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By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Yeah, the redhead had some miles on her, William "Wild Bill" Elliott thought as he studied her along the length of the bar. But hell, if you added up the miles on him, you could go all the way around the earth a dozen times.
From the jukebox, George Strait warbled about making it to Amarillo by morning. Bill had always liked that song. It was melancholy as all get-out, but most of the time that matched up with his mood just fine.
The redhead laughed at something the bartender said, lifted her drink, and took a sip of it. Bill watched her from the corner of his eye now. He didn't think she was a working girl, but sometimes that was hard to determine, even for a man of the world like him.
That thought made his lips quirk in a self-mocking smile under the thick mustache. He was a man of the world only in the sense that he had seen just about all of it at one time or another. In his heart he was still just an ol' country boy.
Even at his advanced age, sometimes when he talked to good-looking women he had a tendency to scuff a booted foot on the floor and had to fight off the impulse to say "Shucks, ma'am."
He lifted his mostly empty mug and downed the rest of the beer. The night wasn't getting any younger and neither was he. He slid the mug across the hardwood and stood up from the stool.
She saw him sidling toward her. Yeah, she did. Gal like that wouldn't miss a trick ... so to speak. With that tight little body and that mass of auburn hair, she'd probably had men sniffing around her since she was fourteen. Her green eyes said she'd seen it all and been impressed by very little of it.
Bill stopped beside her, rested his right hand on the bar, nodded at the empty glass in front of her, and said, "Buy you another of whatever it is you're drinkin'?"
She studied him as blatantly as he had studied her. In boots, jeans, and pearl-snapped shirt, he looked like an aging cowboy. His rumpled thatch of hair had started going silver at a relatively young age, and so had his mustache. He'd been told more than once that he ought to shave off that porn 'stache, but he'd been wearing it a long time and he liked it.
He'd never been one to do something just because somebody told him he ought to, either. That stubbornness had gotten him into trouble on plenty of occasions.
The redhead must have found what she saw tolerable, anyway. She said, "Sure, I'll have another," and nodded to the bartender, who picked up a bottle and splashed more liquor into the glass. The redhead went on, "Thanks ..." and the way her voice trailed off told him she was waiting for him to supply his name.
"Bill," he said. "Bill Elliott. Sometimes they call me Wild Bill."
Hell, darlin', you're old enough to remember Wild Bill Elliott, the cowboy movie star.
Bill thought that but had sense enough not to say it. If she wanted to pretend she didn't know, that was fine. Or maybe she really hadn't ever seen any of those movies. Not everybody had grown up watching B-Westerns like he had.
"I guess I get a little wild sometimes."
"I'll have to keep that in mind." She smiled as she sipped the fresh drink.
The bartender asked Bill, "Something else for you, friend?"
"Yeah, I'll have another beer."
"You got it."
As the bartender drew the beer, Bill said to the redhead, "You didn't tell me your name."
"Pretty name for an Irish colleen. It suits you."
"Thank you. I don't think I've seen you in here before, Wild Bill."
"That's because I've never been here. I'm just passing through Odessa."
That was his not-so-subtle way of telling her that if anything happened between them, it wouldn't be permanent. His home, if you could call it that, was back in Tennessee, but he didn't spend much time there anymore. There was a deep-seated restlessness inside him that kept him on the move most of the time. That restless nature and a love of excitement had led him into the line of work from which he now considered himself retired.
"You need somebody to show you the town?"
The only part of town he really wanted to see was the inside of his motel room, preferably with her in it, but he'd been raised to be a gentleman, so he said, "That would be mighty nice—"
A heavy impact against his shoulder knocked him against the bar. He caught himself, turned so quickly it was hard for the eye to follow his movement, caught hold of the arm of the man who had bumped into him, twisted it behind the man's back, and put his other hand on the back of the man's neck so he could drive his face down into the bar. The man didn't even have time to yell before his nose broke. Stunned, he went limp and collapsed on the sawdust-littered floor.
The whole thing hadn't taken more than a couple of heartbeats.
Bill stepped back away from the bar, giving himself room to move if he needed to. His gaze darted around the smoky room, assessing potential threats.
Sheila sat on her barstool, her mouth open as she gaped at him. The bartender looked equally surprised. So did the three men who stood a few feet away. From the looks of them, they worked in construction or in the oil and gas fields, like the man who lay on the floor at Bill's feet.
One of the trio recovered his voice and said, "What the hell did you do to Steve?"
