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

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BOOK: Target Response
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“We’ll go downhill and follow the creek to the river,” Kilroy said. Raynor grunted assent. He was saving his breath for walking.

He and Kilroy descended into the valley. The hillside was covered with the same type of spidery, stunted trees that covered the inner wall of the basin.

At the bottom of the hill the ground leveled off into a muddy field thick with knee-high weeds. The spidery trees thinned here, giving way to tangles of scrub brush that screened off much of the surroundings, forming a kind of maze.

The foliage ended near the channel, leaving a five-foot-wide strip of bare earth bordering the edge of the north bank. The strip was a game trail, its muddy surface marked by the hoofprints and paw marks of the creatures that used it.

The bank ended suddenly, dropping three feet straight down to the water below. That explained why the trail was bare of the basking crocodiles that sunned themselves on riverbanks where the water was easier to access.

Kilroy and Raynor paused under the foliage at the edge of the tree line. Shadowy stillness was broken by the gurgling sounds of slow-running water.

Kilroy reached out to part the bushes. Raynor’s good hand clutched the other’s shoulder. “Kilroy,” he began, soft-voiced, “if I don’t make it—”

“You will,” Kilroy said.

“If I don’t, when you reach Lagos, don’t trust Thurlow,” Raynor said.

Ward Thurlow was the CIA agent who’d been the primary liaison with the Pentagon’s investigative unit, the team of which Kilroy and Raynor were now the only two survivors.

“You’ll make it. But why Thurlow?” Kilroy asked.

“I’ve done plenty of thinking since we took it on the run, turning the facts over in my head and trying to make sense of them. I keep coming to one conclusion: it had to be Thurlow who fingered the team to Tayambo,” Raynor said.

“I never had much use for the guy, but how do you figure him for the Judas?”

“Process of elimination. That the others were flying back to Washington yesterday was a closely held secret. So was the fact that you and I were nosing around at the Vurukoo fields. But only Thurlow was in a position to know both.”

“Well…” Kilroy was doubtful.

“There’s more,” Raynor said quickly. “I was suspicious of the extent of Thurlow’s contacts in the Lagos power structure. He was too chummy with the Tayambo crowd at the Ministry of Defense, always trying to steer the investigation away from them,” Raynor said, sounding short of breath.

“You’re the detective. I’m just a trigger-puller. If that’s your theory, I’ll buy it.”

“Listen, Kilroy. When you get clear of this mess, drop out of sight. Don’t use any of the usual channels to get out of the country. Our system here is compromised, rotten. Drop off the radar and go black. Not just the agency’s radar, the Pentagon’s radar, too. That way you might have a chance of getting out alive.”

“I’ve got contacts in Lagos and alternate ways out. We’ll use ’em both,” Kilroy said. “But first we’ll roast Thurlow over a slow fire and get some answers out of him before feeding him to the crocs.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Raynor said, smiling wanly.

“I’ll go first, scout along the trail. Wait here till I tell you it’s all clear,” Kilroy said.

He parted a couple of leafy branches, stepping out onto the trail. He stood in a half crouch, rifle leveled, looking, listening. He nodded to Raynor, who was watching him from behind the screen of brush.

Kilroy faced west and began moving forward. The valley was thick with gray gloom, giving it a feeling of unreality. A ribbon of open sky showed above the channel. Heavy clouds hung low over the treetops.

Kilroy advanced twenty, thirty yards. The hush was intense. Even the insects had momentarily fallen silent.

A flock of flying things suddenly burst out of the trees, the flapping of their wings seeming unnaturally loud as they broke the silence.

They flew in a rising spiral, winged shapes swirling upward in a rushing whirlwind toward the open sky above the channel. Jagged black silhouettes were outlined against the backdrop of gray clouds.

They were not birds but bats. Bats! Hundreds of them. Something had spooked them from the boughs they clung to while waiting for the coming night.

Gunfire crackled on the trail behind Kilroy. Raynor shouted, “It’s a trap!”

Kilroy threw himself into the foliage bordering the path. His limbs got tangled up in a mess of vines, hampering his freedom of movement. Writhing, thrashing, he fought to break free and bring his weapon into play.

The scene came alive with shots, shouts, action.

Across the channel, on the south bank, a flashlight beam blazed into being. It lanced through the dusk, sweeping along the trail Kilroy had just quitted, searching for him. It swept east along the trail where a fusillade of gunfire sounded.

