Pride By Eric J. Gates

Eric J. Gates has had a curious life filled with the stuff of thriller novels. Writing Operating Systems for Supercomputers, cracking cryptographic codes under extreme pressure using only paper and pen and teaching cyberwarfare to spies are just a few of the moments he’s willing to recall publicly.

As a consultant, he traveled extensively worldwide and worked on Information Technology Security projects which brought him into contact with the Military and Intelligence communities. A 14 black belt degree martial artist, he now writes thriller novels, drawing on his experiences with the confidential and secret worlds that surround us.

The short story Pride is from a recent anthology titled Mostly Murder: Till Death featuring works of authors such as Lawrence Block, Patrice Fitzgerald, Eric J. Gates, H.B. Moore, and Jerilyn Dufresne. The story has been brought to you by Mystery Tribune with permission from the author and the editor for the anthology.

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***

 

There were no sirens.

A lazy Sunday afternoon, sitting on the deck, watching the waves, people playing on the beach, sipping lemon tea, talking about the future.

“I think we should hand everything over to the kids and go find that house in the Caribbean we keep talking about.” Todd McGee chuckled as his hands rubbed his knees. “At least it might help with this damned arthritis.”

“What? The house in the Caribbean or the kids running the business?” replied his wife, refilling Todd’s empty glass.

“Both, probably. We’re getting too old for this, Mary, and we know it. It’s a young person’s game; well, young as in less than sixty.”

“You feeling old again?”

“Mentally, no. It’s just this body of mine is starting to protest all the abuse of the last forty years. I’m afraid one day I’m going to screw things up because I can’t hack it anymore. No, my darling Mary, it’s time we retired. The kids are more than capable of carrying on. Let’s go spend some of the money we’ve got squirreled away.”

“Sounds good. They’ll both be back in a couple of weeks, so that’s a great time to tell them.”

“FBI! FREEZE!”

Green-garbed men swarmed onto the deck, automatic weapons pointed. Mary screamed. Todd started to rise.

“GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES! DO IT NOW! ON YOUR KNEES! HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!”

Todd glanced at his wife, then at the man in the dark suit emerging through the terrace door. He recognized the man. Knew of his obsession.

“GET ON YOUR KNEES NOW!”

The agent in the green fatigues and flak jacket shouting orders did not wait for Todd to comply. Mary could see the FBI SWAT team members were on edge. She was unaware their adrenaline had peaked as they breached the beachside house in Malibu, fueled in part by the pre-operation briefing two hours earlier.

 

* * *

 

“Make no mistake, this is the deadliest professional assassin on the planet. They call him the Lion. He’s been responsible for over fifty kills, that we know of, in the last twenty years. He won’t be taken easily. Do not be fooled by his appearance. If he has to kill you to escape, he won’t hesitate. I want him alive, though. ALIVE, people. Remember that!”

The SWAT team commander looked at his men, a stern expression fixed on his face grim.

“You heard Senior Special Agent Thompson. Take no chances with the target. Use less-lethal unless no alternative is available. Got that?” There was a halfhearted grumble of assent from the other team members.

The team commander turned to the man in charge.

“SSA Thompson, just how dangerous is this guy? I mean, without the hype.”

“Let me put it this way, I’ve been tracking him for the last fifteen years. Not once have I come this close. I’m not willing to allow the bastard to go free. If it looks like he might escape, I will be the one to put a bullet in him.” Thompson grunted as he finished the last sentence.

 

* * *

 

The team commander had the target in his sights. The two-dimensional image of the photographs they had studied a couple of hours before was now replaced with three-dimensional reality.

He was an elderly man, greying hair, tanned face, an outdoors type. He looked to be in shape, sinews moving in strong arms as he levered himself from the deck lounger. He did not move quickly, as if about to make a break for it, but Thompson had insisted they not underestimate the man. The commander dropped his hand to the X26 Taser holstered at his waist. He extracted the Taser with his left hand, his right still pointing the MP5 submachine gun at their target. His thumb flicked the safety switch up, and raised the less-lethal weapon to eye level. Unknown to him, two of his colleagues were performing the very same actions. All three fired at once.