"He bumped into me ..." Bill started to say, his voice trailing off as he realized how lame that sounded, especially compared to his reaction to that bump.
He could tell these men that enemies had tried to kill him hundreds of times, all over the world, and that his instincts were trained to react swiftly and violently to even the slightest hint of danger. That was the only thing that had kept him alive this long.
They wouldn't understand that, though. Like most people, they went about their daily lives without ever facing any real threats. And the only reason they could do that was because of the work of men like Bill Elliott, soldiers in the shadowy war that truly shaped the world.
A war from which he had withdrawn, he reminded himself.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Reckon I didn't think. Let's help your friend up, and I'll buy all you fellas a drink—"
"The hell with that," one of the other men said. "Get that crazy old codger!"
That was exactly what Bill didn't want to happen. He bit back a curse directed at himself for provoking this incident. If he was going to live in the real world, the normal world, the mundane world, he couldn't let a drunk bumping into him in a bar cause a fight.
That resolve was for the future, though. Right now, like it or not, he had a fight on his hands.
The bartender yelled for them to take it outside or he'd call the cops, but Steve's three friends ignored him and charged Bill.
If they had been facing just about anybody else in a bar fight, three-against-one odds would have been overwhelming. To Bill's eyes, though, they seemed almost to be moving in slow motion, and they were practically falling over their own feet as they attacked.
A side kick swept one man's legs out from under him and sent him crashing to the floor. The same motion bent Bill low enough so that a roundhouse punch went harmlessly over his head. He drove his stiffened right hand into that man's belly and brought up his left fist in a blow that landed on the man's jaw and snapped his head back. He folded up, too.
The third man actually got a punch in, which made Bill worry that he was slowing down. The man's knuckles grazed the side of Bill's head. He grabbed the man's arm, twisted, and with a perfect hip throw sent the man flying through the air to slam down on top of an empty table. The table was sturdy enough that it didn't collapse. The man lay on top of it, groaning.
Again, the whole thing had happened almost too fast for the eye to follow.
The bartender had a cell phone pressed to his ear. Bill figured the man was calling the cops, as he had threatened to do. The other dozen or so customers in the bar just stared apprehensively at him, like they would with a dog they suspected of being rabid.
Well, maybe they weren't so far wrong at that, Bill thought.
Sheila hadn't budged from her barstool. Bill looked at her and said, "I reckon you're gonna take back your offer to show me around town, right?"
"I ... I don't think that would be a good idea."
"You're probably right."
She summoned up a weak smile and said, "I can't say you didn't warn me. You told me you could get a little wild."
"It happens more than I'd like." He took out his wallet and tossed a hundred-dollar bill on the bar, telling the bartender, "That ought to cover the drinks and your trouble."
"Wait a minute," the man said. "You can't just beat up my customers and then walk out of here. The cops are on their way."
Bill knew he could still call a number in Washington and make any legal trouble with the local authorities go away, but he didn't want to do that. He didn't want to owe any favors to anybody in that damned town where so much of what was wrong with the country had started.
Instead he said quietly to the bartender, "You don't want to try to stop me."
The man looked plenty tough. Anybody who tended bar in a town like Odessa had to be. But he swallowed hard and settled for saying, "Don't ever come back in here again."
"You don't have to worry about that."
Nobody got in his way or tried to stop him as he walked toward the door. But Sheila called after him, "Goodbye, Wild Bill."
He looked back and drawled in his best cowboy voice, "So long, ma'am."
As he got into his pickup and drove away, he told himself sternly that he was going to have to learn how to control those reactions. He had walked away from the sort of life where somebody was trying to kill him all the time. Those days were over.
He was through with them, and he was never going back.
The foothills of the Hindu Kush
Tariq Maleef fingered the knife thrust behind his belt as he watched the truck bounce along the rutted road toward him and his companions. This rugged, mountainous area was mostly barren of vegetation, and the truck's gray body, as well as the brown canvas cover over the back, made it blend in with its surroundings.
Tariq's dark, keen eyes followed it easily, though. He had spent much of his childhood here, before being sent to Saudi Arabia and then to England for schooling, and the blood of the wild hill men flowed in his veins.
The big knife was the only weapon he carried, although his companions were armed with an assortment of AK-47s, AR-15s, MAC-10s, Glocks, and Sig Sauers. Tariq fully appreciated modern weaponry, but he was enough of a primitive to relish the feel of a blade in his hand, too.
