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Authors: William W. Johnstone,J. A. Johnstone

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BOOK: Target Response
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“You’re no Boy Scout.”

“No.” He came up behind her, gripping his hardness, guiding the head of it between the wet lips of her sex. Her breath caught in her throat.

He eased into her opening, entering her, planting himself in deep, up to the hilt. He put it to her and she met him more than halfway, working out. His hands, strong fingered with veiny backs, wrapped around her wriggling hips, clutching them.

They both were young, strong, eager, and hungry. Their coupling was intense and athletic. Presently their breathing sounded as if they were running a race. This was one race where the object was to delay reaching the finish line as long as possible.

The horses grew restless. From time to time one or the other pawed the ground with a hoof and snorted.

The lovers’ breath panted harder and faster. Skye’s sharp, polished fingernails clawed the bark of the fallen tree. Steve held back until she reached her finish.

Skye’s body went rigid, trembling. She tossed her head back, hair flailing in the air, eyes squeezed shut as she climaxed. From between clenched teeth a single supersonic note escaped her:

“Eeeeeeeeee—!”

Steve let himself go. His face was stony, impassive. A half sigh, half groan sounded from him.

For an instant the scene went slightly out of focus, melting, blurring at the edges of his vision. But only for an instant.

 

It was said of the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone that whenever he discovered another settler living within sight of his own property, he picked up stakes and moved somewhere even more remote.

Steve Ireland could understand the sentiment. He was that way himself.

When he had learned about ten days ago that he had new neighbors on Hessian Hill, his first feeling was one of unhappiness.

Hessian Hill was one of the foothills in the eastern range of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In other, less spectacular locales it would have qualified as a small mountain itself, but sited here amid the scenic grandeur of the rugged Blue Ridge range, it had been tagged with the diminutive appellation of “hill.”

The Hessian part of the name derived from the historical fact that a detachment of German mercenaries from Hesse serving under the flag of Britain’s King George III had forted up on the summit for several years during the American Revolutionary War.

Steve Ireland owned a small, secluded piece of property high on the hill. When he wasn’t away on assignment he lived alone in a modest-sized wooden A-frame house on his tract of land.

The mountainous terrain ensured that the area had escaped the sprawl of modern development. A handful of homes built on rock ledges and shelves were scattered across the eastern slope; they were few and far between.

Steve Ireland’s patch of land stood on a rocky outcropping not far from the summit. Set on a vantage point near the ledge’s edge, it commanded a view of most of the sprawling eastern slope and the valley below.

In wintertime, when the trees were bare, he could make out the scant few houses dotting the hillside. In warm-weather months when leaves were heavy on the trees, the structures were hidden by the foliage. He liked it better that way.

Far below, several thousand feet down, the silver snake of a river wound across the flat of the valley. Several small towns stood at the intersection of various roadways crisscrossing the valley, but they were too far away to disturb Steve’s solitude.

Up on the heights he had the sun, moon, stars, woods, and rocks. There was plenty of good hunting and fishing. And few people to bother him.

He would have preferred a spot even more remote, more isolated from civilization and its discontents, where he could live like a hermit when he wasn’t working. But he knew better than to indulge his passion for isolation.

That would send a warning signal to the handlers who monitored his psychological state to make sure he was fit for duty.

Captain Steve Ireland, United States Army, was a member of the Dog Team. One of the Army’s elite cadre of ultrasecret assassins.

He was good at what he did and he liked the work. But the rare individuals who’d earned the franchise to kill those foreign and domestic foes deemed a threat to the nation’s vital security interests were themselves under constant scrutiny.

They were dangerous men—and women—these select few Dog Team operatives. Dangerous by virtue of their lethal skills and also by virtue of the explosive nature of their assignments.

The fact that the Army maintained a clandestine assassination apparatus that operated both at home and abroad was a secret that must never become a matter of public record.

