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TIME of ATTACK
By MARC CAMERON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Marc Cameron
All rights reserved.
U.S. Air Force Academy Colorado Springs
Jericho Quinn wished he was on a motorcycle. The mess dress uniform, the tie, the crowds of wedding guests he didn't know, all left him with the urge to step away for air. He could put on a good face for a short time, socialize, tell polite stories. He was, after all, an officer and a gentleman trained on the very grounds of this hallowed institution. But it didn't take long before such talk grew thin and he found himself longing for that quiet place inside his helmet—on a long ride. It really didn't matter where.
Gunnery Sergeant Jacques Thibodaux stepped up beside him, dipping a Marine Corps high-and-tight toward Quinn's ex-wife's date. Air Force Captain Gary Lavin strutted around like a peacock, giving advice to anyone who would listen about all on which he was an expert, which, according to him, was everything under the Colorado sun. Kim appeared to agree.
Jericho couldn't help wincing every time the man opened his mouth.
"You know, 'Because he needed killin' ain't a valid defense in court," Thibodaux grunted. His voice was steeped in a gumbo-thick Cajun rhythm. Huge shoulders threw Quinn and much of the real estate around him into shadows. A black patch covered an injured eye, courtesy of flying shrapnel from a gunfight in a Bolivian jungle just weeks before.
Both men were OGAs—Other Governmental Agents, detailed from their regular assignments to report directly to the president's national security advisor. Quinn with Air Force OSI, Jacques from the Marine Corps.
Quinn chuckled. "Whatever. He's Kim's business." He nodded at Thibodaux's patch to move the subject away from his ex-wife's love life. "How's the eye?"
"It is what it is." Thibodaux shrugged. "Doc says getting my vision back is still touch and go. I don't really mind, though." He gave Quinn a sly wink with his good eye. "Camille likes it when I wear the patch to bed. She says it's like wrestlin' with a James Bond villain."
"You've been waiting all day to tell me that, haven't you?" Quinn said.
"Maybe." The big man laughed. "Speakin' of wrest ling with villains, how's your baby brother? Is our pretty little Russian friend still takin' care of him?"
"He'll be in the hospital for the next week or so." Quinn's younger brother, Bo, had been wounded in the same gunfight where Jacques injured his eye. "And yes, the boss worked it out with State so she can stay in the States for a while. But, her allegiance is to mother Russia. She'll likely slip away someday soon when Bo's heart is healthy enough to break."
Prone to fits of pensive philosophy, the big Cajun turned to gaze across the concrete deck at the bride and groom. He shook his head. "Damn women, they get us all, later or sooner. If you're single, they sneak up at you when you ain't lookin' and convince you you'll just die if you don't marry 'em. If you are married, then one comes along, sneaks up at you, and does her level best to make you single. They do it just for giggles, I expect."
Quinn scoffed, looking at the Marine's raven-haired wife, where she sat on the concrete wall with a blanket across her shoulder, nursing her baby, Henry—which Jacques pronounced closer to Ornery. Somehow, between Thibodaux's repeated deployments to the Middle East, he'd found the time to father seven sons. Each of the older six now wore a black eye patch to show solidarity for his daddy.
"I don't know," Quinn said, "you seem pretty settled."
"Oh, I am, l'ami." Jacques gave a somber nod. "And Camille's pretty good with a knife, if I ever decide I ain't."
"So," Quinn mused, half interested, half placating his friend's desire to philosophize about females. "You think a woman will be the end of me?"
The Cajun smacked Quinn on the back with a roaring laugh. "You kiddin' me, beb? You're here with the hottest jolie fille at the party, meantime you still broodin' over your ex. You're damn right it'll be a woman to bring you down."
A thousand meters to the west, the sweet hint of peppermint and gun oil hung in a deadly cloud among the shadowed boughs of a thick juniper. Not so tall as to stand out from its surrounding neighbors, the tree stood on a swell of earth across Academy Drive, with a perfect firing lane to the concrete deck in front of the cadet chapel.
A young Japanese woman settled among the branches, her almond eye behind a powerful Leupold scope. Strong legs entwined gnarled limbs, boots against the peeling bark of the trunk. Braced but relaxed, she melded into the lines and shadows of the tree like a leopardess in the relative comfort of her hide.
Thick black hair hung across the oval features of her face like a sniper veil, parting to fall around each side of the .338 Lapua rifle. She was still years from thirty, but the flint-hard look in her eyes overshadowed her youthfulness. She'd learned to mask the hardness, but if anyone with discernment looked at her long enough, the age of her experience showed through. Two men had questioned her—each during an intimate moment when she'd let her guard down. She'd answered each in turn with a dagger to the throat.
She was dressed as a tourist, and her green long-sleeve T-shirt and dark jeans were tight enough that anyone from the Security Police would not think to look at anything else. An hour before, she'd batted her eyes at the baby-faced airman as she'd come through the North Gate of the Academy, shoulders relaxed with the full knowledge that if he tried to search her vehicle she'd kill him before he got to the trunk.
