Proof Zoo eBook Cover

 

Alright, alright! I got a little bit excited with the prospect of the Zoo coming out this Friday. It still is, but the cover isn’t quite ready yet. Have you ever met scifi writers? They can be soooo nit-picky! So, instead of waiting on the totally cool finished cover, here’s the snippet with the draft cover. Sorry it’s late. Be sure to check on Friday for when the book launches! You can visit our Facebook page, Twitter, or the main page of LMBPN.com

 

Chapter One

München, Bavaria, Germany, Oktoberfest

Long canvas tents, rimmed by flapping pennants in red, gold, and black, were full to nearly bursting. Drunken laughter and the comforting swirl of multiple languages bounced off the old cobblestone road and the leaning buildings. It was abnormally balmy for late September and the sun added to the over-all poached feeling of everything. People gladly showed skin, heated by alcohol and the sun.

Charles Tillman was sitting inside, staring into the deep amber of his beer. He’d looked the bar up online, and it had great ratings from the men at the nearby Army base. He felt more comfortable knowing the swirl of men and women around him was comprised of mostly military personnel.

A woman, her auburn hair in twin milkmaid braids, her cleavage spilling over her violet dirndl, leaned forward and tapped him on the arm. “Hallo.”

He angled his broad shoulders slightly toward her. She already displayed a somewhat glassy look that matched the sloppy nature of her smile. “Hey.”

She giggled and clapped her hands. “Are you American?” she squealed.

Charles tried not to flinch. “Sure am, sweetheart.”

She sighed and listed closer to him. “I love American men.”

His half-smile faded when she hiccupped and tilted even further. She was pretty but he didn’t take advantage of drunk women. “Nice meeting you,” he said, purposefully angling his shoulders away from her.

He caught her pout in the mirror above the bar. The waitress, who spent most of her time darting in and out from behind the bar, leaned across it. “How very gentlemanly of you. You always have so much control?” Her gaze raked over his tall frame and lingered on the bulging muscles of his biceps and the hint of the edge of a Semper Fi tattoo that peeked from beneath his black t-shirt sleeve.

Charles shrugged. Drained his beer.

“I get off at ten,” she said as she scribbled her number on a coaster. She slid it and a fresh beer toward him with a wink. “Just keep that in mind.”

Before he could reply, a new patron leaned against the bar, sliding into the vacant stool to his left. Charles took in the newcomer quickly—tall, wiry, and a little nerdy, but with an underlying confidence that was intriguing. He had a sort of coiled power in his lanky limbs.

He turned back to his beer, uninterested.

“I’ll take a Cuello Negro if you have it, love,” the man said.

Charles snapped his gaze to the man. He looked him over again. This time, the stranger turned slightly and returned his stare, not unfriendly but not inviting either. “You been to Patagonia?” Charles asked.

The man cocked his head, sniffed, and ran a finger under his nose. “Yeah. What gave it away?”

Charles indicated the beer as the waitress slid it across to him.

“Ah, yes. Afraid I became rather attached to the stuff when I was down there. I prefer cider, but this is the next best thing. Eustace Percival Coddington, Colour Sergeant in the SAS. Well, formerly of the SAS. They call me Booker, though.  And you are?”

The Brit held his hand out and Charles shook it. “Charles Tillman, Lance Corporal, Second Battalion, Fourth Marines. Well, also formerly.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Charles. I’m assuming you’ve been to Patagonia?”

“Sure have. But not going back there if I can help it. That’s where I got the formerly added to lance corporal.”

“Let me guess, the riots in Puerto Vara?”

He huffed out a short laugh. “What else?”

“I was there. Operation Big Tree. What did you in?”

“CO was throwing a party for some Chilean top brass. We’d already been working on drinking the town dry, so we had to special-order a shipment of beer. Went into town to pick it up, only to be told it was sold and the town was dry.”

“You’re shitting me.”

Charles looked sideways at Booker. “What?”

“You know what the truck looked like?”

“Like every other truck there, I guess. Though this one was pretty dinged on the side, left bumper caved in. Logo of some topless chick on the side.”

The other man barked out a laugh. “Bleddy hell, I know what happened to your truck. Some of the boys heard your plans for beer. We knew the town was running dry, so we nabbed it. All in good spirit for some good spirits.”

