Mario Vesques was sure he was going to make it, right up until he saw the knife in the dog’s hand.
He had no idea where the blade came from; what he did have was just enough time to realize he was in trouble, and then the cartoon animal was lunging at him in a way that Vesques recognized, had seen before, but yet couldn’t immediately place. Only as he got his left forearm up for a cross-block, felt the tip of the knife nicking skin as it split his sleeve, did it click.
Modern Army, as taught at Fort Benning, Georgia, courtesy of the United States Army; and through the adrenaline rush he saw the irony that he and whoever was wearing the Pooch suit shared the same pedigree. The absurdity of it all—Vesques in his maintenance coveralls and this man in his dog suit, right paw missing to reveal a Caucasian hand and the blade it held—that they had shared, at some point, the same masters, perhaps the same history, perhaps even the same instructors. That they might’ve, somewhere, sometime, stood together as brothers in arms.
But the blade was stabbing at him again and again, and Vesques was backpedaling now, stumbling once more through the door he’d just exited, the compressor room off the Flashman West maintenance tunnel, the one running east-west the length of the park. Dimmer light within, after-hours power management, and Vesques knew the room was a death trap, that there was no way out of it other than the one the dog now blocked.
The whole thing had been a fluke, what had seemed to be, finally, a stroke of good luck that had turned inexplicably, absurdly bad. Six weeks almost Vesques had been working the park, placed there just to make sure things stayed safe, that no one got bold, got any bright ideas. Six weeks working on a whisper that nobody believed would pan out—and he didn’t, either, to tell the truth, thought it another wild-goose assignment. But he did his job, the job he was trained to do, and tonight—tonight—he had thought about maybe checking the compressors, just to be sure. He hadn’t known what he was looking for, but intuition had said, hey, air-conditioning, put something into circulation, and he had listened, because in training they had told him that intuition was more often what would save his life than take it.
Except this time.
After-hours staffing, maintenance and custodial working one to six, nobody supposed to be around except other men and women wearing the same coveralls Mario Vesques now wore. Which was why, when he saw Pooch heading into compressor 4, off Flashman West, well, that was definitely worth checking out. Which was why he’d waited until Pooch had emerged again after two minutes, had headed down the tunnel and disappeared, before going to take a look himself.
Shining his flashlight over and around the ductwork, the pipes and compressors, even getting down on his belly until the beam revealed a shape just poking out from behind the compressor itself. Reaching, straining for it, and his fingers had closed on the tail of a nylon duffel bag. Pulled the bag free, looked inside. A folded, paper-thin jumpsuit. A gas mask. A disassembled pistol, and Vesques guessed that was how it had entered the park, one piece at a time. A cell phone, but that wasn’t the jackpot, as far as he was concerned. The jackpot was the radio, military-grade hardware with not one but two extra batteries, and that meant there was a plan in place, one that required communication and coordination, and this was only one part of it.
So he zipped the duffel shut and he put it back where it belonged, and on a whim swept his light around the room one more time, into the dark corners. Reflected light jumped back at him.
He’d gone in for a closer look, seen that his flashlight had bounced from the screen of a disposable cell phone, and that the phone wasn’t alone. Wired up, and good, a proper IED, but a small one, so small he could barely find the charge on it. The phone itself taped to a small plastic baggie, and powder in the baggie, and his throat had gone dry at that. Not the explosive, oh, no, that wasn’t what made his stomach cramp; but that powder, whatever that powder might be, he was sure that was trouble.
Trouble enough that it was time to go, time to make the call and report what he’d found. Time to maybe get the operators in here, people who knew what they were doing with biological agents and IEDs and the like.
Left it where he found it, and he’d backed out of the room, turned, and seen Pooch ten feet away.
Holding a knife.
Tools on his belt jangling, flashlight still in hand, Vesques brought it up, across, trying to club at the hand holding the knife. Hitting high, what should’ve been a bone-crushing blow lost in the padding on the costumed arm, and now Pooch was slamming into him, full-body, the same costume cushioning the impact but doing nothing to diminish the weight. They fell back together, Vesques dropping the flashlight, both hands seeking the knife, and then the white heat bursting through his vision.
