Sam had his NVG monocular flipped out of the way so he could see everything in natural colors as he died.
He kept waiting for this old-as-hell helicopter carrying his HAMR Brotherhood FALCA team to sputter and crash into the waves below. An early evening storm pounded the fuselage as if the chopper needed help nosediving.
An August to remember.
Thick foam rolling along the Venezuelan coast would be a stunning photograph for tourists.
The only sight he cared about capturing was W in cuffs and leg irons. Few international terrorists had eluded security forces and military in every country the way W had for five years.
Sam would never forget the bloody images of citizens, especially children, killed in the attacks. In his mind, he still saw the eyes wide open and body parts missing. One teenage girl who had looked so much like Sam’s sister kept visiting his nightmares with her half-blown-away skull and eyes wide open in fear.
Had his sister looked as terrified when she’d died?
Bile ran up Sam’s throat. He forced his mind back to the here and now. Stick to the mission.
He couldn’t screw up on this one, not after the last mission where he’d made a misstep. Logan, leader of all HAMR Brotherhood teams, understood what his men faced, but he expected everyone to stick to their duty and keep the team strong.
Sam still felt justified over rushing through enemy fire to save a woman being dragged away. Sam freed her and handed her off to another woman then rejoined the team.
Nitro had chewed him into pieces. Yes, Sam had no one to cover his six for those seconds, and yes, she could have been hiding a weapon, but he’d seen true terror in her face and had a plan to return safely.
The fact that his plan had worked failed to spare him from Nitro’s wrath.
Sam would do the mission tonight by the book no matter what crossed his field of vision.
No one wanted to lose a spot in HAMR Brotherhood, and Sam lived for operations with his FALCA team.
His seat dropped suddenly in an air pocket. Muscles in Sam’s gut clenched even though it was only inches.
Having spent an hour helping the forty-something pilot get this bucket-of-crap-parts running, Sam had up-close knowledge of the flying death trap.
He didn’t mind flying at night and low to the ground. That was perfect for a stealth approach when he had faith in his ride.
Nothing fazed Pablo, their intrepid pilot, not even lightning streaking across the sky and rain hammering so loud Sam should be deaf by now. Sadly, he wasn’t. Was Pablo even the pilot’s real name? Thick, curly hair sprang out in every direction. He wore flip-flops and one of those Hawaiian-print shirts with a string of seashells around his neck as bright against his deep tan as the white around his dark eyes.
Didn’t matter what he looked like so long as his reputation as a former hotshot Army pilot held up.
The team medic, Blade, sat in the co-pilot’s seat, but he couldn’t fly this thing if Pablo fell out the opening on his left. As the largest of their four, Blade had to ride shotgun. If not, somebody would have been hanging off the side of Pablo’s OH-6A chopper, a Vietnam-era relic like the one his revered Army colonel father had flown.
The LOACH, which pilots and crews had nicknamed this chopper, had the exact attributes needed for tonight’s mission. It had flown in low, fast, and quiet to flush out the enemy during the Vietnam conflict. When the speedy little helo took on enemy fire, a larger, noisier, and deadlier Cobra AH-1 hanging back on their ass would sweep in and break up the party.
But that had been sixty freaking years ago.
“You enjoyin’ the ride, Partyman?” Nitro asked, his voice coming through Sam’s headset. The leader of their FALCA team found most things amusing until show time. Right now, his eyes gleamed with amusement as if they were on the way to a bar.
That would be the day. For Sam to go barhopping would surprise all of them.
Sitting between the two of them, Angel’s lips curled, but the Spaniard stayed out of this.
Positioned behind the pilot and with an open door on his left, Nitro was not one to show any concern. Always cool on the outside. Of course, Nitro would find flying in this rattling bucket of bolts funny if Sam gave the least indication it got under his skin.
Sam wanted no one on this team to question his commitment at any time, but especially tonight. He would nail his part without bitching. He grinned at his leader.
Nitro smirked, not buying the grin one bit.
Angel, one of their snipers and the master of impossible stunts, held his HK 416 assault rifle in a relaxed grip. Sam, Nitro, and Blade held identical weapons. They all carried Baretta M9 handguns with suppressors as well.
