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The Sniper and the Wolf
The hour was closing in on three o’clock in the morning, and Master Chief Gil Shannon lay prone atop an empty freight car on the outskirts of Paris, a Remington Modular Sniper Rifle pulled tight into his shoulder, eye to the Barska nightscope, its illuminated green reticle highly visible in the darkness. He studied the blacked-out warehouse one hundred meters across the rail yard to the east. The April night was cool, and there hung on the breeze the distant whine of a locomotive as Gil adjusted his posture carefully, needing to urinate, waiting for Dokka Umarov to show himself. His right foot ached dully where he’d been shot the year before during a combat jump over Montana—much of the metatarsal bone having been replaced with an experimental titanium implant—and his chest tightened with anxiety that nowadays seemed to haunt him whenever things got too quiet for too long.
He drew a deep breath, slowly letting it back out, taking his hand from the grip to flex his fingers.
“Are you tensing up?” asked the voice of his overwatch, an earpiece nestled comfortably in his ear.
Gil smiled in the darkness. “Are you watching me or the target area?”
The voice chuckled softly. “I see all.”
“You see too much,” Gil muttered good-naturedly. “How about you get off my nuts and watch if Umarov slips out the back.”
Again the chuckle.
A few minutes later, Gil said, “This little meet and greet’s takin’ longer than it should. I wonder if—”
“Heat signature! Sniper on the roof!”
Gil didn’t so much as twitch, but kept his eye to the scope. “North or south?”
“North side,” the voice said. “He’s been hiding under an awning of some sort . . . no, I think it’s a proper hide. He’s sliding back under now. Umarov must have anticipated satellite surveillance.”
“Can you see the rifle barrel?”
“Enhancing resolution now . . . Yeah, I can see six or eight inches of it—the suppressor.”
“Which way is it pointing?”
A slight pause. “About twenty degrees to your right . . . south of your position.”
“He hasn’t seen me, then,” Gil said. “But that’s obvious.” He let his eye scan back and forth across the flat roof of the three-story structure, cluttered with water tanks and air-conditioning units, ventilation ducts, and enclosed observation platforms once used by train spotters. “I can’t find him. You didn’t get a look at his optics by any chance, did you?”
“Yeah,” the voice said. “Big scope.”
“Shit,” Gil muttered. “That means infrared. Sounds like maybe I brought a knife to a gunfight. What was he doing out of the hide?”
“Stretching his back, I think.”
“At least he’s careless. That’s something.” Gil relaxed and proceeded to piss his pants to solve that nagging issue. This was more difficult to accomplish while remaining stock still than most people might have imagined, but Gil had more or less mastered the art by this point in his career. An operative had to drink a lot of water in Afghanistan to stay alive and alert, and a sniper couldn’t be jumping up to hit the head every ten minutes.
Now he was ready to engage. “I need to eliminate this guy before Umarov comes out. Guide me to him.”
“Find the northern water tank.”
“He’s beneath a hide made of plywood and debris thirty feet south of— Look sharp! He’s shifting his aim!”
Gil adjusted his own aim ten degrees right. His blood froze when he saw the enemy sniper, perfectly visible beneath the hide, silhouetted in the greenish-black field of vision.
“Shit!” He flinched away from the scope a mere instant before it shattered, the enemy round passing directly through the optic tube without touching the sides. Splinters of glass stung the flesh of Gil’s neck as the deadly bullet streaked past his ear. He let go of the Remington, rolling across the roof of the railcar to drop off the far side just as the enemy’s second round grazed his hip. He twisted midfall to land feetfirst like a cat in the gravel, ducking for cover behind one of the great steel wheels of the railcar.
“Christ Jesus, that was close!”
“Are you hit?” the overwatch asked, slightly unsettled.
Gil took a moment to pull down his jeans partway for a look at the wound. “He nicked my hip. Nothing serious.”
“Good,” the voice said grimly, “because you’re about to be hip deep in shit. You’ve got a few dozen French gendarmes converging on your position from the north and west. Two hundred yards distant. They’ve got a pair of German shepherds.”
