The low hill, shadowed by banana and mango trees in the twilight of the late afternoon sun above the Venezuelan jungle, overlooked the heavily guarded camp a half-mile away. But that wasn’t his immediate problem.
Right now, it took everything Duane Jenkins could do to ignore the stinging sweat dripping into his eyes. Any unwarranted motion or sound might attract his target’s attention before he was in position.
From two meters away, he whispered harshly.
“Who the hell are you, sister? And how did you get here?”
He couldn’t help but smile. What kind of woman said crap when unexpectedly facing a sniper rifle at point blank range?
“Not your sister,” she gained points for a quick recovery. “Now get that rifle out of my face, Jarhead.”
Ouch! That was low. He wasn’t some damned, swamp-tromping Marine. Not even ex-Marine. He was ex-75th Rangers of the US Army, now two years in Delta Force. And as an operator for The Unit—as Delta called themselves—that made him far superior to any other soldier no matter what the dudes in SEAL Team 6 thought about it. That also didn’t explain who he’d just found here in the perfect sniper position overlooking General Raul Estevan Aguado’s encampment.
It had taken him over fifteen hours to scout out this one perfect gap between the too-damn-tall trees that made up this sweaty place and, with just twenty meters to go, he’d spotted her heavily camouflaged form lying among the leaves. It had taken him another half hour to cover that distance without drawing her attention.
Where was a cold can of Coke when a guy needed one? This place was worse than Atlanta in the summer. The red earth had been driven so deep into his pores from crawling over the ground that he wondered if his skin color was permanently changed to rust red.
Why did evil bastards like Aguado have to come from such places?
More immediate problem, dude. Stay focused.
The woman’s American English was accentless, sounding flat to his Southern ear. Probably from the Pacific Northwest or some other strange part of the country. But there was a thin overlay that matched her Latinate features—full-lipped with dark eyebrows and darker eyes, which was about all he could tell through her camo paint. The slight Spanish lilt shifted her to intriguingly exotic.
But she wasn’t supposed to be here. No one was.
“Keeping you in my sights until I get some answers, ma’am,” Duane kept his HK MSG90 A2 rifle aimed right at the bridge of her nose—a straight-through spine cutter if he had to take her down. It would be serious overkill, as the weapon was rated to lethal past eight hundred meters and they were whispering at each other from less than two meters apart. With the silencer, his weapon would be even quieter than their whispers, but he hadn’t spent the last sixteen hours crawling into position to have her death cry give him away. If she so much as squawked as she went down, every goddamn bird in the jungle would light off, giving away his presence.
She sighed and nodded toward her own rifle that rested on the ground in front of her.
He shifted his focus—though not his aim—then let out a very low whistle of appreciation. A G28. Even his team hadn’t gotten their hands on the latest entry into the US Army’s sniper arsenal yet. Not quite the same accuracy as his own weapon but six inches shorter, several pounds lighter, and far more flexible to configure. A whole generational leap forward. Richie, his team’s tech, would be geeking out right about now. The fact that he wasn’t here to see it almost made Duane smile.
“A Heckler & Koch G28. What’s your point, sister?” He drawled it out for Richie’s sake, who’d be listening in on Duane’s radio. Then the implications sunk in. If his Delta Force team couldn’t get these yet, then who could? Whatever else this woman was, she would be tied to one of the three US Special Mission Units: Delta, SEAL Team 6, or the combat controllers of the Air Force’s 24th STS.
Or The Activity.
The Intelligence Support Activity served the other three Special Mission Units. If she was with The Activity…that was seriously hot. It meant she was both one of the top intel specialists anywhere and a lethal fighter. And that meant that she’d been the one to put out the call that had brought him here. That at least answered why she was in his spot. It also said a lot that she hadn’t taken any of several easier-to-reach locations that were almost as good.
“It is about time you caught a clue. Welcome to the conversation.” She picked up her rifle as if his wasn’t still aimed at her. Very chill. “You are being a little dense there, soldier.” At least she got the branch of the military right this time.
“Hey, they don’t call me ‘The Rock’ for nothing, darlin’,” Duane lowered his barrel until it was pointed into the dirt. “They actually call me that becau—”
The moment his weapon was down, he suddenly was staring down the dark hole of the G28’s silencer.