The beam picked out the scene of a deadly confrontation. A band of armed men maybe a dozen strong materialized on both sides of the creek about twenty yards east back of where Kilroy had left Raynor.

Ambushers!

Raynor’s cry of pain when he had fallen earlier must have alerted the troops scouring the riverbank to the west. They’d sent an advance guard east into the valley to close it off.

Now they were in motion, sealing the trap. But they’d moved too soon, alerting Raynor, who opened fire on them.

Raynor stepped out into the open on the north bank, facing east. He stood swaying, holding the butt of the M-16 braced against his right hip, firing it one-handed at the soldiers charging at him on his side of the channel.

A round tagged a Nigerian trooper in the middle, chopping him down. Several more rushed forward to take his place, firing wildly. Their assault rifles were on autofire, racketing like jackhammers.

Raynor pumped out single shots from his M-16 into them, one by one.

Another soldier shrieked and fell sideways, toppling off the bank and falling into the water with a splash.

Troopers on the far side of the creek opened fire on Raynor. Raynor’s form jerked and shuddered as rounds ripped into him.

He turned toward them, squeezing off more shots. His weapon fell silent—out of ammo. Empty.

Muzzle flares sparked on both sides of the creek as more ambushers got Raynor into their sights, streaming lead into him.

He jerked this way and that as the slugs impacted him. The M-16 fell from his hand. He fell to his knees, head bowed.

There was a lull in the shooting as three troopers closed on him. The flashlight beam fell on the tableau like a spotlight, illuminating it.

One of the Nigerians wielded a panga, the local equivalent of a machete. With a wordless shout of triumph he raised it high over his head, swordlike blade poised for a vicious decapitating downstroke.

Kilroy, now free of the weblike vines that had netted him, thrust the muzzle of his assault rifle through the bushes and shot the panga wielder.

The meaty thud of a round drilling flesh was accompanied by the sight of the panga man falling over backward out of sight.

Kilroy’s shot suddenly set the west side of the valley boiling with the figures of a horde of armed men pouring into it, racing east along both sides of the channel. They were part of the main body of the troop column, of which the dozen ambushers east of Raynor had been an advance guard.

Many booted feet stamped and thundered over the ground in double time. Branches broke and brush rustled as hidden lurkers poured out of their places of concealment.

Where Raynor knelt, the panga wielder had been closely trailed by a pair of riflemen. They had fallen back in alarm as their fellow had been cut down by Kilroy’s snap shot. Recovering from the sudden fright, they now swung their rifle muzzles toward Kilroy.

Raynor’s good right hand moved, drawing his 9mm Beretta from its holster and firing into the duo looming over him. The pistol barked, its muzzle flares underlighting the agonized faces of the two troopers as bullets opened up their middles.

The remnants of the advance guard, seven shooters, all let rip at once at Raynor. Slugs poured into him, shredding him ragged.

Raynor fell down dead.

The flashlight beam now swept west over the trail, searching for Kilroy. The light was held by a trooper on the other side of the channel not far opposite from Kilroy. Several riflemen were grouped around him, ready to open fire when the beam picked out Kilroy.

Kilroy shot first, firing in the prone position from behind a fallen log. A howl of pain sounded from across the channel as the light-bearer was tagged. The flashlight dropped, falling to his feet. It did not break but remained lit, rolling on its side back and forth in a small, tight arc.

Gunfire erupted from the riflemen grouped nearby as they sprayed the woods in Kilroy’s direction.

The Nigerian troops pouring into the valley from the west began shooting, too. Many guns fired, yellow spear blades of light stabbing from rifle muzzles. Bursts of automatic fire crackled, tearing into tree trunks and branches. The attackers couldn’t see what they were shooting at but that didn’t stop them.

The valley was an arena of mass chaos. Soldiers shot without looking. Some of them shot at each other.

A nasty little firefight broke out between skirmishers from the main body of troops and the handful of the ambushers still left alive in the east. Bodies piled up before the combatants realized they were trading shots with their comrades in arms.

The confusion suited Kilroy just fine. It turned what could have been a death trap into a first-class clusterfuck. Noise, gunfire, squads of troops running this way and that—all combined to hide him from his pursuers.

As silent as smoke Kilroy faded back into the brush, slipping away from the hunters. The deepening darkness of oncoming night was his ally, cloaking him with its sheltering shadows.

Raynor? Nothing to be done for him. No man could have survived the merciless final fusillade that had all but shot him into pieces.

