Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4
Ezra sighed and looked at his watch. Josiah had called two hours ago, telling them that they were on their way with the missing civilian -- and that Vin was still missing. He and Nathan were protecting the group of scientists, remaining along the perimeter, yet listening in to the civilians' conversations in order to determine if there was a mole among them.
As of yet, the surveillance expert didn't pick out any particular person he thought was guilty it was frustrating to say the least. He prided himself on his ability to read people at a glance, but he hadn't been able to determine anyone's guilt.
Tanya Redding was talking mainly to Max Kelley, while Rob Denver was sitting near Erich Morris. Ezra noticed the way the dig leader kept his backpack in his possession at all times. Not even relinquishing it when Denver offered to take it from his boss. It made the chestnut- haired soldier curious as to its contents. He moved over to his partner.
"Mr. Jackson, have you noticed the eccentricity of our host?"
"I noticed he's been clutchin' that bag like a lover," Nathan replied.
"Indeed. And what do you imagine is in there?"
Nathan shot a look at Ezra. "I don't know. Somethin' to kill for?"
"Or perhaps something to hire people to kill for."
Thinking back to the games he used to play with his father and the others at the Reservation, Vin decided to take part in a little cat and mouse. He chose a secure location behind a dense patch of brushwood. Stashing his ruck, he kept his rifle, sidearm, and knife close by. Picking some small branches and twigs, he attached them to his fatigues. He also got his camouflage stick out and quickly smeared additional makeup over his exposed skin. The more he blended with the environment, the deadlier he would be.
It wasn't long before he heard his first prey stamping through the jungle terrain; the mercenary was making no effort to disguise his movements. Vin wondered again about the reason to have so many untrained fighters in the attacking unit. Usually the opponents his team came up against were more difficult to defeat. Not that he was complaining; it was just unusual.
A man passed within five feet of Tanner's hidden location. Vin watched him swing his AK-47 assault rifle back and forth, sweeping for the enemy. The sniper waited until he passed and another few minutes before leaving his spot and stalking his prey.
The mercenary continued his progress forward while swaying the rifle to and fro. Good strategy, except for the fact he never checked his rear.
And that was the direction Vin was taking.
He let the target get a bit further, and unstrapped his rifle. Lying down, he placed the stock of the rifle on a log to support his shot and snugged the butt against his shoulder. He took aim at the slowly retreating figure. With his left hand, he quickly focused the scope. Gently pulling back the trigger, he tapped the target through the back of the skull. The mercenary dropped instantly and lay still.
Vin knew the shot would bring more adversaries, so he packed up his rifle, drew his pistol, and moved toward the collapsed man. Ordinarily he would have a silencer he could mount to the front of the rifle to contain the noise from the shot, but it had been left behind in camp.
Approaching with caution, the sniper made sure the man was dead before grabbing him by the arm and pulling him into a copse of trees.
Tanner broke open his ruck and took out the camo stick. Painting his deceased opponent's face, he also took off his bandana and exchanged it for the man's hat. Seeing the man wore the same type of undershirt as Vin, the sniper took the man's jacket off, exposing it. He propped the corpse at an angle, as if it were aiming a weapon. Vin then stuck the dead man's assault rifle in his hand. Again reaching into his rucksack, he took out his signal mirror and then secured it to the barrel of the gun. There should be a good reflection on the mirror, which should lead another enemy straight to him.
Leaving the carefully constructed scene and covering his trail, he moved off about fifty yards -- close enough to see through the trees, but hopefully not close enough to be spotted. Tanner found a suitable place where he could survey the area but remain under cover. He grabbed an extra camouflaged bandana from his pack and wrapped it over his hair.
Once he set up his rifle, he lay patiently, keeping an eye on the surrounding area. His father had taught him to simultaneously keep track of both the inside and outside of his shot zone so that he would never be surprised by a sidelong attack.
The four commandos tried to hurry through the jungle, automatically slowing their pace for the civilian in their ranks. Noting that she was finding it harder to stay abreast of the men, Larabee called the group to a halt.
"How you doin', darlin'?" Buck asked Amanda when they stopped. He watched her drink from the canteen, making sure she drank enough to help replenish her fluids. She might be accustomed to the heat, but surely not to the exertion she had to maintain in order to keep up with the pace set by the men.
"I've been better," Amanda admitted with a laugh.
"We'll have you back with your friends in no time."
"What about Vin?" she asked.
Buck noticed the way Larabee snapped alert when their sniper's name was mentioned. "Don't you worry none over Vin. That boy could land in the middle of a manure pile and come out smellin' like a rose."
