Gray knew the only hope for the villagers was for his team to flee, to draw off the hunters. They had to make their escape before the village was secured.
He stretched an arm back to Rosauro. “Keys.”
They were slapped into his hand, but Rosauro had more bad news. “Kowalski. Elizabeth. They’re not here.”
Gray glanced back. In the mad rush through the twisted alleys, he’d failed to notice. “Find them,” he ordered Rosauro. “Now.”
She nodded and dashed away.
Gray stared hard at Luca. “Guard the professor. Stay out of sight.”
The Gypsy nodded. Two daggers glinted in his fingers.
Gray could wait no longer.
Crouching low, he ran out of hiding and into the open.
Elizabeth fled with Kowalski down a crooked alley. A sewage trench lined one side, reeking and foul.
“Follow that,” she urged. “It has to lead out of here.”
Kowalski nodded and took the next corner. He had a pistol clenched in a meaty paw. She kept to his shoulder.
“Do you have another gun?” she asked.
“Skeet. In college.”
“Not much difference. Targets just scream a bit more.”
He reached under his jacket to the small of his back and slipped out a small blue steel Beretta and passed it blindly back to her.
Her fingers tightened hard on the grip, drawing strength from the cold steel.
They set off. The alleyway was deserted, but gunfire spat from the outskirts as villagers defended their homes and lives.
One of the helicopters swept low overhead. The wash from its rotors scattered leaves and bits of garbage. They ducked out of sight into a mud hut. Elizabeth caught a glimpse of children huddled behind a low cot.
After the helicopter flew past, Kowalski tugged her toward the door—but then piled back into her. A soldier in black dashed past the opening. The war must be moving into the village proper. Kowalski peeked out, waved for her, then led her back outside.
“We’ll strike for the hills,” he said.
They zigzagged through two more turns and reached a straight shot toward open hills. Bodies lay on the street ahead, blood sluicing into the sewage drain. At least one of them wore black camouflage. Kowalski kept close to one wall and hurried forward. He led with his pistol up.
A spat of automatic fire chattered beyond the village.
How would they get past that?
Kowalski paused at the soldier’s dead body. He tugged off the man’s helmet.
Maybe a disguise, Elizabeth thought. Not bad thinking.
But as Kowalski yanked, the soldier’s head came off with the helmet. Shocked and horrified, he fell back into her. Tangled, they both stumbled to the ground.
A dark shadow appeared behind them.
She raised her pistol and shot wildly. The rounds cracked stones and ricocheted, missing the target but driving him back around the corner. Kowalski’s weapon blasted behind her, sounding like a cannon in the narrow alley. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw two more soldiers at the end of the street.
They were pinned down and outgunned.
Gray ducked out of the alley and into the open. He dove under the bullock cart that still stood by the pyres of burning garbage. Sliding on his stomach, he edged even with one of the fires. Shielded by the cart, he reached out to the edge of the bonfire. If the gunshots and helicopters didn’t spook the ox from its post, then Gray would have to light a fire under its tail.
Snatching up a chunk of burning tire from the pyre’s edge, Gray flipped it into the oily pile of refuse still stacked atop the cart. It didn’t take long for the flames to catch and spread. With a burning branch in his other hand, he crawled fully under the cart and goosed the ox in the hind end.
It roared a loud bellow and kicked back at him, knocking the cart a good blow. Gray snatched the front board of the wagon as the ox took off, lowing angrily. It shot straight for the hills, dragging the cart, leaving behind a trail of flaming garbage.
Bumped and jarred underneath the cart, Gray kept a hard clamp on the front board and made sure to stay clear of the heavy wheels. The ox and cart reached the hills and bounced across a runoff ditch.
Gray let go and sank into the watery mud and muck.
The cart continued off into the hills, a fiery meteor sailing to points unknown. Gray hoped any eyes in the sky would keep watching that flaming trajectory.
In the dark, Gray swam and pushed along the muddy ditch as it circled the village. He reached the far side of the Mercedes and waited for the nearest helicopter to drift farther away—then lurched out of the gully and ran low to the ground, keeping the SUV between him and the village.
He’d have to get inside the vehicle quickly. The SUV’s dome light would illuminate when he opened the door. Keys in hand, he took a deep breath.
He could wait no longer.
Pinned in the alleyway with soldiers at both ends, Elizabeth searched for an escape. She found one. An open window. A step away.
She nudged Kowalski and pointed.
