The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3) (10 page)

BOOK: The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3)
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‘Unfortunately,’ Maggie said, ‘neither did Rustichello. He felt confident that the treasure had something to do with Loulan, but if you can’t even find the deserted city, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. We were hoping that you might stumble upon a clue of some kind – a carving on a wall or perhaps a geographic feature that matches a note in the manuscript – but the truth is there’s very little we can do with sand.’

Cobb grimaced. ‘Yeah. Didn’t think so.’

‘Jack,’ Garcia said, ‘why don’t you walk around the site with your glasses turned on? Just record as much as possible, and we can analyze it later.’

‘Why? Do you have something better to do?’

‘Actually,’ Garcia said, unsure if Cobb was mad at him for being dismissive or if he was simply interested in the latest findings, ‘Sarah needed our help with the Italian job. I’m trying to find the latest schematics for the gallery’s security system, and Maggie is helping with some translations. Of course, we can do that later if you prefer.’

‘Nah,’ Cobb said. ‘That sounds more promising than what we’re doing here. I’ll record anything I find that isn’t sand, and if I spot something interesting I’ll use the GPR to take some underground images. Other than that, there’s not much we can do.’

Garcia breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Cobb wasn’t angry at him. ‘Sounds like a plan. Call back if you need anything.’

After hanging up, Cobb spent the next hour probing the sand with ground-penetrating radar, or GPR. The briefcase-sized device couldn’t detect objects covered by solid rock – for that he would have needed a much larger, much more powerful version of the technology – but it was perfect for studying the sandy soil. If there was anything important buried beneath his feet, Cobb would see its outline on the video screen.

He walked the nearby desert in a grid, similar to the pattern they had used in Egypt. He marked the periphery with tiny wooden posts and used string to organize the rows of his search. Using his glasses, he filmed the rocks and rubble on the ground, occasionally making out a faint line in the sand that might have been a former wall. He marked those with tiny ribbons that he tied to the nearest string.

All in all, it was the most boring hour of his life.

When he was done, he turned to find McNutt. He quickly realized that McNutt had climbed the rear-mounted metal ladder to the luggage rack on the roof of the SUV. Lying on his stomach, the sniper was now checking out the distant mine with a telescope since the facility was beyond the range of his riflescope. The Marine obviously didn’t care that the vehicle was still up on a jack. He knew it was strong enough to handle his weight, too.

Cobb ignored him and focused on Ali instead. The guide had abandoned the tire-changing operation and was now sipping on a water bottle while sitting in the shade of the SUV. They hadn’t really needed the man much – occasionally for interpreting and twice to bribe officials – but this was the first time he had disobeyed a direct order.

Daily prayers were one thing.

Laziness was something different.

Cobb headed over to give the man a piece of his mind.

But before he had a chance to say anything, his thoughts were interrupted by McNutt, who had sprung off his stomach and onto his knees as if he had been stung by a scorpion.

‘Chief,’ McNutt shouted from the roof of the vehicle. ‘You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a convoy of Vikings coming this way.’

‘What?’ Cobb blurted.

Even Ali seemed surprised. ‘Vikings? What are Vikings?’

‘Three BvS 10s – tracked troop transports. Bastards can go over anything and don’t have to stop a tread to turn. Looks like a fifty-cal mounted on the lead Viking, but hard to tell at this distance.’ McNutt started to climb down the rear ladder. ‘We’ve been spotted.’

Cobb swore under his breath as he tossed his gear onto the back seat. Then he ran to help Ali, who had suddenly found the motivation to put the spare tire on the Land Cruiser.

None of this made any sense to them.

They were parked in the middle of the desert.

With nothing but sand and rock for miles.

Why in the world were they being attacked?

14

Cobb and Ali worked frantically to tighten the new wheel on the Land Cruiser while McNutt readied his weapon. The Barrett M82 semi-automatic rifle had been fitted with a Leopold Mark 4 scope – a combination that could do serious damage at close range. The gun was still effective at nearly two thousand yards, but the convoy from the mine was still fifteen miles away.

At the moment, distance wasn’t McNutt’s main concern.

Speed was.

The Land Cruiser had been great on the paved road, but the asphalt was far behind them. The bouncing and jostling over uneven sand and stone would make for a slow retreat. The trip back toward civilization would take them an hour; maybe more.

