This will be the last sample chapter. After this, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait for the book to come out. Don’t worry, though, the preorder (and thus the release date) is coming soon.
We had just passed Franktown, north of Colorado Springs, when my phone buzzed. I cursed, since the phone was in my pocket and I was driving. Risking a little bit of swerving, I dug the phone out of my pocket and passed it to Jack.
“Fuck,” he said flatly. “Tom just sent us ‘Extremis.’”
“Motherfuck,” I said. “Details?”
“Hold on.” He squinted at the phone.
“I keep telling you you need glasses, dude.”
“The fuck I do,” he replied. “Let me read.”
I kept driving, though I was checking my mirrors a little more often. Intellectually, I knew we were clean, and there was no way in hell the bad guys could have picked us up once we got clear of Denver. Too many miles and too many other vehicles on the road. But “Extremis” meant that The Ranch was under attack, and that meant we were all under threat.
“Holy shit,” Jack said, still focused on the phone’s screen. “It’s like Waco all over again.”
I risked a glance over at him. “The Feds?” That a Federal raid was only about midway down our list of nightmare scenarios said something about some of the enemies we’d made over the years. Nothing good, but something.
He shook his head, frowning, his lips tight behind his sandy beard. “He says that they look like it, but there are no markings on any of the gear or vehicles—no ‘FBI,’ ‘BATFE,’ or anything like that. Just blank black.” He tapped the screen and turned the phone to squint at something. “Sure looks like a lot of ‘em, though. A couple of infantry companies worth, at least, with MATVs and a couple other armored vehicles I don’t recognize right off.”
He read on. “Tom says that they’re secure; they’ve taken a couple of casualties.” He shook his head. “A couple of the new guys, out by the gate, it looks like. They’re dug in, but they can’t get out, and he doesn’t recommend trying to get in without a lot of firepower and backup.” Which were things that we did not have at the moment.
“That’s about all he’s got,” Jack finished, looking up from the phone. “Or at least, it’s all he was willing to put in a text message.”
“Send an All Call,” I said. “We need to link up once we get back in Wyoming.” I started racking my brain for a good spot.
“I’ll call it just south of Tie Siding,” Jack said after a moment of squinting at the map. “It’s ‘middle of nowhere’ enough.”
I just nodded and tried to concentrate on driving. There were a lot of miles to go before the rendezvous. A lot of miles to try not to think of how bad things could be getting back at the only home we had left.
It was almost dark when we pulled off the side of the 287 and joined the other two vehicles that had beaten us to the RV point. Larry and Ben were waiting next to the old, beat-up Pathfinder, no weapons in sight but eyes out and alert. The Bronco parked ahead of it was dark, but I could see Nick’s silhouette in the driver’s seat.
I parked and got out. There was nothing to see around us but sagebrush and bunchgrass. This was cattle country, rolling plains and dry washes. We had plenty of long lines of sight and open fields of fire.
It didn’t mitigate the feeling of being a hunted, cornered animal. We were still free and at large, but our home base was surrounded, and I was only too aware of how many people wanted us dead, or at the very least, buried in a deep, dark hole where no one would ever find us, and we’d never cause trouble for anybody ever again. We’d been making enemies since we’d shot our way out of Kismayo in Somalia, rustling the jimmies of a lot of people who’d never heard a shot fired in anger, but presumed to dictate the use of firepower by those they’d sent into an untenable situation with inadequate support and top cover. Since then, it had only gotten worse. We’d uncovered rogue operations, discovered links between American companies and Mexican cartels, embarrassed our own employers by killing a lot of people who had it coming, but hadn’t been on their target deck, and done a lot of very bad things to very bad people, setting some carefully laid plans back years.
And when it all came to a head, here we were, alone, low on ammo, cut off from the only safe place we knew of, and pretty sure that we had nowhere to turn. We’d fought, bled, killed heaps of people, and buried friends, all in the hopes that we were doing the right thing in the end, and this was where it had led us.
Anyone who says that he can have peace just by killing all his enemies is a damned liar. Kill one, two more pop up in his place.
Alone as we were, there still wasn’t really any conversation. I think we were all thinking that we were going to be talking over the same things over and over again, anyway. And with our paranoia at a peak, we were just watching the plains and the sky, staying quiet lest some unseen enemy hear us.