Tasting copper in his mouth.
The vibration of his head hitting concrete again, the blurred flash of Pooch looming over him, human hand and dog’s paw, the knife gone. His hair tearing. Kicking back, struggling, and then the world losing sound, vision splintering, as his skull was bashed into the floor.
And his last thought, bitter and angry, as he saw Pooch’s insipid, eternal grin.
“Just how old are you?” Bell asks.
She stops, her back to him, arms raised, T-shirt exposing bare back to bra. It’s ten at night in Skagway, Alaska, the start of July, and sunlight still hints the sky, slants through the blinds at the window, touching pale skin and painting it bronze. Then she finishes the movement, draws the shirt over her head, discards it with a toss as her black hair falls down her back. She half turns, grins at him, pure mirth.
“Old enough,” she says.
This is probably true, Bell thinks, at least in the abstract. Most of the summer population up here are college kids, working forest-service internships or manning the cafés and storefront industries that cater to the regularly scheduled cruise ship arrivals. Tourists come like clockwork, swarm through the town like worker ants in a managed rush for souvenirs and photographs, retreat before dinner for their all-you-can-eat floating buffets. This girl, she’s at least twenty, Bell figures, though he could be wrong; gauging ages has never been his strongest suit. Height, weight, distinguishing details, those he can record and repeat at the drop of a hat, nearly twenty years of training having turned the act into one of instinct. But ages? He’s never gotten the hang of that, and it’s been nagging him for the last two weeks of flirtation with this young woman who’s been pouring his morning coffee at the Black Bean. Now she’s unlacing her hiking boots, and not unintentionally giving him a view of her cleavage, and Bell has to admit that her cleavage, like the rest of her, is more than a little alluring.
Boots, kicked off, land in the corner, and she straightens to face him while reaching around to unfasten her bra. She’s grinning like before, white teeth visible in her growing smile, an amusement that again has Bell wondering at her age. Young enough that sex is a game, something only ever played for fun. It’s been a long time since he stood in front of someone like this, to do this, and instead of feeling older than she, now he’s feeling suddenly younger, adolescent and hormonal, and he resists the urge to mock himself.
“Why?” she asks. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better.”
That gets a laugh, and she begins unbuttoning her Levi’s.
“You going to watch or get undressed?”
Bell thinks that getting undressed is probably the best idea.
There are two sniper teams positioned around the market square, two men to each, and Bell has command. They came in at night unseen, buried themselves amid wreckage and refuse, two rifles, two cones of fire, and a long wait for a killing that may not come to pass. CIA intel fed through JSOC and into the field, and four operators are now in a place they technically shouldn’t be, waiting to kill a very, very bad man. It is a dawn that calls for precision work.
“Spell me,” Bell says, taking his eye from the scope, lowering his head, blinking fatigue away. Despite six hours of motionless waiting, his body feels fine, relaxed and steady. It’s the eye that needs the regularly scheduled maintenance. Beside him, Chaindragger shifts from behind the spotting scope, settles behind the rifle. Somewhere across the square, Cardboard and Bonebreaker are doing the same thing, alternating watch to stay razor-ready.
Sun rises, bleaching the world with heat, the square coming alive. Old men with white beards and ageless women swathed in black, children beginning to spill from homes and hovels, raising dust as they play. Bell watches as six of them begin kicking a soccer ball they’ve made from plastic bags and all the tape they could scrounge up. It’s a good ball. When the smallest of the players pounds a kick into it, it flies true.
Bone’s voice comes into his ear. “Warlock? Vehicle, White.”
Bell swings the spotting scope to the north side of the square, picks up the vehicle instantly. It’s a battered Benz thirty-plus years past warranty, rusted panels and peeling paint. The car coasts to a stop, squeezes between a Transit van and a donkey cart, idles. A Toyota pickup slides past. The Benz rolls forward another twenty meters or so. Stops again, now alongside the largest of the fruit-and-grain stalls on the square. Door opens.
