Bestselling Author Amy J. Fetzer
Bestselling Author Amy J. Fetzer
 

Excerpt - Chapter One

Damage Control
July 2010
Amy J. Fetzer

Southern Chechnya

A year later

The sound was like a cracking knuckle.

A single pop of a vertebrae, and Sebastian hesitated. Then his gaze fell on the little girl, maybe twelve, lying on the dirt floor, raped to death, and he easily applied quick pressure to her killer’s neck. Three successive pops filled the aging farm house before the bastard softened in his grip.

He let the body slide to the ground. Sebastian remained still, movement and sound suddenly amplified. A fist hitting flesh, then grunts of a struggle. Footsteps, the rapid pad of escape. The glow of a bonfire through bleary glass. A shadow flashed beyond and as if slapped, he strode to the mattress, ripped off the faded blanket, then floated it down over the child.

“Be at peace, ma petite,” he murmured, then turned away. The poor thing had been dead for hours. Sick bastard.

Armed, he moved through the musty house, ignoring the smoke stained portrait except to count off the family members he knew were dead. He’d found the parents first when he’d entered the farmhouse through the bedroom window. It didn’t take a genius to know they’d suffered. At the door, he hung back, checked his bearings before he slid along the wall to the right. A uniformed body lay a few yards from him, illuminated by the bonfire that had drawn them here. With the screams. He spotted Max on the other side of the barn near the tree line. He was moving fast, a body left in his wake. Not a shot fired. Excellent. This farmhouse wasn’t their objective, but the abandoned prison that lay a quarter mile north along the Argun River. They’d just killed the night shift. Someone would be coming for them.

“Report,” Sebastian whispered through the personal role radio. The icy air frosted his breath.

One ghosted,” Max replied as if he were standing right next to him. “You don’t want to know what he was doing. No escapees.”

Two more in the woods,” Sam added. “With a moonshine still.”

The family money machine, he thought. Food was scarce here, but booze was like black market currency.

Lots of prints leading north, no sign of unfriendlies,” Riley said and Sebastian spotted him near the barn, feeding something to a rangy dog. “Wish we had SAT thermals.”

A wider spread of thermal imaging needed a satellite link and that could be tracked. They were silent, only PRR’s and handheld equipment. Anymore and they might as well send up a location flare. “You know that means sponging off Company, right.” No one spoke, painfully aware of what that had cost them before. Cost him, he thought. “Regroup, tree line.”

They needed to make up the time and Sebastian surveyed the terrain before he sprinted to the fire, then a few yards beyond into the woods. Tucked in the trees, he knelt and turned, aiming the short rifle and covering Sam and Riley’s approach. He was the only one wearing a video record and switched it back on, then flinched when Max slid up beside him, silent and very deadly.

“It’s creepy how you do that sometimes,” he said, his breath puffing with frost.

Max looked almost hurt. “You need a hearing aid, old man.” Then he flashed a grin. “Time to rock?”

“C’mon, cousin.” Sebastian rolled around and launched into the forest, running fifty yards, then dropped to one knee to cover Max’s approach. Then Sam’s as he shot past him in a blur. Riley took his position as Sebastian ran the next leg. They covered the quarter mile in under four minutes, aware the opportunity to rescue their target was narrowing by the second. D-1 was shattering several international laws just being anywhere in an occupied country. Diplomatic channels were just a pissing contest between each side and no one admitted to holding Vince Mills. Someone was very good at keeping secrets. Hell, the team had to HALO jump to get inside the country and were likely already on someone’s radar. He just hoped it wasn’t the Russians.

He slowed his approach. The dark outline of the prison was blacker against the night sky. A pale cool mist wove around the treetops, reaching out to the prison walls. The penal complex was massive, the yards overgrown as if the land was trying to smother its ugliness. Recent reports said vehicles had left five hours ago and had not returned. Ten guards patrolled the place, five were growing cold on the ground.

“Last Intel reports the target on the lower floor, northeast corner.” Beside him, Max followed the GPS tracking on the phone used to threaten, to negotiate for the life of Vince Mills, underwater sonar engineer. It was their only link inside enemy lines. Why he was taken was still a mystery, but it didn’t matter. He needed rescuing. If he was still alive. Russians weren’t known for their mercy. But seizing an American businessman on his vacation in front of his young family stirred up tension across the region. It should have brought tons of help, but no government would lend aid to locate the hostage inside Chechnya. It was stepping into a war zone. Moscow claimed no knowledge, and even the US Intel said information was sketchy and that a rescue was too dicey. That pissed him off and D-1’s Ops commander, Safia Troy squeezed her old contacts for proof of life and that got them a vague location enough to triangulate the cell phone used to demand a ransom. Mills had been moved twice already. Oh yeah, the enemy knew they were coming.

