Chapter 24

October 17, 2011 at 10:32 am (The Job)

“This is such bullshit, man. I left the Army to get away from crap like this.” Kern slashed his way through the brush, using the barrel of his MP-5 to part the foliage.

Caputo remained silent. He’d almost objected when Graff had paired him with the humourless Kern, but decided to suck it up. Kern could bitch all he wanted about what he’d expected from retirement. Caputo knew this mission was a damn sight easier than anything he’d ever had to do as a SEAL.

“I mean, what the fuck, man. I signed up for the gig because they said it was in the fucking tropics. I figured there’d be girls here, man. Where are the fucking bikinis?”

Caputo watched the path in front of him and kept his peripheral vision tuned to everything beside him. He’d let Kern worry about the rear. If the guy didn’t shut the hell up, whatever they were hunting would be able to walk right up to him and Kern wouldn’t hear a thing. Caputo didn’t know what was out there, but he hoped it got Kern first.

“Is this what you expected?” Kern demanded.

“I had to retire from the SEALs because of a leg injury. I didn’t expect anything.” That wasn’t entirely true, but he didn’t feel the need to explain to Kern. He’d expected to feel useful again. Leaving the SEALs had been a bitter disappointment for him and for his father. He’d never said it, but Caputo wondered if his dad figured dying from the wound would have been better than having to live with it. If you weren’t a SEAL, you were nothing. It was the family tradition.

The lousiest part was he’d loved being a SEAL. The agency didn’t believe in teams. Hell, no one believed in teams quite the way the SEALs did. Caputo thought it was an oversight on the agency’s part, but so far his words had fallen on deaf ears.

He’d recovered from the leg injury. He’d regained all of the muscle mass he’d lost during his convalescence. He’d taken the fitness tests and he’d passed them, but he’d not aced them. The results showed exactly how much he’d lost with that one injury. The knife had sliced through half the muscle in his thigh. The wound missed his femoral artery by a hairsbreadth. If the knife had hit it, he would have bled out long before his team could have gotten him any proper medical care.

Faced with being placed on a new team, seeing the looks on his new teammate’s faces as he’d run his tests, Caputo had realized that he’d lost the edge he needed to do the job. Fitness and training was important, but if you didn’t have the right mental conditioning for the job, it would eat you alive.

He’d retired, received an honourable discharge and then he’d done nothing for over a year. He’d slowly eaten into his savings, but couldn’t bring himself to get a regular job. He’d maintained his fitness levels, because it was ingrained into him after eleven years as a SEAL. Not running five miles a day would have been similar to not eating for a day.

One of his former teammates had contacted him about the agency. His brother had joined and said the pay was good and they needed people with Caputo’s type of training to fill the ranks. Caputo had gone in for an interview and felt the eagerness to fight that had been missing from his life. After a year, that hadn’t lessened. His father couldn’t care less what he did for a living now that he was out of the Navy. Caputo had learned to ignore the old man when he went home for the holidays. It kept him sane.

He could agree with Kern in one respect. This wasn’t what he’d expected when he’d signed on but he was more than ready for it. Eleven years in the SEALs had prepared him for just about any eventuality. He would remember those words, later, when what was hunting them made its move.

***

Graff’s thoughts were running along a similar vein as Kern’s. He hadn’t really signed on for this. He’d hooked up with Ingram because he’d not had much choice. He was ex-Army, like Kerns, but he wasn’t a Ranger. He’d never made it that far. He didn’t have the brass balls for it. And that’s what Ingram had learned about him. His unit had called him a coward and he was just man enough to admit to the fear that had earned him the moniker.

His unit had been stationed in Iraq during the heaviest of the fighting, back when Saddam was still a target and no one knew what a clusterfuck the whole operation was. They’d been moving from one block to the next, clearing it of hostiles, when the shelling had started. The thunderous crashing had sounded so close Graff had thought it was coming through the roof.

He’d run into the house and hid in the basement, closing his arms over his head to block out the noise. His teammates had found him a half hour later, cowering like a rat in the corner. He’d lost their respect in that moment and it hadn’t taken long for the Army grapevine to pass the news around. He’d mustered out less than two months later.

Ingram knew the circumstances of his discharge from service. Graff didn’t know how he’d accessed them. Army records were supposed to be confidential. He figured one of the techs must have hacked their way into the Army database. Whatever the case, Ingram had used his shame to back him into a corner.

At first, it hadn’t made a lot of difference. But this job was the turning point. He had no idea what they were up against, but he could feel that slimy streak of yellow climbing up his back. Ingram hadn’t expressly ordered him to lead the charge into the jungle, but Graff knew it was implied.