“That him?” Chaindragger murmurs.
Bell stays on the man, the weathered skin and scraggly beard. Boy’s eyes in a man’s face.
“Red,” Bell says, and he keys his mike. “Red. Negative target.”
Confirmations come back. Bell watches the man vanish into the crowd, disappear forever.
There’s silence, but Bell knows they’re all thinking the same thing.
“Warlock?” Bone says, finally. “This is some fucked-up shit.”
Bell says nothing for several seconds before rolling to his side and reaching for the sat phone that leads back to Brickyard. “Fuck it,” he says. “Sending it uphill.”
“Roger that,” Chaindragger says with quiet emphasis.
The square continues filling up, full of life. The Benz isn’t the only car in the square, not by a long shot.
But all four shooters know it’s the only one that’s going to explode.
The last sunlight goes, replaced by a low moonrise, and she comes back from the bathroom carrying a glass of water, stops at the side of the bed. Bell, on his back, looks up at her, watches as she drinks, then brings the water to his lips as if aiding an invalid. He swallows, feeling thick and drowsy, out of practice in too many ways. The last time he had sex was with Amy, four months ago now, just after the divorce went final. A final fuck hurrah, making love with a passion that took them both by surprise. After, they’d lain together for half an hour in silence before she’d left his side for the last time, moving to dress.
“Why are we doing this again?” Bell asked.
“Because you’re a good lay,” Amy said. “And so am I.”
“Not my reference.”
“I know your reference, soldier.” She turned from his gaze to pull on her panties, an awkward modesty that transformed eighteen years of marriage, of intimacy, into wasted days. “We don’t love each other anymore.”
This girl, who’s not Amy, sets the glass aside, then slips back into the bed, rolling onto her belly, breasts pressing against Bell’s chest. He feels where her body has turned cool from the night air beyond the blankets, feels her stealing his own body heat to replace hers. She props herself up on an elbow, rests a cheek in her palm. With her other hand, she begins to tour his body. An index finger traces the puckered line along Bell’s left shoulder.
“How’d you get this?”
Bell turns his head to look at the scar, turns his head back to stare at the ceiling. “I got shot.”
“You were in Iraq?”
She laughs, concluding that nothing he says can be trusted. Drags a finger across Bell’s chest, then down, stopping at the right lower abdominal. “This one?”
Her hand moves lower, takes a slight detour, and she offers a naughty grin before continuing to his right thigh.
“Something sharp, yeah.”
Bell obliges. She examines his arms, takes his right hand in hers. He feels the slight brush of her fingertip between his thumb and forefinger, distant, as if from far away.
“This a callus?”
“That is a callus.”
“How do you get a callus like that? There?”
It’s a gun callus, earned by putting thousands of rounds through a pistol seven days a week, from morning to night to morning again. It’s earned on the range and in the Shooting House, live-fire exercises on endless repeat until shooting is like breathing, until missing is Not An Option, and it’s kept by taking that honed skill and applying it to the enemy. It is a killer’s callus, a warrior’s mark, an operator’s badge of honor.
He doesn’t say any of that.
“Yard work,” Bell tells her.
She looks at him, eyebrow arched, then bends her head so her hair brushes over him in a wave. He feels her tongue light between his fingers, her lips as she kisses her way along his arm, onto his back, where she stops again.
“Wasn’t too bad.”
“Does it hurt?” she asks. “Getting shot?”
He doesn’t answer at first. Thinking of Amy again, how she never once asked. How her face would fall and her eyes would turn dark, how her lips would draw thin and tight. But she would never make a sound. She never would ask.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Bell says.
Bell switches the sat phone off. Chaindragger’s heard just one half of the conversation, but he knows what’s coming, and still he hasn’t moved.
“Pack it up,” Bell says, and then says it again for the benefit of the radios.
“We got a VBIED parked down there—,” Bone starts to say.
