"The man was whistling as he fell to Earth..."
When SAS veteran Gabriel Wolfe receives a five-word text, his self-imposed exile in Hong Kong comes to an abrupt end. Honouring a blood oath he swore with Vinnie Calder, Gabriel investigates how the ex-Delta Force sniper ended up dead in the middle of the Texan desert. What he discovers shocks the battle-hardened soldier to the depths of his soul.
Assisted by biotechnology tycoon, Clark Orton, a deniable CIA team is planning to trial a new biological weapon on Cambodian orphans.
Operating alone, Gabriel traces the plot to the heart of the Cambodian jungle. But powerful people want Gabriel silenced, permanently. And they’re happy to use any means necessary to protect their asset.
Action hotter than a machinegun barrel
This non-stop action thriller is the sixth novel in Andy Maslen’s Gabriel Wolfe series. The action never lets up, whether Gabriel is silencing Russian “businessmen” in a London hotel room or fighting for his life against a CIA agent in the middle of a killing field.
His Special Forces skills are tested to the limit, from surveillance to covert entry, close combat to demolition.
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Release date: February 5, 2018
Publisher: Tyton Press
Print pages: 411
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Listen to a sample
THE man was whistling as he fell to earth. It wasn’t a tuneful sound. As it came from a neat, nine-millimetre-diameter hole in his chest wall, that was forgivable. The air pressure in his collapsing lungs was higher than that of the surrounding atmosphere. So he whistled.
The F-15 Strike Eagle, from whose starboard conformal weapons bay the dead man had so recently been ejected, roared away to the east, climbing from thirty to fifty thousand feet. The fighter jet’s pilot was singing “Come Fly with Me,” interrupting himself to laugh hysterically every few lines.
From the ground, the jet’s contrail appeared pink in the rays of the sun setting over the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas. The falling man’s bare skin shone like burnished copper in the slanting light.
After twelve seconds, when the forces of gravity and wind resistance reached an accord to stop fighting each other, he achieved terminal velocity: one hundred and twenty-two miles per hour. The whistling had stopped by this point, another result of equalising forces.
Had he been able to see, the man would have marvelled at the beauty of the landscape rushing up to greet him. A spine of mountains, in shades of petrol-blue and steel-grey, ran north-south beneath him. Low, thorny shrubs and sword-leaved agave plants punctuated the hard-baked earth, throwing shadows, far longer than their own height, in grey stripes.
Sixty seconds after being ejected from the bomb bay, the man had travelled a little over nine thousand feet. His limbs flailed in the uprushing air, and as he fell into the path of a powerful crosswind, he slid sideways like a wheeling bird.
Ninety seconds after that, he made landfall. Face up.
The blow flies came first. They could smell the decay.
The first large scavenger, an adult male turkey vulture, arrived after fifteen minutes. Circling in a thermal, 20,000 feet above the ground, the vulture had seen the corpse. Mantling its wings over the man’s broken body from ankles to collar bones, it raked its beak and claws at the soft skin of the torso. Then it plunged its boiled-looking head into the belly and began to eat.
Five minutes later, the first bird was jostling for elbow room with half a dozen more of his species, and a clutch of black vultures, all eager for a share of the carrion, hissing at each other in irritation as they tore at the carcass.
Fifteen minutes after the vultures, the apex predators appeared. First was a female mountain lion, ribs visible on her flanks. The vultures flapped away in an untidy mass of black wings like tarpaulins blown free of a car by the wind. She wrenched away a portion of one arm and trotted away with it before returning to the fray.
Finally, the coyotes arrived. A tawny trio, two males and a female, who bossed their way in, yipped and growled at the mountain lion until she fled, and began squabbling over what remained of the body.
* * *
Dylan Frasier was forty-three, a veteran of the second Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan, a decorated trooper with the Texas Highway Patrol, a loving husband, a father of two, an alcoholic, an occasional coke user, and a man with a serious gambling problem. He was into a local poker player – a man with connections in the Texas gang scene – for thirty-two thousand dollars. As a result of his addictions, he’d emptied his children’s college fund, run up debts on his credit cards, borrowed money from colleagues and bowling buddies, and missed his last three mortgage payments. He hadn’t told his wife.
Seeing no way out of his troubles, and suffering from depression, Dylan had decided this was the day to resolve everything. He’d kept up the payments on his life insurance policy, and waited out the two-year suicide clause, so he figured the money would help his family out of the jam he’d created.
