Code Name: Bikini
Wind and death.
Trace O’Halloran didn’t move. Cold dug under his Kevlar vest as he watched the rugged road below him.
Something moved over the snow-dusted ground near his feet. Another rat.
Red eyes glowed in the faint green light of his night-vision goggles. Only rats could survive in this godforsaken mountain pass in winter.
It was Christmas Eve. Back in the States, families sang hymns and parents assembled dollhouses to surprise wide-eyed children while snow fell in the soft hush.
But here on a rugged plateau in Afghanistan, the cold was merciless and wind cut with icy fingers. Frostbite was unavoidable if he didn’t find shelter soon. But the mission came first.
Trace leveled his gaze on the road three hundred feet below his hiding spot. He didn’t think about the fresh wounds across his left wrist or the blood that darkened his forearm, courtesy of a difficult high altitude, low opening—HALO—jump.
Abruptly he felt movements in the night. Leaning forward, he read a change in energy patterns. A three-truck convoy crawled through the darkness. Their Korean-made trucks were guarded by soldiers wielding Soviet RPG-7 shoulder-launched missiles.
An equal-opportunity war, he thought grimly.
And this was his target. The convoy carried covert German communication technology extorted from a weapons designer based in Singapore. Not surprisingly, the man had disappeared before he could reveal his blackmailer. In the hands of a trained technician, the new device could track a massive quantity of U.S. communications. Through the application of mathematical predictive models, government assets could be located and areas of vulnerability tapped within minutes. In enemy hands the system could inflict catastrophic damage, and Trace’s job was to see that the hardware never reached its destination.
Truck lights carved the darkness. The convoy stopped with a screech of brakes. Agitated voices cut through the cold, still air.
The men in the Korean trucks were ruthless and well trained. They would shoot anything suspicious on their trek to an isolated mountain stronghold sixty miles to the north. But Trace didn’t intend to be noticed until he was ready. As he glanced at his watch, his skin burned. Frostbite was setting in.
Ignoring his pain, the SEAL fingered a button on the device in his left pocket.
Something moved down on the road. The first truck pulled sideways and two soldiers jumped out. Arguing loudly, they pointed to a paper flapping in the bone-chilling wind.
Right on schedule, Trace thought. Nice to see technology working right for once. His maneuver had lured them exactly where he wanted them.
Dark fur brushed his arm. Ears raised alertly, a black Labrador retriever held his down position behind a rock, awaiting Trace’s next order. The big dog had trained with Trace for months to prepare for this mission, and Trace sensed the dog’s eagerness to go to work.
Not yet, Duke.
His hand settled on the dog’s head. The Lab watched every movement, waiting for the next touch command.
As the wind keened over the rocky slope, Santa Fe and Christmas cheer were a universe away. Trace couldn’t even remember his last Christmas at home. His last two leaves had been cut short because of security alerts. As part of a top-secret government team, code-named Foxfire, Trace trained hard and kept personal attachments next to nil. That was the price of admission for special operations work, but the conditions had never bothered Trace, not when the stakes were so high.
Other people might call him a patriot. But for Trace the job boiled down to very personal terms—protecting family, friends and a way of life from enemies without honor or scruples. If doing his job meant taking a bullet, he was more than ready to pay that price with his own blood.
A silent alarm vibrated at his wrist.
Silently, he pulled a small box from his Kevlar vest. The dog sniffed, then gripped the box’s metal handle between his teeth. When Trace touched the Lab’s collar in a pre-arranged command, weeks of training kicked in. Duke skirted the rocks, turned and then headed for the road below.
Be safe, Trace thought. Stay low and move fast. He didn’t have to project the commands. Duke would do exactly as trained.
Trace leveled his scoped assault rifle and measured his target. A third hostile soldier jumped down, shouting at his teammates. Trace took out the nearest truck’s tires and front windshield with a four-second burst.
The insurgents scattered. Gunfire hammered the air above Trace’s head. His next volley drilled the middle truck’s gas tank. Under the explosive flare of an orangered fireball, he jumped a boulder and dropped into a narrow wash that snaked toward the road.
Hidden by walls of sand, he followed the curve of the wash, a shadow swallowed by the greater darkness of the night. One short tap on a small transmitter alerted his backup team that the encounter had begun. Now he had only minutes to complete his objective and head for the extraction