“We are ordered to pull out.” Bell cuts him off. “Brickyard says mission abort, return to LZ Venus.”
There is another heartbeat’s pause, then the confirmations come back to Bell’s ear. Chaindragger is already at his knees, breaking down the rifle. A shout carries through the hot, still air, and Bell looks out at the square once more. Without optics, more than one hundred meters away, figures look like animation tests, waggling, hopping, running back and forth. He sees the makeshift soccer ball sailing through the air, bounce to a stop in front of the parked Benz.
“Sons of bitches,” he mutters.
Chaindragger looks up at him. Like Bell and the rest of the squad, he’s let his hair grow out, now to his shoulders, his beard a scraggly mass of black hanging from his coffee-dark face. Wearing the local color, the way all of them are, baggy trousers and a long shirt-coat to the thighs.
“It’s wrong, Top,” Chaindragger says. “We’re better than this.”
Bell blinks at him. Looks back to the square, the sun now high enough to give glare to the air itself, it seems. He sighs, knowing he’ll catch hell for this from every echelon between here and Florida.
“LZ Venus.” Bell pulls his pistol from where it’s been riding at the small of his back, moves it to the front of his pants, then heads for the stairs. “I’ll catch up.”
He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking one of the American Spirits from her pack, when daylight begins to return. Dawn peeking through the blinds, as if hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto. She’s sleeping still, her lips parted slightly, as if, even in dreams, she remains mildly amused by Jad Bell.
Bell finishes the smoke, walks to the window, pulls the tilt cord, and the slats part and more light flows. He feels it on his naked body, stares out at the trees, wondering how much longer he’ll have to do this, wondering when it’ll end. He’s made his way from Baja to here in the last four months, left the day after the papers were signed. Hugging the coast north, sleeping in his car or in a tent or just under the stars, taking the odd job now and again. Video chats via laptop with Amy every week, mostly so he could talk to Athena. They didn’t have much to say; she was pissed as hell at him, and he couldn’t blame her. She was six when the war started, Bell remembers. Ten years is a long time.
Guilt flashes, and he turns to look at the girl in the bed, sees that she’s opened her eyes, is watching him. The smile is gone.
“You want to talk about it?” she asks.
“No,” Bell tells her, and turns back to the window.
Bell runs a circuit of the square, keeping eyes on the Benz, and he’s thinking the whole time that there’s a whole slew of reasons Brickyard told them to abort, and that getting atomized by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device is probably at the top of that list.
This is a fucking fool’s errand, Bell thinks. VBIED, and too many variables. Is it on a timer? Is it call-in activated? Radio detonated? And if one of the last two, then some son of a bitch is on overwatch with a phone or transmitter in his hand, waiting to press the button, and he will—he absofuckinglutely will—do just that thing if he sees Bell getting curious about the Benz.
Which means approaching that car is out of the question, at least for the moment.
“Black, clear,” Cardboard says in his ear.
“The fuck are you doing?” Bell has to turn to a building face, keeping his voice low.
“Black is clear,” Cardboard repeats, the hint of his Alabama drawl stronger on the last word. “South of the square is clear. And as we were positioned Red and Green, then your overwatch on that vehicle, Warlock, we must deduce, is on White.”
Bell looks to the south side of the square, then the west, then the east. Colors are direction: White north, Black south, Red and Green for east and west respectively. Nowhere does he see Bone, Chaindragger, or Cardboard, but that’s not a surprise; no more of a surprise than the fact that none of the squad has done as ordered. Bell shakes his head slightly, then realizes the building he’s sheltering in front of is on the White side, the north side, of the square. If there’s overwatch on the VBIED, it’s going to be in here.
“Guess I better take a look inside,” he says.
“I guess you’d better,” Bonebreaker says, and Bell can swear to God the man’s trying not to laugh at him. “Unless you want someone to come hold your hand, Top?”
“Think I’ve got this—”
“Target, target, target,” Chaindragger hisses, cutting in. “Approaching Green, say again, I have eyes on target.”
