Brandt covered Kramer as he holstered his Glock then reached up and seized the thin ankles.
“Whoa there. You’re not going anywhere.”
With one hand holding a flaying ankle, he reached higher with the other, took a handful of scruffy shorts and began easing the person from the overhead cubbyhole. Moments later Kramer’s team stood looking down at a terrified boy of about seven.
Terrified, he cowered in a corner and stared up at his captors with huge dark brown eyes. He drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, pulling himself into a tight ball.
Kramer motioned to Brandt to holster her weapon and signaled Shadow to lie down where he currently stood at the door. Kramer then eased himself slowly to the floor and sat cross-legged a few feet from the shivering youngster, all the while smiling at him.
The boy scrunched up even tighter, wild-looking eyes dancing between Kramer, Brandt, and Shadow. He flinched when Kramer extended a hand, palm-up.
“Brandt, take Shadow with you into the front room and wait there,” Kramer said without taking his eyes off the boy. He listened as his troops left the room then he focused his full attention on the young kid.
“Take it easy, you don’t have to be afraid of us. We’re friends of Maarten.” Kramer referred to the GSC agent, Maarten de Vries, who they had found murdered. He noticed the boy react at the mention of the man’s name.
“My name is Kramer, the woman with me is called Brandt, and my dog’s name is Shadow. You know Maarten—I mean, you knew him? We came to meet with him tonight. Was Maarten your friend?”
The last question solicited a shaky nod and a trickle of tears. Kramer shot a glance up at the open manhole.
“He was, wasn’t he? And I’m guessing Maarten put you up there because he knew there was going to be some trouble tonight. Am I right?” Another nod. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere, Kramer thought.
“So he was your friend. Maarten and I were friends too—very good friends.” Lying to the boy at this stage of the game couldn’t hurt him any more than what Kramer suspected he’d already experienced.
Kramer’s voice dropped to a whisper. “So you were up there when the trouble started?” He indicated the ceiling with his thumb. Another nod. “You heard things—terrible things, didn’t you?” More tears. “I know, it hurts to think about it, but I was a very good friend of Maarten’s, and I want to get the people who hurt him. You want that too, don’t you?”
The sniffling stopped and the youngster relaxed a little. He swiped his nose with his shirtsleeve and regarded Kramer through slitted eyes. The former Marine sensed he was being reassessed as a potential ally; someone who might be able to bring retribution to those responsible for killing the boy’s friend.
“You’re not messing with me, are you, mister?”
The broad English accent surprised Kramer. It must have showed on his face because a smile appeared on the boy’s face for a second then disappeared.
“Nope. I’m being straight with you. Any friend of Maarten is a friend of mine—er, ours.”
The kid appeared to reach a decision. He unfolded himself and slowly stood. He was tall for his age so was able to lean back against the kitchen counter and rest his thin arms on the tacky linoleum.
“You soldiers?” he asked, pointing with his chin.
“Umm, not exactly.”
“Exactly what did Maarten tell you about us?” Kramer stood and reached for a chair, turned it backward to face the boy, and straddled it. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“Junior.” The boy studied Kramer then smiled. His teeth resembled a string of brilliant white pearls against his dark features. He leveled a finger accusingly. “Ha, I see what you’re doing there, mister. Changing the subject . . . clever,” he said in broken English. He shrugged and crossed his arms. “No matter to me.”
He suddenly sobered. “Maarten told me that some friends were coming . . . that he had some information they needed.”
Kramer struggled to remain calm. “Junior, did Maarten happen to tell you what that information might be?” The boy shook his head and Kramer’s shoulders slumped.
“But he did give me this for you.”
When Kramer looked up Junior stood there holding out a folded sheet of paper. If those big eyes didn’t look so innocent Kramer would have leapt off his chair and punched Junior in the arm for being a wise-ass. Instead he simply wiggled his fingers, signaling the boy to hand him the paper.
Kramer scanned the note and whistled for Brandt to come back. Within seconds she was standing at his side, along with Shadow. This time Junior didn’t cringe from them.
“What’s that?” Brandt asked.
“De Vries left this note with Junior here to hand over to us. I guess De Vries had a good idea what was about to happen. He had Junior hide in the ceiling, which most likely saved the kid’s life.”
