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John Cutter


Copyright © John Cutter 2021

This edition published in 2021 by Lume Books

30 Great Guildford Street,

Borough, SE1 0HS

The right of John Cutter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

Table of Contents























When Vince Bellator first heard the rattle of gunfire, he figured it was hunters. Out of an old combat reflex, he assessed the source, making it about a quarter mile southeast. It was early October, a sweet-smelling dusk in Southern Appalachia, and Vince figured he was hearing a sample of the local deer-hunting season.

Wearing a brown leather WW2 vintage pilot’s jacket, a green army t-shirt and hiking boots, Vince had started the hike in the Blue Ridge mountains a few days before. He’d worked his way down into northern Alabama, camped in Cheaha State Park in Alabama last night. But this morning he’d trekked out of the state park, onto the big federal forest reserve, and he’d done it on purpose. Vince wanted solitude.

Vince was thirty-three years old, in good shape, having no trouble with the full backpack and no fear of the wilderness. An Army Ranger and Delta Force operative till three years ago, he’d always aced wilderness training.

A few more gunshots sounded. No problem, easy enough to avoid the hunters. But then he heard quite another gun — this time the unmistakable rattle of machine gunfire. He knew from the sound it was a Browning M2 — a classic weapon. If they were using that for elk hunting, there wouldn’t be much left of the animal.

He heard the machine gun rattle again and decided it wasn’t hunters after all. Could be automatic-weapon enthusiasts, maybe moneyed wannabes selling access to a machine gun. Gun-fun, under the radar. They were chewing up some target, likely a tree stump, with fairly expensive rounds. After a minute, a breeze from that direction brought him the distinctive smell of the .50 caliber ammo. He smelled something else that surprised him. Tracer ammo had a particular odor of its own. Why were these guys using tracer bullets? It was dusk, not night, and the bright tracer streaks wouldn’t shine out.

Vince’s route would take him fairly close to the firing range. He was heading through the Talladega National Forest, on his way to a lonely place outside the preserve; a spot called Dead Springs, where he expected to find no one at all — nothing but an empty cabin. It was a place that a comrade-in-arms had asked him to visit, to ‘take care of a little job for me’. And in fact, Chris Destry had been dying in Vince’s arms when he asked him to bury a certain something at the cabin.

Striding along the scant trail, his boots crackling in the first layer of fallen leaves, Vince heard another long strafe of gunfire, a little closer now. He shrugged; he could skirt away from the gunners, whoever they were, when he got a little closer. He’d still find the cabin. He had a reliable sense of direction.

Another four hundred yards along the ridgetop, as the shadows of the oaks and longleaf pines stretched out to crisscross the thin trail, Vince began to hear the faint sounds of men’s voices. The gun enthusiasts. Too far to hear what they were saying.

A glimmer caught his attention, high in a pine tree nearby. He made out a lens up there, flashing in the failing light from the west. A camera. Was that some kind of wildlife observation cam? Or something else?

He was aware that he was not here legally; he’d soon be crossing into private land belonging to Chris’s family to go to the cabin, but right now he was still in a National Forest preserve. Not supposed to just wander around here without permission, though that was just what he was doing. Too bad the camera had caught him there. No big deal; if he ran into a forest ranger of some kind, he’d pay a fine and move on.

It was about time to leave the trail, anyway, circle off to the northwest to avoid the gun range. He looked for a good place to cut into the woods — then became aware that someone was coming up the slope toward him, off to the right. He could hear them pushing clumsily through underbrush, grunting with effort. Sounded like three men.

He thought about ducking into the underbrush to avoid them. But he was still on National Forest land. These guys didn’t sound like rangers. Nor was this their private property — they didn’t own the land any more than he did. Did they even have permission to put up those cameras?

Better have a look at them. He instinctively wanted to know who was in the area. These guys were within a couple miles of Dead Springs, which was where he planned to spend the night.

Vince shrugged out of his backpack and leaned it against a pine trunk. Best to be unencumbered when encountering strangers in a remote area.

He waited, and then the three men came puffing up onto the trail and came to a stop about twenty feet away, staring at him. They were all wearing paramilitary garb — and they all carried AR-15 rifles.

“Well there he is,” said the shorter of the three men, “big as life.” He wore a paramilitary cap, half covering his short blond hair.

“He’s a big dude,

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