Broad daylight on an Austin, Texas, street and DIA operative Matt Drake is fighting for his life against a highly trained team of assassins. Who are they? Why do they want him dead? How will he protect those closest to him?
The answers will take him into some of the most dangerous spots in the Middle East and will put him in the clutches of an old foe known simply as the Devil. It's a world of double crosses, with no boundaries between the guilty and the innocent. It will take all of Drake's wiles to get out alive.
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Austin in February is paradise. While the rest of the country is gripped with snow, biting cold, or both, the self-professed home of the weird is in full flower. Endless blue Texas skies stretch from horizon to horizon, temperatures hover in the low sixties, and woodsmoke and slow-cooking brisket flavor the air. In February, it's hard to have a bad day in Austin.
But I was giving it a helluva try.
I stomped on the gas pedal as the traffic light changed from yellow to amber. The eight-cylinder Hemi replied with a chest-rumbling growl, sending my truck hurtling through the intersection. A split second later, I slammed on the brakes, bringing the five-thousand-pound Dodge Ram to a screeching stop. A comfortable six inches now separated my pickup and the bumper-sticker-adorned electric blue Prius ahead of me.
On the bench seat to my right, a packet of papers slid toward the floorboard. I made a grab for them and missed, snagging the thin green tissue wrapping a bouquet of crimson roses instead.
All things considered, I'd take the flowers over the papers any day. Even with the papers scattered across the truck's floorboard, I could still read the words radiology department stamped across the tops of the pages in sterile block letters. At this distance, the spidery blue handwriting filling the margins wasn't legible, but I knew what the doctor had scribbled all the same.
The Prius driver glared in his rearview mirror, and I chuckled. Apparently the coexist sticker plastered to his bumper didn't extend to fellow Austinites. At least not during lunch-hour traffic anyway. Though to be fair, I wasn't in much of a coexist mood myself. But this had nothing to do with the angry Prius driver. No, my ire was focused on the man in the late-model Honda one intersection to my rear.
The man who wanted to kill me.
My name is Matt Drake, and I do not have a normal vocation. For the last year, I haven't had much of a vocation at all. However, before my self-imposed leave of absence began, I worked in a unique field. A field in which the ability to tell the difference between a distracted driver and a trained operative transitioning from surveillance to interdiction was a matter of life and death.
This is why I knew that the dark-complected man driving the Honda was focused on more than just traffic. At the previous stoplight, he'd cut off a white Tesla Roadster to edge in behind me, abandoning any pretense of remaining covert. He hadn't followed me through the red light, which bought me a bit of time, but not much.
As I waited for the signal in front of me to change, the Honda's driver reached above his head, adjusting the sun visor. This innocuous-seeming motion provided final confirmation. The driver was wearing gloves. Gloves in sixty-degree weather. And not just any gloves. The thin Nomex variety that stretched from his hand to midway up his forearm. The type of gloves favored by just two groups of people-pilots and shooters.
My leave of absence was officially over.
Shifting in my seat, I drew the Glock 23 tucked into my Don Hume in-the-waistband holster and press-checked the pistol. A shiny .40-caliber hollow point winked back at me. Easing the slide forward, I set the pistol on the seat between my legs and considered what to do next.
The signal turned green, and traffic heaved forward. Or at least most of it. Mr. Coexist did not. Instead, he rolled toward the intersection at a snail's pace, burning time until the light cycled yellow. Then he accelerated, surging through the juncture at the last moment. As his tiny car barreled beneath the now-red traffic signal, he bade me farewell with a one-fingered salute.
Behind me, the shooter eased through the intersection, nudging up to my bumper.
The key to defeating an ambush is actually pretty simple-don't get caught in the kill zone. I didn't know where the shooter intended to initiate, but since lead had yet to start flying, the kill zone had to be somewhere in front of me.
Which meant I needed to act. Now.
Smashing the brake with my left foot, I shifted the truck into neutral and revved the engine with my right. As the RPM crept past six thousand, I tightened my seat belt, locked the Glock under my right leg, and prepared to throw the transmission into reverse.
And that was when a woman pushing a stroller stepped into the road.