Sam had thanked Esteban for damn good weapons, ammo, NVGs, and tactical gear. Sam had vouched for Esteban when Logan needed an in-country arms supplier close to the target on short notice.
Hard not to vouch for someone who helped Sam survive being a prisoner in a Libyan drug-running and terrorist camp three years back. Trust ran both ways after Sam took a shot to save Esteban’s life during their escape.
The chopper engine groaned and skipped.
Sam gripped his rifle, muscles kinked in his shoulders. He silently asked to not go diving into the black ocean. He had no idea if they were so close to the beach that they’d hit too shallow and break into a thousand pieces or sink a hundred feet the minute the chopper smashed into water.
Blade’s neck muscles flexed. Yeah, he didn’t like this either.
As if sensing tension, Pablo held up a hand and spoke into their headphones. “Not long now.”
Sam ground his teeth to keep from yelling at Pablo to put both hands back and keep this thing airborne. They could have used Slider on this mission. He could fly a tin can with two wooden wings and orange juice for fuel.
Pablo leaned forward quickly and tapped at a gauge.
Blade’s head whipped to the left, sharp eyes watching him.
The motor coughed and sputtered.
Ah, shit. Sam moved his boot closer to the opening, preparing to make a quick jump and get out of the way for Angel.
Pablo’s flying dinosaur dipped for the longest second of Sam’s life before the engine caught again, blades whining at full power once more.
Pablo grinned and pumped his fist. “She’s old but solid.”
Sam cursed. He couldn’t be the only one holding his breath until they landed. He’d made HALO jumps from thirty thousand feet that were less dangerous than this.
Angel cursed lividly in Spanish.
From the team daredevil?
Oh yeah. Bad sign there.
If they landed at the designated spot, they had to hike five klicks. On the other hand, if the motor cut out one more time, Sam was ready to set this chopper down immediately on the nearest strip of beach and hike the additional distance.
Lightning crackled and fingered into jagged zaps of power.
They had been flying straight into the rain, but Pablo banked sharply toward the coast. Hallelujah. Sam gripped the side of the fuselage. Water bullets drilled into his body, battering the right side as the chopper continued angling west. He didn’t care. Wind buffeted him, lifting and pushing the egg-shaped cabin around.
The helicopter neared a narrow strip of beach and raced across it, closing in on the drop point.
Nitro clicked into mission mode, reminding Pablo what time to return and to not land if he did not see a flashing signal from the team. They either made it in and out on time, or something had gone FUBAR.
Sam flipped his NVG monocular down and lifted his rifle to his chest, ready to get rolling.
Pablo slowed the beast then hovered only seconds and touched down as softly as if he had been carrying dynamite.
Bailing out first, Sam’s boots hit solid ground. Relief.
Now they had control of their mission.
He strode from beneath the rotor wash with Angel right behind him.
They met up with Nitro and Blade on the other side as the chopper lifted off, flying away toward the coast.
Rain fell in a heavy drizzle, soaking Sam until he felt at one with the dark Venezuelan forest they entered. He didn’t give a damn about bad weather.
It came in handy sometimes.
His first concern was always keeping his team safe as they extracted the package—a kidnapped US senator.
This op had been pulled together with plenty of talent but rushed. Opportunity rarely cared about time when it knocked. No one to date had been this close to nailing the international predator known only as W, who his FALCA team believed held the high-value hostage in a reclusive location.
This was not a kidnapping that required a monetary payment.
If W did indeed have the senator, there was no amount of gold that would save the politician. Senator Turner had publicly vowed to bring W to justice. Special Force teams were already following other leads in multiple countries. One of Logan’s intel specialists turned up intel pointing at W possibly being in South America.
Hell yeah, Sam had wanted to go for many reasons the minute he knew the plan, not just to cement his position with FALCA moving forward.
Moose, another FALCA member, one who handled intel gathering for multiple teams, had hit paydirt while searching for anything on the senator’s kidnapping.
Logan had activated FALCA immediately.
They all wanted W. None more than Sam. The word crimes failed to describe the hideous murders and destruction committed by that sick monster, W.
They went wheels up knowing every detail could not be flushed out.
No op went exactly as planned.
