in extremis 
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WILDFIRE


Prologue


The supervisory ranger at the Sequoia National Park stood in front of the all-too-familiar sign and shook his head in frustration.

It was exactly where the woman had said it would be. Just off the main hiking path through one of the most spectacular stands of great redwoods in the entire park. The supervisory ranger figured that a minimum of a thousand tourists had probably seen and read the sign before one of them decided to go to the effort to report it.

Like the first three signs, the letters on this one appeared to have been machine-carved out of what looked like an aluminum alloy blank that was precisely thirty inches long, eighteen inches high and three quarters of an inch thick. Prior to the machine carving of the letters, the blank metal sign appeared to have been chemically coated with a dark green/brown camouflage pattern. As a result, the machined letters seemed to almost glow in the shaded light of the old growth forest.

If it hadn't been for those letters, the supervisory ranger realized, the highly effective camouflage-patterned coating would have made the sign almost completely invisible. Which didn't make any sense at all.

Unable to help himself, he read the deeply imprinted words once again.

And one day soon when the ember falls, and the sky is filled with fire He shall rise up from out of the darkness and none shall stand before him.

For reasons that he couldn't quite explain, the supervisory ranger found the words chilling. He shook his head again, and then examined the bolts .... confirming the worst, which was exactly what he had expected.

The heads of the two lag bolts used to fasten the sign to the seventy-two foot redwood were about three inches across, completely rounded, and cast with a new three-dimensional notch design in the center that would require a special matching tool for removal. In addition, the bolt had been counter-sunk into the sign to a depth of approximately an eighth of an inch, which meant that there wouldn't be any way to get a grip on the rounded head with a pair of pliers or channel-locks.

And if the lag bolts were like those on the other three signs the park rangers had found so far, they would be about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and eighteen inches long and cast out of hardened steel. Which also meant that the only way to remove the sign, without causing extensive internal damage to the tree, would be to drill a series of holes through the aluminum around the bolt head.

The last such removal had taken five hours because the power needed to cut through the tough aluminum alloy had rapidly drained the batteries on their portable drill. And all of that, of course, had attracted a lot more attention among the hiking tourists.

Which was probably exactly what the idiots who put it there had in mind, the ranger thought morosely.

He decided that he'd better call the local hardware store and order more batteries and charging units for their drill. It could turn out to be a long season.

"Goddamned religious nuts," he muttered, still feeling uneasy, because in spite of what he and his fellow rangers had been telling the public, none of them were completely convinced that religion was the issue.

There was another possibility that he didn't want to think about at all.

* * * * *

It was eight-thirty in the evening when the Learjet touched down at the Mahlon Sweet Municipal Airport in Eugene, Oregon, and then taxied over to a small butler building at the far end of the tarmac.

To the aircraft mechanic who would spend the next four hours making a routine service check of the Learjet's two powerful engines and related electronics, the man who stood up from the controls and then exited the plane through the drop ramp with a nylon kit bag in his hand looked a lot more like a defensive end for a professional football team than a skilled private pilot.

The mechanic watched the man walk through the chain-link gate and get into a small dark-gray mini-van, and then shrugged indifferently as he began to lay out his tools. Regardless of who the man was, or what he did for a living, he was paying twice the normal rate for a non-routine service check on what appeared to be a very well maintained aircraft. As far as the aircraft mechanic was concerned, that was all he needed to know about his client.

At nine-thirty that evening, the extremely tall and muscular driver of the dark gray mini-van turned off a main road about twenty miles south of Eugene, Oregon. He continued on for about a quarter mile on a narrow, winding dirt road surrounded by a dense growth of scrub oaks and firs. Finally, he came to a stop at a wrought iron gate.

Reaching out the driver's side window, he pushed the call button, and then waited.

"Yes?" the electronic voice rasped.

"I'm here to pick up my merchandise," the tall man said, speaking slowly and carefully in the direction of the post-mounted microphone.

"Your name?"

The man hesitated for a brief moment, and then said: "Riser."

"The number of primary items in your order?"

"Four."

"You're early," the electronic voice said accusingly. "Your appointment is for tomorrow afternoon."

"My schedule has been changed," Riser responded.

"Can you come back tomorrow morning?"

"No, I need the items today."

