Monday, July 9, 2012

Chapter Four: Blood on the Sand, of Selling Handcuffs, An Angel Day Novel

Okay, folks. Here's "Chapter Four: Blood on the Sand" of the novel Selling Handcuffs, An Angel Day Novel. 

If you haven't read Chapter Three: The Secret Police State, it's here.

If you haven't read any of the preceding chapters, start with Chapter One: The Stash House.

I finished the first draft about an hour ago. Whew. That was a slog. There's still a lot that needs to be done. I know of one scene that I'm going to cut, and at least two scenes to add, but I wrote what will probably be the last sentence. Yea!

The fact that I finished the first draft means that I'll be posting these a lot more frequently. I was always worried that I was going to catch up to myself.

This chapter includes the First Pinch, which is where we see who the Antagonist is and begin to see what they can do. We see in what ways he opposes our Protagonist and some of his weapons. In this case, the Antagonist has a really big gun.

At the First Pinch, things start to get very serious for the Protagonist, our sniper chick Angel Day, and the casualties begin.

As I said, I'm done with the first draft, and there appear to be nine major chapters plus inter-scenes, like the Prologue: Swan Dive that I posted a while ago.

Thanks for reading!

Angel crawled down the warm desert mountain one inch at a time, one leg and then one arm, taking care not to rustle the thorny bushes all around and above her more than the wind already was. Pebbles grated under her knees. Her fingers were sore from pulling herself over sharp rocks.

Dawn broke over the desert hills on her right, throwing gaudy rose and orange light down into the desert valley. Cacti, bushes, and boulders cast long navy blue shadows.

She had been crawling for an hour.

When Angel was a child, she had liked dawn. Her grandfather had sung the greeting song to the sun every day, and she had joined him. She wished she remembered the song. She could sing it in her head now, to greet the beauty of the day, even though this day might end with death.

She hoped not. Tony had been clear: to save the SAU and her team, this siege or whatever it was had to end with guys walking out of that house, shaking hands with the negotiators, and stepping into cars to be driven out.

Yet, those guys in the compound down there weren’t just some gun nuts who liked big bangs. Garden-variety gun nuts were harmless. These suspects had already fired on Sheriff Hardigger and his deputies and killed a horse, just for riding up and looking official. Angel didn’t like people who killed animals, even if they were shooting at the humans. That was cruel, and piss-poor shooting, too.

Most importantly, these suspects had been transporting military-grade weapons. Chances were good that that truckful had not been the first. All sorts of weapons might be stockpiled in that cement house that squatted in the desert.

The odds were that those suspects were hunkered down in there for a reason. Reasons in the Arizona desert were usually bad reasons: drug smuggling or, worse, human trafficking.

When she had been in the FBI, Angel had once interrogated a man who trafficked women for the sex trade. He had said that it was much more lucrative to traffic people than drugs. Drugs, he could only sell once. Women, or the occasional young man, he could sell again and again, sometimes a dozen times a day. He had laughed about it.

Angel had made sure that asshole went to prison.

Those guys, down below her on the desert basin floor, the ones with military weapons, were probably up to something similar, and they had to bring them in peaceably.

The best way to smoke someone out is to set something on fire.

The dawn didn’t seem peaceful to her anymore. She needed to get into position to start sending intel back to the command post. The negotiators needed information, any information, to begin their work.

First, they needed to figure out how to make contact.

Thus, they needed eyes on that house. That was Angel’s job.

Angel crawled along the desert floor like a gliding patch of summer fog, flattened by her ghillie suit.
The ghillie suit, a long burlap robe painted with ragged black and olive stripes and then woven with bush branches, had some new foliage on it this morning. Spring had blossomed in the desert, so yesterday after the meetings, she and her team had topped off their suits with some gray-green Turpentine bush, bladder sage, blue-eyed scorpion weed, and a few tiny daisy-like yellow brittle bush flowers. Looking like the only dead spot in the blooming desert would have given them away.
While they were picking the wildflowers, Mace had driven by and laughed at them for such a girlish pursuit. Jack had turned redder until Angel reminded him that they, the sniper team, would be seeing action immediately, while the assault teams would be cooling their heels, waiting, like the wussies they were.

Jack had calmed down. He hadn’t really been mad. His adrenaline had just been looking for an outlet.