Sebastian pulled the strip of black nylon covering Mills’ picture incased in plastic. He’d memorized every detail, the expanse of his jaw, the nose that had been broken more than once. Yet the image locked in his mind was Mills’ daughter as she pushed a well-loved stuffed rabbit in his hand and begged him to give it to her daddy so he wouldn’t be afraid. It was tucked in his leg pocket. Breaking a promise to a three year-old was not in the cards, and he patted it for luck, then motioned to keep the chatter down.

He didn’t have to signal. The team understood the plan; surround, assault, then search and destroy. He liked things simple. Sebastian raced to the southeast corner, and kept hidden near a cluster of barren trees, covering Riley as he climbed and secured his sniper position. A moment later, a pine cone hit his shoulder and he spun, searched, then aimed to the treetops. Riley signaled that he didn’t see any guards on the rooftops, and no movement from his vantage point. Sebastian headed right, hidden in the winter stripped woods and widening his path to the north corner. No sign of movement this close made his Scooby senses jump. Granted, it was below thirty degrees, but the kidnappers hadn’t been slack till now. He tugged the black balaclava up over his mouth and sprinted to the corner. Ducked low, he crawled forward and looked in the window. The room was empty except for a chair. So much for timely Intel. Satellite hadn’t given them much beyond some trucks leaving the area several hours ago.

He inched to the next window, spying inside. Vacant. He proceeded to the next, the glass dirty gray and crossed with wires. He backed away, wedging himself near a bush. “Negative target, east side. Shit. Negative anything.”

Same northwest. No patrols either.”

That made the skin on his neck prickle. “So . . . they’ve either moved him again, or it’s a trap.” Though they’d organized in Georgia less than eight hours ago. Even Interpol didn’t know they were here yet.

Yeah. So. Not the first time. GPS is still active but fading,” Max said. Max and Sam were west of his position.

Sebastian ordered the assault. Low and tucked, he ran to the side of the structure, foliage catching on his boots. He rushed to the only door on this side, and when it opened, those hackles jumped to a whole new level. Rut-roh. He slipped inside and dropped to one knee. The light tucked beneath the MP5 rifle barrel illuminated the tight corridor; the laser sight pierced the beam. The ceiling had fallen, the debris coated with the rippling sling of mud. He spotted shell casings, an empty boot on its side. He moved forward, turning a corner and at least Intel was right about the rows of cells lining a wide corridor. There was a decayed body in one, still locked in, still chained to the wall. The body was missing a foot, the exposed bone sawed cleanly. I found your boot.

Mill’s chance of survival was looking slim, and he pushed on, searching the cells till he reached the end of the wide bay. A broad flight of stairs lay in the center, rising to the second level of cells. He caught the flicker of light and aimed.

“Outlaw, your twenty?”

Second deck, north end,” Sam said.

“Copy that.” Sebastian continued to the northwest corner. The cell door was open, a single chair inside the narrow space, to the right of it a battery, corroded and linked to some nasty looking devices. What the hell did a sonar designer have that was worth torture? Those things looked like dental tools. He backed out, nearly tripping over body lying against the left wall behind the open door. Russian insignia he spotted first, then he searched the dead soldier, coming back with a pistol, ammo and a crushed pack of cigarettes. No I.D. While the smokes were wet, the pistol was in perfect condition, oiled and clean. It had been in the holster. He pocketed the weapon, then brushed back the wool skullcap, and a second before he noticed the blood still bright, he saw the two bullet holes in the back of the head. The guy’s face was just gone.

“Be advised, one guard dead, execution style. He’s fresh. No I.D.”

Found two, same-same, Russian Army uniform, no ID, ” Max said. “East side, no target.”

“Could Intel be that bad?” he said to no one, then found a second body outside a heavy steel door, a key broken off in the lock. He switched night vision to thermal, but nothing registered. He didn’t have time to investigate further. Not till they located their target. Not with executed guards littering the place. He stripped the corpse of gear, noticing several tattoos, yet found nothing else. Not even a match book. Yet a thin, half smoked cigar lay near the boot. The skin was cool, but not cold. Very fresh. Within the last three hours.

He quickly turned away, searching the ground for footprints and found several. He followed one set, heavier than the others, another beside it, dragged. The prints led him further into the center of the prison. He passed a dining area, rows of tables with bench seats attached and for an instant, it looked like a school. The kitchen was exposed, pots stacked on metal shelves, coated with a layer of frosted dirt. The footprints directed him to a staircase in the far southern corner. They curved down to a black hole of nothingness.

“D-1 regroup, my twenty. There’s a basement.” Of sorts. From his position, he could see the chisel marks where it had been carved out of the rock.

