The fullness of the moon made it all more complicated. The
intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the
thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his
eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow
in the stillness. Crickets and tree frogs, nocturnal noisemakers by
the thousands, gave him some cover, but not enough. There was never
enough cover. He reminded himself that he was in Indiana soybean
country facing a clueless adversary, but then he remembered the
penalty for failing to respect one’s adversary.
The Patrone brothers had been arguing for every one of the
twenty minutes that Jonathan had been monitoring them. The bud in
his left ear picked up every word, beamed to him from the tiny
wireless transmitter he’d stuck to the lowest pane of the
front window. From what he’d been able to determine from his
hasty research in the past few hours, the Patrones were nobodies
--- just a pair of losers from West Virginia whose motives for this
kidnapping adventure were unclear, and from Jonathan’s
The stress of the kidnappers’ ordeal had clearly begun to
take its toll. They’d counted on Thomas Hughes’s
parents coughing up the ransom quickly, and now they couldn’t
figure out what had gone wrong.
“I’m tired of being jerked off by that
asshole,” Lionel said. The older of the two, he was the
hothead. “Old Stevie Hughes needs more proof, maybe we should
just cut off a piece of Tommy and send it to his old man in an
Jonathan picked up his pace, kneeling in the dew-wet grass to
un-sling his black rucksack and open the flap. With his night
vision gear in place, the darkness burned like green daylight.
“You’re not serious,” said Little Brother
Barry. His tone carried an unstated plea. He was the pacifist.
Jonathan liked pacifists. They lived longer.
Lionel continued to rant as Jonathan produced a coil of
detonating cord from his pack and slid a K-Bar knife from its
scabbard on his left shoulder. He measured out about an inch of
cord, sliced it off the roll, and slid the knife back home. With a
loop of black electrician’s tape, he attached the det cord to
the cable that brought electrical service to the house, then slid
the initiator into place. Det cord was the best stuff in the world.
A woeful bit of overkill in this case, but unquestionably
“Chris said to wait,” Barry said to his brother.
Jonathan pressed the transmit button in the center of his Kevlar
vest and whispered, “Boss’s name is Chris.” It
was the missing bit of data from three days of gathering intel.
A familiar voice crackled in his ear, “Copy that. Any sign
of him yet?”
“I was going to ask you,” Jonathan whispered.
“I’ve only got two friends here.” They knew from
an eyewitness to Thomas Hughes’s kidnapping that three hooded
figures had carried the naked Ball State student out of his
apartment in the middle of the night. Jonathan didn’t like
the fact that one member of the team remained unaccounted for.
The tone and pace of the kidnappers’ argument told him
that their frustration level had passed the tipping point into
desperation. He moved faster.
“This whole thing is hopelessly messed up,”
Lionel said. “Maybe Chris got picked up by the
“Maybe you’re just paranoid,” Barry
“This was supposed to be easy money. My ass.”
Jonathan was at the back of the house now --- the black side, as
he thought of it --- and it was time to prepare the doors for
entry. The Patrones had stashed Thomas Hughes in the basement. In
this part of the country, it was probably called a storm cellar. Or
maybe a root cellar. Constructed entirely of stone, from the
outside it could be accessed through two heavy wooden doors that
sloped at a shallow angle from ground level. When the time came,
those doors would be Jonathan’s point of entry.
Pulling his cell phone from its pouch on his vest, Jonathan
flipped open the cover and viewed the image transmitted by the
spaghetti-size fiber optic camera he’d inserted between the
doors. In the light cast by the single dim lightbulb inside, he had
difficulty making out any real detail, but he saw what he needed.
Their precious cargo hadn’t moved in the last half hour. The
fourth-year music major lay naked on the basement floor, his arms,
legs, and mouth bound with duct tape.
“Hang on a little longer,” Jonathan whispered. The
kid had no idea that he was moments away from rescue. For all he
knew, this was all he’d ever see again. Even after he was
safe, there’d be no way to erase the trauma of these past
four days. Whoever Thomas Hughes had been before the kidnapping
would be forever changed. It would be years before he’d feel
real joy again, and chances were, he’d never rediscover the
trust he once felt toward others.
The speaker bud in his right ear --- the one not occupied by the
Patrones --- crackled again. “Sit rep, please.”
Apparently two minutes had passed since they’d last spoken,
and Jonathan’s airborne partner, Brian Van de Meulebroeke ---
“Boxers” --- wanted a situation report, per their
standard operating procedure. They spoke on encrypted radio
channels without worry of casual eavesdroppers.
“I’m preparing for breach now,” Jonathan
Still using night vision, he removed three GPCs --- general
purpose charges --- from his rucksack, one for each of the door
hinges on the right-hand side, and a third for the heavy-duty
padlock in the middle. Constructed of C4 explosive with a tail of
det cord to ensure proper activation, GPCs were as malleable as
modeling clay, infinitely reliable, and effective as hell. The
phrase “shock and awe” would take on a whole new
meaning when the blast waves were focused on a room as small as the
Lionel said, “Let’s cut off the kid’s
Jonathan felt his stomach drop.
“What?” At least Barry was horrified. That was a
“You heard me. We’ll cut off his balls and send them
to his father for jerking us around.”
“That’s sick,” Barry said.
“What’s sick about it? He’s gonna die
“Don’t say that.”
Jonathan pressed his transmit button again. “See our
friend Chris yet? Looks like I’m going to have to pull the
trigger on this thing.”
In his ear: “Sorry, boss, I got nothing. Nearest headlight
is two miles away and heading in the other direction.”
“I copy,” Jonathan said. Just calm down in
Lionel was explaining the way of the world to his little
brother. “You seriously thought we were keeping him alive?
Why would we do that?”
“Because they paid the ransom.”
Lionel laughed. “That’s why Grandma always loved you
best. You were always the sweet naïve one.”
