A Free Chapter for the Holidays

Hopefully everybody had a good Christmas.

I posted earlier that I was working on facelifting the American Praetorians series.  That project is now complete, with new front and back matter, some edits, new covers for Task Force Desperate and Hunting in the Shadows, and standardized formatting through all paperbacks.  In honor of it, and for those of you who might be new, for a limited time, here’s a chapter from the final book, Lex Talionis.  Bullets and blood aplenty for the holidays.

(I’m working on possibly coming out with a couple of boxed sets for the series in the next couple of months.  Possibly with some previously-untold short stories.)

“I still say this place looks like a Bond villain’s lair,” Nick murmured.

The two of us were hunkered down in the greenery, not far from the edge of the target property. We were both drenched to the skin with a combination of our own sweat and the moisture that seemed to perpetually drip off the vegetation.

“I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for the faceless minions in gray coveralls,” I muttered.

Sarcasm aside, if ever there was a candidate for “Bond villain” status among the factions, it was Eugene Stavros. Richer than Midas, he’d never held office, but he was the great mover and shaker in numerous political circles, mainly those that leaned left. He was suspected to be the richest man in the entire world, and he was not shy about using that money to buy influence and bankroll his preferred causes.

Unlike the likes of Eddings, however, Stavros didn’t appear to be primarily driven by self-interest. Oh, he certainly profited handsomely off of his little projects, regardless of how destructive they turned out to be, but he was a pretty consistent ideologue. Unfortunately, his ideology was some kind of utopian, far-left, anarcho-communist bullshit that meant most of his bankrolling dollars went to anyone and everyone who had interests in tearing down society for the sake of “revolution.” He wasn’t terribly picky about their stated goals, either. As long as they were disruptive and generally leaned left, he’d give them money. Some said that he practically owned just about every Leftist political party in the States; I was personally skeptical, and apparently, so was Bates.

What none of us was skeptical about was that Stavros was one of the biggest and most central personalities in “Sulla.” The more intel we gathered, the more lesser personalities we rolled up, the more it became apparent that the man had his fingers in every corner of that particular network. What his ultimate endgame was, no one could quite tell; he was on record espousing multiple conflicting agendas. If disruption was his primary aim, presumably with his weird anarcho-communist Promised Land at the end of it, it kind of made a twisted sort of sense.

His sprawling estate on the big island of Hawaii only added to his already generally sinister reputation. Twenty acres of jungle had been cleared and replaced with meticulously manicured lawn and landscaping, with a ten-thousand square foot house squatting in the middle. Personally, I thought the house was ugly as sin, but the blocky, stair-step construct of steel, glass, and white plastered concrete had just the right Frank Lloyd Wright modernist look for a Bond villain.

It also had tighter security than most government facilities. The single access road had a minimum of three hardened checkpoints on it before even reaching the main gate, which was fortified enough to withstand a truck bomb. Armed helicopter patrols circled the estate on five-mile loops, and roving foot patrols paced the perimeter of the cleared lawns, just inside a double ring of metal pylons, which the Cicero Group suspected were some sort of electric or sonic intrusion deterrent fence. It was mainly speculation; Stavros’ information security was as tight as his estate’s physical security.

There were also eight-rotor drones buzzing around the perimeter, augmenting the foot patrols. We’d been able to get the specs on the Arc Tech drones, though we suspected that they’d probably been modified with any number of area denial systems and weapons beyond the factory specifications.

The house itself looked like it should be somewhat vulnerable, given how much of the wall space was given up to gigantic picture windows, but there was a faint greenish tint to those windows that suggested to me that they were armored glass.

It was going to be one hell of a tough nut to crack, but the target was worth the effort.

A helicopter roared by overhead, making for the helipad on the roof. It wasn’t one of Stavros’ contract security patrols; this looked like a transport for somebody important. Given the line of high-end, luxury SUVs and limousines already parked in the expansive driveway, this was only the latest of several important visitors.