"You have that much faith in him?"
"Yeah, we do," said Chris, answering her question and acknowledging Buck in the few words. "We'd better get going."
With a final drink out of Vin's canteen, Amanda stood up, joining the soldiers who were preparing to head out. "Just tell me one thing. Is there a real toilet at the airfield?"
"I doubt it," laughed Josiah.
"I was afraid of that," she said with a grimace. "Let's go."
Having given up his watch to Amanda, Vin kept time internally. By his reckoning it'd been about twenty minutes since he'd fired the shot and fifteen since he'd baited the trap. Another five minutes passed before he heard a noise not suited to the jungle: a rustling of leaves without wind or animal sound. Someone was trying hard not to make a sound and in doing so, they were alerting the perceptive sniper to his new mark. Taking care not to move anything other than his eyes and thus reveal his location, Vin focused his hearing.
From his left came a sharp snap of a branch and then nothing. Vin continued to watch and wait, depending on his patience in order to win this match. After a few more minutes a subtle noise began. The sniper guessed that his adversary had started to crawl forward in order to find his target.
Vin changed his rifle's position slightly, making sure to move in small increments when his enemy moved. When the man broke through the underbrush, Tanner was ready. He saw the man bring up his gun and line up his shot at the baited corpse. Vin didn't bother using his scope at this distance; it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The merc was too focused on his target to notice anything around him. His inattention would cost his life. Before the mercenary could pull the trigger, Vin shot and killed him. He grabbed his rucksack and quickly left.
Erich Morris saw the watchfulness of the two soldiers. Possibly he hadn't been as careful as he thought. His mercenaries were supposed to kill the other members of his excavation, thus hiding his find from the rest of the world, enabling its sale and his profit. But then that idiot Travis sent those damn soldiers down. He'd tried to talk his "old friend" out of it to no avail.
Now his only choice was to get away and meet up with Derrick Rand, the leader of the group of natives he'd hired to steal the idols. The dig leader didn't particularly trust Rand or his men, but he was out of options.
Holding tight onto his bag, his future, he slowly stood up and pretended to stretch. He walked over to where that Redding woman was still talking with the blond boy. She was nearer the entrance to the hangar, which was exactly the position that Morris wanted. He'd wait until the two grunts were looking the other way and then make a break for it.
Despite his age, Morris' continuous physical activity kept him in fine shape. He was counting on that and the element of surprise. None of those fools would think him capable of quick retreat.
Ignoring whatever Redding was saying to him, Professor Erich Morris slipped his pack over his shoulders and took off for the trees.
Vin Tanner slowed down and backtracked again. He knew there was someone on his trail, but he hadn't been able to shake him or find him.
This one wasn't stupid.
This one wouldn't be easy to kill.
Now the question was how to outsmart him? His best bet would be to get far enough ahead, find a clearing, and lay in wait. But he didn't think that would work. He wouldn't walk blithely into that type of situation and in all likelihood his opponent wouldn't either.
So he would have to try something different, something innovative. He vainly wished for the presence of Standish. Ezra always had a trick up his sleeve, either figuratively or literally.
He took off his ruck and leaned against a tree for a short break. His knife wound was bothering him a bit, and he wished he hadn't given all his water to Amanda. All in all, he was tired, sore, and in need of a nap. Unfortunately he didn't believe the man following him would sit and wait for him to take one. Vin chuckled softly at that idea.
Taking off his bandana, he squeezed the sweat out of it before replacing it over his hair. He checked his pistol, reloading the magazine. He figured he was about five kilometers from the airfield, give or take. But before he could head there, he'd have to take care of his shadow.
Standing up, Vin scraped his back on a piece of bark sticking out from the tree. He winced and turned around to see blood dripping down the trunk. Looking at the red fluid now soaking the bark, he got an idea.
With any luck, he could exploit his wound as a weakness in order to make his opponent cocky. In order to pull it off he'd have to squeeze a bit more blood from himself, not something he looked forward to, but it was necessary. He'd already lost some blood along the way since he hadn't been able to bandage his wound. The man tracking him should be able to tell he was injured. Now was the time to make him think it was serious.
Gritting his teeth, Vin took out his knife and cut a slice along his left forearm. He'd seen his rucksack was already coated with blood from being on his back and he decided to use it accordingly. Letting blood fall from his arm, he left a distinctive trail. He tried not to make it too obvious. Instead, he'd let a small amount out and twenty yards or so another small amount. He increased the amount slightly further still until he'd left enough of a trail to pique interest in his hunter.