As Riser started to turn away from the microphone, a movement in one of the nearby trees caught his attention. His eyes followed the leap of the gray squirrel from a bare-limbed oak to the protective foliage of a tall evergreen. That was when he spotted the reflection off the glass.

There hadn't been a camera lens in that tree six months ago, when he had last come by to pick up the disposable tools of his trade. Or maybe there had, but he simply hadn't noticed it, Riser reminded himself. Even now that his attention was focused, it took him a good thirty seconds to locate the entire system.

There were two separate video surveillance units, each mounted in a sealed and weather-proofed box about twenty feet off the ground on opposite sides of the road. Each of the boxes had been carefully painted in an irregular camouflage pattern to match the surrounding vegetation. Even the barely visible segments of electrical conduit that wrapped around to the back of the trees and then---presumably---extended down into the ground and out to the main house, had been carefully colored to blend in with the supportive tree bark.

This was a new and unexpected development, and one that Riser didn't like at all.

"We will have to re-schedule the other appointments," the electronic voice finally responded. "That will require a ten percent penalty charge for the inconvenience."

"Fine."

There was another, shorter pause.

"Do you have all the money with you today, including the penalty charge?"

"Yes."

"Okay, drive in through the gate, take a left at the 'Y' intersection, and drive up to the door marked 'C' as in Charlie. When the roll-up door opens, drive inside, stop the car and shut off the engine. Stay in the car until someone contacts you. Can you remember all that?"

"Yes."

Riser waited patiently for the wrought iron gate to open. When it did so, he drove in, took the left hand turn at the 'Y,' and stopped in front of the warehouse door marked 'C' as in Charlie. After a few moments, the large roll-up door started to rise. He drove inside the sheet metal warehouse, parked in the middle of the three parking spaces facing the darkened indoor range, turned off the engine, and set the keys on the floor just under the driver's seat. Then he sat there and waited for the warehouse door to close.

They had directed him to the largest of Hoffsteadler's three test firing ranges, the man realized. He remembered from previous visits that this one had eight firing positions with staged target sites at three, seven, fifteen, twenty-five and fifty meters.

For a brief moment, he wondered if their selection of the larger range was significant. Then a muscular young woman with intriguing but clearly understated facial features, deep blue eyes, French-braided light brown hair, loose fitting overalls, and canvas deck shoes appeared out of the shadows and walked over to the driver's side of his car.

Had she made the effort, he decided, she would have been extremely attractive; perhaps even seductive. He wondered why she chose not to do so.

"Mr. Riser?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Hoffsteadler is ready for you now."

"Where?"

"Up the ramp and to the left. You enter the range through the second door .... after I check you for weapons," she added in a calm and controlled voice.

He noticed, as he stepped out of the van and stood to his full height of six foot ten inches, that she hesitated for only a moment before she stepped forward, shaking her head and smiling briefly at the realization that the top of her head barely reached the center of his sternum. Deliberately leaving herself open to any number of possible strike or control moves, she brought both of her hands inside his jacket, up to his armpits, and then around his thickly muscled back in a slow and careful manner.

As her practiced hands slid behind the waistband of his jeans, he wondered if she realized that she was the designated sacrificial lamb---the one that Hoffsteadler had set up to die first, in the event that anything went wrong.

Yes, she knows, he decided after a moment. She just doesn't care.

He smiled as he considered that last part.

Submitting himself to the thorough pat-down search with complete indifference, he observed that she was wearing a police-model Kevlar vest under the overalls, and that the restraining strap on her hip-holstered double-action, 9mm Beretta 92FS semiautomatic pistol was secured. The weapon was designed to hold fifteen rounds in a staggered magazine, and one in the chamber, and was rigged for a right hand forward draw from a protected holster. An extra magazine pouch was mounted horizontally on the left front side of her webbed belt, with the snaps opening toward the belt buckle, combat speed-loading style.

He also observed, as he led the way up the ramp and in through the narrow doorway, that she maintained a constant distance of about eight feet between them, with the outer edge of her left shoulder lined up with the inner edge of his right arm. In doing so, she was keeping her left hand in a position to easily deflect a grab or lunge, and her right hand clear for a smooth draw.

That's good, he nodded approvingly. At least give yourself a chance.