“The Rock certainly isn’t because you are a towering black movie star. It must be for your thick head.”
Duane swallowed carefully, unable to shift his focus away from the barrel of her weapon to see if the safety was on or not.
“He spells his name differently. He’s Dwayne ‘The Rock’ with a w and a y. I’m more normal, D-u-a-n-e T-h-e R-o-c-k.” He made it sing-song just like the theme song from The All-New Mickey Mouse Club that he’d been hooked on as a little kid.
“M-o-u-s-e,” she gave the appropriate response.
He couldn’t help laughing, quietly, despite their positions—him still staring down the barrel of her weapon—because discovering Mickey Mouse in common in the heart of the Venezuelan jungle was just too funny.
“Normal is not what I need here,” the woman sighed and there was the distinct click of her reengaging the safety on her rifle.
“Only thing normal about me is my name, ma’am.” Always good to “ma’am” a woman with a sniper rifle pointed at your face.
“Prove it,” she turned her weapon once more toward the camp half a kilometer away through the trees. Her motions were appropriately slow to not draw attention. However, it was too even a motion. A sniper learned to never break the pulses of nature’s rhythm. She might be some hotshot intel agent—because The Activity absolutely rocked almost everything they did—but she still wasn’t Delta, who rocked it all.
Duane breathed out slowly and spent the next couple minutes easing the last two meters toward her. Having the camp in view meant that one of their spotters could see them as well, if the bad guys were damned lucky. He and the woman both wore ghillie suits—that’s why he’d gotten so close before he spotted her. The suits were made of open-weave cloth liberally decorated with leaves and twigs so that the two of them looked like little more than a patch of the jungle floor. He’d dragged his on backcountry jungle roads for twenty miles to make sure he smelled like the jungle as well. Having a jaguar trounce his ass wouldn’t exactly brighten up his day.
Even their rifles were well camouflaged except for either end of the spotting scopes and the very tips of the barrels. If he hadn’t recently been lusting over the new specs, he wouldn’t have recognized her HK G28 at all in its disguise.
Getting into position as a sniper took a patience that only the most highly trained could achieve. A female sniper? That was a rare find indeed. The two women on his Delta team were damned fine shooters, but he and Chad were the snipers of the crew. A female sniper from The Activity? This just kept getting better and better. He’d pay a fair wage to know what she really looked like beneath the ghillie and all that face paint.
“Maybe you and I should go to the party as a couple.” At long last he lay beside her, close enough that he would have felt her body heat if not for the smothering sauna of his ghillie suit.
“What party? And we’re never going to be a couple.”
“Halloween. It’s only a couple weeks off. We could sneak in and nobody would see us in our ghillies. People would wonder why the punch bowls were mysteriously draining.”
“And why the apples were bobbing on their own,” she sounded disgusted. “What I want is—”
“Let’s see what y’all are up to down there,” he cut her off, just for the fun of it, and focused his rifle scope on the camp below. He was a little disappointed when there was no immediate comeback, though there was a low muttering in Spanish that he couldn’t quite catch but cheered his soul.
The general’s camp was a simple affair in several ways. The enclosure was a few hundred meters across. An old-school fence of wooden stakes driven into the ground, each a small tree trunk three meters high with sharpened points upward. Not that the points mattered, because there razor wire was looped along the top. Guard shacks every hundred meters—four total. The towers straddled the fence. Not a good idea. The structure should have been entirely behind the wall to protect it from attack. Unless…
“You got a name, darling?” Lying beside her, Duane could tell that she was shorter than he was. Her hands were fine, but her body was hidden by the ghillie so he couldn’t read anything more about her looks.
“Yes, I have a name.”
“That’s nice. Always good to have yourself one of those,” Duane could play that game just as well as the next person. He turned to his attention to the camp. “Our friendly general isn’t worried about attack from the outside or he’d have built his towers differently. He’s worried about keeping people inside.”
Sofia Forteza had already known that from her research, but she wondered how Duane—spelled the “normal” way—did.
