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Peru, South America--Thursday evening
Timing is going to be everything," Creed said, watching the two-and-a-half-ton truck grind its way up the switchbacks on the steep mountain road below them.
Next to him, Kid Chaos Chronopolous let out a short, humorless laugh.
Creed lowered the binoculars and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. Behind them, the sun was setting on the high peaks of the Peruvian Andes. A light mist of rain turning to snow filled the air.
That was fine with Creed. He preferred his revenge cold.
They'd been in Peru for three weeks, traveling the desolate backcountry of the Cordillera range, roughing it out of an old army Jeep with no windshield, no doors, and no roof--waiting for Castano and Garcia to make a run for Puerto Blanco, the rebels' last refuge.
They weren't going to make it.
Kid reached for the binoculars and set them to his eyes. "Two guys in the cab."
"Castano riding shotgun," Creed said, pulling his black stocking cap lower on his head, then reaching around and tying his hair back at the base of his neck.
"Garcia at the wheel," Kid confirmed. He was unshaven, his skin burned brown by the sun, his dark hair long and shaggy from his months on the trail. He and Creed had chased Castano and Garcia from the jungles of Colombia and across the fetid swamps of the Amazon, like hounds on the scent, down the length of Peru.
But this is where it ended, here in the wild mountains in the wind and the snow.
"This remind you of something?" Creed asked, gesturing at the weather, before reaching for his pistol, a Glock 10mm. His knife was in a sheath on the right side of his tactical vest. He checked the load on his pistol and returned it to its holster. The action was automatic, rote. The actual weapon of choice for the night was on the ground at his feet, locked and loaded: an RPG-7, a Soviet special Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher.
"The Shah-i-Kot mountains, Afghanistan," Kid said. "That night it started to snow, just like this, just as we were ready to move out." They'd both been doing recon out of Kabul for a major offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Creed with another group of operatives from Fort Bragg, and Kid with the Marines.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking, too." They'd gotten exactly what they'd gone after that night. Tonight would be the same, or Creed would die trying. He didn't have any compromise left in him, not for this mission.
"Wait a minute . . ." Kid hesitated and adjusted the focus on the binoculars, then swore under his breath. "We've got a problem."
"What?" Creed looked up.
"There's a third guy in the middle--but . . . it's not a guy."
"They're taking a woman to Puerto Blanco?" Fuck. That changed everything.
And that really changed everything. Creed's jaw hardened. He knew what Castano and Garcia had done to Kid's brother before they'd killed him. The nightmare was etched into every breath he took. He knew their demented brand of brutality--and he could imagine what they would do to a woman, what they'd probably done to a lot of women.
"Okay. So we can't just blow the truck." That had been the plan. Blow the friggin' truck right off the side of the mountain and send Castano and Garcia straight to hell.
"No, mi hermano," Kid said after a long, silent moment, still looking through the binoculars. "We're going to have to do this the hard way."
Creed could tell Kid was trying not to sound too satisfied, but he did--damned satisfied, as if the woman's abduction had played right into his hands. Without wanting to, Creed knew exactly where Kid's satisfaction came from. He understood it--and he wished to hell he didn't. There was a world of difference between wanting someone dead and wanting to kill someone. Kid wanted to kill Castano and Garcia--face-to-face, hand-to-hand, take their lives from them the way they'd taken his brother's.
So did Creed. The need drove him--had been driving him ever since he and J.T. Chronopolous had been ambushed in Colombia six months ago. Their mission for Special Defense Force, SDF, a clandestine group of special forces operators who worked out of the underbelly of the U.S. Department of Defense, had been compromised beyond all repair. Worse, he'd lost J.T., his partner.
Creed had nearly died himself, been beaten to within an inch of his life. He still had places on him that hurt, places that were never going to work right again. He didn't know why the National Revolutionary Forces, the NRF, a rebel group fighting the Colombian government, had killed J.T. and let him live. He probably never would--but he couldn't forget it. The fact haunted his days, made him break out in a sweat every night while he slept, even in the frigid highlands of the Andes.