He judged her to be approximately five-ten, twenty-five to twenty-eight years of age, professionally alert, sexually attractive in a hard and uninterested sort of way. And probably absolutely deadly if given the necessary stimulus, he decided.

The only thing that bothered him was her sense of indifference, or over-confidence, whichever it was.

There were some interesting possibilities, but he reminded himself that it would all depend on how things went with the confirmation, and the payment.

They entered the staging area, and he immediately lost interest in his female escort. The first things he noticed were the fifty-five gallon drums that had been placed in the middle of the range, just beyond the twenty-five meter mark.

In firing lane five, six of the barrels had been lined up, one behind the other, on a two foot high wooden platform.

In firing lane six, four more barrels were double stacked side by side, with two on the top and two on the bottom.

Riser paused for a moment, more out of curiosity than anything else, to examine the unusual arrangement of targets, if that in fact was what they were. Then he turned his attention to the far side of the range.

There he observed five men---all of whom were visibly armed--a portable workbench, and two display tables, all arranged side by side to the left of the firing positions. The workbench was on the far left. The two display tables were covered with black velvet. The one on the far right held what looked like a wooden case that measured about twelve inches on a side by three feet long.

George Hoffsteadler was waiting for him in front of the middle table.

"Good to see you again, 'Riser'," Hoffsteadler said in a neutral voice as he stepped forward and took the man's hand in a firm grip.

George Hoffsteadler was well aware that 'Riser' was not the name that his huge and intimidating client had used on his previous visits, but that didn't concern him in the least. Especially since he hadn't bothered to use his own given name in over forty-five years. In point of fact, Hoffsteadler actually found it preferable that his customers used varying pseudonyms in making their highly illegal and therefore extremely lucrative purchases. If nothing else, it greatly simplified his already minimal record-keeping system.

George Hoffsteadler was an extremely tall and slender man with elongated fingers, limbs and facial features of an individual who appeared to have been born on a basketball court. In fact, most people would have been astounded to learn that Hoffsteadler, as far back as he could remember, had never held a basketball in his life. Born and raised deep in the West Virginia mountains, where pieces of flat ground were at a premium, George Hoffsteadler and his brothers had quickly discovered more profitable interests to pursue than mere sports.

Completely self-confident by nature, and paranoid only out of professional habit, Hoffsteadler was one of a very small number of people who were not immediately intimidated by the arrival of the man who now called himself 'Riser.'

One, because at six feet and eleven inches, George Hoffsteadler was able to stare eye-to-eye at his huge and menacing client without having to look up.

And two, because he was certifiably crazy.

George Hoffsteadler had been an illicit gun dealer for nearly fifty-one of his sixty-five years. And in that time, aside from a general description or two, he had never once shown up in an FBI or ATF report, nor had he ever been convicted of a state or local weapons violation. Mostly because the few people who might otherwise have been willing to testify against the Hoffsteadler and his gun-manufacturing brothers were absolutely convinced that they would disappear within twenty-four hours if they ever chose to do so. Three local men had already suffered that fate.

Hoffsteadler considered his lack of a police record to be one of the major personal accomplishments of his life, and one that he fully intended to maintain for the remainder of his illicit career. Which was why he continued to pay top dollar to employ four of the most lethal combat shooters he could find in the area as personal bodyguards and 'general keepers of the rules,' as he put it.

One of the bodyguards was standing behind the main display table. A second was sitting in an enclosed target control console directly behind the firing positions. A third was positioned in a home-made M-60 machine gun turret, constructed out of welded steel plates and bullet-proof glass, that over-looked the entire range. The fourth was standing eight feet behind Riser with the outer edge of her left shoulder lined up with the inner edge of his right arm.

Hoffsteadler's two younger brothers, both highly skilled gunsmiths, sat at the small portable workbench, dressed alike in white jeans and denim aprons and supporting nearly identical handlebar mustaches. In front of them, on the oil-stained wooden surface, was a wide array of precision tools, cleaning rods, gun oil and cloth patches. They were prepared to make a wide range of adjustments to their hand-crafted weapons on the spot. Or, if necessary, to take them back into their fully equipped machine shop for a complete re-tooling. Like their older brother, both men wore Beretta semiautomatics in matching hand-tooled leather shoulder holsters.

