Below is an excerpt from the Prologue:
Grace approached the hill’s crest, slowing her pace and going into a crouch that soon became a belly crawl as she reached the top. What she saw made her understand why the locals had washed their hands of the situation.
The eco-terrorists had chosen their defensive position well. The villa sat on a terrace at the top of the hill encircled by what Grace guessed to be a twelve-foot perimeter wall. Surrounding it on the three sides, she could see an open lawn at least three hundred feet deep. It was a perfect killing zone; a small force would be cut to ribbons crossing it. A large-scale assault might breach the wall but also ensure the hostages’ execution.
No wonder the Brazilians had punted. Maybe the Americans had too- she had yet to see movement in the surroundings, or maybe they were just that good. Grace couldn’t wait to see what they had planned, but for that she needed elevation.
Grace scooted back into the woods until she could stand upright without being seen. Looking around, she found her hiding place- a large canopied tree with low branches. It had to be tall; at this angle, Grace knew she was going to need to get up at least thirty feet to have any view of the compound’s inner courtyard.
Without the night-vision glasses, she would never have attempted the climb. Grace knew that trees are far from sterile environments. In fact, they’re rich biomes teaming with life. In Brazil, much of that life could be very dangerous. She took great care to survey each handhold before proceeding. The last thing she wanted to do was run across a brown recluse spider.
Halfway up, Grace saw the tree viper and knew it was going to be a problem. The vibrations from her movement had alerted it. It was wrapped tightly around the branch just above and to the left, waiting for her to come within striking distance. Attempting to move to the left or right of it proved fruitless- the Viper mirrored her motion, blocking the way.
Grace knew that she couldn’t share the tree with such an aggressive predator. Even if she could get around it, there would always be a chance it would wander into her perch later. That would get her killed.
At this point, finding another tree was also out of the question. According to Silva, the assault should be starting within minutes. She was running out of time. There was only one option.
Bracing her legs and lower torso against the branches, Grace slipped off the backpack, ever watchful of her opponent. Securing it t o her left forearm as a shield, Grace unsheathed the Bowie knife.
God, I hope they don’t find my bloated carcass in the morning, she thought, taking a deep breath.
Grace began thrusting the shielded arm back and forth, attempting to tease the viper into striking the backpack. Seconds later, the agitated snake took the bait, lashing out and driving its fangs deep into the satchel.
Grace pulled the backpack towards her and with the knife slashed down at the still attached viper. It sliced completely through, inches from the back its head.
The viper’s body went limp immediately, its head remaining firmly joined to her improvised shield. Grace waited until she was sure all life had drained away before prying the knife blade between its mouth and the fabric. She hesitated and debated wrapping the head in something to keep as a trophy. Deciding against it, Grace flicked the head away. She heard it fall softly through the branches. Sheathing the knife, she slid the backpack on and resumed climbing, turning her attention to the villa.
She didn’t know how high up she was when the courtyard of the compound came into view. In the green glow of the glasses, she could just make out figures walking. From this viewpoint, she spied at least one guard on each wall.
Grace did her best to secure herself into a bough, again removing the backpack and pulling out the tablet. It was a bit low tech- unable to uplink live and without the production apps of newer models, but it did have top notch resolution with both infrared and night vision capabilities. It was just what the doctor ordered for this type of shindig. Grace set it up, zooming in on the courtyard. Not wanting to miss a thing, she started rolling.
Then she waited.
John Harriman and Walt Stevens studied the 3D projection on the pad before them. Securing the intelligence from the drone had been slow; it needed to penetrate the villa’s thick walls without its prop noise arousing suspicion.
Typically , the drone could hover over a target to gather intel but in this case that had proven impossible. The compromise had been to get the drone into position at a higher altitude and airspeed, cut the engine a few clicks away and glide silently over the villa at two hundred meters. It was tricky business- the pilot back at Langley had her hands full keeping the plane on its flight path and at times in the air. Patience and innovation eventually secured their three-dimensional snapshot.
“Nineteen, judging by the heat sigs. Against six of our Meat Eaters,” said Stevens. “Do you want to pull in the picket?”
“No, let’s stick to SOP,” replied Harriman, shaking his head. “All we need are more bad guys joining the party unannounced.”
They looked on in silence.
“These are the assets,” said Harriman pointing to the orange figures in the center of the display. “They never move. We know there are five hostages in total and eight bodies in this room. That makes a total fourteen baddies.”