‘What are our chances?’ Cobb asked the sniper.

McNutt loaded the weapon as he considered their situation. ‘If we make the road, they have no chance of catching us. But we haven’t started moving yet, and they’re already on the way. There’s no point in me shooting until they’re within a mile or two of our position, but by the time they’re within range we won’t be able to outrun them.’

‘So what are you saying?’

‘Tell Ali to hurry the fuck up.’

From that point on, Cobb took over the operation himself. Once the last lug nut was fastened on the new wheel, he lowered the vehicle off the jack. The instant the tire touched the ground, McNutt climbed the ladder again. ‘I’ll ride topside. Try to find higher ground when you can. If I slap the roof two times, stop immediately.’

Ali tossed the tools into the back of the Toyota and climbed inside. This time there was no mention of his need to pray. The guide sensed the danger they were in.

Cobb climbed behind the wheel and started the engine.

Then he drove the truck as fast as the terrain would allow.

They had gone no more than two miles and were just cresting a rise when the roof boomed twice from McNutt’s loud slaps. Cobb stomped on the brakes and threw the gear into park before he ran to the back of the SUV and leaped to the third rung on the ladder.

McNutt was already lying prone and lining up his rifle.

Cobb turned and saw the dust plume from the vehicles in pursuit, but they were so far away that he could barely see them. ‘Why did we stop?’

‘We aren’t going to make it,’ McNutt said coolly.

Cobb cursed under his breath. ‘Any good news?’

‘Yeah,’ he mumbled. ‘I’m on your team.’

To calculate his shot, McNutt needed to consider many things: the distance to his targets, their speed, and the difference in their altitudes. He instinctively processed variables such as the dry weather, the direction and velocity of the wind, and even the gravitational pull of the earth. Based on his experience, he knew the transports were almost in range, but not quite.

Unfortunately, none of that really mattered.

McNutt didn’t have the artillery to finish the job.

The Vikings were so heavily armored that even if McNutt managed to find his mark, the chance of a round from the Barrett penetrating the thick metal plates was minimal. To kill the men inside he would need something with a little more kick, like … a rocket launcher.

Regrettably, he kept those under his bed in Florida.

McNutt adjusted his scope one click at a time before speaking again. ‘They’re not military. Color schemes on the vehicles are all wrong for PLA. I’m guessing private contractors who play by their own rules. I bet it’s like the Wild West out here.’

Cobb squinted his eyes, but he saw nothing but specks at the bottom of the billowing plume of dust rising into the sky. ‘What else?’

‘They have more than Vikings. That’s why I stopped you. They have one … no, make that
two
Light Strike Vehicles.’

Cobb was familiar with the LSVs. They were dune-buggy-type vehicles that could be outfitted with anything from M60 machine guns to anti-tank missiles. Agile and light, they were the perfect fast-attack vehicles for the local terrain.

‘They’re hanging back at the end of the convoy,’ McNutt said, his eye still in the scope. ‘Trying to stay hidden until the last minute. We’ll never outrun those things, and we won’t find a better rise. I’ll take the LSVs when they make their move. Then we’ll haul ass away from the bigger Vikings.’

‘Okay. What do you need from me?’

‘Just lie down and keep me company.’

Cobb didn’t move.

‘Your weight, chief. It balances out the truck, gives me a level position.’

‘Right,’ Cobb replied as he stretched out next to the sniper.

McNutt chuckled. ‘Relax, chief. You’re not exactly my type.’

‘Yeah, like you have a type.’

‘Fair point.’

As McNutt regained his focus, Cobb started thinking about the men approaching them and wondered if there was any way that they might be aware of his mission, but he rejected that idea quickly. No one knew he and McNutt were here or what they were doing. Only members of his team knew about this rekky – and Garcia had vetted Maggie before they left.

No, these men are only upset that we’re trespassing near the mine.

Still, that’s a lot of hardware just to scare someone off
.

Cobb turned his attention back to the silent sniper. The jokes had stopped, and McNutt had steadied himself in anticipation.

‘Still with us?’ Cobb asked.