Angel knew that feeling.

After they had prepped their ghillie suits and weapons for their long hikes and crawls over the mountains ringing the house and its clearing, Angel had given her team a subdued pep talk.

“This is probably going to be a long haul, guys,” she had told them, as they gathered under the Arizona sunset that fractured and burned the sky. “Probably nothing will happen today, though the first few hours of any operation are precarious. We need to be alert and ready, but not ready to fight.
“We can’t give in to shakes or giddiness. This standoff is going to last for days or weeks. We won’t know what is really going on until we get eyes on the house, and even then, we won’t know much until the negotiators do their job and we get information from inside the house.”

Angel sighed, overcome with the beastly contradiction of it all.

“Then, if we get complacent, if we slack off on surveillance or readiness, that’s when they’ll hit us. They were trucking some serious shit into that house: a grenade launcher and fifty-caliber ammunition. That ammo could be for a machine gun, or it could be for a long-range sniper’s rifle. Keep your heads down. Stay low. Don’t poke your heads up over those ridges like a cantaloupe on a plinking ridge or they might counter-snipe you. The most important thing is to stay safe, and then to do surveillance. Let’s not kill anybody today, if we can help it.”

She told them to go out there, lie still, and wait patiently. To be passive and quiet. To feel the zen and let their chi flow. That adrenaline-killing pep talk would have made any football coach worth his salt have an aneurysm.

Afterward, Jack Jordan’s frown was distressing. He pretended to be a gung-ho cold-blooded murderer, but it was an act. If he didn’t have his act, Angel was only moderately sure that his training would allow him to do his job and shoot to stop.

Yet, this operation was best approached with a cool head.

The grim sniper teams headed out, two by two. They would each take a Sheriff’s car over the paved roads, then leave it and hike to their position.

Now, Angel and her men were crawling through the desert to find a protected vantage point above the compound to set up their weapons and spotting scopes. Because this was a large operation, each sniper team was composed of two people: a sniper and a spotter.

About ten feet behind her, Hunter Yarnall, her spotter, crawled through the desert brush and scrub under his own ghillie suit.

Hunter was the least capable sniper on her team, which made him the number eight sniper, and that was why he was with her. On any other munie sniper team, Hunter probably would have been one of the better shots. On her team, he was their fuck-up, the goon who thought he shot just fine because he had been born and bred in the hills of West Virginia, and everyone knows that West Virginia mountain boys are the best natural snipers around. Why, he drawled over and over, he could shoot the eye out of a squirrel at two hundred yards.

The problem was that they were about three-quarters of a mile from the squat, ranch-style house, around thirteen hundred yards, and there were no West Virginian squirrels in the Sonoran Desert.
While the legend was that Southern mountain boys made the best snipers, Angel knew that the world’s best marksmen were technicians who have mastered trajectory formulae, timing, and physiological discipline.

Hunter was improving, though, so she had kept him on the team. He had lost most of his hillbilly moonshine-and-beer belly in recent months since Angel had been insisting on proper training, and she was pleased with his progress, even if he was her slow child.

She listened for him, and occasionally heard him kick a rock or jostle a bush, but he was doing pretty well. He was moderately good at stalking in the desert, though he’d grown up in the Back East coal country.

She reached a small bare spot shielded by some boulders and shimmied over to the side, next to an enormous prickly pear cactus and a shin dagger agave plant, waiting for Hunter to catch up. There was a nice outcropping of rock at the base of the clearing that they could use as a protective barrier. As long as they didn’t stand up and dance around, they would be protected by the rocks and have an unobstructed view of the house.

When a bushy patch of desert slithered into the clear spot beside her, she reached over, grabbing Hunter’s arm.

She heard the slightest intake of his breath and the bushy patch jumped a little, but certainly nothing to give them away. She set the edge of her ghillie suit on top of his, then tented the fabric between them so they could whisper under the cover. The ghillie suit fabric cast a heavy shadow on them both, and Hunter’s wet blue eyes glared out from between the green and black stripes painted on his face.

Angel raised her fist, signaling to stop.

Hunter nodded and slowly lifted the fabric in front of him, peering down on the house, far below. He whispered, very quietly, “Way down there, huh?”

She put her finger to her lips, signaling silence, and pointed feetward, toward their gun bags.
They both reeled in their bags that they had dragged behind them, tethered to their ankles.