With the breaching charges in place, timed to fire five hundred
milliseconds apart, Jonathan took a few steps back from the doors
and glanced again at the image on his phone. Thomas Hughes had
shifted from his stomach onto his side, his knees still drawn up,
just as they’d been in all the photos they’d sent.
Jonathan scowled. If the kid hadn’t had a chance to stretch
in four days, he wasn’t going to be much of a runner when the
time came to move.
“Don’t you get it, little brother?” Lionel
went on. Jonathan could hear the sick smile. “Kidnapping gets
you thrown in jail forever. Add murder and you get forever plus a
couple of years. It doesn’t matter. I’m not taking the
chance that Mr. Rich Kid is gonna testify against me. We get the
money, we kill him, bury the body, and disappear.”
“Nobody said anything about killing!” Barry
“Because no one thought you were an idiot.”
“So what’s all this bullshit with the photos and
everything been about?”
Lionel laughed long and hard. “Just what you said.
Bullshit. The family was suspecting we were gonna kill him, so they
kept insisting on a new, more recent picture. That meant we had to
keep him alive until the money was in our hands. Get it?”
Jonathan winced. He himself had devised the ruse of demanding
photographs --- a proven tactic to buy time to figure out where
Thomas was. He decided to move back around to the front of the
house to see if he could get a peek through the windows and a
better handle on their emotions.
“Hey, you know what?” Lionel said. His voice had
dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “We might be on our way
to jail anyway. Maybe Chris went straight to the cops and told them
everything. I bet they’re outside right now.” There
were footsteps in Jonathan’s ear, then ahead and to the left,
the front door flew open and Lionel stepped out onto the front
“Shit,” Jonathan hissed. He was frozen in plain
sight, but concealed by the house’s moon shadow. If he
didn’t move, maybe he’d stay invisible. Certainly, this
was not the time to duck for cover. His hand moved to raise his
battle-slung M4 assault rifle to his shoulder. He had no desire to
take his adversary here, but he wasn’t going to get shot,
“Are you out here, assholes?” Lionel shouted. He
held a pistol in his hand. “Why don’t you come and get
me?” He fired two shots into the night. To Jonathan’s
ear, they were .38s.
Barry’s voice hissed in an urgent, whispered shout,
“What the hell are you doing? The whole county will
“What do I care?”
Jonathan could see them both now, out on the porch, and he
wondered if Barry might become Lionel’s first victim.
Calculating the distance and correcting for the breeze, Jonathan
slipped a gloved finger into the trigger guard and waited.
“I’m done with this shit,” Lionel shouted.
“I’m fucking done with it.”
“We’re almost home,” Barry soothed.
“We’ve come this far. We don’t want to screw it
“Don’t you get it? There’s nothing left to
screw up. We’ve been abandoned, little brother.”
“You don’t know that. Negotiations just aren’t
going as good as they were supposed to.”
“You don’t know that.” Lionel was aching for a
fight, and he’d take it however he could get it. The two
brothers stood there, staring at each other. Finally, Lionel
nodded. “Okay,” he said.
Jonathan watched the tension drain from Barry’s
“You’re right, Barry. It’s just the
negotiations.” Lionel stepped back inside. Just from the
length of his first stride, Jonathan knew that more was coming.
“So, let’s do something to speed them along.”
Barry hurried after him. “What are you doing?” Panic
returned to his voice.
“What I should’ve done a long time ago,”
“Shit. What are you doing with those?”
“Just what you think I am.”
Jonathan cursed under his breath. His equipment didn’t
have the capability to monitor two images at once, and now he
wished he’d opted to slip the camera into the top floor
instead of the basement.
“We can’t do that,” Barry begged. “Not
yet. We can’t.”
“Watch me,” Lionel growled. “You just hold him
Jonathan dashed back to the cellar doors. This whole thing was
coming unzipped. As the Patrone brothers moved away from the
microphone, their conversation became muddled and difficult to
understand. But he could see them both as they paraded down the
interior stone steps. They looked remarkably like their
driver’s license photographs. He pressed his transmit button.
“I think it’s going hot,” he whispered.
“Roger that, boss. I’ll move in closer, but stay
airborne till you advise.”
Jonathan didn’t bother to respond. Things were happening
too fast now.
In the cellar, Lionel led the way, with Barry close behind.
“We’re not supposed to do anything till Chris comes
back.” He seemed to think that repeating the same sentiment
could change the future.
“Fuck Chris,” Lionel spat. “Spread his legs
and hold him down.”
Thomas Hughes bucked wildly on the floor, a futile effort to get
away, to do something. Lionel fired a brutal kick into the
boy’s side, but Thomas only doubled the intensity of his
struggle. In his hands, Lionel held a pair of long-handled pruning
shears, the kind you use to cut through inch-thick tree limbs.
It was time.
Jonathan let the rifle fall against its sling, drew his .45, and
pressed against the wall.
“Relax,” Lionel said with a laugh. “This is
only gonna hurt like a mother---”
Plugging his right ear to protect it from the concussion that
was on its way, Jonathan punched a three-digit code into his cell
and pressed Send.
Jonathan registered the explosions as four separate blasts, but
inside it sounded like the end of the world. The first explosion
severed the electrical service; the next three blew the right-hand
door panel off its hinges. It fell inward, flat against the
interior stairs, forming a kind of sliding board, which Jonathan
utilized to skid into the room.
“Freeze!” he yelled. “Don’t move or
I’ll kill you!” Victim and captors were blind in the
darkness, but Jonathan could see every detail in the green hue that
he’d come to think of as nighttime. The Colt 1911 was an old
friend in his hand, the grip settling into his leather-palmed Nomex
gloves. He never even glanced at his sights --- there was no need.
If he pulled the trigger the target would die. “Put your
hands where I can see them!”
What happened next was as predictable as it was inevitable.
Lionel was pissed, and he was scared, the deadliest of
combinations. He flung the pruning shears to the side and drew his
pistol from the waistband of his jeans. It was a little .380
automatic, and he fired toward the sound of Jonathan’s voice.