Kilroy was alone now. The western end of the valley was filled with troops. He went northeast across the basin’s outer slope, swinging a wide detour around the few ambushers still alive in that area. Unaware of his passage and concentrating on not being shot by their fellow troops, they were easily evaded.

Leaving them far behind, Kilroy crossed the creek, wading through listless, waist-high waters that were as warm as blood. After climbing up onto the south bank, he followed its winding course due east, into the recesses of the flooded forest.

In the distance, bursts of gunfire still sounded.

 

“Joseph Kilroy” was a war name assumed by he whose birth name was Sam Chambers. He’d never known his real father but he knew of him.

He was the bastard son of Terry Kovack, the supreme warrior in the Vietnam-era Dog Team. That particular cadre of elite Army assassins had been disbanded in the war’s sorry aftermath of national defeatism and antimilitary agitation.

Terry Kovack had soldiered on to fight without banners or bugles for lost causes he considered right in a succession of conflicts in global hot spots, ultimately making the supreme sacrifice in a bloody last stand in a dirty brushfire war here on the African continent.

Would history repeat itself and doom his son to a similar fate?

“Not if I can help it,” the man called Kilroy vowed to himself.

TWO

The swamp was thick with green mist; the mist was thickest in the flooded forest. Banks of greenish haze drifted through clusters of dripping trees.

The swamp by night was a noisy environment. It rang with shrill cries of animals and birds, growls, grunts, hisses, and bloodcurdling shrieks. Adding to the unrest was a constant counterpoint of splashes, drippings, creaks, and groans. All sounding against a steady background of the insect chorus: buzzing, chirping, humming, droning.

It was night of the third day. The hunt was still on.

East of the Rada River the flooded forest was fitfully lit by a number of flickering phantom lights. The ragged globes were beads of brightness widely scattered through the sprawling vastness of the morass. Fireballs that hovered over the watery avenues honeycombing the area.

One such light appeared in a winding channel at the southeast corner of the drowned jungle, floating about four feet above the surface of sluggish black water.

The channel snaked its way through the marsh, twisting and looping, filled with blind curves and sudden turnings. It was never more than fifteen feet across at its widest; its average width was ten feet and in some tight spots it narrowed to barely eight feet. Its depth varied between five feet and eight feet, with everywhere a soft, mucky bottom. No earthen banks bordered its sides.

Such was the nature of the drowned forest. A vast bowl filled with tall, straight trees, it had become submerged in recent years when a feeder stream of the Rada had carved a new channel into what had formerly been boggy marshland, totally flooding it.

The tall trees were unable to survive the constant immersion and quickly succumbed. Their cores rotted, their branches refused to put forth new leaves, and the trees died. Many of the slim, straight trunks remained standing, rising from the black lagoon like the pillars of a flooded cathedral.

But the swamp was a crucible of creation, teeming with green, pulsing life. Plants that had previously led a marginal existence thrived in the new aquatic environment, swarming it with masses of vegetation.

A variety of trees took hold in swamp water: mangroves, cypresses, and water oaks. Not tall and slender, they were stunted, dwarfed, and gnarly, with serpentine root and branch systems. Spiky.

Shaggy vines, flowering lianas, and cablelike creepers draped the dead tree columns, wrapping them with an elaborate three-dimensional webwork that screened out the sky.

Now, a ghostly light rounded the bend and came into view, hovering in midair. No will-o’-the-wisp or luminous mass of marsh gas this, but rather the crackling head of a flaming torch fixed to the bow of a boat.

Like the surrounding plant life, the boat, too, was designed to flourish in the wetlands. A slim wooden dinghy, it had a pointed bow and squared-off stern. Its low sides, flat bottom, and shallow draft fitted it for the shallows of the swamp.

A small outboard motor was attached to the transom board at the stern. The shrouded engine drove a long, slim shaft about four feet long that extended like a metal stinger from the back of the boat. The shaft was fixed so that it lay almost horizontal several inches below the surface of the water. The tip of the shaft sported four small, propeller-like fins. The motor turned the finned shaft, providing propulsive power.

The near-horizontal extension of the driveshaft and its minifinned propeller allowed it to operate in shallow water while minimizing the risk of snagging. Should the fins become fouled by reeds or underwater plants—a frequent occurrence in the swamp—it was relatively easy to clear them.

Two Nigerian soldiers manned the boat.