“This is one hell of a meet,” Alek murmured. I hadn’t been in the field with the big Samoan since East Africa; he’d taken over the ops chief job once we’d started operations in Kurdistan, what felt like half a lifetime ago. But once he and the rest of the boys had managed to get back Stateside, he’d insisted on falling in with what was left of our old team. Larry had effectively stepped into Jim’s shoes well enough that Alek hadn’t wanted to stir things up too much, and had simply filled a slot, one of several left vacant by Jim’s, Ben’s, Little Bob’s, and Derek’s absence. “You sure we’re outside their detection bubble?”

“No,” I whispered in reply. “But if they know we’re here, they’re taking their sweet time raising the alarm.” Again, we didn’t have reliable information as to what kind of early warning systems Stavros’ estate had in place, but we were assuming the worst. Still, we’d gotten close enough through the jungle that we could get eyes on, without, apparently, being detected.

Larry’s voice hissed in my earpiece. “In position. This sucks.”

Jungle movement is some of the nastiest hiking possible, in my opinion. Between the thickness of the growth, which snags and tangles gear, weapons, and limbs equally, and the sopping heat, it is about as miserable as it gets. Add in Larry’s size, and it gets worse. He had to be hurting, after the damned-near eleven klick movement to get close to Stavros’ estate.

I checked my watch. Larry’s was the last element to check in. All of our teams were on deck for this little party; nearly a hundred combat-hardened killers slipping through the jungle to fan out around the southern and eastern flanks of the estate. But I was less concerned about all our players being in place than I was about making sure that all the targets were there before we kicked things off.

We’d started getting wind of this little get-together about a week before, thanks both to Bates’ networks and Derek’s cyber snooping. We still didn’t know what the occasion was, but a lot of “Sulla’s” major personalities were flying out to Hawaii to meet with Stavros. It was too juicy a target to pass up. If the Group’s analysis panned out, we could all but cripple one of the factions in one fell swoop.

Of course, I was skeptical. Decapitation strikes are rarely as effective as anyone thinks they should be. We’d found that out the hard way in Mexico, chasing the top HVT on half a dozen watch lists, only to find out he’d been a red herring. But at the very least, we would put a serious hurting on “Sulla.” And at that point, that was enough.

“That looks like Senator Richardson,” Nick murmured. I put my eye back to my own scope, burning through the foliage between us and the estate to watch the figures getting off the helo. Sure enough, the pantsuited woman with her blond hair pulled back behind her head certainly looked like the Senator from Vermont. A fat man in a dark suit, who had to be sweltering in the late-morning Hawaii heat, met her at the edge of the pad and shook her hand before ushering her down inside the house.

“That’s got to be the last one,” Bryan whispered. He was watching our rear security, but keeping tabs on what was going on at the same time.

“If everybody’s on time, sure,” I answered. “But we don’t know for certain who all’s inside.”

Still, we knew we had a limited time window in which to pull this off. The meeting was set to start at two in the afternoon, and even if many of the attendees stayed around for the expensive—and quite possibly illegal for normal people—entertainment that was almost guaranteed to come later, not all of them were certain to. If we were going to crack that nut open and pry these little fucks out, we were going to have to move soon.

I was preparing to give the “go” order, which would get our diversion moving, when one of the aerial patrols went by overhead. The patrols were flying blue MD-500s, which I couldn’t help but think was mainly because they wanted to imitate Special Mission Units riding around in Little Birds. They didn’t have the side benches, but the side doors were open and men in cheap blue fatigues with ARs were leaning out the doors, scanning the jungle.

We hunkered down, freezing as the helo passed overhead. We were under a fair bit of concealment, but movement draws the eye, even through foliage. Getting burned at this point wouldn’t necessarily be disastrous, but it never is a good idea to surrender the initiative, especially when you’re looking to raid a hardened position like Stavros’ manor. Not to mention that some of us had traded fire with a helicopter before, and none of us who had were in a hurry to repeat the experience.

The bird moved away, and I started to breathe a little easier. At least until a SAM whooshed up from somewhere below the cliff that loomed above the ocean and blew it apart.

The helo was flying low enough that the shockwave of the detonation slapped at the jungle below, and we felt the wind of it from where we were crouched. Frag whickered through the air, as the tail rotor came apart along with a good chunk of the boom, and the stricken bird spun halfway around before falling onto the lawn just over the edge of the cliff.

