The curtains on the farmhouse windows were all calico patterns.
That was oddly disconcerting.
Fitting for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old farmhouse, I suppose. But it didn’t match what I knew about my targets at all.
I tried to find that node, that calm space that I’d trained so many to find, but it just wasn’t there. I’d waited so long for this moment, for this peace, that I just couldn’t settle down and enjoy the process.
Lying in that tall dry grass with the gentle breeze to cover any motions I might make should have been settling, calming. I was in a perfect position, perfectly comfortable. It would have been nice to have a spotter along, but other than that it all felt flawless. Except that I couldn’t settle into the calm.
My mind flickered over the reason I was in that tall grass and an overwhelming wave of loss surged over me.
I couldn’t even remember Gabby’s laugh anymore.
I was sure I could remember it just a couple weeks ago, but it was all fading, even Tricia’s smile. Maybe I was the only one who remembered them at all. Sometimes I thought, if I could just get some sleep, some real sleep, I might get it all back.
The front door opened and a lone figure stepped out onto the broad wooden porch.
She was elegant, even in faded, stained blue jeans and an oversized, worn man’s Carhart farm jacket. One of the tan canvas ones. The wind toyed with her long silver hair for a moment, until she pushed it back behind her ears with a curiously girlish impatience. I hadn’t expected her to be at the house yet – she and the others were all due to arrive in an hour or two from a Thanksgiving vacation.
She glanced around for a moment then looked up – right at me. I could see her clear blue eyes through my scope as they settled on my position.
I tried to tell myself it was a fluke, but it was soon very clear, all too clear. She knew. She couldn’t see me, but she knew I was there. She seemed to resign herself and began to walk slowly toward my hummock.
It was a long walk – almost 700 meters by my scope - through the slowly waving sea of grass, and I watched her pick her way through it. She’d left the jacket unzipped and I could see she wasn’t wearing a vest, just a flannel shirt.
That was probably deliberate. The breeze caught her every now and then, and she’d clutch the tan canvas jacket closed reflexively for a few second to shield herself from the chill of the late November day. Then let it go to hang open, just as reflexively.
She wanted me to see she had no weapon, no vest.
A vest wouldn’t have helped any against the heavy rifle trained on her anyway, but it was clear she wanted to talk and wanted me not to feel threatened.
I scanned around me. There simply wasn’t anyone else. I had a clear view across the rolling fields in practical range, and except for this one, all of them had been cut for hay late in the summer, leaving them almost bare.
My puzzlement and curiosity had allowed her get to the bottom of the small hill and I watched her pause there. She carefully stepped over a dry creek where a sometimes-rivulet had dug a shallow trench. Her light blue boots were traced with colorful embroidery and sparkled with rhinestones, strangely at odds with her practical, worn farm clothes.
As she picked her way up the low hillock, I rolled up into a sitting position, leaving the rifle to rest, and drew my revolver. It’s pretty old school; nobody carries a revolver anymore, but this one was special. The Colt Pythons had always been among the finest revolvers ever made; they were works of art and I’d always wanted to have mine with me at the end.
And this was probably it.
I pushed the hood of my ghillie suit back and pulled the mask down.
She just glanced at me with a polite, distant, smile and a nod, then sat down a few feet away, looking over the farmhouse, with her arms around her knees.
We just sat there for an eternity.
“They won’t be coming, you know. It’s just me.”
Her voice was cultured, finishing school perfect, but almost lyrical despite the training.
“I figured that.”
We sat silent for another eternity, just watching the grass sway like ocean waves until the wind kicked up a bit as if it needed to do something to fill the void.
“I have coffee down at the house if you want some.”
She was so calm and centered. I suddenly felt like a kid playing soldier.
I holstered my revolver, stood up and picked the rifle up, folding the bipod as I slung it behind me.
She sat, slightly huddled in the oversize jacket, looking up at me with impossibly blue eyes.
