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Three years ago
It didn’t feel right.
Sergeant Cameron Harris glanced at his companion, fellow soldier Brett Gates. Was he getting the same creepy vibe from being in this back alley? Cameron couldn’t tell. The two Afghans they were interrogating were talkative enough, spilling the beans about every arms dealer in the city who had ties with the Taliban. The fact that they knew so much wasn’t comforting Cameron like it should. Something felt off.
He picked up most of what they were saying, but Brett was the real translator star here, taking the lead on this mission. He spoke the language like a native, while Cameron provided back up, with his height and breadth, as well as the M4 carbine cradled against his chest. He studied his surroundings again.
This area of the city was usually pretty safe. That’s why they’d chosen to meet these two scrawny assholes here, and had instructed Ross and Jimenez, the other two guys in their detail, to stay with the Hummer. But Cameron couldn’t shake his uneasiness. Over the years he’d learned to listen to his gut. It had saved him countless times, and he’d grown to count on it. Not family. Not friends. He’d learned that hard truth on his tenth birthday, when his father committed suicide while Cam and his friends celebrated outside. He’d learned it again when he was ostracized afterward.
So, yeah, nowadays his gut was the only thing he trusted. And today it was telling him this meet-and-greet was off-kilter.
Sweat dribbled down his forehead, stinging his eyes. He swiped it away with a gloved hand. Damn, it was hot as hell in this shithole country. And it stank of animal crap, human waste, rotten food, and unwashed bodies. Sand blew everywhere, coating your lips, irritating your eyes, and filling your pores. Cameron could hardly wait for this tour of duty to end. He’d take a shower for a year when he got stateside.
How the hell Brett managed to look like he’d just unwrapped his uniform from the cleaners was beyond him. Cam could wring sweat from his camo, while Brett didn’t have perspiration stains at all. The guys were forever ribbing him that he hadn’t found a mirror he didn’t like. The good-natured teasing annoyed Brett at times, but right now Cam wished he looked, and smelled, half as good as his buddy.
After shooting another assessing look around, he returned his attention to the Afghan informants. According to them, the insurgents were abandoning this part of Kabul. Good news, but Cameron wasn’t sure if he believed them. He’d bet Brett sure as hell didn’t, either. There were too many factions wanting to claim victory in this area of the world. Cameron had seen peace erupt into war too many times to believe it had finally come to stay.
It was late afternoon, and the buildings cast eerie shadows along the ground and over the Afghan men’s faces. They resembled bearded Scream figures. Cameron’s skin crawled at the comparison, and he rolled his shoulders. More sweat rolled between his shoulder blades. He was thankful for the Kevlar vest he wore, but damned if it wasn’t like wearing a portable sauna.
“No, no, no, no.” His attention shot to the huddle before him, fingers tightening on his M4. One of the men was overriding Brett’s question, stepping into his personal space to emphasize whatever the hell he was saying. Brett pushed him back with a sharp command in Pashto, and Cameron moved to Brett’s side, jerking his M4 at the man. The guy wisely retreated. Cameron looked at the Hummer, nodded at Jimenez, who straightened behind the gun turret. Ross remained behind the wheel. Their vigilant demeanor reassured him. A little.
Enough was enough. Cameron addressed Brett without looking at him, his attention riveted on the informants, who shifted their sandaled feet, pebbles crunching loudly under their soles. “Are you getting anything worthwhile here, Brett? ’Cuz I’m having a bad feeling. I think we should pop smoke and drag their asses back to base.”
“Give me a minute,” Brett tossed back, breaking into a long question about where the gun runners had been seen last. Cameron licked his lips, tasted sand, and seethed. He couldn’t shake the feeling of foreboding. Cocking his hip, he looked to his right. His muscles tensed, and he gripped his carbine tighter. Was that movement behind the charred remains of the Fiat across the street? Hadn’t he already surveilled that tin can skeleton when they’d first arrived? He shook his head. Shit, he was as jumpy as a virgin in a strip club.
As he turned his head, he saw the shorter, skinnier Afghan nod, and Cameron’s gaze narrowed. It hadn’t been a full-blown nod, not by a long shot. Just a tiny head movement, almost like ducking a buzzing fly. And Lord knew there were a shit-ton of those little bastards flying around. Keeping his gaze trained on the shorter informant, Cameron tuned in to Brett’s latest inquiry.