Charles rose off his bar stool, using his superior height to loom over the Brit. Booker turned to study him, his body loose and eyes wary. But then Charles shook his head, laughing, and sat again.

“No kidding. That’s what happened?” The American laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s a small world, I suppose. Well, at least tell me you enjoyed the beer.”

“Unfortunately, no such luck. We were getting a little ahead of ourselves celebrating fucking over the Americans something proper when the truck was nabbed from under our noses. Embarrassing, really. But that’s that. I assume some of the locals retaliating.”

“If I could just cut in, gents,” a new voice said from farther down the bar. Both men turned to take in the stocky speaker. “I know where that truck ended up, and it sure as hell wasn’t the locals.”

Booker glared at the stranger, who made his way toward them. “My mates and I found it, stole it from some bloody Brits, made a bit of a profit, and polished off the rest.” He had already been drinking for a while, and his Australian accent was thick.

“Shut the front door, you didn’t.”

“Sure did. Truck with a topless bird on the side? Whacked out front bumper? Parked between the cantina and the open-air tourist market?”

Booker leaned back. “Well, shit, that’s the truck.”

“What are the odds?” Charles muttered.

“Hey, just so there aren’t any hard feelings, let me buy you guys a beer. Let you know we blokes from down under aren’t all arseholes.”

Charles and Booker exchanged a look. The American shrugged. “Why not?”

“I’m Walker Demopoulis, Australian Army Corporal.”

The other two men introduced themselves, reciting their ranks and countries of origin.

“Demopoulis? Isn’t that Greek?” Booker asked.

“Lot of Greek immigrants in Australia. I’m third-generation. But an Aussie to my core,” Walker fired back and stiffened his spine.

“Aw, look, little man’s getting upset,” Charles teased. “Don’t upset the baby ʼroo, Booker.”

The man glared. “Laugh all you want, I’m secure in the knowledge that I could whip both your arses. Not to mention, as it’s been established, I managed to get one up on the both of you.”

“Whatever you say, ʼroo,” Charles shrugged.

“What I’m still a little unclear about,” Walker said, ignoring Charles, “is how the riots actually started.”

Charles shifted on the bar stool.

“Of course it was the bleddy Americans,” Booker muttered.

“You started it?” the Australian asked.

“No. I didn’t start anything,” Charles muttered. “CO demanded his beer, gave the orders, and we followed through. Though obviously not in the way he had intended. We found another truck, some guys got a little pissy about the loss of the previous truck. One thing led to another and there’s brawling in the streets.”

“I got kicked out of the fuckin’ Army ʼcause of the shit you bastards pulled,” Walker accused belligerently.

Booker rolled his eyes. “Seems like it was because of the shit you Aussies pulled, but join the club. Why do you think we’re here?”

The three were silent for a moment, looking into their beers.

“Well, what’s the next step for you gents?” the Brit asked.

Charles shrugged. “Don’t know how to do much else besides be a soldier.”

“I can’t go back home and become a wombat. Man’s gotta have something to do,” Walker said with a gloomy expression.

“I’m here looking for work,” Booker said.

“Work?” Charles asked.

“Mercenary work.” He ran his finger under his nose. “Figured that’s the next best thing.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Walker agreed. “I’ve heard there isn’t much up in these parts, though. Heard you’ve gotta look at warmer climates for that sort of occupation.”

At that moment, a group of drunken men stumbled into the bar. They were loud, a slurring mix of Dutch and English. They made their way to a table directly behind the three ex-soldiers.

“Alls I’m sayin’ is I deserve to live a little. What’s the point of making as much money as I do and not spending it on the pleasurable things of life?” one of the drunkest of the group said. He leaned back in his chair and waved a few crumpled bills at one of the waitresses. “Hey! What’s it take to get service in this shithole?”

Another new man shifted in his seat. He wore an eye patch over his left eye and the edges of a barely healed, pale pink scar peeked from beneath it. He looked around the room with his good eye, his shoulders hunched toward his middle in a protective, closed-off manner. “I don’t know if I want to go back.” He ran a hand through dirty blond hair and produced a dinged-up flask from the hip pocket of his cargo pants and took a deep pull.

“Stop talking shit. It’s good fucking money. Who’re you to turn your nose up at it?” The loudest drunk scoffed. He gave the waitress a wolf whistle and she flinched but smiled politely. “Let’s have a round of drinks and maybe something to warm my lap, eh?” He gave her a lascivious wink and grabbed her ass. The woman, with years of practice, maneuvered deftly out of reach of his questing hand.