“Maarten saved me from the street,” Junior said softly, his chin on his chest. “We became family. Now he’s gone and I have no family . . . again.” Suddenly he lifted his head and looked at Kramer and Brandt with a hopeful expression. His cheeks glistened with tears. “You can be my family now.”
Kramer took the boy gently by the shoulders. “No, son, we can’t have you tagging along with us. There might be some real bad business where we’re going, and that’s no place for a young boy.”
Junior pulled away and posed defiantly. “I am not a young boy. I can look after myself. I did not make a sound as the bad men made Maarten scream. No sound. No tears. When you came and found me I was not running away. I . . . I was going back for that.” He pointed at the paper in Kramer’s hand. “After the bad men left, I . . . I dropped it when I came down from where Maarten put me.”
Brandt knelt down beside Kramer and gave Junior her best disarming smile. “Of course you’re not a boy. It’s just that sometimes Kramer gets his words mixed up.” She feigned a scowl at Kramer. “But what he said about it being too dangerous where—”
“I know the place you are going.”
Brandt and Kramer looked at each other then at Junior.
“You do?” Kramer asked.
Junior nodded. “Maarten took me with him when he went to see this place before . . . before . . .” His voiced trailed off.
“When was this?”
The boy held up two fingers. “Two nights ago.”
“Why would De Vries take the boy with him on a surveillance run?” Brandt asked softly.
“Because I knew this area he wanted to see,” Junior answered. All eyes turned on him. “I spent some time there as a child. My mother and father worked there.”
“Worked where, Junior?” Kramer asked.
“At the Franskraal Winery.”
“Now why in the hell would De Vries be interested in a bloody winery?” Brandt asked.
“I guess we’ll soon find out,” Kramer said. He rose from the chair and slid it to one side. “Junior, I think there is something you can help us with after all.”
It’s going to be a warm one today. Kramer’s watch showed 0653, and already the first touch of the morning sun on the back of his neck felt toasty.
He moved his binoculars slowly in a wide arc. According to Junior, the rumpled evergreen heathland around them was called ‘fine bush,’ the name given the grasses and low-growing woody shrubs by the early Afrikaans. As far as the eye could see, the terrain was devoid of trees. Kramer was a lover of forests, and landscapes lacking any tree at all left him with a sense of deep depression—for him, a land without trees was unnatural. He shrugged the sensation off and concentrated on the task at hand.
Rustling and soft crunching sounded at his side as Brandt wriggled close.
“Any signs of life?” she whispered despite being just over four hundred yards from their objective.
“Nothing yet,” Kramer murmured. “Is Junior awake?”
“Dozing off again. Shadow’s keeping an eye on him.”
Kramer’s team plus one had left Cape Town just before one a.m., taking the N2 eastward to Bot River, where they swung onto the R43 and followed it south to the coast. The road took them through the sleeping seaside town of Hermanus that crouched below the Kleinriver Mountains then swung inland as it gave the Walker State Forest and Nature Reserve a wide berth.
Most of the next town of Gansbaai was still abed, although Kramer did happen to glimpse movement in the harbor as fishing boats returned home. A little over three miles further on brought them to the outskirts of yet another coastal town, Franskraal. As Kramer pulled the Land Rover to the side of the road he noticed a few house lights winking on.
“Brandt.” He nudged the dozing woman. “This is the town Junior mentioned. Wake him up. He’s our guide from this point on. While you’re doing that I’ll rustle up breakfast.”
Before leaving Cape Town, Kramer thought it wise to organize provisions for them, as he doubted there would be time once they hit the road. The others, even including Shadow, slept all the way leaving Kramer with his thoughts as he handled the Land Rover through the dark.
There was a lot about Brandt that reminded Kramer of himself way back when. The rough edges that the drill sergeants had ground off Kramer during boot camp were still there in Brandt—an aspect Kramer attributed to her being an Aussie. The same could be said for her sharp tongue that bordered on insubordination at times but caused Kramer to remember that he was no longer in the military. Nevertheless, as the designated leader, he still expected a certain amount of respect from his team member. There might come a time for him to take Brandt aside and have a word with her on the subject. If she didn’t like it he wouldn’t hesitate to ship her home.
After breakfast they moved out again, with Junior leaning forward between Kramer and Brandt. They had driven almost to the eastern edge of town when the boy pointed to a road off to the left.