Sam kept waiting for the mission calm to settle over him. He lived for that moment when his world made sense, but he could not shake the foreboding sensation of spiders with sharp claws crawling up his spine.
Hallene squinted to see ahead where an endless darkness waited and paused to listen for any sign she’d been discovered. If they caught her in this dirt tunnel, she had no chance of outrunning bullets.
Her jeans and long-sleeved black T-shirt had been soaked by the time she parked the BMW 1200 GS motorcycle built to be used on or off-road. She’d been fortunate to even find a dual sport bike to ride, which could handle dense woods as easily as the highways in Venezuela.
Money solved most problems in a foreign country, but only if a product was readily available.
She breathed slowly and had to push away claustrophobia needling her, then strode forward on the hard-packed dirt path. An LED light hidden in a ring she wore bounced over the hard-packed ground with an occasional thick root bulging up across the path. Roots in the wrong place could compromise an old tunnel like this built centuries ago without engineering plans.
Dirt in here smelled of old wood and damp mulch, two things that deteriorated. If this tunnel caved in, she’d die here, and no one would ever know. Nice, Hallene. Why not think about running into a slumbering anaconda and being strangled to death?
She had hacked at vegetation for over an hour to reveal parts of the crumbling shack that had collapsed over the closest access point to the ocean for this underground passage.
This tunnel would likely not be the only one along the northeastern coast of Venezuela from back when pirates stashed their stolen goods.
She didn’t want gold and jewels.
She was here to save a seventeen-year-old girl then beat the crap out of the kidnapper who had dragged her here.
According to her intel techie, a big-time pirate historian and enthusiast, this seventy-hectare, or two-hundred-seventy-acre location had once been a sugarcane plantation. But time changes everything. The plantation had been left in ruins for almost a hundred years. Then two years ago, a US businessman who had lost his entire family acquired the decaying mansion along with twenty acres the government allowed him. He spent nine months remodeling the structure back to its glory days and kept the place up without any domestic help. A loner who raised his own food as well as goats and chickens.
A sophisticated hermit.
A dead hermit by now.
She shook her head at someone who looked at a reclusive South American location and thought sanctuary. The government might have no interest in him so long as he paid taxes when they came due, but cartels were another story.
The person her intel indicated was currently squatting in the mansion for two days. He would not fear cartels nor be here long enough for a tax collector to show up.
Kidnappers frowned on paying taxes.
She only needed this world-class scumbag to be here one night. Just for a few more hours, in fact.
She’d been mentally counting steps in groups of fifty and bent a fourth finger into her palm. The tunnel exit leading into the basement of the remodeled mansion should be before she tucked the fifth finger.
Her head bumped something hard. She cursed and rubbed her head. She’d hit a rare crossbeam installed for support. Damn pirates. She was five-nine. Had the men back then been that much shorter than her or just too lazy to carve out a taller corridor? Ducking her head, she kept moving.
Wouldn’t a taller tunnel have made carrying trunks of gold and jewels easier?
She would not go through this hell tonight for all the lost treasures in the world.
Only for Phoebe, a seventeen-year-old girl with a bad attitude who had been a pain in Hallene’s backend since Phoebe’s birth.
Still, no girl deserved the fate her half-sister faced.
Hallene rarely had regrets in life, but she now had a few when it came to Phoebe.
Without missing a step, she peeled open the Velcro cover shielding her black watch face turned to the inside of her wrist. Closing in on half past nine at night.
Two and a half hours should be enough time if she had a team with her, but doing this solo felt as if she cut it close. Her plan required inserting and extracting Phoebe before midnight. The infamous Collector never spent more than seventy-two hours at any location once he had a captive. He’d arrived here at midnight two nights back.
Now that he’d been located once, he could be found again, but that didn’t mean Phoebe would still be in his possession or alive by his next stop.
Her intel resource had gained a tip when the Collector stopped in South America and traveled to the remodeled home. Her techie told her there was a high probability the Collector was headed to this mansion.
If that was true, Hallene would never tease her friendly hacker about his obsession with pirate lore again.
She pushed her legs harder.
Everything about this half-assed plan went against her sense of preparation. Worry climbed across her shoulders at the fear she’d make a mistake and either die before she could free Phoebe or get them both killed.