The bullet missed by more than a foot.
Jonathan’s did not. He fired three times before the echo
of Lionel’s shot had faded, hitting the kidnapper twice in
the heart and once in the forehead, dropping him like a rock. On
the floor, Thomas Hughes reassumed his fetal position, trying to
keep himself as small as possible.
Barry panicked in the darkness. “Lionel!” he yelled.
He reached out with both hands, as if to parody a blind man.
“He’s dead, Barry,” Jonathan said. “And
I’ll kill you, too, unless you do what I say. Raise your
hands and spread your fingers.”
“You’re lying,” Barry said.
“Take two giant steps backward and raise your
hands.” Jonathan’s tone was neither soft nor harsh.
Matter-of-fact, it left no room for negotiation.
“Who are you?” Barry shouted. Panic rattled his
“Hands, Barry. Don’t make me shoot you.”
Barry Patrone was clueless. Jonathan could tell from the
befuddled look that he had lost his grip on what was real and what
was not. The kidnapper’s eyes darted to every compass point,
his pupils glowing like monster-eyes in the infrared light.
Thomas hollered behind his gag.
“Thomas, be quiet. You’re safe. This is almost over.
Barry, I need to see those hands.”
“Who are you?” Barry asked again. It was as if his
brain was stuck, and couldn’t progress until he got an
answer. He was crying. He paced blindly, his brain lost in that
corridor that separated panic from lunacy.
“I’m not waiting forever,” Jonathan said.
“If I shoot your knees, you’ll hit the floor. Is that
what you want? It’s your call.”
Barry shook his head frantically. He reflexively moved two paces
to the left. No, he didn’t want his knees to be shot. His
sneakered foot bumped his brother’s body, and he slipped in
the gore, almost losing his balance. “What’s
that?” he whined. He stooped to his haunches and felt out
into the darkness. “Oh, God. Is that Lionel?” His hands
found his brother’s shoulder. Then they found the gaping
trench that had been gouged through his brain.
“On the floor, damn it!” Jonathan commanded.
Barry made an animal sound, part wail and part shriek. The sound
reverberated off the walls. “You killed him!” he
sobbed. “You killed him!”
Jonathan saw the hysteria in Barry’s face.
“He left me no choice,” Jonathan said, his tone more
appropriate for a business decision than a shoot-out.
“Don’t make the same mistake.”
Jonathan might as well have been speaking Swahili. Barry just
stayed there, squatting on the floor, hugging his knees, making a
keening sound. “You killed him. You killed him...” He
said it over and over again.
Three feet away, Thomas tried to rise to his knees.
“Stay put, Thomas!” Jonathan commanded. The last
thing he needed was to have his aim spoiled. “Just stay on
the floor out of the way. You’re not going to get
When Barry Patrone looked up, Jonathan saw that he’d made
up his mind to be stupid. Uncannily, he looked straight at Jonathan
when he said for the dozenth time, “You killed
“Don’t be an idiot, Barry. You’ve got no cards
Barry dropped to the floor and rolled to his left, on the
concrete, drawing a snub-nose revolver from his pants pocket. The
shoulder roll ended with Barry on one knee, aiming at the night.
Jonathan took two baby steps to the side, knowing that right-handed
shooters tended to pull to their left when they fired.
Barry fired, his bullet ricocheting off the concrete wall to
“Drop it now!” Jonathan roared. Barry didn’t
need to die, goddammit. Lionel had been the nut job, not him.
This time, Barry zoned in on Jonathan’s voice and aimed
dangerously close. It was done.
Jonathan’s finger flinched by sheer instinct and his
pistol bucked twice.
Barry made a barking sound as two .45 caliber slugs drilled his
chest through a single hole, shredding his heart. He was dead
before the second bullet hit.
“Damn it,” Jonathan spat. How could a ransom be
worth this? He dropped the magazine out of the grip of his pistol
and replaced it with a fresh one from his belt, slipping the used
one into the vacated pouch. He holstered his weapon with its hammer
cocked, as always, and pressed the transmit button on his chest.
“Room secure, two friends sleeping. Exfil in five.”
Boxers replied, “I copy room secure. See you in
Thomas Hughes was screaming, but with the duct tape gag in
place, nothing made sense. >From the emphasis on the hard
consonants, however, the smart money said that it was mostly
obscenities. Jonathan approached the young man carefully, not
wanting to get kicked, and even more, not wanting to leave any
unnecessary footprints in the spreading pool of gore.
“Thomas, be quiet,” he said. “You’re
safe. I’m here to take you home. They’re both dead, and
you’re going to be just fine. Do you understand that? Nod if
Thomas hesitated, and then he nodded. It was clearly a
calculated move. The fear remained in his eyes, but how could he go
wrong allowing the new attacker to think otherwise?
“I’m going to get us some light now,” Jonathan
explained. As he snapped his goggles out of the way, he reached
behind his head into a side pocket of his rucksack and produced a
glow stick. He cracked it and shook it to life. The room glowed
green again, only now they could both see.
The fear in Thomas’s eyes peaked when he saw
Jonathan’s masked face. The rescuer tried hard to make his
eyes look friendly. “I’m going to cut you loose,”
Jonathan explained. “That means I have to use a knife.
Don’t freak out when you see it.”
The eight-inch tempered steel blade of the K-Bar was honed to a
razor’s edge, and looked scary as hell. It was every bit as
deadly as it was utilitarian, and Jonathan didn’t relish the
thought of the kid wriggling his way into a knife wound. He took
care as he slipped the blade between the boy’s ankles first,
to free his feet, then his knees, and finally between his
“I’ll let you get the tape on your mouth
yourself,” Jonathan said. He imagined that it was pretty much
welded to the kid’s skin by now.
Thomas Hughes seemed to have a hard time finding the margins of
the tape. Jonathan left him to work it out himself, turning to the
task of picking up his spent shell casings. All five had landed
within feet of each other over in the corner nearest the splintered
steps. He slipped the shells into a pouch pocket in his
Thomas found the handle for the tape on his mouth, and
he peeled it away with a moan.