‘Mmm-hmm,’ was his only response. A full minute later, McNutt started mumbling to himself. ‘Still pretty far off. But we have height, and the wind is minimal … It’s dry … Air density … forty-eight angular units. Make that forty-nine. Harrison was almost twenty-five hundred meters out. Two kills from there. That’s badass. This’ll be close.’

Just then Cobb heard a distant boom. He was about to ask McNutt about it, but the sniper mumbled an answer before he could.

‘Yeah, they started shooting already. Morons. Still two miles out. That fifty-cal can’t reach us for another few minutes.’

Then he lapsed into silence again.

‘Chief,’ McNutt suddenly whispered, ‘I’m going to shoot now, and it’s going to be loud. You might want to cover your ears.’

Cobb covered his ears with the palms of his hands.

A moment later, McNutt pulled the trigger.

The Barrett boomed, echoing across the sandy expanse.

Cobb grabbed McNutt’s telescope and checked the lead vehicle for damage, but he couldn’t see anything. He guessed the trucks were still too far out of range.

McNutt nudged the barrel of the rifle left – away from the target, and up a few inches.

Cobb watched, fascinated. He had the utmost respect for McNutt’s skills. The trucks were still roughly two miles away, and the sniper was raising the barrel of his rifle like an English longbowman, aiming high and hoping for the arc of an arrow to impale his opponent.

The weapon boomed again, startling Cobb.

Given the distance, he really hadn’t thought McNutt would take that shot.

Cobb studied the lead Viking through the telescope. A second later, it ground to a halt. He didn’t see any damage, and he knew the armored plating would hold up against a single .50 BMG round at this distance. He was no sniper, but he knew the round would have lost most of its velocity by the time it reached the truck – if it had reached that far at all.

Still, the caravan had stopped.

He scanned the truck and then lowered his gaze down to the vehicle’s base. The tread had split, and the track had slid right off its wheels.

Holy shit
, Cobb thought.
That’s incredible.

Just then the Barrett boomed again.

The second Viking had been forced to stop because of its proximity to the first in the convoy. Now its tread was shattered, too; just like that of the lead transport.

Cobb was about to compliment the Marine when something blurred past his field of vision through the telescope. He pulled his face back and saw both LSVs tearing around the sand in front of the disabled Vikings.

McNutt didn’t flinch at the new development.

The Barrett cracked again, and the lead LSV’s front left tire exploded. The wheel smashed into a rocky dip, launching the rear of the vehicle skyward. The car flipped, bouncing end over end, disintegrating from the force of repeated impacts with the ground. The devastating somersault kicked up a plume of dust, momentarily hiding the other LSV.

McNutt waited patiently for his target to reappear.

When it did, he put an end to the pursuit.

Cobb watched through the telescope as McNutt pulled the trigger. An instant later, blood poured from the driver’s chest as if someone had opened the tap of a faucet. He slumped forward in his restraint harness, the life quickly draining out of him.

McNutt smiled from nearly two miles away.

After the first treasure mission in Romania, Cobb had looked up the longest confirmed sniper kills. He knew an Australian had an unconfirmed kill at around 2,500 meters. The shot he had just witnessed was nearly two hundred meters longer. Even more remarkable, McNutt had hit a target that was moving at high speed in a jouncing vehicle.

Cobb patted him on the back. ‘I might have to call Guinness.’

McNutt laughed. ‘I might have to drink one.’

15

Chen Jie spat on the arid ground and cursed the foreigners who had so effortlessly halted his attack. He cursed his luck further since he had been the one to spot the intruders in the first place. He had been on his security rounds on the roof of the mine’s main building and had seen them and their four-wheel-drive vehicle in a secluded area of the desert.

He knew what was out there.

The Loulan ruins and nothing else.

His bosses were very protective of Chinese culture and history, which is why he went after the foreigners with everything at his disposal. Unfortunately, his effort had failed miserably. Now he had no choice but to report this incident to his superiors in Hong Kong.

But first he needed to assess the damage.

Two of his three tracked Vikings had been disabled by their sniper. Both of his light strike vehicles had been halted as well. One was so badly demolished in a rolling, flipping crash that he doubted it would be good for anything but scrap – and the driver had been in more pieces than the vehicle. As it was, his guards still hadn’t found the man’s head.

BOOK: The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3)
5.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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