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Last Man Standing

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Author Interview --
December 21, 2001

Chapter One

Web London held a semiautomatic SR75 rifle custom built for him by
a legendary gunsmith. The SR didn't stop at merely wounding flesh
and bone; it disintegrated them. Web would never leave home without
this high chieftain of muscle guns, for he was a man steeped in
violence. He was always prepared to kill, to do so efficiently and
without error. Lord, if he ever took a life by mistake he might as
well have eaten the bullet himself, for all the misery it would
cause him. Web just had that complex way of earning his daily
bread. He couldn't say he loved his job, but he did excel at

Despite having a gun welded to his hand virtually every waking
moment of his life, Web was not one to coddle his weapons. While he
never called a pistol his friend or gave it a slick name, weapons
were still an important part of Web's life, though like wild
animals guns were not things easily tamed. Even trained lawmen
missed their targets and everything else eight out of ten times. To
Web, not only was that unacceptable, it was also suicidal. He had
many peculiar qualities, but a death wish was not one of them. Web
had plenty of people looking to kill him as it was, and once they
had nearly gotten their man.

About five years prior he had come within a liter or two of spilled
blood of checking out on the floor of a school gymnasium strewn
with other men already dead or dying. After he had triumphed over
his wounds and stunned the doctors tending him, Web started
carrying the SR instead of the submachine gun his
1.comrades-in-arms toted. It resembled an M16, chambered a big .308
bullet, and was an excellent choice if intimidation was your goal.
The SR made everyone want to be your friend.

Through the smoked-out window of the Suburban, Web eyed each fluid
knot of people along the corners and suspicious clumps of humanity
lurking in darkened alleys. As they moved farther into hostile
territory, Web's gaze returned to the street, where he knew every
vehicle could be a gun cruiser in disguise. He was looking for any
drifting eye, nod of head or fingers slyly tapping on cell phones
in an attempt to do serious harm to old Web.

The Suburban turned the corner and stopped. Web glanced at the six
other men huddled with him. He knew they were contemplating the
same things he was: Get out fast and clean, move to cover
positions, maintain fields of fire. Fear did not really enter into
the equa-tion; nerves, however, were another matter. High-octane
adrenaline was not his friend; in fact, it could very easily get
him killed.

Web took a deep, calming breath. He needed his pulse rate to be
between sixty and seventy. At eighty-five beats your gun would
tremble against your torso; at ninety ticks you couldn't work the
trigger, as blood occlusion in veins and constricted nerves in
shoulders and arms combined to guarantee that you would fail to
perform at an acceptable level. At over one hundred pops a minute
you lost your fine motor skills entirely and wouldn't be able to
hit an elephant with a damn cannon at three feet; you might as well
slap a sign on your forehead that read KILL ME QUICK, because that
undoubtedly would be your fate.

Web pushed out the juice, drew in the peace and for him there was
calm to be distilled from brewing chaos.

The Suburban started moving, turned one more corner and stopped.
For the last time, Web knew. Radio squelch was broken when Teddy
Riner spoke into his bone microphone or "mic." Riner said, "Charlie
to TOC, request compromise authority and permission to move to

Through Web's mic he heard TOC's, or Tactical Operations Center's,
terse response, "Copy, Charlie One, stand by." In Web's Crayola
world, "yellow" was the last position of concealment and cover.
Green was the crisis site, the moment of truth: the breach.
Navigating the hallowed piece of earth that stretched between the
relative safety and comfort of yellow and the moment of truth green
could be quite eventful. "Compromise authority"—Web said the
words to himself. It was just a way of asking for the okay to gun
down people if necessary and making it sound like you were merely
getting permission from your boss to cut a few bucks off the price
of a used car. Radio squelch was broken again as TOC said, "TOC to
all units: You have compromise authority and permission to move to

Thank you so very much, TOC. Web edged closer to the cargo
doors of the Suburban. He was point and Roger McCallam had the
rear. Tim Davies was the breecher and Riner was the team leader.
Big Cal Plummer and the other two assaulters, Lou Patterson and
Danny Garcia, stood ready with MP-5 machine guns and flash bangs
and .45-caliber pistols, and their calm demeanors. As soon as the
doors opened, they would fan out into a rolling mass looking for
threats from all directions. They would move toes first, then
heels, knees bent to absorb recoil in case they had to fire. Web's
face mask shrunk his field of vision to a modest viewing area: his
miniature Broadway for the coming real-life mayhem, no expensive
ticket or fancy suit required. Hand signals would suffice from now
on. When bullets were flying at you, you tended to get a bit of
cotton mouth anyway. Web never talked much at work.

