Teddy Riner went down first. Of the two seconds it took him to fall, the man had been dead for one of them. On the other side Cal Plummer fell to the ground like he’d been pole-axed by a giant. As Web watched helplessly, up and down the compact lines heavy ordnance impacted with Kevlar and then flesh, and then there was nothing else. It didn’t seem right for good men to die so quietly.
Before the guns started firing, Web had fallen on his rifle and it was wedged under him. He could barely breathe; his Kevlar and weapons seemed crushed against his diaphragm. There was stuff on his mask. He couldn’t know, but it was part of Teddy Riner, throw-off from the monster round that had blown a hole the size of a man’s palm through his body armor and sent part of Riner flying back to where Web lay, dead last of Charlie Team and, ironically enough, the only one still living.
Web still felt paralyzed, none of his limbs responding to pleas from his brain to move. Had he suffered a stroke at age thirty-seven? Then suddenly the sounds of gunfire seemed to clear his head, the feeling finally returned to his arms and legs and he managed to rip off his mask and roll on his back. He exhaled a gush of foul air and screamed in relief. Now Web was staring straight up at the sky. He saw spears of lightning, though he couldn’t hear even the belly rumbles of the thunder over the gunfire.
He had a powerful if insane urge to lift up his hand into the maelstrom above him, perhaps to confirm the presence of the bullets racing past, as though he were a youngster told not to touch a hot stove and who would then, of course, think of nothing else. Instead he reached down to his belt, undid the latch on a side pouch and pulled out his thermal imager. On the blackest night the TI would pick up an entire world invisible to the unaided eye, zeroing in on the core heat signature that burned in just about everything.
Though he was unable to see them even with the TI, Web could easily sense the vapor trails thrown off by the net of bullets zipping across above him. Web also observed that the dense gunfire was coming from two separate directions: the tenement building dead ahead and a dilapidated structure to the immediate right. He looked through his TI at the latter building and saw nothing but jagged glass. And then Web observed something that made his body tense even more. The muzzle flashes were erupting at the same time at each of the shattered windows. They moved across the apertures, stopped for a few seconds, and then moved back across, as the gun barrels he could not see yet knew were there completed their controlled firing arc.
As the gunfire began anew, Web rolled over on his belly and stared at the original target building through his imager. Here too there was a line of windows in the lower level of the target. And the same muzzle flashes were occurring with the exact same synchronized arc of movement. Web could now make out the long barrels of the machine guns. Through the TI the silhouettes of the guns were brick-red, the metal molten hot from the amount of ammo they were spraying. No human outline, though, came up on his thermal, and if any man had been in the vicinity, Web’s imager would have nailed him. He was for sure looking at some kind of remote-controlled firing post. He now knew that his team had been set up, ambushed, without the enemy putting a single man at risk.
The slugs ricocheted off the brick walls behind and to the right of him, and Web felt bits of shrapnel hitting all around, like hardened raindrops. At least a dozen times the deflections had skimmed his Kevlar, but most of their speed and lethality had already been depleted. He kept his unarmored legs and arms tight to the asphalt. However, not even his Kevlar could withstand a direct hit, for the machine guns were almost certainly doling out .50-caliber ordnance, with each round as long as a butter knife and probably armor-piercing too. Web could gauge all this from the supersonic cracking sound made by the guns and the signature muzzle flash. And the vapor trail of a .50-caliber was also something pretty damn unforgettable. In fact you felt the snap before you even heard the round. It raised every hair on your body, as lightning did right before its fatal blow.
Web screamed out the names of his teammates one by one. No answer. No movement. No moans, no body twitches to show that life was still out there somewhere. And still Web yelled out their names again and again, like some insane roll call. Everywhere around him garbage cans exploded, glass burst, walls of brick were being eroded as if bludgeoning rivers were carving canyons. This was Normandy Beach, or more aptly Pickett’s Charge, and Web had just lost his entire army. Alley vermin fled the slaughter. That courtyard was as clean of such rodents as it ever had been. No city inspector had ever done as good a job as rhythmic .50-caliber ordnance did that night.
Web didn’t want to die, but every time he looked at what was left of his team, a part of him wanted to join them. The family fought and died together. It held some appeal for Web. He actually felt his legs tense for such a leap to eternity, yet something stronger took hold and he stayed hunkered down. To die was to lose. To give up was to let everyone perish in vain.
