49

Moldova

The first priority was securing the buildings and making sure there were no Wolves left. Boston took charge of that, organizing a room by room sweep of the main house. Meanwhile, the severely injured were tended to. Tiny had broken his leg in the fall, and his ribs had been shattered by the Wolf’s punch. The trooper shot in the leg had lost a great deal of blood. Danny decided to have the Rattlesnakes take both of them directly to the nearest hospital. The other wounds turned out to be relatively minor, handled by temporary stitches, and an ice pack and aspirin in the case of a sprained ankle.

They’d been lucky, Danny realized. They’d taken the Wolves by surprise with overwhelming force, protected by the best body armor in the world and aided by technology that should have made this a cakewalk. But in truth, they could have easily been overwhelmed if the Wolves had reached their weapons.

So who were these guys? And was Stoner here?

Danny asked himself both questions as he walked through the house. The muscles in his legs trembled ever so slightly, moving sluggishly, as if the op had changed the electrical impulses they used to communicate with the brain.

He stood over a body in the hallway on the second floor. It was facedown in a pool of blood, riddled with bullets — the man looked to have taken an entire magazine, if not two, before going down.

Was this Stoner?

Danny dropped to his knee in the pool of blood and turned the body over. It was heavy — he had to use both hands.

The body slumped against the opposite wall, head flopping. For a second Danny thought he was alive and jerked back.

A bit of skull fell away.

It wasn’t Stoner.

Danny rose, his stomach starting to turn.

* * *

Danny went from corpse to corpse, expecting each time to see Stoner. He was sure as he approached each body that this would be him — this would be the man, vaguely remembered, who had saved his life, and whose life he had saved.

Each time his throat thickened and his heart pounded faster. Each time his breath seemed to slip away. And then each time the face, battered by bullets and covered with blood, didn’t belong to Mark Stoner. It was too young, too long, too round, too blond, or too different.

As varied as their faces were, all of the Wolves had many physical traits in common. All were at least six feet, most much taller. They were bulked up with muscles that would have made a bodybuilder jealous. Several were wearing prosthetics and implants. The man who Nuri had killed after he jumped from the roof of the house had an artificial leg fused to his bone just below his hip. Another of the men, killed in the house, had an artificial arm. Three of the others had scars on their upper arms and calves; Danny guessed there were implants of some sort there.

They gathered the bodies so they could be evacked and inspected by the technical team that evening. Danny went down to the Moldovan police lines to look at the other Wolves who’d been killed.

The deputy minister met him on the road. Lacu’s face was ashen; for all his earlier enthusiasm, he clearly hadn’t counted on so much bloodshed.

“We’re just finishing a sweep right now,” Danny told him. “We want to make sure there are no more booby traps. We have specialists, bomb people. Once it’s secure, you can come in and take over.”

The Moldovan deputy minister nodded.

“Nuri?” he asked.

“He and your sharpshooter are fine. They, uh, they were shaken up a bit. But your man was very brave. They were both brave.”

Lacu didn’t smile, exactly, but his nod this time seemed more positive.

“I need to look at the dead men,” said Danny. “We’re going to have to do, uh, autopsies.”

“Autopsies?” The minister didn’t understand the English word.

“Inspect the dead, the… uh, have doctors look at the bodies.”

Lacu still didn’t understand. Danny decided he’d let Nuri explain it to him, and went over to check on the rest of the Wolves.

Stoner wasn’t among them. None of the men had exoskeleton gear either. A good thing, Danny decided; it would help preserve the fiction that this had only been a drug raid.

“One of my men will show you a clear path to the marijuana fields,” Danny told the deputy minister. “But you should approach it very, very carefully. We don’t think there are booby traps, but you never know. These guys were really well prepared.”

“Yes,” said Lacu. “I see that.”

* * *

One body remained unchecked — the man who had blown himself up in the building.

Was it Stoner?

The explosion had leveled the building, turning it into a pile of debris. It would take days to dig through it.

It must have been Stoner, Danny thought, staring at the ruins. Knowing he was about to be captured, probably realizing the force after him was American.

Did Stoner know that he was there?

A chill swept over Danny’s body as he stared at the twisted wreckage. He felt certain Stoner was buried underneath.

“What happened?” Danny whispered to the last wisps of smoke that furled upward. “What really happened?”

* * *

In theory, the house should have contained a trove of information about the organization, even if actual records weren’t kept there. But the men had no personal effects — no IDs, no wallets even, nothing besides wads of euros and Moldovan leu, the local currency.

There were filing cabinets in the guardroom. Thinking they might be booby-trapped, Flash brought in a small electronic scanning device and determined there were no live circuits in the drawers. He drilled the key locks gingerly, but not trusting the Wolves, rigged a rope to open the first cabinet from outside the house.

Instead of the explosion he feared, there was a soft sound, almost like a pillow being fluffed. Smoke curled from the unit, followed by a small deck of flames that consumed the entire row of folders.

Shortly afterward, convinced that the area was secure and they hadn’t missed anything important, Danny called Breanna to tell her what was going on. He thought he was waking her up back in the States; to his surprise, he found her on the C–20 over the Atlantic, en route to Prague.

“It went well,” he told her. “But they’re all dead.”

“All of them?”

“I’m afraid so. One blew himself up in one of the buildings when it was clear he wasn’t getting out alive. The others were in no mood to surrender. They were like supermen. They’re all extremely strong.”

Danny described some of what had happened.

“Was Mark one of them?” Breanna asked finally.

“I don’t — he’s not one of the dead,” said Danny. “But…”

His voice trailed off.

“Danny?”

“I think he may have been the one who blew himself up. I — it’s just a hunch, I guess. Maybe a gut feeling.”

“Do you have photos or—”

“Nothing. No evidence. I reviewed the video images. There’s no shot of his face. But I just — I guess I feel that it’s him. It’s not rational, I know.”

“All right. And, to find out we have to dig through the wreckage, right?”

“It’ll take days.”

“We’ll get more manpower,” she told him. “The medical team and the other experts will be there by this evening.”

“Right. I should get back to Kiev. Just, uh, in case they have more people.”

“Yes, absolutely. Listen, I’ll be in Prague in a few hours — should I come to Moldova?”

“I don’t know that it would be necessary,” said Danny. “Why Prague?”

“There’s an air show. We’ve taken an aircraft that some of the NATO members are interested in. And I’m going to surprise Zen — he and Teri and my niece are there for the show.”

“Oh.”

“Did Zen tell you he was going to Kiev for the NATO conference?”

“No.”

“He is. It was a last-minute substitution when Senator Osten had a heart attack.”

“No, jeez, I hadn’t known at all.”

“Yes, he’ll be there. Listen, I know you and Zen text each other. Don’t tell him I’m going to Prague. It’s a surprise. OK?”

“No sweat.”

They talked a little more. Breanna agreed to brief Reid herself, saving Danny from giving his whole rundown all over. She told Danny that the task force that had developed the information on the Wolves was being expanded. It was likely that, with the op over, Whiplash would be able to come home and regroup.

“After Kiev,” she said. “Assuming nothing happens there.”

“Right.”

While they had knocked out a good part of the organization, Danny was sure they hadn’t gotten the real leader or leaders.

“These guys were just the muscle,” he said, aware of the understatement. “Whoever put these guys together like this — he or she would be capable of doing just about anything. We can’t let our guards down.”

“We’re not going to.”

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