In this blazing new thriller from Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter, master sniper Bob Lee Swagger takes on his biggest job to date...and confronts an assassin with skills that match his own.
When Bob Lee Swagger is approached by a woman who lost a son to war and has spent the years since risking all that she has to find the sniper who pulled the trigger, he knows right away he'll do everything in his power to help her. But what begins as a favor becomes an obsession, and soon Swagger is back in the action, teaming up with the Mossad, the FBI, and local American law enforcement as he tracks a sniper who is his own equal...and attempts to decipher that assassin's ultimate target before it's too late.
With all-too-real threats and a twisty, masterful storytelling, Game of Snipers is another gripping addition to a bestselling Bob Lee Swagger series.
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He saw Katie amid the prairie flowers. She sat, legs crossed, while the wind played with her hair, and it gleamed in the sun. She smiled brightly. She always smiled. Four years old was the age of smiles. She looked so happy, and around her the grass fluttered in the breeze, and it must have pleased her, for she turned to face it, tilting her little nose up.
"Katie!" he called. "Katie, sweetie . . . Katie!"
She turned to his voice, and her blue eyes lit with love.
"Daddy," she called. "Hi, Daddy!"
"Sweetie, IÕm coming," Paul yelled, and lunged to run to her, to hold her tight, to smother her in his arms and protect her from all. ItÕs what a father did.
But he could not make it.
He was handcuffed to a post. The sharpness of metal pulled hard against his wrists.
"Daddy, I have to go."
"No, Katie, no. IÕll be right there."
But his wrists would not yield, and though he yanked hard enough to draw blood from his flesh, the cuffs would not give.
"Bye, Daddy," said Katie, as she rose to run away. "I love you."
And then she was gone, and he was aware that he was awake. Dream finished, he was awake. But the odd thing was that the binding of his wrists was no dream, and he yanked hard, the steel biting. He could feel a solid post threaded through his bound arms, mooring him upright as solidly as Joan of Arc had been for the fire.
He blinked, it did not go away.
Other oddities revealed themselves. For one, a gentle wind pushed the smell of prairie grass against his nostrils, and, two, he felt the radiance of a sun above him, welcoming him-or damning him-to wakefulness.
He did not smell his own piss and vomit. He did not feel the crusty ripple of long-uncleaned skin. He hadnÕt shit his pants, or if he had, someone had cleaned up the mess for him.
He wasnÕt wearing that pair of ragged chinos, fifteen years old, filched from some garbage can, or that old pair of Adidas, two sizes too big. He was in turquoise surgical scrubs and white socks.
Paul blinked himself more fully awake, opened his eyes fully, waited for them to focus, and examined the world in which he now found himself.
It was not the world he had left, which was the alley behind restaurant row, where he had unreliable memories of the effects of muscatel and methamphetamine, of his surrender to unconsciousness behind a dumpster a half block down from that Mexican restaurant in the alley where all the normals came to eat and drink and laugh every night and from whom he could occasionally cadge a buck or even a five-spot.
Where had it gone? What was happening?
Did I die? Am I in Heaven?
No, it was not Heaven, but it was definitely outside.
He saw grass, lots of it. The world was well lit. Details, vistas, landscapes dialed into focus. He saw vastness, mountains, pines. He saw a huge dome of sky, tendrils of wispy clouds spread across it, a sun that could have been hotter but not clearer, and green, green, everywhere, as he was confined to the floor of a valley that was bordered by forest, its pines rolling away to infinity mostly.
Confusion, not an unknown condition, took over his already murky mind, though for once, at least, the voices were quiet. He looked for human beings of any sort and soon saw them. A good fifty yards away, three men sat on deck chairs, coolly appraising him. One was holding a cell phone to his ear, talking to someone.
"Hey!" he called. "What is this? Who are you? Where am I?"
They did not respond to his calls, though the one on the phone glanced at him, then went back to his animated conversation.
More details: they seemed Mexican, from their hair (long) and wardrobe (cowboy hats, jeans, boots). Sunglasses, a certain macho languor in body postures of amused relaxation. Was he in Mexico?
Oddest detail of all: standing apart from the crew was a man in black. That is, all in black, from the toes of his boots to the crown of his hat, including a black mask that covered his face, with slits for his dark eyes. Of them all, only this one was watching Paul.
