What is taking Tucker so long?
They needed confirmation from him—or, more precisely, from his partner.
Kane abandons bright sunlight for darkness as he ducks through heavy posts and under the raised wooden structure. It is cooler here. For a breath, he is blind as his pupils dilate and adjust to the darkness. Still, his ears prick, stretching senses deep into the shadows. He takes it all in, to fill the darkness with meaning and substance.
The creak of wood above …
The beat of boot heels on planks …
The drip-drip-dripping farther back …
He tastes the shadows with tongue and nose. Waste and spoor, oil and sludge. Farther back, a sharper taint that sets his hackles to rising. Fetid, with the promise of meat. He follows the trickling sound, sniffs where it falls in fat droplets from above.
But that is not why he’s come.
He has been given a scent, trapped in a wad of cloth, smelling of sweat, and salt, and oil, and a feminine musk. He was sent on the hunt for it. He lifts his nose toward the planks above, where the blood seeps. He sniffs, drawing in the richness there, expanding trails in all directions, so many.
But through it all, a single thread matches, connecting here to that wad of cloth. He has found what he hunted.
He points his nose to the scent and voices his success—not the howl of wildness buried in his bones. That is not his way. He lets flow a soft whine, deep in his throat, proclaiming his victory.
He hears words in one ear that melt through him. “Good dog.”
He breathes in his satisfaction and lowers to his haunches; only now do his eyes fill in the spaces left bare by scent and sound.
Out of the darkness, a pair of red lights shines back at him, tiny and sharp. They come from devices attached to large barrels, reeking of rusted metal and bitter oil.
His hackles shiver, sensing danger.
At the edge of the forest, Tucker lived half in his skin, half in another.
He had heard what Kane heard: creaking and boot steps. And he saw what Kane saw: fluid seeping through the planks from above. But was it blood, oil, water? He couldn’t say for sure.
Then Kane pointed his nose, followed by a soft whine.
He radioed it to Gray. “Kane found Amanda’s scent at the cabin. She was there.”
And maybe still is.
“Understood,” came the response, tense. “Clear a path and get in there. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
As Gray finished, the image on the small screen swung to the side. The gritty night vision of Kane’s camera revealed two large barrels, spaced at equal distance in the crawlspace under the tent-cabin. He read the word kerosene stenciled on one of them. Worst of all, attached to their sides, two glowing transmitters illuminated explosive charges.
Panicked, he touched his throat mike. “Commander—”
Gunfire cut off the rest of his warning.
Seichan fired, clipping the scarred man in the left knee. He toppled with a scream of surprise. Gray strafed the soldiers gathered on their side of the Land Rover. Kowalski and Jain did the same on the other.
Seichan dashed out of hiding to protect the boy, who had dropped flat as the firefight commenced. She strode to the downed soldier, while firing two rounds at another commando sheltered behind one of the Land Rover’s open doors. The scarred monster on the ground swung his pistol at her, but she put a bullet through his throat, collected his weapon, and fired both guns at the truck, pistols now blazing in both fists.
“Get off the road!” she hollered at Baashi.
He leaped like a frightened doe into the sheltering forest.
A commando got behind the wheel of the Land Rover, cranked the engine, and hit the accelerator. The truck barreled toward her.
She stood her ground, aimed both guns, and fired a single round from each.
Left, to shatter the windshield.
Right, to put a round through the driver’s eye.
She stepped aside as the truck’s momentum carried it toward her, veering drunkenly at the last second and crashing into the woods.
The firefight lasted another ten seconds—and ended as abruptly as it started. Soldiers sprawled, limp and unmoving on the road.
Gray cleared the forest, holding a hand over his left ear, listening, likely to Tucker. He glanced toward the tent-cabin with a grimace of worry. He pointed his other arm down the road.
The loud rumble of trucks drew her attention around. Brakes squealed. Those coming had heard the gunplay.
“Keep them off our backs for as long as possible,” he ordered—then took off into the campsite on foot.
Seichan stared down the forested tunnel. Her group had the element of surprise before. That was no longer the case. And the enemy had three times their force, vastly outnumbering and outgunning them.
Kowalski and Jain joined her, sharing concerned but determined looks.
Seichan glanced over her shoulder as Gray disappeared from view. She hoped the president’s daughter was still here, still alive. Either way, they were committed now. She waved the others back into hiding.
“You heard Gray,” she said. “We hold our ground here.”
It had better be worth it.
Tucker dropped the last of the three soldiers in the camp, the one with the wheelbarrow. The kills felt cowardly, but he had no time for delicacy; all he could do was grant them clean head shots.
But he knew there was at least one other enemy, remembering the creak of boards from inside the cabin. Whoever was holed up there had surely heard the attack—but what would they do?
Gray appeared to his left, pistol in hand, running for the lone structure. Tucker had managed to get word to him as the firefight ended, warning of the fiery bomb hidden under the tent.
Tucker took a fast glance at his phone’s screen. A bobbling image showed Kane still struggling to yank away the first glowing transceiver from the explosive charge. Tucker had lost precious seconds trying to get his dog to understand, directing Kane via radioed commands. Even as close as they were, there were limits to their communication.
Tucker had to do something. He burst out of hiding and sprinted toward the cabin, too. He was closer, but Gray had a head start. They should reach the door at the same time.
He lifted his phone. On the screen, Kane yanked his head and the bright glow of the transceiver died.
Kane turned to the other charge, shining brightly in the dark. He took a step toward it—when the light began to blink rapidly.
Illuminated digits flared into existence on the device.
Cursing, Tucker skidded to a stop. The bastard inside had activated the charge, set to a timer. Rifle blasts drew Tucker’s attention from the screen. The last soldier slammed out of the cabin door, weapon at his hip, firing wildly, trying to make a break before those seconds ran out.