 

* * *

 

The barbs from the Tasers embedded themselves in Todd McGee’s chest and back. His body went rigid as three, five-second electrical discharges ripped into his torso. A strangled cry escaped from taut lips. McGee fell forward onto the deck, thudding solidly against the wooden floor. Another scream from the woman alongside. Green-garbed figures rushed toward the fallen man. A SWAT officer roughly pushed the woman to the deck, holding her down with his knee as handcuffs were applied.

The SWAT team commander leaned over McGee and dragged his arms behind his back. He trapped one in place with his leg then applied the cuffs to the other. A final ratcheted click. Target secured.

Senior Special Agent Thompson approached and knelt beside the prone form of the man he had been chasing for most of his career with the FBI. He pulled the man’s shoulder up to stare into his face.

Something was not right.

Thompson released the target’s shoulder and placed his fingers on the fallen man’s neck.

“MEDIC! Get a paramedic here now! I can’t feel a pulse.”

 

* * *

 

It had been one of the longest weeks in Mary McGee’s life. In part, it was the shock of seeing her husband die so suddenly in front of her; her absolute helplessness as she stood handcuffed watching the paramedics trying to revive him on their Malibu deck. In part, it was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The Coroner’s report was a farce. Massive heart failure. No mention of any potential effect of the Tasers. It read as if it was the first salvo in an operation to cover the asses of all involved, especially the SWAT team.

The Memorial service, following the cremation of Todd’s remains, once released by the Los Angeles County Coroner, had been a well-attended affair. Both their children had flown back in time. Todd and Mary’s many friends, private and work-related, turned out in force.

There was one unwelcome attendee. Senior Special Agent Thompson from the FBI stood apart from the throng, his eyes moving over the faces in the crowd as though searching for a lost relative amongst the mourners. After the service finished, he was also the last one to approach Mary and her family to offer his condolences. Mary’s response had been a slap that sounded like a gunshot in the quiet crematory at Valley Oaks. Thompson would probably book her now for assaulting a Federal Agent, she thought. He was that sort of bastard.

Friday she had a date at the FBI offices on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Thompson had called earlier in the week saying they needed to interview her. art of the investigation he was heading, he said. He stated a date and time. Mary hung up without uttering a word.

The tall, whitish-gray building imposed its solidity as they exited the cab. Mary’s daughter had accompanied her. An anonymous agent met them in the foyer and escorted them to the bank of elevators. Mary watched as the numbers flashed by and the car whisked them upward to a meeting with the person she now considered her personal nemesis.

They were shown to a small conference room, not the bleak interview room she was expecting. Thompson made them wait over ten minutes during which time the escort tried to cover his embarrassment by bringing coffee and even a plate of cookies. He must have known what the meeting was about. As he left, he placed a new box of tissues on the table near the two women.

Thompson eventually showed up looking as though he had run up the stairs from the ground floor.

“Mrs. McGee, I’m sorry I’m late…”

“I’m sorry I’m here,” she responded with caustic cynicism.

This brought a cough from the FBI man. He looked at the other, younger woman.

“You are the daughter, Tessa, right? I remember you from the cemetery.” He held out a hand in greeting, a tight smile showing yellowed teeth. The hand was ignored.

“I’m here as my parent’s legal representative. As you probably already know, we have filed complaints with the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Criminal Courts. I’m not even sure we should be meeting today…”

“I’m sorry for your loss, ladies, but there is an ongoing investigation. Until I hear otherwise, I intend to…”

Mary McGee slapped her palm down hard on the wooden tabletop, causing the coffee cups to rattle, the box of tissues to jump.

“Listen up, you bastard,” she began in a low, menacing tone. “Have you no feelings, no remorse for what you’ve done? You and your men barge into my house and murder my husband in front of me. You didn’t even formally arrest him. You electrocuted him; stopped his heart. No attempt to explain why you were there. The last time thugs like you walked the planet was in Nazi Germany. Your career is over, Thompson. If it’s the last thing I do, I will see you locked away for this.”

Tessa patted her mother’s arm and embraced her as deep sobs filled the room. Thompson pushed the box of tissues closer. His action went unheeded by both women. Minutes dragged by. Mary controlled her grief and stared at the agent through red-rimmed eyes, wordlessly cursing the man.

