and swept Bruda’s good leg out from under him. Bruda tried to tuck and roll backward, but the Russian was too quick — so quick the knives seemed almost to materialize in his hands as he maneuvered himself behind the HAWC.
In one smooth motion, he buried both blades to the hilt in each side of Bruda’s neck.
This was what they called a fight-stopper — the six-inch blades had severed the lateral cord containing the long pectoral nerve, the median and the musculocutaneous nerve, as well as several layers of muscle tissue. Bruda’s arms hung uselessly.
Alex gritted his teeth.
Smiling over at them, the big Russian dragged Bruda to his feet. Pulling free one of the knives, he swung it with enormous force into the HAWC’s temple. Bruda shuddered, and his eyes rolled back in his head.
Alex roared as both he and Stozer fired. The Russian used Bruda’s corpse as a shield as he backed into cover behind a nearby building. When he stepped back out onto the street a few moments later, his shield was the much smaller, cringing figure of Denichen Khamid.
Stozer groaned. ‘Where the hell is Bronson?’
Alex shook his head. ‘No cavalry today.’
‘HAWCs! It is over.’ The big, bearded giant’s accent was thick and his words mushed together as though he wasn’t breathing through his nose properly.
‘I am Colonel Uli Borshov, and I am in charge here.’ He shook Khamid, making his legs dance in midair. ‘Your comrades are dead; do not make me also hurt this one.’
Reaching into his holster, he drew a gun and held it to the scientist’s head.
Stozer sucked in a hissing breath.
They both recognized the big gun. It was a Gryazev-Shipunov, or GSh-18. It had been developed by the makers of aircraft cannons, and had been designed to fire armor-piercing rounds. Russia claimed it was more powerful than the.45 magnum — Alex agreed.
‘Come out; there is nowhere else for you to go.’ He waited another few seconds, then yanked Khamid’s arm upward. The small scientist shrieked, but the Russian ignored him and instead pressed the barrel of the gun up against the flat of his palm.
‘Ten seconds.’ He waited five and then pulled the trigger.
The bullet blasted through the small hand, leaving a hole the size of a casino chip. Blood sprayed out, and the bullet continued on to explode bricks in a house across the street.
Khamid screamed and then sagged but Borshov held him tight. ‘I think that hurt.’ Borshov laughed and maneuvered the scientist around in his arms. Taking hold of the other wrist, he then held up the second hand. Blood from the small man’s dangling hand dripped onto the road.
‘Come out; last one time I ask.’
Alex and Sam stayed down, Alex’s mind working furiously on his options.
Stozer exhaled beside him. ‘He’s gonna bleed out. I thought they wanted him alive.’
Alex kept his eyes on the brutal scene before them. ‘I don’t think they ever did. . they want this.’ He lifted the plate. ‘They couldn’t give a shit about Khamid now.’
‘Okay.’ Borshov pulled the trigger again. The effect was exactly the same on the other hand except this time blood splashed back onto the Russian’s face.
‘Ack.’ Borshov’s face twisted in disgust and he put the gun to the Chechen’s head and pulled the trigger.
The bullet punched through the scientist’s skull — small on entry and fist-sized on exit. Blood sprayed out, and the bullet twisted and spun down the dark street, a plume of gore following it for twenty feet. Borshov hung onto the body, like a hunter with a prized kill.
He laughed. ‘It was worth a try, nyet?’
Stozer turned to Alex. ‘We go out there we’re as good as dead.’
‘Either way, I miss out on that drink.’ She shook her head. ‘No way, hero.’
Alex rounded on her. ‘That’s an order — I mean it.’
‘God dammit.’ Stozer lowered her head. She spoke softly: ‘No one lives forever, huh?’
‘Only angels and devils, Samantha.’
Alex yelled over his shoulder. ‘We’re coming out!’
‘Good, good, Mr. HAWC. My arm was getting tired holding this dead weight. .’ Borshov dropped Khamid like a bag of trash as Alex stood up, holding the heavy lead canister in front of him. A half dozen Spetsnaz broke cover and moved cautiously toward them, guns raised as the two HAWCs stepped out onto the street.
‘You want this?’ Alex held up the package. He whispered to Stozer: ‘Get ready.’ He closed in on the giant Russian, motioning over his shoulder. ‘Keep them back.’
Borshov shrugged. He signaled for his squad to hold their positions.
Alex was now within ten feet of the man, who was even more imposing up close. He’d worked with plenty of big men, and he was six two himself, but the build of the Russian was like a cross between a human and a grizzly. Alex tensed his muscles and turned as if to check on the Spetsnaz behind him.
Borshov laughed deep in his chest. ‘Don’t be scared; they won’t —’
Alex spun back fast, using the momentum and all his strength to fling the hundred-pound canister at Borshov. At the same time he yelled: ‘Now!’