“Are you hurt?” Jonathan asked.
“They were gonna cut my balls off,” Thomas said. He
seemed at once terrified and amazed. “Are you a cop?”
He whipped his head around trying to find the other party in the
room. “Who were you just talking to?”
Jonathan ignored the questions. He found a roll of paper towels
near a slop sink in the corner farthest from the blasted doors and
pulled off ahealthy length, wrapping them around his fist. Then he
soaked the wad with water from the spigot and handed the dripping
mess to Thomas.
The boy eyed him suspiciously. Jonathan nodded toward
Thomas’s befouled thighs and nether regions. “Thought
you might like to clean yourself up.”
Self-conscious, Thomas took the towels as Jonathan looked away
to grant him some measure of dignity. Jonathan stooped to
Lionel’s body and sifted through his pockets. “When
you’re finished wiping down, I need you to strip this guy and
get into his clothes as quickly as possible. There’s one more
of these assholes out there somewhere, and I don’t want to be
here when he comes back.”
“No,” Thomas said. “There’s only these
“Nope, trust me. There’s one more. Come on now,
move.” Finding only a wallet, Jonathan moved on to
Barry’s corpse, which yielded the same. He put both billfolds
into a zippered pocket on the side of his ruck. Thomas still
hadn’t moved. “Come on, kid. Unless you want to go
Thomas squatted and started fumbling with the laces on
“Hurry,” Jonathan urged. “We’ve got zero
time to dawdle.”
“If you’re not a cop, then who are you?”
Jonathan had had enough. “I’m going upstairs and
look around. When I get back, I want you dressed, understand? Naked
or dressed, we’re out of here in three minutes.”
He held the boy’s gaze, then turned on his heel.
“Two minutes and fifty seconds,” he said.
The main floor smelled only slightly less awful than the cellar.
ThePatrone brothers had decided to keep the windows closed despite
the warmth of the day, and with the one tiny air conditioner in the
living room silenced when Jonathan cut the power, the odor had
physical weight. The place reeked of sickness and old age, a
legacy, Jonathan figured, of the grandmother who’d only
recently passed the property on to the next generation. Every
upholstered seat back and arm cushion sported a doily. Gingham and
lace were the fabrics of choice for window coverings.
Jonathan used a fist-long Maglite to illuminate his search for
any documents or notes that might reveal Thomas Hughes’s
identity. Sooner or later, the brothers’ bodies would be
found, and he didn’t want to leave a trail.
The Formica-topped kitchen table was covered with coffee cups
and soda cans and newspapers from Muncie, Bloomington, and Chicago.
Jonathan guessed that their paranoia had driven the Patrones to
check for a story that might have been leaked by the Hughes family.
Stacked in the corner by the stove, he also found the copies of the
New York Times they’d used as background in photos to prove
that Thomas was still alive.
None of this was of any use to Jonathan.
What was of use, though, was the spiral notebook he found under
the newspapers, in which one of the brothers had noted everything
that had transpired over the past days. There were times and dates
and talking points for their demands. The handwriting had a
juvenile quality, as if the characters had been more drawn than
Jonathan stuffed it all into the big pocket of his rucksack.
Even the newspapers, on the off chance that the kidnappers might
have made notations in the margins.
Reasonably satisfied, he headed back to the basement.
Five minutes had passed, yet Thomas had made no progress.
He was just as naked as before, but he’d moved from
Lionel’s body to Barry’s. When the kid heard
Jonathan’s footsteps, he jumped like a child who’d been
caught in the act of being naughty. “This one has less blood
on him,” Thomas said.
Jonathan sighed. “Good thinking,” he said. As
always, the victim proved to be the weakest link in the operation.
“When was the last time you had anything to eat?” he
asked. Thomas looked thin to the point of malnourishment.
“How long have I been here? I haven’t had anything
since they took me.”
“You’ve had nothing to eat for four days?”
“A little water, but no food.”
Not a surprise, but not at all what Jonathan wanted to hear.
Hungry people moved slowly and tired easily. He reached into yet
another pocket of his ruck and withdrew a package of Pop-Tarts.
Cherry. “Have these,” he said. “Enough carbs to
keep you going for a while.”
Thomas eyed the package, but didn’t reach for it.
“They’re not poison,” Jonathan said. “If
I wanted to hurt you, you’d be hurt.” To emphasize the
point, he tossed a glance to the bodies on the floor.
Thomas accepted the pastries and pulled open the wrapper.
While the boy ate, Jonathan went about the business of stripping
Barry’s corpse. He understood Thomas’s hesitancy to
handle death. Jonathan hated it, too, and this was hardly his first
“Is Tiffany okay?” Thomas asked. He seemed to need
“Tiffany Barnes. My girlfriend. I was with her when they
came to get me. They hit her pretty hard.”
With Barry’s shoes removed, Jonathan moved north, to the
waistband of his jeans. He unbuttoned, unzipped, and pulled.
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about a
“So you’re not a cop.”
The comment drew a look.
“If you were a cop, then you would have known about
Jonathan paused and rested his forearm on his knee.
“Sometimes the police are not the best option,” he
said. “Once they’re informed, you might as well fax an
announcement to the press.” As he pulled the trousers free,
Barry’s heels thumped against the concrete. He handed the
pants to Thomas. “Here.”
Hesitantly, he took them. “I don’t want the shirt.
“You need to wear it.”
“I won’t.” The point was not negotiable.
Jonathan sighed. “Fine. Put the pants on. And the shoes.
I’ll be right back.” He stood.
“Where are you going?”
“Get dressed, Tom.”
Jonathan took the steps two-at-a-time into the kitchen, again
using his Maglite to lead the way, this time to the bedroom. There,
he found a T-shirt on the floor. He snatched it up and headed back.