He showers after her. She lives light, the bathroom uncluttered, only essentials, and apparently makeup consists of an eyeliner and a lipstick, both courtesy of Burt’s Bees. When he’s dressed, she takes his hand, and they walk together to the Bean along streets that are just beginning to stir. Her hand is warm and slight, and his feels big around it, and when they turn the corner onto Broadway she leans her head against his shoulder, squeezes his upper arm through the overshirt he’s wearing. Fourth of July bunting and American flags still hang from houses. Bell looks back, can see the stacks of two cruise ships in the port. It’s early enough that the onslaught has yet to begin.
They separate entering the Bean, she disappearing behind the counter into the back to emerge half a minute later tying a barista’s apron around her middle. There’s a scattering of local color present, and Bell earns a nod from one or two, recognition. He’s been around just long enough that the outsider edge is beginning to dull, but still, he’s viewed as transient. She pulls him a double espresso, puts a blueberry muffin on a chipped plate for him, brushes the back of his hand with hers as he takes them. Bell moves to a table with a view of the window. There’s a copy of the Skagway News on a chair, and he takes it up, reads while listening to the growing murmur of conversation around him. Outside, the first tourists have penetrated this far, peering into windows as if visiting a zoo.
He finishes his breakfast and she slips out from behind the counter, bringing him a new cup, fresh coffee this time, and takes the empty espresso away. Fingertips brush the back of his neck as he turns, and when he swings his head to follow her, she’s looking back at him, the mirthful grin, full of promise for tonight. He can’t help grinning in response, then turns back to the paper, catches sight of a man he knows too well through the window, on the opposite side of the street, moving among the clots of tourists.
He folds his newspaper, sips his coffee, watches this man he knows step inside. Watches him stop at the counter, talk to her. A coffee to go. He exits again with paper cup in hand, turning right, past the window once more, then out of sight.
For a moment, Bell seriously considers not moving, and the thought surprises him. He likes Skagway, he likes this girl, this place, mucking through the woods and fly fishing, the thought of the solitary, silent winters, and, he realizes, there would be worse places to live and die. But he no sooner thinks it than he knows it’s not home, though he’s damned if he knows what or where home is anymore.
He takes his coffee with him as he steps outside.
She watches him go, wonders why he didn’t say good-bye.
“Board, Bone,” Bell says. “Clear White.”
Both men come back, roger that. Bell can hear each of them moving even in the brief instant they radio their confirmations.
“On Green, crossing Red. I’m parallel, ten meters.”
“Give him room to breathe.”
Bell steps out of the way of two burka-clad women walking hand in hand with their children. The noise in the square is constant—voices, livestock, vehicles, conversation and shouts, haggling and haranguing. Bone and Board pass him on either side, no one exchanging looks, and Bell picks up Chaindragger first, opposite him on the Black side, and then, a half second later, spots the target coming up to his left. The man is walking alone, indistinguishable from any other man in the market, indistinguishable from the squad, in fact. Just another tanned face in dusty clothes with a beard and ragged hair sticking out from beneath his hat. And like just about every other goddamn male over the age of ten in the region, packing an AK slung over his shoulder.
There is nothing good about this situation, Bell thinks. They move on target and it goes wrong, the overwatch on the Benz panics. It’s all about the timing now; if Board and Bone can locate and neutralize the overwatch, if they can secure the bomb, then he’ll have a free run on the target. But if they can’t, if the target doesn’t have the common decency to remove himself to a location where he can be quietly put down, the whole thing’s a scratch.
Bell times his approach, passes behind his target without a glance, and the man continues threading his way through the crowds. The plastic soccer ball suddenly rises, arcing through the air, and from the corner of his eye, Bell sees the target head it down, back to the cluster of kids. Laughter and approval, and for a second Bell wonders if those children would be so delighted if they knew the man who just joined their game for an instant has lost count of the men, women, and children he’s murdered.
“White Alpha, clear,” Bone says. “Moving to Bravo.”