Roger that,” came from his team mates. Riley was still parked in a tree.

Sebastian waited for the team before he moved down the metal staircase, the iron anchors screeching as it swayed. He spied his light below and saw the glassy surface of water. “A cistern?” He descended the steep staircase that forced him to turn sideways.

“More like a sewer. Christ, that smells,” Sam said behind him.

Max remained topside, covering them. “GPS says we’re within twenty five feet. About a two minutes ago. Battery’s toast.”

“Thermal?”

“Negative. No reading through all that rock.”

“I’m gonna be really pissed if they tossed the phone down here.” At the bottom steps, Sebastian’s boots filled with icy water and he shivered and cursed, then moved carefully. “Low bulkhead,” he warned, ducking. Water sloshed over his boots as he advanced in an uncomfortable hunch. The floor was fairly even, but his shoulder scraped the tunnel wall as he followed the water. No current, the surface till he disturbed it. He wedged himself around a curve and the area opened wider. A lot wider. Water seeped down the walls, dripped from ten feet above, one plop at a time.

Beneath it was their target.

Vince Mills was strapped to a stool in the center of the pool. His legs were secured and underwater to his ankles, but his chin rested on his chest. Despite the freezing cold, he wasn’t moving. Not promising, he thought, and leading with the rifle barrel, he inspected his surroundings in a narrowing circle. Mill’s clothing matched his wife’s description. Though muddy, his shirt torn at the shoulder, that’s where it ended. Last seen with a pony tail of dark hair, Mill’s head was shaved clean and sported several cuts. A couple were still glossy with fresh blood. At least he hoped it was fresh. The guy hadn’t moved a fraction, yet Sebastian felt every hard shiver working up his own body. His toes were already numb.

He motioned to Sam and they covered the circumference, then in his peripheral, he saw Mill’s fingers twitter. “Vince Mills, your wife sent us.”

A sound came, strangled, desperate. Mills kept his head down.

“He’s alive.” Always a plus, he thought, exchanging a smile with Sam and moving to face Mills. He knelt, inspecting, then started to reach for his bonds and froze. Wires. Everywhere. “Be advised. We have explosives.”

Well, that just stole the joy,” Max said.

Sebastian shouldered his rifle, then slipped off his pack, and with a pen light, followed the leads. He lifted the baggy shirt a fraction. Now that’s a big party favor. Slim tubes of C-4 were molded to Mills’ rib cage, his skin the only thing separating him from enough explosives to blow the entire prison into kibble. The phone was wired into it. And from the look of it, the fading battery wouldn’t matter. There’s a secondary power source, he thought. He slipped on binoculars, switched on night vision, then looked at the water, not daring to disturb it till he was certain the guy’s feet weren’t wired as well. He followed the trail of wires that lead to Mills’ mouth.

“Christ,” Sam said, peering in. “That’s just unholy.”

Sebastian agreed as he studied the device, calculating the detonation range, the safe distance from this much blasting material. “Executed guards, no ID, this bomb was meant to erase any trail.”

“Roger that,” Sam whispered into the PRR so Mills wouldn’t hear. “But why make ransom demands in Greece, then end up here? For a sonar engineer?”

“I’m hoping he’ll answer that later.”

A strained sound came from Mills. “Stay calm,” Sebastian said almost absently, examining the bomb he admitted was a work of art. Wires running in five directions and no way to tell if any were dummies. Methodically, he traced each one, marking on his hand where they lead and the color. Getting this off without detonation was going to be a bitch. He moved around to face Mills, ducking to meet his gaze. Watery blue eyes stared back.

“Blink once for yes, two for no. Understand?”

One blink.

“It’s motion sensitive.”

One blink.

“Blasting material in your mouth?”

Two blinks. No.

“The timer?”

One blink.

Crap. Disarming when he couldn’t see the timer was a problem. He moved around the stool, inspecting beneath and doing it quickly. Whoever set this wasn’t far away. Trained to ignore the outside world right about now, Sebastian couldn’t ignore Mills. His nose was running, his breathing fast. In below freezing weather, he was sweating. Sebastian could almost smell his terror.

He leaned in to say, “Don’t give up, Vince. We’ll get you out of this.” He pulled out the stuffed rabbit and wedged it on his lap. Mills seemed to melt right then.

The device was sensitive to Mills’ movements, yet he didn’t find any liquid motion sensors. If it was in his mouth, they were screwed. He slid behind Mills and with his knife, sliced open the shirt. Well that’s a mess, he thought, removing his pack to pull out a small battery with wire leads and some tools. He searched the device for a secondary rig and power source. When he found it, he realized it had a double pull. With the phone, one detonation would set off the first layer, another the second. He stripped the wires with tender care and clamped them, rerouting the circuit so the secondary device wouldn’t trigger. Then from the first charge, he removed the plunge detonator. There were four. The process was slow enough that Mills passed out. Sam whispered him back awake. Any quick motion and it was curtains for the good guys.