Walker’s color rose. Booker clamped a hand on his shoulder.

The drunk was back to his posturing. “The work’s for shit, but the money’s good. But I don’t need to tell you gents that. Gotta love the Zoo.”

“And here I was thinking they paid zookeepers in barrels of monkey shit and the chance for a roll in the hay with the zebras,” the Aussie muttered. His companions laughed.

“You’d think they’d run out of money with how much they pay us, but it just keeps coming. You know I got another bonus after the last trip out?” the man slurred.

The three new drinking companions stilled and exchanged a look between them.

“Would you shut up, Ivan?” one of the man’s companions grouched at him. He seemed older than the other three—maybe in his early forties—with dark hair and a wicked scar peeking out from under the collar of his shirt.

Ivan shrugged. “What? Come on, Jonas. I’ve fucking earned it after the last shit we went through. Clyde lost his eye. The least people could do is show a little fucking respect and love for the men standing between them and the goddamn apocalypse.”

Jonas sneered at the man. “If anyone should be complaining about getting paid more, it’s Clyde.”

Clyde grimaced. “I don’t give two shits what they’re paying us. I just want out.”

Ivan rummaged around in the rucksack at his feet. His companions watched him sullenly. “Yeah, yeah. Okay. But are you sure you’re wanting out now, Clyde? You’ve already lost an eye. Why not sweeten your retirement?” He pulled a thick manila envelope from the rucksack and opened it.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Jonas protested, leaning across the table and snagging the envelope from Ivan.

The man tried to snatch it back, but his movements were too slow, dulled by alcohol. “What? Clyde should know what the next job is gonna be. I’m just going to show him.”

Clyde’s good eye rolled around in its socket again, darting and suspicious. “Not here,” he stated.

The waitress returned to the table, her eyes wary as she placed steins of foaming beer down.

“Did you hear that?” Ivan asked her. “I’m working my ass off keeping you safe and your withholding isn’t any way to show respect.” He reached for her again but she shied away and put the last beer down. She wasn’t fast enough to avoid his wandering hand. He found his mark—right up her skirt.

Walker acted before Booker and Charles registered the movement. He was on Ivan in a moment, fist first, knocking the larger man out of his seat.

Wat verdomme!” Ivan roared as his feet flipped over his head and his seat fell backward.

The Australian barely had time to shove the waitress out of the way before Jonas and another of their companions jumped him. Walker bent low, headbutting Jonas, following him to the ground with his fists jabbing in short bursts.

“Okay,” Charles said. He drained the last gulp of his beer, stood and rolled his shoulders, then grabbed one of the men who was trying to pin Walker down by the scruff of his neck and hauled him off.

Ivan struggled to his feet, but Booker was there to stop him. He stepped in front of the man, shifting his weight to his back foot and then snapping his front leg forward in a devastating front kick that caught his opponent in his sternum. There was a crunch and the big man went down again.

Chaos erupted as the other patrons sprinted toward the exits. The waitresses and bartender were all yelling in German, but the brawling men didn’t pay attention.

Clyde looked hesitant to join the fight. Then he spied the knife strapped to Walker’s thigh—an Ari B’Lilah, practical, heavy-duty, deadly, and custom-made. He went to grab it. Walker, who was busy battering Jonas’ face, didn’t notice until the other man was in his space. The Australian’s elbow whipped back, slamming home in Clyde’s uninjured eye socket. The man reeled back, screaming and clutching his face.

“Now, that wasn’t playing fair,” Walker grumbled.

The tell-tale scream of police sirens could be heard from outside.

“Let’s get out of here,” Booker said, making for a back exit. The other two followed him as the German Polizei came streaming through the front doors of the bar.

“I wish you’d waited,” Charles said to the Aussie when they were in the clear.

The man shrugged. “That wanker had it coming. But look what I’ve got.” He held out the manila envelope Ivan had been trying to open when Jonas stopped him. He glanced inside, then opened it further for his companions to see, revealing a loose sheaf of papers and a scanpad.

***

The three men sat in the dark corner of another bar. Walker and Booker looked through the papers while Charles fiddled with the scanpad.