Stozer took off like a deer, jinking and weaving, flying past Borshov as the canister crashed into his chest. Caught off guard, the impact staggered him momentarily. Alex took his chance: rushing forward, he rained hard-edged blows on the Russian’s broad face. The huge arms blocked his last few punches, but in that short window, his pummeling had split Borshov’s cheek and flattened his nose.
Stepping back, Borshov reached into his mouth and fiddled with a tooth. It came away in his fingers. He pulled a face. ‘Not so pretty now, da?’ He grinned a bloody grin and wagged his finger. ‘I will kill you slowly, little dog. If you are best America can offer, I think soon we will march down your Times Square.’
Alex glanced about warily as more and more Spetsnaz broke cover and circled the two combatants. With every passing moment, Stozer was getting farther away, but he had to keep them busy, make a fight of it. This guy had taken down Bruda, so there was no way
Moving forward, Borshov feinted to his left, but instead of circling in the opposite direction, Alex lunged at him. Landing a flat-handed strike under Borshov’s chin, he ducked under the Russian’s swinging arms, delivering a side kick to the back of his knee. But the big man didn’t go down; instead, as momentum carried Alex through, one of Borshov’s fists slammed into his kidneys, the other catching him just above the eye.
The pain in his side was excruciating, and Alex could feel the trickle of blood from the cut that had opened on his brow. The eye would soon start to close. He staggered back a few steps, trying to clear his head.
Borshov laughed dismissively at his unsteadiness. ‘Good punch, da? I boxer once — Borshov the Beast they called me.’ He grinned again, and held his big fists up, circling them in the air.
Alex shook blood from his eye and moved sideways as a shout rang out from the corner.
Alex’s fists fell by his sides; Sam Stozer was being led back into the street, her hands bound behind her back, her face horribly torn and battered. She shook her head at him, and mouthed a word — it might have been
It might have been
Borshov shouted something in Russian to her captors, and the big man threw back his head and laughed. He turned and pointed at Alex. ‘You get to live a minute longer. First we decorate the street.’
The men brought rope and made a noose at one end, throwing the other up over a power pole. They lowered the noose over Stozer’s head.
Alex needed to buy some time — they must want something from him. He knew their modus operandi — they’d use Stozer as leverage; make demands. He wiped blood from his eye with the back of his hand. ‘What is it you want?’
Stozer continued to stare at him — no fear, no tears. The men pulled and she lifted off the ground.
‘No!’ Overwhelmed with impotent fury, Alex drew his longest K-bar and rushed the big man. It was a tactical error, one he’d never have made normally. Easily avoiding him, Borshov drew his own blade and drove it through Alex’s armor, deep into his side.
Alex tasted blood. He hit the ground, hard, immediately followed by Borshov’s boot, which came in fast, crunching into his chest. Things went black for a few seconds. When his vision cleared, he saw Stozer’s legs dancing like those of a wild marionette, and a wet gargling came from her mouth. Her face quickly turned blue and her tongue seemed to fatten as it protruded. Alex watched in horror — there was no dignity in being hanged.
Then it was over.
Borshov shrugged and glanced up at the swinging woman. ‘Too bad — she looked like good fuck.’ One of the Spetsnaz tossed him his large GSh-18, and he checked it as he strode toward Alex, sprawled on the ground. The Spetsnaz laughed and jeered.
But the big Russian shook his head. ‘Patience, comrade. First I blow off left foot, then the right. Then left hand. . ’ He grinned. ‘You ever seen man crawl without his hands and feet? Very funny thing.’
Alex gritted his teeth. In one hand he still held his K-bar; his other hand edged toward the lead canister lying on the ground beside him.
Borshov, satisfied with his gun, raised it and pointed it at Alex’s face.
A sound from the forest made the big Russian frown. It was like a breeze kicking up, but localized in one small area behind the tree line. One of the Spetsnaz shouted something, and Borshov turned. Alex took this last opportunity and threw his knife — it buried itself several inches deep into the meat of the giant’s thigh. Borshov cried out in pain and surprise, but his gun barrel remained steady. He squeezed the trigger.
With his last ounce of strength, Alex grabbed up the canister and held it out in front of him. The bullet tore through its inches of lead, splintering on the glowing disk inside. When a much smaller bullet fragment burst through the other side, it was now coated with a fine powder of luminescent fragments.
A bullet from the massively powerful gun, fired at such short range, would normally have shattered a man’s skull. Now, it retained just enough mass and velocity to punch a hole just above Alex’s left eye, into his brain.
* * *
Blue sky, crashing waves, salt drying on warm skin. And a girl with long brown hair that smelled of green apples…
… Then a whirlpool of darkness.