Disclaimer: we can all pretend, can't we?
"Lissy! Hurry up; you'll be late for school."
"Mom, I can't find my locket! It was here just yesterday when I was watching Serena for Mrs. Brown! I can't find it!"
"Then you'll have to go to school without it. You can look for it when you come home. After you do your homework," Tiffy Gerhardt added firmly.
Light brown hair was tossed scornfully over a teenage shoulder, with a look that only a teenager could use effectively. "I gotta find it, Mom! I told Angie that I'd show her, and she's like the coolest kid in school. If I don't bring it in, she'll think I was lying!" The last broke off in a wail.
"You've got sixty seconds to look for it." Tiffy gave in, but only just so much. "After that, you're outta here."
"But what if I can't find—"
"Then you'll have to explain to your friends that you mislaid it, and that in the future you're going to keep your room neat and clean so that this doesn't happen. Right?"
Molly Blane never liked this part of town. It wasn't as though it was really bad—this was, after all, a town with an army base squatting right on its borders and a commanding officer who wasn't above sending out a squad or two of M.P.s to assist the local police in performance of their duties, whether or not those duties included interactions with a few soldiers feeling their oats—but the buildings lining the roads had that run-down feel to them. The windows of the buildings were old, and it wasn't only faces peering out through the curtains that caused the fabric to sway. The breezes creeping through did their share, allowing heat to leech away and steal money through electric and heating bills. There were a few too many walls in need of painting, and bushes in need of trimming, and roofs with drooping shingles.
No, Molly always double-checked that the doors to her car were locked whenever she needed to pass this way. It was a shame, because the market with the best quality food and the best prices lay in this direction. It wasn't as if anything had ever happened to her. In fact, Molly couldn't recall any story that involved someone she knew. Every story began with the disclaimer, 'I heard it from so and so, who heard it from so and so, who—" and on and on. It could have been a mugging in the seventies that had generated a tale that refused to go away. Who knew?
Still, Molly didn't like this section of town, and she put pressure on the gas pedal just an infinitesimal bit more, eased the speedometer up another notch, and hurried.
The car jolted forward, rammed from behind.
Molly couldn't help herself; she screeched in alarm. Her chest suddenly hurt, and she realized that she'd been thrown against the steering wheel. I'll have a bruise there the size of a melon, was her first barely coherent thought.
Her second thought was: don't get out! That was the way some muggers worked: ram a car from behind, then rob whoever got out to see what the damage was. The engine to her car was still running; Molly could step on the pedal and not stop until she reached the police station or the army base, whichever direction she could remember most clearly. Panic clutched at her heart.
But the person emerging from the other car was just a young woman, someone just as dismayed as Molly that this had happened. Teenager, really, probably someone's daughter with her first car, talking on her cell phone, hurrying to school, terrified out of her wits. Molly remembered her daughter Betsy's first accident, not more than a dent in a fender but scared stiff that Sergeant Major Dad was going to come down on her like a ton of bricks. He hadn't, but only because Molly had persuaded him not to. Betsy had learned her lesson, had paid for the damage to the other car herself, and the only lingering damage was to a young girl's ego. Pounding it in hadn't been necessary.
This girl was likely in the same condition. How would the kid handle it? Mature, own up to her mistake and take responsibility? Or would she try to somehow make it into Molly's fault? Molly would take her cue from the child's own response. Molly pulled on the car handle, grateful that it opened without any difficulty, fumbling in her handbag for her license and registration—and her insurance card.
Two men from out of nowhere yanked her from the car and grabbed her handbag. One snatched at the heavy gold necklace that she wore, jerking at it until the clasp broke and the chain came away in his hand. Molly shrieked in rage, striking out at them, but they were gone in an instant, fleeing down the road and into a back alley.
Molly turned to the girl, to the other driver—had they assaulted her, too?
The second engine revved. The girl was back behind the wheel, pulling out and driving off in a squeal of rubber.
Gone. Everyone gone. Her handbag, her necklace, her sense of safety. Her clothing torn—must have happened when those men were snatching her purse. Molly started to reach for her cell phone to call the police—dammit, her cell had been in her purse! She didn't have any way to call for help. Even the few coins rattling around in the car wouldn't help; there weren't any pay phones any more, not with everyone owning one and two cells and sometimes more.
Sergeant Major Jonas Blane kept his voice low. "Snake Doc to home base. We have eyes on target. Repeat: eyes on the target."
Sgt. Kayla Medawar's cool tones came across the air waves, and Blane knew that she was receiving direction from Col. Ryan. "You have a go. Retrieve the package, Snake Doc."