Her daughter broke the mute tension in the room.

“We still don’t know why you and the SWAT agents were there at my folks’ house.” It sounded like a statement, but was clearly a question. Any answer would be breaking protocol for an open investigation, but the piercing green eyes of the younger woman defeated Thompson’s resolve.

“We were going to arrest Mr. McGee on several counts of premeditated murder.”

“What! Murder?”

“Assassination, more like. We believe he is the professional killer for hire known as ‘the Lion’.”

“That’s preposterous! How can you…?” She shook her head, long blond, sun-streaked tresses flicking over her shoulders, the archetypal Californian girl. “How the hell did you arrive at that conclusion? My father is a security consultant.”

“We believe that was a cover for his illegal activities as an international assassin.”

More head shaking.

“Based on what, dammit? Some hunch you had one morning while eating a bagel? I have looked into you, Senior Special Agent Thompson, and it seems you have a certain… fixation on this ‘Lion’ person. You’ve been on his case for years with no results. Time’s running out for you, isn’t it? What happened? Retirement looming, and no suspects? Your pride got the better of you? You pick the first candidate you can think of? How can you possibly connect my father to the work of a professional assassin? You searched my parent’s house, I’m told, after you murdered my father. Did you find anything to back up your claims?”

“Ms. McGee, it’s true the investigation was getting nowhere. That I will admit. That was certainly the case until I thought of contrasting travel itineraries with the dates and times of the killings we know about. That took a lot of computing power. We had to seek Homeland Security’s help. Anyway, the analysis told us most people travelling on the dates in question from destinations near to where the assassinations took place would only show up in a low percentage of all the cases. A couple of the incidents on average. Just coincidences. We found we had a shortlist of a little over a hundred people who had traveled from more than one of those destinations within a few days of the killings. Your father’s name appeared in over twenty percent of the cases. That is well beyond any casual probability I know of. He was our prime suspect. No one came near him in that analysis.”

Tessa let out a short, derisive laugh.

“Where were these killings, Senior Special Agent? Conferences, hi-tech companies, private up-scale estates?”

“Most of them…”

“My father was a security consultant, as I’ve already told you. He designed and improved the protection measures around those same buildings for those very same clients. He was paid to analyze the measures in place, to assess their effectiveness, to recommend improvements…”

“Yet the assassin’s targets still died.” A smug smile accompanied Thompson’s statement.

“My father makes recommendations. People don’t have to implement them, though. That’s how it goes. I work for that company, too, as do my mother and brother. Does that make us suspects in your investigation as well?”

“What roles do your family members have in your father’s company?” Thompson took out his notebook, flicked it open to a blank page, extracted his cheap disposable pen, and sat poised to write.

“My mother handles logistics. My brother Mark is the electronics and computer systems expert, and I cover the financials and contracts as well as being the company’s lawyer. It’s a family business.”

Thompson finished his notes and looked at the two women. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by Mary.

“Agent Thompson…” she began.

“Senior Special Agent Thompson.”

Mary treated the man’s interruption as though he had not spoken.

“Are you married?”

The question threw the FBI man off his stride.

“What?”

“I asked if you were married?” she repeated, her voice heavy with forced patience.

“I was. Twice.”

“What happened?”

“The job.” He kept his replies short, evidently wary of saying more.

“Okay, now I understand.” Mary glanced at her daughter, exchanging one of those looks lasting only a fraction of a second that women use to convey long messages. “That’s why you don’t understand exactly what you’ve done. You see, you haven’t just murdered my husband, Agent Thompson, you’ve killed me, too.”

She paused, letting her enigmatic statement filter through Thompson’s brain.

“You have two failed marriages because of your job. You want to know why? It’s because you treat your life with your partner as separate from whatever you do at work. You are in both universes, or at least you try to be, at first, but your partner isn’t. Sooner or later your partner’s exclusion from the other universe you inhabit will start to grate on their nerves. You will tend to use your other existence as a refuge from the rejection you feel at home. Then you’ll end up spending far more time away from your marriage doing stuff related to your job. The result is usually divorce. You had no unity, no balance, no complicity in your life.”