Ojo the steersman occupied the stern seat, operating a tillerlike handle attached to the motor housing. The motor was mounted on gimbals that let it traverse a free arc of movement away from the stern board. By moving the tiller to the right or left, the steersman altered the position of motor and driveshaft, allowing him to control the direction in which the craft was heading.

The second man sat at the bow, serving as spotter. Rasheed held a six-foot-long pole that he used to ward off floating logs and the like, break up tangles of vines or creepers, and push the boat away from obstructions pressing it too closely on either side.

Ojo the steersman was round-faced, fleshy, heavyset. A coastal dweller born and bred, he was no stranger to the marshy river deltas of the Nigerian southlands, but this miserable manhunt in the swamp had long ago begun to get on his nerves.

Not so much the surroundings but the quarry they hunted had thrown a shadow over his soul.

The spotter, Rasheed, was one of Ali Abdul Mukhtar’s militia men recruited into Minister of Defense Derek Tayambo’s elite corps of bodyguards. His hawklike features and lean body type marked his origin in the arid northern region.

These seething swamplands were doubly alien and oppressive to one accustomed to the bone-dry, desertlike plains of the north. But what Rasheed lacked in affinity for the swamp he made up for with the ferocity of his fanaticism.

He was a Believer, a Muslim jihadist who’d sworn fealty to warrior-imam Mukhtar’s holy crusade to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by the tenets of ultraorthodox sharia law. The purity of his hate for the infidel allowed him to transcend the bodily and psychic discomforts of the marsh.

As for Ojo, he was a swampman and its hardships were second nature to him. He had no liking, though, for the haughty northerner Rasheed with whom he’d been partnered.

And even less liking for this grinding hunt for the elusive American…

Lighting the way forward was the torch, a wandlike length of wood whose knobbed head had been dipped in tarry pitch and set aflame. Its base was wedged into a metal ringbolt at the tip of the prow, securing it in place. It thrust forward at a tilted angle away from the boat.

It was torchlight that created the illusion of a phantom fireball drifting above the swamp.

At least a half dozen other such flickering fireballs coursed through the flooded forest this night, each one shed by a torch fixed to the bow of a similar boat coursing the waterways in search of one lone man.

Man? Devil, more likely, thought Ojo.

The American was an implacable enemy haunting the swamp, at least in the minds of the Nigerian troops who had been seeking him in vain for three days and nights. No ghost he, but a creature of flesh and blood—of that there could be no doubt.

The proof was in the ever-mounting toll of bodies of slain comrades found floating facedown in a blackwater channel or sprawled in a heap on solid ground. They had been shot, stabbed, clubbed, and even strangled to death.

Human prey had become predator, targeting isolated individuals, stragglers, and others who’d become separated from the main body of troops.

A shot would ring out somewhere in the swamp and when the hunters came to investigate, they’d inevitably find another of their number dead with a bullet in the head or heart.

A shriek would sound in the night—or in daylight—from behind a patch of brush and a victim would be discovered with his throat cut or his middle ripped open to let his guts out.

Worse, though, to the living, because so unnerving, was the death that came wrapped in silence.

A line of soldiers would be filing along a trail when suddenly the next-to-last man in line would glance over his shoulder to pass a remark to a comrade who was bringing up the rear only to find that that man had disappeared.

A search along the back trail inevitably would reveal the vanished one not too far behind the nearest bend, slain in some singularly unpleasant fashion.

This slow, steady attrition of their numbers was dispiriting—demoralizing. The troops would have been glad to declare that the American had perished somewhere in the swamp and taken themselves back to the barracks at their home base in Lagos.

Alas, it was not to be. Their commanding officers would not have it so. They took their orders from two white men, the South African mercenary Krentz and the Yankee spy Ward Thurlow. This pair of outlanders were favored associates of Defense Minister Tayambo, the supreme leader to whom all members of the elite bodyguard corps had sworn unquestioning allegiance.

Truly the ways of politics—like fate—were strange, thought Ojo, shaking his head. One thing was sure, however: the manhunt had gone sour. It might well be cursed.

The fierce joy experienced by the hunters on the second day when one of the Americans was slain and the other fled into the flooded forest had long since dissipated, eaten away by the rising body count of their own.

Surely the other American would soon be taken, if not by the troops then by the swamp itself. The swamp was a mankiller, and this man was a foreigner, an outlander infidel soft with the corruptions and weaknesses of the Great Satan U.S.A.

So argued the optimists in the ranks. Instead, the reverse had happened. The lone American seemed to thrive in the difficult environment, while the manhunters continued to fall victim to him.