“I’m pretty sure that was not in the plan,” Bryan said, just after the catastrophic noise of the crash ended.

Fuck. I keyed the radio. “Someone is trying to poach our targets,” I sent. “Move in.”

I heaved myself to my feet. In addition to the veg, the terrain, and the heat, what had made the movement so rough getting into position had been all the crap we’d needed to haul along with us. We had not expected the mansion to be any kind of a soft target, so we’d brought along any number of breaching toys, including a few that we’d never seen before, since Stavros was assumed to have enough money to have all sorts of high-tech, sci-fi security arrangements. Never mind the body armor, since we were probably going to be fighting a number of heavily-armed PSDs in close quarters. That shit adds up and gets heavy.

We had halted far enough back in the weeds that, while we could see, we were less likely to be seen, and were out of the presumed range of whatever effect those metal pylons on the lawn had. So, it took a good moment to get everyone up and to the edge of the vegetation.

By then, we could already hear a new snarl of helicopter rotors in the distance, even over the sirens and yelling that had erupted all over the compound after the stricken helicopter had crashed. The competition was inbound, apparently by air.

The yard was in chaos. What I could only assume were crash/fire rescue personnel were pouring out of the mansion and heading for the burning wreckage of the crashed patrol helicopter. More men with guns were spreading out on the roof and could be seen moving around the big picture windows near the visible doors. With surprise lost, this had just become an even harder target. With the number of bigwigs in there, there were going to be a lot of security types, all now alerted and actively looking for threats.

Well, that was why we got paid the big bucks.

I paused, just for a moment, taking a knee at the edge of the thick vegetation. With our original plan shot to shit, we were going to have to adjust, and quickly. There was no time for anything complicated; we’d have to move fast and hit hard. That meant we had to hit with overwhelming force, so we would also have to concentrate our efforts on only one breach point.

As I reached for my radio, Larry moved up with Jack and Eric, completing what was left of the team. We were the main assault team, with Tommy’s team, mostly made up of new guys, backing us up.

“This is Hillbilly,” I sent. “Gate team, you are now our way out. Secure the gate, prepare to support by fire, and stand by. Support by fire team, suppress those assholes on the roof, and hold position. All maneuver elements, on me, make for Breach Point Two.”

As soon as I finished speaking, I was releasing the PTT and reaching for one of the bulky gadgets that I’d stuffed in a taco pouch on my rig. None of the others would fit the damned thing.

It was a black plastic box, about the size of one of the little Pelican micro cases. Small, black plastic “hockey pucks” lined front, back, and both sides. There was a simple knob next to one of the bigger pucks, on what I thought of as the “front.” It was surprisingly heavy for its size, which only made it that much crappier that we needed to carry so damned many of the things.

I twisted the knob. To my right and left, Alek and Nick were doing the same to identical boxes. Then, almost as one, we lobbed them out of the bushes and toward the nearest pylons, which were only a few meters away.

We had been told that we only needed to get them within a couple of meters of the pylons, but of course, we tried to nail the metal posts themselves, anyway. None of us entirely trusted the little EMP generators, so we wanted to get them as close to their targets as possible. Mine landed about four feet from my target. Alek’s overshot by a couple of feet. Nick’s landed right at the base of his. He smirked, but didn’t say anything or even look at us when both of us turned to look at him.

I counted to three. That should be long enough for the EMP grenades to do their thing, though there was no sound or visual indicator that anything had happened. If you were up close, you might hear a faint whine from one of the grenades, but that would have been drowned out by the cacophony of helicopters, shouting guards, and burning wreckage across the compound, anyway.

Before I’d hit “two,” the support by fire element opened fire from the trees, the M60E6s’ stuttering roars blending into each other in one continuous, hammering wall of noise. Dust and chips of cement were blasted off the top of the building, where the armed guards were suddenly ducking below the concrete parapet to try to keep their heads.

Coming to my feet, I ran toward the selected breach point. I could already see the specks of four incoming helicopters out over the ocean. Then there wasn’t time to worry about them anymore.