He was in his thirties, a compact, muscular man with a shaved head and a neatly trimmed goatee. He wore jeans, a khaki shirt, and a leather jacket that felt good when the chilly winds blew down out of the mountains. His friends were dressed much the same, with none of the traditional robes and headgear in sight. They were the new breed, the ones who could tolerate the garb of the hated West and blend in with their enemies.
Their jeeps were parked over the ridge behind them. As far as anyone could tell by looking, they might as well have been dropped from the sky into this empty wasteland.
The truck was close enough now that Tariq could hear the rumbling growl of its engine. His pulse quickened. With every foot of ground the truck covered, his dream came closer.
Finally, the truck ground to a stop about twenty yards away from the group of a dozen men. The sun's reflection on the windshield made it difficult to see, but Tariq knew there were two men in the cab, the driver and one other.
Tariq's father had been a mujahideen. More than three decades earlier, he had fought a war against men like Dolgunov. Tariq had been only a boy at the time, but he recalled vividly how proud he had been that his father and men like him had brought the proud Soviet army to its knees and sent it crawling home in defeat.
Now circumstances forced him to deal with the Russians and that necessity rankled, but Tariq reminded himself that Dolgunov was Mafiya, not military, although the man and the organization he worked for had connections within the Russian army. Otherwise he would not have been able to get his hands on the item he was delivering to Tariq and his friends today.
After a long moment, the passenger door of the truck's cab opened. A tall, blocky, blond-haired figure stepped out. Tariq recognized Dolgunov. The two of them had met several times in the past, feeling each other out to see if they were trustworthy.
Of course, no one really trusted anyone else. One's brothers in the cause, perhaps, but that was all.
Dolgunov gestured curtly, and the canvas cover on the back of the truck was pulled aside to reveal a .50 caliber machine gun mounted so that it could fire over the top of the cab. The gun could be swiveled on its mount so that its bullets would rake the entire group of men facing it.
Tariq sensed some of his companions stiffening, but he spoke a low-voiced word of assurance. Given the stakes of this transaction, he wouldn't have expected Dolgunov to show up without taking some precautions.
"Tariq, my friend," the Russian called. "Come, and bring two of your men with you."
Tariq motioned to a pair of his men and started walking toward the truck. At the same time, several more Russians carrying automatic rifles climbed out of the back of the vehicle and arrayed themselves behind Dolgunov, who strolled forward to meet Tariq.
The two leaders shook hands when they met. Dolgunov was several inches taller, but Tariq didn't feel intimidated by the man. No infidel could ever make him feel intimidated.
"Are we ready to conclude our transaction?" Dolgunov asked.
"As soon as I see the merchandise."
"Of course. Come with me."
The armed Russians stepped back as Dolgunov and Tariq went to the rear of the truck. Just inside the back of the vehicle sat a heavy-looking metal case. Dolgunov unsnapped the two catches and opened the lid.
Tariq leaned forward to look at the metal cylinder that was fatter on both ends and in the middle. It sat in a cushioned recess in the case that was obviously made for it. A small control panel was built into the cylinder.
Tariq crooked a finger at one of his men and said to Dolgunov, "My friend Assad will authenticate it."
"Of course. With this much money involved, you have to be sure of what you're getting, eh?"
Tariq didn't care about the money. All that mattered was that the device be capable of doing what he wanted it to do.
As Tariq and Dolgunov stood by, Assad examined the cylinder and the case closely. Tariq began to grow impatient, but he controlled it. This was a vital step.
After what seemed like an eternity, Assad stepped back and nodded.
Tariq slipped a compact satellite phone from his pocket and punched a number. When a voice answered, he said simply, "Yes." Then he broke the connection, put the phone away, and told Dolgunov, "Give it a minute, then check with your people."
Dolgunov didn't have to make the call. Someone called him less than a minute later. He took out a similar sat phone and spoke into it in Russian. A pleased smile broke out on his face. He pocketed his phone and told Tariq, "The funds are in the Swiss account, as arranged. Our business is done."
"As soon as I take possession of the device."
Dolgunov made an expansive gesture.
Assad and the other man lifted the case from the truck and carried it toward the ridge. They disappeared over it.
Still smiling, Dolgunov said, "As the Americans say, a pleasure doing business with you."
Tariq replied, "As the Americans say, go to hell, you Russian bastard."
Excerpted from SUICIDE MISSION by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2013 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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