The sniper figured he could do without his ruck and some contents within to set the trap. He emptied out the essentials, including the small first aid kit Nathan insisted each of the team members carry -- he'd need that to bandage his arm. He left in some extras; he'd use it to weight the pack.
Tanner pulled the pin on a frag grenade. A fragmentation grenade is designed to burst into numerous fragments when detonated. It throws out the fragments to a lethal distance of approximately fifty feet. Vin carefully set the nearly empty rucksack on top of the grenade, making certain that the spoon was held down. The pack was balanced, but the slightest movement would cause it to tip over, exploding the ordnance.
This is what Vin was counting on.
Erich Morris had barely made it to the tree line before Nathan Jackson stopped him in his tracks. The "fine shape" the aging professor was in was no match for the soldier who ran marathons "for fun."
Nathan grabbed the flap of Morris' pack and pulled back. The added weight set Morris off-balance and he fell in a tumble. "I think you're headed the wrong way there, Prof."
"You have no right to stop me," the grey-haired scientist proclaimed between sucking deep breaths into his lungs.
"Bullshit." Jackson yanked the older man by the back of his collar and lifted him up. Nathan ripped the backpack from his shoulders, surprised by its heaviness. He pulled out his Beretta 92SB pistol and motioned with it, marching his prisoner back to the hangar.
Standish remained behind, confident in his partner's ability to catch the running man. When he saw Nathan returning, he replaced his Walther P38 into his holster. The trio of civilians gathered around the entrance watching the action.
"I knew it," Tanya stated as Morris crossed the threshold in Nathan's custody. "You're an ass," she told her ex-boss.
"May I inquire as to the contents of his pack?" Ezra motioned to the bag that Nathan was carrying. Jackson handed it over and proceeded to bind Morris' hands behind his back.
Standish was surprised by the weight of the pack as well. Seems our frail old man is not so frail, he thought. He opened it and brought out two bundles wrapped in tee shirts. Unwrapping the first bundle, he displayed a totem of some kind. It was about seven inches high, gold with red jewels in place of the eyes. The totem in the other wrap was a twin to the first. Standish looked up at the surrounding civilians for explanation.
"We found them within the temple," Rob Denver stated, still looking at Morris with astonishment. "It solidified our theory that the Laketara people had made it all the way down here from Mexico."
"They're mine. I found them!" shouted Morris. Nathan responded by gagging the angry captive.
Tanya scowled at the former dig leader and added, "They are identical idols representing the god Gali. They'd be worth a lot of money for the gold and jewels, but are invaluable to the academic community."
"I think our dear professor realized how close he was to retirement and how small his retirement fund was," commented Ezra.
"Probably," said Max Kelley, voice full of scorn. "But he'd have to have a buyer lined up who didn't care about theft. Otherwise once word of the discovery got out, they would know the statues had been stolen."
Jackson joined the discussion. "I doubt that would've been a problem," he said. "I think y'all were supposed to disappear permanently. Courtesy of area unrest."
The civilians caught on fast.
"You son of a bitch!" yelled Tanya. She attempted to kick Morris but Ezra stopped her and pulled her back by her arm.
"Don't worry, madam. I assure you, the resources of Orrin Travis will insure he is incarcerated for his crime. Travis is not a man who takes betrayal lightly, especially by those he calls 'friends'."
Erich Morris finally realized how deep was the hole he'd dug, and his defiant gaze dropped in defeat.
The dark eyes scanned the area. He'd been following a small blood trail, hoping it would lead him to his elusive prey. The mercenary was upset. Never had he had this much difficulty killing anyone. This fool would die slowly and with great pain.
A several feet ahead he spotted something. Seeing a greater collection of blood, he drew closer. Eyes shooting around, his attention was split between watching for an attack and seeing what lay on the ground. Glancing down he saw the blood-coated pack and smiled. There would be little chance the chase would last much longer; the prey would be weak from blood loss.
He kicked off the rucksack, angry at his prey's avoidance of him. He looked down and saw the grenade.
"Oh, shit!" It was the last thing he'd ever say.
The frag grenade exploded, wiping out the mercenary in a mass of blood and gore.
From a safe distance away, Vin smiled.
Wednesday, 1450 hrs
Larabee called the "All clear!" The others came out from where they'd hidden and gathered near their leader.