Then Mills screamed behind the tape, trembling.

Sebastian lurched to look. Red lights shined though the guy’s teeth. Oh shit. Quickly, Sebastian removed another lead, working to his mouth and could see the red glow. Someone liked theatrics, he decided as he clamped off power to the wires near the mouth, then pulled at the duct tape. Mills fought him and Sebastian grabbed his shoulders, shouting to be still. The timer was still going. He sprayed canned Freon, freezing the tape and it lifted off. Out of Mills’ mouth came a bar timer, blinking.

27 seconds. The numbers ticked off fast.

“Christ, Christ,” Mills muttered, spat, and Sam kept spraying Freon, freezing the leveling charge and delaying detonation a few seconds while Sebastian rerouted, shifted clamps, then carefully pulled the last metal rod from the C-4. Five… four… oh hell. He grabbed his cutters and severed the blue wire.

The clock stopped. He let out a tight breath, still for a moment, then worked the C-4 vest off Mills. He’d passed out again.

“Stand down, bomb disarmed.”

That’s good because we have headlights,” Riley said. “A convoy on the road, moving fast.”

That bomb was supposed to go off minutes ago. The bad guys were coming to learn why it hadn’t. “Roger that.” He inclined his head to Sam. “Secure the exit.” Sam spun and went topside.

Sebastian disassembled the device. Transporting a rig this big wasn’t possible. He reworked the detonator, then grabbed the bunny and jammed it in his leg pocket before he helped Mills to his feet. He was lethargic and Sebastian shook him, turning his face so he’d look him in the eye. “Vince? Focus, friend.”

Mills blinked several times before his eyes quit rolling.

“You’re going home.” Mills’ strained expression softened. “It’s going to be a fast ride. Are you injured?”

Mills cleared his throat a couple times. “I can walk.” He took a step and his knees gave. “Just can’t feel my feet so much.”

Sebastian helped him through the tunnel to the stairs. “Outlaw, my twenty, a-sap!” Rapid footsteps, and Sam appeared at the top of the staircase, sidling down to reach Mills.

Sam threw a dirty jacket over him. “I know it stinks, but it’s warm.” Glossy blood coated the back.

“Can’t smell any worse . . . th-than me,” Mills said as they helped him up the staircase. The guy winced with each step and he’d bet his feet were frost bitten. No telling how long he was in the basement sitting in icy water. Some impressive will power not to shiver and set the bomb off.

“Finn, report.” No answer. “Finn!”

I’m on the ground.” Harsh breathing as Riley said, “Bug out. The Russians are coming.”

“Rendezvous secondary LZ. We have the package. Drac?”

Mills wasn’t the only hostage,” Max said.

“A regular party here. Finn, Outlaw is coming your way with the package.” Then to Sam said, “Get him to the LZ, he’s the priority.”

“Roger that. Just don’t go all heroic,” Sam said and the tall Texan hefted Mills, nearly dragging him along as Sebastian turned in the opposite direction.

He heard a single gun shot and found Max in front of the metal door, the lock smoking. The body of a guard blocked the door, and he grabbed the collar and waistband, moving it aside. The corpse still gripped a smoke. He took low position, kneeling and Max swung the door open. The suction of air swished in dirt and leaves. Max and Sebastian flanked the door as they shined lights inside. The room was used for storage, shelves toppled, canned food rusted and bent with pressure. A few had exploded. A table with two chairs sat in the corner near the door, trash surrounding it. Then his light fell on a figure, bare to the waist, arms out stretched and anchored to the wall with chains and some medieval looking shackles. The prisoner could neither stand or sit. His skin looked blue. Sebastian covered the perimeter, then approached, shining his light close to blind him. The guy’s head lolled to the side.

“It would be a great day… if you’re Chechen rebels.”

Sebastian pulled the Velcro square covering the U.S. flag on his sleeve. The guy sank back, muttering something he didn’t get.

“Who are you?” Max was behind him, his laser sight on the guy’s forehead.

“Beckham, Mitch, Major, 364-71--”

“I know you.” Max moved a step closer. “Sorta. He helped us in Singapore with Vaghn. He’s Deep Six.”

Sebastian had heard the name, but on that Op, he was pinned under twenty feet of rubble and contemplating his life as it tried to pass him by.