“I don’t see where this is going…”

“Todd and I met a long time ago through our respective professions. We collaborated, then fell in love. We partnered not just as a married couple but in our professional lives, too. We supported each other constantly through all the problems our work threw in our way. We shared the triumphs and the failures. The highs and the lows. We were a unit, a single entity in many respects. That is why our marriage worked and lasted so long. Sure we argued; it was a sign we cared. Cared about what we did, and about each other. The quarrels also meant one of us hadn’t subjugated the other, hadn’t canceled the other’s personality. Couples who never argue are not in a marriage; they’re in a dictatorship. What you have done, Agent Thompson, is demolish that wonderful creation. Ruined what it took us decades to achieve in one moment of self-serving blindness. Our marriage was our business, our profession. You will not be forgiven for this.”

“Are you threatening me Mrs. McGee?” His tone held menace.

“I wouldn’t stoop so low, Thompson.”

A nervous stillness invaded the room. For over half a minute no one spoke.

Tessa finally cleared her throat and started to stand.

“If that’s all, Senior Special Agent, we’ll be leaving.”

Thompson said nothing.

The two women left the conference room and took the elevator to the ground floor. A few minutes later they boarded a cab heading north.

They traveled in silence. Other than to give the driver the address of an oyster restaurant on Ocean Drive in Santa Monica, neither woman spoke during the twenty-minute drive. The table had been reserved the day before. They sat alongside each other with their backs to the window and the view of the sea. That would make lip-reading through high-powered lenses almost impossible. The transparent plastic awning around the terrace outside also helped. Tessa removed a device that looked like a cell phone from her bag and surreptitiously attached it to the windowpane. She pushed the slider switch on one side and the jammer started up. It sent subtle vibrations through the glass and emitted a white-noise masking signal which, when combined, would make attempts to listen through laser or long-range microphones useless. The addition hubbub from other patrons would make their conversation as private as they could hope to achieve. They were almost certain Senior Special Agent Thompson would have detailed a surveillance crew to follow them. He was desperate to justify his actions as time ticked away to his retirement date. If he could show the death of Todd McGee had happened during the attempted arrest of a professional assassin, he would be vindicated, at least in his own eyes.

They placed their order, a half-dozen grilled oysters and the establishment’s famous lobster roll for both. A bottle of cold Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley. Tessa leaned close to her mother’s ear and spoke in a low tone.

“Mom, can I ask you a question that’s been on my mind for a while?”

“Sure.”

“When you and Dad met and married, were you in love?”

The question, had it been asked by any other daughter of any other mother, might have seemed odd. However…

“At first our marriage was a convenient way to do business. As you know, some of our clients in the Arab countries frown on women in business, which makes it difficult to earn contracts there. Being married did make a difference though. For my work, it also meant people didn’t look too closely at why I accompanied your father on his trips. My particular perspective allowed him to stand out in a very competitive industry and, at the same time, benefited me. We had been working as a married couple for almost four years before we realized we had fallen in love. Crazy, isn’t it? They say arranged marriages are more solid than the more natural sort, and I guess ours was ‘arranged,’ albeit by us. We certainly had a good one for almost forty years.”

“I think it’s rather sweet. Did Dad know what you did from the beginning?”

“Yes. His consultancy was failing. Clients not paying, that sort of thing. So when I came on the scene, we exploited those clients, and I was able to help by injecting cash into the legitimate side of the business. Symbiotic, I guess you could call it, but it worked well for both of us.”

Tessa paused, running the meeting with Thompson through her mind. “What do you think he’s going to do next?”

“Thompson? Well he’s under a lot of pressure to conclude his investigation. You said he was retiring in eight weeks, right?”

Tessa nodded.

“Then he will probably pull out all the stops to prove his hunch about Todd was correct. We can expect agents following us twenty-four seven, our phones bugged, probably the house, too. You need to tell your brother to sweep every day, and nothing important is to be said indoors. They’ll be digging into our bank accounts also, personal and the company. They won’t find the offshore accounts. When their Office of Professional Responsibility starts to investigate Thompson’s actions, that will make him even more inclined to do something stupid. It’s going to be a difficult time for you and your brother. Are there any contracts in the next few weeks?”

“One. South Africa. I was prepping it when you called about Dad. I can put it on hold though, or even subcontract if necessary. Mark hasn’t got anything scheduled for the next three months. The Hong Kong trip was to collect for the last job in Asia.”

