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By WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJungle hell.
Kilroy had survived and thrived in some of the world's worst:
The upper reaches of the Amazon where the borders of Brazil and Venezuela blur into each other in a steaming green inferno whose denizens had long ago traded curare-tipped poison darts for shotguns and machetes.
The Suud, that near-impassable morass of hundreds of square miles of reeds and marshland where the White Nile flows south toward the desert flats below Khartoum.
The emerald forests deep in the interior of New Guinea where tribal folk still follow the practices of cannibalism and head-hunting.
The bamboo thickets and teak forests of Myanmar's Shan State where Burmese warlords and their private armies war incessantly for control of the lucrative opium and heroin trade.
From the Congo to the Philippines, from the Solomon Islands to the Florida Everglades, in some of the planet's wildest places, Major Joseph Kilroy, U.S. Army, had plied his peculiar trade and come out not only alive but victorious.
Now a strange destiny whose source lay in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. and the corporate boardrooms of Manhattan had led him here to a deadly showdown in the swamplands of the West African coast.
It was in the fan-shaped Niger River delta where that great watercourse flows into the sea by a hundred nameless tributaries. Here, well east of the port city of Lagos, in one of the innumerable mangrove swamps dotting the coastline, Kilroy prepared to make his breakout.
He'd been penned in the swamp for three days and three nights, hunted and harried by his foes. He'd have made his break long ago if he'd been alone. But he had a partner.
When the enemy first struck their treacherous blow, Kilroy had fled into the swamp with Captain Bill Raynor. He and Raynor were the sole survivors of a ten-person Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) team on a covert investigative mission to Nigeria. The clandestine operation required them to pose as civilians.
The other eight members of the team had perished when an explosion destroyed their plane in midair shortly after taking off from a Lagos airfield. They were homeward bound to deliver the results of the fact-finding mission to their handlers in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The hidden bomb that blew them and their aircraft to bits had also destroyed the evidence they'd amassed during their probe. Damning evidence that incontrovertibly proved that a leading global corporation had conspired against vital national security interests of the United States.
Sheer chance had prevented Kilroy and Raynor from being on board the doomed flight. They'd been scheduled to depart with the others but a last-minute change in plans had resulted in their separating themselves from the team to follow up a hot investigative lead that took them to the Vurukoo oil fields.
Raynor was an investigator, a veteran sleuth from the U.S. Army Military Police's Criminal Investigation Division, on loan to the DIA for the Nigerian probe.
Kilroy was no detective. He was a specialist, a trigger-puller supreme. A troubleshooter. His motto: "When I find trouble, I shoot it."
He was a member of the Army's ultrasecret assassination arm, the Dog Team.
In the secret vaults where the Army's black ops files were kept, Kilroy held the rank of major. He outranked Captain Raynor, but was content to outwardly play an unassuming subordinate role as part of his cover. His assignment was to keep Raynor alive.
The two of them had been in their tent in the Vurukoo oil patch when they had learned by radio that their DIA teammates had been blown out of the sky.
Moments later, the enemy had struck.
They had come in the form of a company of well-armed Nigerian troops, an elite unit of hand-picked soldiers from the capital who'd each sworn a loyalty oath to Minister of Defense Derek Tayambo. One of the most powerful and dangerous figures in the government's ruling cabinet in Lagos, Tayambo was a key player in a continent-spanning terrorist conspiracy.
There'd barely been been time for the two Americans to grab some arms and provisions and flee the oil fields before the attackers swooped down on them in force. Blocked from the land route, the duo fled into the swamp.
Now Kilroy and Raynor had two deadly threats to contend with: their pursuers and the swamp itself.
The swamp was rank marshland half flooded by overspill from the Rada and Kondo branches of the Niger River in oil-rich Vurukoo province. It knew two states of being: gloomy daylight and darkness.
The scene could have been from earth's primeval dawn hundreds of millions of years ago:
Twisted mangrove trees writhed in eerie shapes, their snaky boughs intertwining to form a canopy of foliage that kept the swamp below locked in a perpetual daytime dusk. Contorted roots formed a gnarly woodwork web that floored land and water. Patches of solid ground were few and far between. Black stinking mud was everywhere.
Weed-tufted islets were honeycombed by slow-flowing channels that frequently pooled into ponds and lagoons. A layer of jade green scum topped dark stagnant water. Here was the haunt of crocodiles, snakes, and insects.
The heat was seething; the humidity, stifling. A murky haze overhung the steaming water. The air was thick with swarming clouds of flying insect pests. Stinging mosquitoes, biting flies, and noxious gnats that flew into eyes, mouths, and nostrils.
At the height of the pursuit, there must have been 150 troops fanning out into the swamp and environs in search of Kilroy and Raynor.
The swamp at least was impartial. It was hostile to all human trespassers in its domain, be they transplanted Yankees or homegrown Nigerians.
Nigeria's population is 55 percent Muslim and 45 percent Christian. The traditionalist Muslims of the dry northern uplands and the dynamic, business-oriented Christians of the south have a long history of bitter rivalry.