I passed the metal pylons without getting shocked, or violently nauseated, or blasted back by a sonic shockwave. Whatever they did, the EMP grenades appeared to have put them out of action.

Of course, it was also possible that they didn’t do anything, and were just decorations there to make Stavros feel more like a Bond villain, and we’d just wasted several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment to neutralize them. But if they had been something nasty, then we sure would have wished we’d used the black boxes.

Besides, it was another pound and a half I didn’t have to lug across that fucking lawn.

It felt like the longest sprint ever. A shot snapped past my head, but was quickly answered by another long burst of machinegun fire from the trees. So far, Tim’s and Ross’s teams were doing a good job of keeping the shooters on the roof suppressed. They didn’t have a line on the guys at the door, though.

Since they weren’t taking fire, the head of the detail at the south door apparently decided they needed to move, maybe to try to maneuver on the gunners. They slid the door open, and a knot of them ran out and took a knee around the support pillars holding up the overhang.

In contrast to my sarcastic comment about faceless minions in gray coveralls, these guys were kitted out like a high-end SWAT team; Ranger Green fatigues and kit, and the by-then ubiquitous cutaway Ops-Core style helmets. They were also loaded for bear, with SCARs and at least one Mk48 visible.

I saw that Mk48 coming up to point right at my face, by then only about thirty meters away. I threw myself flat, hoping and praying that I’d get down fast enough, even though the lawn was flat as hell, and there really was no place to hide.

I probably would have been dead right there, except that right at that point, Eddie’s team crashed the gate, and the helos descended on the compound.

The roaring of the armored trucks that Eddie and his boys were driving had been drowned out by the noise of the firefight and the sirens, but when a five-ton truck with another two tons of steel welded to it hit that gate at close to fifty miles per hour, there was no missing it. As solidly as the gate had been built, it still wasn’t heavy enough to stop the truck. The rolling gate was smashed off its rails and twisted around by the impact. Concrete was pulverized into flying dust where the gate was ripped out of its moorings.

Even so, the gate didn’t just drop flat, so the truck was almost flipped over as it bounced over the wreckage. The one behind it held back, so as not to get tangled with the first one, or repeat the experience.

I took all of that in in a split second. My focus was on that 48 gunner, who had taken his eyes off me for just a moment, as he flinched a little from the crash of the gate getting smashed in.

Just a moment was all I needed. I got my rifle in my shoulder and dumped five rounds at him as fast as I could. At least one connected solidly; he jerked and fell on his face, on top of his MG.

As I was shooting, Alek was bounding forward, sprinting another fifteen yards before dropping to a knee and opening fire. Eddie’s guys rose up out of the backs of the trucks as soon as they’d stopped moving, while they were still rocking on their shocks, swinging M240Ls up on hastily bolted-on armatures, and opened fire in the same moment.

The concrete pillars provided some cover for the enemy shooters, but only some, and between us and the two 7.62 machineguns on the trucks, our opponents really had no place to hide.

Alek knocked one of the riflemen flat on his ass with a trio of shots, and I got another one high in the chest, above his plate, before two long bursts from the machinegunners tore the small knot of gunmen apart. Eddie’s boys were shooting low, chopping legs and knees out from under the men so that they fell into the streams of bullets, which both gunners were playing back and forth across a pretty narrow cone. In seconds, the entryway was piled with a blood-spattered heap of torn flesh, shredded gear, and shattered bone.

We had kept moving forward while the gunners hosed down the opposition, and got under the overhang just as the first helicopter roared by overhead.

I spared a glance as it went over. It looked a lot like a Blackhawk, except that it was smaller and more angular. If I’d had the time or the energy to spare, I’d have shaken my head. Whoever these guys were, they had access to the same sort of stealth helos that DEVGRU had used on the Bin Laden raid. Except I was pretty sure these weren’t JSOC; posse comitatus aside, we had people there, and if JSOC had been getting involved, we would have heard something.