Angel had only brought her fifty-caliber long-range sniping rifle, because she sure as heck wasn’t going to drag two bags though the desert just in case she got close enough to use her .308. The fifty-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle was considered an anti-materiel weapon because one round will punch a fist-sized hole through the engine block of any vehicle, but it’s an excellent sniping rifle, too.
Unless those guys had a fully armored tank in there, Angel could shoot to stop anything that they could roll out.

She doubted they had a fully armored tank in there. She might be facing anything short of a tank, but probably not a tank.

The first thing that she pulled out of her drag bag was the spotting scope because she wanted to lay eyeballs on that house down there before she even set up her gun. From under the cover of her ghillie suit, she unfolded the bipod legs of her spotting scope, set them on the rocks in front of them, and gingerly pushed the scope’s turret out so that the fabric still rested on it, shading the lens from the sun that might flash on the glass.

The sun had risen over the mountains surrounding the small valley, and bright white sunlight poured over the hills and down. The shadows were still long as the sunlight rolled over the beige and dusty green valley floor.

Angel blinked at the brightness. Her eyes had become accustomed to the shadow of the ghillie suit, and the sunlight hurt her eyes. She squinted to cut the glare as she surveyed the high desert and the house.

The blue-painted house was still. Dark shades were drawn across the windows. It was possible that, after Sheriff Hardigger and the horse Giant Mark were shot last night, everyone in the house bugged out and gone to ground. Angel sure as heck wouldn’t have waited for the authorities to come back with reinforcements, if she were inclined to be on the other side of the law.

She didn’t think like that often. She understood basic criminal psychology, but she did not allow herself of fantasize about crossing over to the dark side, to use the old metaphor. Some of her relatives were on the wrong side in various capacities. It was one of the hazards of living near the Border: too many bad opportunities.

It was just after six o’clock in the morning, and the house was quiet. Few criminals were early risers, in Angel’s experience.

The air conditioner, a cube on the roof of the house, hummed. The air-conditioned house was probably sealed up, and the air conditioner itself would muffle any little noise from the outside.
She leaned over to Hunter. “The AC is on. We can whisper.”

Above her, Angel’s ghillie suit began to heat in the sun. Even though it was loosely woven burlap, it trapped the desert heat like a wool blanket. Hunter and Angel had each packed in several canteens of water, but it was going to be a hot, thirsty day of laying prone in the desert.

She dragged up and assembled her sniper rifle, marrying the upper receiver to the lower one, just in case, but she stayed on the spotting scope for its larger field of view. She kept the long rifle beside her, under the ghillie suit. Its hard stock and barrel nudged her hip.

Beside her, Hunter set up his spotting scope and trained it down the mountain at the house.

She used the laser range-finder on the spotting scope to lase the house. They were thirteen hundred and five yards from the house’s corner. She turned the dial of her Barrett Optical Ranging System until the screen read 1305. The BORS was a tiny ballistics computer mounted on top of her rifle scope and coupled to the elevation knob. The BORS compensated for temperature, change in barometric pressure, and angled uphill or downhill. It even determined if the rifle was level or canted to the side. Once set, it accessed thousands of preprogrammed ballistics tables to correct her shot. Basically, it was a miracle that allowed her to shoot to stop faster than ever.

With the range dialed in, she was set to kill anything down there.

She activated her radio. “Day to Command Post. Side one bravo sniper team is in position,” she whispered. “Thirteen hundred and five yards off the one-two corner, about one-third of the way down the north slope of the south-side mountain. Break.”

An unfamiliar male voice said over the radio, “Received, side one bravo sniper team in position. Rules of engagement are at compromised authority. Snipers, acknowledge. Break.”

“Copy. Side one sniper team acknowledges rules of engagement are at compromised authority. Ready with intel on the house.”

“Copy. Go ahead.”

Angel wondered who the guy at the command post was. Probably someone from Mesa or one of the Southern Arizona deputies.

She focused her spotting scope on the first window. Dark iron bars were installed over the glass that reflected the glowing orange sunrise. Her crosshairs cut the window into four quadrants.

Angel whispered into the radio, “The house is a one-story, ranch-style house. Five openings on the ‘one’ side,” Angel said.