“Holy shit, that asshole wasn’t bleddy joking, look at these numbers,” the Brit said, running his fingers down the paystubs. Walker’s eyes widened.

“Got it,” Charles said, then he whistled. “Dang. You’ve gotta see this. That Zoo? Not animals—at least, not your normal variety. Looks like some sort of…alien zone? How’s that possible?”

His companions leaned over. Coordinates, measurements, and strange names filled the scanpad’s screen.

“Look, it’s in Africa.  In the Sahara,” Charles said.  “I think I know what this is, except we don’t call it the Zoo.  It’s ‘ACZ.’”

“What’s that stand for?” Walker asked.

“Assho—uh, I don’t know the real words.  In the Corps, we call it ‘Assholes and Cocksuckers Zone,” the big man said, obviously embarrassed speaking the words.  “They pulled a couple of my boot camp buddies for duty there.  All hush-hush.  Something to do with that alien spaceship thing that was on the news.”

“The word on the street is all that stuff was cover for some secret weapons test,” Walker said.

“No, there was something to it.  We sent people, too,” Booker said.

“And a couple of years ago, there was some huge construction project out in the desert.  Took most of the cement production for a long time.”

“Cement?  So, you’re in the cement business now?” the Aussie asked, unconvinced.

“No, but my sister dated this guy who sold those new cement bags, like the ones in the Home Depots.  She said his business almost crashed.  All the cement production was going bulk to Africa.”

“Anyway, I think that’s this ‘Zoo’ they’re talking about.  We sent Marines and soldiers, but I never knew civilians could make money there.  I don’t know what they’d do if the construction’s all done.  Does it say in here?”

“Looks like this guy was some sort of harvester,” Booker said.

“Harvester?” Walker asked.

“Yeah, says he harvested flowers?” The Brit looked up and shrugged.

“And he can make money picking flowers?” The Australian sounded dubious.

“It looks like it.  Lots of money, if these figures are right.”

“Let’s go,” Walker said suddenly.

The other two stared at him.

“What? I mean, we’ve got nothing here. I sure as shit aren’t going back home. Why not make money picking a few flowers? How hard can it be?”

Charles frowned. “I don’t know. I mean, that guy was missing an eye. Something tells me these aren’t your average flowers.”

Booker shrugged then. “What the hell. I’ve got nothing to do. I could use the money. I’ll go.”

Walker nodded. “Fuck, yeah. Good on you.”

They looked at Charles in tandem. He considered it for a few moments, then sighed. “Okay. I’m in. Let’s go.”

 

 

Chapter Two

Ghardabiya Airbase, Tripoli, Libya

“So, where are the Halls of Montezuma?” Walker asked, squinting up at the sun. The early afternoon heat bore down on them and a desolate wind whipped hot, bringing biting drifts of sand with it.

Charles rolled his eyes. “Ha-ha. You’re a real comedian, Roo.” On the way to Africa, he and Booker had taken to calling Walker “Roo” and the nickname was sticking.

The Brit glanced up from the scanpad. “Looks like there should be a hub to get us to base camp not far from here. Three klicks away.”

“All right, move out,” the American said, shrugging his rucksack higher.

“Hold up, there, cowboy. I outrank you,” Walker said.

Booker, who was already several feet in front of the other two, called over his shoulder, “Hey, emmets, I outrank both your asses. Now we’ve got places to be.”

***

The van smelled of dust, sweat, and old blood. None of the other passengers had wanted to talk to the three newcomers, so they’d given up, taking in the scenery as the van wound its way into the heart of the desert. After several hours, the vehicle wheezed to a stop, hunkering on the side of the road outside the gates to a massive base camp.  It had the look of new construction despite everything being coated with dust.  Beyond the camp rose a massive wall, possibly ten meters tall, stretching farther than the eye could see.

“That’s where all the cement you were talking about went,” Booker said.

“Are they trying to keep people out or something in?” Charles asked.

The van passed the outlying buildings before pulling up at a gate in the three-meter tall chain link fence topped with concertina that looked like it surrounded the camp nerve-center.  A beleaguered American flag inside the gate barely stirred in the desert heat. Several of the van’s occupants shuffled inside, where their tags and IDs were checked by the guard.

Booker squared his shoulders and walked up to the gate, followed by his friends.