The door gunner started shooting at the trucks. Fortunately, he wasn’t shooting anything heavy enough to punch through the armor, but one of the gunners went down anyway, his 240 swiveling crazily to point at the sky. The other gunner ducked low and elevated his own gun, leaving the ground targets alone to return fire at the helo. The bird banked away, hard, as the 240 started roaring its own deadly reply.

The entire luxury compound was now a warzone. Automatic weapons were hammering in multiple directions at once, and I could barely hear myself think over the noise of gunfire and helicopter rotors. I almost missed Tim’s radio call.

“We’re taking heavy fire from the helos,” he announced. “We’re returning it, but they’re going to get their shooters on the roof. The volume of fire they’re putting on us is just too damned high.”

I spared a glance over my shoulder to see one of the helos circling out toward the perimeter, presumably attempting to suppress the support by fire positions long enough to insert the hitters onto the roof. We hadn’t humped in anti-air weaponry, so our best bet at that point was just to push through and get to Stavros and his cronies before they did. I turned back to the door, kneed Bryan hard in the ass cheek, and bellowed, “With you!”

My knee damned near catapulted him through the door, which hadn’t been closed all the way, and was still propped open by a corpse. Actually, it would be more accurate to say it was being propped open by a helmet, which was about the only thing holding the dead man’s skull together.

The entryway was, fortunately, empty, though we’d been able to see that through the armored glass of the big picture windows facing the jungle. My best guess was that the bulk of the security personnel had gotten their principals to someplace more secure, probably downstairs, while the react force had pushed to the roof and the door that hadn’t been directly exposed, at the time, to machinegun fire.

We didn’t have any kind of reliable blueprints for the house, so we were going to have to wing it. As soon as we’d fanned out across the entryway, rifle muzzles pointing into any corner and bit of dead space where a straggler might be crouched with a weapon, we started looking for openings.

The most obvious was the hallway leading out of the center of the room. I checked for any other doors, but there were only two ways in or out of the entryway, and one of them was already behind us and had a pile of bodies in it. I closed on the hallway, gun up and moving quickly, even as the house quivered slightly around us. Somebody had just set off a breaching charge somewhere up above. The structure was so damned heavy that it had only raised a little dust instead of shaking the entire house like it had been hit with a hammer.

The hallway was dark, though the bright light of the sun shining into the expansive living room on the far end was lighting up some of the shadows. It made for enough contrast that I almost didn’t see the door open ten paces down the hall until a shotgun boomed and I felt a brutal, hammer blow to my chest.

Only years of training and conditioning kept me on my feet, answering the slug in my chest plate with a rapid series of five shots, pushing through the fiery pain. It felt like I’d been kicked in the sternum by an especially bad-tempered mule. Alek was immediately beside me, dumping more fire at the door. We’d all been trained to be precision shooters, up close and at range, but when somebody’s sticking a shotgun out into the hallway and blasting away at you, it becomes a matter of survival through fire superiority. Precision can come later.

There was a yell of pain, nearly lost in the ringing in my ears and the general roar of noise, and the shotgun clattered to the floor. Alek got to the door a split second before I did. I kneed him in the thigh, wheezed, “With you!” and we flowed in, with only a bare moment’s hesitation.

The shotgunner was scrabbling back from the door, holding his shattered hand, which was dripping blood all over the carpet and his cheap security guard uniform. The other guy was standing in the center of the room, his hands reaching for the ceiling as four 7.62mm carbine barrels swiveled to cover him.

There was no one else in the room. The two men weren’t dressed in the shooter kits that the dead guys outside the entrance had been; they were in black slacks, duty belts, and blue, short-sleeved collared shirts with “Security Guard” badges on them. These had to be Stavros’ regular security personnel, the ones that anyone of the regular public saw when they accidentally pulled up to the gate, or tried to land at the dock at the base of the cliff. One of them had tried to be a hero, and had damned near lost his life because of it.

“Down on the floor!” Alek bellowed. At the command from the towering Samoan in jungle fatigues, plate carrier, helmet, and camouflage face paint and pointing an OBR at them, both dropped on their faces instantly, the one with the shot-up hand whimpering with the pain as he did so.