She’d spent months tracking General Aguado. Cripes, she’d spent months finding him in the first place. He was a slippery bastardo who did most of his work through intermediaries and only rarely surfaced himself. Tracing him to this corner of the Guatopo National Park—so close to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, that she’d dismissed it at first—had taken a month more.
Duane had taken one look at the place and seen…what?
He’d have built his towers differently.
She leaned back to her own scope and inspected them again. It took a moment to bring the towers into focus because her nerves were still zinging as if she’d been electrocuted. Somehow, in all her training, she’d never looked down the barrel of a rifle or even a handgun at point blank range—perhaps the scariest thing she’d ever seen.
Scariest other than Duane’s cold blue eyes. He was the most dangerous-looking man she’d ever met, which is why his jokes and his smooth Southern accent were throwing her so badly. He sounded half badass, macho-bastard Unit operator and half Southern gentleman. It was the strangest combination she’d ever heard. One moment he was wooing her with warm tones, obviously without a clue of how to woo a woman, and the next he was being pure Army grunt with a vocabulary to match. She simply couldn’t figure him out.
Finally she shrugged her emotions aside enough to focus her scope properly. Stay in the jungle, not in your head. She rebuilt it in layers. The strange silence of the wind, not a single breath of air reached the jungle floor—instead it stagnated, adding to the oppressiveness of the heat. Macaw calls alternated between chatter and screech. Monkeys screamed and shouted in the upper branches. Buzzing flies had learned to leave her along and the silent ants were no longer creeping her out. All that was left after she cancelled each of those out was the man breathing beside her and the compound of that bastard Aguado that she’d been staring at for the last twenty-four hours.
The guard towers were supported by four long, tree-trunk legs, two inside the fence and two outside. Outside! Where they were vulnerable to attack. General Aguado hadn’t built a fort in the depths of a national park—he’d built a prison.
All of her research had only uncovered his location, not his purpose here. Because she hadn’t cared. Cutting the head off the snake one target at a time worked for her.
She looked again at the camp. Wooden shacks for the most part—workers’ cabins. What else had she missed?
“Locks on the doors,” Duane answered the question she hadn’t asked in a whisper that was surprisingly soft for such a deep voice. He ignored a fer-de-lance pit viper as it slid up and over the ghillie covering his rifle barrel, slowing to inspect them with a flick of its tongue before continuing on its way in search of mice. If he could ignore the snake, so could she. Mostly. A little. She watched long after it had slithered out of sight.
Sofia looked at the shacks’ doors again. Locks on the outside. She’d been watching the camp for twenty-four hours and had missed that. The dozens of armed guards weren’t being lazy on patrol as she’d thought. They didn’t care about the outside world—they were worried about the inside one. And because they were the only armed personnel in the camp, and everyone knew it, they could afford to be non-chalant.
Back to the towers. The guards were leaning on the inside rails looking down, not the outside ones looking out. All of her work to slip into this position was probably meaningless. If Duane was right, she could walk right up and knock on the front gate before anyone would pay her the least attention. A band of red howler monkeys working their way noisily through the jungle canopy above the camp didn’t even attract a glance from the guards.
Still, Aguado was here. She’d seen him arrive with his entourage. And he was never going to leave. Not alive.
“Not a nice place,” Duane observed quietly.
“Not a nice man.”
“Sure I am. You just don’t know me yet, sugar.”
Sofia brought her knee up sharply. Lying side by side, she was able to bullseye the Charlie-horse nerve cluster on his outer thigh. Her nana hadn’t raised her to be a target.
“Shit!” He didn’t sound so almighty pleased with himself any longer, though he did manage to keep it to a whisper as he continued swearing.
Why did guys always think they were so charming? With her looks, she should be used to it by now. Except her looks were hidden by the ghillie suit. What had kicked Duane-spelled-the-normal-way into such a guy mode? Just that she was female? When did Delta start recruiting cavemen as their standard? Actually, that one she knew the answer to—since Day One if past experience meant anything.
She hadn’t ever deployed with Delta before, but she’d met enough of them to know the type. They were the rebel super-warriors of the US military. Everyone thought that their team was the baddest, but Delta Force, more commonly called “The Unit,” completely owned that title. Somehow they drew the people that didn’t fit anywhere else in the military. But where they’d been troublemakers in their old units, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta collected them and honed their skills. They were like a barely controlled reaction just bubbling along, waiting for an excuse to explode.