I reached down to help her to her feet. She took my hand and slid up as gracefully and graciously as she seemed to do everything.
It was hard to believe that this was the demon that had killed my family.
The demon that I had hunted for so long and sold so much of my soul to reach.
We walked carefully down the small hill. She grasped my forearm to help herself over the small dry cut at the bottom, as if it were perfectly natural to do that.
I had a moment of concern as we stepped into the house, but it was empty. A battered military saber hung over the fireplace under a painting of some mostly-forgotten 17th century battle.
“We can sit in the kitchen or take a service to the parlour.”
“The kitchen would be fine.”
I leaned the rifle in the corner of the huge kitchen. The rubberized pad on the butt of the big M24A3 sniper rifle wouldn’t let it slip and fall, and I always had the Python if anyone showed unexpectedly. I’d only really need one bullet for her anyway. Now that the rest of the targets were out of reach, I didn’t really care what happened after that.
She hung her jacket on a set of hooks near the side door out of the kitchen and I hung my Ghillie poncho next to it, then sat on one of the high stools at the tall rough-cut table.
No point in being uncivilized.
She carefully poured rich black coffee into a couple of honest-to-God John Deere tractor mugs. I’d always figured her for fine bone china, but she seemed perfectly content with these as she slid on to a stool opposite me. She didn’t bother to put out cream or sugar.
She sipped a bit and closed her eyes for a second to enjoy it.
It was damn good coffee.
“Do you prefer Ken or Kenneth, or should I call you Colonel Howard?”
“Ken is fine.” I paused awkwardly, a bit off my game. “And you?”
“It’s usually Evelyn, but I’d rather be called Evie here if you don’t mind.”
I glanced around at the dried peppers and garlic hanging in strings along doorframes and off cabinets. Evie did seem more appropriate here.
“So how did you know?”
“Maria contacted us last night. She’s been watching you since the incident in Macao. The one with all those poor girls.”
I caught myself before I responded to that. She’d been at least partly responsible for what happened to “all those poor girls”.
As to Maria ... Deputy Director Maria Hawthorne of the FBI. I was hoping I hadn’t caught her attention.
Hope is not, as they say, a course of action; it was all I had though, I couldn’t be certain either way, and digging to find out would almost certainly have drawn her attention.
Depending on how deeply involved she was, there might be an HRT parked in the basement right now. Actually, even if she wasn’t involved, there might be a team waiting. Not that it could possibly reach Evie in time.
She continued on. “She was trying to figure out your angle, why an organization like yours would even be interested, and want to be in on that raid. She appreciated the help, but she started wondering about why after a while.”
“I needed the papers, shipping manifests, the contact lists, everything. She and her people were so tied up with getting all those girls to safe places, my guys on the ground had plenty of time to photograph all that.”
“She guessed that. She said a couple of people disappeared before she got to them.”
I nodded. “I needed more answers.”
Evie sipped a bit more.
“She finally figured it out. And guessed what you were planning on doing today. She had Homeland tracking your travel. They saw the plane ticket to BWI.”
I’d left too many clues over the years. It was impossible to avoid. I’d had to take chances, risks to get the information I needed and had the bad luck to trigger the interest of one of the few people that could have figured it all out.
I didn’t understand why Hawthorne hadn’t simply had me rolled up. If she’d figured out this much, she had to have known I wouldn’t be a risk to her agents.
“Who told you I’d be on that hill?”
“Maria’s ... friend, Michael. Said it was the only sane place a real sniper would choose. He seemed to know more about your organization than anyone else.” She stopped for a second. “Given your reasons for this, I asked Maria to let me handle it.”
I closed my eyes against a surge of unwanted, nightmare images.
She drove on, unknowing. “I asked her not to interfere. Just to keep Emma and her family out of it. She didn’t like it, but she honored my request. Personal promises mean a lot to her. She really cares about Emma. Sometimes I think Maria is more her mother than I am.” Her voice faded at the last of that – reflective, saddened.
.... There is more of this story ...