In the thirtyseconds he’d been gone, Thomas had pulled
himself into Barry’s pants. They were three sizes too big,
but that was better than three sizes too small.
“Hey,” Jonathan said, getting his attention. He
tossed him the T-shirt. “No blood.”
Thomas smelled the shirt and winced, then put it on anyway.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“What about the shoes?”
Thomas shook his head. “Way too big. I’m better off
“Jesus, Thomas, will you please quit resisting me?
Barefoot is not an option, and that will make sense to you in a
while. I don’t care what size they are. This is not a fashion
Finally he did as he was told. “What about them?”
Thomas said, glancing at the Patrones.
“They’re dead,” Jonathan said. He started for
the ravaged doors to the backyard.
“But we can’t just---”
Jonathan grabbed the boy by his upper arm and pulled hard enough
to let the kid know that he really had no vote in this.
“Before you start feeling sorry for them, remember what they
were planning to do to you.”
Thomas pulled back. “Where are you taking me?”
“Home.” His smile showed in his eyes, and the kid
relaxed. People didn’t realize how beautiful a word
“home” was until they’d been ripped away from
In his earpiece, Jonathan heard, “Abort, abort, abort. You
“Shit. Tell me.”
“What’s wrong?” Thomas asked. “Tell you
Boxers said, “You’ve got a vehicle approaching down
the drive. Headlights are on, they’re going normal speed. I
don’t think you’ve been made.”
“That must be Chris, our third guy,” Jonathan said
into his radio. “Stay high and away. I don’t want to
spook him.” To Thomas, he added, “You stay here.
We’ve got one more to take care of.”
“But I’m telling you there were only two,”
Jonathan made a growling sound. “Now I know why they taped
your mouth shut. Stay put and keep low.” He turned away and
climbed back out onto the grass with fluid grace. No night vision
this time; the headlights would blind him.
For nearly a minute, he saw nothing but darkness. Then, through
the trees that surrounded these acres of farmland, he saw the first
flash of light, and with it the whine of an out-oftune engine and
the groan of an equally out-of-tune suspension.
His plan was to wait here on the lawn outside the root cellar
until he could tell whether Chris would get spooked by the darkness
of the house and try to bolt. When the vehicle --- it turned out to
be a paneled van --- stopped abruptly ten yards short of the
driveway apron and extinguished its headlights, he had his
He snapped the night vision goggles back over his eyes and
pressed his transmit button. “We’re made.”
As if the driver had heard his words, the van pulled hard to the
left. The engine raced as the driver tried a 180-degree turn to
make a run for it. Jonathan couldn’t let that happen. The
last thing he needed was a bad guy on the loose. Operating by
instinct, Jonathan brought the slung M4 rifle to his shoulder,
aimed, and fired six quick rounds at the van’s front left
fender. The muzzle blast ripped like thunder through the humid
night. He’d loaded every third round in this clip as
armor-piercing, and he wanted to make sure to blast two holes in
the engine block. He was rewarded with the infrared flash of two
heat plumes as the vehicle stopped dead on the pavement.
With his rifle still up and ready, Jonathan moved toward the
His earpiece crackled, “I’m on infrared, and
I’ve got visual on you and the vehicle. There’s
movement on the far side. He’s out of the car, moving north
toward the woods. He’s using the vehicle to cover his
Jonathan didn’t take time to acknowledge, but he liked
knowing that Boxers was watching from the air. In his gut, he
wanted to ignore the vehicle and chase the bad guy, but doctrine
wouldn’t allow it. There might be a second guy in the van,
and he couldn’t afford having someone sneak up behind him
while he was trying to sneak up behind someone else.
The passenger side window --- the one closest to him --- was up
and unbroken. Keeping the rifle tucked against his shoulder with
his right hand, he used his left to pull his collapsible baton from
its pouch on his web gear. He approached in a wide arc to come in
from the rear. The back cargo doors of the van were closed, and
their windows were intact.
“Careful there, cowboy,” Boxers said in his ear.
“There’s only one of you.”
Jonathan stooped low to the ground near the back doors, let his
rifle fall against its sling, and lifted a tear gas grenade from
the right side of his web gear. He pulled the pin, and with the
safety handle squeezed, he rose, shattered the glass in the back
door with one enormous punch from the baton, and tossed the grenade
into the van. As the cloud of noxious gas bloomed, he moved forward
and shattered the glass on the passenger door. He confirmed in a
single glance that it was empty. The fleeing driver had come
“Vehicle’s clear. Where’s my
After a pause, the voice in his ear said, “Sorry boss, I
was watching you. I lost him. Can’t have gone far.”
Terrific. “No exfil till we find him.”
“Understood. Gauges say lots of time.” Translation:
he had enough fuel to hover for as long as it took.
Something popped inside the van, and Jonathan whirled on it,
rifle at the ready. Heavy black smoke was pouring from the broken
window in the back. He must have lobbed his CS grenade onto
“Your van is burning, boss.”
Jonathan started moving away from it, closer to the farmhouse,
giving the vehicle a wide berth. You never knew what people carried
in vehicles with them. He’d seen portable drug labs in
Colombia --- perfectly harmless looking trucks or vans --- go high
order because of the bizarre mixture of chemicals they needed to
make the shit they sold. He snapped his NVGs out of the way again,
turning the night from iridescent green back to shades of black,
silver, and gray.
His earpiece popped again. “You got company coming in from
behind you. Blind side. From the house.”
Shit. Jonathan dropped to his knee and tried to become small as
the fire grew behind him, creating an ever more perfect silhouette
for a shooter. The NVGs came back down, and there was his target:
Thomas Hughes. Goddamn kid. These were the times when he hated
working alone with Boxers. If this had been a Unit operation,
somebody would have been sitting on this kid’s back keeping
him from being stupid. “Get down!” Jonathan called.
Thomas froze in his tracks. “Don’t shoot! It’s
“It’s me!” The kid was terrified.