Gil didn’t want any part of German shepherds. He might handle one if he was willing to take damage, but a pair of them would drag him down and rip him apart. He took off at a dead run to the south, running parallel to the train through the loose gravel. “What’s the fuckin’ sniper doing?”
“Forget him,” the voice said, slightly distracted now. “He’s pulling back.”
Gil adjusted the earpiece as he ran. “Is it possible the gendarmes are here for Umarov?”
“They’re not moving toward the warehouse. Hold on a second.” Another pause. “Umarov and his people are leaving out the back. You must’ve been set up, Gil.”
“Goddamnit, by who?” Gil demanded, running through the darkness with the shouts of the pursuing gendarmes drifting down on the wind.
“The dogs are loose,” the voice said. “Closing fast at a hundred yards.”
“Fuck!” Gil leapt onto the ladder of a railcar and scrambled to the roof, sprinting along the tops of the cars, jumping the gaps between them as he made toward the locomotive still a half mile ahead at the front of the train.
“They’re going to see you up there.”
“Well, if you got a better idea, Bob, I’m all ears.” The dogs were barking, catching up fast, the hollow thudding of Gil’s footfalls clearly audible; the microdroplets of his perspiration heavy in the air and impossible for canines to miss.
“Widening the angle for a look ahead,” was the response from his overwatch.
Gil could feel the titanium implant in his right foot beginning to bite into the muscle tissue, and he wondered how long before something inside the foot broke loose. He wasn’t exactly built for escape and evasion anymore, and the fact became more evident with each leap from one railcar to the next. The German shepherds were directly below now, barking their asses off to let their handlers know they had caught up to the suspect.
A pistol shot rang out, and Gil cut a glance over his shoulder to see a gendarme fifteen cars back, also running along the rooftops.
“What happened to ‘Thou shalt not shoot a fleeing felon’?” Gil muttered aloud.
“You’re in France,” the voice reminded him. “They don’t have that law over there.”
“Bob. I’m running out of train, and that gung-ho prick back there is faster than I am.” Another pistol shot. “I’m pretty sure they aim to kill me.”
“They do. Somebody called a tip into the Sûreté about a terrorist in the train yard.” The Sûreté Nationale was the French national police force.
“You’re channel surfing?” Gil leapt a gap between cars, almost stumbling upon landing.
“I have to find out what you’re up against,” the voice said calmly, the faint sound of fingers running over a keyboard. “Okay, you’re in luck. The tracks span a wide canal about ten cars ahead. The dogs won’t be able to follow you across, so you can hit the ground and do some open-field running.”
Gil jumped another span and stumbled, expertly summersaulting back to his feet, the footfalls of his pursuer growing ever closer. “I have to shake Carl Lewis back there.”
“Run, Gil. If you’re captured alive, you’ll do life in a French prison.”
“Thanks, Bob, no shit!” Gil ran across the car that spanned the canal way, leaving the dogs barking at the edge and scrambling down a ladder to the ground. A quick glance, and he saw the gendarme only six cars back, closing fast with pistol in hand. He disappeared into the shadows of a stockyard full of shipping containers stacked two high. The shouts of more gendarmes became audible as they gathered at the canal’s edge, the beams of their flashlights flickering wildly.
Gil pulled up around the corner of the nearest shipping container to wait for the gendarme. As the younger man rounded the corner in the darkness at full speed, Gil delivered him a vicious strike to the throat with the V of his forefinger and thumb, temporarily collapsing the esophagus and taking him off his feet.
The pistol fell to the ground, and Gil snatched it up. He didn’t want to kill anyone, but the possibility of life in prison was not acceptable to him, so he would have to play this fucked-up mission as close to the edge as it came, dancing along the razor until he finally escaped or was forced into making some fatal decision. He jammed the pistol into his waistband and kept moving, leaving the gendarme choking in the dirt.