“That’s tough, John. A soup sandwich.”
“Yep. Well, this is the mission, straight from the CIC,” he said, continuing to study the image silently.
“Walt, how many flies do we have?”
“Ok, we’ve got six targets inside, three in the room with the assets and three close enough to terminate the assets if we screw the pooch,” postulated Harriman. “The flies will take out the targets inside. Philips and Hawke can get elevated here and here, and pink these four on the walls. That leaves the four in the courtyard. We blow the front door, pink the baddies on the deck and get two of us in on the assets while the others neutralize the last two bad guys.”
Stevens nodded as Harriman explained the plan, eyes fixed on the display. “Four on four, advantage Meat Eaters. Gotta get the timing of the flies right. You can’t leave anyone inside alive, or we’ re fucked.”
He looked up at Harriman, “What if the place is spiked?”
Harriman’s focus remained intently on the pad. “The flies will recon the interior before we hit them. If there’s an IED, then I’ll get there and disarm it.”
“Let’s hope there’s no deadman’s switch,” countered Stevens. “I’d hate to have to pick up all your pieces, sir, much less have to report back to the CIC that he’s lost his Hammer.”
“Stop! I hate that nickname. If you were still a grunt, I’d bust you down,” snapped Harriman, finally looking at his companion.
“Ah, but we’re all secret squirrels now, and you can’t,” replied the smiling Stevens.
Harriman remained sober.
“If one of those baddies does have a deadman’s switch, then we never stood a chance. Still, we’ve gotta go in. Round up our little dicksticks and brief them. I’ll call Mother.”
The Miniaturized Aerial Surveillance and Ordinance Units were affectionately known as flies by their operators for the obvious reason that they were designed to look like a large housefly. The tiny drone’s purpose was twofold- the first being the proverbial fly on the wall. It could freely gather intelligence without notice in any accessible space. That could usually be accomplished by accessing an open door or window. Once inside, the fly would utilize the ventilation system to find its target. This mobility allowed a fly to follow the object of its surveillance undetected.
The second use was as a weapon- each unit contained enough high explosive to blow a hole in a man’s head.
Harriman needed these particular flies for both purposes.
The miniature drones had entered the villa through various open windows, one at a time so as not to arouse suspicion. Harriman and Stevensspecialized glasses that provided the dis Anyone stumbling across them would have witnessed two grown men staring at a black pad. From the villa, they remained unseen.
As they watched the six screens, two of the flies were still moving into position. The remaining four had now found resting places on the ceilings of their targets’ rooms. Three were in the room occupied by the hostages, each settling into a spot on the ceiling that provided the maximum view of the room. Harriman could see the five hostages- Tiago Cabral, a woman whom he knew from the briefing file was Cabral’s wife, Maria, a boy of around seventeen would be the son, Jose, and the twin girls, Flavia and Flora, fourteen.
The family was sitting on a couch, gang chained at the waist and feet to a bar on the floor and watching a large monitor mounted to the wall. The setup allowed them some mobility- from Harriman’s viewpoint they could get up and walk around in a small area containing a dining table. It wasn’t enough to reach either the door or their captors, seated at a second table. Two of the guards med with pistols. A shotgun was propped up in the corner.
The fourth fly parked itself in a room with a solitary occupant, a woman looking to be in her thirties, reading.
“I’ll be damned! Is that an actual hardcover book?” asked Walt Stevens incredulously.
“Seems to be,” said Harriman.
“It would be a shame to blow that brain out of her head. Such a Renaissance woman!”
Harriman shook his head. “Nope. Everything must go. Besides look over there.”
Stevens’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses.
“There’s our spike.”
“Mother, can you zoom in on D-five, grid point twenty-one by thirteen? IED detected and detonator type needs to be determined,” said Harriman to the drone’s pilot in Langley, Virginia.
“Roger that, Red Hen,” crackled a woman’s voice in their earpieces. The grid point suddenly enlarged to fill the screen.
“Wireless trigger, standard cellphone detonator,” stated the Langley pilot.
“Concur,” replied Harriman wearily.
“They just have to phone it in. Our soup sandwich just became a shit sandwich,” Stevens said dryly.
“Maybe not. Let’s figure out who’s in charge. They might be the only one with the number. So long as they aren’t on the deck…”
The two continued watching as the sixth fly settled into position over a heavily armed man in the anteroom. Number five continued to follow a heavyset man from the anteroom into the woman’s room. The fly made it inside and took its position on the ceiling. From both monitors, the two men watched as the woman put down the book and stood. She walked to the man and kissed him, then fell to her knees in front of him.
