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Like the young mule deer in his rifle scope, Viktor Mialkovsky was a patient creature who preferred to spend a great deal of time monitoring his surroundings before making a decisive move.
But unlike that timid mammal -- who now sat trembling in fear approximately two hundred yards from his high-point position overlooking the rocky clearing below -- Mialkovsky was the furthest thing imaginable from harmless.
Thanks to a considerable amount of progressively intense training and experience, all paid for by the United States government, Viktor Mialkovsky was perfectly capable of killing human and wildlife alike with a wide range of lethal weapons that specifically included his bare hands. As a result of that same training and experience, he was also considered an expert hunter, tracker, and survivalist by the small number of peers and supervisors who were personally aware of his skills. On the summary sheet in his personnel jacket, the words "mission-oriented" and "emotionally detached" had been highlighted and underlined for emphasis.
Had Mialkovsky possessed a similar degree of camaraderie, and respect for teamwork and authority, he would have been the ideal government hunter-killer: an infinitely adaptable human weapon to be judiciously applied to the most difficult tactical problems. That was certainly the plan, as far as the succession of people responsible for his training and duty assignments had been concerned.
But it hadn't taken each of these veteran supervisors long to conclude that their supposedly ideal hunter-killer was indifferent to authority and regulations in general, to the rules of engagement in particular, and to the other men and women attached to his missions without exception. Most of them were convinced that Mialkovsky's heralded "emotional detachment" had far less to do with his ability to control his emotions than with a general lack thereof.
These were serious flaws that should have terminated Viktor Mialkovsky's government career long before his skill set became unmanageable; and certainly would have, had he not also possessed from early childhood an almost feral ability to conceal himself -- both his mind and his body -- within the organizational structure of his environment.
No aptitude or personality test ever confirmed the suspicions of his supervisors, none of his questionable actions had ever been documented, and no eyewitnesses had ever stepped forward to report what they had heard or seen.
In effect, to his supervisors and to his external world at large, Mialkovsky remained irrefutably who and what he chose to be at any particular moment.
And that, in addition to his formidable skill set, made him extremely dangerous to anyone or anything that happened to cross his path.
Thus the fact that Mialkovsky and the young mule deer had chosen to conceal themselves on adjacent sets of narrow rocky mesas overlooking this particular high-mountain clearing on this particular night certainly bode nothing good for the animal. But the presence of the terrified deer seemed only to amuse the supposedly emotionless hunter-killer, who had briefly held the deer's head in his crosshairs before methodically shifting his view to the next sector.
It was a casual decision that would have undoubtedly intrigued the legion of government psychiatrists who had diligently probed Viktor Mialkovsky's psyche over the years with their batteries of standardized but ultimately unrevealing tests.
This particular decision by Mialkovsky was revealing, because it would have taken the hunter-killer only a fraction of a second to send one of his modified 7.62x51 NATO hollow-pointed bullets through the deer's exposed head. In doing so, he would have confirmed the functionality of his primary weapon, acquired some extra meat for his freezer, and reduced the number of unpredictable factors at the scene by one; all positive results achieved at minimal risk to his intended task.
Very "mission-oriented," indeed.
And, in fact, during that brief and thoughtful moment, he had considered squeezing the trigger of his silenced bolt-action rifle, for the simple purpose of double-checking the accuracy of the 80mm-wide-aperture ATN 4-12X80 day-night telescopic sight...and to make the next few hours a bit more interesting.
But, ultimately, he chose not to do so, for five very specific reasons.
First of all, he'd come here to hunt a different species.
And he'd already sighted in the scope after he'd parked and concealed the dune buggy back down the trail.
And he really didn't need another deer for his freezer, because he didn't have a freezer; at least not in this state.
And he didn't consider the animal a significant issue in terms of the overall scene.
But more to the point, Viktor Mialkovsky really wasn't interested in the concept of mercy killing, one way or the other. He viewed that as a job for the other predators in the area -- the cougars and coyotes -- who would eventually hone in on the deer.