Jonathan rushed him, closing the thirty yards that separated
them in five seconds. He slung his arm across Thomas’s chest,
pivoted his hip, and flipped the precious cargo onto the wet grass.
When he was down, he covered the kid with his own body. “I
didn’t ask who you were,” Jonathan hissed. “I
told you to get down. I swear to God, if you don’t start
listening, I’m gonna shoot you myself.”
“I heard shooting,” Thomas said, grunting against
the weight on his back. “Then I saw the fire and I got
“So you wandered toward the guns and the fire?”
Thomas wriggled to get rid of the weight. “Get off of
Jonathan unpinned him, and scanned the horizon again for
“I came out because I thought you might be
The comment drew a look. “Thanks, then,” Jonathan
said. “I need you to stay down because the driver of that van
is no friend, and he’s still out there.”
They had to move away from the van. The light made them too good
a target, and it rendered his night vision gear useless. Into his
radio: “Do you see anything?”
“A big-ass hot fire, but not much ...wait. I’ve got
movement---” Jonathan saw it, too, at exactly the same
instant he heard the crack of a bullet passing disturbingly close
to his head. A second bullet tore into the ground near his
Thomas yelled something that Jonathan didn’t care to hear.
He was busy. “Stay flat!” He nestled the M4 back into
The gunman kept shooting, his muzzle flashes providing all the
visual input Jonathan needed. Twenty yards past the burning van,
the posture said pistol shooter; the range and accuracy said good
one. Jonathan squeezed his trigger, three quick rounds. He went for
center-of-mass. He knew that his first shot found its mark because
he saw the target stumble backward. He was pretty sure about the
second shot, but the third was anybody’s guess. When he
thought he saw additional movement, he fired two more.
Then the silence returned, except for the sound of Thomas
screaming. He had his hands over his ears, shouting for it to stop.
It was the sound of raw terror.
“Hey!” Jonathan barked.
Thomas jumped, his arms up to ward off an attack.
“Are you hurt?”
“What’s happening?” Thomas yelled.
“Are you hurt?”
The kid shook his head and stammered, “N-no. I
d-don’t think so.”
“Then shut up. Stay down.”
A kill wasn’t a kill until it was confirmed. He pushed
himself to his feet and headed for the tree line. Keeping low, he
skirted the light-wash from the van and charged the spot where
he’d seen the shooter fall. “Talk to me,” he said
“Not much to tell. I saw the muzzle flashes, and I think I
saw him fall, but nothing confirmable. I don’t see any
The movement part was all he needed. Jonathan knew that the
target was hit hard. Speed now trumped surprise. Jonathan sprinted
through the underbrush with the speed of the Olympic contender that
he once was, his rifle at the ready.
A heartbeat later, he had the gunman’s sprawled, supine
form in his sights. The wounds looked fatal, but the shooter was
still breathing. “Don’t move,” Jonathan said, and
he stepped closer.
What he saw next surprised the hell out of him.
The shooter was a woman. She lay on her back among the weeds,
her blood black in the moonlight, pumping from a wound somewhere
beneath the hand she clutched to her abdomen. The other arm had
been rendered useless by a second bullet, which had caught her high
in the chest and transformed her shoulder into a blooming rose of
gore. The copious flow from the belly wound and its location
relative to other body landmarks told Jonathan that he’d
pierced her liver. She’d be dead in minutes. The odd angle of
her legs, and the stillness of them, told him that his bullet had
clipped her spinal cord as well.
He told Boxers, “One more friend sleeping.”
“Copy. Ready when you are.”
“Begin your final. We’ll be ready for exfil in
An expensive 9 mm Beretta lay on the ground next to her. He
kicked the pistol beyond her reach. She wore low-rise, high-cut
denim shorts that no father would approve of, and an Abercrombie
T-shirt that probably cost a hundred dollars.
Carefully avoiding the rivulets of blood, he let his weapon fall
against its sling and again lifted his night vision gear out of the
way. He knelt near her shoulder, brushing luxurious auburn hair off
her face. With no real thought, he folded her hand into his glove.
She appeared no older than Thomas. With high cheekbones and thick
lips, she could have been a model. The thought of killing someone
so beautiful cramped his stomach. “Who are you?”
Her eyes showed only terror. “Help me,” she said.
“It hurts. I can’t feel my legs.”
“I know,” Jonathan replied. “You’ve been
shot. Are you Chris?” Until this moment, he hadn’t
considered the possibility that “Chris” might have been
“I think I’m dying.”
Jonathan nodded. Very softly, he said, “You are. It
won’t be long. Are you the last, or are there more of you out
For a moment, it appeared as if she wanted to answer, but then
her eyes grew hard.
“Answer me,” Jonathan pressed. “I’ll
stay here with you till it’s over.”
Her pupils seemed unnaturally bright as they reflected the moon.
“Fuck you,” she said.
Jonathan smiled, squeezed her hand gently. He’d seen a lot
of people die in his time, and he always admired the ones who
accepted their fate with guts. Good guy or bad, heaven reserved
places for those who showed courage to the end.
He continued to hold her hand as he fished his flashlight from
his web gear and thumbed the switch. The white light hurt. He held
the light in his teeth, and with his free hand he started patting
her down. “Let me know if any of this hurts,” he
“Who are you?” the girl moaned.
Blood soaked into the waistband of her jeans as Jonathan reached
into the front pocket and found an Indiana driver’s license.
“You’re Christine Baker,” Jonathan read aloud. In
this light, it was hard to tell if the picture on the card looked
anything like the woman on the ground. “Is that your real
He neither expected nor got an answer. The other front pocket
produced twenty-three dollars in cash. He returned it where
he’d found it, and concentrated again on Christine’s
face. There was blood in her mouth now.
He hated the killing. He’d gotten way too good at it. The
least he owed his victims was the dignity of looking them in the
eye as they died. He longed for the old days when the people his
bullets found weren’t people at all; they were enemies who
had to die so that the friendlies could live. He missed the
simplicity of war.