Of course, he had smiled and waved her through.
Once on base, she'd parked in the lot at the Academy Visitors Center beside a van belonging to a group of elderly tourists. She'd carried the three pieces of the custom rifle—barrel and action, Kevlar stock, and 3X12 mil-dot scope—in a flowered green case meant for a tennis racket. It was the weekend, and, for all anyone on campus knew, she was a female cadet out to enjoy the warm weather. Once off the trail, the earth tones of her clothing made it easy to disappear into the leafy undergrowth that surrounded the Academy.
If anyone happened on her now that she had the rifle assembled, there would be no doubt as to what she was and what she intended to do. But that would not happen. She was well hidden. Her mission would be over in a matter of moments. She would pull the trigger and then melt into the traffic on Interstate 25 before the echo of the gunshot died against the mountains.
The young woman sucked on the peppermint, letting it click against her teeth as she played the scope's graduated crosshairs across the wedding party. She let them rest on the gaunt lines of Quinn's jaw, just forward of his ear. He was handsome enough, with the rugged, predatory look she preferred in her men. The scope was strong enough she could tell that he needed to shave. His movements were smooth, as if every one had been choreographed and practiced many times. It would be such a shame to kill him.
She let the crosshairs drop to settle over his bow tie. From this distance the 250-grain spitzer ballistic-tip bullet would drop enough to hit him center chest. But, it was not yet time for that. She nudged the scope to the left. There were other ways to destroy a man's heart.
Quinn's seven-year-old daughter, Mattie, skipped across the concrete deck, rescuing him from further philosophy discussions with Thibodaux. He leaned forward, shoulder locked so she could hang on his forearm and do pull-ups. Despite acting as human jungle gym, the dark blue lines of Quinn's mess dress uniform were straight and razor creased. His shoulder boards—bearing the silver bars of a captain—his jump wings, and the three rows of miniature service medals on his chest were all perfect. Even the blue satin bow tie remained neat and snug, though he longed to rip the damned thing off and would at the first opportunity. Sometimes he thought he might hate neckties more than he hated terrorists.
The apple of Quinn's eye, Mattie had the face of her mother but with his dark hair. She'd also been cursed with his boundless energy and lust for adventure. From the time the wedding ceremony ended hardly a moment had gone by before she started begging to carry his ceremonial Air Force saber. He'd been able to calm the little dynamo for the time being with gymnastics and prevent her from hacking away at the guests with the sword.
Kim, Mattie's mother and Quinn's ex-wife, looked on with pursed lips, as if she had a bug trapped behind her teeth. It was warm for January in Colorado and a slight breeze tousled her blond hair. She was beautiful when she wasn't angry, which sadly was seldom the case. Her date didn't seem to make her happy. He was an Air Force Academy classmate of Quinn's. It stood to reason she'd end up with the guy. Gary Lavin had been sniffing around her since Quinn had taken her to the ring dance their junior year at USAFA. Apart from being a world-class know-it-all, Lavin was dull as uncooked oatmeal by Quinn's standards. Maybe that's what Kim was looking for all along—dullness—something Quinn had never been able to give her.
Jericho couldn't really blame her for bringing a date. They'd been divorced for years. She could see whoever she wanted to see. He certainly did. Jacques was right. He was with the most beautiful woman at the wedding—a fact that probably had a great deal to do with Kim's sour expression.
Veronica "Ronnie" Garcia had received permission to take a long weekend break from CIA training at Camp Peary to attend the wedding with him. Of Cuban and Russian descent, she was a tall but rounded woman—as her father had put it, on the athletic side of zaftig. The curves and swells of her coffee-and-cream skin filled her bright yellow dress with a sort of snug innocence, as if she was unaware of how alluring she actually was.
"I think you and your papa could go on like this all day," Garcia said, laughing an honest, abandoned laugh at Mattie and her pull-ups.
"That we could," Quinn said. He glanced over his shoulder at the steps leading from the angular white spires of the cadet chapel where Steve and Connie Brun stood in mess-dress tux and radiant white gown for their last few photographs. Other wedding guests, including Major Brett Moore—the B-1 bomber pilot who'd rescued Quinn from the Bolivian jungle just weeks before—mingled at the base of the steps behind the photographer. Some wore civilian clothes, but enough were in uniform to leave no doubt that Connie had entered not only the Brun family, but the United States Air Force family as well. Everyone chatted and laughed, watching the couple in the sunshine. The weather along Colorado's Front Range had given the bride a perfect wedding gift with unseasonable temperatures in the high fifties.
Quinn was glad for the warmth but wished they would hurry with the photos so he could go somewhere and get rid of his tie.