“Maarten went up there.”
The lights of the waking township dropped behind them as the Land Rover headed away from the coast. They had spotted a signpost for Franskraal Winery midway through town but Junior insisted they pass it. He did the same when they came to a second signpost. They had driven about a mile when he became excited.
“Maarten took that dirt road. He said something about going in the back door.”
The road soon became a track and meandered for miles and for what felt like hours up the Overberg escarpment. Several times Kramer and Brandt had eyed Junior skeptically but the boy always insisted this was the way Maarten had come. So the Land Rover kept crawling up the mountainside.
Finally they emerged onto the curved hump of the range. The team paused long enough to peer back down at the pale shape of Franskraal and the vast expanse of sea beyond, then pressed on for another mile or so, until Junior motioned for Kramer to leave the track and park a short distance into the scrub.
After heaving a camouflage net over the vehicle, Kramer and Brandt unloaded their backpacks and weapons and, with Junior taking point, had humped the rest of the way to their objective. Sunrise had been a mere hint then.
Kramer steadied his binoculars and focused on the house slightly below their position. Maarten could not have chosen a better observation point.
With dawn at their back, anyone in the house choosing to look in their direction would have the sun directly in their eyes. It also meant there was little to no risk of sunlight reflecting from Kramer’s binoculars that would draw unwanted attention.
It also brought an unexpected bonus.
“I have movement,” Kramer murmured.
“Where?” Brandt brought out her own binoculars.
Kramer estimated the two-story house close to ten thousand feet square. The luxurious residence, predominantly constructed of wood, glass, and stainless-steel, faced south and sat atop the escarpment that provided a panoramic view of the coast a few miles away and of the ocean that straddled the West Cape promontory that pointed due southwest.
“I have them,” Brandt said. “Are they . . . praying?”
Three men had stepped out onto the expansive balcony. Each man spread his prayer mat out facing northeast, presumably toward Mecca, and began praying.
“That they are,” answered Kramer. “They’re Muslims, and for them it’s Kajr, or pre-dawn, prayer time.”
The men’s genuflecting gave Brandt an excellent opportunity to employ her binocular camera adapter. She drew her Smartphone out, attached it and began snapping images of the trio on the balcony. A few moments later she downloaded the images to her tablet and compared them with those Maria had supplied.
“We have a match,” she said. “Two of those men are Abu Omar al-Masri and Abu Muhammad al-Bukamal. The third I don’t know, but I’ve uploaded his image to Maria. With any luck she might be able to ID him before too long.”
They continued to observe the three men for the next five minutes then watched as they rolled up their prayer mats and returned inside the house.
“Anything from Maria?” asked Kramer. He began sweeping the house and it surrounds with his binoculars watching for any more occupants.
“No, not yet—wait, one—yes, something is coming in right now.”
Brandt’s tablet vibrated silently in her hand and the screen filled with an angry face. An instant later, text followed and she read quietly to Kramer.
“Third subject identified as Abdul Faris al-Sayyaf. Joined ISIS at the age of nine, currently twenty-one years of age. He has no known family or relatives alive. He’s credited with sixty known kills, and is known to have taken part in several attacks by ISIS, including two on tourist groups in Egypt three years ago, and five in Iraq involving police stations, schools, and markets.”
“Quite the busy little terrorist,” Kramer growled.
Brandt put her tablet away. “When I uploaded those shots to Maria I also asked her to check into Franskraal Winery—who owns the business, that sort of stuff.” She regarded the house for a long moment. “So we know those ISIS blokes had the stolen diamonds with them when they left Cairo. Now they pop up here of all places. Either they plan to buy themselves a butt load of wine or they’re here with something else in mind.”
“My money’s on the latter.”
“Yeah, mine, too. But what do you—”
Hearing the sound of a shotgun being racked always gives a person pause.
“Hey, wie is jou?” The deep guttural voice came from behind. The Afrikaan’s voice rumbled thick and menacing.
Kramer and Brandt exchanged frowns. Kramer noticed Brandt’s hand inch toward her sidearm but she stopped when he shook his head. They both rolled over slowly and raised their hands, their eyes fixated on the business end of a Beretta 1301 Tactical shotgun.
“Kry om jou voete. Staan op.” There was no mistaking the commanding sharp jerks of the shotgun.
They carefully rose to their feet.