As Christine’s breathing became steadily more difficult,
he fought the urge to look away. He stroked her hair.
“It’ll be over soon,” he whispered.
She could no longer form words, but the hardness in her eyes had
dissolved to fear.
After one great defiant gasp, Christine’s chest rose and
fell for the last time. Her eyes glazed and she was gone.
Something moved in the bushes behind him. Jonathan’s hand
found his rifle as he whirled on his knee, his finger in the
trigger guard at half-pull.
“Jesus!” Thomas shouted, putting his hands in the
air. “Don’t shoot. It’s me. It’s
“Goddammit,” Jonathan spat.
“I wanted to be sure you’re okay.”
Jesus, that had been close. Jonathan lowered his weapon and
shook his head in disgust.
“Oh, my God,” Thomas gasped, looking past Jonathan
to the body on the ground. “What did you do?” He pushed
past Jonathan and knelt on the other side of Christine. “My
God, you shot Tiffany.”
Jonathan’s jaw dropped. “Your girlfriend
Thomas reached out to touch her face, but Jonathan grabbed his
hand to stop him. “Don’t,” he said.
“You’ll leave trace evidence.”
“But you have to help her.”
Jonathan shook his head. “It’s too late,” he
said. “She’s gone.”
“You killed her?” His tone was equal parts anger and
“She was trying to kill you.”
Thomas shook his head and leaned away from the body.
“No,” he said. “That’s not possible. We
were in love.”
“Tom...” In the background, he could hear Boxers
approaching with the chopper.
“No! I know what you’re thinking, and you’re
wrong. We loved each other. We were making love when they crashed
in and took me. We’ve got to get her to a
“No, Tom. She’s dead.” He glanced over his
shoulder and saw the blacked-out AgustaWestland chopper flaring to
land. But for the light of the burning van, it would have looked
like an ink stain against the night. “It’s time to
Thomas was frozen; by fear, perhaps, or maybe by grief or rage.
But he wasn’t moving.
The college student looked like a lost little boy.
The radio broke squelch. “Ready to load.”
Jonathan acknowledged the transmission with a tap on the
transmit button and softened his tone. “She shot at us,
Thomas, and now it’s over.” He saw the anger boiling.
“We’re done here, Tom. Let’s get you
The kid was overwhelmed. Jonathan felt for him, but his patience
was running out. Gunshots followed by fire and the sound of a
helicopter were a surefire recipe for 9-1-1 calls, and he wanted to
be nowhere around when the lights and sirens started. In ten
seconds, Thomas was leaving, one way or another. Jonathan had
carried unwilling --- and therefore unconscious --- precious cargo
to safety more than a few times. Once more wouldn’t bother
him a bit.
Just about the time his clock had ticked to zero, Thomas stood.
He said nothing as they ran in a crouch toward the chopper that
would take them home. As they ran Jonathan pulled out his cell
phone and scrolled down to the predetermined number that would tell
the kid’s father that his son was finally safe.
In Jonathan’s world, there was a vendor for everything.
All you needed was the right credentials and the right connections.
The whisper-quiet AgustaWestland chopper with its infrared optics,
missile detection, and countermeasures and super state-of-the-art
avionics belonged to a man he knew through Boxers, and whose public
name was, unlikely enough, Oscar Meyer. Oscar made the chopper
available to anyone willing to pay the rental fee, but only after
said party had posted the $6 million bond that would pay for the
bird’s replacement should something go wrong. You break it,
you buy it, writ large.
Boxers favored the bird for reasons he’d never shared. Not
a pilot himself (although trained for certain airborne
emergencies), Jonathan rode in the back of the chopper after a PC
exfiltration. You never left precious cargo alone. After what
they’d been through --- and in Central America, he’d
seen kidnapping negotiations play out over years --- very little
about their world made sense to them anymore, and it wasn’t
unheard of for them to turn on their rescuers. The confusion of
Stockholm syndrome was very real, and it was never a good idea to
let crazed, paranoid former hostages run loose.
Even as he climbed aboard, Jonathan could feel that the chopper
was light on its wheels, undulating slightly in the lowest possible
hover. As soon as Thomas’s butt was in the seat, but before
Jonathan had a chance to strap him in, Boxers poured on the power,
and they were airborne, pulling an easy two G’s as the rotors
bit into the night and lifted them away from the Patrone farm and
the corpses it sheltered.
Instead of congratulating himself on a successful rescue,
Jonathan berated himself for a sloppy operation. In his rush to get
the hell out, he’d left behind shell casings from his M4.
He’d left evidence, and as modern forensics technology became
more and more advanced, even a tidbit of evidence could expose
Jonathan was also bothered by Thomas Hughes’s sullenness.
He’d just had his life delivered to him, yet here he was in
the back of the chopper moping over the death of Christine Baker.
Jonathan knew that he should just let it go --- just let the kid be
alone with his thoughts --- but he couldn’t help
“Hey, Thomas,” he said, drawing the boy’s
attention. One huge difference, Jonathan noted between this sleek
corporate helicopter and the choppers that had ferried him from
place to place when he was with the Unit, was the ability to
converse normally over the quiet hum of the engines. “Quit
beating yourself up. You didn’t do anything wrong. She was
trying to kill you, and I’m the one who shot her.”
It wasn’t what Thomas wanted to hear.
“She didn’t love you, Tom,” Jonathan pressed.
“Listen to me. She was part of the plot to put you in that
“Just be quiet, okay? You don’t know what
you’re talking about.”
Jonathan sighed. When would he learn to leave things like this
alone? “Look. Nothing is what you thought it was. Let me
guess. You met her in a bar, or a coffee shop, right? Some public
“Library,” Thomas said.
“Like I said, public place. It seemed at first that she
was interested in you, but then, just as you were getting up the
guts to move over to her, she made an excuse to get away. Maybe you
never even got to speak to her that first time.”
The baffled look in Thomas’s eyes told him that he was
hitting close to home. It was the way these things worked. The CIA
recruited agents with this script all the time. Seem too anxious
and the prospect runs away. You had to make them want you.