“Glad to know so I’m popular.” Shivering violently, Beckham struggled to stand as Sebastian worked over the rusty iron cuffs and released him. The guy groaned as he lowered his arms. His trousers were filthy and blood splattered, and his bare chest showed he got to know those electrified dental instruments well. His face wasn’t in great shape either and Sebastian was surprised the guy could see through those swollen eyes. He didn’t have time to wonder how Beckham got here and handed him a weapon. Beckham racked the slide, then crossed to a pile of clothing and rummaged. He pulled on a jacket, not bothering to zip it completely, then followed them. He hesitated beside the body of his guard, scowling.

“What’s the LZ?”

“The valley. We’re outted. Trucks on the road. Double time.” They ran through the prison, taking the stairs to the ground floor and paused at the rear door. The major staggered a couple times, reaching for the wall for support. Max handed him a power bar from his leg pocket. Beckham ate it so fast he thought he’d devoured the wrapper.

“Thanks,” he gasped. “I know you guys didn’t come for me, so what gives?”

“Hostage rescue. Your turn.”

Beckham didn’t respond, expressionless. That CIA stare.

Sebastian scoffed. “You need a better class of friends to trust, cousin. Watch your six.” He rushed out the doors.

Come south, straight line to my twenty,” Sam said. “Double time! Company has arrived and are ready to engage!

Sebastian saw Sam’s signal, a brief flash of red light and ordered Beckham and Max to hit the trail. “That’s not the LZ, Outlaw.”

Never leave a buddy behind to clean up.

Sebastian ran toward Sam’s signal and slipped behind a tree, the others scrambling over piles of jagged boulders. A couple feet away beside Sam, Vince Mills shivered uncontrollably, wrapped in rags, but his injured feet would slow them down. Sebastian ordered Sam and Riley to the secondary landing zone. “Take Company boy with you.” In moments, the four disappeared into the dark.

Max never took his aim off their trail.

“Get base on the wire,” he said to Max. Max pulled the commlink from his pack, and hailed Dragon One’s Ops commander, confirming they had the package.

Safia didn’t waste time. “Chopper lifting off. Find some cover, I have a UAV on radar, approaching one mile north.”

A drone. The Russians were pulling out the stops today. “Secondary LZ. I repeat. Secondary LZ. Come locked and loaded,” Sebastian said into the radio as he ran tandem with Max. Their breath frosted the air, leaving a path and behind him, he heard the heavy pound of footsteps, shouts he couldn’t translate. Suddenly he stopped, then headed back the way they’d come for a few yards.

Coonass, what the hell are you doing?” Max said, running.

“Buying us some time! Keep moving!” Sebastian dropped to the ground and through night vision saw men enter the prison. Uniformed, orderly, and he recognized the tactics. The lack of an explosion brought them back, and he decided to give them what they asked for. He hit the jerry-rigged detonator and didn’t stay to watch, tearing off the NVG’s as he bolted. He felt the blast shove him forward, nearly off his feet and he staggered, gained footing, then ran like hell.

That was pretty,” Max said through the PRR.

“Crowd pleasers.” Sebastian glanced back, then rushed right as brick and stone hailed down. Screams mixed with the explosion, and he saw one man go flying along with pieces of iron. Then he spotted the gray bellied drone and searched for cover. There was none, the barren land bleak with ice. They ran. Sebastian didn’t need a guide. He’d memorized the terrain and he splashed through a creek between jagged rocks as he fixed the commlink in his ear and hailed Base again.

The chopper is in the air. You’ll have about three minutes after it passes into Chechnya air space. I’m tracking you thermal. Two hundred yards to the valley LZ.”

Sebastian was a pilot. Getting in and out of the narrow valley would be a fight with air currents. “Negative, he needs to land further out.”

No time.”

“Negative, Base, he’ll never make it out of the valley!”

To prove his point, the wind slid like a fast moving river between the crevasse and it started to snow. Then he heard the thip-thip of bullets zipping through the trees. A couple hit the rock over his head.

“Incoming!” He dropped to the ground and rolled to his stomach, then fired, pulling on his NVG’s between shots. The forest beyond filled with movement. Uniformed troops walked without restriction, without taking cover. He dropped one man and the others kept moving. Robotic. Jesus. Then he hit the trigger and the small charges he’d left behind destroyed men and trees. He jumped to his feet and ran, his ears perked to the sound of the chopper, the blades beating the air softly. Stealth mode, he knew, sloshing through a stream, climbing over rocks to the LZ.

Chopper, your one o’clock,” Sam said, tucked under an outcropping of rock with the others and spying through night vision.

Sebastian scanned the sky and spotted the black chopper, guns a'ready. Dawn was coming too fast. Then over his commlink, he heard, “Oh shit, we’ve got MiGs.”

“Repeat last?”