Harriman and Stevens looked at each other.
“Bingo!” said Stevens.
“Angels, status?” asked Harriman.
“An angel rises in the east,” sounded a voice over the earpiece.
“Another rises in the west,” chimed in a second voice.
“Confirmed. We go at three ten hours. Primaries are the corners. Mother, keep an eye on number five,” said Harriman.
“Will do. Go at three ten hours local. Good luck, Red Hen.”
“And you, Mother.”
He looked at Stevens. “We’ve got four minutes.”
The two moved to join the rest of their squad. Jim Anderson held the rocket launcher. Teresa Zane waited beside him, arms resting on the FN-SCARP attached to her body armor.
“Fire it, drop it, get to the breech double time,” instructed Harriman. “I’ve got the assets, you secure the courtyard and then my six.”
“Hoo-ah!” affirmed the others quietly.
“Here we go,” said Harriman, watching the pad. On the monitor, he saw all six flies, f ive finding resting places on the back of each target’s skull.
The sixth fly’s camera told a different story. Harriman saw the boss turn his face to the fly, arm moving forward. The screen went black except for a pinpoint of light.
“Shit!” said Harriman.
In synchronicity, all six cameras went black as the ordinance of each fly was delivered to its target.
“A one. Target neutralized. Acquiring second target.”
“A two. Target neu….”
Harriman didn’t wait to hear the rest. “Open the door Jim!” he said, throwing away the glasses and taking off at top speed toward the villa.
He heard and felt the shell fly past him, crossing the yard and impacting on the large, wooden door. The gateway was immersed in a rising wall of flame, the door disintegrating before him.
He looked over to see Walt Stevens keeping pace five meters to his right. Harriman realized that Anderson had fired the grenade between them.
“That was too close,” Stevens said breathlessly. “I’m gonna have a talk with that boy.”
“Didn’t give him much choice,” said Harriman between breaths.
The two made it to the smoldering entrance, pressing against the wall on either side of where the door had once stood.
They both reached for a concussion grenade from their belts. Stevens motioned a three count with his hands. They pulled the pins, threw their grenades opposite of each other into the courtyard and waited.
The blast shook the walls with a deafening force. Both men jumped into the courtyard. Harriman’s side was empty. He heard the pop of Steven’s SCARP, turning in time to see a lone figure slump to the ground, a small rose forming on his forehead. Zane and Anderson burst through the entrance behind him.
“Go!” yelled Stevens. “We’ll finish it!”
Harriman ran to the villa’s entrance and kicked in the door. The anteroom was empty of anyone alive- the body of the lone guard was face down on the floor with the back of his head missing from the fly’s nasty bite. He raced down the hall to the room with the IED.
Entering the room, Harriman knew that he and everyone else would soon be dead. On the floor was the boss, his crotch bloody from the detonation of the woman’s fly, his right hand and most of his forearm missing. His look was that of a desperate animal- eyes wide and breathing hard, fighting for every precious second of what remained of his life. He was staring intently ahead at his left hand.
In it was a cellphone.
Harriman could see that he had dialed a number. With his thumb, the boss pushed the green button that would connect the call and end their world.
Harriman leapt across the room toward the bomb. He grabbed the attached cellphone and tore it away from the device, throwing it with all his strength across the room. It began to ring in midair and shattered against the wall.
Realizing that the bomb would not go off, crawling across the room. Harriman could see his goal- a holstered nine-millimeter pistol on the floor. Harriman walked towards the gun, knowing he would easily make it there before the bleeding, broken man on the floor.
A shot rang out, and the front of the boss’ head exploded in a mélange of red and pink. Harriman turned to see Stevens in the doorway.
“All sales are final,” he said, smiling. “Area is locked down. Anderson and Zane are securing the assets.”
Harriman leaned against the table, catching his breath.
“Jeez! That was way too close! Thank God for shitty cell service.”
Stevens looked at his watch. “Under five minutes. Not bad for a bunch of old guys.”
“Preparation wins the game. Call in the birds and pop smoke.”
Zane stuck her head through the doorway.
“Sir, we have a problem…
“You know, Terry, these people have mothers,” replied Harriman, slightly annoyed. He resisted nonchalance over killing. “What’s the problem?”