Jonathan continued. “Then suddenly she seemed to be
everywhere. You both notice it and think it’s funny. You go
out for a movie, out for laughs, but never anything really serious.
She probably told you that she was saving herself for
“She said she had a boyfriend.” Thomas’s anger
was transforming to bewilderment.
“Close. You finally make the big date, and when the moment
comes for you to get laid, I’m guessing she proposed the
place. Your place, not hers. She wanted you to be
“How can you know this?”
“It’s the way it always works. Finally, you got to
your place, the clothes came off. You’d just gotten to the
down and dirty when all hell broke loose, and you ended up tied up
with duct tape in a basement.” He let the words soak in.
Thomas’s face sagged, the exhaustion aging him ten years.
“But she spoke my thoughts,” he said. “I thought
we were soul mates.”
Jonathan hesitated before driving the last nail. Poor bastard
thought he’d been in love. “Were they the same thoughts
you’d posted on your Facebook page?”
The boy’s jaw dropped. “How did you know?”
“The first thing I did when I got this gig was a Google
search. I found your site in a few seconds, and twenty minutes
later, I knew everything about you. Christine --- Tiffany ---
probably did the same thing.”
Thomas leaned back onto the leather seat. “But I
don’t get it. Why?”
“For the money.”
“Not from us,” Thomas scoffed. “We don’t
have any money. Dad works a thousand hours a week just to keep
Jonathan scowled. They had to have money to afford his fee.
“Who are you, anyway?” Thomas asked. “I know
you’re the guy who saved my ass, but what’s your
“Don’t worry about names,” Jonathan said.
“The less you know about that, the better off you’ll
Everything about these last few days --- they felt like weeks
--- had left Thomas feeling dizzy. There was the hunger of course
--- that Pop-Tart hadn’t helped much --- and the exhaustion
and the fear, but mostly the world didn’t make sense
As he thought about what had almost happened, as he remembered
that crazed look in that guy’s eyes as he prepared to cut his
balls off, he wondered if the Pop-Tart might return. What had he
ever done to provoke that kind of cruelty? And who the hell were
these commandos with their guns? God bless them for what they did,
but what could make them risk so much for him? He was nobody. This
business about his folks being rich was crazy.
He felt disoriented. It was as if he’d awakened one
morning, and the sky was brown and the grass was purple --- like
being in a world of talking dogs and barking cats. Some things in
your life are supposed to be a certain way. Every day at noon
there’s a sun in the sky, and when you get out of bed,
gravity is there to keep you from floating away. In that same vein,
falling in love was supposed to be natural and good. When the
moment came to finally get naked and make love, it was supposed to
be a wonderful thing. Tiffany would have been his first. But then
it turned to blood and violence.
They flew in complete darkness. The silver glow of the moon on
the meaningless landmarks below was Thomas’s only evidence
that they were flying at all. It wasn’t till his eyes
adjusted fully that he noticed the pilot was wearing night vision
Their flight lasted less than half an hour. From what Thomas
could tell, they landed in a dark field in the middle of nowhere.
The rotors were still turning at nearly full speed when the
commando at his side unclasped his seat belt and rose to an
awkward, half-standing position. He took a half-step forward and
said something in the pilot’s ear, soliciting a nod and a
thumbs-up, and then he turned to face Thomas.
“Okay, Tom, here’s the deal. I want you to stay put
with your belt fastened until I come back for you. We have a car
“Why can’t I just come with you?”
“Because I want to make sure that this last step is truly
secure. If anything is wrong, I’ll tell the pilot, and
he’ll take off outta here like a rocket. That’s why you
stay in your seat with the belt on. You’re almost
home.” With that, he opened the side door, inviting in all
the racket of the rotors, and stepped out into the night with his
weapons. When the door closed again, the quiet --- which
wasn’t really all that quiet --- seemed oppressive.
Thomas couldn’t take it anymore. “Excuse me,”
he said loudly, nearly a shout. “Mr. Pilot?”
The pilot turned, still only an ink stain against the night.
“What’s happening?” Thomas asked.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” the pilot
asked, his tone light with amusement.
“No. I haven’t figured out anything. I’m
The pilot laughed. “Like hell. You’re as found as
anybody could hope to be.”
Jonathan had stashed the rental Explorer in the back forty of
someone’s rolling farmland nearly six hours ago. They’d
chosen this location by studying aerial maps and determining that
it offered privacy while still being reasonably accessible. It also
offered a good chance to fly in and out unnoticed.
He approached the vehicle by the book --- slowly and
methodically, with night vision in place as if anticipating an
ambush. Nobody ever died of caution. With the scene secure, he went
about the business of transforming himself from Night Stalker to
Regular Guy. He moved to the back of the vehicle and opened up the
tailgate. No dome light came on because he had disabled it first
thing. Two zippered duffel bags waited for him just where
he’d left them, looking like two deflated balloons. His rifle
and rucksack went in one, his vest, web gear, and night vision
equipment in the other, along with his black coveralls, mask, and
boots. The transformation was complete within three minutes.
Just like that, Jonathan could have been anyone --- a rancher,
maybe, on his way to town. A rancher with a .45 still strapped in a
high-hip holster that was concealed by a denim jacket. When the
duffels were full, he zipped them up, closed the gate, and headed
back to the chopper. He opened the side door and announced,
“Okay, we’re all set. Let’s go.”
Thomas didn’t move. He looked terrified.
Jonathan scowled. “What’s wrong?”
“You took your mask off.” Thomas’s tone was
heavy with dread.
Up front, Boxers laughed. “A man in a black mask might
attract attention on the highway, don’t you think?” he
“But I don’t think it’s good for me to know
what you look like.”
Jonathan appreciated the honesty. “Relax, Thomas.
I’m one of the good guys.”
Excerpted from NO MERCY © Copyright 2011 by John Gilstrap.
Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.