He watched as Danny Garcia crossed himself, just like he did every
time. And Web said what he always said when Garcia crossed himself
before the Chevy doors popped open. "God's too smart to come 'round
here, Danny boy. We're on our own." Web always said this in a
jesting way, but he was not joking.

Five seconds later the cargo doors burst open and the team piled
out too far away from ground zero. Normally they liked to drive
right up to their final destination and go knock-knock-boom with
their two-by-four explosive, yet the logistics here were a little
tricky. Abandoned cars, tossed refrigerators and other bulky
objects conveniently blocked the road to the target.

Radio squelch broke again as snipers from X-Ray Team called in.
There were men in the alley up ahead, X-Ray reported, but not part
of the group Web was hunting. At least the snipers didn't think so.
As one, Web and his Charlie Team rose and hurtled down the alley.
The seven members of their Hotel Team counterparts had been dropped
off by another Suburban on the far side of the block to attack the
target from the left rear side. The grand plan had Charlie and
Hotel meeting somewhere in the middle of this combat zone
masquerading as a neighborhood.

Web and company were heading east now, an approaching storm right
on their butts. Lightning, thunder, wind and horizontal rain tended
to screw up ground communications, tactical positioning and men's
nerves, usually at the critical time when all of them needed to
operate perfectly. With all their technological wizardry, the only
available response to Mother Nature's temper and the poor ground
logistics was simply to run faster. They chugged down the alley, a
narrow strip of potholed, trash-littered asphalt. There were
buildings close on either side of them, the brick veneer blistered
by decades of gun battles. Some had been between good and bad, but
most involved young men taking out their brethren over drug turf,
women or just because. Here, a gun made you a man, though you might
really only be a child, running outside after watching your
Saturday morning cartoons, convinced that if you blew a large hole
in someone, he might actually get back up and keep playing with

They came upon the group the snipers had identified: clusters of
blacks, Latinos and Asians wheeling and dealing drugs. Apparently,
potent highs and the promise of an uncomplicated cash-and-carry
business cut through all troublesome issues of race, creed, color
or political affiliation. To Web most of these folks looked a
single snort, needle nick or popped pill from the grave. He
marveled that this pathetic assemblage of veteran paint hackers
even had the energy or clarity of thought to consummate the simple
transaction of cash for little bags of brain inferno barely
disguised as feel-good potion, and only then the first time you
drove the poison into your body.

In the face of Charlie's intimidating wall of guns and Kevlar, all
but one of the druggies dropped to their knees and begged not to be
killed or indicted. Web focused on the one young man who remained
standing. His head was swathed in a red do-rag symbolizing some
gang allegiance. The kid had a toothpick waist and bar-bell
shoulders; ratty gym shorts hung down past his butt crack and a
tank shirt rode lopsided across his muscular torso. He also had an
attitude several miles long riding on his features, the kind that
said, I'm smarter, tougher and will outlive you. Web had
to admit, though, the guy carried the rag-look well.

It took all of thirty seconds to determine that all but Bandanna
Boy were looped out of their minds and that none of the druggies
were carrying guns—or cell phones that could be used to call
up the target and warn them. Bandanna Boy did have a knife, yet
knives had no chance against Kevlar and submachine guns. The team
let him keep it. But as Charlie Team moved on, Cal Plummer ran with
them backward, his MP-5 trained on the young back-alley
entrepreneur, just in case.

Bandanna Boy did call after Web, something about admiring Web's
rifle and wanting to buy it. He'd give him a sweet deal, he yelled
after Web, and then said he'd shoot Web and everyone else dead with
it. HA-HA! Web glanced to the rooftops, where he knew members of
Whiskey Team and X-Ray were in their forward firing positions with
rounds seated and lethal beads drawn on the brain stems of this
gaggle of losers. The snipers were Web's best friends. He
understood exactly how they approached their work, because for
years he had been one of them.