“So, what’s the general’s story?” Duane, once he was done nursing his thigh, went for a subject change proving he wasn’t stupid.
“Deep in the drug trade. Known to have called for at least three high profile murders, including a Supreme Tribunal of Justice judge (that’s their version of the Supreme Court) even if he didn’t pull the trigger himself.”
“Oh, so he’s the one that’s not nice,” as if Duane only now was figuring that out.
She was not going to be charmed by him. His every tone said that just because she was female, he’d switched into some weird-ass flirt mode. She’d had enough of that coming up through the ranks to last a lifetime.
“This isn’t slave labor, so you’d better add human trafficking to your list.” With the speed of a light switch, all the charm was gone from Duane’s voice.
As if to prove his point, at that moment a couple of guards exited a small building, readjusting their pants and laughing. They kicked the door shut behind them and snapped the lock closed. No question what they’d just been doing to some poor women—one of the perks of their job.
Numerous guards. Locks on the outside of the cabin doors. No large central building that might be an illicit drug lab or slave labor textile sweatshop. This was a holding pen, hidden deep in the jungle of a national park. The few people who were circulating around, aside from the guards, were almost all women. Women who were keeping their heads down and trudging about their tasks. The sickness that twisted in her stomach had nothing to do with lying still for the last twenty-four hours.
Sofia wasn’t even aware of raising her rifle until Duane reached over and casually pushed it back down.
“Not yet.” It was all he said, but she could hear the anger beneath the soft words.
Well that wasn’t shit compared to what she was feeling at the moment. This place needed to be erased from the map. Scorched to the ground, removed permanently from existence!
“Why are you here? I sent for a goddamn team, not some Southern Rock.”
He flashed a smile at her, “If you’ve got me, you don’t need a team.” All of his macho bravado was back. As if she’d misheard his momentary anger. He sounded too much like her useless brother and the rest of her useless family. She couldn’t be rid of him fast enough.
As the last of the sunlight faded from the sky and the bird calls tapered toward silence, Sofia wondered who she was going to want to shoot more by sunrise: General Raul Estevan Aguado or Duane The Rock?
Duane had left the video feed from his spotting scope open to Chad.
“Can’t get a match on her face with all of that camouflage on,” Chad whispered over the open frequency to his earpiece.
Duane did not need to be hearing this. “Were your plans just for the general or the camp as well?” he asked the nameless ISA woman, hoping Chad would get back on track.
“My job is to find the bad guys,” she said softly.
“Found her!” Richie, the team’s geek jumped in, shouting loudly enough that Richie’s distance from the microphone was all that spared Duane’s eardrum from being caved in. “Once I eliminated any Deltas being in there and checked the cross-team mission coordination database for possible conflicts and still found nothing I—”
Chad cut off Richie with a low whistle of appreciation. “Sofia Forteza. Hot, bro. Very hot.”
“JSOC. Listed as unassigned,” Richie was back and only a little calmer. “Has a place near Fort Belvoir.” Joint Special Operations Command had only one asset at Fort Belvoir, Virginia: the Intelligence Support Activity.
Duane already knew she was ISA, but it was nice to have it confirmed.
“Wow!” Richie again. “She is awfully pretty.”
Duane could feel that he was sharing an eyeroll with Chad over the radio. Delta Force veteran of dozens of missions all across Central and South America, happily married to a Delta shooter, and still Richie sounded like a high school geek.
“Your job,” Sofia, the no-longer-nameless, continued her side of the conversation, “is to figure out what to do with them.”
Easy. Smack both Chad and Richie upside the head next time he saw them.
“Code Black on her file. Eyes only,” Chad continued. “Yada yada, but Richie says he doesn’t want to try and crack that without more cause, which means he’s a wussy-pants who’s afraid of the little old Activity.”
“Go on. You try to crack their firewall and see what happens to your life. I’ve heard that the last NSA hacker who took a run at them is serving a five-year deployment to Poughkeepsie, New York. And that was after they formatted his hard drive, his computers at home, and his phone without ever going near him. Those guys are good.”