“Okay. That’s good. Downtime for everyone…”

“But you’re not going to stand idly by and let Thompson get away with what he did, are you, Mom?”

“Of course not! That man doesn’t know what’s coming his way. I need to tie up a few things first, though.” She paused. “When you lose your life partner through natural causes, even accidental death, it must be devastating. When they are murdered right in front of your eyes… there are no words to describe what I feel right now. It’s just a big, black emptiness.”

 

* * *

 

It had been a long day for the FBI SWAT team. A joint raid with the Drug Enforcement Agency in the early hours of the morning led to seventeen arrests, all following an anonymous tip. Then, toward midday, another call from the same source had informed of a homegrown terrorist group planning an attack on a soft target, a shopping mall. They had been returning from the first call and were still geared up when the order to divert to the old Californian bungalow near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum had been received. That operation had netted them over a hundred kilos of ANFO explosive, several submachine guns, and six perps. With a huge sigh of relief, the team had trudged toward their Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle just in time to learn their unidentified informant had called in yet another tip. This time it was a self-storage locker containing Semtex explosive, placed there by a pro-ISIS group. The address given was not far from their last operation, so it was clear who was expected to respond. At least a storage locker was a fairly low-risk situation. They would secure the premises and wait for the FBI Bomb Techs to arrive. The place could be booby-trapped. The team was tired after the day’s accumulated activity. Not the best time to be on top of their game.

They waited for thirty minutes before the Bomb Techs appeared, checked the locker in question, and pronounced it safe for a breach. There was Semtex inside, stacked in ubiquitous orange bricks in one of the far corners, but far fewer than the haul their caller had promised. Had they been less tired at this juncture, maybe, just maybe, they might have started to question the string of tips.

The FBI SWAT team commander waited until the Bomb Techs had loaded the explosives into their own transport before ordering a final sweep of the area. They already had the details about who had rented the unit, and another FBI team was on its way to the renter’s address. It would turn out to be a false lead.

Finally, the call came to board their Bearcat truck and head back to base. The weary men climbed into the back of the vehicle as the commander took his seat up front with the driver. The three-hundred horsepower Caterpillar engine roared into life. The day was over for the team, at least that’s what they hoped.

They had traveled just two blocks.

Ahead, a street junction.

A single figure walking near the intersection.

The Bearcat’s driver slowed.

The pedestrian was an elderly woman wearing a floral dress, oversized sunglasses, and an expansive straw hat with a large, bright-red, paper flower, something the few witnesses would focus on later in their descriptions rather than the woman’s face. She stepped off the sidewalk into the path of the SWAT vehicle. The driver reacted by applying the brakes hard. The powered hydraulic ABS disk brakes squealed as they brought the seventeen-ton vehicle to a juddering halt. The woman’s scream was lost inside the armored cocoon of the tactical truck. Her collapse into the middle of the road was visible to the driver and commander though.

“We never made contact! She must be deaf if she didn’t hear us coming,” said the driver.

“And blind,” added the commander as he cracked open the passenger door.

The commander approached the fallen form and leaned over the old woman. He reached an arm around her waist and held her proffered left arm with his own right hand. He did not suspect anything until the microsecond before it was too late.

A cold, metal object jabbed under the bottom of his bulletproof combat vest. With a dull pop, a deadly projectile penetrated his torso below the sternum, raced upward through his left lung, smashed into his heart.

The woman took the strain of the man’s weight easily, lifting him erect in a way that the driver thought the opposite to be true. Now matters speeded up. Shedding her elderly sloth, the old woman let go of the SWAT commander’s corpse and, in two long strides, reached the open door of the Bearcat truck. She extended her arm and fired the Russian-made PSS Silent Pistol again. A headshot at the man behind the wheel. From inside the vehicle’s cargo area, the other team members did not hear the firing weapon over the growl of the Bearcat’s engine.

Another rush forward. Two steps up into the cabin. The hat flew away to reveal a younger face beneath.

“Hi boys. Remember me?” she said loud enough to draw the attention of the tired men in the back of the SWAT truck.