Paul tried to assemble a series of steps by which he somehow ended up chained to a post in Mexico, cleaned up to some degree and placed before the world like a specimen. But rigor was long missing from the working of his mind, and nothing made any sense. His will crumpled against the effort. He wanted a drink, he ached for the blur and smear of the muscatel that drove his furies away, at least temporarily.
He went dizzy, leaned against the post to utilize its support. That small effort exhausted him. He breathed heavily, already in oxygen debt.
"Help me please," he shouted.
But now the postures of the Mexican steering committee had changed. The one on the phone seemed to be in charge, and he commanded the attention of the others. They joined the man in black in directing attention toward him, but not in empathy.
The moment seemed to elongate until it fell out of time. He heard an odd noise, not a blast or a burst, no sharpness to it, but it still carried sensations of destruction to it, as if something had struck in near silence against the earth itself. Immediately, the man on the phone began to speak.
Paul turned. About twenty-five yards out, a cloud of dust-debris from some sort of explosion, by the conical shape of it-hung gracelessly above the folds of scrub prairie, but was disorganizing in the breeze.
Again, he had no framework into which he could fit this puzzling event. It was just there, defying his attempts to classify and respond.
In the next second, another eruption occurred. The earth itself expressed the tremor of the released energy as a geyser suddenly spurted at the speed of light, easily ten feet of supersonic dust and dirt, roiling, climbing, disassembling in the breeze. It was much closer, and Paul felt the sting of pellet and grit.
He tried to place it, again seeking context, and rifled through the crazed index of his memories to find something and came to the conclusion that these were bullets striking the earth, delivering a violence of energy and purpose. HeÕd seen it in the movies a thousand times-at least, when he went to movies.
The ground beneath him shattered. He was smashed hard into the post by unseen energy, as the cuffs twisted and sliced his wrists. He tasted blood and copper in his saliva, and after a secondÕs numb mercy, sharp pains began to clamor for attention, announcing the presence against his body of shards of debris, flung stones, supersonic grit.
He realized now: someone was shooting at him from a long way away.
The panic of the prey flooded his brain, and he tore away, only to have his motion halted by the cuffs.
"No," he shouted. "You canÕt do this. This isnÕt right," he screamed, but involuntarily began to sob.
They laughed. It was pretty funny.
"Katie," he screamed. "Forgive me! Forgive Daddy! Please."
He entered the light.
The ranch, Cascade, Idaho
What was there to complain about? The view from the rocker was superb, prairie meadows giving way in the distance to the mountains, snowcapped (as was he) and remote (as was he), been there forever (as had he). He owned everything he could see except for the mountains (ownership: God). The late-spring climate temperate, the sun not so strong, the breeze mild. Children successful. Wife content, as much as any wife could be. He just kept getting richer, not of his own volition but by the working of certain mechanisms. Health fine, even superb. The new hip (number three) felt great, his ticker still ticked. Horses-too many, all sinewy beasts with plenty of go in them. His guns? Some new ones, in fascinating calibers, maybe a new sniper round to test out, called 6.5 Creedmoor, which promised lots of amusement of the dry, technical sort he so enjoyed. Friends-more than he deserved, and in places he never thought heÕd go, from NRA celebs to old snipers to a few journalists, to a lot of big-animal vets across seven states, plus dozens of former marine NCOs, as salty a crew as could be imagined. Pickup trucks? Could only drive one at a time, so what was the point in having any more?
I have everything, he thought.
His late self-education was progressing in his leisure. He was on to Crimea now, trying to imagine battles under gunpowder clouds so vast and brutal that no one could see their limits, the wounds nasty and greenish, headed into gangrene, toward, ultimately, amputation without anesthetic save whiskey. As a man whose life had been saved several times-and he had the scars to prove it-by modern emergency medicine, this fact alone sent a tremor of dread down his straight old spine. Everything was fine.
He knew it couldnÕt last.
It was the lowest category of rental car, in a shade of Day-Glo otherwise found no place on earth, pulling up the long road in from Idaho 82. It had to mean some sort of trouble, because friends never came without a call first, and not one of them would travel under such brightness. No mailbox shouted swagger to the world at the otherwise unmarked gate, and the size and beauty of the house was not manifest from the highway: the road could have just as easily led to a broken-down trailer or a complex of heavily armed religious zealots or some other monstrosity that had taken root in IdahoÕs free soil.