“Sorry, sir. P icket brought in an intruder from just off the main road. He was parked a couple hundred meters from the access road. Speaks English pretty well. He claims to be waiting for someone.”
“Another terrorist?” speculated Walt Stevens. “That’s easy enough. Let’s shoot the fucker and blow this pop stand.”
Harriman put his hand up. “Wait a minute. There’s the matter of whom he’s waiting for, and I’m not so keen on offing him that quickly. If he’s a terrorist, he could provide valuable intel on this group… something this one is no longer going to able to provide, Walt.”
“That’s just it, sir. He’s not with this group. Says he’s waiting for Grace Williams,” said Teresa Zane.
“Oh, shit!” cried Stev ens throwing his arms heavenward. “Oh shit!”
“Who’s Grace Williams?” asked Harriman innocently.
“Don’t you watch the news, John?” Stevens was incredulous.
“She’s a VIP with Net News International, sir,” replied Zane. “Focuses mainly on foreign stuff, war zones, civil wars, revolutions… kind of what we do sir,” said Zane. “Made her name covering the Basque war. One tough bitch.”
“Well, we can’t kill her,” moaned Stevens.
“She doesn’t know that,” countered Harriman. “Besides, we have to find her first. Let’s see if we can leverage her partner. Where is he?”
“On the front lawn, sir.”
“So he hasn’t seen anything inside. Let’s keep it that way and maybe no one else has to die.” He turned to Stevens, “Still gotta pop smoke and call in the birds. Get on the horn to the locals too.”
“Terry, let’s go see our interloper.”
The two walked out of the villa and onto the now, well-lit lawn beyond the perimeter wall. On his knees, hands zip-tied behind his back , was a young man who looked to be in his early-twenties. Harriman could tell he was terrified. That was good.
He stopped in front of the man, sizing him up. Thin and small with a boyish face… this fellow was no fighter.
“Who are you?” Harriman inquired in his most demanding voice.
“My name is Fabio Mariano Dutra from Sao Paulo and I am not a terrorist. Please do not kill me.”
Harriman was glad their captive was looking down. He was having difficulty keeping a straight face interrogating what he had quickly surmised to be a harmless interloper.
“How do we know that? Do you know what happens to terrorists?”
The young man shrank. “No, please! I am a V-Stream producer for NNI, and I am here waiting for Grace Williams. Please! Do not kill me! I am not a terrorist! I swear!”
“Where is Grace Williams? Why would she be here?”
“The state security commandant told her that they had found the Cabral’s and that the Americans were coming to free them tonight. I…”
“What?” Harriman broke in. “Are you telling me that Commander Silva leaked this operation to a reporter?”
“Sim, senior,” answered Fabio looking up for the first time. “She can be very… persuasive. She convinced me to wait for her, and I am a true coward.”
That asshole! thought Harriman, seething that his unit had been compromised.
“Where is Grace Williams? Tell me, or I’ll shoot you in the head and leave you here to rot,” threatened Harriman.
Fabio whimpered, “Please! I do not know. She left me and walked up the hill. I have not seen her since. She wanted video of the hostage rescue.”
Playing a hunch, Harriman took out his sidearm and pointed it at the young man.
Fabio began sobbing loudly.
“Grace Williams,” Harriman shouted into the woods, “you’ve got until I count to ten to show yourself or I’m going to blow this boy’s brains out just for fun.”
“Hold on,” came a woman’s voice from the gloom. “Don’t shoot. I’m coming out, hands up.”
A figure emerged from the dark, walking slowly, hands raised in surren der. Moments later, the woman came into full view in the light.
“That’s Grace Williams,” said Terry Zane. “Toughest news bitch out there. Goes into all the hotspots and she looks like that.”
“Whoa!” said Harriman under his breath. “Ok, I get it.”
Grace had recorded the entire firefight from her perch. What perplexed her was the ease in which the inner villa had been taken. She speculated that someone on the inside must have been a traitor to the cause; turning on his compatriots and killing them. That would explain the bursts of light from inside the house just before the RPG hit the door.
It was an amazing piece of video. She’d probably never know who the two spec ops heading for the door were but they had huge balls. Capturing the RPG splitting the air between them might win her a Pulitzer. The entire operation had lasted only a few minutes, which was perfect. There would be almost no editing required and her voiceover would be over the top of it… or a bumper at the front and back. She hadn’t quite made up her mind yet.