Each setback, each freshly slaughtered corpse, further enraged the company commanders. Of course, the officers stayed safely out of the swamp, remaining behind on riverboats or in the camp pitched on the point at the junction of the Rada and Kondo Rivers.

Nothing would do but that the rank-and-file troops must continue the quest day and night, even to this midnight hour of the third day, when a half dozen boats prowled the flooded forest to rout the quarry from his hiding place.

Better to be riding on a motorboat than prowling the land areas of the swamp on foot, thought Ojo. Even with such uncongenial company as Rasheed.

The northerner sat perched on the bow thwart holding the pole lengthwise across the tops of his thighs, his back turned to Ojo. Rasheed’s stiffly held neck and upright posture radiated the innate arrogance that Ojo found so offensive.

The steersman was careful to suppress all signs of dislike, however. Rasheed was touchy and quick to take offense, especially at a real or imagined slight from one like Ojo, who was not one of his jihadist coreligionists. And he was ever ready to avenge such slights.

An enormous panga in a leather sheath was worn strapped diagonally across Rasheed’s back, with the hilt protruding within easy reach behind the top of his left shoulder. His assault rifle lay behind him, propped muzzle-up where the middle thwart met the starboard gunwale.

Ojo’s rifle stood in a similar position, leaning against the near side of the middle thwart where it joined the port gunwale. Several inches of water in the bottom of the boat prevented its occupants from laying their rifles flat there.

The engine puttered away, venting a cloud of blue-gray exhaust. The channel wound through what seemed like an endless tunnel whose walls on either side were pillared by dead tree trunks and veiled by trailing tangles of vegetation.

Torchlight added to the eeriness of the scene, throwing murky shadows into ceaseless, restless motion.

The passage once more began to narrow. Stands of mangrove trees bordered it on both sides, extending their massive, intricate root system into the water. Branches intertwined overhead, forming an archway.

Ahead, a sturdy bough crossed the channel at right angles, stretching out about eight feet above it. A thick branch abundant with foliage.

Ojo eyed it with unease. Such overhangs could be dangerous. Leopards liked to take their prey from above, lurking on a sturdy tree limb to pounce on the unwary victim below, fastening powerful fanged jaws on the back of the prey’s neck and breaking it. Their preferred method of making a kill.

Ojo shrugged off the thought. He well knew that the flooded forest was barren of leopards. The big cats—leopards, cheetahs, lions—all shunned this forlorn swamp.

Even the carrion-craving jackal, that none too fastidious cousin of the dog, gave it a wide berth.

No, the danger here came not from feline predators but from reptiles; namely, crocodiles and snakes.

The boat neared the overhanging limb. Some bits of tree moss dropped off the branch to fall plopping into the water. The limb creaked as if under some heavy burden.

Rasheed looked up, tilting his head back. Something moved up there—

A lightning bolt detonated in the cramped space of the channel. Simultaneous with the lightning came a booming thunderclap.

Blasted out of the bow thwart, Rasheed fell backward into the bottom of the boat.

Ojo had time to register the thunderbolt that struck down Rasheed. That was all. Defying the maxim that lightning never strikes twice in the same spot, a second such thunderbolt struck Ojo.

The top of his head exploded and he ceased to exist.

The boat continued its slow forward course. The big leafy branch shook as a pair of hands gripped it and a massive form swung down into view. The nightcomer dropped into the boat as it passed beneath him. He was mindful of the danger of swamping the craft or putting a booted foot through its bottom. He landed lightly in the beam of the boat, its widest part, touching down easily in a muscular crouch.

His weight caused the shallow-draft dinghy to sink deeper into the water, for an instant sinking it so that black water rose dangerously close to the tops of the gunwales. He rode out the disturbance like a surfer on a board, minutely adjusting his position and maintaining his balance until the boat rose and righted itself.

He was…Kilroy.

 

Kilroy piloted the boat farther along the channel, whose switchback course ultimately wound toward the west.

A night and a day, and half a night again had passed since the ambush that killed Raynor and saw Kilroy flee into the depths of the flooded forest.

He had evaded his pursuers by the simple strategy employed by most successful fugitives—by being willing to take the chase to more extreme limits and endure more unremitting hell than those who were hunting him were willing to undergo.

A heavy rainfall on the night following Raynor’s death had allowed Kilroy to slake his thirst and fill his canteen with fresh water. With Raynor gone, Kilroy had enough MREs to last for several days.

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