A MiG is in the air. Mach 2, ETA two minutes.

Sebastian was out of options. “Tell Mustang to follow the smoke.”

He pulled the ring and tossed the canister into the only clearing big enough for the chopper to land. Green smoke curled in the pre-dawn light. The MiG would spot it, but the chopper had to get in fast and not waste time searching for them. The scream of the approaching jet grew closer. The chopper traveled low in the rocky valley, hopping on air currents and nearly falling out of the sky. Then it stabilized and lowered. The blades beat back the scrub trees, kicked up a flurry of snow. The team rushed forward, Mills limping, and Sam hefted him in a fireman’s carry, running as the helicopter hovered over the ground. Logan hung on the skids, giving Killian commands as he reached for the first man. Riley and Beckham aboard, Sam pitched Mills inside, then turned to cover them as the valley filled with troops. The MiG shot over head and turned back to take aim. The troops opened up on them, laying a steady stream of gunfire, and advancing quickly.

Sebastian gave it back, unloading his MP5 as he and Max climbed in. “We’re in! Lift off!” Max hung on the edge, manned the machine gun and plowed the road, but the MiG was coming for them. Sebastian shouted, “Go, go!”

The chopper rose swiftly, then curled left, back toward the incoming MiG. Sebastian grabbed a headset, shoved it on and said, “Mustang, are you insane! Get across the border!” They had to be far from the MiG’s path; the jet wash would toss them.

“You really need to cut down on the caffeine, honey.”

Sebastian looked at Sam, then lurched around the pilot’s seat. Viva was flying.

“We are so going to have a long talk when we get home.” Sam shed his pack and weapons, then slid into the copilot’s seat and pulled on the helmet. “Give me control.”

“Don’t go all guy on me now, baby.” She pulled back on the stick and the chopper rose swiftly, the force driving them into the deck. Then it shot forward, zigzagging the edge of the valley, before climbing over the Caucasus Mountains. A wind sheer jostled the craft. Sam held the stick with her and brought them higher. The mist surrounded them, the snow covered peaks only feet below.

“Viva, go postal!” Sebastian saw the MiG rocketing toward them, armed with R-seventy three missiles.

Then it fired.

“Incoming!! Incoming!”

The missile sped toward them, dead on the target. They crested the mountain top, then Viva sent the chopper sharply downward into Daryal Gorge, across the border into Georgian air space. But it wasn’t over.

“It’s heat seeking!”

“Launching countermeasures.” Sam hit a switch and the flaming tubes tumbled, the missile falling toward it. Viva banked it right, but one counter measure failed, and the missile turned to chase the hotter target.

“Release countermeasures again!” he shouted.

“I can’t. It won’t open!”

Sebastian grabbed two flares off the wall rack, ignited them, then threw. “Go turbo! Now!” The chopper rocketed with the speed of a Black Hawk. He grabbed on and looked back as the flares tumbled to earth. The missile chased, slamming into the mountainside a second later. Fire blossomed, expanded in a rolling orange cloud. Flames and debris flattened trees, tumbled shale rock. The sight faded as they flew further into South Ossetia Georgia.

But the MiG wasn’t giving up. Over the radio, the Georgian military warned the fighter jet to turn back immediately or be shot down. Pissed, Sebastian threw back the door and aimed the fifty caliber machine gun at the pilot. He fired off a hundred rounds just to get his attention, and the jet banked, returning to Chechen air space. He sank to the chopper floor, breathing hard. Hellova day. He shut the door.

“Remind me to spank you for that, Viva,” Sam said into the quiet of headphones.

“Ohh honey, promise?”

Sam groaned, and Sebastian chuckled. Poor guy. Yet he understood Viva’s need for a little thrill seeking. She’d miscarried a month earlier and wasn’t one to sit around and sulk. Like him, she needed the adrenaline push. Though how she conned Killian into trading places was a story he wanted to hear. The man had gone soft. It was scary.

Then he noticed Beckham frowning at Riley. “You’re Safia’s guy.”

“Better. Her husband.” Riley grinned.

Beckham looked a little crestfallen. “Tell her I said congratulations.”

“You can.” Riley cracked open a bottle of water and drank. “She’s at the other end of this Op.”

Beckham smirked. “Figures.”

Viva flew at a more sedate speed as Logan worked over Mills, cracking a heat pack and covering his feet. His toes were blue. Beckham waved off medical care, looking back the way they’d come for a moment, then sank into a corner and closed his eyes. Sebastian noticed his clothing was along the lines of Armani and not Black Ops, but he really didn’t want to know why Beckham was here. He’s too deep in the nasty secrets, he thought, resting against the hatch, then noticed Mills pushing away the oxygen mask. They couldn’t hear Mills over the chopper engine, and Sebastian lurched for headphones, held Mills hands down, then pushed them on. He plugged him in.