"We're going to have to take them in Puerto Blanco," Kid continued.
"Well, that ought to get real damned interesting." Shit. Puerto Blanco was a hellhole, a magnet for every thief and murderer in Peru. There was no law in Puerto Blanco, not that he and Kid were counting on anybody else to save them if things went bad. On the contrary, they were the guys who guaranteed that things went bad, real damn bad, real damn quick. Kid Chaos hadn't come by his name by accident.
Three governments had sanctioned them to take these men out, and not one of them expected two SDF operators to need any help doing it. The Defense Department wanted to send a message to the NRF: "Kill our guys, and you'll pay the price." The Colombian government just wanted Castano, Garcia, and every other rebel in their whole damn country to disappear, and Peru didn't like Colombia's bad boys crossing the border and stirring up trouble. So all the diplomatic gloves had come off. Creed and Kid both knew nobody was going to save their asses if they failed, but neither was anybody going to get in their way--which suited them both just fine.
The snow thickened, driven by a rising wind. In about ten minutes the sun would be completely behind the mountains, and they'd be driving to Puerto Blanco through a blizzard, in the dark, on a road whose winding curves barely clung to terra firma.
Or maybe they wouldn't.
Two turns below them on the mountain, Garcia shifted the deuce-and-a-half into a lower gear and the truck slowly ground to a halt.
"Looks like we've got another change in plans," Kid said, handing the binoculars back to Creed and picking up his bolt-action M40 rifle. He set his eye to the scope.
Creed looked down the mountain. Sure enough, the bad guys were getting out of the truck and hauling the woman with them. One side of her face was bloody, and her blouse had been ripped. Creed let out a long, slow breath, glanced at Kid, then went back to the binoculars. No one else was on the road for as far as he could see, which didn't surprise him. In the three days they'd been waiting, no more than five vehicles had passed in either direction.
Garcia rounded the truck, a big grin on his face, a slouch hat pulled low on his forehead--and that's the way he died, his grin frozen on his lips for a split second as Kid's 7.62mm match-grade round hit him dead between the eyes, right through his hat, a sniper's cold zero. The man was crumpling toward the ground before the crack of the rifle sounded in the cold mountain air.
Castano quickly jerked the woman in front of him and pulled a pistol out of the holster on his belt. Crouching, with his back up against the truck, he peered over the woman's shoulder, his gun pointing up the mountain.
Creed was already on the move, heading toward the road, swiftly, silently, using what cover there was to keep himself out of Castano's sight. Kid's second shot went through the windshield, shattering it into thousands of pieces and spooking Castano into pushing the woman away from him. The Colombian dove underneath the truck. Creed saw him scramble across the road on the other side and take off running down the mountain.
Kid's third shot caught Castano in the shoulder, and the guy fell, tumbling and rolling down the steep slope.
Creed cleared the first stretch of road and kept running, ignoring the pain shooting up into his hip.
Leaping off the next embankment, he landed on his weak leg and stumbled, but righted himself and kept going.
Castano had barely made it to his feet when Creed caught him and brought him down hard. The two of them slid a dozen yards, grappling, before they came to a halt.
With lightning-quick skill, Creed cut the Colombian twice, trapping his wrist and slicing through tendons, then reaching down and severing the bastard's femoral artery at the groin. Each cut took less than a second to make. Both of them were executed with a razor-sharp, seven-inch blade. The man's gun fell from his disabled grip, and Creed picked it up and threw it farther away.
Breathing heavily, his heart racing, Creed set the tip of his knife above Castano's heart and watched terror flood into the other man's eyes.
He knew this man--his flattened, broken nose, the scar that ran from the corner of his mouth--knew his pockmarked face from endless nights of beatings and torture. Pablo Castano had been his and J.T.'s jailer. He'd been one of the men who had taken his knife to J.T.--and for that, he would die by the knife, slowly, with all the skill and ferocity at Creed's command.
He pressed the blade down and felt the thin layer of Castano's skin give way.