First floor clear, moving to the second, and the building only offers three floors, which would make things so much easier, except it’s not the only building on that side of the square. Bell turns, following after the target, maybe eight meters between them. Chain is on his left, falling back; he’ll cut north, try to get ahead of their man.
They’re getting closer to that Benz.
“Bravo clear, moving to Charlie.”
Bell is about to confirm when there’s the rip of AK fire to his right, to the White, the north, side. The crisp crack of 7.62 on full auto, then a second assault rifle joining the first, and all at once the market square bursts into an entirely different frenzy, weapons slipping from shoulders, women and children starting to scatter as voices rise from warning to hysteria. The target stops and pivots, his weapon coming up in his hands, and Bell can read his calm amid the sudden chaos, knows that in half a second, the man in front of him will read the same thing, and see him as the enemy.
With no pause, still walking forward, Bell draws his pistol from its place at his waist and places two shots in the target, head and neck, a double-tap released without conscious thought. The target drops, deadweight, and Bell keeps moving, pistol now against his thigh. People surge on all sides, and for an instant Bell believes no one has noticed, is about to call for Bone and Board, for the Sitrep, when he finds himself staring at one of the soccer players, a boy no more than twelve, that absurd jury-rigged ball in his hands. For just that instant, they’re looking into one another’s eyes, and then Board is in his ear.
“Clear,” he’s saying. “Had it on dial-in, we’re clear.”
“Venus,” Bell says. “Now.”
They all roger that, and Bell and the boy stare at each other for a half second longer, and then the boy is backing away, turning, running. Chaindragger is coming toward Bell now, and they fall in together, picking up speed, starting to hustle with the crowd, blending in. Cardboard and Bonebreaker appear, making toward the Green side, but hold up for half a second, waiting so they can group up again. Bone takes the opportunity to look past them into the emptying square, spots the body on the ground.
“Paid in full,” he says.
Bell keeps moving. The flow of traffic has changed with the lack of gunfire, and now a woman screams, one of their freshly laid corpses revealed. People rush back into the square, voices rising again, confusion, consternation. They skirt the corner of the mosque, and they’re just about to turn when the pressure wave hits them, leading the blast from the Benz.
Bell feels himself lifted from the ground, feels his legs fly out from beneath him. He lands hard, somehow on his back, head ringing and bile in his throat. He attempts to roll, can’t manage it on the first try, curses himself, and pushes again, this time making it onto his stomach. He’s been turned around, he realizes, facing the square again.
The blessing of the blast is that it steals his hearing, and so he can’t hear the pain, only see it, but that, in its own way, makes it worse. Through dust and smoke, he can see that where the car was there is now nothing, a crater ringed in black, and all around, on every side, there is blood and meat and the dumb show of those miraculously spared blinking in their concussion-stupor. He hears a thread of someone’s keening, sees the dead. Old men and young, women and boys and girls, and there are the wounded, clutching at themselves where holes that shouldn’t be are, where limbs that once were have gone absent. Bell’s gaze falls on the boy, the plastic ball in his hand, its bottom half sheared by the blast.
Just like the boy.
Board is pulling Bell to his feet, shouting at him, words dim. Bell nods, knows what he’s asking. Bone is supporting Chain, blood rushing down the side of his face in a sheet. They push off, heading for their vehicle, then for Venus and Brickyard, trying to put this all behind them.
Knowing they never will.
Bell finds him two blocks down, standing at the corner, and it’d be a believable tourist act if it weren’t for the military-issue haircut and the ramrod posture. Civvies notwithstanding, you can take the man out of uniform, but some men—you will never take the uniform from the man.
“Jad,” the man says, apparently admiring the trees.
“Colonel,” Bell says.
The man turns to look at him, the slight curl of a smile as he takes Bell in, then shakes his head. “You look like a pilgrim who’s lost his way, Master Sergeant.”
Bell considers that, then finishes his coffee. There’s a garbage can at the edge of the abused lawn beside him, and he sets the empty cup atop it. “You’re here to help me find it?”
“I’m here to offer you a job,” Colonel Daniel Ruiz tells him.