Discovering the location of El Coleccionista, aka the Collector, had been too good to pass up or to wait on backup, which she no longer had. Hacking the computer of Phoebe’s father sealed the deal when Adam Kovac received a message about an unspecified task he had to perform once details were delivered if he ever wanted to see Phoebe again.
Resources were everything.
Her tech also supplied information to UK military such as SFSG, Special Forces Support Group, where Coop had been a respected member. His buddies had been nice to her after Coop’s death, but she’d told them nothing about this or they would have hauled her away and taken time to recon the area before any insertion decision.
An excellent idea if time had any part in this equation beyond running out too quickly.
Any interference would blow her chance at rescuing her half-sister.
She’d trusted Coop to a point. He’d been an elite operative after all, but Coop would not approve of her being here. She understood. Without rules, there would be chaos in his line of work.
Phoebe didn’t have time for someone to bless this. Coop’s team sure as hell wouldn’t bless her take-no-prisoners plan.
Hallene’s fingers curled into a tight fist with the urge to make the kidnapper pay. She hadn’t decided the exact definition of making the Collector pay yet, but it had to be more than sticking him in a jail cell where he’d find a way to slither out.
Monsters could not be rehabilitated.
She’d reached forty-five steps.
Her blood pressure jumped. Where was the end of this tunnel?
She clicked the light in her ring to the lowest setting, a bare glow that should not give away her position by leaking through an opening to the mansion. She just hoped some entry point still existed. With her eyes adjusting to the ambient light, she took one step then another, always reaching forward.
Her fingers bumped something solid hanging away from the wall. Lifting her ring, she had a tiny thrill at finding an old wooden ladder. This was where things got dicey.
Her heart thudded.
Would she have a welcoming party?
Sweat drizzled down her face and neck even in the cool temperature down here.
How many times had Coop said, “In the world of special operations, hesitation gets you killed.”
So would a bad decision, but sometimes that was the only option.
Climbing carefully and praying the wood was not rotted, she made it up six steps, constantly feeling above her head. Her fingers hit a solid surface. She moved her hand over the texture and found parallel lines in the rough surface.
She pushed. Nothing moved.
Hooking her leg over a rung, she used both hands to push up.
She grunted from straining until the covering began to give. Dirt rained down on her face. She closed her eyes and spit out debris, pausing to listen. No light bled through from above. Demanding more from her arm muscles, she gritted her teeth and shoved harder. The trapdoor began lifting.
Her vision blurred from perspiration stinging her eyes. She kept going until she had the wooden covering a foot high and paused to swing her light around quickly to search the opening.
No one stood there pointing a weapon at her.
It took some maneuvering, but she managed to ease the heavy covering over to one side before hoisting herself through the hole.
She sat there breathing in and out as quietly as she could until she’d regained her energy and pulled her legs up, turning to kneel. That gave her leverage to lower the cover. It fit perfectly back into the floor, but with a snick of sound.
Heart thumping, she waited.
No voices. No footsteps came her way.
Sweeping her light over the cover, she could see where thick dust had been undisturbed for many years prior to her opening the hatch. She had just enough room to turn around in the space without hitting a wall.
Where was the way out? She ran her hands everywhere until she touched a thick piece of wood that had been slid through two wooden loops. Yes!
She removed the heavy board that felt hand-hewn and tugged on a loop, inching the door inward. It squeaked. She held her breath. Chills ran up her arms.
No one attacked her. No bullets flew by.
Only dark met her on the other side.
Her ring light could stay on longer.
She squeezed through as soon as she had enough room and pulled the door back in place. It fit into the wall in a way that camouflaged the access.
She sniffed, expecting the musty smell. What else was she picking up?
The room stank. Body odor and something worse.
Then it hit her. Dried blood.
She pinched her nose and breathed through her mouth as she swept her light to inspect the closet-sized room. Her foot bumped into something that didn’t move. The body of a man in khaki pants and a white cotton shirt was lying in a dried pool of blood from his throat being slashed.
He’d been dead more than one day.
Very likely the hermit owner.
That meant any options were on the table to get Phoebe to safety, even burning this house to the ground to send the Collector’s security running to find the threat.