To label the sides of a house for intel or assaults, the sides of the house are numbered clockwise around the house. The side with the front door is designated as side one. Floors, if more than one, would be numbered vertically, but this ranch house was only one story. Windows and doors are numbered from the left side of the building to the right.

Angel began with the leftmost window on the front of the house. “Metal security bars cover all the windows on side one. Window one-one-one looks like a bedroom window, dark blinds closed, no lights or movement.” She adjusted the spotting scope to zoom in on the bars. “There appear to be hinges on the right side of the metal security bars. They’re probably the kind that can be unlatched from inside the house.

“Window one-one-two,” Angel continued, which meant side one, floor one, opening number two, “also appears to be a bedroom, dark blinds closed, no movement. Metal security bars with, again, hinges on the right-hand side. Window one-one-three is the same: bedroom, dark blinds closed, no movement, and metal security bars with hinges on the right side.

“Opening one-one-four is the front door. It’s a double door, so there are two doors, dark in color like painted wood or metal.” She zoomed the optics of the spotting scope to inspect the crack where the door met the wall. “Hinges are inside the door, so the front doors swing inward.”

She moved to look at the doorknob. The crosshairs settled on the keyhole. “The keyhole is on the left door, so that’s probably the primary door. One deadbolt lock, about eighteen inches above the doorknob on the left-side door, also suggest that the left-side door is the primary one.”

Beside her, Hunter leaned toward her and whispered, “Two deadbolts. One below the knob.”

Angel shifted the magnified circle of bright sunlight down and gave Hunter a thumbs-up for his call. “Another deadbolt, also on the left-side door, is about eighteen inches below the doorknob, for a total of two deadbolts. Again, two deadbolt locks, one above and one below the doorknob.

“Window one-one-five is larger, about four feet wide by three feet high, and appears to be a living room window. Again, dark blinds and no movement.” She zoomed and inspected every side of the window, but the metal security bars all ended in bolts anchored into the concrete, not hinges. “There are metal security bars on the one-one-five window, but there appear to be no hinges on these bars. The one-one-five metal security bars do not appear to open in any direction.

“Conclusion: no movement at this time. Side one bravo sniper team, break,” Angel said.

“Command post copies, side one sniper team,” the man said over the radio. “Happy hunting. Break.”

“Side one sniper team to command post, thanks. Break.”

The command post was an air-conditioned recreational vehicle set up almost two miles away on a paved road. The enormous batteries could run the RV for ten hours, but since it was so far away, they had probably broken out the generator, so it could run indefinitely.

They listened to the other three sniper teams report in and describe the compound. The sliding-glass arcadia door on side three, opposite their living room window, had a sliding, metal-barred security door installed over it.

Every opening to the house was barred, ready to be defended.

Four vehicles were parked on side four: two sedans and two pick-up trucks, doubtlessly driven down the dirt road despite the high fire danger.

Angel didn’t like this situation at all.

If the suspects had evacuated the house after they shot at Sheriff Hardigger last night, they would have taken the cars and probably turned off the air conditioning and generators.

The barricaded cement house, cleared of brush for a hundred yards all around, looked like it had been prepped for military siege.

This might end very, very badly. Ruby Ridge bad. Waco bad.

On the sides of the house, outbuildings appeared to house a generator and fuel storage tanks, as snipers reported their assumptions from the power lines leading to the house and fuel ports sticking through the walls. If the standoff went on for a while, they could cut the power lines into the house, which meant that the house would get very hot, very fast. It might reach a hundred and fifty degrees within a day, hot enough to dry beef jerky.

Cutting the power lines might provoke the suspects to fight for their lives.

If there was a firefight, they would have to angle the lines of fire to avoid the fuel tanks. There was thought to be a propane tank in one of the sheds. A bullet, ripping though it, would explode the tank with the force of a small nuclear bomb.

This was not a usual standoff, but it had one thing in common with all standoffs: time. Lots of time. Angel settled in for a long, hot day of scanning the windows with Hunter.

Hot sunlight settled on the ghillie suit on her back. The burlap was getting hot.

Heat didn’t impress Angel. Growing up in southern Arizona had toughened her up for heat, snakes, and scorpions.

“All right, Hunter,” she whispered. “You ready?”

“Yep,” he whispered back.

“Here we go. One-one-one, clear.”