He’d sent Kern with Caputo because he knew that Kern’s incessant complaining would have wreaked havoc with his own slim grasp on his control. Burke and Hager were Kern’s opposite. Silent as tombs, Graff knew they were there only because they’d been ordered to come with him and they were the sort of soldiers who didn’t disobey orders. They’d opted to move single file after the mess with Hapstedt.

After twenty minutes of silent progress Graff heard a soft grunting sound coming from up ahead. Raising his fist in the signal to stop, Graff listened for the sound to come again. When it did, the sound had moved to their left side. After another moment of silence the sound came from their right side. Graff had the horrible thought that it wasn’t one sound they were hearing, but three distinct sounds. They were very nearly surrounded. He felt that streak of yellow as if it pulsed with heat against his back.

“We need to pick a direction and go, sir,” Burke urged him. “If we’re surrounded, we need to take something out.” He refused to say that he wanted to kill something before he died. “I say we keep going straight. Let them come in behind us so they think we’re falling into their trap and then we can spring on them and take them the fuck out.”

Graff nodded and continued walking forward. His MP-5 was set to full auto. He knew it wasn’t wise; he could go through half a magazine in a few seconds if he wasn’t careful. But he couldn’t bring himself to switch it. He’d walked ahead another ten feet before they heard a shuffle and grunt from the rear. Something was moving into place.

“Ok, Burke, take the one behind us. Hager, take the one to the left. I’ll take right, then we’ll deal with what’s in front of us. On my mark,” Graff whispered.

He didn’t get to call the mark. The bushes exploded inward, giant black shapes came leaping out at them. Graff squeezed the trigger and ripped his target to shreds. His fear had him holding the trigger far too long and he emptied his magazine into the creature in front of him.

Hager hit his target in the chest with a 3-round burst and expected it to fall. It kept coming at him, as though the bullet wounds now leaking blood down the front of him was nothing more than a nuisance. Hager looked up the length of the body to the gorilla’s face. The damn thing had to be ten feet tall.

“What the fuck are they feeding these things?” Hager yelled as he hit it with another three rounds.

Burke wasn’t fast enough. His gorilla bounded from the bushes behind him before he could even think to squeeze the trigger. An enormous hand whipped across his face, sending him tumbling into the bushes. His angle was off when the gorilla came for him. His shots hit the beast in the knee, blowing out the joint. Injured and angry, the gorilla grabbed him by the arm and flung him further into the jungle.

Graff frantically tried to reload. The gorilla to his left wheeled about to chase after Burke, leaving Graff with Burke’s wounded brute. Slapping in the mag, he barely managed to switch to 3-rounds burst before the gorilla was on him. Trying to stand on its bad leg, the gorilla howled in pain and toppled over, landing on top of Graff and pinning him to the ground. The gorilla angled its head down and chomped its teeth into Graff’s shoulder.

Hager’s gorilla had a dozen bullets in it now and still wasn’t slowing down. Grabbing Hager by the shirt front, the beast hauled the man above its head. Its second meaty fist punched Hager in the chest over and over again, nearly caving in his ribs. Hager kicked and flailed, but couldn’t get his MP-5 around to shoot the animal. Pulling his 9mm from his thigh holster, Hager aimed straight for the eyes. His third shot burrowed through the skull and into the brain, making mincemeat out of it. Dead on its feet, the gorilla dropped to the ground, taking Hager with him.

“Aim for the head. The eyes are best,” he whispered over the radio. His lungs refused to take in a full breath. His ribs felt as though they’d all been shattered. Through his pain, he heard the screaming nearby. Turning his head, he saw Graff beating one-handed on the gorilla’s back as it chewed on his shoulder. Pulling his MP-5 around, Hager tried to aim for a head shot, but the angle was off. He’d hit Graff if he tried it.

He was about to go for a body shot when something crashed out of the jungle, headed straight for Graff. Hager barely checked his shot when he recognized Caputo. Hunting knife in hand, Caputo grabbed the gorilla by the back of the head and slammed his knife in its eye. Giving it a sharp twist, he rolled the ape off Graff and pulled his knife free. Kneeling next to Graff, he examined his wound.

“Hager first,” Graff whispered, knocking Caputo’s hands away. “He’s hurt bad.”

Caputo ignored him. He checked to make sure Graff’s wounds weren’t bleeding extensively, put a field dressing on it and then went to check on Hager.

“Burke?” Hager asked.

“Kern’s got him.”

