David Morrell: The naked edge

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David Morrell The naked edge
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    The naked edge
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David Morrell

The naked edge



The sniper had a partner. That was a given. To do the job properly, which meant not only making the hit but also escaping, the shooter needed eyes in the back of his head. All the time he sighted through the scope on his Remington.308 rifle, which he loved more than anything else in the world, he needed the freedom to concentrate only on the job at hand, an area of a few inches 700 yards away, and that meant he needed a spotter to concentrate on the objects around him: whether a threat was approaching from the side, whether a cloud was about to cast a shadow, whether something or someone was about to obscure the target. He needed a partner he could depend on, who shared his instincts, who knew what he was thinking. A lot of marriages weren't as close.

They hiked in from the neighboring valley, taking the most remote route through the roughest terrain so they wouldn't be noticed. Aerial photographs aligned with topographical maps showed the slopes that had the best cover while still providing a line of fire toward the target. Moving cautiously along the tree-capped ridges, they rejected two vantage points, chose the third, sank behind boulders, opened their backpacks, and assembled their equipment.


Telltales. In Cavanaugh's former line of work, noticing them had kept him alive. Runners-and-gunners tended to have identifying characteristics: baseball caps covering their military-style short hair, for example. The cropped hair wasn't a macho fetish. Rather, it was a hygienic necessity because they couldn't predict where they'd be assigned, possibly a desert, possibly a swamp. Contrary to the famous speech in Lawrence of Arabia about how clean the desert is, sand could be almost as insect-infested as a swamp, making long hair a likely nest.

Similarly, runners-and-gunners never wore loafers but instead had thick-soled, lace-up shoes that could serve as weapons and wouldn't fall off in a fight. They liked fanny packs and loose-fitting, casual clothes that gave them numerous places to hide weapons. They needed a thick belt to support the weight of a hidden pistol and ammunition magazines. They had an inconspicuous black metal clip over the outside of a pants pocket. The clip was attached to a folding knife that could be easily drawn and flicked open with the press of a thumb against a stud on the back of the blade. They were fond of "safari" vests, the kind with numerous pockets, ideal for hiding weapons. For the same reason, they liked pants that had extra pockets at the outside of the knees.

But attention to detail was itself a telltale. Most people stumbled through life in a state of profound inattention that noted handgun expert Jeff Cooper called Condition White. In contrast, Cavanaugh maintained a state of persistent alertness known as Condition Yellow. It was second nature to him. Whenever he left or entered a new space (a vehicle or a building, for instance), he always paused and scanned his new environment, assessing whether it presented threats. He was a connoisseur of mismatched details. If something didn't fit an expected pattern, internal alarms sounded. But it takes one to know one, and in a society of minimal consciousness, someone with Condition Yellow attention is so uncommon that he or she becomes a mismatched detail.

In the present case, the two men spotted Cavanaugh about the same time he spotted them. This was at an isolated gas station/convenience store twenty miles from Cavanaugh's ranch. The place had a log-cabin style that was popular in Wyoming's Jackson Hole valley. As he'd driven north from doing errands in Jackson (the names of the town and the valley were often confused), he'd noticed that the fuel gauge on his Taurus was below halfway. In the remote area where he lived, he never allowed it to get any lower, so he steered from Route 89 and headed along the sagebrush-flanked road toward the pumps. It took him only a moment to notice the two men watching him.

They stood across from him, in front of the convenience store. They were in their late twenties, not tall, not short, not thin, not heavy. Both wore baseball caps. They had hiking boots, camping pants, sturdy belts, safari vests, fanny packs, and knife clips overlapping their pants pockets. In glorious aspen-yellow October, in the camping paradise of Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, none of those potentially suspicious details was unusual. No mismatch. Except for the alertness in their eyes.

Strong-looking without being conspicuously muscled, the two men gave Cavanaugh a thorough once-over: his cowboy boots, his jeans, thick belt, and unbuttoned shirt hanging loose over a blue T-shirt. They checked to see if he had the contour of a knife in a pants pocket (he didn't, but he did have a sheathed fixed-blade under his shirt on his left side, next to a spare ammunition magazine). On his right side, also concealed by his shirt, was his SIG Sauer 229 pistol, chosen because that nine millimeter's compact design made it an effective concealed-carry weapon.

Cavanaugh avoided eye contact when he walked past the men and entered the convenience store. He paid for the gas and returned to the pump. Every motion became a study in casualness. He put the nozzle into his car's fuel tank. He squeezed the lever and pretended to enjoy the autumn sun's warmth. He glanced behind him toward the breathtakingly close Tetons, the towering peaks of which would soon be covered with snow. In the old days, the tallest of the cone-shaped mountains made winter-bound, female-starved trappers think of a woman's breasts, hence the range's name, which derived from the French word for teets. After an appropriate time admiring the mountains, Cavanaugh glanced over toward the convenience store.

Now the two men stood next to a dark van. The side door was open. One of them leaned in, rearranging camping equipment. The other man looked over at Cavanaugh and then away.

Could be off-duty cops on vacation, Cavanaugh thought.

Then he saw another set of Condition Yellow eyes, this time from a young man (late 20s, camping shoes, loose pants, thick belt, safari vest, knife clip, fanny pack, baseball cap) watching from next to a dark Ford Explorer. Not to be obvious, the man broke eye contact and walked over to a trashcan, depositing the wrapper from a candy bar. To the left, a similar-looking man glanced away from Cavanaugh, opened a cooler in the back of his SUV, took out a soft drink, opened it, sipped, and glanced again toward Cavanaugh.

Without being obvious, Cavanaugh noticed six other attentive men walking from cabins opposite the convenience store.

Or maybe this is a rendezvous area for a team of protectors, he wondered. Jackson Hole attracted an unusual amount of celebrities, financiers, and politicians. A former vice president of the United States had a home in the valley. This could be a security team checking the route along which a powerful client would be traveling.

Or maybe these guys are what a security team would be watching for.

None of my business. It hasn't been for five months.

As a few cars came and went, Cavanaugh finished putting fuel in the tank. Driving back to Route 89, continuing north through the sagebrush-dotted valley, ignoring the Snake River on his left, he glanced toward his rear-view mirror.

No one followed.


Even in Wyoming where SUVs and pickup trucks were king, Cavanaugh's Taurus was so commonplace that it didn't stand out. The ubiquitous model was a habit from his former life. On protective assignments, a Taurus tended to be invisible, especially if the client was extremely wealthy, with adversaries who couldn't imagine their target in anything except a luxury automobile. Plus, unlike an SUV, the Taurus wouldn't roll if Cavanaugh needed to perform a 180-degree turn or any other emergency tactic.

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