“One-one-one, clear,” he repeated. His West Virginia drawl drew “clear” out to two syllables, like clee-uh.

They moved on to the one-one-two window, cleared it, and so on, and they cycled through the openings on their side of the building again and again, watching for any movement to radio back to the command post.

The temperature in their makeshift tent rose, and sweat trickled down Angel’s back. The dirt and sand under them, once night-time cool, warmed from their body heat and the hot air. It was early May, which meant that the daytime temperatures in Phoenix would be over a hundred degrees. Out in the southern deserts, they would be ten or fifteen degrees cooler, probably eighty-five to ninety.
In August, the air out here would feel like sticking your head in a hot oven. Angel hoped the standoff didn’t last through the summer. They would have to cycle teams back to Phoenix, because Phoenix needed SWAT teams on standby.

That would reduce the number of teams out here, which meant that teams might need to stand twelve-hour shifts instead of eight-hour ones.

Could be worse. Angel had spent three days pinned down in an African siege one time, but she didn’t like to think about those times anymore. Tonight, she would sleep in a nice, cheap motel with clean sheets.

After scrolling through each of the openings on their side of the house in turn, constantly, for two hours and reporting and confirming the lack of any action among themselves and to the command post, Hunter mentioned to Angel, “The guys said that we-all are going hunting for rattlesnake eggs after work tonight.”

“One-one-three, clear,” Angel whispered. Her voice was throaty with heat and thirst. She wasn’t sure she had heard Hunter correctly. “Rattlesnake eggs?”

“One-one-three, clear,” Hunter said. “Yep. They said it’s a local delicacy, that they taste jus’ like chicken eggs, but they’ve got massive amounts of protein that will really bulk ya up.” Hunter was proud of his better physique, too.

“One-one-four, clear. Who told you this, Hunter?” Angel didn’t like practical jokes. Too often, they weren’t funny, just mean.

“One-one-four, clear. Jack and Udall. Why?”

“One-one-five, clear. Hunter, there’s no such thing as rattlesnake eggs. Rattlesnakes give birth live baby snakes.”

“One-one-five, clear. So it’s all a snipe hunt, then?”

“So to speak, yes, the snipers are sending you on a snipe hunt. Sorry about that. They can be jackasses. One-one-one, clear.”

“One-one-one, clear. I jus’ feel stupid for falling for it.”

“Don’t. Happens to everybody. One-one-two window is clear. When we get back, tell them that before you can go rattlesnake egg hunting, I need them to fill out an ID-ten-T form, pronto.”
“One-one-two, clear. What’s that?”

“Spell it out. Window one-one-three, clear.”

“One-one-three, clear.”

Angel heard him mutter under his breath between the next couple of confirmations. “Oh, I get it. I-D-1-0-T. ‘Idiot.’ That’s funny.”

“They’ll lay off. Don’t let them get under your skin. One-one-one, clear.”

“One-one-one, clear,” he confirmed. “I guess I have to take it because I’m number eight.”

“One-one-two, clear. That better not be the reason. We don’t need that kind of junior-high-mean-girl shit on this team. I’ll talk to them.” Hunter was a decent sniper. A little good-natured hazing for new guys, she could handle. She sure as hell wasn’t going to put up with her team bullying the weak link.

“One-one-two, clear. Nah. Don’t. I’ll make sure they run around good, trying to find the ID-ten-T form.” He grinned. His striped greasepaint blended in with the deep shadow of their ghillie suit hide, and his crooked teeth shined white like the Cheshire Cat.

“That’s a boy. Tell them Sheriff Hardigger personally keeps the ID-10-T forms.” Her Uncle David had no patience for fools. Angel grinned at Hunter and felt a smear of green greasepaint on her teeth. She licked off the bitter paint and returned to peer through the telescopic sight installed on her gun. “One-one-three, clear.”

“One-one-three, clear,” he said.

“One-one-four, clear.”

“One-one-four, clear.”

“One-one-five, did you see that?” she asked. One-one-five was the picture window in the living room.

“Yep,” Hunter said. “The blinds moved to the side for a minute. I think somebody’s home.”

Angel keyed her radio mic. “Command Post, this is sniper team one. Window one-one-five, the blinds moved. Somebody’s home.”

It was eight-thirty in the morning.