Where the hell were X-Ray and Whiskey? Why weren’t they fast-roping to the rescue? The snipers on the buildings overlooking the courtyard couldn’t come down without getting ripped apart, though, yet there were other snipers on the roofs of the buildings along the alley Charlie had come through. They could rope down. But would TOC give them the green light? Maybe not, if TOC didn’t know what was going on, and how could they? Web didn’t even know what the hell was going on, and he was right in the middle of it. Yet he couldn’t exactly hang around waiting for TOC to make up their mind until a stray round made it a clean sweep of Web’s team.
He felt a thin layer of panic settle over him despite years of training designed specifically to banish that weakness from his psyche. Action, he needed to be doing something. His bone mic lost, Web snared his portable Motorola from its shoulder Velcro patch. He pushed the button, yelled into it. “HR fourteen to TOC, HR fourteen to TOC.” No response. He changed to the backup frequency and then to a general purpose one. Still nothing. He looked at the radio and his spirits sank. The front was smashed from where he had fallen on it. Web slithered forward until he reached Cal Plummer’s body. When he tried to grab Plummer’s two-way radio, something hit Web’s hand and he pulled it back. A ricochet only; a direct hit would’ve taken his hand off. Web counted five fingers still there, and the intense pain made him want to fight, to live. If for no other reason than to destroy whoever had done this, although Web’s bag of tricks was almost empty. And for the first time in his career Web wondered if the opposition he now faced was actually better than he was.
Web knew that if he stopped thinking he still might leap up, firing at nothing that could be killed. So he focused on the tactical scenario. He was in a carefully confined death zone, automatic firing arcs on two sides, forming a ninety-degree angle of destruction and providing no human agent that could be stopped. Okay, that was the field situation. Now what the hell was he supposed to do about it? What chapter was that in the manual? The one that read, “You’re screwed”? God, the sounds were deafening. He couldn’t even hear his heart pounding. His breath came in short gasps. Where the hell were Whiskey and X-Ray? And Hotel? They couldn’t run any faster? And yet what really could they do? They were trained to gun down human targets at both long and close range. He screamed out, “There’s nothing for you to shoot!”
Chin tucked hard to his chest, Web started in surprise as he saw the little boy, the shirtless one from the chunk of concrete. Hands over his ears, the kid was crouched at the edge of the corner, along the alleyway Web and company had come from. If he moved out into the courtyard, Web knew the boy’s body would be going into a morgue bag—probably two morgue bags, because the .50 rounds could actually cut the kid’s skinny body in half.
The boy took a step forward, nearing the end of the brick wall and almost at the courtyard. Maybe he was intending to come help. Maybe he was waiting for the gunfire to stop so he could strip the bodies of any valuables, snagging their weapons for later resale on the streets. Maybe he was just flat-out curious. Web didn’t know or really care.
The guns stopped firing, and just like that there was quiet. The boy took another step forward. Web screamed at him. He froze, obviously not expecting the dead to yell at the living. Web inched up his hand, called to him to keep back, but the gunfire started again and drowned out the end of his warning. Web slithered on his belly under the hail of fire, shouting at the boy with every twist and thrust of his pelvis. “Stay back! Get back!”
The kid didn’t flinch. Web kept his gaze on him, which was difficult when you were double-timing on your gut, afraid that if you raised your head another centimeter you would no longer have a head. The boy finally did what Web thought he would do: He started to fall back. Web crawled faster. The kid turned to run and Web yelled at him to stop. Shockingly, he did.
Web was almost to the edge of the alley. He was going to try and time this just right, for there was now a new element of danger for the child. During the last pause in the firing Web had heard synchronized footsteps and shouts in the distance. They were coming. Web thought it must be everybody: Hotel and the snipers, and the reserve unit that TOC always kept back for emergencies. Well, if this didn’t qualify as an emergency, nothing ever would. Yes, they were hustling to the rescue, or so they thought. What they were really doing though was running blind with no reliable intelligence.
The problem was the kid heard them coming too. Web could tell the boy knew exactly what and who they were, like a scout sniffing the earth and deducing from that the location of great buffalo herds. The boy was feeling trapped, and for good reason. Web knew that for the alley kid to be seen around people like Web was a death sentence here. The powers that be would just assume he was a traitor and deposit his body in the woods as his reward.