Even so, it wasn’t a long wait. Derek and Bryan pulled up in their battered old Ford and shut off their headlights. The sun was right at the western horizon. It was going to be full dark in a matter of minutes. Which didn’t mean anything if there was an eye in the sky watching us. Any drones our enemies in high places might be using were guaranteed to have IR and thermal capability. But there weren’t a lot of other places to hide at the moment, and time was a-wasting.
Doors slammed loudly in the empty quiet of the open country, and we gathered down the slope from the highway. I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked around at the team. Bleary eyes met mine. We all looked a little ragged. We were all tired as shit, feeling the last week of driving, snooping, prepping, fighting, and more driving.
“I take it everybody’s up to speed on what’s going on?” I asked. “At least as much as Tom sent?” There were nods all around.
“How the hell are we going to get through that cordon with eight dudes?” Ben asked. “Especially eight dudes who are guaranteed to be on their ‘Most Wanted’ list?”
“The same way we’ve gotten through just about every other cordon,” I said grimly. “We smash through it.”
“With what?” Ben looked around at the rest. He seemed to be getting annoyed that he was the only one voicing doubts. Nobody else looked at him, but stayed silent, either looking outboard, toward the highway, or down at the ground, thinking. “We’re kind of low on ammo after the last few days, and we weren’t exactly rolling heavy enough to take on what looks a hell of a lot like a Federal task force.”
“Well, Tom’s pretty sure they’re not really Feds,” Bryan pointed out. “No identification as such. They might not be as well-equipped.”
“They’ll be just as well equipped as we would be, taking on a hard target like The Ranch,” Larry replied. “And I doubt those are fake MATVs, or whatever those other things are.”
“They won’t be,” I said. “Whoever these guys are, they are going to be as well-funded and well-equipped as their sponsors can make them, and if they came after us this quick, you can bet that there’s a lot of money and influence behind those sponsors. Our list of enemies isn’t exactly a short one, I’ll remind you.”
“We need to stay well away from The Ranch until we’ve had a chance to refit and resupply,” Eric said. “The Pat O’Hara Mountain cache should have everything we need, it’s on the way, and it’s far enough that, presuming that they haven’t compromised everything, nobody else should know about it.”
“That’s a pretty fucking big presumption,” Jack said, his arms folded across his chest. “They moved fast enough after the MS-13 hit. That tells me, if they had all this ready to go, that they’ve done their homework.” He spat. “We might not have any bolt-holes they don’t know about.”
“That’s paranoid as shit,” Nick said.
Jack shrugged. “Times we live in,” he said.
“Not saying you’re wrong,” Nick said. “I’m actually kinda impressed.”
Jack gave a sardonic little bow.
“If we start thinking that they’re always five steps ahead of us, we’re just going to paralyze ourselves,” Larry said, getting the discussion back on track. “I say we shoot for the Pat O’Hara cache, and make sure we recon it thoroughly before we move in on it. As we know all too well, there’s no such thing as really undetectable surveillance. If they’re watching it, we should be able to spot them.”
“Larry’s right,” I said. “We know the ground better than they do, and I guaran-fucking-tee these assholes haven’t done as much field work as we have. That said, if we get cocky, we’re dead, and so is everybody back at The Ranch. Careful and methodical, and don’t drop tradecraft for a second. I know we all do this already, but it’s cash only from here on out. No plastic, burner phones only. We’ll split up again as soon as we start rolling, and ditch the vehicles not less than ten miles from the cache.” I turned to look at Derek. “How confident are you that we weren’t tagged on the way out of Pueblo?”
He grimaced in thought, then shrugged. “Eighty percent, maybe? We were pretty careful, we didn’t have any tails on the way through Colorado Springs or Denver, and unless tech has advanced farther than even I know—and trust me, it hasn’t—we should have seen or heard some sign of a drone following us if they had an eye in the sky on us. No, I think we’re clean.”
I nodded. “Even so, be ready to ditch the vehicles and E&E as soon as it looks like we might have picked something up. It’ll fuck our timetable, but better late than rolled up or dead.” The nods I got were of the, yeah, we know, teach your grandpa to suck eggs variety.
“Do we have any theories as to who’s behind this?” Eric asked after a moment, just before I was about to break the meeting and hit the road again.
“The list is a pretty long one,” Nick said. “Take your pick.”
“There isn’t enough information to say, yet,” I said. “But trust me, once we get this sorted, we’re going to find out.” My tone promised that there was going to be retribution for this. It might not have been the “civilized” way to deal with such problems, but if anyone Stateside knew just how uncivilized our times were, it was the eight men gathered on the side of that highway in the deepening twilight. We’d been an instrument of policy, several times, though a deniable instrument, employed through multiple layers of shady organizations and contacts, but useful or not, when it all came down to the wire, we were expendable, which meant we were outlaws. We could count on no support but each other.