She was still rolling for the hostages to exit or their bodies to be brought out when she saw the two figures walking across the yard. The one in back was a spec op, she could see an assault rifle hanging from his abdomen. The other in front was a prisoner, hands tied behind his back. Grace zoomed in for a better look. It was Fabio.
Grace had already climbed down from her perch and was standing in the shadow of the woods when she saw the one in charge point his pistol at Fabio’s head. She smiled, knowing that both she and the young Brazilian were safe. She waited to be called out- appearing out of nowhere might get her shot. When it came, Grace raised her hands and slowly stepped into the light, moving toward the assembled party.
Grace did a quick sizing up of the leader, just under six feet and roughly one hundred eighty pounds. Like most spec ops, he was solid as a good looks, dark hair, likely in a military cut under his cap. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. Having seen him in action, she was impressed.
“My associates tell me that you are somewhat famous, Ms. Williams,” he began.
“Somewhat,” Grace replied. “May I lower my hands?”
“Of course. We have a bit of a dilemma. You see, we aren’t really here, yet you have evidence to the contrary. We need to confiscate your camera.”
Grace had expected that.
“I’m afraid it’s out there… somewhere,” she said motioning toward the woods.
“Ms. Williams, this isn’t a game. I need that camera and anything else you possess that has documented this incident,” he said calmly.
“Why? Anyone can see you’re either specs or spooks and you just performedWhy not let the people back home know? Hopefully, you saved the Cabral’s (he nodded). Good for you, Captain… do you have a name?” asked Grace.
“No, and I’ m afraid you are mistaken in your assumption. This operation isn’t sanctioned by the government of the United States, and no one here is currently a member of any branc h of the U. S. military. We’re all private citizens.
“People can’t know about this for two reasons. First, we have to maintain a low profile in order to continue our work. If our faces were to be seen, it would put us in danger.
“Second, we are operating within a sovereign nation, and the last thing anyone wants to do is embarrass the government of that sovereign nation with video of foreigners conducting a paramilitary operation within its borders,” he said firmly.
“Well Captain… Anonymous, we really do have a problem because I busted my ass and risked my life for that video and it’s the best thing I’ve done in two years. I’m not chucking it away because some spook is worried about whether or not I got his good side,” Grace retorted just as firmly. “If this isn’t a spec op then you don’t have the authority to detain me.”
“No, I’ll just shoot you and your friend here,” he said, pointing at the now silent Fabio. “The Brazilian state police are on their way and what they’ll find are two very stupid journalists who made the mistake of getting caught in the crossfire. Who is to know any better?”
“Ah but then you still wouldn’t have the camera and video would you?” She countered. “Big woods out there, lots of hiding places. Other people know why I’m in Sao Paulo… who knows who might stumble across it? Same problem for you.”
“True but I could take some satisfaction in killing you.”
Grace looked the man squarely in the eyes.
“You’re not going to kill me,” she said in a steady voice.
“Lady, you have no idea what I’m capable of,” he shot back. “Don’t push your luck.”
Another man walked briskly into the group. She assumed from his manner he was the second.
“Locals will be here in thirty, birds in ten.”
The one in charge nodded without taking his eyes off of Grace. She had an idea.
“Look, if you don’t want to take credit, fine. I’ll stream the story and give it to the Brazilians. I’ll say that it was their spec ops that took out the compound. I get my story, the Brazilians save face and you get to slip back into the fog,” said Grace.
She could sense he was working it over. She decided to push a little harder.
“This is going to help embellish your cover story; actual video of the Brazilians storming the compound. I can get an interview with their commander describing the assault. It’s a win-win.”
“Why should I trust you to keep your word?”
She knew she had him. “Because I’m trusting you to keep yours. Besides, you won’t kill if you don’t have to. I know your type.”
“My type? What makes you think I wouldn’t kill the both of you and fly off into the dawn without a second thought?”
Grace beamed him the smile.
“I saw from the woods. Fabio was never in any danger. You didn’t chamber a round before pointing your pistol at him.”
The man broke into a genuine grin. Still holding the sidearm, he fired a shot into the ground away from the group. Grace lost her smile, looking at where the bullet had struck. His didn’t waver.
“Ms. Williams, in my line of business, there’s always a round in the chamber,” he said to her, holstering the weapon. “We have a deal but if you go back on it I will hunt you down and kill you. It’ll be as easy as eating pancakes. Understand?”