America is under fire. One by one, simultaneous terror attacks have left the country reeling. The perpetrators are former Special Forces operatives working for ISIS. Jonathan Grave and his team are called to go undercover and eliminate the traitors. No need to collect intel. No need for arrest. Wipe them out—and get out.
The assaults are rehearsals for extreme disaster. A plot codenamed Retribution. One terrorist is willing to talk—for a price. Grave’s only resort is to slip into a dark web where everything can be exposed. Where the rules of engagement do not hold. The bombs have been set and Grave is the one being hunted. Unless he can save himself first, a terrorist plot of unimaginable scope will become history’s deadliest disaster . . .
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Tom Darone had seen a lot of people die in his day, but not like this. The lady in the blue coat — the first to go down — made a barking sound and then folded in on herself. Tom's first thought was that she'd suffered a seizure, or maybe a stroke. She sat two spaces down from him in the bleachers and one row closer to the football field. Her emergency happened at the same second when Number 19 of the Custer Cavalrymen intercepted a pass at the end zone, robbing the Hooker Hornets of a go-ahead touchdown.
In all the excitement, nobody saw her collapse. Then her husband noticed. "Anita?" he said as he stooped to help her.
Then the crowd erupted with a new kind of cheer.
People pointed, and Tom followed their fingers to see that a player had collapsed on the field. Was that blood?
Then two more players fell. A chunk of helmet erupted in a gruesome spray from a fourth.
The lights went out. In an instant, the field went from the artificial daylight brightness that is unique to nighttime football to true darkness.
Anita's husband shouted, "Oh, my God, she's been shot! Help me!"
A ripple of four spectators to Tom's right fell side by side among yelps of pain.
The field was under attack.
Tom watched with a strange sense of detachment as the panic hit. Home now only two months from his sixth deployment to the Sandbox, and six weeks into his new status as an unemployed vet, the reality of the moment crystalized in an instant. The first survival challenge would be to avoid being trampled in the stampede.
The panic around him didn't blossom or bloom. It erupted. Those who'd been hit — and the people who loved them — hunkered down, while everyone else fled. In a single instant, hundreds of people decided that survival trumped everything. A few were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the swirling action that they simply shut down, but they were the minority. Most people ran. They had no obvious destination, and they had no apparent plan. Most didn't even know where the exits were, so they followed the people ahead of them on the assumption that strangers were smarter than they were.
The mayhem grew to critical proportions in mere seconds. Tom realized in a rush that he was in the epicenter of the kill zone. As the sea of spectators pushed and tumbled past each other — and as bullets continued to find their marks — Tom dropped to his stomach into the foot-trough of the bleachers and rolled to his right. As he dropped into the matrix of the metal support structure, his boot found a foothold, and then so did his hands.
From there, it was like climbing down a ladder designed by a funhouse architect. Nothing was level, and no edge was smooth, but at least the spacing was even and predictable. And gravity was on his side.
Above him, the screaming continued, along with the horrid percussive sounds of bullet impacts. The entire structure of the bleachers trembled as the human tsunami created its own earthquake, and Tom was struck with another critical concern. Structures like bleachers were not designed for this kind of dynamic load. If the structure collapsed with him under it, his body would likely not be found for weeks.
As he dropped the last few feet to the ground, his feet crunched on gravel and litter. Above and around him, others were beginning to follow his lead and scrambled down the scaffold-like support structure.
Now what? Exiting to the field was out because that clearly was part of the shooter's target picture. A fence ran the length of the bleachers along the back, but he remembered from his own days as a football player — could it really have been only nine years ago? — that there was a way to sneak in, unless the never-ambitious maintenance crew had finally gotten around to fixing it. The hole had been there since Tom's oldest brother had played ten years before him. And as far as he knew, there'd been no turnover in the maintenance staff.
Tom pressed himself up against the fence as he moved toward the center of the bleachers. In the reduced light, he hoped that when he came upon the opening —
There it was, right at knee level, a section of chain link that had been pulled back. If he could have seen better, he was certain that he'd find the ground still littered with empty beer cans that displayed the whole reason for the opening to be there in the first place. These days, kids got expelled for such things, but could teenagers have changed that much over the years?
Tom bent at the waist and squirted into the open, where the horrors continued. Out here the darkness was less absolute, with partial illumination spilling in from towering lights from the BMW dealership on the other side of Spring Hollow Way. In the dim light, he tried to ignore the aimless running and screaming. He was getting the hell out of here, and that meant making a beeline toward the driveway and the street beyond.
Ten yards from the fence, everything changed.
A cop lay dead next to the door of his cruiser, his windshield a shredded mass of broken glass. Blood poured from wounds in his head and shoulders. To the right, parked immediately behind the first cruiser, a second cruiser sat similarly shredded, its officer slumped behind the wheel.