“Vince! Chill buddy, you’re safe. Let the doc work on you.” Sebastian dug in his leg pocket and pushed stuffed rabbit that needed a bath into Mill’s hands. He clutched it, but was insistent, nearly in Sebastian’s face.

“No! You don’t understand. You have to warn my wife!”

“Warn her for what? You’ll see her in thirty minutes or so.”

“It wasn’t me they wanted. It was her.”

“Shit.”

Sam immediately hailed Safia with the warning. Mills didn’t settle down till Safia assured him his family was protected. He sank back, and allowed Logan to treat him, yet squeezed the rabbit over and over. His anxiousness was as clear as his fear.

“Are you saying this kidnapping was a mistake?”

“Had to be,” Mills said. “They asked for codes, over and over. It was the only English I heard. After being hooked up to a battery, I gave the calibration codes, but that wasn’t good enough.” He passed a hand over the back of his head, gentler on the burns and cuts. “Guys. I’m small potatoes, and any codes I have are useless except to get into my bank accounts. And they’re empty till I get paid for the sonar.”

He was right about the funds. D1 was here on conscience alone. “Why do you think the target was your wife?”

“She was the intelligence in the family. For three years, she monitored satellite transmissions in the North Atlantic. Eastern Europe.”

Russia, China, definitely Chechnya, he thought and could pin point about a dozen listening stations, but that wasn’t current. Yet the posts were the same. A remote location free of interference, minimally stocked, high security, in small confines as the techs listened for those key words. About as exciting as a submarine sonar technician. Depending on the clearance level.

“Anything she could get at—if you she could remember an old authorization code, which she can’t—would be outdated,” Mills said, looking confused. “She just gathered, no analyzing. The right codes would get you into the archives, except you’d have to access the storage server.”

“And that would be where?” God, he dreaded this, hoping the kidnapping was simple, uncomplicated greed.

Mills looked a little shocked by the question. “Langley. It was a CIA listening post.”

Sebastian glanced at the team. They were all thinking the same thing. If Mills’ wife was CIA, former or other wise, then why weren’t they here with them? He swung around to stare directly at Beckham.

The major stared back. “Not connected.”

Sebastian didn’t believe it. The spy network was a powerful entity and he’d been on the receiving end of personal agendas run amuck before. “Transmissions are Delta classified.”

Beckham glanced at the team, then settled back, talking with his eyes closed. “Yes, and the U.S. along with about a dozen other countries intercept millions all over the world. We listen, they listen.” He shrugged. “If it wasn’t anything substantial, it was relayed to the correct agency.”

Bullshit. Sebastian didn’t trust Beckham’s word anymore than he trusted the CIA. “You owe us, Beckham,” he warned. “Don’t think I won’t call in this marker.”

Beckham scoffed to himself, eyes still closed. “You can try.”

Sebastian glanced, caught Max and Riley scowling at Beckham. He waved it off. A pot of gumbo they didn’t need to taste, he thought and got comfortable as the chopper swept further into Georgia, heading for the landing strip surrounded by her troops. Got to love those guys. They were the first to help them, which was more than he could say about the U.S. Yet he couldn’t take his gaze off Mills as Logan injected him and checked his other wounds.

A kidnapping mistake. Not hardly. Not with troops and a MiG climbing up their ass. The kidnappers had transported Mills from Greece to Chechnya without raising a single flag. If it weren’t for Safia and some Chechen rebels, they’d have never located the little geek. Information on this simply did not exist. A tight, small network, he reasoned, yet with the Russians, the possibilities he could immediately list were staggering. The least was selling weapons to unfriendlies like Iran. There was power behind this, enough that they’d risked returning to assure the trail was obliterated.

Enough to get a MiG in the air in seconds.

Yet as far as he could tell, for all the destruction that just rained down on them, the kidnappers didn’t gain a damn thing.

***

Two hours later, Sebastian was reasonably warm in the conference room at a Georgian military base in Tskhinvali. A dented metal tray with a bottle of vodka and glasses rested on the long table, untouched. Beckham was glaringly absent.

Sam and Viva had their heads together on a ratty looking sofa; Logan leaned against the corner wall, on the phone. A few feet away at a small desk, Riley was finishing his summary for D-1’s records. Max tapped him, handing him a wrapped sandwich and Sebastian wondered where he’d found food.

“Oh you have skills, buddy.” He ate, inching closer to the heater blasting warmth into the room.