The group had hidden once again while a small group of mercenaries passed close to their location. It rankled the soldiers to let their enemies pass freely without conflict, but none of them was willing to risk the life of the civilian they were protecting. They'd fight if forced, and not before. The team members had seen nearly a dozen men searching for them, but fortunately the searchers had gone the opposite direction than they were headed. Either the mercenaries didn't know about the airfield, or they didn't consider it a valid option.
Either way, Chris Larabee was grateful. All he wanted at this point was to rid himself of the woman so he could look for Vin. He'd been hearing odd gunshots and explosions on and off in the distance, though he couldn't tell the caliber or make. He hoped it was his best friend kicking some ass, but at the same time he wanted Tanner to lie low and stop pressing his luck.
Thankfully they were closing in on the airfield and, as a result, closer to releasing their burden. Josiah was the first to see the break in the trees and spot the hangar.
Chris called a halt to the procession and radioed ahead. "Shepherd to Doc. We're ready to come home."
"This is Doc. You have the all clear. Riley One Oh One." The coded response ensured Chris that all was well in the hangar and his men were not under duress.
"Roger that, Doc. Coming in from the west."
Moving around, they followed the tree line as far as they could in order to get close to the building before breaking cover. They hurried across the open expanse into the relative safety of the hangar.
Amanda found a burst of energy as she rushed to the building. As soon as her coworkers spotted her, she was surrounded by the other civilians welcoming her back into the fold. Tanya gave Amanda a big hug, and then both Rob and Max did the same.
"I'm so glad you're okay," gushed Rob. "We were worried sick."
A little hyped by the adrenaline release, Amanda was laughing and crying. "I am never going back to the gym again! I am so done with sweat and exercise." Everyone laughed along with her, agreeing that they were ready to go home.
Larabee bypassed the happy reunion, walking straight over to his two men. He gave them a quick once-over seeing that they were all right. He saw the old man trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and raised a brow. "Report."
Nathan and Ezra told him what had transpired while they were separated, including their assumption that Morris hired the mercenaries.
Hearing this, Chris stalked over to where Morris sat on the ground and ripped down the gag. "You did this?"
"I did nothing." The professor refused to give in. "You have no proof."
"I don't need it," Chris snarled. He looked down at the man in contempt. "I should leave you out in the open for your hired guns."
"You can't!" Morris was aghast.
Standish murmured, "Not even I would take such a wager."
Morris refused to say anymore, and not even the persuasive powers of Chris Larabee could change his mind. Chris walked away in a fury, sure if he stayed near the traitor he'd have to kill him.
He called Jackson over. "Nate, I need you to fly them out of here. Get a better rig and then come back for us. We'll try to find our own way, but--"
"I think I should stay," Nathan protested. "When you find Vin, he could need some medical help."
"And yet you're our best pilot." Larabee silenced any further argument with a look. "These people need to get home safely." Seeing his order was going to be followed, he called JD over. Nathan left to get the plane prepped, passing Dunne on his way.
JD walked up to his leader. "Yeah, Chris?"
"I want you to ride along with Nathan, keeping an eye on Morris." Chris waited for the inevitable outburst. He wasn't disappointed.
"No way, I want to stay here."
"I know you do, kid, but I need your help. Nate can't watch the prisoner and fly the plane at the same time."
"Who else should I send?"
JD thought about it. The skills of the remaining members were key. Larabee would need Buck for munitions, Josiah for tactics, and Ezra in case they found another plane. "Me," he admitted with a small scowl.
"I knew you'd see the sense."
"I still don't like it."
"Neither does Nathan. You two can bitch at me all you want on the ride home." Chris smiled to take the sting from his words. He drew the rest of the men together, telling them the plan.
Once the plane checked out, the civilians were loaded on board -- after they gave effusive thanks to the team -- with what little equipment they could carry along with the golden idols. Morris was shoved on and JD boarded.
"You guys get the hell out of here," the leader ordered.
Chris, Buck, Ezra, and Josiah got into the Humvee and drove down the length of the runway. They wanted to be able to defend the plane in case of attack. The four men situated themselves and Chris radioed to Nathan to take off.
Nathan responded by starting the plane engine. He taxied down the runway, gaining speed, and lifted off before he reached the Humvee, cresting over his team.
The skilled pilot gained altitude quickly and flew the small plane on a direct line away from where the enemy soldiers were last seen. No telling if the mercs had ground-to-air weaponry, and Jackson was taking no chances.
As he watched the airfield disappear behind them, JD whispered, "Good luck," to his friends left behind.
