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United States Disciplinary Barracks, Leavenworth
"Front and center, General." The order caught on Sergeant Tom Levi's tongue. A night of sour beer and stale peanuts left his mouth thick and woolly. It was 0500 hours, he was hungover and not in the mood for anyone's attitude.
"Now!" He banged the cell bars with his flashlight. Tiny sledgehammers pounded inside his skull, setting his teeth on edge.
Tom wasn't a lightweight. At five eleven, one hundred ninety pounds, he'd been able to hold his liquor since he was eighteen. Twenty years later, he could damn well do it without a splitting headache the next day.
The problem was he hadn't stopped at two beers. Somewhere during the second drink he'd lost track of time, ended up slamming more beers then blacked out.
He woke up in his car at four in the morning, half intoxicated, with his cell phone ringing.
His commander ordered him to report to the prison. Stat.
"Damn it, Trygg, get your butt up!" Tom snapped. Nausea churned in his gut and sharpened the dry grit that gouged at his eyes.
Feet shuffled slow and steady from the other side of the door, echoed by a slight cough that came with smoking expensive cigars. "What can I do for you this morning, Sergeant?"
"You have two minutes to get yourself presentable. I'm taking you to the commander."
It was a lie, of course. Transfer papers had hit the commander's desk last evening, ordering the prisoner, General Riorden Trygg, from Leavenworth, Kansas, to an undisclosed destination in Washington, D.C.
Before his arrest, the general had been dealing in military weapons on the side, supplying enemies with the means to kill American soldiers.
Any one of the soldiers in the prison would give a year in solitary confinement for thirty seconds with the man on the other side of the cell bars.
Hell, if it wasn't for his career, Tom would throw the bastard into a cell full of these guys. All of them had served overseas in their careers. And most had lost friends or family in combat.
Tom glanced at his watch. Two minutes were up.
"Hal! Let's do this!"
Tom waited until Sergeant Harold Coffey joined him, shackles in hand. Slightly overweight with a bulldog face, Hal was known as the least intelligent of the group. But he had meat on him, enough to handle any prisoner who got out of line.
"Stand clear, Trygg. Hands on your head, knees on the floor," Tom ordered, then flashed his light into the cell.
After Trygg was in position, he opened the door.
Hal quickly secured the shackles and hoisted Trygg to his feet.
"What's really going on, Sergeant Levi?" Trygg questioned. "In the five years I've been here, the commander has never reported for duty before nine in the morning. Later, if he managed a night with his mistress."
"Shut up, Trygg. Or I'll shut you up." But the damage was done. Other inmates had heard the exchange.
"You finally taking the trash out, Levi?" yelled one of the prisoners. "Don't we get to watch him die in a few months?"
Tom ignored them and pushed Trygg forward.
The cell block erupted. Prisoners banged on their bars, spewing profanity and threats at the general.
Trygg shuffled forward, his back ramrod straight, his close-cropped hair snow-white and meticulously neat.
The general's features remained emotionless. His square jaw balanced the low brow, the deep-set azure eyes.
Not surprising. Riorden Trygg, while a traitor to his country, was still a military man through and through.
They passed through lockdown security, and followed the procedure of being scanned.
A few minutes later, the three men stepped out onto the compound parking area. A predawn mist, heavy from days of rain, blanketed the concrete yard, settled through the high barbed-wire fences.
Tom directed Trygg toward the armored truckarmy issued, muddy green and no windowsparked just beyond the exit.
Two guards stood at the back bumper. Their rifles ready, their eyes scanning the perimeter.
Tom turned to the nearest guard. "Ready?"
"Let's go," he ordered Trygg, and then nudged the older man forward.
The vehicle door stood open, revealing a long, narrow path inside, flanked by two benches and a thin window separating the driver and cab at the far end.
Tom shackled the general's hardware to a bolted iron bar on the floor, pushed him onto one bench and then sat across from him on the other.
Harold settled next to the general.
"So where are we going, Sergeant Levi?"
"Where the army wants you."
"Fair enough." Trygg smirked, his cool blue eyes sweeping over Tom. "You look like you had a rough night."
Tom said nothing. He had no windows to look out, except for a small slit facing the driver's cab. Regulation wouldn't have permitted him to anyway. He needed both eyes on his prisoner.
Fifteen minutes later, the truck stopped. Plane engines roared outside, vibrating the concrete beneath the vehicle's tires.
"Sounds like I'm going quite a distance," Trygg commented, then purposefully glanced at Tom's watch. "Or maybe not anywhere at all."