“Command Post to sniper team one. You sure about that? Break.” The man she didn’t know was still in the command post.

“Sniper team one,” Angel confirmed. “Both team members confirm movement of blinds at window one-one-five.”

“Copy that, sniper team one.”

“Have the negotiators established contact yet?” Angel asked.

“No,” the man said. “Break.”

After another three hours of watching the house that did absolutely nothing, Angel made the call to the sniper teams to rotate observation. One person would watch the house for two hours while the other team member rested, then they switched. Constant surveillance was too tiring for even the best-trained snipers and led to eye strain. If anything happened, the sniper teams would return to the spotter-sniper combination.

“Okay, men,” she said, “go to rotation. Remember: readiness, not trigger-happiness.”

Angel took the first shift, while Hunter lay under his ghillie suit, restless. Adrenaline was getting the better of him, and Angel whispered to him to keep him from moving around too much. Though a breeze riffled the bushes around them, someone familiar with these mountains, as those suspects down there doubtlessly were, would notice motion that wasn’t quite right.

Two hours later, she tapped Hunter to wake him up. Hunter jumped a little when she touched him, but he didn’t pop up above their blind.

Angel waited while he assembled his sniping rifle and stabilized it on the rocky outcropping. He lay prone but for his back muscles holding up his torso like an angry cobra.

She napped for most of her two hours off, which was good for restoring concentration and resting one’s eyes. She slept lightly, curled around her gun, more dozing than dreaming. If anything had happened, anything at all, she could have lifted her head under the ghillie suit, trained her rifle on the right place, and fired with all the drama of swatting an alarm clock.

Instead, nothing happened.

That was the way of most standoffs: a whole lot of nothing and waiting, and then an unanticipated flash that meant death.

Hunter laid down to rest his eyes. “Nada,” he whispered.

Angel had settled in to watch. For an hour, she scanned each opening in turn through the circled cross on her gun’s scope, silently chanting to herself, One-one-one, clear; one-one-two, clear.

Window one-one-three was not clear.

The dark blind had been raised to the top of the window.

Behind the metal security bars, the metal frame slid to the right as glass opened. Diaphanous white fabric, a curtain, drifted in the breeze behind the glass.

She whispered into her radio, “Sniper team one to command post. Window one-one-three is opening.”

The same strange male voice said, “Command post to sniper team one. We copy. ”

She reached over and shook Hunter’s arm hard under their ghillie suit blanket.

Hunter sat straight up, becoming a tall tent pole under the bushy burlap.

The ghillie suit’s fabric withdrew around Angel like a receding wave, exposing two feet of the sniping rifle’s long barrel, from the middle all the way to the flattened muzzle brake at the end that reminded Angel of a rattlesnake’s bulbous, poisonous head.

Angel grabbed her gun’s stock, applied her finger to the trigger, and stayed on her scope, watching that curtain, even though Hunter had exposed most of her rifle and damn near blinded her in the sunlight. She blinked tears out of her sun-stung eyes.

Her trigger finger coiled, pulling the trigger to within a hair’s breadth of the break, where the gun would fire.

The curtain puffed toward them, and Angel saw a burnt starburst in the fabric.

“Gun,” she said both into the radio and to Hunter as the sound of the shot cracked through the air and echoed off the stony mountains around them. “Hunter, get down.”

The breath of a bullet’s passing feathered her face.

Hunter fell down, backward, the wrong way.

The ghillie suit fabric pulled back farther, exposing more of Angel’s gun.

Hunter twitched. He gurgled.

Damn it, he’d been hit.

Angel was as calm as a shark floating in deep water, even though Hunter might be dying behind her, as she prepared to return fire at the shooter below. She stilled her breath, quieted her mind, and curled her finger to release the bullet.

Through her scope, she watched the bullet’s vapor trail burrow through the air.

Her round passed through the burnt hole in the curtain, and the fabric fluttered backward.
“Shots fired,” Angel whispered into her microphone. “Shots returned under compromised authority.”

“Were the shots fired at you?” the command post asked. “Are you sure?”

Behind Angel, Hunter gasped and flinched.

“Yes,” she said.

She watched window one-one-three, staring at its iron bars and glaring glass. “Hunter? Hunter!” she whispered.

The ghillie suit fabric all around her vibrated, and Angel feared the worst for Hunter.