Kim took a step closer, clearing her throat the way she did when she was about to lay down one of her immutable laws. For a small woman, she could pronounce edicts like Queen Victoria.
"You're rumpling your clothes, Mattie." She put a hand out to take the little girl by the arm. "Come on. Let's get you straightened up." Both wore soft, robin's-egg blue dresses that reminded Quinn of photos from all the Easters he'd missed.
Ronnie sidled up to pull on the ends of Quinn's bow tie while Kim helped Mattie with the sash on her dress. Gary Lavin stood by, fidgeting. He'd chased away all the guests and could find no more victims to share in his vast knowledge.
Thibodaux sauntered back up with two of his seven boys, complete with their eye patches, swinging on a massive arm.
"Y'all go play with your brothers." He shook them off, grinning at Quinn. "Hey, l'ami," he said in an easy Louisiana drawl. "I'll deny it if you quote me to another Marine, but you Chair Force boys manage to be pretty STRAC here at the Wild Blue U."
Ronnie Garcia nodded, fluttering thick lashes that shone in the light like a hummingbird's wing. She ran the tip of a long finger over Quinn's shoulder boards. "Strategic, Tough, and Ready Around the Clock, that's Jericho."
"Is that what STRAC stands for?" Thibodaux snorted. He kept his voice low so Mattie couldn't hear him. "I thought it meant Shit, The Russians Are Comin' ..."
The Japanese woman behind the rifle was tempted to shoot the big Cajun in his good eye. He was Quinn's friend, so his death would suit the purposes of her employer nicely. On the other hand, the new bride made a tempting target, fairly glowing in her white dress under the midwinter sun. A splash of red might make for a nice complement.
The woman swung the rifle a fraction of an inch. Perhaps the ex-wife. All reports indicated Quinn still worshipped the woman, though she would have little to do with him. That fact alone made her a less than desirable choice. Such a woman was better left alive to add to his misery.
The crosshairs hovered over Garcia—beautiful Veronica, with her curvy hips and full breasts. Her body alone was enough to make her a target. The sniper allowed herself the hint of a smile. I ought to send you a bullet, she thought. If only to get you out of the way. It would be a favor to all others of our sex. But no, that was not quite right, either. She and Quinn were a couple, but girlfriends came and went. Garcia's death might not cause the magnitude of emotion that was needed ...
She'd saved the most likely for last.
Godlike, the sniper watched little Mattie swing on her papa's outstretched arm. There was an undeniable bond between a father and his precious daughter. The woman holding the rifle knew that from experience. Her own father had taught her how to kill a man when she was much younger than Mattie Quinn.
Target acquired, she took note of a light crosswind coming from her left, estimating it at less than five knots. She adjusted her windage and elevation for the drift and drop that would affect the 250-grain bullet during its quick journey of 3,900 feet. She parked the peppermint next to her back teeth and slowed her breathing—allowing her mind to clear. Bud dhists called it mu-shin or no thought. Inhaling slowly, she released half, then held it. The picture in the scope came into crisp focus. All else around her fell away.
Jericho Quinn and his precious little girl threw their heads back in laughter as the trigger broke with a crisp snap. The powerful rifle bucked in the woman's hands. Quinn would live for a few hours more, but in the space of his next heartbeat, he would be done with such laughter forever.CHAPTER 2
"It really is time to go," Kim said, her voice an exasperated sigh.
Mattie gathered the hem of her dress for another giant leap into her father's arms.
"Listen to Mom, kiddo," Quinn said, his arms still outstretched, ready for Mattie's last leap. "I'll see you back at the hotel."
Kim moved closer, ready to snatch her out of the air in midjump. "Guess I have to be the bad guy—"
Quinn heard the crack of a supersonic bullet as it hissed past. He was all too familiar with the downrange pop of gunfire. Time seemed to unhinge and slow as if he were moving through life a half step faster than everyone around him. Voices, screams, the sound of running footsteps became muffled and low.
A lock of his daughter's dark ponytail lay on the concrete walk at his feet, neatly clipped by the passing bullet while she clung to his neck.
Forcing himself to exhale, Quinn grabbed Mattie by the face with both hands, scanning her for wounds. He was rougher than he should have been. Startled, she began to cry but was otherwise fine. He shot a quick glance over his shoulder at Garcia, who nodded immediately that she was unharmed. Behind her and nearer the steps, Steve Brun had his new bride and everyone around them moving toward the opposite side of the chapel, out of the line of fire. An Air Force Special Operator like Quinn, Steve knew the drill.
Thibodaux was also well accustomed to the unique sound of bullets flying in his direction and shooed his wife and boys toward the relative safety of the cadet chapel's lower level.
The distant pop of a rifle moaned in on the breeze, and Quinn made a subconscious mental note of the time between the bullet's passing and the report.
Excerpted from TIME of ATTACK by MARC CAMERON. Copyright © 2014 Marc Cameron. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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