“Find me a way outta this fuckin’ rat maze!” It was moments like this that Gil was relieved that he and his wife were separated, and that she wasn’t at home worrying about him.
“Keep moving straight down the row until it dead-ends, then break right. A few of them are crossing the canal over the train now. The rest are moving west with the dogs toward a footbridge.”
“Where am I in relation to the embassy?” Gil asked.
“You can forget the embassy,” the voice answered. “It’s being cordoned off as we speak. Somebody knows you’re an American, and they’re expecting you to head that way.”
Gil dashed down a narrow passage between the containers. “Where is Umarov?”
“Never mind him. We have to find you a place to hole up.”
“Fuck that!” Gil snapped. “Vector me back toward Umarov!”
“Gil, no. It’s—”
“Bob, your Paris contacts are compromised. I’m completely on my own down here. So vectoring me toward Umarov is as good a direction as any—and it’s the last thing he’s gonna expect!”
The overwatch remained silent, so Gil kept moving toward the end of the row, reaching the dead end. He looked up into the starry night sky. “So what the fuck up there? Am I turning left or right?”
“Oh, hell,” the voice said. “Break left!”
Gil took off down the row. “Did Umarov go far?”
“He stopped and entered an apartment building about two miles away.”
“What about the gendarmes?”
“They’ve crossed the footbridge to the west, and the dogs are looking for your scent. You don’t have more than a minute before they’re back on your trail.”
Gil reached the end of the row and dashed across the open rail yard toward the warehouses.
“Step on it,” the voice urged. “You’re entirely exposed.”
“I’m worried I’ll blow out this damn implant.”
“If you don’t make it to cover within the next the thirty seconds, you’ll be spotted by the gendarmes. They’ve got night vision.”
Gil stepped up the pace and made it to cover behind a line of six lone tanker cars parked on a sidetrack, ducking behind another wheel.
“Hold there a minute,” the overwatch said. “They’re scanning up and down the rail yard.”
“What are their orders?” Gil knew that his overwatch spoke fluent French. “Are you listening to their traffic in real time?”
“Their orders are to not let you escape.”
“Okay, so dicey at best,” Gil muttered. “I could use a smoke.” He sat on his haunches with his head tilted back against the wheel, sucking air deep into his lungs. “I can’t run like this much longer. You have to find me a ride.”
“The dogs will pick up your scent any second now,” said the overwatch. “Get up and move out exactly perpendicular to the tracks. You need to keep the wheels between you and the men on the far side. If you can make it to the warehouses without being spotted, you’ve got a chance.”
Gil ran and made it to the nearest warehouse, running down the far side to get out of sight.
“Oh, Christ,” said the overwatch. “Do you hear any shooting down there?”
Gil froze. “No—why?”
“Someone’s shooting the gendarmes. Two of them are down on the tracks, and the rest are falling back under cover. They just set the dogs loose again.”
Gil broke a window and climbed into the warehouse. “I’m inside now.” He made his way toward the back of the building, winding among the crates and quickly getting disoriented in the darkness. He came to a dead end and had to turn around. “Who stacked these fucking things?”
“Crates,” Gil said. “Who’s shooting at the gendarmes? Is it that damn sniper?”
“I don’t know. Gil, you have to find a way out of there right now. The dogs are jumping in through the window—they’re inside!”
Seconds later, Gil heard the dogs’ claws on the concrete as they scurried unerringly through the inky dark, following his exact path through the maze of crates. He came to a steel staircase and ran two stories to the top, where he stood overlooking the warehouse floor. He ran to the end of the catwalk and came to a locked steel door.
Both German shepherds scampered to the top of the stairs, and he saw their faint silhouettes at the far end of the catwalk, moving toward him shoulder to shoulder, each growling low in the throat.