Without warning, gunfire burst from outside on the tarmac. Bullets ripped through the front windshield. The driver's head exploded, blood and gray matter spattered the slit window.
"Damn it!" Tom reached for his side arm. "That's bulletproof glass."
"New kind of ammunition," Trygg explained, his tone deceptively pleasant. "My men have had access to it for a couple months now."
Tom's head snapped around. Harold leveled his pistol at Tom's chest. "You stupid son of a bitch!"
Red blotches mottled Hal's face. From anger or embarrassment, Tom couldn't be sure. But the man's hand remained steady, his jaw tight. "Money talks," Hal sneered.
"This isn't personal, Sergeant," Trygg commented, the blue of his eyes arctic, the pupils dilated and dark with malevolence. "You are in the wrong place at the wrong time."
A chilling calm rippled through Tom. So be it.
"You'll never live to see any payoff, Hal," Tom said, while his hand slipped slowly to his hip. "That's why Trygg offered the job to you. You're too stupid to realize it."
"But you weren't, Sergeant Levi. Which is why we drugged you a bit last night. Couldn't have you thinking with a clear head this morning, now could we?" Trygg acknowledged.
"How did you know I'd be assigned?"
When the general smirked, Tom swore. Inside job. High up.
Suddenly angry, Tom grabbed for his pistol. But his fingers barely touched the metal grip when Harold fired.
"Who's stupid now?" Hal watched his friend fall to the floor, then retrieved the shackle keys from his belt.
Hal unlocked the chains and Trygg rubbed his wrists. It was a shame really, Trygg thought, studying Tom's body on the floor. He could have used someone like Sergeant Levi in his unit. Smart. Talented. Just too much patriotic idealism for Trygg's plans.
Nothing like the poor excuse for a soldier standing in front of him.
"Not quite yet, Sergeant." Trygg grabbed Tom's pistol, pointed and pulled the trigger three times.
Hal slumped back against the wall, a trail of blood gushing from his throat as he struggled for breath. Trygg shrugged. "Unfortunately for you, Sergeant Levi was right."
A fist pounded the truck's side. "All clear, General?"
"Yes, Colonel. Situation is controlled." Trygg dropped the pistol, stepped over the two dead bodies and stood toward the front of the truck.
The two doors exploded, knocking Trygg slightly off his feet. His hand shot out, found the wall, and he steadied himself.
Then the acid edge of gunpowder sliced through the air, burned his nostrils. He stepped toward the door. The frigid morning air slapped at him.
"Smell that, Jim?" He took a deep breath, looked at the man waiting at the step of the truck. "Know what that is?"
"No, sir," Colonel Jim Rayo answered honestly. He was a man of average height, with a barrel chest and a thick trunk that left little room for more than a squat neck under hard, weather-lined features and keen brown eyes.
Trygg jumped to the ground and slapped his friend on the shoulder. "That is the scent of freedom."
"We're not safe yet, General." Rayo's mouth thinned into a grim line, then nodded to a tan sedan a few yards away. "I have a plane waiting for us at a private airstrip nearby. We should be in Taer by tonight."
"And the good doctor? Has she been detained?"
"Yes, sir." Rayo signaled the other men into their cars and led the general to his ride. "The men seized Doctor Sandra Haddad an hour ago."
"And?" Trygg asked, pausing at the car.
"You were right." Jim opened the passenger door. "She put up one hell of a fight."
"That's promising," Trygg replied. "After five years of waiting, I'd hate to think she'd make this easy for me."
The storm hit the midnight air, a blistering squall of dust and grit that clogged lungs, cut into eyes and covered the empty city streets of Taer in desert sand.
Booker stepped into a nearby alley, ignoring the bite of the wind, the slap of grit against his face. Rage and impatienceand just enough uneasinesskept his footsteps silent, his senses alert, his knife in his fist.
He was a tall man, long in the leg, lean in the hips, but broad in the shoulder and chest. He was hard muscledand hardheaded, if a person listened to those who knew him.
He'd been born among the oil fields of Texas, spent his youth traipsing around the Chihuahuan Desert with his father, working when they could, fending off hunger when there were no jobs to be found. His mother died long before he could form vivid memories of her. But the vague ones, recollections of soft scents and softer words, he carried in the deepest part of his soul.
At eighteen, when the snap of a steel cable took his father's life, Booker traded the oil rigs for military combat zones, the searing heat of the desert for the muck and brush of the jungles and the beleaguered inner cities of third-world countries.
For twenty years, he breathed in the scent of blood, tasted its metallic bite against the back of his throat, choked on the acid remnants of gunpowder. Lived with the cries of the wounded and tortured in his nightmares.