The hypocritical hyenas of the mainstream media would set up an orchestrated howl of hysterical denunciations and demands that the operation be unmasked and destroyed root and branch. Though that may be a bit unfair—to the hyenas, not the mainstream media.

Working in concert with headline-hunting publicity hounds and deluded bleeding-heart liberals and pacifists in Congress and the federal government, the inquisitors would not rest until they’d eliminated one of the nation’s last bulwarks against chaos, anarchy, and ultimate decline.

Dog Team operatives were fine-tuned human precision instruments. The nature of the work was such that it contained numerous pitfalls for the unwary. An operative could learn to like killing too much. Contrariwise, one could grow soul sick from too much slaughter and reach the breaking point.

Temptations abounded. This was a world where expert assassins could command fabulous sums for striking down the masters of society. A skilled Dog Team operative gone rogue could become an incredible destabilizing force.

The team’s higher echelon, the Top Dogs who controlled and directed the actual operatives in the field, remained constantly on the alert for the subtle warning signs that an active-duty member was going wrong.

Steve Ireland knew he was under special scrutiny. Several years ago, he’d been seriously wounded by the roadside bomb blast of an improvised explosive device at the conclusion of an assignment in Somalia.

The IED ambush had slain his fellow squad members and sent him to a secret Stateside clinic for many months of painful and extensive healing and rehabilitation. Once fully recovered, he rejoined the team’s active-duty roster and returned to his trade of sanctioned killing. He knew without being told that his performance would be monitored more closely than ever.

A serious, life-threatening injury was a milestone in the life of every combat soldier. It could exert a powerful negative influence on the recovering casualty, causing him to become fearful and averse to risk taking in one case, or reckless and careless of harm in another.

That’s why Steve Ireland had made his home, such as it was, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It provided him with the rustic seclusion that he craved, while still positioning him within an hour-and-a-half’s drive of his home base in Washington, D.C.

He was between assignments during this winter break when his new neighbors moved in around the start of March.

He became aware of their presence during an early morning jog. It was a weekday. He ran several miles daily as part of his rigorous physical fitness regimen.

The sun had been up an hour or so when he finished lacing up his jogging shoes and hit the trail. It was a cold, clammy morning, heavily overcast. Steve wore a quilted utility vest over a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants.

He set out along a hiking trail that ran north from his property. Hessian Hill ran north–south; his place sat not far below the summit.

Sneakered feet padded on bare dirt and dead grass. He ran lightly, soft-footed, making as little noise as possible. A habit of his—and good training, too. He quickly fell into a rhythm, breathing through his nose, arms hanging loose at his sides, leaning forward slightly, feet rising and falling.

The trail slanted upward through woods, leveling off at the ridgetop, a flattened summit several miles wide. Gray mist veiled the dripping trees.

Lights glimmered beyond the woods. Electric lights.

This was new.

The route skirted the open land of the Crestfield estate, a cleared area occupying a prime position on the flat hilltop. Crestfield was where the Hessian force had once been encamped.

It overlooked a splendid scenic view of the eastern slope and the valley below. Its open fields had once provided space for drilling grounds for the foreign troops and a bivouac area. That had been long ago and no trace remained of their presence, not even a historical plaque to mark the site.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a hunting lodge had been built on the locale, serving as a retreat for congressmen and their influential friends from the muggy swamps of Washington, D.C., in the summertime. At the turn of the century, a tycoon had bought the property, torn down the lodge, and there raised a Gothic mansion.

Since then, various wealthy families had occupied it. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a declining economy had forced the abandonment of the house and property.

The mansion was boarded up. The property was maintained by a realty agency. A number of spotlights and floodlights were set up in and around the estate; automatic timers switched them on from dusk till dawn. The Realtors apparently did not care to burden themselves with the expense of keeping a permanent watchman on the property.

Every month or so the Realtors’ representative came to inspect the estate for vandalism or weather damage. At autumn’s end, fallen leaves were raked up, bagged, and carted away. At the start of spring, landscapers tidied up the grounds; during the warm weather months the lawns were mown, hedges trimmed, and fields weeded.