But only if she located Phoebe and knew she could free her.
Moving around the body, Hallene found a walk-in door, which opened to a larger room ... the basement she’d been hoping to find. Disappointment slammed her in the chest at the silence.
An empty room.
Phoebe was not here. No one was.
As much as Hallene wanted to hammer the Collector into the ground, she’d hoped to find Phoebe kept in the basement. If so, she’d pass on any payback to spirit the girl away to a safe place then send law enforcement to look for the property owner.
She walked around to determine all exit points. Only one besides the tunnel route. A set of stairs led way up to a landing easily thirty feet up.
That had to be higher than ground level.
She pulled out a lipstick camera and found a place to put it near the exit to the tunnel then headed for the metal stairs.
She climbed fifteen steps, then turned and climbed another twenty steps along the wall to a landing when the stairs turned left.
A modern-looking light fixture had been mounted at the side of a door she hoped opened into the living area. Rushing across the landing on her soft-soled shoes, she paused to carefully open the door and peek out.
Yet another closet. Big one.
Passing through that ten-foot-long by six-foot-wide space, she opened the second door into a grandiose ballroom.
The distinct smell of lemon polish replaced the stench clogging her nose.
While the tunnel appeared to still be a secret, the basement was not, but access to the basement had been somewhat hidden.
Where would they have put Phoebe? In a bedroom?
Where were guards set up to patrol?
She lifted a powerful stun gun from where it had been hooked on her belt. She’d brought it into South America broken apart with pieces hidden in her luggage contents, a camouflaged set Coop had created for her.
This gun was not even on the market yet.
Coop had always been getting his hands on the latest and greatest but warned her to stay in top shape. Never depend on the stun gun for more than gaining a moment’s edge in a fight.
She stuck to that rule.
She pulled off her shoes and continued in her socks. Any sound could get her killed.
Her pulse quickened. She hurried into the ballroom where she found only two other doors on her right. The farthest one opened to reveal a long set of steps going down.
She’d save downstairs for last. Bedrooms were normally upstairs. That seemed a logical place to hold a captive.
Closing that door carefully, she moved to the other door, which opened into a small kitchen. Vintage cooking utensils were hung on a wall rack and stuffed into a ceramic vase sitting on a long prep counter with white cabinets below. More white cabinets were above a porcelain sink. The small refrigerator and free-standing gas stove with two small ovens all appeared clean and just as old as the cooking utensils.
Nothing appeared to be in use, which made sense for a single occupant. Probably a larger kitchen downstairs.
Could this have been the servant’s access to upstairs living quarters for the domestic staff at one time?
Crossing the galley kitchen, she opened another door to find a long walkway overlooking a wide foyer. She inhaled fresher air here, thankful not to find the copper penny smell of fresh blood.
No sound came from below in the foyer. At the end of the walkway, a curved set of stairs with a polished wood railing descended to the main floor.
Deep breath. Then another.
Go time. She stepped out onto a wood floor and glanced over the railing, patiently waiting to locate a guard before moving into the opening.
A man dressed in dark fatigues and carrying a high-powered rifle finally walked by outside beyond the tall glass windows on each side of wide mahogany double doors. Exterior lights spaced along the walkway tossed beams across the marble floor inside where a circular table held a vase of dead flowers.
Her heart squeezed at the poor guy who had come here and worked so hard.
As soon as the guard went out of sight, she lifted her stun gun and moved quickly across the carpet, staying close to the wall on her right. Once she passed the staircase going down, she stopped at the first door. No lights shined out from beneath.
She opened it carefully and kept her voice low. “Phoebe?”
No one answered. Closing it softly, she opened the next door.
Someone gasped in a high-pitched voice.
Hallene whispered, “Phoebe?”
Loud sniffling, then Phoebe begged in a trembling voice, “Go away. Leave me alone.”
Hallene’s heart broke at the terror in the girl’s voice because Phoebe couldn’t see who entered. Still, her heart pounded, excited to have found the girl.
She took a step in, quietly saying, “Stay calm. It’s me—”
Something hard slammed Hallene in the side of her head. She went down to the sound of Phoebe screaming.