The child twitched, looked behind him even as Web picked up his pace. Web lost half his equipment whipping along the rough asphalt like that, a two-hundred-pound serpent on speed. Web could feel the blood coming from a dozen scratches on his legs, hands and face. His left hand stung like a couple thousand wasps were partying there. The body armor was so damn heavy now, his body ached with each thrust of his arms and legs. Web could have dropped his rifle, but he still had use for it. No, he would never let go of the damn SR75.
Web knew what the kid was going to do. Retreat cut off, he was going to go for it, race across the courtyard and then disappear into one of the buildings on the far side. The boy could hear the bullets as well as Web could. Yet he could not see the lines of fire. He could not dodge them. And yet Web knew the boy was about to try.
“You run out there, you die!” Web yelled over the gunfire. He held up his bloody hand. “I’m wearing body armor and I can’t survive out there. Those bullets will cut you in half.”
The boy calmed as he studied Web’s injury. Web carried the kid farther away from the courtyard and the guns. Now they could at least talk without shouting. From some odd impulse, Web touched the bullet wound on the boy’s cheek. “You’ve been lucky before,” Web said. The boy snarled and jerked away from him, breaking free of Web’s grip. He was up, ferretlike, before Web could blink and had turned to run back down the alley. “If you go at them in the dark,” Web said, “your luck runs out. They’ll blow you away.”
The kid stopped and turned back. For the first time his eyes truly seemed to focus on Web. Then he peered beyond to the courtyard.
“They dead?” he asked.
In answer Web slipped the big rifle from his shoulder. The boy took a step back at the sight of the intimidating weapon.
“Damn, mister, whatcha gonna do with that?”
“Stay here and keep down,” Web said. He turned back to the courtyard. Sirens were everywhere now. The cavalry was coming, too late, as the cavalry always did. The smartest thing to do would be nothing. Yet that just wasn’t going to cut it. Web had a job to finish. He ripped a piece of paper from the notebook he carried on his belt and scribbled a quick note. He then pulled off the cap he wore under his helmet “Here,” he said to the kid. “Walk, don’t run, back down the alley. Hold up this cap and give this note to the men coming this way.” The boy took the items, his long fingers curled around the cloth of the cap and the folded paper. Web pulled his flare gun from its pouch and loaded in a flare. “When I fire, you go. Walk!” Web said again. “Don’t run.”
The boy looked down at the note. Web had no idea if he could even read. Around here you didn’t assume that children received the fundamentals of education that other kids took for granted. “What’s your name?” Web asked. The boy needed to be calm now. Nervous people made mistakes. And Web knew the charging men would cremate anyone who came rushing at them.
“Kevin,” the boy answered. As he said his own name, he suddenly looked like the frightened little kid that he was, and Web felt even guiltier about what he was asking the boy to do.
“Okay, Kevin, I’m Web. You do what I say and you’ll be okay. You can trust me,” he said, and then felt guiltier still. Web pointed the flare gun to the sky, looked at Kevin, nodded reassuringly and then fired. The flare would be their first warning. The note carried by Kevin would be their second. The boy moved off, walking, but walking fast. “Don’t run,” Web yelled. He turned back to the courtyard and slid his thermal imager onto the rifle’s Picatinny rail and locked it into place.
The red-colored flare bloodied the sky and in his mind Web saw the assaulters and snipers stop and consider this development. That would give the boy time to reach them. Kevin would not die, not tonight anyway. When the next pause in the wave of fire came, Web burst out from the alley, rolled and brought the rifle up as he assumed a prone firing position and flipped down the rifle’s bipod, pressing the weapon’s butt flush against his shoulder. The three windows dead ahead were his first targets. He could see the muzzle flashes with his own eyes easily enough, but the thermal allowed him to draw a bead on the heated outlines of the machine guns. That’s what he wanted to hit. The SR75 roared and one machine gun nest after another exploded. Web rammed in another twenty-round mag, aimed the rifle and pulled the trigger, and four more machine guns were finally silenced. The last gun nest was still firing when Web crawled forward and lobbed a concussion grenade into its throat. And then there was silence until Web emptied both of his .45s at the now-silent window openings, ejected cartridges tumbling out of the weapons like parachutists from a plane’s belly. When the last shot was fired, Web doubled over, sucking in precious air. He was so hot he thought he might spontaneously combust. Then the clouds opened and the rain came down hard. He looked over and saw an armor-coated assaulter cautiously edge into the courtyard. Web tried to wave to him, but his arm wouldn’t follow through; it just hung limply by his side.