"You got lucky," the gun dealer said. "We finished the last piece on your order yesterday evening, and one of the other buyers can't make it today anyway, so what I'm going to do is cancel out that penalty. I think you'll like what the boys did on this batch. Take a look for yourself."

He gestured with his hand at the display table, the entire surface of which was covered with a long piece of black velvet. Six pistols and two submachine guns, each finished in a non-glare black matte, were arranged in the center of the table, along with stacks of clearly marked magazines and several boxes of ammunition for each weapon. There were two replacement barrels for each of the pistols.

All six pistols appeared to have been designed around the standard 92FS Large Frame Beretta semiautomatic pistols that Hoffsteadler and all of his staff carried, except that these particular hand-crafted weapons were approximately twenty percent larger in the grip. They were also fitted with precision machined silencers of varying lengths and thickness, each in a matching non-glare, matte black finish.

The submachine guns appeared to have been modeled after the Heckler & Koch Model HK54 submachine gun. They, too, were fitted with precision-machined silencers that accounted for almost two thirds of the total barrel length.

"As requested, one of the pistols is chambered for the .22 long rifle, one in 9mm Parabellum, and the remainder for the 10mm FBI standard round. Both submachine guns are chambered for 10mm also, which turns out to be a real nice match-up. As you might expect, the silencers are most effective with the .22 long rifle and the 9mm, although I think you'll like what we did with the 10mm stuff," the elderly gun dealer added with undisguised pride.

Wordlessly, Riser stepped forward and examined the 10mm ammunition boxes, noting that each one of the white cardboard packages was marked with the warning: RESTRICTED. FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY. Opening up one of the boxes, he randomly selected and examined three of the lethal cartridges, and nodded in apparent satisfaction.

Then he picked up one of the pistols chambered for the 10mm FBI cartridge. After evaluating the enlarged grip, weight and balance of the weapon, and confirming the silk-smooth action that was characteristic of firearms manufactured by the Hoffsteadler brothers, Riser looked over at the bodyguard and held up four fingers.

The bodyguard nodded, selected four rounds of 10mm ammunition from an open box, fed them into a magazine, and handed it to Riser, along with a pair of ear protectors. He tossed the ear protectors aside, and examined the magazine. Then he stepped forward to the left-most firing position, loaded and armed the pistol, held it at his side in his left hand, and growled the word "fifteen."

The bodyguard at the console thumbed a button, and a man-sized target popped up fifteen yards away in the first firing lane.

In one smooth motion, Riser brought the pistol up to shoulder level and fired twice. The heavy bullets punched through the target dead-center, head and chest.

"Twenty-five," Riser said as he switched the pistol to his right hand.

The first target dropped away as a second target popped up at the twenty-five yard distance. Again, two holes appeared dead center, head and chest. The baffling in the precision-machined silencer had effectively reduced the velocity of the 10mm round to subsonic levels, producing a 'gunshot' that sounded more like the 'thunk' of a small ball peen hammer striking a four-by-four post.

Riser nodded his head in satisfaction, walked back to the display table, set the smoking semiautomatic pistol down on the black velvet, and picked up the one chambered for the .22 long rifle.

In seven more sequences, a total of twenty-eight more rounds struck dead center, head and chest, the last group with the select switch of the submachine gun on single fire. The woman bodyguard was watching intently now, intrigued by this huge man who had such a gentle and deadly touch with firearms, but still vaguely frightened by the cold and deadly expression in his eyes. She understood now why George Hoffsteadler had placed all four of his bodyguards on duty for this sale.

"Are you satisfied?" Hoffsteadler asked as Riser set the submachine gun back down on the display table.

"Yes," Riser nodded curtly. "What's that over there?" He gestured with his head in the direction of the second display table.

"Oh yeah, I thought you might like to see one of our new products, the first of a new line," George Hoffsteadler smiled as he walked around behind the second table. Reaching forward with what appeared to be loving care, he opened the ornate wooden case.

Inside the case was a weapon unlike anything Riser had ever seen before.

At first glance, it looked like a short and extremely heavy double-barreled shotgun. But when Riser walked over to the end of the table and saw the deep rifling grooves in the two cavernous, stainless steel barrels, he knew better. No, he smiled to himself, definitely not a shotgun.