Gil’s own dog came to mind, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, as he took the Beretta from his pants, preparing to shoot them. The German shepherds snarled and charged. In the glow of a vapor light mounted outside the window, he saw a series of conduit pipes running down the wall, leading to a door at the bottom. On the spur of the moment, he dropped the pistol, swung his legs over the railing, and stretched to grab on to the conduit, bracing his feet against the wall. The dogs snarled furiously as he clung to the wall less than a foot beyond their reach. Glimpsing their white fangs, he shinnied down the conduit to the floor two stories below. The dogs backtracked to the stairs.
Gil made it to the floor only to find that this door, too, was locked. “Can I get a fuckin’ break?”
“What’s the matter now?” asked the overwatch.
“Dogs are the matter!”
He ran along the wall toward what he hoped was the back of the warehouse as the shepherds scrambled down the stairs. Gil broke into a locked office and quickly jammed a desk up against the door, snatching a pack of French cigarettes from the desk and stuffing them into his pocket. Within seconds, the dogs were scratching around outside, whining in frustration. He forced open another door at the back of the office and ran down a blind hallway toward a dim glow at the far end.
“You still up there?”
“Yeah, I’ve been making some calls,” the voice said. “Trying to find you a place to hide. How close are you to finding your way out of there?”
“Let you know in a second.” Gil put his hand against a pane of grime-covered glass. “I think this leads out.”
He groped about in the darkness for a chair or a trash can to break out the window.
Without warning, a German shepherd slammed into him at full tilt, sinking its teeth into his left forearm.
“Holy shit!” he shouted, completely unprepared for the suddenness of the impact. He struggled to keep his feet with the dog whipping him from side to side, not quite like a rag doll but close.
“What’s happening?” the overwatch asked anxiously.
The animal was unbelievably strong and took Gil down in seconds. He sensed more than heard the second dog’s arrival, and so he kicked out in the dark to ward it off. The animal latched onto his boot, savagely ripping it back and forth, its fangs easily penetrating both the leather upper and the instep of Gil’s already damaged right foot.
Fortunately, the narrow hall limited the dogs’ room to maneuver enough that Gil was able to pin the first one in the corner, bracing his free foot against a wall and using his forearm to jam the dog’s head against the floor, transitioning to the top position. The second dog still had hold of his foot, and though painful, it posed no immediate threat to life or limb.
Gil was about to jam his thumb into the dog’s eye socket when he smacked his head against a fire extinguisher sitting on the floor against the wall. He grabbed it with his free hand and thrust the plastic nozzle into the dog’s mouth, squeezing the lever to emit a large blast of CO2. The dog howled, immediately releasing Gil’s arm, flailing insanely to get back on its feet. Gil rolled off and gave the second dog a blast in the face, causing it to let go of his foot. He sprang into a crouch and used the extinguisher to haze both animals back down the hall. Then he wheeled around and hurled the extinguisher through the window. The glass fell away, and he leapt out into the night, landing in a steel dumpster half full of garbage.
One of the German shepherds landed beside him a second later, sinking its teeth into his thigh with a snarl. “You motherfucker!” Gil busted the dog in the side of the head with his fist hard enough to make let it go. He kicked the animal away and threw a leg over the side of the dumpster as the second shepherd was leaping down from the window. Gil turned to slam the steel lid down on one of the dogs with such force that it was knocked out cold. The other dog continued barking inside the steel box as Gil trotted off down the alley.
“Christ Almighty.” He leaned against a wall, flexing his fingers to check the extent of the damage to his left arm. Gil looked up into the sky again. “How do I get outta here?”
“Keep an easterly heading,” the voice said quietly. “If you move fast, I’m pretty sure you’ll have time to hail a cab half a mile from there.”
“What about the cops?”
“Three more got shot down while you were having it out with the dogs. They’re under cover now and calling for medevac.”
“Did you see which way the shooter went?”
“No, but whoever he is, he sure as hell put the bloody finger on you.”
Gil took a second to light up a smoke, tossing the match to the ground. “Make sure you find out who ghosted this operation. I’m gonna cut his fuckin’ heart out.”
“We’ll be lucky to get you out of France.”
Gil drew from the cigarette. “Then killing Umarov is still my number one priority. Which way to that cabstand?”