The glass in window one-one-three slowly closed.

“Hunter? Are you okay?” she whispered.

No answer.

She scanned the other openings, then rotated through them again, checking, but there was no movement at any of the windows.

It was dangerous, and Angel knew it was stupidly dangerous and that she shouldn’t do it because she should stay on the gun to protect herself and Hunter from more gunshots, but she took her hands off her weapon and retreated under the ghillie suit fabric to check on Hunter.

She lifted the fabric at the back to let some sunlight in.

The bullet, a very large round, had penetrated the back of Hunter’s skull when he had sat up and had blown out his face. His head looked like someone had smashed him from behind with a bowling ball. Gore stained the back of the ghillie suit and the desert behind them.

Grief pierced her.

Angel keyed her radio. “Officer down,” she whispered. “Hunter’s been hit. I need medical assistance and extraction.” Damn it, she should have protected him. He was her number eight. Her chest hurt with grief and guilt.

“We’re coming,” the man’s voice on the radio said. “How the hell did they hit you?”

The only weapon that could explode a man’s head at thirteen hundred yards and uphill was a fifty-caliber sniper rifle, just like her own. “We were counter-sniped,” she whispered into the radio. “Hunter sat up, and they got him. Bravo team,” she said to her Phoenix team, all of whom were on the mountains around the house. “They have a fifty-caliber sniping rifle. Take cover.”

“Is he okay?” the unknown man in the command post asked.

Fuck, no, he’s not okay.” Hunter bled out his neck and the ragged crescent that was the remnant of his head. Angel laid her hand on his back, wanting to comfort his spirit, if it was still there. She wanted to put his head back together, to make it stop. Damn it, she should have protected him better.
“Is he alive?” the man on the radio asked.

Angel didn’t want to say it. She wanted a miracle to put his head back together, but even if they had immediately been in a hospital, she knew that he couldn’t survive this. His body twitched terribly. 

“No,” she said. “He’s already gone.”

The gunman in the house might be aiming again. Angel was lying flat below the rocks they’d used as a blind, but a fifty-caliber could blow through those rocks with a few shots and take her out, too. She flipped around and surveyed the house through the black tunnel of her gun’s telescopic sight again.

The radio crackled again, and the man asked, “Can you get him over the ridge?”

“I’m sure as hell not leaving him here.” She cleared each window, all closed and motionless. The dark blinds had been lowered on one-one-three, obscuring the curtain and its burnt bullet hole. It looked as innocent as the other closed windows.

“This is Angel Day I’m talking to, right?” the man on the radio said.

“Yes.” She stared at the house in the scope’s bright circle, relentlessly checking each window and the double door for any movement.

“You save yourself if you need to, all right? If Hunter is gone, you get out alive.”

That was ridiculous. “I’m not leaving Hunter on this mountain. He has a family.”

“Officer Day, you need to come out,” the man said.

“Make sure you have a medical team and extraction on the other side of this ridge. I’ll be over the ridge soon. Bravo team,” she called out their Phoenix call sign.

She stopped and considered what to tell her team. She wanted to open fire on that evil, closed-up house, to use her fifty caliber to punch holes in the walls and destroy everyone in there. If she told Bravo team to avenge Hunter, and her gut desperately wanted to meet violence with greater violence, this standoff would turn into a firefight, and that very good sniper down there with a very big gun might kill someone else on her team. He had shot Hunter with a cold barrel on the first shot, cold zero, and darn near perfectly.

By killing Hunter, those suspects down there had condemned themselves. Angel was sure that Mace’s assault teams had just been given the go-ahead to plan a raid that was expected to end in a bloodbath. If anyone came out alive, it would be a miracle.

Angel was getting worked up. She took a breath to ice her nerves because, if she saw anything in one of those windows move—one-one-one, clear; one-one-two, clear—she had to be ready to return fire, calmly, coldly. At this distance, an adrenaline quiver would magnify and cause her to miss by a foot or more.

She inhaled again, and let it out.

Her gaze over the rock at the house became dead calm. She was a cloud of death hovering on the side of the mountain, ready to puff a poisonous breath on anyone she saw in the house.