As Caputo vaulted the brush to attack the gorilla biting Graff, Kern charged through the jungle after Burke. Tossed forty feet into the jungle, Burke had struck a tree, taking the brunt of the force in his right shoulder. The crack of bone and instant scream of fiery pain jolting clear up to his head told Burke he’d snapped his collarbone. He was right-handed. His fingers instantly went numb, his rifle falling useless from his hand.

Struggling to get the strap over his head and switch the rifle to his left, he stared in horror as a gorilla came swooping out of the brush to stand before him. There was intelligence in those eyes. He could see it assessing its prey. It knew he was wounded and weakened. Stepping around his legs, the gorilla sidled up next to him and pushed a hand into his bad shoulder. Burke screamed in agony and punched the gorilla in the face with his left.

The gorilla shook off the punch and grabbed Burke by the hair. Stepping away from the tree, the gorilla began dragging him further into the jungle. Burke tried to move the rifle to his left, but the strap didn’t have enough play in it. He had a 9mm Beretta, but it was strapped to his right thigh. The only weapon he had easy access to was his hunting knife. Pulling that from its holster, Burke angled around and jabbed it into the gorilla’s thigh, hoping for a femoral artery similar to a human’s. He managed three rapid stab wounds before the gorilla attacked. One punch to the head and Burke was dazed. He dropped his knife. A second punch and Burke felt nauseous. The blow pulled out a patch of Burke’s hair, where the gorilla’s fingers clutched him.

As the gorilla was going for a third punch, Kern opened fire from the cover of the bushes. His weapon also on full auto, he had the presence of mind to ease his finger off the trigger when the job was done. Aiming for its head, Kern’s firepower all but disintegrated the gorilla from the neck up.

He approached Burke, checking over the wounded shoulder and the bleeding at the top of his head. The head wound was superficial. The shoulder was not. He would not risk doing further damage by hauling the man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Instead, he wrapped Burke’s left arm across his shoulders and dragged him to his feet.

“I have a feeling that was the advance team, man,” he whispered. “We should get the fuck out of this place before the reinforcements arrive.”

Burke nodded, focusing all of his reserves on putting one foot in front of the other.

“Graff, you need to call in some help for us,” Kern called over the radio. “Those fuckers are not going to leave us alone, man. We’re sitting ducks standing out there on that bloody beach.”

Graff called in five guards to assist with the wounded. It took them nearly two hours to return to the beach. The gorillas, if there were more of them, were suspiciously absent. Graff wanted to believe they’d eliminated them all, but couldn’t. He put in another call to Ingram, but still got no answer.

“Suggestions,” he asked his team. He didn’t want to call in all of his men just yet. They still had a job to do, protecting the perimeter of the island. He knew it was a tough sell, given the obstacles anyone would have to face in the jungle, but they didn’t have many options themselves.

“I say we head back around to the north side of the island and the boats, man.” Kern paced back and force in the sand, kicking it around with is boot. “I think these fuckers up at the house knew what the hell was waiting for us down here. That’s why they’re up there!”

“We could call the guards at the elevators and get them to bring the boats around to us,” Caputo suggested.

Graff tried to hail the elevator guards but received no response. He didn’t want to think what that meant. They were on the same radio frequency. If anything had happened to them, it had come quickly and silently. He had forty men on the perimeter, one of which was somewhere in that jungle with the apes. Graff didn’t know if he was alive or not.

“What about Hinckley?” Burke asked, as though reading Graff’s mind.

“He’s dead, man. Has to be,” Kern said.

“I don’t think so,” Burke said. “The one that had me wasn’t trying to hurt me until I attacked it. It was dragging me into the jungle. We didn’t find any blood from Hinckley outside the initial attack zone. He could still be alive in there.”

Caputo spoke up before Graff could. He sensed that Graff didn’t have the experience to handle the situation. “I’ll take a small team into the jungle, volunteers only, to search for Hinckley. The rest of you leave the perimeter and make for the elevator. We’ll rendezvous at the top of the cliff.”

Volunteers stepped up before Graff could veto the plan. Four men still out on the perimeter wanted in. Two of the men who had assisted Graff’s team in getting out of the jungle volunteered to go back in. Billis, Hinckley’s partner, also opted to search for his teammate. Surprisingly, Kern volunteered as well.

“If I’m going to die in this hellhole, I’m taking down as many of those fucking bastards as I can, man.”

Caputo called for a weapons check; ammo levels were calculated, grenades were passed around. Hager was loaded onto a quickly constructed litter. Burke opted to walk. Graff would go with the perimeter guards. His bite wound was too deep to be of any help in the jungle.

“Keep in mind, Hinckley was taken from the perimeter,” Caputo reminded them. “Don’t assume anywhere is safe.”

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