“>Significant increase in target activity in the last 24 hours. >significant increase in scrutiny from local authorities. Requesting >permission to pull field ops. >AO is too hot.”

“>Permission denied. Control needs you to stay on station for the next >48 hours. Minimum. Mission timeline has accelerated. Stay on station >until support arrives pending approval from D.C.”

“>Requesting pull back at least. Observation at distance. I and other >agents are concerned about our cover being blown. >Increasing numbers of close calls.”

“>Permission denied. On the ground intel is vital over the next 48 >hours. Control has authorized an increase in number of MQ-9s over >the AO in conjunction with deployment of Guard units. >Orders are as follows: >Task Force Neighborhood Watch will continue with mission until >relieved by elements of the 101st and SFOD-D [code named: Task Force >Night Fury] arrive in AO. >ETA: 48 hours.”


“>Understood. Neighborhood Watch will wait in situ and continue >observation until relieved by Task Force Night Fury.”

“Motherfuckers!” Agent Clede curses under his breath as he closes the terminal. He rakes his fingers through his high and tight salt-and-pepper hair adjusting his belt to accommodate his paunch. He looks over at the younger man next to him in the back of the van. He remembers when he was that age; strack with a hard midsection.

“Spencer, see if you can pull up aerial surveillance; control says we have additional Reapers online. See if those jerks have us patched in.”

Agent Spencer shakes off his drowsiness and says, “Aye aye, captain.”

“And Spencer.”

“What, sir?”

“Knock off the ‘aye, captain’ shit. We’re not in the Navy, and even when I was, I worked for a living.”

Spencer cracks a smart-assed grin, “You betcha, senior agent from the agency-which-shall-not-be-named.”

Clede sighs and sinks back into his seat.

God help me. I am stuck in this van with this chucklefuck for another eight hours.


Agent Clede jolts awake. His phone alarm vibrates against his chest. For a moment, he forgets where he is before the red night op lights inside the van remind him.

Still in that fucking city, on some side street in the fucking Grove, in that fucking van.

Clede pops a look out the rear window and sees only a rain-soaked, trash-strewn street ending at a T intersection at the boulevard.

“Anything new?” he asks.

Spencer says, “Yeah, we saw that patrol car pass by on the boulevard again. Aerial shows the local PD pretty active tonight.”

Higgins, in the front seat, chimes in, “Something feels off. I think we should change locations. Plenty of patrol activity, but very little chatter on the police scanner.”

Clede says, “And that means what?”

“Usually beat cops stay in radio contact with dispatch and each other all night. It was like that when I was with D.C.P.D.,” Higgins says.

“Could it just be everyone has left this shithole?”

“Possible, but I’m not even getting regular bullshit chatter.”

“Alright. Spencer, what’s the target activity like in this neighborhood?”

Spencer double checks the infrared aerial feeds. “Nil, no cold signatures, so they are either laying low or moved on for fresh prey.”

Clede acts like he is pondering a decision. “Alright. Higgins, get us on the highway and we’ll hit up that TA truck stop south of the city. Notify the other units we’re going off-station and I’ll put in word with control.”

Clede opens the secure terminal.

Something fast approaches the rear window.

Big and dark.

And an explosion of light.

Metal shrieks.

Glass explodes.

The van pitches forward hard; the three occupants ricochet around the inside.

Clede’s hand shoots for the H&K USP in its shoulder holster.

Spencer has a Mark 18 CQB carbine out of its mounting bracket.

Tires squeal outside and car doors slam.

Running boots resound off the pavement.

Higgins yells, “Shit!”

“What?” Clede yanks his pistol free.

Two lights from the rear windows shine on Clede. He can see one of the lights is beneath a shotgun muzzle, the other an M4 carbine.

“Don’t fucking move!”

Someone shouts at Higgins, “Hands where I can see them. Slow.”

The man with shotgun orders, “You too, guys. Drop the rifle.”

Clede hears Spencer click the selector switch behind him.

NO! You fucking idiot!

The man with the carbine looses a three-round burst.

Blood splatter peppers the back of Clede’s head, Spencer thumps to the floor with a girlish squeak.

“How about you, old fuck? Care to join your buddy?”

Someone opens the driver’s door hard enough to rock the van.

“Driver, keep your hands up and exit the vehicle.”

A body slams against the side of the van.

“Interlace your fingers behind your head, then spread your feet.”

The hard knock of a skull against the side of the van.


The van’s side door opens. Two men in balaclavas and gray coveralls, one short, one tall, grab Clede and slam him onto the sidewalk.