The man behind the weapon was an imposing six feet of solid muscle, a fact that even his loose combat uniform failed to disguise. His square-jaw, piercing blue eyes, and shock of blonde hair echoed the idealistic Aryan image promoted on German posters of the Adolf Hitler era.
“Wat dink jy doen jy hier is?” the man scowled.
“He wants to know what we’re doing here. I think he might be a security guy from the house,” Brandt whispered.
“Yeah, I pretty much guessed that for myself,” Kramer replied.
“Waarom die hardeware?” The man pointed at their weapons with his chin.
“He’s asking about—”
“Thanks. I got the message, Brandt.” Suddenly Kramer shoved her to the side. He spun on his heel and dove in the opposite direction.
“Hey, what the fu—” Brandt disappeared in a tangle of arms and legs among the knee-high scrub.
The shotgun-wielding security guard stood transfixed for a split second then whirled around at the sound of crunching brush.
He was too late.
A tan-colored tsunami surged up from the brush and fell upon the unsuspecting security guard. His shotgun spiraled out of his hands and landed with a rasping thud several feet away as Shadow hit the man with two hundred pounds of canine fury. Man and animal crashed to the ground in a tangle of flaying arms and legs. Shadow’s massive maw crushed the guard’s throat, effectively cutting off any attempt to scream for help.
It was all over in seconds.
Brandt recovered the shotgun and crabbed her way back to the fight scene. Shadow lay beside the body watching Kramer search through the clothing.
“Bloody hell, I’ve heard stories about Shadow, but they don’t half compare with seeing him in action,” she exclaimed softly. She paid scant attention to the ripped throat. “Find anything useful?”
Kramer retrieved a small slim wallet from a trouser pocket and thumbed through it. “Judging by this driver’s license, our unfortunate friend here is one Pieter Swart, twenty-seven years old, and has his address in Kuils River…I think that’s a suburb outside Cape Town. And this card has him working for Franskraal Security Services. I’m guessing that’s either a division of Franskraal Winery, or that both businesses may operate under an umbrella company.”
Brandt lay on her stomach, her binoculars trained on the house. “Maria might come up with that info after she’s had a chance to dig into the winery company,” she said.
A surprised squeak sounded from behind. They peered over their shoulders and spied Junior’s head poking through a stand of grass. The boy’s eyes were as big as saucers as he gawked at the body and the damage wrought by Shadow. As Junior wriggled through the scrub, the dog crawled to meet him, then together they worked their way across the ground to join Kramer and Brandt.
“I—I thought I heard something. It woke me, so I came to see—”
“Shadow surprised the guy who surprised us,” Kramer murmured. He used a corner of the man’s jacket to cover his face and neck. “We don’t have to worry about him any more. We have—”
A muffled metallic voice squawked from beneath the body.
“Pieter, report in. C’mon man, quit muckin’ about—you’re late callin’ in.”
Kramer swore under his breath and rolled the body over. Entangled in a squashed mess of grass and bush lay a small portable 2-way radio.
“Pieter, get your butt back here on the double. Our guests are getting ready to leave, and the boss wants you to ride shotgun.”
Kramer retrieved the radio and thumbed a switch. “Regso, ek hoor. Ek is oppad.”
“Yeah, well double time it, man. You don’t want to get yourself on her bad side.”
“Regso.” Kramer stuffed the radio in one of his utility pockets. He looked up and noticed Brandt eyeing him.
“Well, I’m impressed,” she said. “No one told me you could speak Afrikaans. So what did you say?”
“I just acknowledged the call and said that I was on my way back. And did you hear what I heard? The guy referred to the boss as ‘her’.”
Brandt glanced at the house. “Yeah, I picked up on that. I take it as confirmation that we’re on the money; that the woman in the house could well be Harper. The way that bloke sounded probably gives us about five minutes—ten tops before our friend here is missed.”
“My thought exactly. And it also sounds like our ISIS team is about to leave.” Kramer studied the house. His eyes narrowed as he considered their next move.
Their primary mission was to track the terrorists and the diamonds to whoever they were meeting with and prevent that person from utilizing the diamonds for whatever diabolical purpose he or she had in mind.
Kramer’s unit had achieved phase one of its mission.