Tom Darone's battlefield instincts kicked in.
This was no random shooting. This was a coordinated attack, and at less than a minute into it, the bad guys were winning big. They'd targeted the school's power plant to bring darkness and chaos, and then they'd taken out the armed element of their opposing force. This was going to be a slaughter.
But where was the shooter?
The bullet holes in the cruiser answered his question. The rounds had all entered from the front of the vehicle — from the west, the scoreboard end of the field. The shooter wouldn't be there. A carefully choreographed assault like this included a viable escape plan, and a rickety spiral ladder from the ass end of the scoreboard wasn't it.
The screaming of the crowd had crossed the pain threshold, and football fans were still falling.
So, where was the sound of the gunshots?
Jesus, he's got a suppressor.
Where the hell was he?
Had to be high ground. In Nebraska.
The water tower!
Two minutes into the slaughter now, Tom knew where the shooter had to be. It was the right compass point, and it was the right height. The red light that sat atop the bulbous structure had been winking to him all along.
What was that, an eight hundred-yard shot? Barely even a challenge if the shooter had the right gun and a thimbleful of training.
Tom had slid his butt into the first cruiser's driver's seat before he realized what he intended to do. Really, by process of elimination alone, it wasn't a hard decision. Staying here was untenable. Running away, knowing what he knew, was a choice he could never live with. So, that meant taking the fight to the shooter.
He needed a gun. He rolled back out of the cruiser and stooped to the dead officer's side, forcing himself not to look at the dead man's eyes. He pulled the cop's body toward him so he could access the holster on his hip. It was a leather job with a thumb break, and it cradled a midsize Glock. He guessed it to be either a 19 or a 23, and as the weapon slid free from its holster, Tom lifted two more snap closures on the cop's Sam Browne belt and helped himself to a couple of spare mags. If he'd read his gun-related websites properly, the three magazines gave him something like forty-five rounds to bring to whatever fight lay ahead.
The cop's name was Feitner, according to the plate pinned over the right breast pocket.
Officer Feitner had died with his engine running. Tom slid behind the wheel, dropped the transmission into gear, and started nudging fleeing spectators out of the way with his bumper. The spider-webbed windshield made it nearly impossible to see where he was going, but in times like these, the pedestrians were 60 percent liable for their own safety, and they needed to jump out of the way. He'd made that number up, of course, but so far, he hadn't run over anything that sounded like a person. He avoided using the horn to keep from drawing attention to himself.
The clock was ticking.
The gunman — whoever he was — was going to be less than happy to see the police vehicle he thought he'd killed up and living again. Tom was fully aware that he was personally the most valuable target for the shooter to shoot. He was rolling the dice that the sniper had gotten distracted and moved on to other targets. And what the hell? If he was wrong, he'd probably never know it.
The Indian Spear municipal water tank sat atop six tall supports, rising from the lot adjacent to the football field. Tonight, it occurred to Tom that it bore a striking resemblance to the Martian creatures from The War of the Worlds, and it posed every bit as terrible a menace. A chain-link fence separated the two properties, and as he closed the distance, he jammed the gas pedal to the floor. If a spectator got in his way now, there'd be another victim to add to the list.
The speedometer had just crossed fifty mph when the cruiser slammed through the fence. The deceleration forces were more than Tom had anticipated, and when the air bag deployed, it startled the crap out of him.
The cruiser was done, and fifty yards still separated him from the shooter's platform. Tom gathered the pistol and spare mags in his right hand, and with his left, pulled the handle for the driver's door and pushed with his shoulder. The fence had wrapped itself around the cruiser's body, pushing back against his efforts to force the door open. Every push resulted in a rebound, but after four tries, the opening was big enough to allow him to tumble out onto the twisted tangle of steel mesh.
He paused on his way out.
A shotgun stood tall to his right on the bench seat, but it was locked into place, and Tom didn't know how to unlock it.
"Way to go," he grumbled. "Bringing a pistol to a rifle fight."
Woulda coulda shoulda.
From ahead and above, he could hear the outgoing fire now. It wasn't the kind of booming he expected from a rifle, but rather quiet, percussive snaps, and there was no muzzle flash.
The wrecked chain link felt spongy under his feet as he rolled out of the cruiser's door, and it clattered loudly as he scrambled on his hands and knees to what used to be the top of the fence and the water tower property beyond. He'd made too much noise and now presented too excellent a target to spend any time dawdling.
He didn't know who the hell the shooter was or why he'd decided to murder people, but unless someone stopped him, the murdering would continue. Tom could not let that happen.
As he sprinted across the grass toward the massive legs of the tower, he realized with a start that the lights here were still on. They were security lights, designed to provide enough illumination to make vandals think twice about graffiti or other forms of mischief. Not bright by any means, but bright enough to reveal a man sprinting across the ground.