“All right,” I said, after a brief pause, “We’ll RV at the Pat O’Hara cache, no later than EENT tomorrow.” End of Evening Nautical Twilight was when the last light of the sunset disappeared in the west. In northern Wyoming, at that time of year, it would be around eight thirty at night. “We’ll depart here at staggered intervals; I want us spread out no less than five miles between vehicles. In the event that there is an eye in the sky, I don’t want a convoy showing up. Find someplace to hole up and grab some shut-eye tonight or in the morning, but be at that cache by the time it’s dark tomorrow night. Questions?”
A few guys shook their heads. No one asked a question. “Let’s go, then,” I said. “We’re wasting darkness.”
Jack was driving and I was dozing as we went up Wind River Canyon in the early morning. The road was still in shadow; the sun hadn’t risen over the bluffs to the east yet.
I was yanked out of my fitful slumber by a phone buzzing. We’d stopped for a few hours to sleep in Boysen State Park, but we’d gotten moving early, knowing that once we got to the foot of Pat O’Hara Mountain, we were going to have some slogging to do to get to the cache. I wanted to get to the foothills by mid-afternoon at the latest.
A moment’s bleary rummaging produced my main phone, but it wasn’t the one ringing. “What the hell?” I muttered, and started digging in my go bag some more.
“Oh, fuck,” I grumbled, as I pulled out the offending phone. It was a burner, the simplest, cheapest pre-paid job you could find in a local truck stop. There was no contract attached to it, no name associated with the number, especially as the phone and the card had been purchased with cash. There was only one other person who had that number. And I was in no way, shape, or form convinced that I could trust him, not with what he knew in light of everything that had happened over the last two weeks.
I stared at the phone in my hand for a long moment, while it kept ringing. I felt more like a hunted animal than ever. The man on the other end of the line could help pull our asses out of the fire, or he could be drawing us out for the hammer to fall.
“Is that who I think it is?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, it is,” I rasped. The phone kept ringing. He wasn’t giving up. He probably knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t going to answer right away, so he was being patient.
“Fuck,” I finally muttered, and hit the green “Accept” button. Lifting the phone to my ear, I said, “Give me a reason not to chuck this phone out the window right now.”
“Relax, Mr. Stone.” I could hear the smooth, reassuring smile in the other man’s voice. “I didn’t sell you out, and no one else has either of these numbers. We are still secure, at the moment.” His tone changed suddenly. “That can, however, change, depending on what you do in the next twenty-four hours. Take my advice and do what I tell you, and we can ensure that all of us remain relatively free and at large to deal with this situation. Ignore me, and you are on your own. I cannot guarantee that it will work out well for you or your compatriots.”
The Broker, or Mr. Gray, as we had come to know him, was, at least by implication, a former US intelligence officer of some stripe, who had gone renegade shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. He had since become something of a powerhouse in the international underground, what the big brains called a “shadow facilitator.” You needed information or logistics for all manner of skullduggery, he was the one to find, provided you could meet his prices.
He had involved himself in our hunt for the elusive—and illusory—underworld kingpin known only as “El Duque.” He had been the one to inform us that we were chasing a phantom, who had been invented precisely for that purpose, and put us on the trail of one of the more dangerous conspiracies brewing south of the US/Mexican border. We had proceeded to dismantle a Mexican cartel and several of their international sponsors, including a Chinese front company, in a series of bloody strikes across several Mexican cities.
Exactly what The Broker’s game was, I still wasn’t sure. That his hands were as dirty as anyone else’s in the shadowy world where organized crime and fourth generation warfare overlap was without question. Yet he’d gone out of his way to convince us that he had ulterior motives that did not jibe with being an evil mastermind only out to build his own underworld empire. He had some other play in mind, and I still didn’t know what it was. He’d definitely helped us out; we probably wouldn’t have made it out of Latin America alive if he hadn’t interfered. But I was under no illusions that he had taken us under his wing purely out of the goodness of his heart. He’d done us favors, and I was sure that those favors were eventually going to have to be paid for.
But we were not presently in a position to refuse his help. “I’m listening,” I told him.