During the three years that Steve Ireland had lived on the hill, the Crestfield estate had been vacant and unoccupied.

The property was posted
NO TRESPASSING
, but Steve ignored the stricture to the extent of laying out his morning run so that part of the route took him through the woods at the eastern edge of the property, allowing him to enjoy the glorious sunrise view breaking over the valley.

He slowed to a halt at the woods’ edge, gazing across the fields at the mansion. Bright lights burned behind newly unboarded windows. Several cars and trucks were parked on the curving driveway in front of the house.

Crestfield was vacant no more.

Steve Ireland grimaced. A solitary soul, he could find no welcome for the new neighbors. Still, his small house and modest piece of land were far enough away from the estate to ensure that he should suffer no disturbance.

He had no plans to change the route of his morning jog, either. The scenic vista was a payoff for the hard work of exercising and he saw no reason for altering his route. If he lacked the stealth to move through the woods undiscovered by the new tenants, then he was badly slipping indeed. And if there was one quality he had in abundance it was stealth, a necessity in the assassin’s trade.

On Friday of that week, he got in his Suburban to make his weekly run down into town to go food shopping and pick up other needed supplies. It was a bright sunny day, cold and crisp.

A dirt road linked his property to Crestline Drive, a paved road running north–south across the summit. It took him past the estate, where he glimpsed more signs of life in the house and on the grounds.

From Crestline he turned right onto Shunpike Road, a strip of two-lane blacktop that switchbacked up one slope of Hessian Hill and down the other side. He drove into MacKinlay, a crossroads town where he did his shopping.

Returning home that afternoon, he saw a moving van parked in front of the Crestfield house; moving men were toting furniture and packing boxes into the mansion.

A week later, Steve was driving east on Crestline to make his run to MacKinlay when he saw a red sports car at the side of the road and a young woman standing beside it. She waved him down.

He slowed the Suburban to a halt and pulled up alongside the sportster. The machine had run off the road and lay nose down in a ditch, its right rear wheel poised over empty space.

The young woman had a clean-lined model-like face, glossy reddish-brown hair, and a slim body that was well rounded in all the places it ought to be. She stood on the Suburban’s passenger side. Steve rolled down the window so he could speak to her.

She had high cheekbones; a thin, straight nose; yellow-golden eyes; and a ripe, red-lipped mouth. A helmet of straight, thick auburn hair brushed her shoulders.

“Hello,” Steve said.

“Hi. Can I trouble you for a ride? I live a mile or two down the road,” she said.

Her voice was nice, too, Steve decided. “Glad to. Hop in,” he said, opening the door for her. She got in, closed the door, fastened the safety harness.

“These boots aren’t too practical for walking,” she said, indicating her footwear, a pair of high-heeled ankle boots. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you.”

“No bother at all,” Steve said. He put the truck in gear and started forward.

“A mile or two down the road, you said. Would that be the Crestfield place?” he asked.

“Why, yes. But how did you know?” she asked.

“I live on the ridgetop myself, back that way a piece,” he said, gesturing a thumb south. “There aren’t many places on the hill and I noticed that some folks had moved into the estate. That sports car looks like it’d fit right in at the mansion.”

“That makes us neighbors, then. I’m Skye Moray—Skye with an
e
on the end.”

“Glad to know you, Miss Moray. Steve Ireland’s the name.”

“Please call me Skye.”

“If you call me Steve.”

“All right…Steve.”

He was enjoying Skye’s company and saw no reason to prematurely curtail it, so he drove along at a leisurely place. “Looks like you had a little mishap.”

“A stupid thing,” she said. “A squirrel ran across the road. I swerved to avoid it and ran into the ditch.”

“Hope you weren’t hurt.”

“Only my pride, Steve.” Skye gave a quirked smile. “I forgot my cell or I would have called home for a ride.”

“My good fortune that you didn’t,” Steve said.

BOOK: Target Response
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