They only had the one shotgun between the two of them, so Nick hastily zip-tied both of them hand and foot, while Eric checked me over. “You all right, bro?” he asked, hastily running a hand over my limbs, looking for bleeds. I was pretty sure that I’d only taken a slug to the plate, but if it had been buckshot, there was still a chance I was leaking from a hole somewhere that I hadn’t noticed yet.

“Nothing like taking a sledgehammer to the chest to wake you up,” I replied through gritted teeth. It hurt to breathe, but I’d been shot in the plate before. I hated to think that I was getting used to it, but it didn’t seem as bad as the first time or two.

Eric stepped back, satisfied that I hadn’t sprung a leak. “It’s important not to get shot,” he said. “So sayeth the Nigerian.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” I replied, though the last syllable was drowned out by the hammering of gunfire out in the hallway.

Bryan and Jack were covered down on the door, with Larry looming behind Bryan’s shoulder. Both Larry and Bryan were shooting out the door, returning fire at whoever had appeared in the hallway.

“More shooters coming out of the living room!” Larry shouted over the noise. “A lot of ‘em!”

A moment later, both men were forced back from the door by a withering hail of gunfire that chewed at the jamb and the wall around it. More fire was roaring up and down the hallway, and after a moment, I picked out that Tommy was on the radio.

“This is Tommy Boy!” he was yelling. “We’re taking heavy fire from the hallway, and can’t push in any farther! We’re pinned in the entryway!”

A series of heavy thuds shook the building. I was pretty sure that wasn’t us. Whoever had decided to crash the party was using some heavy breaching charges. And meanwhile, we were pinned in a fucking closet with a couple of rent-a-cops.

We hadn’t brought much in the way of frags; this had been primarily a “Capture” mission, rather than a “Kill” mission. We’d still brought a few, though, because why wouldn’t we? We were Praetorians; we were always ready to wreak more havoc than anyone expected, including our employers. So, I yanked an M67 frag out of my kit, pulled the pin, cooked it for a three-count, and hucked it through the door. Everyone dropped flat.

There was a yell, a sudden slackening of the fire in the hall, and then the frag detonated with a tooth-rattling thud. My ears were already ringing enough from all the shooting and the low-flying helos that the noise was somewhat deadened, even though the concussion, funneled by the hallway and the door, made the impact of the slug on my chest plate feel like a love-tap.

“Tommy Boy, Hillbilly,” I called. “We’re coming out, watch your fire down the hallway!” As soon as he acknowledged, I yelled, “Go, go!” We had to get out there and get on top of them while the survivors were still rattled from the blast. With our competition presumably blasting their way through the house as fast as they could, we didn’t have the time to spare to hunker down and play patty-cake with the “Sulla” security.

We flowed out into the hallway, which was still filled with smoke from the grenade blast. The air was thick with the stink of high explosives, blood, burned meat, and shit.

Guns up, we pushed into the living room. There were still four shooters out there, some wounded, some still crouched behind whatever furniture they’d ducked behind to avoid the blast. One of the wounded tried to lift a pistol and took a round to the dome from Alek. The guy crouched behind the sofa popped up, trying to level his MP-7, and Eric and I shot him in the face within half a second of each other. His helmet, the strap unbuckled, was thrown off as his head snapped back and he collapsed behind the furniture.

Of the other two, one was too wounded to do anything; I wasn’t sure if he was even entirely cognizant that we were even there. His face was a mask of blood and shredded skin, and he was clutching shaking, bloody hands to his gut beneath his front plate. It didn’t look, at first glance, like he’d been eviscerated, but he was hurting.

The other one threw his rifle on the floor and dropped on his face with his hands behind his head. Jack closed on him, kicking the rifle away, and zip-tied his hands before retrieving his pistol, unloading it, and chucking it across the room.

With half a second to observe, I could see that we had at least two different groups of shooters. Several of the dead men and the wounded guy were all in the same Ranger Green as the guys outside. The others were in the newer Storm Gray, which had been advertised primarily for law enforcement. It might have made sense in Honolulu, but out here, surrounded by jungle, I couldn’t help but think that it was of limited utility.

There was more gunfire coming from downstairs. Heavy stuff, too. Whoever our unknown competitors were, they were not fucking around. We had to move.