For months at a time Web had lain in steamy swamps with pissed-off
water moccasins crawling over him. Or else been wedged into
wind-gusted clefts of frigid mountains with the custom- built rifle
stock's leather cheek pad next to his own as he sighted through his
scope and provided cover and intelligence for the assault teams. As
a sniper he had developed many important skills, such as learning
how to very quietly pee into a jug. Other lessons included packing
his food in precise clusters so he could carbo-load by touch in
pitch-darkness, and arranging his bullets for optimal reloading,
working off a strict military model that had proved its worth time
and time again. Not that he could easily transfer any of these
unique talents to the private sector, but Web didn't see that
happening anyway.

The life of a sniper lurched from one numbing extreme to another.
Your job was to achieve the best firing position with the least
amount of personal exposure and oftentimes those twin goals were
simply incompatible. You just did the best you could. Hours, days,
weeks, even months of nothing except tedium that tended to erode
morale and core skills would be sliced wide open by moments of
gut-wrenching fury that usually came at you in a rush of gunfire
and mass confusion. And your decision to shoot meant someone would
die, and you were never clear whether your own death would be
included in the equation or not.

Web could always conjure up these images in a flash, so vivid were
they in his memory. A quintuplet of match-grade hollow points would
be lined up in a spring-loaded magazine waiting to rip into an
adversary at twice the speed of sound once Web's finger pulled the
jeweled trigger, which would break ever so sweetly at precisely
two-point-five pounds of pressure. As soon as someone stepped into
his kill zone, Web would fire and a human being would suddenly
become a corpse crumbling to the earth. Yet the most important
shots Web handled as a sniper were the ones he hadn't
taken. It was just that kind of a gig. It was not for the
faint-hearted, the stupid or even those of average

Web said a silent thank-you to the snipers overhead and raced on
down the alley.

They next came upon a child, maybe all of nine, sitting shirtless
on a hunk of concrete, and not an adult in sight. The approaching
storm had knocked at least twenty degrees off the thermometer and
the mercury was still falling. And still the boy had no shirt on.
Had he ever had a shirt on? Web wondered. He had seen many examples
of impoverished children. While Web didn't consider himself a
cynic, he was a realist. He felt sorry for these kids, but there
wasn't much he could do to help them. And yet threats could come
from anywhere these days, so his gaze automatically went from the
boy's head to his feet, looking for weapons. Fortunately, he saw
none; Web had no desire to fire upon a child.

The boy looked directly at him. Under the illuminated arc of the
one flickering alley lamp that somehow had not been shot out, the
child's features were outlined vividly. Web noted the too-lean body
and the muscles in shoulders and arms already hard and clustering
around the protrusion of ribs, as a tree grows bark cords over a
wound. A knife slash ran across the boy's forehead. A puckered,
blistered hole on the child's left cheek was the unmistakable tag
of a bullet, Web knew.

"Damn to hell," said the child in a weary voice, and then he
laughed or, more accurately, cackled. The boy's words and that
laugh rang like cymbals in Web's head, and he had no idea why; his
skin was actually tingling. He had seen hopeless kids like this
before, they were everywhere around here, and yet something was
going on in Web's head that he couldn't quite figure. Maybe he'd
been doing this too long, and wasn't it a hell of a time to start
thinking that?

Web's finger hovered near his rifle's trigger, and he moved farther
in front with graceful strides even as he tried to rid himself of
the boy's image. Though very lean himself and lacking showy
muscles, Web had enormous leverage in his long arms, and strong
fingers, and there was deceptive power in his naturally broad
shoulders. And he was by far the fastest man on the team and also
possessed great endurance. Web could run six-mile relays all day.
He would take speed, quickness and stamina over bulging muscles any
day. Bullets tore through muscle as easily as they did fat. Yet the
lead couldn't hurt you if it couldn't hit you.

Most people would describe Web London, with his broad shoulders and
standing six-foot-two, as a big man. Usually, though, people
focused on the condition of the left side of his face, or what
remained of it. Web had to grudgingly admit that it was amazing,
the reconstruction they could do these days with destroyed flesh
and bone. In just the right light, meaning hardly any at all, one
almost wouldn't notice the old crater, the new rise of cheek and
the delicate grafting of transplanted bone and skin. Truly
remarkable, all had said. All except Web, that is.

At the end of the alley they stopped once more, all crouching low.
At Web's elbow was Teddy Riner. Through his wireless Motorola bone
mic, Riner communicated with TOC, telling them that Charlie was at
yellow and asking permission to move to green—the "crisis
site" of the target, which here was simply a fancy term for the
front door. Web held the SR75 with one hand and felt for his
custombuilt .45-caliber pistol in the low-slung tactical holster
riding on his right leg. He had an identical pistol hanging on the
ceramic trauma plate that covered his chest, and he touched that
one too in his pre-attack ritual of sorts.