No need to upset Mother Nature's balance. At least not any more than was absolutely necessary for his purposes here tonight.
So he remained in his high-lookout position here in Nevada's Desert National Wildlife Range, methodically searching the sectors of his three-hundred-and-sixty-degree perimeter for any sign of the individuals who could easily show up on a random basis, but who more likely were not going to be out patrolling a remote and desolate stretch of high desert on a Friday evening when they could be enjoying dinner with friends or family.
The weatherman had been predicting a big storm coming in from the north, so who in their right minds would be out hunting on a night like this?
Only the truly dedicated hunters, Mialkovsky thought, smiling to himself.
As the sun began to settle in the western sky, he observed what appeared to be a group of outlaw bikers -- eight grubby-looking figures, barely discernible in the scope, six on motorcycles and two others in a battered and dirty jeep -- come about halfway up the dirt road, turn off on a small side road, and proceed to set up a crude off-road campsite. He monitored their activities with the rifle scope for a half hour or so; but they were a considerable distance from his position, and seemed intent on fiddling with their motorcycles, lounge chairs, cigars, and whatever was in the big ice chest, so he canceled them out of his calculations.
When the sun finally set down over the high ridge of the Sheep Range, he removed the daytime eyepiece from the rear of the telescopic sight that cost five times as much as the rifle it was mounted on, and replaced it with the larger night-vision eyepiece that provided a clear and sharp field-of-view in shades of bright green. Then he went back to the routine and boring but absolutely critical task of monitoring his surroundings.
If the dedicated federal wildlife refuge officers, or their plainclothed special agent counterparts, who worked this area were going to conduct a surprise patrol in their ongoing effort to keep poachers from killing the prized Desert Bighorns that thrived on the high ridges of the Sheep Range, Mialkovsky figured this was when they'd probably show up. So he continued to maintain his sector searches as the slivered moon arced high overhead and grew brighter.
But there was no sign of activity from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's Corn Creek Field Station -- the official entrance to the range some six miles to the west of his location -- or from the intersecting dirt and gravel roads that wound their way south to that ultimate bright-light emitter: Las Vegas. And the biker group camped out on the distant side road had built themselves a small rock-ringed fire, and -- apart from a couple of apparent motorcycle joyrides in the nearby sand-filled gullies -- showed no signs of going anywhere.
Maybe we'll have a peaceful night up here, all to ourselves, Mialkovsky thought, an idea that was unlikely at best. In his experience, things never worked out as planned. There was always a need to adapt to the some unexpected event, and that was perfectly fine as far as he was concerned.
In truth, he enjoyed the adapting part far more than the hunt...or even the kill.
The scopes and sensors he had brought with him on this particular night were state-of-the-art, so it was especially ironic that Mialkovsky was first alerted to the approaching SUV when the mule deer's ears suddenly cupped and swung around to focus on the distant new sound.
Six minutes later, Mialkovsky's far-less-sensitive ears finally detected the noise of the Escalade's muscular engine. But he'd had the bouncing and swerving off-road vehicle in his night-vision-enhanced telescopic sights for five of those minutes, and was now chuckling to himself as he watched the driver hit the ruts and bumps that would have been a lot easier to see -- and avoid -- with the headlights on.
"Back off it, you idiot," Mialkovsky muttered irritably. The last thing he needed on this particular evening was an unplanned accident with unpredictable consequences.
But the heavyset driver of the Escalade showed no indication of halting his aggressive, high-speed ascent of the narrow dirt road, in spite of the fact that he was completely dependent on his front-seat passenger -- a broad-shouldered man who appeared to be using a pair of night-vision-equipped binoculars -- to guide them along the otherwise pitch-black roadway. On three separate occasions, the wildly driven four-wheel-drive vehicle missed careening off the road and tumbling down the mountain by mere inches.
Mialkovsky shook his head in amazement.