Clede catches a glimpse of the police cruiser crashed into the back of the van.

His arms are pinned behind his back; his arms and legs are zip-tied. After a thorough frisking, they take Clede’s gun and wallet, then dump him into the empty trunk of an unmarked Crown Vic.


Detective Krauss drives the Crown Vic in silence. The taller man in the passenger seat, Dowd, examines the wallet’s contents, then goes over the pistol.

“H&K USP tactical, 9mm. Pricy.”

“A lot of JSOC boys like them. Top shelf, but generic enough that they’re hard to trace.”

“Did we just do that, Krauss?”

“Yes, we did that. What’s the asshole’s wallet got?”

“State ID, CCW, they say he is from some podunk town at the other end of the state. And a couple of credit cards, and ten $20 bills. No family photos.”

“What name is he flying under?”

“John Buchan. Should I run a check?”

“Nah. Fuckers probably have his info tagged. We run it over the wire and we’re zapped.”


Two battered gas lanterns light a disused cellar.

It reeks of piss and shit, mold and damp.

The sandstone blocks are decorated with graffiti from end to end, floor to ceiling.

Clede can feel his arms duct-taped behind him in the chair, his legs affixed to the chair’s legs.

A tall man stands just at the edge of the circle of light cradling a shotgun. A shorter man in coveralls and a balaclava sits in front of Clede, hands folded between his knees, elbows resting on his thighs.

Leaning in closer, he says to Clede, “You know the thing about military guys? They have an odor to them, like pine tar and cosmoline. Common as mud from Norfolk to Fort Benning. And you’ve got that smell.”


“That good old SERE training. I guess that and a hefty paycheck is enough to keep you with the program. Nice big fucking house in some military town, second wife, kids in college, respect. ‘Thank you for your service’ and all that bullshit.”


“Okay, I see how it is. I’m going to just talk ‘cause we’re all Americans here. Like all those Americans killed in the last couple of months by something no can explain. By something that is spreading. Something someone won’t tell us about.”


The shorter man stands up and paces the floor. He pauses, then pulls out a large red cannister.

“OC spray for riot control. I’m going to hit you with this shit, then I’m gonna tase the fuck out of you while I let the OC soak in. Who are you? What is your mission here in the city?Who do you work for? What do you know about these…creatures killing people?”

Clede glowers.

“Okay, fuck you too,” Krauss says and blasts Clede in the face.

Clede bucks and thrashes; tears explode from his eyes.

“You simple fucking cop!” Clede yells.

The shorter man stands up. “Cops? I don’t see any cops here.”

Groaning, Clede says, “You flatfoots are fucked.”

Now it is Krauss and Dowd’s turn to be silent.

“Oh yes, fucked royally,” Clede says as Krauss jams a taser into Clede’s thigh.

Quick, Krauss uses the drive stun to deliver a shock.

“Enlighten us.”

“You should run.”

Krauss delivers another drive stun to Clede’s thigh. Longer this time; a full fifteen seconds.

Clede braces and grits his teeth.

“You should run.”

A spot of blood drips from the corner of Clede’s mouth.


Krauss sprays him again. Clede vomits until he spews nothing but strings of mucus.

Clede gasps, “Run.”

Krauss, in a rage, stuns Clede in the ear.

Clede quivers. “Run.”

Krauss pepper sprays Clede’s groin.

Clede lets out a howl.

Dowd runs over and butt-strokes Clede in the mouth.

“Shut the fuck up, they’ll hear you.”

They slap duct tape over his mouth.


The upstairs in the abandoned crack house is even more rank than the basement. Dowd puffs a cancer stick like a personal fumigator.

“Shit man, I don’t think this guy’s gonna break.” Dowd drags deep on the cig.

“Everyone breaks, eventually.”

“Yeah? You got an army trick to crack this bitch? Because police work ain’t the best training for this shit.”

“Neither was the army. We don’t have the time or tools for this shit; his people are already looking for him. If I keep laying into him with what we got, he might croak or just snap. This fucker is tough shit tier one, all right.”

“Well, what then? I hope you’re not talking about mutilating this fucker,” Dowd says, turning green.

“No. Just a last mindfuck. Then we split, leave the fucker here.”


Clede jerks to full attention when Krauss dumps the milk over his head and crotch. Then Krauss rips off the duct tape.

“Okay, shithead, one last chance to tell us who you are, why you’re here, what is your purpose, and what we are up against.”

Clede rolls his eyes.