“I expect that you are en route to one of your supply caches as we speak,” he said. The man’s resources were definitely extensive, as was his knowledge of human nature. It was still a little eerie to hear it from him. He was a step ahead of me, and it pissed me off.
“Stay away from them,” he continued. “I cannot say for certain that whichever one you are making for is on the list, but at least a majority of them are compromised, and under surveillance. If you show up at one of them, you will be targeted and run down within hours.”
“Who the hell are these people?” I demanded. “And how the hell do you know so much about their operation?” My paranoia was running pretty high. I still couldn’t shake the nagging thought that we were being set up, and that this entire conversation was just bait.
“Not a conversation to be having over the phone,” he said. “Go to the junction of Highway 72 and Robertson Draw Road. It’s north of the border, in Montana. Call me when you get there, and I’ll give you the next set of directions.” Without further ado, he hung up.
“Motherfucker,” I snarled. I tossed the burner back in the go bag and started digging out the road atlas. Where the hell was Robertson Draw Road?
Long hours and longer miles later, we were driving north on Highway 72. Squinting at the sign up ahead, I saw “Robertson Draw Road.” It was time. Jack was back behind the wheel, so I dug in the go back, turned the burner on, and called The Broker.
“We’re here,” I said flatly, as soon as he answered.
“Good,” he said. “Take Robertson Draw Road across the river to Meteetsee Trail, and follow it to Stagecoach Trail. Go down to the wash when you hit the end of Stagecoach.”
“Got it,” I replied. He hung up again. I powered down the burner and pulled out my team phone. A mass text to the other vehicles said only, “Meet at the bridge.”
Technically, we didn’t stop on the bridge itself, but crossed over the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River and turned off on the fishing access. Jack parked, as I dragged my chest rig out and shrugged into it, pulling my rifle onto my lap and slinging it.
By the time the other three vehicles arrived, both Jack and I were kitted up and scanning the surrounding fields and hills. It wasn’t that we were necessarily expecting an ambush, per se, at least no more than we usually did. But under the circumstances, this could just as easily be an elaborate trap as a chance for help and support.
We weren’t just looking for people watching us. We were watching for drones. They were getting pretty small, but if you can see a bird, you can see a quadrotor, and nobody who’s really looking is going to mistake a quadrotor for a bird. The tech to realistically disguise a drone as something natural just wasn’t there, yet.
When the rest of the team piled out and joined us around the Duramax’s hood, everybody was kitted up and armed. We were far enough in the boonies, despite the farms right across the river, that we were more concerned with being ready to fight than we were with staying covert. By the time the locals called anybody—if they bothered; this was rural Montana, after all—we’d be long gone.
I had a tablet on the hood, with overhead imagery of the area. As much as I was trying to go low-tech as much as possible, in the interests of leaving any sort of electronic surveillance blind, I wanted something a bit more detailed than I could get in the road atlas, so I’d pulled out the tablet and plugged it into the satellite puck. I’d stayed connected just long enough to download the imagery I wanted, then pulled the puck and stowed it.
“This looks like our meeting spot, right here,” I said, pointing to the wash, lined with brush and trees, that during the spring and late fall must be a tributary of the Clarks Fork. “There’s not a lot of high ground, so we’re going to have to do an L-shape, and get closer than we might otherwise like. It does mean that any security that The Broker has out will be likewise constrained, and should, hopefully, be easier to spot and neutralize, if necessary. I don’t want anyone but me and Jack getting closer than three hundred, though, not until we’re sure that it’s not an ambush. I’ll signal the all clear when I’m satisfied, then collapse in.”
“Comms?” Larry asked.
“Stay on the radios, but no talking unless it’s necessary,” I said. “If you happen to stumble across any flankers he has out, neutralize them if possible, but don’t shoot unless you absolutely have to.” I took a deep breath, letting out a bit of a frustrated sigh. “We don’t know for sure if he’s friend or foe yet, and it’s probably not going to be a good idea to alienate an ally like The Broker without knowing for sure that he’s out to fuck us.”
There were a few short coordinating instructions that we had to work out, then we were saddling up again and trundling down the dirt road toward the meeting.
Stagecoach Trail was aptly named; it was more a trail than a road. The Duramax handled it okay, though I rather missed my F250, which felt more solid on unimproved roads. The GMC was bouncing and rattling more than I liked, but I had to remind myself how little we’d paid for the thing, and the fact that we were driving it precisely because it was expendable.