Some people just can't help doing things the hard way; it's their nature, he reminded himself as he watched the dark-painted Escalade finally come to a sand-and-dirt-and-gravel-spewing stop behind a mass of boulders down near the base of the trail.
Moments later, in a chorus of slamming doors, clanks, curses, and general stumbling, intermixed with audible hissings to "be quiet," the two men began working their way up the narrow winding trail.
From his high-top position overlooking the clearing and the trail, Mialkovsky was able to follow their movements in the glowing green view field of his night-vision scope with a minimal amount of moving. Not that he was overly concerned that the two men would actually spot him. Between the desert-camouflage Ghillie suit that blurred his features into an indistinct mass and the desert-camouflage cloth interwoven with branches of the local flora that accomplished the same thing for his extended rifle and other pieces of equipment, the two visibly overweight and poorly conditioned men would have had to trip over him to see him, even with their modern night-vision gear.
And to do that, they would have to do a hell of a lot more climbing up some extremely difficult terrain.
Given their antics so far, not to mention the possibility that the strained heart of the larger of the two men -- who appeared to be carrying at least three hundred and fifty pounds on his short, squat frame -- might give out at any moment, Mialkovsky didn't think that was very likely.
Predictably, when the two men finally made it up to the clearing, they chose the easier route up to the surrounding rocky ledges -- the one to their right -- instead of the far more difficult route to the left that Mialkovsky had taken.
In doing so, they never saw the old and wary Desert Bighorn ram quietly move away from them with practiced ease, instinctively keeping large boulders between it and these intruders who had disturbed his normally quiet evening. Instead, they began to work their way along the narrow rocky mesa on the far side of the clearing with a sense of purpose, the heavier man -- the Escalade driver -- in the lead, slowly searching the surrounding crags and boulders with his nightscope-equipped rifle while the second broad-shouldered man made a wider search of the area with his night-vision binoculars.
So, are you really worth all of that effort, old fellow? Mialkovsky wondered as he briefly set the crosshairs of his scope on the steadily retreating ram, the distinctive scar from a ricocheting bullet clearly visible on the animal's cracked left horn, before returning his attention to the two men across the clearing.
It would have been an easy two-hundred-and-twenty-yard shot, but Mialkovsky wasn't ready to start shooting just yet. In a situation like this, positioning was everything, and patience the key.
So he continued to methodically shift the scope's aim-point, monitoring the position of all of the possible targets around the clearing, until the mule deer's ears suddenly cupped and swiveled back toward the road once again.
This time he heard the vehicle moments after he had it in the view field of his telescopic sight: an old nondescript pickup truck with a poorly tuned engine, cautiously working its way up the dirt road with all lights off except for a pair of dim running lights mounted under the front bumper, and seemingly following the tracks that Mialkovsky had made with his dune buggy.
You've been here before too, haven't you, pal?
The thought came to Mialkovsky unbidden -- his subconscious already working on the angles -- as he focused his nightscope on the creeping truck. The only occupant appeared to be the driver, who was wearing some kind of helmet on his head; and he could see what appeared to be a bolt-action rifle cradled in a rack mounted behind the driver's head.
High above in the rocks, the veteran hunter-killer smiled as he made a quick sweep with his rifle scope to see how the other occupants of this high mountain habitat were reacting to the new visitor.
As he'd expected, the two men across the clearing had dropped to their knees behind some small boulders, exposed from the waist up, and were staring back in the direction of the trail with their modern night-vision devices. The old ram was standing still, watching and listening from his far-better-concealed position. And the young mule deer seemed to have turned into stone.
Another quick check of the distant biker group suggested that the figures sitting around the small fire -- Mialkovsky could see only six, but there was intermittent movement on the opposite side of the jeep where the motorcycles were parked -- had no interest in old trucks wandering around in the dark, or were completely oblivious to the situation. More likely the latter, he figured.
Moments later, the pickup came to a halt about fifty yards down the dirt road from the start of the narrow trail leading up to the clearing.