He woke early, 5.55 a.m., dressed in his uniform, kissed his wife and children, all sleeping, and left his house in Midland. By six thirty, he was pulling away from the Highway Patrol office on South Loop 250 West in a Ford F-150 truck painted in the THP’s black-and-white livery, heading for the Chihuahuan Desert. Traffic heading towards Odessa on I-20 was light, and after an hour, he pulled off onto Loop Road in Monahans, heading due south.
The drive took him through Royalty, Grandfalls, Fort Stockton and Marathon. From there, the road was painted with regular white route designations: US-385. He’d been driving for two hours and was ready to make his final stop – in life as well as on the route. He drove on for a couple of miles before swinging the wheel right, driving through a broken-down gate and pulling onto the desert itself. After another mile, he killed the truck’s engine. He put the transmission into Park and climbed out, grabbing a quart of Wild Turkey from the glovebox.
He walked away from the truck, heading for a smooth-sided boulder he thought might make a decent resting place for a man at the end of his miserable life.
With his back to the hot rock, he cracked the seal on the bourbon, took a long pull, then a second, then stood the bottle by his right hip.
He pulled his service pistol, a Smith & Wesson M&P 40, from his belt holster. The pistol was an older model and didn’t have the optional thumb safety. He shrugged and took another pull on the bourbon. Then he laughed.
“Doesn’t really matter, now, does it?” he asked a little brown lizard scuttling up to his right boot.
He racked the slide, tilted the gun and opened his mouth to receive the muzzle.
Tightening his trigger finger, he tried not to think of his children.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
Then he opened them again.
A chorus of yowls, yips, grunts and guttural hisses had erupted from somewhere behind him. It sounded like a bar fight, if the drinkers were all doing animal impressions at the same time as throwing punches and swinging pool cues.
He stood, uncertainly, and walked round to the other side of the boulder. Two hundred yards to the southwest he could see the source of the commotion. A gang of vultures were getting into it with a handful of coyotes, and on the edge of the brawl he could make out the sandy fur of a mountain lion.
“Hell, might as well have one last look-see before I go,” he said, walking towards the animals. When he got to the fifty-yard mark, he fired a couple of shots into the air over the heads of the scrapping scavengers. The lion and the coyotes fled at the sound of the gunfire.
“Hey! Scram! Get lost!” he yelled at the vultures, which had risen into the air in an ungainly crowd, then settled again. He fired three more shots, not taking so much care to aim high this time.
He hit one of the vultures, which flopped around on the ground, its wing torn off by the bullet. The other birds took to the air, hissing and cawing in anger at this intrusion.
Dylan reached the site of the scrimmage, shot the wounded vulture dead, then let out a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh.
“Oh, man. I guess this ain’t my time after all.”
He was looking down at the remains of a human body. Most of the flesh had been removed. What remained was a bloody skeleton, minus an arm, hung with scraps and tatters of muscle, skin and sinew.
* * *
Autopsies were Doctor Melinda Sheridan’s favourite part of her job. As the Bexar County Chief Medical Examiner, she had many calls on her time, from budget meetings, to police liaison, to court appearances, and even conducting the occasional group of sophomores from the University of Texas around her facility. More and more now that damn CSI franchise on TV had gotten so popular. But it was the dead she spoke for. That was her sacred mission.
She hadn’t gone into medicine expecting to spend her time with the deceased instead of the living. But then, as she liked to ask her guests as they lay, washed and as naked as the day they were born, on her stainless steel examination table, “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you want, now does it?”
Today her first guest was, as she recorded in the ceiling-mounted, voice-activated mic dangling above the body, “Male, Caucasian.” A strand of her ginger hair, part of the legacy of her Irish ancestry, had escaped the hair net she routinely wore for autopsies. She tucked it in again
“Well now, friend,” she said. “You’ve been in the wars, haven’t you?”
She took a pocket tape from a workbench, also topped in stainless steel, and began taking measurements.
“Subject’s height, as measured from calyx to crest of sagittal suture, one point eight five metres.”
Even though she knew she’d have to convert the measurements into feet and inches for her report, and for any court appearances, she preferred working in the metric system for her autopsies. So, from his heels to the top of his head, Subject #7,453 was six feet one inches tall.
In her long career as a medical examiner, she had seen all of the many and varied ways a human being could depart this mortal coil. Shootings: her bread and butter in this part of the US. At one end of the scale, rinky-dink twenty-twos that left neat little holes in people, and neat little bullets, too. At the other, .44 Magnum hollow point rounds and twenty-gauge shotgun shells that turned them into hamburger. Stabbings: conventional, with switchblades and hunting knives; unconventional, with samurai swords and other exotic weaponry; and improvised, with screwdrivers, barbecue tools and, on one memorable occasion, a kudu horn. She’d had to spend some time in the biology department at the University of Texas at Austin before she could definitively identify the murder weapon as the skull of a large, east African antelope. Forget the guns and the blades and that still left the hammers, lengths of two-by-four, and garrottes; the bleach, tranquilisers, opioids and illegal drugs; the cars, fires, falls and animal attacks.