Time for caution. Time to not make a mistake. His men were burning to go bust down the doors, pour in and stop the evil that was taking place. Blane knew that, but this was the time when caution was most needed. Allowing the screams of agony that were bursting from within to rush his team into a mistake would mean disaster for more than just their fellow soldier inside the shanty.
Blane forced himself to review the target. Team Beta was over the next hill, waiting for Alpha Team to give the go-ahead to come in with guns blazing and take out the target. The building that was a mere hundred yards away from Blane was a squat brick building, something that was unfortunately highly defensible, in Blane's opinion. Failure to plan would be to plan for failure. Blane planned.
The package—Sgt. Ted Masters, of Beta Team—had been assigned reconnaissance more than two weeks ago. He'd disappeared, and now Alpha Team had found him in the less than tender hands of the Sons of Elijah, a radical splinter group with ties to more Middle Eastern terrorist groups than Blane could keep track of. The ties would be someone else's headache, Blane knew. His assignment was to retrieve Sgt. Masters, preferably alive, extract whatever intelligence he could if it looked as though the intelligence needed emergent extracting, and get the hell out of Dodge. Then Beta Team could swoop in and inflict a little revenge for the treatment that their forward agent had undergone.
Three entrances, each one guarded by a kid who looked like he knew what he was doing with an M-16. The building wasn't large, which meant that the number of people inside would be limited. Blane estimated that the inside crowd couldn't be larger than ten, plus Masters. This was manageable. It would be tricky, it would require good timing, but it could be done without an inordinate amount of luck.
Blane nodded to the man beside him and they moved in, allowing the darkness to cover their forward progress. Charles Grey was Blane's opposite number: where Blane was tall, Grey was short. Blane was cool, calm, and collected; Grey was a cannon that was ready to explode once someone gave permission for the fuse to blow—and sometimes without even a fuse. Still, a good man to have at his side, and Blane had hand-picked every member of his team. He knew his men, and there was a reason that Ryan assigned the most difficult missions to Alpha Team.
Another step, and another. Blane felt more than heard Grey at his heels, each one breathing silently and placing each foot so that not a sound emerged to give them away. Night vision goggles made the landscape stand out in a Mars-like eerie world, everything tinged with red. A flare—the guard in front of them lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply of the nicotine-laced smoke, his automatic weapon dangling at his side. Good; they were still undetected.
That wouldn't last much longer. Grey and he had advanced as far as they could without detection. It was show time.
Click. Blane tabbed his radio once: a signal.
Nothing was heard, but three bullets arrowed their way toward three deserving targets. Most silencers simply quieted the noise of the shot but these toys, straight from the experimental ballistics lab, did a far better job of muffling the sound. The only way Blane knew that three sentries were no longer on the job was because the sentry guarding the entrance that he and Grey were looking at suddenly flopped over onto the ground and lay there, his life's blood cooling to a dim orange in the artificial light of the night vision goggles. It was a good bet, Blane decided, that the two guarding the other entrances were in a similar condition. The lack of noise tended to confirm his supposition.
Now it was his turn, his and Grey's. The pair didn't wait for any of the others to catch up. It was now time to do something about the weakening screams that floated through the corridors to twist at their guts.
Blane led, followed the sound that needed to be silenced, Grey trailing him and covering their backsides. One soldier emerged from a side door, pulling up his pants and fumbling at his belt buckle.
The automatic would be too noisy. Blane opted for a palm strike to the nose, rocking the soldier back with one powerful blow. He started to move in, and halted. There was no need. The soldier was sprawled on the floor of the john, out cold.
He would be found before too long, but Blane expected to be out of this rat hole before that happened. Killing someone in cold blood was not something that Blane enjoyed doing and if he didn't have to, he wouldn't. The young soldier would live—for now. Whether or not he would enjoy his life after this episode was something that Blane was not about to predict.
They made their way swiftly along the corridors, meeting only one more person and stuffing him into a closet with a broken arm but without consciousness. He too would wake up before long, and it wouldn't matter. Blane and his men would be long gone.
A light at the end of the corridor alerted them—that, and a gurgling sob of a man pushed too far beyond tolerance.
Blane exchanged a glance with Grey. This was it. They had reached their objective, now it was time to acquire the package. As one, they removed their night vision goggles. The room before them was well lit, the better to see the owner of the screams, and night goggles would be a hindrance.
On three. Blane held up his hand. One. Two—
Blane slammed open the door with one hand, firing with the other, sensing more than seeing the targets, aiming for the soldiers on the left. Hostage identified; no kill zone established. Grey was on his heels, taking out the remainder on the right.