The woman was dressed in black yoga pants and a hot pink tank top that showed off toned brown arms. White earbuds accessorized her outfit-the wireless kind because Austinites are nothing if not hip. She rolled the stroller right in front of my truck's vibrating hood as if she didn't have a care in the world-again, Austin in February. Though even if she'd been the most vigilant of mommas, a gunfight on South Congress probably wouldn't have been on her radar. That just wasn't her life.
But it was mine.
Behind me, the shooter was talking on his phone. Which meant he wasn't alone. Which meant that my window was closing.
Slamming the gearshift into reverse, I wrenched the wheel to the left. The Hemi didn't disappoint, much to the chagrin of the driver of the compact Hyundai to my right. One moment, the Hyundai's driver was contemplating the perfect Austin sky. The next, the black brush guard covering my front bumper scraped along his emerald green quarter panel as I turned my truck perpendicular to the threat behind me.
Not a perfect solution, but it would do.
Grabbing the Glock, I exploded out of my truck, coming face-to-face with the woman pushing the stroller. To her credit, she went into immediate momma-bear mode. Though her eyes were as wide as saucers, she put herself between me and her precious cargo. Then she screamed out a question.
"Are you crazy?"
Books could be written in response. Still, I understood why she might ask. My current appearance was what my wife playfully called rustic. At least I hoped it was playfully. My hair was a bit on the shaggy side, and my face hadn't seen a razor for the better part of three days. My pearly snap shirt was ironed, my jeans clean, and my Ariat cowboy boots freshly polished. But there was still something about me that didn't sit right with the woman. Maybe it was that my broad shoulders and scarred knuckles were somehow at odds with my carefully cultivated ragamuffin appearance. Or maybe it was something else.
Something more primal.
Either way, I didn't have time for niceties. Grabbing the woman by her toned arm, I jerked her and her stroller toward the relative safety of my truck's front wheel well.
"FBI," I said, pulling her forward. "Get down!"
Now, before you get the wrong idea, I am not a law enforcement officer of any kind. The men and women of that career field must stand before juries while swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God. My own relationship with the truth was a bit more problematic. For example, I have found it beneficial to impersonate an FBI agent from time to time. This is because most Americans seem preconditioned to trust FBI agents and obey their commands.
Unfortunately, my new friend was not like most Americans.
"Get your hands off me," she said, pulling away with surprising ease.
This girl worked out. Maybe Pilates or kickboxing.
I grabbed her left arm, fingers encircling her biceps, and tried to drag her back toward safety. She expressed her displeasure with a rather respectable right cross. Her knuckles connected squarely with my cheekbone, and I felt the jarring impact all the way to the base of my neck.
"The man behind me has a gun," I said, sliding beneath a jab as I wrestled her and the stroller behind the truck's front tire.
"So do you," she said, attempting to stomp one of her pristinely white cross-trainers through my instep.
God bless Texas girls.
I got my foot out of the way. Barely. When this was over, I might have to pay her kickboxing instructor a congratulatory visit. I'd snatched Muslim Brotherhood members off the streets of Cairo with less fuss.
A police siren cut through the air, once again proving Dad's adage that when it rains, a bear craps in the woods. I have no idea what that means, but Dad sure seemed certain when he said it.
The she-lion posing as a suburban mom aimed an elbow at my groin. I turned with the blow, catching it on the outside of my thigh. Ignoring the pins-and-needles sensation running the length of my leg, I edged over the truck's hood. What I saw on the other side wasn't pretty. One of Austin's finest was out of his patrol car, pistol in hand. His thick shoulders and narrow waist contrasted with his baby face and rosy cheeks. He didn't look a day over twenty, but young or not, he was running in my direction, ready to take care of business. As our eyes met, he skidded to a halt, dropping into a shooter's stance.
Right next to the Honda.
I tried to shout a warning, but wasn't fast enough. The policeman jerked like a marionette, spasms racking his body. The accompanying series of pops was surprisingly soft. The shooter had a suppressed submachine gun-a Heckler & Koch variant if I had to guess. The 9mm pistol rounds didn't pack the stopping power of an assault rifle's, but the weapon was accurate, compact, and easy to suppress.