“Let’s see your credentials, buddy,” the guard said. He was wearing a black t-shirt and desert fatigues. Definitely not military, but he had the posture of someone who’d served.  Aviator sunglasses effectively blocked both the sun and the movement of his eyes.

“We don’t have any yet, but that’s what we’re here for,” The Brit said.

The man’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh yeah? You didn’t think to get that taken care of back in the States?  You think you can show up and walk right in?  Sorry, Limey, it don’t work that way. So, how about you just move along, now.”

“Booker, I’m sure there’s another way in,” Charles said as his friend began to puff up like a rattler ready to strike.

The guard turned toward Charles. “You American?”

“Yeah.  From Iowa.  Marine,” he said.

“Hundred and first Screamin Eagles,” the man said.

“The Hundred and First?  Good people.  Airborne and all that.”

“And you jarheads are okay.  Tell you what.  I’d tell you to try the Brits, given your friend there, but they don’t accept walk-ins, either.  Try the French Quarter. They’re not as regulated.”

“Thanks, man.” Charles turned around, then back to the guard again and asked, “Uh, where’s the French Quarter?”

“Well, that’s the thing, right?  On the other side of the Zoo—on the south side.  We’re on the very north.  You’ve got to go around, and it’s a long haul.”

“Can we cut across?” Walker asked.

The guard looked at him like he was high, then snorted and said, “Yeah, sure, if you don’t mind getting your asses killed.”

“How do we get there?” Charles asked, cutting Roo off before he could say anything else.

“There’re two daily shuttles.  Counterclockwise leaves the stop at zero-nine-thirty. Clockwise at thirteen-hundred.”

“Which one’s the closest?” Booker asked.

He shrugged and said, “It’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.  It’s about a hundred-thirty klicks around the perimeter.  Counterclockwise might be a couple of klicks shorter to the French, but no better than that.”

The three looked at each other as that sank in.  After the long haul in the van, none of them were looking to another road trip.

“And if we go there, the French’ll let us in?” Booker asked.

The guard gave another noncommittal shrug, then said, “No way the Chinese will let you poach on them.  Not the Russians, or the Arabs, either.  Maybe the Coalition, but your best bet’s the French.  If not them, the Israelis and the Indians are in the same sector.  I’d try the Israelis first if the French don’t let you in.  Otherwise, it’s back to the States and apply there.”

Two more men walked up to have their IDs checked, and the three stepped aside.

“What do you think?” Charles asked.

“We’re here now.  What’s another seventy klicks?”  Booker said.  He looked at his watch, then added, “It’s eleven-hundred now.  The next shuttle’s at thirteen-hundred, he said.  So, do we take it?”

“Like you said, we’re here. I guess we try the froggies.  Ces’t la vie and all that shit.” Walker headed toward the shuttle stop without waiting for an answer.  His companions were right on his tail.

***

Five long hours later after they left the American sector, the shuttle—which might have once been a luxury tour bus in a long-ago life—bounced over a “road,” which was a generous term for a bulldozed strip in the sand, and arrived at the French camp.  There had been a screen at the front of the bus, but the sound was unintelligible and it showed the same movie on a loop.  The three said little to each other, their gazes drifting constantly to the huge wall that was ever present on the bus’ right side.

The wall had changed in appearance as they left the American sector and entered the Middle-Eastern zone, then again for the Russian/Japanese and Chinese bases, but the size and utility of the massive thing remained the same.  It was  obvious that each sector had been erected by different governments or firms,

The three were more than happy to get out of the bus, and they were both excited and apprehensive about what was going to happen next.  The American guard had told them this was their best shot, and none of them wanted to go back and get registered in the US or UK.

There wasn’t a fence around the camp like there was at the American side, but a bored-looking guard met the bus to check for papers.  He was dressed in civilian security-guard chic, much like the guard at the American Quarter had been except for the eight-hundred-dollar Vuarnet Glacier sunglasses he was sporting.

Booker stepped toward him. “We’re here to get registered.”

The man looked him over, then analyzed the other two men. “Are you?” His accent was hard to place but sounded vaguely South African. “What makes you think you could just show up and do that?”

“That wanker at the American Quarter said you guys could hook us up.” Walker stepped up, impatience tightening his shoulders.

The guard pursed his lips. “It’s possible I could. See, the thing is, I can’t just let anyone in here. There are protocols, man.”