“What kind of weapons did you see?” Brett was asking in flawless Pashto. By his impatient undertone, it wasn’t the first time he’d posed the question. And a response sure as hell wouldn’t include a nod. Cameron reached out a gloved hand to tap Brett on the arm and warn him when the rat-a-tat-tat of a heavy machine gun exploded from the blown-out building to their right.
“Ambush!” Cameron yelled, lunging toward the two informants. Both men ran in different directions, a planned escape maneuver for sure. While Brett pulled his pistol, Cameron scrambled to the side, firing off rounds toward where the initial attack had come from.
More machine gun fire erupted, this time from Jimenez on the Hummer’s turret. Return fire popped from the top of a rattletrap jeep barreling down the alley. They were surrounded, all avenues of escape blocked.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down. He and Brett had planned this right to the time of day, when most people were inside because of the heat. All Brett’s intel had corroborated what he believed: that these two informants were legit. Well, that sure as shit wasn’t true.
Cameron’s heartbeat drummed in his ears, a countdown to their slaughter. Each inhale through his mouth was harsher than the last as he tried to come up with a getaway plan from this shit-show. They were fish in a barrel, waiting to be picked off unless they thought of something. While they had plenty of rounds between the four of them, these guys, being arms dealers, had an unending supply.
“Take out the jeep!” Brett shouted to Jimenez, who crouched behind the turret, doing exactly what Brett yelled. Spent cartridges flew like Pez as he riddled the oncoming attackers with the Humvee’s .50 cal. And still gunfire peppered them from above.
Cameron squinted upward, the glint from the lowering sun blinding him. Periodic muzzle flashes had him pinpointing their attackers’ location, and he returned fire. He was rewarded with muffled screams as his bullets found their mark.
A strangled cry from the Humvee whipped his head around. Jimenez was slumped over the .50 cal. Ross clambered over the driver’s seat, dragging Jimenez down from the gun. Cameron had no idea if their comrade was dead or wounded, but the sight of his limp body plus Ross’s panic-laced obscenities sent a cold wave of fury through him.
“Brett, Jimenez is hit,” he shouted. Brett squatted in a doorway to Cameron’s left, trying his best to pick off the bastards in the jeep. It was parked crosswise, blocking escape from the alleyway, and its occupants returned fire. Their objective was plain: annihilate the U.S. soldiers.
The .50 cal erupted into life again, this time with Ross at the helm. He was out for vengeance, the way he was riddling the ambushers’ jeep. There was no way they were going down without taking the bastards with them. Defeat wasn’t an option. Like hell if Cameron was going to let them have their severed heads for mementos.
“Hit the engine,” he roared. If they concentrated their fire power in the jeep’s one vulnerable spot, they might be able to make an explosion. It was worth the try. Apparently, their attackers thought so, too, for they bailed from it like roaches in lamplight, just as one of Ross’s rounds hit home. There was a ping! And a whoosh, and then a burst of flame as the gas and oil ignited.
“Hoo-ah!” All three of them shouted, brandishing their weapons above their heads as their ambushers’ jeep erupted into a ball of fire. The heat from the blast surged across the distance, singeing Cameron’s eyebrows and lips. It was a glorious sensation, seeing the bastards on the run.
With no volleys from above, Cameron had to assume those attackers had ghosted them, too, but caution was needed. He’d learned never to assume anything in combat. That brought you home in a body bag.
The silence was deafening. The flames from the engine fire licked higher. All three of them remained crouched, frozen in position, only their eyes moving as they surveilled the battle zone. That’s why Cameron had chosen these men for this Intelligence gathering mission. They worked well together as a unit. They were like a family. Damn it all to hell if Jimenez had bit the big one.
Thinking of Jimenez reminded Cameron they needed to hit the road and head back to base. He caught Ross’s attention, gratified when that man read his mind and started the Humvee rolling toward him. Still no IDF, indirect fire from their unseen attackers, so Cameron and Brett rose and moved toward Ross.
The sound of running feet warned Cameron a micro-second before someone yelled, grabbing him from behind. Strong arms trapped him, one around the neck, the other around his waist, pinning his right hand, which grasped his M4, to his side.
“Get off me!” Cam growled, swinging around in a circle to try and shake off his attacker. He heard the Humvee’s engine rev as Ross drove closer. Brett shouted. The man on Cameron’s back reeked of body odor, tobacco, and nitro. That meant he was one of their shooters.