"May I?" he asked, and then reached forward and gently picked up the weapon in both hands when Hoffsteadler nodded.

"Something special we made for one of our hunting friends," the elderly gun dealer said. "A classic four-bore, double barreled, break-open rifle. Machined out of a solid block of weapons-grade stainless steel. Stock and grip are solid American Walnut. The barrels are one inch in diameter and twenty-four inches long. Puts out a nineteen hundred grain slug at seventeen hundred and fifty feet per second."

Riser stopped examining the weapon long enough to blink in surprise, and then stare at Hoffsteadler.

"Why?" he asked.

"Guaranteed to go in one end of a bull elephant and out the other without stopping for lunch," Hoffsteadler grinned.

Riser shrugged indifferently, and then went back to examining the weapon.

"Twenty-five pounds, total weight, and enough of a kick to put even somebody your size right on their ass if they're not careful," the gun dealer went on. Then he paused for a tantalizing moment. "You want to give her a try?"

Riser looked up at Hoffsteadler, paused, and then nodded his head.

The gun dealer gestured to the bodyguard at the middle display table, who reached down and brought up a wooden ammunition box with a hinged top. Hoffsteadler opened the top, selected two of the gleaming, four-inch long brass cartridges, and handed them over to his huge client. "One's a solid slug, the other's double-ought buckshot," he said. "You're talking a hundred bucks a shot here, so try not to miss."

Then Hoffsteadler reached down for the discarded ear protectors. "I think you're going to want ears on this time," he added as he adjusted the headset over the man's ears.

Riser walked over to the number five firing position, instinctively aware that Hoffsteadler and all four of his bodyguards had gone on alert. Ignoring them, he broke open the breech of the weapon, fed the two heavy cartridges into the side-by-side chambers---buckshot on the left and slug on the right---shut the breech, released the thumb safety, and then stared at the target.

From his position, the six fifty-five gallon barrels were lined up directly behind each other. All he could see was the front of the first barrel and the tops of all six. He started to raise the gun, but then hesitated and turned his head to look back at the display table area.

"Clear?"

Hoffsteadler nodded and waved him the go-ahead signal.

Returning his attention to the line of barrels, Riser placed his left foot forward, braced his back foot, and raised the double-barreled rifle to his shoulder. He took time to adjust the butt of the weapon tight against his thick, muscular shoulder. Then he slid his finger over the right forward trigger, aimed down the short barrel, and squeezed.

Even with the ear protectors on, the concussive effects of the explosion within the contained firing range were stunning.

The recoil slammed Riser's massive upper body backwards, but he kept his eyes open as he absorbed the shock, wanting to see the effect of the impact. It was every bit as spectacular as he had expected.

The immediate impression was that all six drums had somehow managed to explode in sequence, each detonation occurring a micro-second after the previous one. The transfer of energy from the massive slug to the inert masses of water blew all six lids and about two hundred and fifty gallons of water skyward. The rest of the water seemed to disappear in an explosive cloud around the six violently ruptured metal barrels.

Nodding to himself, he walked over to firing lane number six, paused, brought the massive weapon up to hip level, centering his aim at the middle point where the edges of all four drums came together, and then squeezed the rear-most left side trigger.

This time, the four barrels seemed to disintegrate into a pyrotechnic display of metal shards and vaporized water.

Riser saw motion out of the corner of his eye. It was the guard in the M-60 machine gun turret, holding his right hand in a thumbs-up position and grinning.

Smiling to himself for the first time that day, Riser walked over to Hoffsteadler. Being careful, because the breech and barrels of the stainless steel weapon were now extremely hot to the touch, he placed the burned powder smeared rifle in the gun dealer's waiting hands.

"How much?"

"Seventy thousand," Hoffsteadler replied. "Hundred bucks a round, slug or buckshot, but I'll give you a twenty-percent break in case lots of fifty."

"I'll take it. And two hundred rounds, half and half," he added in a deep, dispassionate voice.

"I thought you might like it, but you understand we're talking a minimum of six months for delivery?"

"No, I want this one," Riser said simply.

"Sorry, but the customer who ordered this one has a hot date with an African bull elephant all lined up and ready to go," Hoffsteadler smiled. "He asked first, so he gets number one. Number two is all yours."

