Before sunrise, Mick Pierce rolled out of bed, grabbed a coarse wool blanket and crossed to the hacienda window. Stars appeared in the sky after twenty-four hours of steady rain.
He and his wife would hike that day.
He jostled her and tossed hiking clothes on top of her. Then he pulled on shorts and a flannel shirt. He headed outside and turned on the engine to warm up the pickup.
Twenty minutes later, high above Taos, he lurched off the road and parked. He and his wife, Natalie, hefted their backpacks onto their shoulders and proceeded up a dewy trail where the road left off.
After two miles, the stream they were following spilled from a body of water known as Williams Lake.
Mick looked at Natalie. "Let's stop for breakfast."
Without exchanging a word, they set to work. She unpacked food and cooking gear while he gathered material for a fire.
The air was thin, and he felt dizzy leaning over to start the fire. Then he grabbed a bar of soap and left to wash his hands.
He crouched in the gravel and wildflowers on the bank of the lake. Suddenly there came the thudding drone of a helicopter.
"Incoming," he whispered.
In a chilling blast of wind, a military chopper roared low overhead. He threw himself to the ground. His knees scraped on rock. He landed on both elbows, his thick fingers locked behind his head.
From that position, he followed the chopper's reflection across the lake. It left expanding ripples in its wake. Then it disappeared over the ridge into Carson National Forest.
When the water calmed, he rose and examined his knees. Both were bloody. He glanced at his reflection in the lake and was met by a scowl. A long time ago, before the UN's fiasco in Bosnia, there was no scowl. Now it was permanent.
After the debacle at Srebrenica, he had left the Balkans and left the CIA. But the war had not left him.
Heavy black eyebrows were rammed together in the reflection. Dark eyes glared ferociously. His cheeks were raw and weathered. He frightened himself.
Then there was a burning sensation in his palms. He had scraped them, too.
He set the soap on a rock, cupped his hands and splashed water over his face. It brought back memories of that other, nightmarish place.
That morning in Srebrenica, two and a half years before was just as fresh and real.
A concrete bunker made a hell of a bed. The air reeked of burlap, gun oil and Dutch soap. He was surrounded by Dutch peacekeepers sleeping atop their blue helmets.
At dawn, Srebrenica awoke under a blanket of dew. The sounds were muffled after a night of heavy shelling from the surrounding hills. A hospital and its occupants had been blown to bits that night. Young Muslim men had evaporated into the valley's forested walls. Their only escape was into the hands of the Serbs.
Where was his brother, Alec? Probably sprawled over some local broad and mistaking that night's flaring rockets for an orgasm.
"Danke." Thank you. German was the only language Mick had in common with the Dutch. He sipped the proffered coffee, a great blend that made the Dutch a kind of gourmet army.
"Los geht's." Let's go. Mick's companion used the butt of his machine gun to prod him to his feet. The hand-dug hole surrounded by sandbags and shielded by a layer of iron-reinforced cement housed the only armed contingent in the UN "safe haven." That dawn, they were breaking camp and leaving the town's Muslim citizens to the hungry wolves.
Mick examined dirty pink clouds in the early morning sky. "Where's the damned air cover?" There were no UN planes to fend off the invading army, or even escort his departing convoy.
Pinched in a valley, the UN troops would face several hostile checkpoints. There was only one way out by vehicle. His eyes smarted from the fumes of burning buildings. One by one, starting from the far end of the valley, the Bosnian Serbs had set farmhouses ablaze, leaving no doubt as to their intentions. Ahead of a single column of advancing tanks spilled a collage of colorful coats against a green landscape. The terrified old women and young mothers and their uncomprehending children had all been sold out.
Mick was the last to vault over the tailgate of a departing truck.
"Gott im Himmel," whispered his Dutch companion. God in Heaven. From the back of the truck, they could see Serbian troops ooze like a band of sweat from the fringes of the forest.
Alec Pierce, damn you. Get your ass out of there.
The truck shuddered and the driver fought for control. At first Mick thought it was a wet patch, or a rut in the road. A teeth-jarring boom that could topple a building followed several seconds later. Other rockets pounded the valley floor near their convoy.
He crammed his helmet firmly in place and raised a flask of rakija. "Ziveli." To life.
The Bosnians, whose bodies were flying through the air or were about to be raped, butchered, or both would at least understand his final touch of irony.
UN Headquarters in Sarajevo had invited him to war-torn Bosnia because of his mastery of the Serbo-Croatian language. Correction: he had asked to come.
While stationed at the American Embassy in Belgrade, a hundred miles northeast of the battle lines in Bosnia, he had seen mutilated and dead soldiers transported back from the front day in and day out. He had to twist his boss's arm to let him join the UN Observer Team.
As it turned out, all he could observe once he joined the Dutch contingent was the ensuing bloodbath.
Natalie had begged him not to go, but she had understood his motives. Eight years of marriage had taught her a few things about him, including his drive to save humanity.