The sound of a rusty door slowly creaking open echoed across the cold mountain air, causing the two men across the clearing to crouch a little deeper behind their quasiprotective boulders.
Then silence...broken only by the intermittent sounds of a single set of footsteps carefully working their way up the narrow trail, moving like a man in good condition who had made the climb many times before.
In the brief moments that he was visible between blocking boulders and trees, Mialkovsky was able to identify the newcomer as a Hispanic-looking male wearing dark ski clothes and what now looked like a Vietnam War-era helmet strapped to his head. There was a small tube duct-taped to the helmet -- so that it hung in front of the man's right eye -- that looked like one of the obsolete first-generation nightscopes frequently sold at military surplus stores, and some kind of long object in his right hand that was mostly hidden by his body.
Across the clearing, it now appeared as if the two crouching men with the modern night-vision gear were arguing quietly with each other, clearly agitated by the unexpected appearance of this newcomer.
Mialkovsky smiled in pleasant satisfaction.
In all of the years that he'd been forced to adapt his tactical plans at the last minute, he couldn't remember a single time when the random movement of individuals had worked to his advantage. But tonight, the happenstances were lining up in his favor as if they'd been choreographed by fate itself.
As the Hispanic man neared the crest of the trail where it opened out into the clearing, he suddenly moved off the trail to his right and began to climb through the rocks, heading in the general direction of the small and narrow mesa where the young mule deer was hiding.
Humming silently to himself, Mialkovsky reached out and made a final check of the flash repressor he'd mounted a few inches in front of his silencer with a duct-taped wire frame, making sure it was aligned properly.
Wouldn't it be interesting if -- the hunter-killer had started to muse before he blinked in surprise as the mule deer -- startled by the now-rapid approach of the Hispanic man -- lunged out of the darkness into the clearing...stumbled on its rear leg...and then came to an indecisive stop between Mialkovsky and his target.
Stunned by the incredible appearance of the one piece of evidence that he had wanted from the very early stages of his planning -- but whose chances of happening with any degree of predictability were nil, he'd figured -- Mialkovsky had barely a second to make his decision.
He made it as he always did: based on instinct and a constantly updated awareness of his environment.
In a series of reflexive motions, Mialkovsky reached forward, bent the flash repressor rig aside, and sent a 150-grain hollow-pointed 7.62x51 NATO round ripping through the fragile neck of the young deer.
Feeling the comfortable sense of calm that he always felt when the action started, Mialkovsky smoothly fed a second round into the rifle's chamber, reached forward to bend the flash repressor back into position, aimed and triggered a second hollow-pointed bullet into the lower neck of his intended target, jacked a third round into the rifle chamber, and then paused to watch the succession of events that would follow.
The Hispanic newcomer and the broad-shouldered man saw each other at the precise moment the obese man with the silenced hunting rifle crumpled to the ground.
Seemingly puzzled by the sudden collapse of his companion, the broad-shouldered man allowed the neck-strapped binoculars to drop against his chest as he knelt down, pulled off his right glove, quickly put his bare hand against the prone man's neck, and then seemed to recoil in horror.
Three seconds later, the broad-shouldered man lunged to his feet and began running back down the narrow ledge pathway, pulling his glove back on and fumbling for something inside his jacket.
Moments later, the still night air erupted in a jackhammer burst of 9mm rounds as the charging broad-shouldered man fired an Uzi submachine gun in the general direction of the already frantically retreating Hispanic.
As Mialkovsky watched from his across-the-clearing position, the broad-shouldered man came to a halt beside a large boulder, triggered a second blindly aimed burst from the Uzi that audibly emptied the magazine, tossed the spent magazine aside, pulled another one out of his jacket, rapidly reloaded and charged the weapon, made a quick sweep of the area with the night-vision binoculars still strapped around his neck, and then began to quickly work his way back down to the spot where the Hispanic man had suddenly disappeared along the trail.