"Fair enough," Riser shrugged. "I have to get going. Can you pack up my merchandise?"

"Sure. Valerie, you want to help me...."

In turning to respond to Hoffsteadler's instructions, the woman bodyguard momentarily lost track of her position relative to the right arm of her huge and fearsome charge.

In that instant, Riser turned and drove his fist into her exposed solar plexus, driving the air out of her lungs. As he did so, he spun her around, snapped open the restraining strap, yanked the 9mm Beretta semiautomatic out of her unsecured hip holster, and then sent her stumbling head first into the display table where the second bodyguard was already reaching for his pistol.

The first jacketed 9mm Parabellum slug caught the distracted bodyguard square in the forehead just as the muzzle of his pistol was starting to clear his holster. The second and third rounds dropped Hoffsteadler's two gunsmith brothers out of their workbench chairs like a pair of pop-up targets.

George Hoffsteadler had something less than a second to absorb the fact that his brothers were dead, and that he was still holding his cherished four-bore rifle in both hands---rather than reaching for his holstered pistol like he should have been doing---when the fourth high velocity 9mm bullet shattered the bridge of his nose and buried itself into the soft tissue of his brain. He was dead by the time his knees started to buckle.

Which left two.

Riser was already diving for the ground, wrenching the four-bore rifle out of George Hoffsteadler's dead hands, when the man in the turret---who had been caught off-guard by the spectacular effects of the exploding 55-gallon drums, and the suddenness of Riser's actions---sent a stream of 7.65mm machine gun rounds ripping right to left through the display tables and the entire left side wall of the staging area.

The vengeance seeking bodyguard managed to shred both display tables and the workbench, along with a considerable portion of the surrounding landscape, with his initial sustained burst from the lethal M-60. He was starting to transverse back, left to right, sending out a second lethal stream of copper-jacketed projectiles at the rate of ten per second when suddenly, over to the far right, he saw the huge man with the fearsome expression in his eyes come up to his knees with the four-bore rifle in his hands.

Working out of desperation, the bodyguard tried to swing the barrel of the heavy machine gun around in time. But before he was halfway there, the four-bore roared again. The 1,900 grain lead slug exploded through the turret's armored glass and tore the bodyguard's spine in half before exiting through the back wall.

At the onset of the shooting, the fourth bodyguard had initially chosen to barricade himself behind the relative security of the two-by-six boards that made up the front wall of the console booth. But the sight of the thick piece of armored glass in the M-60 turret exploding apart in all directions caused him to change his mind. He came up fast, triggering three 9mm pistol rounds in the general direction of Riser's last observed position. Then he turned around and lunged for the back door, just as a second 1900 grain slug ripped apart the four-by-four corner post and sent splintered chunks of two-by-six boards ricocheting into the bodyguard's exposed back.

Finding himself face down in the debris, groaning in pain and still partially stunned, the bodyguard cautiously tried to move his limbs. He was amazed to discover that all of his arms and legs were still attached, and that he didn't seem to be losing any significant amounts of blood.

Driven forward by his screaming survival instincts, he was starting toward the back door again, which was now dangling open on one hinge, when he heard the all-too-distinctive sound of the four-bore's breech being snapped closed.

Realizing that he was trapped, and that there was no time or chance to do anything else, the bodyguard twisted around to face his adversary. He was starting to come up in a desperate crouch, with the 9mm Beretta extended out and firing as fast as he could pull the trigger, when the four-bore roared once more and forty-six double-ought buck pellets sliced through the splintered interior of the console booth in a tight pattern. Nine of the 33-caliber pellets struck the bodyguard from head to groin. He too was dead before his head hit the ground.

In the intervening moments it took for the female bodyguard to recover from the stunning impact of Riser's fist being driven into her vest-protected stomach, all of the firing had stopped.

Reacting to her carefully honed survival instincts, she immediately reached for her pistol. It was only as her fingers brushed across the empty holster that she remembered: it was her mistake that had set the disastrous fire-fight into motion.

Furious with herself, she looked around frantically. The first thing she saw was the blood-splattered body of her fellow bodyguard lying under the shattered remains of the display table. Then she saw his unfired 9mm Beretta lying within two feet of his limp and outstretched hand.