A blade flashed in his attacker’s fist. Cameron grabbed the man’s arm with his left hand, squeezing and squeezing, digging his fingers into the thin flesh of the guy’s wrist, hoping the bastard would drop the knife. And then Brett was there, pulling on the SOB.
“He’s got a knife, Brett!” Cameron warned, wondering what the hell was taking Ross so long to join them.
“Let go of him so I can pull him off,” Brett ordered, and Cameron released his grip. The next instant he felt the weight on his back lighten, right before the blade glinted and sliced toward his neck. Cameron reared back, but not far enough. The sting of the blade slashed across his chin before Brett threw the bastard to the ground, after clipping him on the chin with a right hook. The guy slumped over.
Blood dripped from the slash, spattering in the sand at Cameron’s feet. He grabbed his chin with both hands, amazed at how much blood seeped into his gloves, over his fingers like a crimson waterfall. Astonished also at how this jackass had managed to get the drop on him. He was always cautious, so careful that some of the other guys called him “Old Man.” How had this happened? He’d dropped his guard, that’s how. He was paying for that lapse now.
He stared at the widening puddle on the ground, shifting his bleary gaze to his left as he swayed in that direction. He could hear Brett and Ross swearing by the Humvee, wanted to ask why. And then movement on the ground caught his wayward attention. He saw his attacker rise into a sitting position, one arm behind his back. That puzzled him as his vision grayed around the edges. Hadn’t Brett KO’d the bastard?
The guy pulled out a Sig and aimed it at him. It was like being in a shooter video game, only Cam couldn’t move, couldn’t make some superhero jump to safety. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, tried to lunge forward, but his feet were made of cement. And his blood continued to pool in the sand as he waited for the round to explode inside him.
The impact never happened. Just when he thought his life was over, that he hadn’t completed even a quarter of the goals he’d set for himself, someone shoved him to the ground, not too difficult to manage since he’d been swaying in place like an elephant. He saw stars when he hit the ground, the jolt jarring his wounded chin.
Opening his eyes, he found Brett straddling him like an angry guardian angel, shoulders squared, fists clenched at his sides. In Cam’s current state of confusion, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see a glowing aura circling his friend. His savior. Brett was the only thing standing between him and death.
They were in clear sight of the enemy, no cover available. As if in slow motion, his friend pulled his sidearm and emptied it into Cam’s attacker. The guy’s body jerked like a puppet on a string. And then it lay still. Silence reigned once more, except for their harsh breathing.
Holstering his weapon, Brett turned and grabbed one of Cam’s forearms, pulling him upright. Cam raised his gaze, tried to focus on Brett. Two Bretts, maybe three. He shook his head to clear his vision. He needed to say something soulful, something weighted with the gratitude that swelled inside him. All he managed to convey aloud, however, was a mumbled, “You could have been killed saving my life, dumbass.”
“Yeah, yeah, you can thank me later. C’mon, Jimenez is in a bad way. I can’t carry both of you. We’ve gotta get outta here.”
Cameron allowed his friend to drag him to the Humvee, his head spinning, vision blurring, stomach rolling. Brett shoved him into the passenger seat, replacing Cam’s weakening hand at his chin with his own, maintaining the pressure on the wound. The Humvee jerked. Cameron’s last thought, beside the fact that he owed Brett big-time, was that Jimenez had better make it, the bastard. They were a team of four. No way could he cut out early.
And then everything went dark.
ZONE OF ACTION is available for PREORDER at all online bookstores like Amazon, as well as at Entangled Publishing! Order your copy today, and get it delivered on July 27th. Easy peasy!
****Coming July 27****
ZONE OF ACTION
Former terror cell expert Audrey Jenkins has seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime. When she uncovers her ex, Brett, a higher-ranking officer in her unit, selling military secrets, she turns him in and returns to the simpler life she has embraced since leaving the army.
CID Special Agent Cam Harris is a career military man with a strong sense of duty. When a military prisoner who once saved his life in Afghanistan escapes while in his custody, he requests the assignment to track him down.
Cam's manhunt leads him to Audrey's door. His prisoner—her ex—will resurface here, he’s sure of it. The feisty woman wants nothing to do with hunting down her ex, but when a terror cell she’s all-too-familiar with launches a deadly attack on army intelligence soldiers and officers, she knows it’s Brett.
Helping Cam is the right thing to do. But the attraction burning between them may be the mistake that gets her and Cam killed.