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The clock is ticking as Acme covert operatives Donna and Jack Craig and their mission team traverse the country to take down the embedded Russian spies and their turned assets, who are sabotaging the United State’s missile grid.
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How long is the arrow?
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EXCERPT Chapter 1
Grin and Bear It
It’s a jungle out there—
Beyond the comfort of the gracious home you’ve created for yourself and your loved ones.
Since there are no guarantees that those you meet beyond your picket fence will have been raised with grace, courage, and wit you embody, leave prepared for any emergency, including:
1: A first aid kit! Think your Fendi Baguette is complete with your favorite lipstick and embroidered hankies? Wrong! Burn cream, aspirin, an instant cold compress and various sizes of adhesive bandages and wound closure strips may not be as fashionable, but they may save a life.
2: Self-defense weapon. A pocketknife or Mace will fit easily into your purse. Even that travel-size Poo-Pouri will come in handy when sprayed in your assailant’s eye.
3: A quick getaway plan. Don’t count on your GPS to guide you—especially if enemy territory may be monitored for unauthorized intruders. In fact, best lose the phone on some unsuspecting pedestrian going in the opposite direction so that your detainers lose your trail. Instead, go old school and carry a map of the territory you’ve already memorized for the ideal escape route and rendezvous point with your rescue squad. And so that they can find you where X marks the spot, carry a flare gun.
(It will also help you make your point to any jerk who gets touchy-feely in an elevator.)
Hello Darkness, my old friend…
There is no moonlight tonight. Like Harry Potter’s invisible cloak, the inky night shrouds my daughter, Mary, and me from prying eyes.
Not that any are about. We’re in the last few days of our two-week mother-daughter getaway, deep in the seven-hundred-acre Cleveland National Forest, which is four hours south and east of our home in Hilldale, California, and a good twelve miles from the nearest town: Mesa Grande.
In a thicket of pines next to a small lake fed by several creeks still flowing in late May from snow runoff, for the past hour, we’ve been kneeling in front of a fallen tree sheared of its branches. Night vision goggles allow us to scan its banks for Mary’s prey: deer, which she must kill with a compound bow.
From the side of her mouth, Mary hisses: “Of all the things I’ve done these past couple of weeks, who knew my last assignment would be killing Bambi!”
“The deer population in this park has exploded, so don’t feel guilty. Because this trip is to give you a reality check on whether you really want to get into the family business—diplomatic intelligence—I took advantage of it being deer season and secured a hunting license and two deer tags for you. The timing couldn’t be more perfect since you’ll be gone the rest of the summer.”
Mary snickers. “I got to the point I was hitting bullseyes in target practice. And besides, there are very few deer inside of embassies.”
“But there are a hell of a lot of assassins. So, as you learned in Girl Scouts, be prepared. In this case, that means knowing how to exterminate based on the situation and the weapon at your disposal.” I tap the bow in her hands. “Tell you what: if your first kill shot is clean, we’ll forego the second kill. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” She sighs. “Well, I guess it’s better than using a rifle. Or my Sig Saur.”
I shake my head. “Way too easy. Hey, you’re lucky I don’t want you to stun it or trap it, and then cut its throat. Or worse yet, blow it to bits with a land mine.”
“You know, any other mom would have taken her daughter for a spa weekend,” she mutters.
“All the more reason you’ve impressed me by sticking it out. You’ve learned vital survival skills in the wild. Not one task I’ve thrown at you has phased you. And don’t forget: you beat me twice at hand-to-hand combat.”
“After being bested by you, what, the first one hundred times?” Mary reminds me.
“And you can now live off the land,” I point out. “You’ve even improved on my rabbit stew! Not to mention you’ve identified seven deadly poisons and now know how to use them effectively.”
“I still have nightmares about killing those rats,” she counters.
“Next time we won’t secure our tent against them. Let’s see how you feel about the critters then. As for other new skills in your intelligence repertoire, you can now tap out Morse code—”
“In my sleep, apparently,” Mary grouses. “Sorry I woke you those first few nights.”
“No problem, honey,” I assure her. “Though the message was a bit perplexing—something about waterboarding me…which brings up another of your wonderful new skills! You can hold your breath for almost three minutes under water.”
“That’s only because you threaten to hold my head beneath the surface if I didn’t reach two and a half minutes.” Mary rolls her eyes.
“Persistence, darling, is the key to success.” I’m joking, but she isn’t laughing. I shrug. “Hey, the Golden Door is just an hour or two away. If you say, ‘let’s go,’ no harm, no foul. But since you insist this is a life you want, you can’t be afraid to defend yourself, even if it means killing, even if you presume the target to be non-threatening.”
“To be honest, learning to rappel up the cliff had me thinking twice about choosing this over lifeguarding at the Hilldale Country Club pool.”
I snicker at that—
Only to have Mary put her hand over my mouth. She shifts her gaze to the muddy banks of the lake, where a ten-point Columbian black-tailed buck now stands, still and silent, not fifty yards from us. His nose raised, it quivers as he sniffs the air. A moment later, he’s grazing.
