The boy's outline danced across the razor-thin crosshairs of a spotting scope. Trying to follow its exuberant path caused the hidden watcher to grit his teeth in frustration. Even the finest military-grade optics could not keep his lens focused on the youngster's manic figure. The child would not quit leaping out of view, veering away, seized by peals of laughter.
The excitement was understandable. It was, after all, Robby Cahill's sixth birthday party.
At last, the boy paused to catch his breath. Just as quickly the intruder took advantage of the interval to reacquire the young body in his sights and bore in on his tousled head. He lingered over those eyes, glowing green in the sunlight. Cheeks ruddy as an apple. Sandy hair swaying in a leaf-scented breeze.
Good, he thought. Almost within range.
The intruder's stealth grew more pronounced with every passing second. The closer he crawled beneath layers of concealing leaves and shrubbery, the more he worried about early detection—an inadvertent reflection from the scope, a stray glint of light which could instantly give him away.
The man wouldn't let that happen. He was too good for that. Too experienced.
And today the stakes were too high.
Neither Robby nor his mother, Donna, could see the man, but they each suspected, in their own silent ways, that he might be near. Only brief, sidelong glances betrayed their suspicions. And yet they had no idea he'd already made it so close to their location, inching toward them through the underbrush.
The very potential of his presence had brought the police cruiser there, idling beside the curb in the shade of Armstrong Park's vast hundred-year-old magnolia tree. It was the reason for the drawn, tight mouth of the boy's mother. And for the unusually terse nature of her comments to the other boys' mothers. Donna Cahill was taking no chances.
At that moment, the intruder was in fact less than one hundred twenty yards away from the birthday party, slithering through a cluster of pungent rosemary bushes under an improvised mat of native twigs and leaves. He wore camouflage perfectly suited to the ground cover, selected on several reconnoitering trips the week before. His face and lips were covered in carefully applied swirls of camo paint. Even his army boots were smeared with dark polish to prevent any shine and to blend into the terrain.
The man was so well concealed that the boy might have stepped on his back without ever seeing him, without even a second's awareness that anyone was underfoot.
The factors capable of betraying his presence ticked through his mind in a cascade of crucial data. Time, brightness, temperature, wind, sun position—each contributed to the play of light upon him. He had chosen the shadow of these bushes for the angle and blending of illumination they would provide at this time of day. His mind continually monitored the exact position of both key persons—Robby and Donna—to make sure he did not move while they were facing his way. Fortunately, there were no dogs about; one of the worst threats to a well-hidden asset. He had nothing left but unobstructed brush to traverse before reaching the perfect position.
He kept the mother firmly planted in his peripheral vision. She ranked first on his list of vigilant, even paranoid, observers of whom to beware. He knew she would be looking for him. He also knew that she remembered what kinds of areas to watch. Indeed, the woman knew more than most folks did about sniper stealth tactics. Fortunately for him, she had been eyeballing the trees all morning rather than the ground, distracted by her knowledge that most people rarely looked upward, and that as a result leafy canopies made the ideal approach route.
Luckily for him, she now seemed engrossed in chatting with the other mothers over by the picnic tables. Better still, her glances around the park had grown more and more sporadic. He reckoned that she might be, at last, entertaining the prospect that he might not be here after all. And yet, he could tell, she was also wrestling with a vague, emerging awareness of his presence.
He wriggled one more foot closer. The boy would be in range soon. He reached into a side pocket and extricated the tool he had chosen for the mission.
"Donna, you seem tense," said the mother of Robby's best friend. "Is everything okay?"
"Nothing unusual," replied the party's hostess with a quick world-weary grin. "Just a little tired."
"I was wondering about the police car," the mother persisted. "Are you sure there isn't anything we should be worrying about?"
"No!" she responded, a bit too emphatically. "There's nothing for you to worry about. It's, uh, just a new regulation . . . something about private parties on city property. Gotta pay for police protection."
"I didn't know that," said her friend. "It's just that you seem on edge today."
Donna Cahill looked down at the ungarnished hot-dog bun in her hands and sighed. "Nothing new. You know how parties are. No matter how well you think you've prepared, there's always something that goes wrong at the last minute."
"Don't I know it," the woman laughed.
Donna shook her head. "Good thing the kids are clueless about what we go through," she said, "or no one would have any fun at all."
Twenty yards away, little Robby Cahill was also looking around for signs. He had seen none, but then he'd been playing hard with his friends. Star Wars Jedi combat, laser tag, and even Transformers, stomping around the yard and growling as pretend robots.
But his gaze kept drifting back to the sidelines, scanning for a glimpse.
Suddenly the event he'd waited all morning for happened. His eyelashes flickered against a blinding assault, and he winced. A small flare of light glittered in his retinas, washing out his world. Robby knew right away what it was, and that it was too strong and steady to be an accidental reflection from a passing car. Robby shielded his eyes with an uplifted hand.
Then he jumped high in the air and squealed.
He started running toward the light. He giggled loudly, pumping his arms and stocky legs like a superhero.
Donna screamed and lunged for the boy. Her fingers grazed his waist but failed to capture him.
"Stop him!" she shouted in the direction of the police car. "It's him! It's him!"
The police car's engine switched off. The door flew open, and a young officer jumped out and sprinted across the grass, fingers fumbling with his gun holster.
Seventy yards away, the ground erupted in a flurry of upward motion. The bushes flung debris up and around a figure that rose from their midst. Leaves and branches flew about the standing man, who was clad in shades of green.
Running to catch up, Donna fell to her knees, transfixed at the bizarre sight. Her breathing stopped and her heart seemed to flutter to a halt in her chest. For a moment, the sight struck her as an apparition disgorged by the earth itself, like some gnarled creature of soil and root.
The man stood and extended his arms, hands empty to the sky.
Robby Cahill kept on running, his face contorted with emotion. His mouth opened and a shout ripped forth from his heaving lungs.