Most of Minister Tayambo's company of loyalist troops were Muslims from the arid north. The others were mostly city and town dwellers from the coast. The swamp fought and hindered them as it did the Americans they hunted.
No human antagonist but rather a lethal swamp dweller was to spell doom for Bill Raynor. It got him at midday of the second day that he and Kilroy were in the marsh.
The previous thirty-six hours had been a nightmare ordeal of hunger, thirst, fatigue, privation, and harrowing danger for the two men.
They'd managed to scrounge up a single canteen of fresh water and a couple of handfuls of foil-wrapped Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) before taking it on the run. Kilroy was armed with an AK-47 with a single banana clip containing about thirty rounds, a .44 Magnum handgun, and a wicked foot-long survival knife in a belt sheath.
Raynor had an M-16 with a single clip and a 9mm Beretta semiautomatic pistol with one clip loaded and a couple of spares in his pockets.
The initial attack had come swiftly, without warning. Only the chaos and confusion of its opening moments had allowed them to grab those minimal armaments and rations before cutting a hole in the rear of the canvas tent they'd been occupying in the camp and fleeing for their lives as hostile troops invaded the oil fields.
Even so it had been a close-run thing, with enemy bullets nipping at their heels as they disappeared into the brush at the edge of the swamp.
Since then Kilroy and Raynor had been playing a murderous game of hide-and-seek with their pursuers. The hunt was relentless, going on day and night. By the second day the ordeal was seriously taking its toll on the fugitives.
The swamp water was undrinkable, a hell-broth of deadly germs and impurities. Kilroy and Raynor strictly rationed the precious store of clean water in the single canteen they shared, limiting themselves to a single mouthful each every few hours. Despite which, the water level in the canteen declined with alarming rapidity.
It was a losing game. They sweated out more fluid than they took in-the threat of dehydration loomed. There could be no boiling of the swamp water to purify it. They couldn't risk betraying their position to the hunters with telltale fire and smoke.
Hunger, too, made its inroads on their dwindling reserves of strength and energy. Between them they had about a half dozen MREs. They stretched out their food stores, making them last. Their mostly empty bellies were knotted with want.
No less pressing was the lack of ammo. They evaded the troops as best they could to preserve what limited rounds they had. Sometimes there was no getting around a clash. When discovery by one of the roving bands of hunters seemed imminent, the fugitives opened fire.
Kilroy was a dead shot. Each time he pulled the trigger, he killed a man. Raynor was a marksman but nowhere in Kilroy's league. Kilroy was world-class. Trouble was, he had too few bullets.
By Day Two the thirty-round banana clip of his assault rifle had been cut in half, with a dead Nigerian trooper for every expended round. His high-powered .44 had a greater reserve of ammo to draw on. Kilroy wore the long-barreled revolver on a belt holster and the gun belt sported about twenty loaded cartridge loops.
He now wore the gun belt over his shoulder, with the holstered .44 hanging butt-out under his left arm. He'd rigged the weapon that way to keep it dry during the many crossings of waist-high water he'd had to endure.
Even when wielded by an expert such as he, though, a handgun was no match for the enemy's assault rifles and small machine guns. Kilroy had no desire for working that close to the foe.
He and Raynor had killed about two dozen of the opposition since the pursuit began, but at no time had they been able to get close enough to the dead to scavenge their weapons, food, or water. They were constantly forestalled by the nearness of other packs of manhunters, who at the sound of gunfire gave out a hue and cry and closed in to resume the chase.
The fugitives had a simple plan: lose their pursuers, break out of the swamp, and then steal a ground vehicle or boat and beat it back to Lagos.
The goal seemed a long way off. So far it had taken their best efforts merely to stay alive and keep ahead of the foe, a course that had resulted in driving them deeper into the swamp.
Disaster struck on the second day.
Infrequent breaks in the canopy of foliage overhead revealed a heavy, overcast sky. A pale disk of sun smoldered behind gray clouds. The dusky gloom deepened as the steamy heat increased.
Kilroy and Raynor were approaching the ragged edge of exhaustion. The night before, they'd managed to grab several fitful hours of sleep, doled out in small doses when the pursuit slackened.
Soldiers sought them by night, bearing flashlights and flaming torches. Some came on foot, others in small boats.
During the intervals when they'd temporarily outdistanced their pursuers, Kilroy and Raynor took turns, one standing watch while the other snatched a portion of troubled sleep.
All too soon, a glimmer of light, a shouted voice, a splash or crash in the underbrush warned that the hunters were nearing. The fugitives would flog their fatigued bodies into motion, plunging deeper into the swamp as the chase began again.
Now, at midday of the second day, Kilroy and Raynor continued to push their way onward, stumbling along like automatons.
They came upon a rare stretch of solid ground, a low rise covered with thigh-high reeds that opened into a glade. Kilroy thought to himself that they'd finally caught a break, if only for the moment. Hard ground instead of muck to stand on, and a respite from the relentless pursuit that dogged their trail.