Feeling my slight nod, Mary eases her palm away from me and onto the bow she holds in her other hand. She’s using a 70-weight medium cam Punisher with a 25-inch arrow. I watch as she stares into her range finder, calculating the distance between her and her prey. After adjusting the bow’s eccentricities for maximum extension. The broadhead positioned, her slight nod informs me that, though it is about 350 feet from us, the deer is positioned perfectly for a kill shot: the lower third of its chest cavity, unobstructed, can be seen diagonally from her point of view.
The arrow’s hiss is no more than a whisper. And yet, the buck, attuned to it, looks up just at that moment. Even so, he can’t move quickly enough before the sharp metal tip of the arrow pierces him. With a grunt and a thud, he flops to the ground.
As she rises, Mary sighs, “I know, I know. I’ve got to carry it out of here to our campsite, then cut it up for meat. Yuck! I’m seriously considering veganism.” She hands me her bow, then takes off her goggles before ambling toward the buck. When she reaches it, she crouches down and grabs zip ties from her back pocket—
Totally forgetting one of my rock-solid rules: surveil the area first.
This is why she doesn’t see the brown bear and two cubs swimming up to shore. They were in search of a fish dinner, then realized a feast awaits them.
The cubs are too enthralled by the smell of the meat to notice Mary, but Mama sees her. Fearing for her cub she thrashes her way through the marshes—
Mary looks up, frozen in fear.
I’m now running fast and tall, hands over my head, bellowing blasphemies toward my not-so-young-one; my flesh and blood—
Before she can be beaten bloody.
Mary follows my lead, rising tall, and shouting guttural curses as if possessed. And unlike me, she has the wherewithal to pull out her canister of bear spray from her back holster.
One sniff has a baby bear running off into the woods. Mama snarls and grunts, but she and his twin follow after him.
Mary collapses against a tree. “Wow, Mom! She—she would have killed me!”
“Only if you'd harmed her cub,” I assure her. “If you’d immediately stood up, snared then backed off slowly, I think the dead dear would have distracted them. They’re after food. They don’t mind foraging some other animal’s carrion.” Noting her perplexed frown, I add, “another animal’s leftovers —by that, I mean us and our kill.”
“Then let’s leave it for them. I’m not into venison anyway.” Mary is shivering. This up-close-and-personal look at Mother Nature has left her shaken.
“Agreed. They’d appreciate it more than us anyway. They’re too skinny for this time of year.”
Mary lets loose with a relieved sigh. She picks up her bow and quiver and follows me back toward our camp. “Are bears being hunted now too?” she asks.
“Not until August. Only seventeen hundred are allowed to be killed, and only one per hunter.” I don’t want to add that had it been a black bear—even more common now in these parts—the grow-and-scream ploy would not have worked. Granted, I could have lit a branch on fire and swatted him away while Mary made her getaway, then prayed he’d be more interested in the buck than in chasing us.
We’re just a few yards away when we hear gunfire coming from behind us. In unison, we stop in our tracks and stare at each other.
“I thought you said it wasn’t bear season,” Mary says.
“It’s not,” I insist.
“Do you think it was another hunter killing a deer?”
“Only bows allowed,” I remind her.
We hear a noise coming our way through the thicket: as if something is being dragged. A moment later, a man—wearing camo head to toe—comes into view. Before he glances our way, I duck beneath a fallen tree, but I can watch him through its branches.
Mary isn’t so quick. She’s staring at his catch: a lifeless bloodied cub.
He sees her too with his night vision goggles and raises his rifle at her: a Franchi Momentum Elite. “What the hell are you doing out here, girl?”
“I…” Mary doesn’t know what to say.
He cocks the gun. “Now, very slowly, drop that bow and your arrows.”
Mary nods. She doesn’t look down at me but keeps her eyes on him as she flings the bow away, and then the quiver—
So that they’re within my reach. But when the quiver hit the ground, the arrows tumbled out—
All are beyond my reach except for one.
And one is all I need.
Camo Guy clicks his tongue as if he’s truly regretful. “You sure are a beauty. But, hey, you saw something you weren’t supposed to, so...”
I’m crawling now, very slowly, inch by inch, toward the closest arrow.
“I…I won’t tell,” Mary vows.
I’ve got the arrow and am sliding it toward me. But because it’s in my left hand, I’ll have to shift the arrow to the right one and the bow to the left.
Camo Guy chuckles at Mary’s offer. “Well, now, considering I can do hard time for snagging this little fellow, I just can’t take that chance.”
“Can I at least say a prayer?” Mary’s voice is trembling, and yet she’s doing the right thing: stalling.
Camo Guy sighs. “Jeez! … Oh, alright already. But make it quick.”
His eyes are on Mary, which is why he doesn’t see me rising to one knee and sighting him.
“Thank you, sir.” Mary clasps her hands. As she raises them to her chest, I draw—
Only to see my arrow whiz by him.
“What the…” Angrily, Camo Guy swings the gun in my direction, sights me, then—
(c) 2022 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.