He looked expectantly at them.

Booker sighed and nudged the Australian, who then nudged Charles. “What?”

“I think the man needs a little extra persuasion,” Walker said.

The guard looked expectantly at Charles.

He sighed, dug into his pocket, undid his wallet, and passed over a hundred-dollar bill.

The guard took it, folded it neatly, and put it in his hip pocket. He looked over them again. Then, he stepped aside. “Welcome to the French Quarter of the Harvesters Camp.”

“I guess that’s how he can afford the Vuarnets,” Walker said.

The base sprawled out like a quickly-erected town. Roads and paths cut through tents and slammed-together buildings. Booker walked into one of the largest with Registre painted on the side. Walker and Charles waited for him outside, observing the comings and goings of the people around them.

The camp seemed mostly populated by men, and each looked cranky and capable. Weapons of varying types were on full display. Some men wore full body armor and others only vests. Those who weren’t in Humvees and other heavy-duty vehicles seemed to be biding their time, waiting for something.

“Let’s get a drink,” Booker said, returning with a manila envelope in hand. “See how one makes money around here.” He passed his friends dog tag-like scraps of metal with their last names and a series of numbers punched into the surface.

It wasn’t hard to find the bar. They followed the spray-painted stakes that had been driven into the ground, the words le bar” dripping down in dayglo-orange. The place was practically deserted, and the majority of patrons weren’t interested in talking to the three newcomers. They either didn’t react to questions or growled until they were left alone.

“What a crock of shit,” Walker grumbled, sitting down at the bar.

“Did you expect it to be sunshine and rainbows?” a man, sitting alone at the bar, asked. He was the first to speak to them.

“Afraid we didn’t know what to expect,” Booker stated.

The stranger shrugged and turned to look at them. They took in his dusty shirt and faded and ripped fatigues. One leg was tightly bandaged, blood still seeping through. “The name’s Dan. If you’re looking for work, recruiters usually sweep for fresh blood in the evening. But you’ll need gear. This is a bring-your-own-shit operation.”

“Thanks for the intel. Know where we can get gear?” Booker asked.

Dan pursed his lips and ran a finger around the top of his empty pint glass.

Charles waved the bartender over and had him refill the man’s drink. The server slid Charles the check and he winced but signed it anyway.

“Sure. I can show you where to get gear.” Dan chugged the beer.

They followed the limping man to a pole barn that acted as the armory. He eased behind the table that had been set up, sending the man who had been standing there on his way. Dan ran the armory.

“So, what do we need in there?” Booker asked.  “How heavy do we need to go in?”

“A nuclear bomb?” the man responded.

“What?” all three asked in unison, looking shocked.

“Just kidding, just kidding.  Let me see what’s a standard load-out.” The proprietor moved to the racks along the walls.

“This shit’s middling,” he said. He spread an array of armor-piercing rounds, a few M249 Squad Automatic Weapons—SAWs—a FAL, a Barrett M107 .50 cal sniper rifle, another rifle none of the three recognized, what looked to be a hazmat suit, and some heavy-duty body armor on the table.

“Middling?” Walker asked, inspecting the chamber of the lightly-used FAL light automatic rifle

“Yeah. No offense, but you boys don’t look like heavy hitters. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here.”

“Why the hazmat?” Booker asked.

“It’s not a hazmat suit.  Well, maybe it is that, too.  It’s what we call an expedition suit.  This is an early version.”

Charles picked it up and fingered the fabric, noticing what looked to be stains on it.  “Not much armor in it.  Couldn’t stop a round.”

“Not meant to.  Some of the denizens of the Zoo spit or secrete nasty toxins.  An expedition suit will protect against some of them,” Dan explained.

“Not all?”

“One thing you’ll learn is that the Zoo critters and plants have a way of adjusting.  We figure out something to stop them, and they mutate a way to defeat it.  Like I said, this is an older model.  The things inside the wall have…well, adjusted.”

Charles frowned and dropped the suit, then picked up the unfamiliar rifle.  “Is this the M-92?”

The supplier nodded, and the other two turned to them with interest.

“Thought so. Something like a cross between an M-4 and an AK-47.  I don’t know how effective it will be,” he said, placing it back on the table.

“How much?” Booker asked, pointing at the Barrett.

Dan pursed his lips. “For you three? Seventy-five.”