They had kissed good-bye on the Croatian coast and he had jumped onto an aid convoy. The long line of white-painted vehicles meandered upward through rain-soaked forests of the Dalmatian range. He passed through Sarajevo and wound up in Srebrenica while Natalie returned to her job as spokesperson at the embassy in Belgrade.
Ragtag armies, stoked by brandy and bravado, had fought a tense guerrilla campaign in the woods. Villages had turned into slaughterhouses. Roadblocks had dammed the flood of refugees. Looted homes and burning fields had wrung the life out of Bosnia.
Born of Slavic parents, Bosnian Muslims had been given names such as Mohammed or Fatima, names that dictated their destiny. Now they were crammed into tiny pockets nominally protected by the UN's no fly zone, enticed into safe havens by MREs, meals ready to eat, dropped in half-ton parcels from the sky.
Forced into a trap. Mick and Alec had been squeezed down that long, narrow corridor leading east from Sarajevo to the dead-end town known as Srebrenica. And with Alec missing that morning, Mick suddenly found them separated, the distance widening with every turn of the truck's wheels.
The truck slowed its jolting journey at a Serb checkpoint. At least an hour's negotiation would ensue.
The inevitable wrangle over proper authorization for the convoy's exodus and other impending discussions with a smug soldier, who was already intoxicated by fresh blood, women and booze, revolted him.
He heard a soldier outside the truck release his safety catch.
The soldier could simply bypass the formalities and turn his machine gun loose on all of them.
Damned if he was going to be the bastard's next trophy. Mick jumped off the back of the truck.
Machine gun bullets ripped into the truck. Men cried out.
His boots slid on the road's shoulder.
"Warte," his Dutch companion shouted at him from the back of the truck. Wait.
Mick kicked up loose rocks and plunged behind shrubs at the side of the road.
The gun turned toward him, and bullets sprayed the hillside beyond him.
On his belly, he slid laterally several feet into thick shrubs. The safety of trees lay several yards behind him, but he could not reach it unnoticed. The shrubs would have to screen him.
The firing paused briefly, and in the awful silence he heard running footsteps crunch toward him.
Oh God, the guy was after him. He slipped his gun off his shoulder and pointed it at the sound.
Just as the boots reached his side of the road, more gunfire whacked the air like a teacher's reprimanding paddle.
A blue helmet bounced over the shrubs that Mick had just vaulted. The Dutch soldier's body twitched and leaned over the branches.
Blood stained the man's chest and back. His head lay upon the muzzle of Mick's gun.
No last words were on his breath. In fact, there was no breath at all.
A foot stomped on the dead soldier. Mick peered through a gap in the leaves. He made out the neatly polished and laced general-issue boots of a Yugoslav National Army (JNA) soldier. Regulation combat fatigues stretched over a lanky, young frame. He saw a contemptuous smile play on the Serb commando's lips.
Dark, bemused eyes scrutinized the woods. Then the soldier swept the smoking tip of his semi-automatic weapon over the halted UN convoy. He unloaded a ringing fusillade into the trucks. Canvas ripped off, exposing cowering soldiers.
The young man emitted a careless laugh.
"Come on, Zoran," another voice called out in Serbian. "We have work to do."
Zoran turned away. "No one crosses me," he roared. Then he sauntered away from Mick's side of the road.
Mick let out his breath and set to work on the Dutchman. He stripped the soldier's sheath of bullets off and peeled the machine gun off his still-warm hands. The man's fingers gave way like a soft handshake.
Crouching, Mick hurried into the woods. Angry shouts erupted behind him, but no gunfire. His own gun slung over his back and the Dutch gun clutched in one hand, he trudged from tree to tree up the steep, rocky embankment.
Behind him, the Serb commando was ordering all the UN soldiers to lie side-by-side, face down in the road. Moments later, he heard the rat-a-tat-tat of more machine guns and a puffing sound as bullets entered his comrades' bodies.
Mick whirled around, his gun leveled at his side. It was too late. The row of peacekeepers had been exterminated.
He climbed desperately. The dew-covered boughs of trees lashed his face. The acrid smell of burning buildings choked him. Looking down, he saw a cloud of smoke obscuring the valley floor in a mass cremation.
He gasped for breath and leaned against a tree. Before him lay a footpath to freedom and home. It would be thirty miles of upcountry trekking past the occasional Serb regiment to get to Sarajevo. The trail ultimately led back to Natalie, who waited anxiously in Banovo Brdo, a diplomatic enclave outside of Belgrade.
His rush of adrenaline had prepared him for "fight" or "flight." Since the former was not in the interest of survival, he chose the latter. Reluctantly, he turned his back on the horror of the town, the desperate men in the trees and his brother Alec.
When the CIA learns that a renegade operative has gone berserk in the Balkans and is fanning the flames of war, they send in Mick Pierce to eliminate him. The only problem is that the operative is Mick's double-crossing brother Alec. Can Mick stop his brother and halt the march of armies? Mick races through the underworld of Serbia, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece trying to avert a global catastrophe╔only to learn that the CIA has double-crossed him!
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