Web closed his eyes and envisioned how the next minute would play
out. They would race to the door. Davies would be front and center
laying his charge. Assaulters would hold their flash bang grenades
loosely in their weak hand. Subgun safeties would be off, and
steady fingers would stay off triggers until it was time to kill.
Davies would remove the mechanical safeties on the control box and
check the detonator cord attached to the breaching charge, looking
for problems and hoping to find none. Riner would communicate to
TOC the immortal words, "Charlie at green." TOC would answer, as it
always did, with, "Stand by, I have control." That line always
rankled Web, because who the hell really had control doing what
they did?

During his entire career Web had never heard TOC reach the end of
the countdown. After the count of two, the snipers would engage
targets and fire, and a bevy of .308s firing simultaneously was a
tad noisy. Then the breach charge would blow before TOC said "one"
and that high-decibel hurricane would drown out even your own
thoughts. In fact, if you ever heard TOC finish the countdown you
were in deep trouble, because that meant the breach charge had
failed to go off. And that was truly a lousy way to start the

When the explosive blew the door, Web and his team would invade the
target and throw their flash bangs. The device was aptly named,
since the "flash" would blind anyone watching, and the "bang" would
rupture the unprotected eardrum. If they ran into any more locked
doors, these would yield quickly either to the impolite knock-knock
of Davies's shotgun or to a slap charge that looked like a strip of
tire rubber but carried a C4 explosive kicker that virtually no
door could withstand. They'd follow their rote patterns, keying on
hands and weapons, shooting with precision, thinking in chess
maneuvers. Communication would be via touch commands. Hit the hot
spots, locate any hostages, and take them out fast and alive. What
you never really thought about was dying. That took too much time
and energy away from the details of the mission, and away from the
bedrock instincts and disciplines honed from doing this sort of
thing over and over until it became a part of what made you,

According to reliable sources, the building they were going to hit
contained the entire financial guts of a major drug operation
headquartered in the capital city. Included in the potential haul
tonight were accountants and bean counters, valuable witnesses for
the government if Web and his men could get them out alive. That
way the Feds could go after top guys criminally and civilly from a
number of fronts. Even drug lords feared an IRS full frontal
assault, because seldom did kingpins pay taxes to Uncle Sam. That
was why Web's team had been called up. They specialized in killing
folks who needed it, but they also were damn good at keeping people
alive. At least until these folks put their hands on the Bible,
testified and sent some greater evil away for a very long

When TOC came back on, the countdown would begin: "Five, four,
three, two..."

Web opened his eyes, collected himself. He was ready. Pulse at
sixty-four; Web just knew. Okay, boys, pay dirt's dead ahead.
Let's go take it.
TOC came through his headset once more and
gave the okay to move to the front door.

And that's precisely when Web London froze. His team burst out from
the cover heading for green, the crisis site, and Web didn't. It
was as though his arms and legs were no longer part of his body,
the sensation of when you've fallen asleep with a limb under your
body and wake up to find all the circulation has vacated that
extremity. It didn't seem to be fear or runaway nerves; Web had
been doing this too long. And yet he could only watch as Charlie
Team raced on. The courtyard had been identified as the last major
danger zone prior to the crisis site, and the team picked up its
pace even more, looking everywhere for the slightest hint of coming
resistance. Not a single one of the men seemed to notice that Web
was not with them. With sweat pouring off him, every muscle
straining against whatever was holding him down, Web managed slowly
to rise and take a few faltering steps forward. His feet and arms
seemingly encased in lead, his body on fire and his head bursting,
he staggered onward a bit more, reached the courtyard, and then he
dropped flat on his face as his team pulled away from him.

He glanced up in time to see Charlie Team running hard, the target
in their sights, seemingly just begging them to come take a piece
of it. The team was five seconds from impact. Those next few
seconds would change Web London's life forever.

Excerpted from LAST MAN STANDING © Copyright 2001 by David
Baldacci. Reprinted with permission from Warner Books. All rights

Last Man Standing
by by David Baldacci

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Vision
  • ISBN-10: 0446611778
  • ISBN-13: 9780446611770