Not one of the six enemy soldiers had the time to pull his own weapon before he was a dead man. One on the right tried; his automatic was in his hands, and he was swinging it into position when Grey's bullet entered his heart. He tried. He failed. He was too slow.
Blane kept to the plan. He positioned himself by the sole entrance to the room, standing guard, while Grey ministered to the victim who was sliding out of the hard-backed chair now that the additional support—his torturers—were gone. "Betty Blue?" Blane kept only part of his attention on the corridor outside.
"Not good." Grey pulled out medical supplies from his pack. A quick jab, and an intravenous line was started, pouring in life-giving fluids. "Keep breathin', buddy." Morphine followed soon after.
Masters tried. The bubbles of blood seeping out over his bitten lips were evidence of that. Air passed wetly in and out of his lungs. "Jonas…"
This was going to be a deathbed statement. Even a blind man could see that, and Grey was considerably better than that. "Snake Doc," he called.
"Switch places." Blane came over and knelt by the Unit operator gasping his last. "I'm here, Ted."
"Jonas…" Masters worked to get the words out. "I didn't break, Jonas."
"I know that, Ted." It was only the truth. "You're a good man."
The morphine was kicking in, and it helped. The words flowed more smoothly. "I didn't break, Jonas. They didn't get anything out of me."
"Did you find anything?"
"Passed the intel…few days…ago…It's waiting…for pick up…" Now the morphine was taking over; that, or life was receding. Blane feared it was the latter. "Tell Maria…"
Blane leaned over. "Tell Maria what, Ted? Where's the intel?"
His breath seeped out in a final sigh, and Master Sergeant Jonas Blane gently closed the eyes of the man who had given his life for his country. He rose to his feet. "We're done here."
"Not yet, Snake Doc." Grey gestured to the papers in his hands, worry plain on his face. He had dived into the manila folders sitting on the table, knowing what needed to come next and in a hurry to get to it. "These guys knew their stuff. They were tracking his movements, seeing where he went over the past couple of weeks. They must have suspected him. Shaky cover."
"Looking for where he passed his intel." Blane knew that for a fact. It was what any half-competent spy would have done in the same position, and this crowd was considerably more than half-competent.
Williams had replaced Grey by the door, guarding their backs while Gerhardt and Brown swept the building for the remainder of the enemy. He tossed a glance over his shoulder. "So where is the intel? Where did Masters leave it?"
"Damned if I know." Blane surveyed the room, as if the missing intelligence was somehow hidden there. Ridiculous notion, borne out of frustration. "But it sure as hell ain't going to be Masters who tells us where it is."
"Snake Doc." Grey called once again for attention. "Look at this." He held out the papers that the enemy soldiers had collected.
"You think you know where Masters put his intel?"
"Not exactly." Grey was grim. "But I know where they think he did." Several of the papers he held were photographs, big and glossy and easy to see the people immortalized on film. There were several scenes, one of a young mother and her two children getting out of the family car in front of a grocery store. Another showed a pretty blonde entering a large brick building: a school, somewhere in the middle of America, with youngsters milling around and hoping that classes would be canceled for the day. Several more were of an area picnic, with some half dozen military families enjoying the summer season by joining together in a barbecue. Kids danced and played, caught in a moment in time, and the men—and few of the women—played at baseball.
Blane recognized the man at bat: Mack Gerhardt, shirt open and flapping in the gentle breeze. The bat itself was positioned over the man's shoulder, looking for all the world like Dirt Diver was pro. Blane remembered that particular swing: Hector Williams on the mound sailed a curve ball right past Gerhardt's nose, putting Gerhardt's good-natured boasts away along with the batter. There was Ted Masters himself, poised on first and ready to rabbit once the ball was hit. His wife Maria was cheering him on from the sidelines. That had been a good day. That day had been less than two weeks ago.
Masters had already been on his mission. Blane hadn't known then what it was, but he did now. Masters had gone out for a second recon, and hadn't been so fortunate. They'd been waiting for him, the dead soldiers in this very room, and they'd taken him. Three days later, there were too many dead men. Yet, to another way of thinking, there weren't enough: Gerhardt came back to where Blane waited with their dead comrade. "Snake Doc."
"I found signs of at least another dozen men squatting here. They were cramped in like sardines in a can." Gerhardt surveyed the dead bodies on the floor, his lips tightening. "We only took out half of 'em."
Blane went cold. The pictures in this room meant that there was another squad of these bastards out looking for Masters's intel, and they'd be looking entirely too close to where Blane and his men lived. There was no time to waste; the collateral damage would hit on a very personal level. "I'm calling this in," he told them grimly.