Four spherical, green M67 fragmentation grenades bounced into the cargo bay of the Bearcat. Instantly recognizable to the SWAT team, they induced sudden panic as the crew fought to open the rear doors and escape the deadly blast.

Four short seconds of yells, thuds, an inhuman scream. The half-inch of high-tech ballistic steel protecting the SWAT team from outside aggressors now made an effective killing ground for the grenades’ five-meter lethal blast radius.

Four seconds.

Time to await instant oblivion for some.

Time for the assassin to hurl herself toward the fallen commander’s body, seeking shelter beneath his bulk from the hell unleashed.

 

* * *

 

Another week. Another cemetery. This time, multiple funerals with all the pomp the FBI could muster for their fallen. After the priest had said more words at the gravesites. After the piper had played ‘Amazing Grace.’ After the twenty-one gun salute. After the folding of flags and their subsequent conveyance to next of kin. After the lowering of the caskets. After the queue of people waiting to throw a handful of dirt into the open graves. After tears and sadness. After hugs and condolences. After almost all had departed. Only then had Senior Special Agent Ryan Thompson approached the gravesite of the commander of the FBI SWAT team. In all honesty, he had hardly known the man; could not say he was a friend. But then, SSA Thompson had so few he could include in that category.

The sun sliced through a cloudless blue sky, glinting off his prominently displayed FBI badge with its black band of mourning. Thompson squinted as he looked around at the now-empty last resting place for so many. He felt warm in his dark suit. Uncomfortable, perhaps, at this nearness to the end of the journey. Retirement would come soon, very soon. Another journey over, with nothing in particular to look forward to afterward. He stood, facing the hole in the ground, looking at the dirt-spattered wood below without really focusing his eyes. Thinking, musing on the last week.

Thursday, the day after the attack on the SWAT team, had been his birthday. Two colleagues had remembered and brought him a single cupcake with a lonely candle. He’d smiled and done his duty, then invited them for a drink and lunch. Both had refused with thanks, citing meetings for ongoing cases. A couple of cards appeared on his desk. One from his coworkers, indecipherable scribbles purporting to be from the rest of the office’s occupants. One from someone in LAPD.

At home, he had received none. His smartphone had pinged indicating a notification. He had mail. Sitting in the inbox of his personal email account was a single electronic greeting card sent through a popular Internet site. It was addressed to him by his full, official title. FBI Senior Special Agent Ryan Thompson. It was not signed.

It read ‘The Lion has avenged the murder of an innocent man.’

He had stood there in the midst of the bustling office for over two minutes, staring at the single line of text. Then his training kicked in. He made a beeline for the Computer Forensics department and had the sending email address traced. Dead end. Just created for the purpose of requesting the greeting card. The card had been selected over a week before and had been scheduled for delivery that morning. The tech had woven his magic and somehow obtained the IP address of the computer used to send the card to the greetings service. He had laughed aloud when the results came back. The IP address was for his own laptop at home. He had not sent this, of that he was sure. How many might believe this amongst his colleagues was another matter.

So the Lion had chosen, or been contracted, to avenge Todd McGee’s death by eliminating the SWAT team. There was only one candidate for the contractor in his mind. The widow. They had been running surveillance on the whole family since the arrest incident. He called the team assigned and was told all three, the mother, the daughter, and the son, had left the US two days before the attack on the SWAT team. Destination South America. Their Malibu home was up for sale. Paperwork had been put in to reregister their company, Todd McGee’s business, in Panama. That just gave them an alibi for the attack. It didn’t absolve them of possible responsibility for it.

Thompson shook his head. He had a feeling all the leads he thought he had on identifying the Lion were turning out to be so much smoke. He had identified the travel patterns of Todd McGee, forced his conclusions past his supervisor to get an arrest warrant approved, while all the time admitting to himself the nagging doubt he harbored. As the family had said, McGee’s job could easily have taken him to those places. What also stood out was that McGee had traveled under his real name. Surely if he was the Lion he would have used a false identity. Then, some days after his death, the Lion had claimed responsibility for the slaying of the SWAT agents.

Was there more than one Lion? Should he go back to the NSA-supplied data and see who else had been traveling from the places where the assassinations had taken place? Had he overlooked something in his obsession to close this case before they put him out to pasture?