In short, the perfect tool for an assassin.
The cop collapsed to the ground in a tangle of limbs. The blood-soaked right side of his uniform meant that at least one of the slugs had found its way either through or under his vest. That distinction was important. Through the vest meant that the assassin was firing rounds designed to defeat body armor. This, combined with the suppressed HK, would point to a shooter who was both well financed and well trained.
As my SEAL friends liked to say, the only easy day was yesterday.
"Stay here," I said to the she-devil. For the first time in our short but turbulent relationship, she listened. Maybe it was something she saw in my face or heard in my voice. Or maybe with her mother's intuition she somehow interpreted the meaning behind the suppressed gunfire and breaking glass. Either way, she nodded, blond ponytail bobbing, as she scooped her squirming baby out of the stroller.
"Where are you going?" she said, pressing against the truck's tire.
"To end this."
The cardinal rule of surviving gunfights is simple: Avoid occupying the same space and time as a bullet. But in practice, this is often easier said than done. This was why I was running toward the rear of my truck instead of peaking around the front bumper.
During periods of intense stress, people react instinctively. Since the gunman had last seen me crouching by the hood, that was where he would instinctively remain focused. At the same time, my instincts were telling me to vault over the hood and run toward him, Glock blazing.
So I did the opposite.
As I rounded my truck's rear bumper, the scene before me came in disjointed flashes as time seemed to slow down. To my right, the cop gave a wet cough, misting his chapped lips with fat crimson droplets. To my left, the driver of a burnt orange Audi was in the process of opening his door. He paused when he saw the Glock in my hand. I rewarded his indecision by hip checking his door, slamming it shut. Then I focused on the shooter, who was still in his car, staring intently at my truck.
My firearms instructor at the Farm used to say that pistols were defensive weapons only. I couldn't have agreed more. Unfortunately, the modified M4 I'd carried in the Ranger Regiment wasn't available right now.
Neither was the option to stay defensive.
Though it fired a smaller-caliber round than my Glock, the gunman's HK sported a much longer barrel, making it inherently more accurate. This meant I didn't have the luxury of hiding behind a car and trading shots with my attacker. Instead, I had to rely on the two things that have kept infantrymen alive since the invention of the musket-speed and violence of action.
I brought the Glock to eye level. My focus narrowed and then narrowed again as I oriented on the gunman's chest. I started my trigger press as the Glock's front sight post came even with the gap framed by the rear sight.
Even height, even light.
The pistol kicked.
The front sight post drifted up, then floated down, settling again between the rear sights.
The pistol kicked.
The process repeated.
I fired another aimed pair before looking past the front sight for the first time while moving forward. My weight transferred from heel to toe in a rolling motion perfected through thousands of rounds and hundreds of hours on the range. The Honda's window spider-webbed around my shot groups, but the shooter in the front seat was still very much alive.
Killing someone in a car was tricky. Windows, doors, and countless other obstructions affected a bullet's trajectory in ways that were impossible to predict. I'd seen terrorists felled by a single shot and fighters emerge unscathed after a battery of automatic weapons fire.
In the end, there was only one way to be sure-get closer.
Vaulting onto the car's hood, I did just that, firing from the high-ready position. I no longer bothered with aimed pairs. Instead, I sent a constant stream of lead into the windshield while advancing. The driver jerked, an HK MP5 falling from his hands.
I centered the Glock's front sight post on his forehead and pulled the trigger twice more. He'd started the fight. Now was not the time for mercy. His body spasmed as my hollow points tore through the bridge of his nose and right eye socket.
Then he slid forward.
The entire engagement had lasted maybe fifteen seconds, but it had felt like fifteen years. As my brain finally recognized that the threat to my life had been eliminated, my other senses came back online. I could feel the Glock's pebbly grip beneath my fingers and smell the coppery scent of blood mixed with the acrid smell of gunpowder.
But it was my sense of hearing that really brought things into perspective. Over the gunfire-induced ringing in my ears and the gasps of the wounded cop, something else demanded my attention-squealing tires and crashing steel as a pair of SUVs battered their way through the traffic jam. One swung up on the curb to my right while the other rolled over the sidewalk to my left.