As he ran, Tom focused his attention exclusively on the base of the ladder. He'd done his own mischief on this property back when he was a kid, so he knew the ladder didn't even reach all the way to the ground. It stopped about ten feet short to keep people in general — and kids in particular — from getting access. He wondered if the town fathers had ever considered the possibility that the tower might become a sniper's perch when they made the ladder hard to climb.
Tom wasn't at all surprised to find a stout hardware-style A-frame ladder at the base of the tower. It stood at the bottom of the access ladder, clearly put there by the shooter. Tom stopped at the A-frame long enough to stuff the Glock trigger-deep into the waistband at the front of his jeans, and then he started to climb.
Aware that this was the most impulsive, stupidest thing he had ever done, he kept climbing because at this point, he didn't know what else to do. This attack was still only a couple of minutes old. He'd come this far, and people were still dying. How could he turn back now? Even if he did, how would he ever live with himself?
"Six tours in Hell," he mumbled, "all so you could get yourself killed at home."
The ladder was a straight shot — no turns or landings — until he got to within twenty feet from the top. There, it ended at a six-foot-square landing from which a caged ladder rose vertically to a three-by-three-foot opened trap door in the expanded metal walkway that surrounded the belly of the water tank. He started the final climb.
Tom's plan — if you could even call it that — was to make his way around the circular tank to the eastern side, the side that faced the stadium, and pop the shooter. The scuttle hole in the floor of the walkway lay on the southern side of the tank, so once he was up on the expanded metal, he'd work his way around to the right, and after a quarter of a circle —
Wait. Where were the gunshots? Since he'd first been able to detect the sound of the suppressed rifle, the pace of fire had been steady. Not hurried, but relentless. Now, he didn't hear any shooting at all.
"Oh, shit," he hissed. He's done.
And this ladder was his escape route.
Shit, shit, shit.
Tom was ten feet off the landing when he saw the movement through the openings in the expanded metal. Whoever it was, he was moving quickly, anxious to get out of here.
Should have waited for him on the ground.
He had exactly one chance. If he could catch the shooter unaware, as he was transitioning from the platform to the ladder, he'd have a shot. It wasn't much of a chance, but it was a chance, dammit.
He had only a few seconds. No time to climb back down to the landing, and if he dropped, he'd make too much noise. This, right here, was his Alamo. This was where he was going to have his gunfight, hanging on to the ladder with his left arm while he Matt Dilloned one-handed shots at the figure who appeared in the opening.
Leaning out from the vertical ladder, Tom drew the Glock from his waistband. He hadn't brought it up all the way when the silhouette appeared in the opening. The silhouette was no more than an inkblot against the night sky. And the inkblot had a rifle.
Tom fired without aiming. He couldn't see his sights in the darkness, anyway. The Glock bucked in his hand twice. Four times. Six. The noise and muzzle flashes were his entire world. Eight. Ten.
Then, for just half an instant, he felt a heavy impact at the top of his breastbone, followed by a searing heat that consumed everything.
And then he felt nothing.CHAPTER 2
The little village of Fisherman's Cove sat along Virginia's Northern Neck, a largely ignored east-west peninsula of land that was bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. Real estate agents had the audacity to call it a suburb of Washington, DC, but such claims were borderline criminal. It was a two-hour one-way commute on a good day and five or six hours on a bad one. At a time when urban sprawl was consuming Northern Virginia at a rate of thousands of acres per year, Fisherman's Cove was a throwback to older times. The downtown, such as it was, still thrived with the kind of businesses that catered to local residents and fishermen, and zoning regulators' ears were well tuned to a populace that had zero interest in malls and big box stores.
Jonathan Grave had been born in Fisherman's Cove, and except for his college years and his decades of deployment to most of the world's shitholes, it was the only home he had ever known. Now that he'd left the Army and its Special Forces in his rearview mirror, it was the home of his future. As far as he was concerned, there was no finer spot on the planet.
He'd just finished his four-mile run and now stood on the near edge of the town's marina, drinking in the beauty of the October morning. The sun hadn't risen more than a hand's width over the horizon, and it lit the water with a light that made the fog on the surface look alive.
"By God, I believe you're breathing hard, Dig," said a familiar voice from behind.
Jonathan turned and smiled at Doug Kramer, Fisherman's Cove's chief of police, who was approaching up Water Street. Built as if the love child of a bullet and a fire-plug, Kramer was one of those guys the charts would say was fat, but it was the kind of fat that would break your fist if you punched it.
"Next time, I'll give you a call and we can race," Jonathan said.
"Only if it's to the pasta table," Kramer said. "Haven't seen you in a while. Buy you a cup of coffee?" He nodded toward Jimmy's Tavern, a hundred yards to the east.
They started walking. "Business good?" Doug asked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Total Mayhem"
Copyright © 2019 John Gilstrap, Inc..
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