Subject #7,453, from her initial examination, appeared to have suffered at least three of these methods. As she worked, she gave a running commentary into the mic.
“The subject’s flesh is largely missing, including the brain and all internal organs.”
This was her first problem, since she would normally have weighed them before noting physical characteristics, symptoms of disease or misuse, and toxicity.
“Initial measurements and observations of the gross skeletal anatomy suggest that the subject is, or was, an extremely fit and healthy thirty-five-year-old.” As she considered the dozens of breaks, spiral fractures and crush injuries, she added, “An extremely fit and healthy thirty-five-year-old who appears to have been rolled over by a backhoe.”
She walked round the table before pausing at the left shoulder.
“The skeleton is missing its left humerus, radius, ulna and all the bones of the hand. Tooth marks in the scapula and clavicle indicate the body was disarticulated post-mortem, probably by a large predatory animal.”
The marks were consistent with the corpse’s having been discovered in the Chihuahuan Desert. Plenty of big ol’ critters with sharp teeth and even sharper appetites out there, she thought.
“The occipital and parietal bones have been smashed, indicating massive trauma to the back of the head, consistent with a collision with a big, fast-moving object.”
Like a truck. Or planet Earth, she thought.
She continued her walkaround, as she called it, the cursory examination of a body’s major physical characteristics. She didn’t touch it at this stage, preferring to let her eyes do the work before picking up her instruments.
“Around fifty percent of the non-internal tissue has been removed,” she said, then leaned closer to examine the edge of a piece of muscle and skin on the right thigh. “Judging by the tooth marks on the wound edges, I would say by scavengers and/or predators. Mountain lions or coyotes in all probability.”
Although Melinda Sheridan did not remember the individual case numbers of her guests, she did remember many, many hundreds of them by their injuries. Over the ten years she had worked in the southwest United States, she had grown used to – and expert in – matching tooth marks to the animals that made them. Subject #7,453’s injuries reminded her of a child’s body she had cared for. The little girl had been drugged, suffocated and dumped in the desert by her mom’s heroin-addicted boyfriend. The distinctive patterns of the long canines and short incisors of mountain lions were etched into her flesh.
Having completed a circuit of the body, she returned to the upper torso. And a tattoo. From a stainless steel bench, she retrieved the lab’s official camera, a Canon digital SLR mounted with a lens ring flash. She shot the tattoo from shallow angles then directly from above. She spoke into the mic again.
“Subject has a tattoo on the right pectoral muscle. A globe surmounted by an eagle. Anchor and ropes running behind. Below the badge is a number, presumably a service number.” She read off the nine-digit number, then muttered for her guest’s benefit, rather than the mic’s, “Well now, marine, it looks as though we’ll be able to ID you without worrying about your dental records.”
Then she peered at the left-hand edge of the sternum. Between two of the rib attachments sat a small, half-moon-shaped gouge. The edges were smooth, and thin fracture lines spread away across the flat plate of bone towards the opposite edge. She frowned for a second, then left the examination table and crossed the lab to a set of stainless steel drawers set below a workbench made from the same shiny metal.
The top drawer was lined with a thick pad of grey foam, on which lay a set of thirty-seven cylindrical aluminium rods. Each rod was a foot long, polished to a silky sheen and bearing at its furthest end an engraved set of numbers and letters. Starting on the drawer’s left, they began with .177 in. The imperial set ended at .60 in. The diameters switched to metric measurements, beginning with 4.7 mm and ending at 15.5 mm.
These were Doctor Sheridan’s calibre gauges. She’d had them machined by a local engineering firm shortly after taking up her position, figuring – correctly – that in Texas, the quick identification of gunshot wound calibres would be of considerable practical advantage. She picked out a handful of the slim silvery rods and carried them back to the examination table.
Like a mechanic trying out sockets on an unfamiliar engine, she began placing the rods against the semicircular indentation in the sternum. The .30 in. rod she tried first was too small, its curved edge rolling in the curved surface of bone. The .38 was too big. Next she tried the obvious choice: the 9mm. It was a perfect fit.
“Bingo!” she murmured. “Just call me Goldilocks.” Then, for the mic, “Subject appears to have been shot with a 9mm round. Lack of gross deformation of the sternum indicates round was a full metal jacket.”
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