Krauss flips open a blade. “Here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to cut you up. Nothing life threatening, but just enough to get the smell of blood in the air. You know how much those things like blood. Then we leave you to your fate. Maybe they come, maybe you just rot here.”


“Okay, if that is how it is.” Krauss draws the blade across both of Clede’s thighs and his upper arms; the red comes in a steady flow. In a final act of humiliation, Krauss slashes open Clede’s forehead, causing a cascade.

The two men turn to leave.

Dowd turns back as he reaches into the pockets of his coveralls, “Here, for luck,” and tosses Clede’s H&K with its spare magazines at his feet.


Not long after their steps retreat, Clede works his hands behind his back; the duct tape is tight and layered. His eyes clear and he scans the basement.

Nothing to it.

Clede flexes and twists, the tape’s adhesive tearing at the hairs of his skin. Blind with blood in his eyes, he sweats. The sweat opens his pores, letting what is left of the OC spray soak into his skin.

Nerves raw, he blocks it out. Coiling his muscles, he works loose, millimeter by millimeter.

His thoughts travel back to BUD/S: he is 21 years old in a pool, his hands bound behind his back, the warm Coronado Island sunshine tinged blue as it shone through the water.

Easy shit.

He thinks through the 24 weeks of training, his career operating in dark and dangerous places far from safety, far from support.

I’m not buying it in this shithole.

The tape is almost loose; one last layer stubborn binds his hands. Clede hears muffled steps of bare feet above him.

More than one.

With a titanic wrench, Clede rips loose the duct tape on his wrists.

“Is that you, boy?” Clede hears his father’s voice coming from the first floor. “Heard you was up to no good again.”

The top landing of the stairs creaks.

He strips away the tape on his left leg, freeing himself just enough.

He lunges for the pistol.

A quick press check.

Brass is in the chamber.

He lines up the titanium sights at the dark stairwell.

“You hear me, boy?”

Eyes glimmer in the darkness there. Clede puts the front sight between them.

The muzzle explodes, and the creature behind the eyes face-plants on the basement floor.

“Save the shit; it don’t work with me.”

Finally freeing his right leg, Clede covers the doorway. He hits the strobe function on his weapon’s light and sees another crawling down towards him. Not wasting a split second’s hesitation, he drills it in the dome. The creature’s pale corpse slides down the steps, landing at the bottom face up.

The strobing light shows nothing in the stairwell. He kills the light.

Positioned at the foot of the stairs, he waits and listens. A quiet shuffle, the creak of floorboards. He bursts up the stairs two at a time, stopping just at the top. Clede watches the rectangle of light from the street lamps outside.

Fatal funnel fun time.

Clede clears his throat. A shadow moves to the right of the stairs.

Edging along the left hand side of the stairs, he treads slow and deliberate.

At the head of the stairs, he flicks the light on again, button-hooking around the doorframe and flicking the strobe on. His front sight prints on the target before him. A slight girl barely out of her teens with needle teeth winces at the light.

Two shots blast her chest before Clede launches one through her forehead. He pivots to his six in time to catch another one, a young man in business casual, with two to the chest, one to the head.

The shots’ echo dies as Clede breaks for the front door, kicking it off the hinges.

On the street, he takes off in a run. At a gallop, he changes magazines, pocketing the used one.


After ten minutes, Clede slows to a walk and gets his bearings.

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; still in the Grove.

The streets are dead quiet. He moves from shadow to shadow.

Nothing attracts attention like a cut-up, roughed-up, middle-aged white guy. I could really use a payphone right now. Nearest possibility is two miles away in uptown.

Raiding a dumpster, he scavenges some plastic bags and cardboard boxes, making himself over into a destitute bum, complete with smeared dirt on his hands and face to hide the drying blood.

Just some bum now going to panhandle.

He unfocuses his eyes to catch any sort of movement. Ever alert, his hand hovers around where his pistol is tucked into his belt.


Clede doesn’t have to wait until uptown to find a phone. Once on the horn, he dials a number in Langley, Virginia.

“Agent Walter Clede, Neighborhood Watch, Beach Ball. Requesting a pick-up.”

“Confirmed. Are you in the clear.”


“Are you in need of medical attention?”


“Okay, someone from Neighborhood Watch is en route now. ETA: five minutes. Expect a gold Honda Odyssey. Watchword is ‘flamingo.’ I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to stay put.”

“No, confirmed.”


In a run-down part of town, a bloodied bum dressed in garbage bags stands by the side of the road. A soccer mom mobile pulls up. The bum says “flamingo” and is whisked away into the night.