She was starting to come up onto her hands and knees, getting ready to dive for the pistol, when she saw Riser out of the corner of her eye.

He was standing to her right, less than twenty feet away. He held the four-bore rifle firmly against his hip, the double barrels aimed directly at her upper body. The front view of the two cavernous rifle barrels was frightening, but it was the absolutely terrifying expression in the huge man's deadly cold eyes that seemed to turn her muscles into jelly.

For a brief moment, she wondered if George Hoffsteadler's horribly lethal new weapon was now loaded with slugs or buckshot. Not that it would matter in the least, one way or the other, she reminded herself. Dead was dead.

Then, having no idea what else to so, and still furious with herself for having lost her concentration at the crucial moment, she came up unsteadily to her feet and just stood there, staring into the face of death with her deep blue eyes. To her utter amazement, she realized that she was no longer afraid.

Tensed against the anticipated moment when the explosive discharge from the four-bore would rip into her body and end her life, it took her a moment to realize that he was saying something to her.

"What?" she rasped.

"Take off your shirt, and your vest," he repeated.

She hesitated, wondering why he was even remotely concerned about the vest. If he intended to kill her, too, all he had to do was pull the trigger. She knew with absolute certainty that her Kevlar vest would offer far less protection against Hoffsteadler's terrifying four-bore than the armored glass on the obliterated M-60 emplacement.

And besides, she thought morbidly, even if it's loaded with buckshot, instead of slugs, all he has to do is aim for my head.

For a brief moment, as she started to unbutton her shirt, it occurred to her to wonder if his instructions could possibly have anything to do with sex, and to think about how much of her pride she might be willing to sacrifice in an attempt to save her life. But then---as she slowly removed the shirt and the thick vest, exposing the mirrored pair of Scarlet Macaws tattooed on the smooth inner curves of her full bare breasts, and observed the clinical expression in his dark, forboding eyes---she realized with a sinking heart that he had no personal interest in her at all. Or at least none that she could detect.

"Put your shirt back on," he said with cold indifference.

She was starting to re-button the front of her shirt, her chest muscles tight with fear as she tried not to think about what was coming next, when he asked in a deep, resonate voice: "Do you know how to sail a boat?"

She started to say 'what?' again, because it didn't make any sense. But then she quickly forced herself to concentrate because there might be a chance after all. She already knew in her heart that nothing else mattered---whatever the trade was, whatever it was he wanted her do, would be fine with her.

She would do anything to survive. Anything at all.

"Yes, I can sail a boat. Why?"

"I need someone who is capable of taking a large sailboat out into the ocean. You seem to be unemployed at the moment," Riser added without the slightest trace of irony or amusement in his cold and foreboding voice.

The woman blinked.

She started to say: 'how large of a sailboat?' but it immediately occurred to her that that might be the wrong question to ask.

"How...how do you know you can trust me?" she finally asked instead.

"Do you blame yourself for Hoffsteadler's death?" he asked, completely ignoring her question.

The woman hesitated again, wondering if there was a right or wrong answer, or if it even mattered.

"Yes, of course I do," she finally replied. "It was my fault."

"Do you feel grief? A sense of personal loss?"

She looked down at the sprawled, bloody body of George Hoffsteadler, the man who had paid her exorbitant salary without hesitation, but who had also teased her mercilessly in front of her fellow guards. The man who had 'accidentally' brushed against her breasts or patted her butt dozens of times, and then laughed when she had turned away, embarrassed and enraged, but refusing to respond. The man who was now dead because, in the span of one second, she had failed.

"No," she said, realizing as she spoke the words that it was a truthful answer. Hoffsteadler's death didn't matter to her at all.

"Good," Riser nodded. "I expect the same degree of loyalty. Nothing more, nothing less. Success will be rewarded. Failure will result in immediate punishment. Disloyalty will result in death. Do you understand and agree to the terms?"

"Yes," the woman said calmly, wondering what it was she was doing, other than---for the moment---saving her life.

"Good. Do you know where Hoffsteadler maintains the video recorders and the tapes for his surveillance system?"

"Yes."

"Show me," he ordered. "And then go back to doing what you were told to do."

"What's that?" she asked, confused.

"Pack my merchandise. It is time for us to go to work."