Surprised, seriously confused, and pissed. Mialkovsky checked the details off reflexively in his mind as he continued to watch the drama he'd instigated with his second bullet unfold.
The 9mm bullets were still ricocheting off rocks and boulders high over his head when the desperately fleeing man lost his footing on the narrow trail and tumbled out of control for at least twenty feet, striking his helmeted head against a large boulder that halted his fall but appeared to leave him dazed and even more frightened.
When his Uzi-armed pursuer started screaming and cursing high above him at the upper end of the trail, he fell a second time, slamming his right forearm and then his helmeted head again into another boulder. The dual impacts sent the Hispanic man tumbling down the trail again, where he finally came to a halt in a sprawled and seemingly unconscious pile.
Mialkovsky had already started to incorporate this unexpected fatality into his calculations when, to his amazement, the man managed to regain his senses, staggered to his feet, and continued stumbling down the trail...undoubtedly propelled by the crashing, cursing, and gasping sounds his pursuer was making as he tried to descend the trail with the Uzi in one hand and the binoculars loosely held in the other.
By the time the injured newcomer reached the bottom of the trail, the broad-shouldered man was halfway down and closing the distance rapidly when his right boot appeared to slip on a rock. The sounds of violent cursing, shattering glass, and clattering metal told Mialkovsky that any advantage the outraged pursuer might have had in terms of night vision and firepower had just been negated.
And, in fact, by the time the broad-shouldered man finally reached the bottom of the trail, empty-handed and visibly shaking with rage and exhaustion, the fleeing Hispanic man had managed to reach his truck, wrench the driver's-side door open, pull himself inside the cab, turn the engine on, and send the ancient pickup roaring down the dirt road, headlights off and dirt and sand flying in all directions.
Enthralled by the comedic drama playing itself out in the view field of his nightscope, Mialkovsky watched the furious broad-shouldered man stagger around in the darkness for almost a minute before he finally found the dark-painted Escalade.
Moments later, the Escalade's engine roared and its headlights came on as the infuriated driver sent the heavy vehicle into a sliding and spinning turn, and then accelerated in the direction of the dirt road.
Anticipating the blinding and scope-sensor-damaging headlights, Mialkovsky had already shifted the aim of his scope back on the fleeing pickup truck that was now halfway down the winding dirt road. He was just in time to see the pickup suddenly swerve toward a large boulder on the left side of the dirt road.
A second before impact, the pickup's headlights snapped on, and the truck made a sharp dirt-and-sand-spewing left turn...missing the boulder as it continued forward for about fifty feet on the side road...and then suddenly accelerating straight at the bikers' makeshift campsite, where the six figures were out of their chairs and milling around, probably alerted by the echoing sounds of the Uzi gunfire and the revving truck engines.
At that moment, as Mialkovsky blinked in surprise, the distant campsite erupted in a blaze of gunfire, billowing flashes streaking from the hands of all six figures in the direction of the accelerating pickup.
A professional part of Mialkovsky's mind reflexively started counting the individual shots, one sounding louder than the others; but he gave up when the number reached twelve and the echoing concussions began to merge into one loud roar. As he watched, the pickup truck, still visibly the focal point of the streaking fireballs, slowly ground to a halt, its headlights blown out and engine stilled.
"You...assholes," Mialkovsky whispered, incredulous that his carefully thought out and nicely adapted plan had suddenly come apart, thanks to a handful of dirtbag bikers who had taken offense to a stray pickup truck suddenly driving into their campsite.
But even as the words escaped his lips, the hunter-killer's mind was rapidly sorting through his options.
The notion of said dirtbag biker faces appearing, one after the other, in the crosshairs of his nightscope appealed to Mialkovsky's inherent belief in violent and immediate retribution. But he also knew the complications would be significant, and the logistics both involved and time-consuming, none of which he could afford right now. He sensed that time had suddenly become a critical aspect of his calculations.