“Bravo team,” she said. Her voice was normal, almost robotic in its precision. She told her team to get ready to cut down the bastards in that house, to cold-bloodedly murder them all. “Increase protective cover in your positions or move to more fortified positions. Big rocks are good. The shooter in the house has a large-caliber sniping weapon, probably a fifty-caliber. They might be prepared for World War Three, down there. The call to raise the rules of engagement to shot of opportunity should come soon, so be ready for it. Keep your crosshairs on those targets. Anyone in that house will be fair game. Sniper team one, break.”

Radios clicked in response like quiet applause in her earpiece.

Within her sniper team, empty clicking meant something different than among the rest of the police force. In her team, the clicking was the acknowledgement of a sniper in position, coiled around his long weapon, silently staring at their target.

They had no signal that meant you had been abandoned by your fellow officers. They didn’t need one.

Angel tucked her radio earpiece firmly into her ear. If other sniper teams saw anything happening with the house, like windows opening and gun barrels sticking out, she wanted to hear them report it.

Angel considered weight.

She left Hunter’s gun, spotting scope, and gear in the clearing, tucked up against the rocks. Her own gun and scope, she had to take, so she disassembled the gun in less than one minute and packed it into her drag bag. She wouldn’t be coming back to this clearing, so she needed them. She teased the firing pin out of Hunter’s rifle and pocketed it, just in case the bastards from the house decided to scavenge some weapons.

In her ear, the man in the command post said, “Angel, Mason Young is on his way to the ridge. He says he going to climb down to extract you.”

God damn it. Mace had kids, lots of kids. She was going to have enough trouble dragging Hunter over the ridge without having to make the decision whether to drag out Hunter’s dead body or Mace’s still-twitching one.

“Negative,” she replied. “This is a sniper operation. Tell Mace to keep his ass on the other side of the peak. The suspects have a fifty-caliber sniping rifle, and they’re good. They will kill him. Tell him he sucks at infiltration.”

That would piss him off, but it might talk some sense into his thick head. Mace had learned to snipe and stalk in his Delta Force days, but those days were long ago.

Angel shimmied around under the ghillie suits and discarded everything that wasn’t her rifle and spotting scope. Canteens, ammunition, a couple MREs, protein bars, even Hunter’s boots, all these she piled against the rocks at the base of their hide.

She kept stopping to scan the house again, but the windows stayed shut.

Finally, she gently turned Hunter’s body to face downhill.

Hunter had been an average-sized man, four inches shorter than Angel, and weighed around a hundred and eighty pounds. She strapped her gun bag to her ankle to drag it behind her, then turned for one last survey of the house through her spotting scope.

The one-one-one window was shut and the blinds were down. Clear. She scanned through the other openings. All were closed and motionless.

She had to move soon, before the windows opened again.

The sun was getting warmer, and Hunter had lain still for several minutes. God, she missed him already. He was a good man, and he had been steadily improving. He was just too jumpy, sitting up like that.

She laid down beside Hunter with her head near his feet and rocked him onto her back, beneath the cloak of her ghillie suit.

His weight on her back was heavy, but she was heavily muscled and determined to get him out of there. His feet, in socks, rested on her shoulders. She tied his webbed belt strap around his ankles and then tied that to her own belt in front so it wouldn’t choke her.

It was less than a fifty yards to the ridge of the mountain line, and then she would be over and out of the sniper’s field of fire.

She whispered, “Command post, this sniper team one. I am beginning exfiltration.”

The man who she didn’t know was still on the radio. “Mason Young insisted on going to your location. He and his team are currently on the back of the mountain and, when they get to the ridge line, will position themselves to lay down cover fire, if needed.”

So Mace was on his way. She already felt safer, knowing he was coming for her.

She said, “Tell them not to come over. And tell them to keep their heads down. That’s how the suspects sniped Hunter. He stuck his head up, and they got him.”

“I will relay that,” the man said.

“I’m coming out now.”

“Waiting for Mason Young’s team to establish their positions would be a better alternative.”

The house’s windows were closed. Mace wasn’t in danger yet. She said, “I’m exfiltrating now.”

“Our prayers are with you, Angel. May God be with you.”

“Thanks.” She kind of liked the idea that there might be a circle of men on bended knees asking for divine intervention for her, but she wished that, instead, there was a line of men on the ridge to protect her with firepower, though she didn’t want Mace to be in danger.

She sighed. Damn it all.

Angel began to crawl.


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