He feared becoming another ex-Fed pursuing a neurotic fixation on an old unsolved case until he died… or until his digging prompted the Lion to come for him, too. Should he just accept the situation as it was, forget about everything, pull up roots and move to Florida or Baja and spend his days fishing?

Thompson raised his head and let his eyes wander over the gravestones. His ears picked up the silence of the cemetery, broken only by the occasional chirping of birds and the fluttering of flags. Flags? He turned and followed the movement of the red, white and blue with his eyes. Six flags in all, stuck in the ground near plots, forming a rough line to the far side of the cemetery. Wait! There was a rag or something caught in a tree branch further out. His brain sorted the data into a recognizable pattern. The Flags, the rag. They were wind indicators. There was a sniper out there somewhere. The Lion.

Far off in the distance, he saw a single, bright flash of light. Almost immediately he heard a whining buzz, like a bee on steroids, getting louder. He became aware of a dull thud and felt motion. Thompson did not see the fifty-caliber bullet leave a fist-sized hole in his upper torso. He did not see the same projectile smash into the gray stone of a grave marker behind him. Did not watch the shards scatter, the plume of white dust linger in the air.

Senior Special Agent Ryan Thompson had been propelled backward into the open grave of the SWAT commander. The dirt thrown on top of the casket darkened as it soaked up the blood from his mangled corpse.

 

* * *

 

“Kill shot!” whispered Mark McGee from under the tarpaulin.

“One more bastard down,” replied his sister, lying alongside. “It won’t bring back Dad, or make Mom any less sad, but I must say it was satisfying. Fifteen hundred meters, give or take.”

“Your eleventh confirmed kill with that thing.”

In the darkness beneath the tarp she nodded. Both began to dismantle their equipment. Tessa removed the short magazine from beneath the rifle, then pulled back the bolt to eject the spent cartridge. She unscrewed the long suppressor from the RPA Rangemaster rifle, folded the stock along the weapon’s left-hand side. They had to move with speed now. Despite the efficient sound suppressor, the rifle’s large caliber had meant the shot would have been heard. It was only a matter of time before someone came to investigate.

Mark rolled out from the tarpaulin and dragged it off his sister. They had been lying on the roof of a mausoleum situated at the southern edge of the cemetery since before dawn. Waiting behind them, on the other side of the surrounding wall, was a red Honda Accord, the most popular car on Los Angeles roads this year, easy to mingle in unnoticed with traffic as they made their way north toward San Francisco and the freighter waiting to take them back to South America. North, the opposite direction where the Feds would initially look.

Mark folded the tarp into a large black sports bag then held it open as Tessa place the rifle, magazine, suppressor and spotter scope on top, covering them with the two sniper mats they had been using. The tarp, a potential source of DNA, would be burned within the hour; the weapon would be cleaned and returned to their cache for future use in jobs that brought them back to the States. A steady seven-hour drive up Interstate Five awaited, a reunion with their mother, then a slow ride for all on a container ship to Panama.

They made their way to the back of the roof, dropped the aluminum ladder to the ground, descended, used the ladder again to climb over the perimeter wall. The weapons bag was stowed out of sight in the trunk, and the folded ladder put in front of the back seat. They boarded the nondescript car and set off at a leisurely pace.

“Sis, do you think Thompson would have figured it out in the end?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? Why? Are you asking me if I think this was justified?”

“No, hell, no. This wasn’t about revenge, I get that. Mom needed to punish the people responsible for ending her marriage to Dad. She’s gone from complete happiness to outright depression in less than a week. I’m worried about her.”

“When we get back, I’ve been thinking of hiring an oceangoing cruiser to take us around the Caribbean for a couple of months. Perhaps spending time away from the rest of the world, taking things one day at a time, will help us all deal with Dad’s passing.”

“That’s a great idea. Count me in.”

“No Internet or phones. We’ll check in with the news, if there is any, when we dock, wherever we happen to be. If the FBI ends up on our tail, we’ll know about it soon enough.”

“I guess I could live without being connected for a while. What about Thompson though? Would he have put the pieces together eventually?”

“That’s academic now. Hell, Mark, had he been doing his job right in the first place, he should have realized that in any pride of lions, it’s the females that do the hunting and killing.”