The living room was the last room of that level. The north wall was a wide semi-circle of gigantic picture windows, through which we could see the stair-step construction of the rest of the house spreading out below us, leading toward the pool and the cliff’s edge overlooking the ocean. The wreckage of the shot-down helicopter was now burning fiercely, putting a pall of black smoke over the entire scene, though the smoke was being churned into writhing whorls by the stealth helicopter that was now crouched on the lawn, the rotors still turning. Small figures in Multicam gear and helmets were on the ground, holding security around the bird.

“We’ve got to get downstairs,” I said, as Tommy rolled into the room behind us. “I think our new friends have lapped us, just judging by the noise.”

Alek had already been checking doors with Nick. “Stairs over here!” he barked.

“We’ll take lead,” Tommy told me. He was a beefy former SEAL, one of the few such working for Praetorian. I didn’t know him well; he’d joined up while we’d been in Kurdistan, then gotten out there about the same time that Mike and I had rotated back Stateside with our teams. But he was an older guy, level-headed, and a good shooter, from what I’d seen so far. “You all right?” he asked me, noticing the still-smoking hole in my plate carrier.

I just nodded. “Took a slug. I’ll be fine. Go.”

He nodded, punched me on the shoulder, and headed for the stairway.

Seconds after his team started down, gunfire erupted, echoing up and down the concrete stairwell. I could see Tommy shooting up the stairs, and it sounded like there was more from down below. Our friends had secured the stairwell behind them.

Tommy suddenly grunted and dropped, his AR-10 clattering against the railing. He left a smear of red on the rail as he slid against it and slumped to the landing.

Alek ducked into the stairway and sent six fast shots up toward whoever had shot Tommy. His timing must have been good, because there was another clatter of a falling weapon, and the fire from up top ceased.

Alek pushed onto the landing, keeping his muzzle trained high, stepping over Tommy’s body as he went. A quick glance confirmed that Tommy was dead; he’d been shot just above his plate, at such an angle that he probably didn’t have much of a heart or lungs left.

The rest of us flowed past Alek, following Tommy’s team down the steps. There was more shooting reverberating up the stairway from below, but it was shortly silenced by the bone-shaking wham of a grenade.

Then it all went ominously quiet.

We pushed out onto the next level, past the mangled corpses of the two shooters who had been on stairway security. It wasn’t much larger than the first, and equally empty. The meeting must have been downstairs, or at least the secure room where the meeting attendees had been ushered by their protective details was.

It took moments to clear that level, and then we were heading down again.

There was no resistance as we entered the third floor down. But there had been.

The stairs opened on a round central room, with hallways branching off it. The halls we could see were strewn with bodies, mostly in plain green or gray. Aside from the one we’d killed on the stairway, I hadn’t seen any corpses in Multicam yet. These guys were good. I was getting a sneaking suspicion that I knew who they were, too.

I found Tommy’s number two, Daley, and tapped him on the shoulder. “Tommy’s down,” I told him. “You’re up.”

Daley wasn’t a new guy, but he was considerably younger than Tommy, and I saw the brief flash of shock, horror, and sorrow cross his face as what I’d said registered. Then he got his game face back on and nodded. “How do you want to tackle this?” he asked.

“Split your team into two elements,” I told him. “One goes that way,” I pointed, “the other goes that way. I’ll do the same with the other two hallways. Keep comms up and reconsolidate here, though situation dictates.”

He nodded again, pointed out four of his guys, and soon they were flowing down the blood-splattered halls.

“Larry, you take Jack and Nick,” I said. “Alek, Bryan, and Eric are with me.”

On a hunch, I’d taken the hallway leading toward the back of the house and the view of the ocean. My hunch wasn’t wrong.

The windows were smaller in the vast room; instead of floor-to-ceiling glass, there was a roughly two-foot, plastered concrete wall at the base. There was a gap in that wall at the center of the great, sweeping curve that faced the ocean, where the pool entered the room. The floor was tiled, and the ceiling was high. Everything was very plush, very expensive, and very modern.