We’d been expecting to go all the way down into the wash, but The Broker was waiting for us next to a line of trailers parked in what looked like a staging area for the local ranchers. The place was otherwise deserted, but The Broker was standing in front of a good-sized panel truck, his hands in his pockets, giving every impression of waiting patiently.
Jack brought the truck to a halt some two hundred meters from The Broker. We sat there for a long couple of minutes, letting the others get into position. The Broker just stood there and watched us calmly, the sunlight glinting from his sunglasses.
Finally, figuring that we couldn’t hold this off any longer, I opened the door and got out, my rifle slung around my shoulders and my chest rig showing under my open jacket. I didn’t give a fuck at that point if The Broker thought we were being hostile. We’d been attacked twice on our own turf. Damned straight we were hostile.
The Broker still didn’t move or visibly react as we walked toward him, our rifles at the low ready. He just watched us, his head slightly tilted to one side in an attitude of amused curiosity that I’d come to expect from him.
He was a small man, going bald, with a round head and a generally soft, genial way about him that acted to disguise the fact that this was a very, very dangerous man, indeed. I’d first met him in a very expensive restaurant in Panama City, where he had been dressed in a suit and tie, which had suited him perfectly well. He was presently dressed in jeans and a Carhartt jacket, and seemed just as comfortable dressed that way. He was a chameleon, able to move through numerous environments easily and unobtrusively. It was how he had become as powerful, and as dangerous, as he was.
He smiled as we approached him, though with his sunglasses on it was impossible to see if the smile reached his eyes. It probably did; he was too good at tradecraft to have so obvious a tell.
“Good to see you, gentlemen,” he said jovially. “I’d tell you that the rest of the team can come in; there is no ambush waiting for you in the weeds, and I am certain that the area is clean. But I don’t imagine you’ll take me up on the invitation.”
“You have a problem with that?” I asked. Jack just watched him, his eyes flicking back and forth between The Broker and the truck, where there was at least one guy behind the wheel, more than likely just as heavily armed as we were.
“Not at all,” The Broker replied, his voice growing more serious. “Under the circumstances, paranoia is not only natural, it’s commendable. I’d be worried if you weren’t suspicious.”
That actually made me relax, fractionally, though the little voice in the back of my head that told me not to trust anybody who wasn’t a Praetorian kept suggesting that he’d known his words would have that effect. “What have you got?” I asked him.
He jerked his thumb at the truck behind him. “Refit and resupply, to start,” he said. “I imagine that you’re running a little low after your adventures down in Colorado.” He nodded. “Oh, yes, I know that was you. I knew as soon as it started hitting some of the information streams. You have your own patterns, for those who know how to look. Everyone does.”
“You didn’t want to talk over the phone, but now we’re not on the phone. Who sent these assholes after us?” I asked.
“I’m working on that,” he replied. “Suffice it to say, for the moment, that there’s a major power play at work, and you gentlemen are in the middle of it, if only a part of it. What you need to concentrate on for now is getting in there, getting as many of your people out as possible, and getting someplace more secure. I know a few fallback positions where you can hole up for a while, positions that are not compromised.” He tossed an envelope to me. I let it fall at my feet. He might be on the level, but I was not falling for the “catch” trick if there was some skullduggery afoot. “That’s all the reconnaissance reports from a few of my people on the task force’s numbers and dispositions. Yes, I’ve had them in the vicinity since Mexico. I like to keep an eye on my friends as well as my enemies.”
I didn’t look down at the envelope. “We’ll take it under advisement,” I said. My mind was already starting to think ahead, think of staging areas and hiding places in the hills above The Ranch. The last time The Broker had given us intel, it had been extensive, thorough, and spot-on. It still didn’t mean he wasn’t double-crossing us this time, but that was why we always ran our own reconnaissance and moved carefully.
Well, mostly carefully. If I was being honest, Pueblo had not been all that exemplary of us at our most professionally cautious.
“If you want to get the rest of your stuff out of that Duramax,” The Broker went on, “we’ll trade vehicles. John and I will take your truck, and you take this one. There’s a new set of burner phones in the glove compartment, programmed with a new contact number, so that we can keep in touch. With that, I will get out of your way, at least until it is time to proceed.”
“One more question, Gray,” I said. “Why the favors? What does this get you?”
His smile thinned slightly. “Your company is a hell of a wrecking ball, Mr. Stone. And the time is rapidly approaching when some edifices will need smashing. I’d like to have you around for that. Now, I’d suggest that you concentrate on getting your people out. We can discuss the strategic situation when time is slightly less pressing.”