The sudden roar of the rapidly receding Escalade told the hunter-killer that the broad-shouldered man had also seen the gunfire directed at the fleeing truck. Apparently no longer interested in revenge, he accelerated the powerful off-road vehicle past the large boulder at the side road turnoff in a billowing cloud of dirt and sand that would have undoubtedly blinded any pursuit, had there been any.
But as far as Mialkovsky could tell, none of the distant figures had any apparent interest in going after the escaping Escalade.
Instead, as the hunter-killer watched in sudden realization, two of them pulled portable radios out of their jackets as the other four approached the truck in a manner that suggested a great deal more training and experience in small arms tactics than one would expect from the average dirtbag biker.
"Oh shit," Mialkovsky muttered to himself as he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a small cell phone identified by a small strip of masking tape as #1, and punched in a number.
"About time you called. How did it go?" the gruff voice on the other end of the line demanded.
"The primary event occurred as planned," Mialkovsky replied calmly, "but there's been an unexpected complication."
"What kind of complication?"
As Mialkovsky stared out across the dark landscape, the first set of flashing reds-and-blues suddenly appeared at the edge of the Las Vegas lights...and then a second...and a third...all heading north in the general direction of the Desert National Wildlife Range.
Mialkovsky nodded thoughtfully, thinking the situation might not be quite as bad at it had first appeared -- depending, of course, on who was responding to the scene and what they'd find, the emphasis definitely resting on the "who" and the "what."
It had suddenly occurred to Mialkovsky that the one thing he'd been determined to avoid when he grudgingly agreed to do this job might actually happen now, because nothing was currently making any sense.
Random movements by random people will screw up a good plan every time, the hunter-killer reminded himself, echoing the long-memorized words of a nameless drill sergeant, as he began to seriously reconsider his options in light of this new possibility.
"I said what kind of complication," the voice on the other end demanded.
A lightning bolt suddenly flashed in the distance, followed -- eight seconds later -- by rumbling thunder, an act of nature that caused Mialkovsky to pause and then smile briefly.
"Hopefully a minor one," he replied calmly even as his mind churned. "This is just an advisory call. The basic story should hold together just fine. But you should be prepared for a police contact some time this evening."
"The police? Here, tonight?" The person on the other end of the connection sounded shocked, as if the possibility had never been considered.
You really are incredibly dumb, Mialkovsky thought as he watched one of the four distant figures cautiously pull open the truck's driver-side door.
It always amazed him that outwardly successfully men who routinely used violence as a primary tool could be so stupid when it came to forward thinking. But, he reminded himself, that's why they pay people like me to handle the complicated work.
"It's highly unlikely that they'll discover the body on their own, and make the connection; but you need to be prepared, just in case."
"But I thought you said -- ?"
"Shit happens. You're paying me to deal with it," Mialkovsky snapped, a dangerous edge to his voice. "I'm going to stay out here for a while to monitor the situation. After I hang up, you destroy phone number one. Use a hammer on the chip, and then run it through the garbage disposal in the manner we discussed. If you need to contact me in the next twelve hours, use phone number two. Don't forget, you only have four secure phones for this project, so don't waste them."
"But -- "
"I'll contact you again if and when I learn something useful. Right now, I've got things to do," Mialkovsky said flatly, and then disconnected the call.
Working quickly now, the hunter-killer disassembled the cell phone, removed and wadded up the strip of masking tape, smashed the chip and the phone parts with a handy rock, removed the flash suppressor system from the end of his silencer and buried it -- along with the pieces of the crushed phone -- under a large rock about ten feet away from his lookout point, located the two expended casings and placed them in one of his jacket pockets, put on and activated a set of night-vision goggles, and then began working his way across the narrow mesa to a scene that would have to be carefully rearranged in a very few minutes.
The storm developing in the northern mountains could be useful, if it continued to come this way; but that was another random event that would simply have to play itself out.
There was only one thing Viktor Mialkovsky was absolutely certain of now: time was no longer on his side.