The confiscated weapons were turned over to the Georgians as well as a copy of his video to their intelligence. While they didn’t do more than provide air space and a safe haven, without it, there was no rescue. Vince Mills would be dead. In the rear of the stark room, Sebastian finished off the sandwich and enjoyed the sight of Vince, clean, treated and in a wheelchair, surrounded by his family. His youngest, Lily, had given Sebastian one of the sweetest hugs for keeping his promise, and he decided, yeah, it was all worth it. But it wasn’t over.

“Ya know what I think?” Max mulled aloud. “I think the guards were executed by their boss. Maybe two three hours before we got there. The ones at the farm? Their tracks came from the prison. Bad guys would have gone after them if we didn’t.”

Sebastian had a lot of deaths on his conscience. Those weren’t one of them. “They were covering the trail. But the guards weren’t the kidnappers, they were hired guns. Did you notice the tats?”

“I didn’t look that close.”

“Russian prison tattoos on the knuckles. So everyone knows and you never forget. One on the throat,” he gestured behind his ear, “was Krasnaya. Mafia. Forget which region, though.”

Max’s feature tightened. “You’re saying the soldier weren’t Russian Army.”

“At one time maybe.”

“What I don’t get is why stick around to watch it go off? The bad guys were near enough to haul ass when it didn’t.”

“Assurances.” And thank Freon spray for delaying the charge, Sebastian thought, because even he couldn’t disarm fast enough to beat that clock. “The timer rigged to the phone battery feels like a show of arrogance. We tracked it, but the bomb had a secondary power source. There wouldn’t have been anything left to sift.” He smiled when Lily pushed aside her older brother, nearly knocking him on his rear.

“They have the sonar,” Max said.

Sebastian still wondered about that. Riley questioned Mills about the design and learned it needed codes to calibrate. Faced with his death, he gave them up because it wasn’t worth keeping them secret. His government contract was with the U.S. Navy, but not deep classified. Mills could build another, and Sebastian would bet that in a year or two, it’d sell to salvage and treasure hunters across the globe. Before the kidnapping, Mills had settled his family in a hotel and was to fly to England, deliver the sonar, and return to his vacation. They took him outside the hotel in front of his kids. Anna Mills had pulled some old CIA strings, he realized now, and got smacked by the State Department. They didn’t believe it was anything beyond the kidnapping a foreigner for money, and stepped out of the picture when the kidnappers failed to show. That’s when Dragon One stepped in. Local police and the embassy in Greece were too slow for Anna Mills. But one telling factor about all this was the lack of news media coverage, not even a hint.

Suddenly the door opened and Vasili Something-he-couldn’t-pronounce, the Georgian Ministry of Defense attaché entered first, holding the door wide. Safia marched in, pulling off her earphones and crossing the room. Behind her was a narrow man in an Italian suit.

“He’s got government flunky written all over him,” Sebastian said quietly. Riley left his chair and came to his wife. Logan moved in, closing his phone. Viva and Sam joined them.

“They’ve taken it all,” Safia said.

His gaze flicked to the Suit. “Company?”

She shook her head. “Department of Defense. They confiscated everything we have. We’ll be lucky to get take off with our clothes and the damn chopper now.” She plowed her fingers through her hair. “He says they’re yanking our international business license, and that’s it, were off the map.” She leaned into Riley. “Just when I thought I was done with these people.”

Sebastian’s first concern was their debt to the Georgians. “They take the Intel we gave Vasili?”

“No, I don’t think they know about it,” she said quietly. “But they have ours.”

Over her head, Sebastian watched the Suit talk with Mills, smile kindly, welcoming him. Mills was pleased with whatever the guy said, but Vasili looked embarrassed, like a punished child. He didn’t doubt that the Suit threatened withdrawal of U.S. support in their fight against Russia if he didn’t cooperate. Political bastards didn’t need to be in this now. Not when they turned their backs after the failed ransom drop, and Sebastian had the sneaking suspicion they’d just been used.

Then Suit crossed to them and Dragon One closed ranks.

“You don’t have any authority to shut us down,” Sebastian said.

Suit gave a derisive smirk. “National security says otherwise. American military killing Russian troops in Chechnya? Even your clout at the Pentagon won’t help you out of this.”

“So you were watching. That how it goes now?” He folded his arms. “Americans in trouble and you sit your ass on the sidelines and throw money at it. Dragon One is private hire, civilians.”

“I see highly trained US military, mercenaries,” Suit clarified, “interfering with national security abroad.”

“Bull shit. Your man was already there. Captive. Why?” Suit’s blank stare was too familiar, and he took a step closer. If he could shake information out of this light weight, he’d have thrown him to the floor by now. “What’s the real threat here, cousin?”

“You don’t need to know.” The Suit withdrew a black billfold and flipped it open. DOD. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

He was wrong. It really was over.

 

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