Nothing had been specified about what to do about the ISIS group but Kramer felt he had the opportunity to cause the terrorist organization a significant headache if he were to take them out. But they were about to leave so he had to make a move and do it fast.
“Whatcha thinking, boss?” Brandt whispered.
Kramer rolled onto his side and looked back at the way they had come. We don’t have time to get back to the Land Rover, he thought.
“How good are you with that?” He nodded at the rifle bag lying at Brandt’s side.
“Good enough,” she replied simply.
“I hope so.” Because I’m about to find out in the worst possible way, he thought.
Kramer quickly outlined his plan while Brandt slid out her Mk-11 .300 Win Mag and attached its Knights Armament suppressor. She set the tripod up, checked the sniper rifle’s bolt action and fitted the Nightforce NXS 8-32 x 56 scope. To Kramer it certainly looked like the woman knew her business.
“Ready when you are, boss,” she said, screwing her ball cap backwards on her head.
Kramer laid a hand on Junior’s shoulder. “Remember, whatever happens you stay close by Charlie.” The boy nodded solemnly. Brandt gave Kramer a curious look; he’d never used her first name before.
“Hey, boss.” Brandt pointed towards the house. “I guess their curiosity got the better of them.”
“Damn,” Kramer muttered.
They watched as three figures emerged from around the front of the house and began moving somewhat in their direction. They’ve come looking for their mate, Kramer thought. He decided to stick with his plan nonetheless.
“Okay, I’m moving out. Keep a close eye on those guys. I’m trusting you to watch my six.”
“Roger that.” Brandt nestled into a comfortable firing position. “Ready when you are.”
With a last command to Shadow to stay with Brandt and Junior, Kramer wriggled backward a few feet then rolled to his left through the scratchy brush until he judged he was below the ridge line. He rose to a low crouch and began moving as swiftly as he could in a shallow arc toward the house. As his senses heightened he became acutely aware of the sun’s growing heat on his neck and through his clothing.
Shrubs scratched and plucked at his pants as he broke into a crouched run. He had to be in position before the ISIS group left the house. Beads of sweat formed at his hairline and seeped into his cap band. He dragged air in through gritted teeth, occasionally swiping his drying lips with his tongue. If only he had another couple of people in his unit to improve the chances of his plan succeeding.
Oh well, he thought, it is what it is. He speeded up. As he forged ahead he couldn’t help part of his mind going off on a tangent. From the moment he decided to have the boy along part of Kramer rebelled at the added responsibility. It was the last thing he needed on this mission. The youngster was undoubtedly a liability that could suddenly turn into something deadly.
It paralleled military arguments for allowing women on the frontline. A vast majority of military still regarded the fairer sex as being the weakest and that men might unnecessarily risk their own lives to rescue a female unit member. Kramer considered himself a fence sitter on the subject but now, with Junior along, he felt himself leaning toward the argument against women.
As much as he didn’t like having Brandt with him, he had to reluctantly acknowledge the fact that she appeared competent enough to look after herself. She certainly had the Aussie attitude—time would tell if she had the balls to back it up. He could only hope that neither of them would find themself being forced to throw caution to the wind to run to Junior’s rescue.
A voice whispered from the back of his mind that this train of thought all resulted from Sarah’s untimely death and the guilt he’d heaped upon himself for it. The voice was always there, and nothing he tried could shrug it off. He refocused.
Moments later he broke out of the fine bush to find himself at the edge of the road leading from the house. It wasn’t much better than a rough rock-strewn track switch backing its way down the ridge toward Franskraal that lay hidden from sight several miles away.
No dust trails. That meant the ISIS group hadn’t passed this way. Great.
Kramer quickly scanned the terrain. The road twisted uphill to the house and he could see the leading edge of the roofline jutting above the hilltop. The switchback he stood on looked like a tilted V, with the point to his right and him on the lower arm. The ISIS vehicle would travel downhill and make a slow sharp turn onto the V’s upper arm that would bring it broadside to where he currently stood.
He looked about for a good line-of-fire position and spotted a deep depression at the road’s edge. After scraping away several large rocks and debris, he settled into the hole with his feet braced against a slight embankment. Perfect. He had clear sight of the entire length of road slanting down the hill.
He made sure his Glock had a full magazine and chambered a round. Next he slung the Heckler and Koch MP5K from his back, checked it, and then settled down to wait.
He didn’t have to wait long.