“Go!” he growled.
She dove through the opening. Cradling her pistol, she landed in a rough tumble. The room was empty, just a dirt floor. Kowalski came barreling in after her. She barely got out of the way in time. Gunfire strafed at his heels. Boots pounded toward them from both directions.
“Door,” she called.
On the opposite side from the window, a low archway led into another alley. Together they fled outside—
—and right into a clutch of another four soldiers.
With surprise on all sides, they scrambled with weapons. But before a shot could be fired, flashes of flailing steel rained down upon the soldiers. Elizabeth and Kowalski backed together. One man pointed his pistol out at the attackers, but steel snapped and sliced his hand from his arm. Another fell to his knees, his throat slashed open.
In a heartbeat, all four men lay dead, torn apart.
Their rescuers were three men.
Abe and two of the villagers.
Their weapons were unique to the country. Urumi. The infamous whip-swords of India. Each sword was a flail of four flexible blades, each an inch wide and five feet long—yet so thin that the steel coiled like a whip. Elizabeth’s father had shown her demonstrations of the fighting known as Kalaripayattu. With a flick of the wrist, the blades unfurled and cleaved flesh with more force than any standard sword.
“Come!” Abe said. “Your friends are this way.”
He led them back into the village. They followed a circuitous path both around and through village homes and huts. Abe lashed out with the sword occasionally, striking even around corners to blind and maim. Then he’d jump out to finish the job with his men.
Kowalski’s eyes gleamed in the darkness as he watched the slaughter. “With a weapon like that, no wonder they’re called untouchable. I have to get me one of those.”
Coming around another corner, Abe slashed out—then jerked his arm back with a glint of thrashing steel. A cry of surprise sounded from around the corner.
“So sorry,” Abe said.
Rosauro appeared. She held a hand across her cheek. Blood seeped from under her fingers. But her eyes widened when she saw who accompanied the swordsman.
“Thank God I found you,” she said. “Hurry!”
As a group, they fled after her.
After a flurry of confusing turns, a familiar pair of fires glowed at the end of an alley. Crouched between two mud huts, Luca waved to them. Elizabeth spotted the professor, huddled deeper in the shadows.
Where was Gray?
As answer, a heavy engine roared to life beyond the village.
“Get ready!” Rosauro growled at them, blood running down her face.
Ready for what?
Gray shifted into drive and floored the gas pedal. All four tires catapulted him forward. The SUV lunged as one of the rear-side windows splintered. He shot past the twin garbage fires.
A helicopter swooped into view ahead. It had no mounted gun, but it did have someone hanging from its side door with a machine gun.
Gray pounded the brakes. Bullets strafed through the mud just past his front bumper. He threw the truck into reverse, hit the gas, and hightailed it backward with the strength of five hundred horses.
Yanking the wheel, he whipped around his back end, lifting up on two wheels. Landing on four tires, he shot back toward the alley and hit the rear hatch release. A warning light flashed on the dash as the back hatch swung open on hydraulic hinges. He crashed between the two fires, scattering flaming garbage.
He braked to a stop, nearly striking Rosauro in the thighs as she rushed at him with the others. They clambered and dove into the back cabin. People fell in a tangle in the middle row, making room. He spotted a familiar shaved bulldog’s head. They’d found Kowalski.
And Elizabeth, too.
Presently crushed under the large man.
Rosauro called from the rear, “Go!”
Gray kicked the gas and punched the hatch release to close the door.
Ahead, two helicopters aimed toward him from opposite directions. Twin lines of bullets chewed through the mud.
Gray swerved, juking one way, then the other.
The helicopters matched his moves.
A torrent of fresh gunfire erupted from the village behind him—aimed at the birds in the sky. The barrage was impressive, even laced with fiery tracer rounds. A few of the villagers must have confiscated some of the assault team’s automatic weapons.
One of the snipers in the helicopter fell from his perch. Its searchlight shattered and went dark.
The other bird veered. Gray ducked past its hail of fire and reached the hills. He kept the gas floored. With his headlights off, he followed the path of the bullock cart, hoping whatever path the ox took would be passable with the four-wheel drive.
He shot away from the bright fires of the village and out into the rolling darkness. Two helicopters followed, chasing them with searchlights. The third lowered at the edge of the village, dropping lines to the ground, collecting stray men.
Rosauro leaned forward. “They’re Russians!”
“I think so,” she explained. “The commandos were carrying AN-94s.”