“Seventy-five dollars for a Barrett?”

“Thousand.”

Booker’s eyes widened. Walker placed the FAL back on the table and rolled his eyes. Dan shrugged.

“Would you extend credit?” Charles asked.

Dan laughed. “No offense, but I wouldn’t be setting myself up to make a profit, now would I? See, I don’t know you. I don’t know that you’ll come back. Then I’d be out seventy-five and some gear. No credit here, fellas.”

The three exchanged glances. Booker’s brows lowered and he ran a finger under his nose. “I have a house back in Falmouth. I could re-mortgage it. Might take a while, but it would be something,” he said.

Walker shook his head. “No way, mate. Dan, show us the bottom of the barrel. It can be a POS, but it better still fucking work.”

They left the man and the armory twenty grand poorer and armed with a few older AK-47s, three mags each, and some light body armor.

“What now?” Charles asked.

Walker shrugged. “Don’t know. But I feel fucked over.”

“Let’s go back to the bar. Dan said they recruited from there,” Booker suggested, his jaw tight and shoulders set.

The bar was even emptier than when they’d been there earlier. They sat at a table, eating pub mix and drinking water. Waiting, even though they weren’t sure what for.

After about half an hour, the door to the bar opened and a woman with a buzzcut and a shadow in the shape of a giant walked in. She took her glasses off and inspected the few people in the bar with dark eyes.

“The Lampton Company is looking for a few men to run a job for us,” she announced, her accent giving her away as Israeli.

“I thought this was the French camp.  The bus driver told us the Israeli camp was another couple of klicks up the road,” Walker whispered to Charles.

“Same sector, though.  Maybe they work together?”

Booker motioned to the other two, stood, and approached her. No one else in the bar paid attention.

“We’re available, ma’am,” he said. Walker and Charles stood slightly behind him.

She looked them all over, her gaze lingering longer on Charles. “And who are you?”

“Charles Tillman, former lance corporal in the U.S. Marines,” he said.

“And the other two?” she asked, still looking at him. She only shifted her gaze when Booker introduced himself.

“Eustace Percival Coddington, ma’am. Former SAS colour sergeant.”

“SAS, huh? Impressive.”

The man she’d brought with her grunted and rolled his eyes. “You know WO1 Wentz?”

Booker nodded.

“I used to drink Guinness with the man. Good guy, Wentz,” the man said.

Booker narrowed his eyes. “Must be a different WO1 Wentz. Bomber was sober.”

The woman looked from Booker to the muscle. He grunted, and she seemed satisfied.

“ʼScuse me, ma’am. But what exactly is the Lampton Company?” Walker asked.

She quirked an eyebrow. “Fresh meat? Very well. The Lampton Company is one of the original keepers of the Zoo. The exact details are unimportant. I’m Shira, recruiter and your point of contact. If you are willing to perform this job, that is.”

The three looked at one another and shrugged. “What is it?”

“We need a team for an extraction. It’s not too deep of a job and you won’t be far from the gate, so you won’t have to worry about that your first time around. The job would be fifty each. Half now, half upon completion of the mission.”

“What’s the—” Charles started before Booker pushed him out of the way and said, “We’re your men.” He thrust his hand out to shake before Shira could change her mind.

“You’ll be briefed further in the morning. Meet here at zero four-thirty,” she said, then turned to leave.

“We don’t have much in the way of a kit,” the Brit told the muscle before he could follow Shira out of the bar.

He grunted and rolled his eyes. “You can get it from us this first mission. See you bright and early, gentlemen,” he said, baring his teeth in an expression that was more snarl than smile.

“What an ugly lapdog,” Walker grumbled to the man’s retreating back. He didn’t get a reaction from him.

The three looked at each other. “That could’ve been worse,” Booker hedged.

“Could’ve been better. We don’t even know what we’re doing,” Charles grumbled.

“Ah, don’t get your panties in a twist, Yankee, you’ll give people the impression that you’ve lost your bollocks,” Walker said, clapping Charles on the shoulder. “You getting scared now? Thought the Marines were tougher than that.”

Booker rolled his eyes and Charles glared.

The American punched Walker on the arm, making him wince. “Oorah, jerk.”

_____

Are you looking forward to Friday just as much I am? I think this is going to be fantastic! I can’t wait to see how these 3 do in the Zoo! Hahaha

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