The man's breath caught on a muffled groan and with a surge of strength, he pushed Creed back and rolled out from under him. Creed was on him again in an instant, holding him down, putting his knife to the rebel's throat.
Darkness moved farther up the slope with every passing second, sliding over them like a veil, taking the last of the light from the sky. Above them, up on the road, Creed could hear the woman praying for mercy, and he knew her prayers would be answered. But there would be no mercy down here on the side of the mountain--and no cold revenge. Everything inside him was hot, burning through him, setting his heart on fire.
From somewhere deep in his memories, a terrible sound came to him: a keening death cry, the scream of a man in agony beyond what he could bear. It echoed in Creed's mind, over and over again, making his hands shake.
He tightened his grip on the knife, tightened his fist in Castano's hair, and pulled the man's head back. The Colombian tried to struggle, but was weakening beneath him. Creed had cut him deep, making a river out of his blood--still, it wasn't enough.
Slowly, carefully, he increased the pressure of his blade on Castano's throat and just as slowly, lowered his mouth to the Colombian's ear. An awful pain lodged in his chest, making his words hard to speak, making his voice harsh--yet no harsher than the deed he was about to commit.
"Dile al diablo . . ." he whispered, "que fue Creed Rivera quien te quit— tu vida." Tell the devil it was Creed Rivera who took your life.
Denver, Colorado--Two weeks later
She didn't look like bait.
From where he sat in a comfortably upholstered chair, reading the newspaper, Creed watched the woman limping across the third floor of the Denver Public Library. It was her fourth trip from the reference section over to the copy machine. Each time, she made a couple of copies and returned to the reference desk. Each time, her mousy brown hair had come a little more undone from the scraggly bun at the top of her head, until the whole thing had completely given up and reverted back to a raggedy-edged ponytail--except the pencils that had been holding the bun were still stuck in the pony band.
And so he repeated to himself: She did not look like bait.
What she looked like was a scatterbrained librarian with pencils coming out of her head.
Carefully stretching out his left leg, Creed eased the pain in his hip, then rolled his shoulder. Sitting for long periods stiffened him up, and the library didn't close for another hour. Hell, he'd probably be half paralyzed by then, and that was about the way things had been going for him lately. He didn't know which was harder on him, the running around he'd done in South America or the sitting around he'd been doing since he'd come home, sifting through a lot of intelligence reports that never seemed to pan out and waiting for a Czech national with a Soviet missile to stick her nose out somewhere.
Well, if today's intel from the Defense Intelligence Agency, DIA, was good, she'd finally done it--here, in Denver, in the public library.
Kee-rist. He stretched again when a sharp pain cramped his calf. His body was a friggin' train wreck.
Reaching into one of the pockets on his cargo pants, he pulled out a couple packages of ibuprofen tablets and figured four ought to take the edge off.
The pencil lady was a little wrecked, too. She was wearing an ankle brace, and the strings were loose and trailing behind her, and her socks didn't match. One was definitely black; the other was a different shade altogether. The rest of her matched perfectly--painfully perfectly. Not only was her hair brown, but her eyes were brown. Her shoes were brown. The frames on her Coke-bottle-thick glasses were brown. Her big ugly sweater, though a lighter shade, was brown; so was her thick wool skirt. It had also been rolled at her waist, giving it an uneven hemline. The combination of her uneven hairdo, uneven hem, and uneven gait gave her the appearance of a floundering ship, a small, sort of skinny ship with a cargo of books in her arms--a ship lost at sea, being beaten by the waves, and no doubt about to be sunk by the force of the storm heading its way.
Bait, by its very definition, meant an allurement, an enticement.
Cordelia Kaplan was neither alluring nor enticing.
But then, neither was she Cordelia Kaplan.
According to today's intel, the Denver Public Library's newest reference librarian was actually an illegal immigrant from the Czech Republic by the name of Dominika Starkova, the supposed moll of a former Soviet KGB colonel. She'd been the current belle du jour of the Prague club scene up until she'd skipped town and ended up in the good old U.S. of A., in Denver, Colorado, working at the library and looking like a fishwife.
From the Paperback edition.