The desert, far from Caldwell, NY, or Boston, MA, or... sanity.
Some two years after the fact, when Jim Heron was no longer in special ops, he would reflect that Isaac Rothe, Matthias the Fucker, and he, himself, had all changed their lives the night that bomb went off in the sand.
Of course, at the time, none of them knew what it all meant, or where it was all going. But that was life: Nobody got a guided tour to their own theme park. You had to hop on the rides as they presented themselves, never knowing whether you would like the one you were in line for... or if the bastard was going to make you throw up your corn dog and your cotton candy all over the place.
Maybe that was a good thing, though. As if back then he would have believed he'd end up duking it out with a demon, trying to save the world from damnation?
But that night, in the dry cold that washed in the second the sun went down over the dunes, he and his boss had walked into a minefield... and only one had walked out.
The other? Not so much...
"This is it," Matthias said as they came up to an abandoned village that was the color of the caramel on a Friendly's sundae.
They were fifteen miles northwest from where they were staying in a barracks full of army boys. Being that he and his boss were XOps, they were outside the stream of defined corps, which worked to their benefit: Soldiers like them carried IDs from all branches of the service and used them whenever it suited.
The "village" was more like four crumbling stone structures and a bunch of wood-and-tarp huts. As they approached, Jim's balls went tight when his green night-vision goggles picked up movement all over the place. He hated those f**king tarps-they flapped in the wind, their shadows darting around like fast-footed people who had guns. And grenades. And all kinds of sharp and shiny.
Or in this case, grungy and gritty.
He hated desert assignments; better to kill in civilization. Although a proper urban or even suburban assignment carried more exposure, at least you had a shot at knowing what was coming at you. Out here, people had resources he was unfamiliar with and that always made him twitchy as f**k.
Plus he didn't trust the man he was with. Yeah, Matthias was the head of the organization with a direct line to God. Yeah, Jim had trained with the guy way back when. Yeah, he'd been under him for the last decade.
But all of that just made him more certain he didn't want to be alone with the big man-and yet here they were, at a "village" in the fine township of Nowhere-anyone-could-find-a-body-ville.
A gust of wind went Nike across the flat landscape, sprinting over the sand, picking up those tiny little particles, and carrying all of them right smack into the collar of his digital-fatigues. Beneath his black, lace-up boots, the ground was constantly shifting, as if he were an ant walking across the back of a giant and irritating the piss out of the bastard.
You began to feel that at any minute, a great palm could come down out of the sky and flatten you.
This trek to the east had been Matthias's idea. Something that couldn't be discussed anywhere else. So naturally, Jim had worn a Kevlar vest and about forty pounds of weapons. Along with water. MREs.
He was a pack animal for real.
"Over here," Matthias said, ducking into the doorless entry of one of the stone structures.
Jim paused and looked around. Nothing but tarps doing the cabbage patch, as far as he knew.
He got out both his guns before going inside. Bottom line? This was the perfect locale for a forcible inquisition. He had no idea what he'd done or what he'd learned to warrant an interrogation, but one thing he was clear on-there was no reason to run. If that was the "because" he'd been brought here for, he was going to go in and find another two or three XOps guys in there to work him over while Matthias asked the questions. If he bolted? They'd just hunt him down all over the globe, even if it took weeks.
Could explain why Isaac Rothe had shown up this afternoon with Matthias's protege and second in command. That pair were straight-up killers, a couple of pit bulls ready to go for anyone's throat.
Yup, this made sense and he should have figured it out sooner-although even if he had, there was no escape from a reckoning. Nobody got out of XOps alive. Not the operatives, not the fringe-playing intel guys, not the bosses, either. Die with your boots on was the way you lived-not that you knew that going in.
And the thing was, he had been thinking of ways to get out. Killing people for a living was all he knew how to do, but it was starting to f**k with his head. Maybe Matthias had somehow tweaked to that.
Time to the face the music, Jim thought as he stepped through the doorway.
Might as well give 'em a fight-
Just Matthias. No one else.
Jim slowly lowered his guns and scanned the cramped space again. According to his night goggles, there was only the other man. With a flick of a switch, he changed to heat-seeking mode. Nothing but Matthias. Still.
"What's going on?" Jim demanded.
Matthias was over in the far corner, about ten feet away. When the man's hands came up from his sides, Jim flipped his SIGs back into firing position... but all his boss did was shake his head and loosen his gun belt. A quick toss and it was in the sand.
And then he took a step forward, opening his mouth and saying something quietly-
Light. Sound. Blast of energy.
Then... nothing but the soft rain of sand and debris.
Jim came back to consciousness sometime later. The explosion had thrown him against the stone wall, knocking him cold, and going by how stiff he was, he could have been out for a while.
After a couple minutes of what-the-fuck, he sat up cautiously, wondering if anything was broken-
Across the way, there was a pile of rags where Matthias had once been.
"Jesus Christ..." Jim repositioned his night goggles and retrieved his weapons, then crawled through the sand to his boss.
"Matthias... oh, f**king A..."
The man's lower leg looked like a root that had been torn up out of the ground, the limb nothing but a ragged stump that was shredded at the end. And there were patches of darkness on his fatigues that had to be blood.
Jim checked the pulse at the neck. There was one, but it was faint and uneven.
Unbuckling and shucking his belt, he cranked the leather around Matthias's upper calf and pulled hard, torniqueting the limb. Then he quickly searched for other inj-
Shit. When Matthias had been tossed back, he'd fallen onto a wooden spike. The damn thing went right through him, the toothpick to his pig in a blanket.
Jim pretzeled up and tried to see whether it could stay in place to get Matthias out of here...
It appeared to be freestanding. Good.
"... Dan... ny... boy..."
Jim frowned and looked at his boss. "What?"
Matthias's eyes opened like his lids were steel shutters he could barely raise. "Leave... me."
"You're blown to shit-"
"Fuck that." Jim reached for his transistor and prayed that Isaac, not that freak second in command, answered. "Come on... come on..."
"What y'all needin'?" The soft Southern drawl coming over his earpiece was good news.
Thank God for Isaac. "Matthias is down. Bomb. Make sure we're not target practice as we come into camp."
"Where y'all at? I'll get a Land Rover and pick you up."
"We're forty-six degrees n-"
The gun went off across the way, a bullet slicing through the air right next to Jim's ear-to the point where he assumed he'd been hit in the head and the pain had yet to register. As he braced himself on one palm, Matthias let his SIG fall to the side... but what do you know, Jim did not fall over thanks to some kind of cranial wound. Warning shot, evidently.
His boss's one working eye shone with unholy light. "Get yourself... out... alive."
Before Jim could tell Matthias to shut the f**k up, he became aware that something was biting into the hand he'd put out. Lifting the thing up, he found... part of the bomb's detonator.
Turning it over and over, at first he didn't understand what he was looking at.
And then he knew all too well what it was.
Narrowing his eyes on Matthias, he put the fragment in his front pocket and crawled over to his boss.
"You're not playing me like this," Jim said grimly. "No f**king way."
Matthias started to babble just as squawking curses came through the earpiece.
"I'm okay," Jim said to Isaac. "Misfire. I'm starting back for camp. Make sure we're not shot as we approach."