A car roared past, skidded to a halt just down the street only yards back from his SUV.
Booker eyed the platinum finish, the sleek linesthe license plate.
He shifted back into the shadows, confident his black shirt and trousers blended well with the darkness.
A young couple slid out of the car, darted up the deserted street, their heads down, their arms linked, laughing as they fought the wind.
Booker wondered if he'd ever been that young, or that carefree.
A door caught the wind, slammed against the wall. A string of curses hit the air. American.
Booker tightened his grip on the hilt of his knife.
A man walked past, his shoulders thick, his gait cautious. A black scarf covered his head, hung loose from the man's face. An AK-47 assault rifle rested in the crook of his arm.
Booker stepped behind the man, hooked his forearm around the exposed neck and yanked. The spine snapped, the muscles slackened. Booker dragged the body to the farthest part of the alley.
"Where are your friends?" Booker whispered, then tugged the scarf from the man's head, looped it around his own, leaving only his eyes uncovered.
He grabbed the machine gun and eased against the back door of the five-story apartment building. Three windows of the third-floor rooms flickered with lights and shadows.
Which room are you in, Doc?
An image of Doctor Sandra Haddad flashed through his mind.
Long, silky hair the color of a starless midnight sky, delicate features.
But it was her eyesbig and brown, intelligent-sharpand the warm, sun-kissed skin that caught a man's eyes, stayed in his memory.
Haunted his dreams.
Booker tugged on the back door, found it locked.
The storm strengthened. A gust of wind slammed a nearby shutter against a second-story window. One two
He aimed the weapon at the lock. Three. Booker pulled the trigger. The lock burst.
He shifted his shoulder against the door and shoved.
Booker waited in silence with machine gun raised, his eyes focused on the darkness just beyond.
A moment later shadows shifted, objects formed into patterns. He noted a hallway, the door at its endthe slit of light at its base.
Booker eased up to the door, heard nothing from the other side. The sharp scent of antiseptic cleaner and stale cigars slapped at him. Slowly, he swung the door open.
The lobby's light cast a dull yellow glow on a scuffed tile floor, bare gray walls. Rows of mail slots flanked the front entrance that fed across a long, narrow room and ended with a staircase against the far wall.
Booker made his way up the stairs to the third floor, his stance loose, poised.
Three men guarded the hallway. All ex-military, with the cropped hair, pumped-up muscles and sweat-stained military fatigues.
Two leaned outside one door, flanking its sides, while the other sat on the floor, head resting against the wall, his eyes closedhis finger on the trigger of the AK-47 in his lap.
An inner door slammed shut somewhere in the protected room. The first guard, a short man sporting a scar across one eye, smacked his buddy on the back and laughed. "I think Milo will have a good time. Then it will be our turn, no?"
"I would only kill her," the other growled, and limped toward the sleeping guard.
Rage rippled the air around him. Rage at her. More rage at himself for letting them take her.
The attack had been unexpected. He'd been too far from her. Had underestimated their speed, their abilities at the airport.
He wouldn't again.
The shortest of the three set his rifle against the wall. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, his meaty hands grimy and blood-spattered.
Sandra's delicate features, flawless skinboth, Booker imagined, now bloody and bruised.
Gritting his teeth, he buried the rage, the fear, the guilt, all where his other ghosts lurked. Down in the darkest corner of his soul.
"Hey," he whispered. The men swung around, surprised. He stepped into the hall, palmed his knife and threw it, all in one practiced motion.
With a sharp thwap, the blade imbedded in the limping man's throat. The man grasped at the handle while he choked on his own blood.
The sleeping man started awake. Booker kneed him in the face, transforming the man's warning cry into a pained grunt. With a twist on his head, he snapped the man's neck and turned.
"Come on." The shorter man kicked his machine gun aside, his features twisted in derision. He motioned Booker closer with a wave of his fingers. "Let's play."
Booker snagged his knife from the dead man and lunged.
At the last second, he dropped, then rolled. Booker's foot rammed the other man's crotch. "Tag, you're it."
The man's knees buckled and he screamed.
"No?" Booker slammed him into the opposite wall. "Twenty questions, then. Is that the doc's blood on your hands?"
The mercenary struggled, his feet lost traction. Booker's hand tightened at his throat, cutting off his oxygen.
"I'll take that as a yes," Booker taunted against his enemy's ear. The scent of fear, of blood, of death permeated the air between them. Heavy. Sour.
"Game over." He shoved the knife up into the man's ribs and twisted. "You lose."