Raynor lurched forward, staggering, almost falling. He reached out, resting a hand on a gnarled tree trunk to support himself. He paused for an instant, left arm extended straight from the shoulder, clutching vine-wrapped tree bark, heavy head bowed, looking down as he labored for breath.
Suddenly he cried out in surprise and pain, pulling his arm back as though it had been burned. The cry echoed through the trees.
A black, ribbonlike wriggler clung to his bare forearm.
At first Kilroy thought Raynor had been bitten by a snake. The swamp teemed with them, most of them venomous. Kilroy had already had more than one close brush with green mambas. He'd given the grass-green reptiles a wide berth, knowing the mamba for one of the world's most virulent and aggressive species of poisonous snakes.
No serpent had battened onto Raynor, however. He'd been bitten by a foot-long black centipede.
Features contorted with pain, breath hissing through clenched teeth, Raynor used his free hand to grab the segmented crawler.
"Don't!-" Kilroy began, but he was too late.
Raynor tore the creature free from his arm, threw it down on the ground, and stomped it, crushing it beneath his boot sole.
Kilroy went to him. "Ain't that a bitch?" Raynor said, mustering up a sickly grin.
Kilroy examined the other's arm. The centipede's head was still attached to it. It had buried twin pincerlike mandibles deep into Raynor's flesh, where they clung so tenaciously that when Raynor had tried to free himself from their biting grip, its segmented body had torn loose from its head.
The walnut-sized head had a smooth, shiny, helmetlike black carapace. The centipede's primitive but tough nervous system kept its severed head alive even though separated from its body.
"Fucker doesn't want to let go," Raynor said, making an effort to keep his voice flat, even-toned. He reached for the head to pry it loose but Kilroy stopped him.
"You don't want the jaws to break loose and stay in your flesh," Kilroy said.
"I'm not going to keep its head for a souvenir," Raynor gritted.
"It'll have to be burned off," said Kilroy.
There was no place to sit but on the ground-and who knew what else might be lurking in the weeds. This was prime snake country, and with the abundance of black-water channels, crocodiles were never too far away, either. Better to administer the treatment with Raynor standing up.
Kilroy unbuttoned the flap of the left breast pocket of his safari-style shirt and took out a cigarette lighter, a heavy-duty metal job with a nonreflective matte black finish. "This'll hurt," he said.
"It already hurts, so go ahead," Raynor said. Kilroy flicked on the lighter, a trusty model that had served him well in the past. It did not fail him now but burned with a steady yellow flame. He liked his cigars, and if he'd had one available he would have lit it and applied the hot end directly to the centipede's head. But he didn't, so he used a broken twig instead. The twig was sodden with dampness and took a bit of time to ignite. When he got the pointed end of it going he blew on it, fanning it into a glowing orange red ember.
He pressed the tip against the centipede's head where it butted up against Raynor's flesh, right at the midpoint of the black helmeted carapace where its clawlike mandibles were buried in the muscle of the forearm.
There was a hissing sound as the twig's hot point met ebony exoskeleton. A line of nasty-smelling smoke rose from the area of contact.
The creature's eyes were a pair of shiny black beads on opposite sides of its globed head. They rolled wildly during the burning. Its severed head twitched and jerked.
Raynor's body was taut, quivering. Veins stood out on his face, his neck cording. His skin was sallow under its bronze tan, misted with a sheen of cold sweat.
Blind instinct caused the centipede's head to retreat from the stimulus of the burning point applied to it. Its curved mandibles retracted partway, wickedly barbed tips still penetrating the flesh.
Kilroy touched the flame once more to the point of the twig, reheating the fading orange tip before applying it to the centipede's head again.
Raynor groaned. With a final wriggling spasm the mandibles pulled free and the centipede's head fell to the ground with a soft plopping sound. Raynor let out with a gasp the breath he'd been holding.
The job was only half done. Like most denizens of the swamp, the centipede was toxic. It injected venom along with its bite.
Kilroy freed his knife from its belt sheath. He ran the lighter flame along the razor-sharp edge near the tip of the blade, sterilizing it as best he could.
His free hand gripped Raynor's wrist, steadying the other's arm. The bite was on the top of the forearm. The area was already swollen into an egg-sized red bump. Kilroy made an X-cut over the affected area. Raynor bit down on the edge of his shirt collar to keep from crying out. There was a smell of scorched hair and flesh.
Kilroy knew better than to try to suck out the venom. That would risk poisoning himself. No, that doctrine was exploded. His fingers gripped the flesh around the bite area and squeezed, expelling globs of blood streaked with brown mucouslike veins, spilling it to the ground. He was careful not to get any of the stuff on him.
Raynor shuddered like a wet dog shaking itself dry.
The metal lighter grew too hot to handle. Kilroy paused for a moment until it cooled off. He then held the flame against the flat of the tip of the blade, heating it until it took on a dull red glow. He pressed it against the wound, cauterizing it.
Excerpted from TARGET RESPONSE by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2010 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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