It was also riddled with bullet holes and blast marks, spattered with blood and offal, and littered with corpses.

The glass was obviously armored, as the bullet impacts hadn’t shattered it, or even punched all the way through. There weren’t that many impacts, either; most of the shots had gone into people.

They’d been thorough. This time there weren’t just uniformed and armored security among the bodies, but men and women of various ages, dressed in anything from expensive dresses and suits to bikinis and speedos. Some of the latter were being sported by people who never should have worn such attire.

They’d all been ruthlessly murdered with tight groups to chests and heads. From the attitudes of a few of the bodies, they’d been shot in the head as they lay there, wounded and dying. The pool water was steadily turning red from the blood of the handful of corpses floating in it.

Stavros had been sitting in the shallows, clad in the smallest speedo possible, which was not flattering on the fat old man. Even less so was the puckered hole between his eyes and the gaping exit wound spilling blood and brain matter onto the deck behind him. Across from him, I recognized Helen Seminola, another richer-than-Midas business magnate, dressed in a one-piece swimsuit. She’d died clutching a young woman in a thong bikini to her. Both had died within moments of each other. The shooters hadn’t cared who was who; everyone in the room had been marked to die as soon as the helos had landed.

Jack yelled. Looking up, I followed his eyes and his barrel to see the knot of shooters hustling toward the helo on the lawn. There were stairs leading down to the lawn from poolside, and Jack was already moving toward the door leading to the outside pool deck.

I sprinted across the room to join him. The shooters were ushering a man in business casual toward the bird. He was apparently unrestrained but tightly surrounded by men obviously ready to shoot him if he zigged when he was supposed to zag. I couldn’t recognize him, but whoever he was, we didn’t want them leaving with him.

Jack yanked the door open and ran out onto the deck. There was a low parapet around the pool deck, presumably to keep drunken partygoers from falling off; the lawn was a full story below. He ran to the parapet, dropped to a knee, leveled his rifle, and started shooting.

One of the Multicam-clad shooters in the back of the formation staggered as he took a round to the back plate, then dropped as the follow-up shot took him in the base of the skull. Jack shifted targets and dropped another one with three fast shots, just as I skidded to a knee beside him and got behind my own weapon.

Even before the second guy had hit the ground, the man two paces ahead of him had spun around, fast as a striking snake, whipped his SCAR to his shoulder, and fired. There was a sound like a meat cleaver hitting a melon, and Jack dropped, lifeless, to the deck. His body fell against me and knocked me aside, which probably saved my life, as two more shots cracked painfully next to my ear in the next second. Then a ragged fusillade of fire started chewing up the top of the parapet, and I had to keep my head down.

But in that split second before Jack had died, I’d recognized Baumgartner as his killer, even from that distance.

The snarl of rotors began to build behind me, and I risked a glance up to see another faceted helo rising off the roof, pivoting to bring the door gun to bear on me. And I was out in the open, as exposed as a bug on a plate.

Taking a deep breath, I rolled into the pool, hoping that none of the corpses presently floating in it were carrying anything really serious and infectious. No sooner had I gone under the surface than the door gunner opened fire, blasting pits in the tile and concrete of the deck and further hammering Jack’s corpse to hamburger. Rounds were smacking into the water, but I’d dived deep enough that they were spending their energy on the water, instead of on me.

I stayed down, my lungs burning, hoping and praying that Jack and I had been the only ones still on the deck, as the helo made two more passes. The darkness was starting to gather around the edges of my vision as the second pass ended, and I had to risk it. It was a choice between maybe getting shot or certainly drowning, so I broke the surface and gasped for air.

Apparently, Baumgartner had decided that getting away with their prize was more important than killing me, because even as I ducked one more desultory burst, the helos were winging away, back toward the ocean. All that was left on the ground was wreckage, fire, and death.

I dragged myself up out of the bloody pool and onto the deck, gasping for air, every fiber of my body aching. Alek grabbed me by my plate carrier, dragging me away from the pool, while the rest fanned out to set up security. It was more reflex than anything else; our targets were dead or captured, and our competition was gone.

It had not been a good day.

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One thought on “A Free Chapter for the Holidays

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