“I think he’s actually just pouting that you got to see a G28 sniper rifle before he did. Wuss-pants,” Chad chided Richie one more time.
“Where’s the general?” Duane asked, forcing his tone. One of these days he was going to murder Chad in his sleep. It was a nasty thing to do to his best friend—and he’d regret it—but it was fast becoming a necessity. He considered offing Richie while he was at it, but Melissa wouldn’t take kindly to losing her man. Pissing off a Delta woman was never a good call.
“Third building to the right from the front gate,” Sofia guided him toward the general’s location with a tipping of her rifle.
Duane eased his aim over until he could spot it in his scope. A heavy concrete building, windows small and high—not a cozy villa in the jungle. It was the bunker fit for a paranoid bastard.
The sun had finally set but the camp was well lit, no need for night vision here. It was well shielded from observation above, the superstory trees had not been cut down, rather the prison had been built up around their gargantuan trunks. No helo, not even a drone was going to get eyes on this place. This would have to be strictly a ground op.
“So, the fort has a bunker,” Chad was finally on the same mission he was.
“Underground escape?” Duane asked Sofia.
“Possible, but none identified.” Her voice was a combination of lush and highly educated. She kept getting more interesting with every moment rather than less.
“Thought you Activity types knew some shit?”
“We know plenty,” no reaction that he’d identified her role here. Very chill lady.
“Mierda! I know that if we miss this guy here, it could take another six months to find him again.”
“So you do know how to swear. Can you swear in English as well?”
Sofia buried her face against the stock of her rifle. This was going better than he’d expected. He debated attempting to elicit a whimper of frustration, but she was Activity and who knew what they could do to you if you really ticked them off—his desire to look down the wrong end of a G28 again was very low.
It was the sworn duty of every Delta operator to put down all other units as not up to their own standards, especially SEAL Team 6. But there were a few exceptions. The guys from the 24th STS Air Force combat controllers were too damned pleasant to really hold a grudge against them.
And The Activity? Way too sneaky to risk messing with.
The fast tropical twilight was shifting the sounds of the jungle, though the day wasn’t done yet. There was the faint buzz of the camp’s inward-facing floodlights starting up, but they were too far away to hear any of their voices.
“So, you’re thinking it’s a bad idea to back off and drop a MOAB on this place?” Chad was back. The Mother of All Bombs was the biggest bomb there was, short of a nuke, and had only recently been used for the first time. It would level at least three square miles of the national park and probably make the window-glass merchants in Caracas wealthy even though the city was over twenty kilometers away. Because they were so rare, Chad was always looking for an excuse to drop one.
“Are you calling in your team or not?” Sofia looked at him again. Her dark eyes were hypnotic in the lingering twilight. Was hypnosis another trick up The Activity’s sleeve?
“My team?” Duane laid on his best Mr. Innocent, careful not to overdo it.
Sofia lifted an edge of her rifle’s ghillie revealing a small device lying on the dirt. “I can see your signal.”
“No one’s supposed to be able to see—” Duane shut his mouth. He was using the most sophisticated piece of communications gear Delta had. Burst-mode transmissions, rotating frequencies so that he never showed up on scanners for more than a moment, deep encryption, low power to the repeater he’d stashed a hundred meters away so that a signal-strength meter would find the wrong target. They’d been told it couldn’t be traced by any… Oh! The whole setup was probably invented by The Activity.
“Voice and video outbound,” Sofia continued in that snake charmer voice of hers. Her accent might be flat American, but the richness of the Spanish undertones and rhythms was slaying him.
His first serious girlfriend had been Mexican, which had pissed of his too-white family no end—even if though they were too well-cultured to show it in public. Or maybe she just hadn’t come from a rich enough family; someone from their own social status. He’d learned far more Spanish from her between the sheets than in the classroom, including the ability to tell that Sofia’s language origin was Spain Spanish just by the rhythm of it, even if the absence from her accent said it was a probably a couple generations back.
“It is difficult to tell with the encryption,” she continued her chilly analysis. “But I think you have two different voices inbound.”
At least she couldn’t break the encryption, he hoped, or he really would have to kill Chad.