The thump-thump of a helicopter grew louder.

Gray searched the skies, knowing it was too soon for the SEAL team to arrive—and he was right. A familiar military-gray chopper rushed across the treetops, coming from the direction of the main road. It was the same attack helicopter that had laid waste to the UNICEF base.

It seemed all of the hens were returning to roost.

A whistling rocket screamed from the chopper’s undercarriage, blazing a trail of fire and smoke. It streaked down and slammed into the hood of the Rover headed toward the forest. The truck flipped end-over-end—then exploded as it landed.

Gray crouched, stunned.

Overhead, gunfire chattered from the open door of the chopper’s rear cabin as it rushed past. A familiar figure hung out the door, pointing his weapon below.

Captain Trevor Alden.

Gray remembered his last view of the British soldier, manning the turret of the Ferret armored car, guns blazing. He must have somehow forced the chopper down and commandeered it for the British Special Forces. Then he’d come looking for them.

A decision the captain might still regret.

The second Rover, which had braked to a stop with the arrival of the helicopter, believing them allies, gunned its engine and raced across the camp. The chopper had to swing around, twisting in midair to bring its rockets to bear.

A soldier popped out of the Rover’s open sunroof, hauling and balancing the black tube of a grenade launcher on his shoulder. At such close range, the shooter could not miss.

Gray lifted his rifle, but the Rover zigzagged crazily across the fiery camp. He’d never hit the soldier holding the launcher. But he found something that wasn’t moving.

The second barrel of kerosene, blasted free by the explosion, lay on its side in a pool of leaking oil. The Rover, its driver focused above, sped toward it—or at least close enough. Gray couldn’t trust firing into the barrel itself. Despite what had been portrayed in movies, such shots seldom caused an explosion.

Instead, he needed to light the barrel’s wick.

Cocking his eye to the scope, he fired into a neighboring smoking section of floor planking. The wood exploded and rained fiery slivers across the pool of kerosene. Flames flared where they landed and chased across the oil’s surface, aiming for the leaking barrel.

The Rover then sped across and blocked his view.

Had he timed it—?

The explosion blew a fireball into the sky and shoved the truck to the side. Flaming oil blasted through the open windows, setting fire to everything.

Screams rang out.

A door fell open, revealing the hell inside.

Then the stockpile of grenades exploded within the cabin, shattering apart the Rover.

Gray ducked.

The helicopter dove away, churning through the smoke.

Straightening back up, Gray realized—after his ears stopped ringing—that all the gunfire had ended. He turned and saw Kowalski and Seichan enter the camp from the road, shouldering the thin form of Jain between them. The trio must have dispatched the last truck on their own, but not without a cost. The major limped on one leg, the other bled fiercely.

“She’s shot!” Kowalski bellowed.

Jain frowned up at him. “I’m fine. It’s your bloody body odor that might kill me before this little scratch.”

Still, Alden must have witnessed the injury to his teammate.

The chopper tilted to the side and sought a safe place to land.

Tucker also returned from the forest with his dog. Gray noted the eye of the camera facing him. His satellite phone was likely melted to slag inside the ruins of his smoldering shoulder pack.

The sting of the burn along his back flared as he searched the debris. He needed to communicate with Painter. This couldn’t wait. But the director had warned him that the audio pickup was crap on the dog’s video feed. Gray could not let this next message be misconstrued.

He found a piece of tent fabric, burned at the edges, and used the tip of a charred stick to write a short note.

He prayed it reached Painter.

8:44 A.M. EST

Washington, DC

Smoke obscured most of the view of the fiery camp. There was little else to see on the video, especially as the helicopter landed, stirring up a whirlwind of debris.

Painter wasn’t the only one to realize the same.

The defense secretary still stood beside Robert Gant with a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Go,” Duncan said. “This is over, Bobby. Join your family. They need you now more than we do.”

Robert continued to stare at the monitor, but Painter suspected he didn’t see anything, lost in the depths of the tragedy.

Finally, a rattling sigh escaped him. He stared at Painter, but the fire there had snuffed out in his eyes, leaving only a dull grief. He looked a decade older than his sixty-six years. He simply patted Duncan’s side and exited without a word.

But the defense secretary was not done. He pointed at Painter’s boss, his voice stone-cold. “I would have a word with you, General Metcalf. In private.”

“I understand.” Metcalf cast Painter a withering glance.

The two men exited, but not before Duncan poked a finger into Painter’s chest. “I want a report on my desk within the hour.” He waved to the monitor. “And a copy of this feed. I want a full accounting of this tragedy … every detail on how this all went to hell.”

The two men exited, leaving Painter alone in the conference room.

On the monitor, the smoke cleared. Gray’s face swelled into the camera. His lips moved, but the audio was still down. Then Gray stepped back and lifted a bit of burned fabric into view. He had written something on it.

As Painter read the scribbled words, he stumbled forward in disbelief. He caught himself on the edge of the table.

How could this be?

He stared toward the door, ready to run out, to call the others back. He even took a step in that direction—then stopped, his mind working furiously, running various permutations through his head.

He covered his mouth with his hand.

There remained too many variables, too much unknown and unexplained. The truth revealed on the screen was too valuable to release without thought. But it was also a cruelty beyond words to remain silent.

Still, he slowly turned to the table, picked up the remote control, and switched off the monitor. He would have to edit away this last bit of video before he handed it off to Warren Duncan.

He stared at the dark monitor, judging if he was capable of doing this. But his job was to make the hard decisions, no matter who got hurt. And this was one of the hardest.

He pictured Teresa dissolving into despair and grief; he heard again her scream of denial, her railing against what could not be true.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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