Chapter Five: If it's tough for the Enemy to enter, it may be tougher
for you to leave
Wednesday, 1520 hrs
Hearing the plane fly overhead, Vin hoped it was Amanda and her fellow scientists getting away. He ran the rest of the way to the airfield, hoping he would catch up with whoever was left. He knew for certain that Chris would never leave one of his men behind.
"We can't stay here. They're sure to have heard the plane take off."
"Why don't we take the Humvee and try to make it back to the city?"
"I don't like the idea of all of us trapped in one place." Chris frowned. "Besides, we need to find Vin."
"What'll we do with the Humvee?" asked Buck, pointing at the vehicle. "We can't leave it here for them to find and I don't relish the thought of booby-trapping it when the next person to find it could be an innocent civilian."
Ezra offered a solution. "Gentlemen, we can simply replace it inside the hangar and remove a key component to its function. That way, we may return and use it if need be."
Everyone agreed this was the best option. Buck drove the Humvee back into the hangar and popped the hood. Ezra reached in and removed the distributor cap, stowing it in his vest.
As soon as they secured the vehicle, the four-man team set off into the jungle, heading back toward the excavation site -- the last place Vin was seen.
Tanner arrived at the edge of the tree line just in time to see Josiah withdraw into the trees about 500 yards further east. The sniper couldn't take the chance on calling out to his team, so he'd have to try to catch up with them.
Desperately craving water, he cut across the jungle, in what he hoped was an intercept course. Pushing himself, Vin soon heard some quiet voices rumbling. He wasn't willing to take a chance on his friends' reflexes; he knew bursting in unannounced might get him shot. And with no radio, he couldn't call in.
From a small side pocket in his pants he took out his harmonica, something he was never without. Once he got close enough, he blew air through a few holes, resulting in a warbling tune.
"Tanner?" shouted Chris. "If you're alive, you get your ass front and center!"
Vin smiled as he came out into the open. His teammates greeted him enthusiastically. "I thought you was dead," remarked Buck.
"Not hardly." Vin eyed the canteen on his friend's belt. "I could use some water, though."
Chris handed over his canteen, and while Vin drank, he took a closer look at his friend. He saw the bloody bandage Vin had placed over his arm wound.
"What happened to your arm?"
"Just a scratch."
Buck, standing behind the sniper, said, "You might want to turn 'im around." He ignored the scowl thrown his way by Tanner as he was swung around.
Chris told Vin to hold still and had Josiah clean and bandage the wound on Vin's back. Vin winced as the big man gently wiped the gash with alcohol, but remained silent throughout the procedure. Once it was done, he thanked Josiah and faced his leader.
"You can't go anywhere without getting hurt, can you?" Chris asked, shaking his head.
"That one's different. I didn't do that."
"Which you'll be sharing once we're out of here."
"So, what's the plan?" asked Vin, hoping for a distraction.
"I'm thinking we should take the river to the village," said Buck, happy to throw Vin a lifeline.
"Bad idea," countered Tanner.
"Those mercs came from the south. I'm thinkin' they came in from the river by boat, prob'ly based in the village."
"I agree with Mister Tanner," Ezra said.
"Me, too," agreed Josiah. "We want avoid a fight if we can and I doubt all the villagers are involved."
"Which means innocents could be caught in a crossfire," said Buck.
"Okay. Options?" Chris looked to his team for ideas and opinions.
"The canyon," Josiah said. "If we get there first it should be easily defendable."
"Sounds like a plan." Larabee looked at his best friend, a bit worse for the wear. "You okay to move?"
"Hell, yeah, it's what I've been doing all damn day," Vin shot back. "Don't worry, I got some water, now I'm good to go."
"Vin, why don't you take point?" Buck called, knowing his teammate was more skilled in scouting ahead.
"Nothin' doin'." Chris shook his head at Tanner in frustration. "I ain't letting you outta my sight." He looked at his team. "Buck, you'll be point, followed by Josiah giving directions. Vin and Ez will be next, with me bringing up the rear." He looked at his men. "Questions?"
"No, sir!" Vin gave a snappy salute.
"Bite me, Tanner." He waved his hand. "Let's move out."
Buck put his M-16 away; the longer barrel a disadvantage in the close quarters of the jungle. He took out his SIG Sauer P226 automatic pistol and checked it. Likewise, Vin kept his Remington strapped across his back, careful not to rub on the wound, and held his Desert Eagle out in front. The rest of the men carried their MP- 5s.
They started through the trees, looking to find a way home.
Comments to: email@example.com