Web surveyed the shattered bodies of his team, his friends spread over the slick pavement. Then he sank to his knees. He was alive and he didn’t really want to be. The last thing Web London remembered from that night was watching drops of his sweat fall into the blood-tinted pools of rain.
Randall Cove was a very big man endowed with great physical strength and also remarkable street instincts that he had further honed over many years of working them. He was an FBI undercover agent and had been one for nearly seventeen years. He had infiltrated Latino drug gangs in LA, Hispanic crews on the Tex-Mex border and heavyweight Europeans in south Florida. Most of his missions had been startling and, at times, nail-biting successes. He was currently armed with a .40 semiautomatic chambering hollow points that would collapse to small pancakes when they entered a body, wreaking internal havoc and probably death. He also had a sheathed knife with a serrated edge that he could use to slash vital arteries in a blur. He always prided himself on being professional and reliable in his work. Right now some ignorant people would condemn him as a vicious criminal who should be locked up for life or, better yet, executed for his terrible sins. Cove knew he was in serious trouble and he also realized he was the only one who could get himself out of it.
Cove crouched low in the car and watched as the group of men climbed in their vehicles and headed out. As soon as they passed, Cove rose, waited a bit and then followed them. He pulled his ski cap tighter over his newly shorn head, the dreadlocks all gone, and about time too, he had decided. The cars stopped up ahead and Cove did too. When he saw the group of men emerge from the vehicles, Cove pulled a camera from his backpack and clicked away. He put away the Nikon, pulled out a pair of night binoculars and adjusted the distance magnifier. Cove nodded to himself as he tallied the men one by one.
He inhaled and let go of one last deep breath and took a fast-forward reel on his life thus far as the group disappeared into a building. In college Cove had been a bigger, faster version of Walter Payton; a consensus All-American from Oklahoma, every NFL team was throwing bales of cash and other perks at him. They were, that is, until a ruptured ACL in both knees during a freakish spill at the scouting combine had reduced him from a supernatural guaranteed number-one pick to a man with merely normal abilities who no longer excited NFL coaches. Millions of potential dollars had disappeared instantly and the only way of life he had ever known had vanished along with them. He had moped for a couple of years, looking for excuses and pity, and his life had spiraled downward until it had nowhere else to go, and then he had found her. His wife had been a divine intervention, he had always believed, saving his miserable, self-pitying carcass from oblivion. With her help, he had straightened himself out and fulfilled a secret dream of his to be a real-life G-man.
He had bounced here and there in the Bureau. It was a time when opportunities for black men were still severely limited. Cove had found himself pushed toward drug undercover work, because his superiors had bluntly informed him that most of the “bad dudes” were people of his color. You can walk the walk and talk the talk and you look the part too, they had said. And he couldn’t argue with that, really. The work was dangerous enough to never be boring. Randall Cove had never easily tolerated being bored. And he put away more crooks in a month than most agents put away in their entire careers, and these were big fish, the planners, the true moneymakers, not the nickel-and-dime streetwalkers one bad snort from a pauper’s grave. He and his wife had had two beautiful children and he was thinking seriously of calling it a career when the bottom had dropped out of his world and he no longer had a wife or kids.
He snapped back as the men came out, climbed in the cars, drove off and Cove once more followed. Cove had lost something else that he could never get back. Six men had died because he had messed up badly, been snookered like the most green agent there was. His pride was hurt and his anger was molten. And the seventh member of the shattered team deeply intrigued Cove. The man had survived when he should have been dead too and apparently nobody knew why, though it was early in the game yet. Cove wanted to look the man in the eye and say, How come you’re still breathing? He didn’t have Web London’s file and he didn’t see himself getting it anytime soon. Yeah, Cove was FBI, but yeah, everyone was no doubt thinking he had turned traitor. Undercover agents were supposed to live right next to the edge, weren’t they? They were supposedly all head cases, right? What a thankless job he’d been doing all these years, but that was okay because he had done it for himself, nobody else.
The cars pulled into the long drive and Cove stopped, took some more pictures and then turned around. That was apparently it for tonight. He headed back to the only place he could be safe right now, and it wasn’t home. As he rounded a curve and sped up, a pair of headlights seemed to appear out of nowhere and settled in behind him. That wasn’t good, not on a road like this. Attention from his fellow man was not something Cove ever sought or encouraged. He turned; so did the car. Okay, this was serious. He sped up again. So did the tail. Cove reached down to his belt holster, pulled out his pistol and made sure the safety was off.
He glanced in the rearview mirror to see if he could tell how -->