He touched the .38 Super Commander holstered under the tail of his T-shirt, found it secure yet accessible in a second, though that was mere habit, as the arrival of a nuclear airburst fuchsia Tempo or Prism hardly presaged a gunfight. Actually, he would have preferred a gunfight.
The car pulled up, and he rose, and he was not astonished but mildly nonplussed by the driver, who got out and faced him. Woman. Fifties, maybe early sixties. Pantsuit, makeup, and the ubiquitous high-end sneakers that most American women wore most places these days. Her smile was tentative, not practiced and professional. Her face was slightly out of symmetry, as if parted and rejoined inadequately, but no scars showed. It was just an oddness of cast that suggested complexities. He couldnÕt help picking up a note of forlorn loss, however, when he added it all up. Something damaged about poor whoever-she-was.
"MaÕam," he called. "Just so you know: this is private property, and IÕm not what youÕd call a public fellow. If youÕre selling, IÕm not buying. If youÕre interviewing, IÕm not talking. And if youÕre campaigning, I donÕt vote. But if youÕre lost, I will happily give you directions, and a glass of water."
"IÕm not lost, Mr. Swagger-Sergeant Swagger. It took me days to find out where you lived. I know you donÕt like interruptions, and thereÕs no reason you should, but I would claim the right to a hearing because of the circumstances."
"Well-" he said, thinking, Oh, Lord, what now?
"My son. Lance Corporal Thomas McDowell, sniper, 3/8. Baghdad, 2003. Came back to me in a box."
They sat in silence on the porch for a bit. He didnÕt know what he could say, because of course there is nothing that can be said. He knew enough of grief to know that only time eats it down, and sometimes not even that, and death is the only ultimate release. So, it would be her show, and she seemed to need some time to gather.
Finally, she said, "It seems very pretty here."
"I like to sit a couple of hours each day. Just watch the weather and the grass change. Sometimes a batch of antelope wander by, sometimes a few mulies-a buck and his gals. Once a bull elk, magnificent rack, but they seem not much in evidence these days."
"YouÕre being very kind to me."
"ItÕs just my way."
"You think maybe I came for explanations. Context, history, the who, the why, the what, the physics of it. The ballistics. You would know such things."
"If it helps, IÕll sound off."
"IÕve learned a thing or two since the notification team knocked on the door. Seven-point-sixty-two by fifty-four, 160 grain. Classic Dragunov. Velocity about sixteen hundred feet per second by the time it reached him. Steel-cored, probably didnÕt distort or rupture. Went clean through. It would have been instant, IÕm told."
"Sounds about right."
"I should be grateful for that mercy, but donÕt look to me for grateful. Mom doesnÕt do grateful. Mom wants the man who pulled the trigger dead. ThatÕs what Mom wants."
He paused. That one was unexpected. Now, what the hell could he say?
"Mrs. McDowell, this ainÕt healthy. Not only because what you describe is murder, not war, not only because it could get you into a whole peck of trouble that would make where you are now seem like kindergarten, not only because no matter how it came out youÕd end up spending all your money-and I mean all of it-on lawyers and various other forms of predators, not only because itÕs probably not even possible, and, finally, if youÕre trying to get me to go on some kind of revenge safari for you, I am too old, at seventy-two, and lack any wherewithal for door-busting, stair-climbing, and the stalking part of sniping and would only get myself killed or arrested."
"That is entirely sensible," she said. "The people who would talk about Bob the Nailer said he was a decent man and would not steer me wrong, and he would give me solid advice. And, for the record, nobody in the marine community or the shooting community or the intelligence community-and I have entered them all-has encouraged me. They think itÕs crazy."
"I would not use such a harsh word. LetÕs leave it at Õbad idea.Õ "
"But-" she said.
"ThereÕs always a Õbut,Õ " he said.
"Yes, and hereÕs mine. You can say it was war, thatÕs all. He joined the Marine Corps of his own volition, he signed on to sniper school, he went to war willingly, he had a few kills of his own, and one night his number came up. Numbers come up, thatÕs what war is about. But IÕm not telling you anything you donÕt know. And the boy who pulled the trigger, the argument would run, he was just another boy like Tom, dancing to a politicianÕs tune for policy goals that never made any sense, and, just like Tom, heÕd rather have been at the mall or the movies, hanging out with girls, whatever. Is that it?"