Copyright 2016 Sean Wilson
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are derived from either the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual person living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is entirely coincidental
The punch landed hard and fast on the side of his head, a wide swing from behind that was aimed at the sweet spot just below the right ear and intended to knock him clean out. He was expected to drop like a poleaxed steer but he’d turned his head an inch or two as he heard the movement behind him and the punch had narrowly missed its mark. It banged him hard on the bony edge at the back of his skull and though it dazed him, it wasn’t enough to stop him from turning fast on the ball of his right foot and shooting his left leg out behind him and delivering his booted heel into the guy’s groin with the force of a cannon ball. It was a wild kick, an instinctive reaction that brought his head and upper body out of harm’s way as he struck out and delivered a viciously effective heel stamp to whoever was standing behind him. His assailant had been preparing to grapple him to the floor when the heel strike had convincingly delivered the message to the guy’s unsuspecting nuts that the game was over. The attacker sank to his knees, gasping for breath, holding his severely distressed scrotum in his hands and blinded by the tears running down his face as the pain overwhelmed his senses.
Mike turned fast, fists cocked and ready to unload, balanced in a hunched fighting stance and primed to face anyone else who might be planning to visit evil intent upon his person. But there was no one else in the alley. His attacker had come alone. Probably a major mistake considering Mike’s reputation but a lot of guys suffered from the sin of over-confidence. Mike blamed those martial arts classes. Some guy teaches you some moves, you end up getting a coloured belt or a couple of competition cups and then you began to mistake those fancy choreographed moves in the dojo for something that worked in the real world. Big mistake. Mike had learned unarmed combat in Special Forces. That’s where you were taught to shoot the other guy. Hand to hand was the exception. Not the rule. No amount of kung fu was going to stop a high velocity hollow point when it was making its way to your head to ruin your day and mess up your parting. If you had to hit someone hard and put them down, no amount of formalised Jap slapping was going to pass the test. You needed something that didn’t obey the rules of etiquette.
Mike stepped forward and grabbed his assailant by the hair, jerking his head up and ready to put his toe cap wherever it might be useful if the guy needed any more persuasion to play nice.
‘Hey, jerkoff. You hearing me?’
The guy nodded as Mike tightened his grip on the knot of hair that was bunched in his fist.
‘You don’t have a lot of time so tell me right now – what’s this about?’
The guy was still finding it difficult to breathe and his was voice was choked and croaky.
Mike tightened his grip. ‘I can’t hear you. You need to speak up or things are going to get ugly round here and you might have to say goodbye to your nuts forever.’
The guy whimpered as Mike tapped him in his bruised and swollen nuts with his toe cap.
‘I’m running out of patience here.’
The guy coughed as the pain lanced through his body.
There were hot tears in his eyes now, furrows of pain creasing his face, fear in his eyes.
Danny? Now that was a surprise. There could only be one Danny. Had to be Danny Lubinsky the loan shark and he would’ve sent a couple of his regular guys, pros with a lot more experience than this dumb sap. And Mike certainly didn’t owe money to Danny Lubinsky.
He tapped his toe cap into the guy’s groin to make sure he had his full attention.
‘So you tried to jump me. Then what?’
‘Please. Don’t hurt me. Danny said we had to bring you to the docks,’
‘We?’ Mike’s toe cap tapped the guy’s balls again. ‘Who’s “we”?’
The guy was gasping, still struggling to breathe through the pain. ‘Me and a couple of buddies. They’re waiting round the corner in the car.’
‘So Danny told you to bounce me and drop me off at the docks?’
The guy made a small nod, his hair still firmly gripped in Mike’s fist.
‘Didn’t you think of asking me first?’
‘Danny said we had to grab you, you know? Rough you up a little. Put you to sleep. Get you to the docks.’ Yeah. Like a family pet being dropped off for a farewell visit to the vet’s.
‘OK. So now you’re going to give the address of the drop off.’
It was a warehouse, the kind of place where you probably wouldn’t throw a fancy social event or a surprise party with champagne and canapés. More like the kind of place where you’d interrogate someone with pliers and a blowtorch before dismembering the body and throwing the soggy remains into the black, oily waters at the end of the pier. And Danny Lubinsky had ordered this? Mike was intrigued and also quietly certain that Danny was going to be needing all of his private medical insurance after he’d finished talking with him.
‘OK, jerkoff. So how much did Danny pay you for this little night of excitement and adventure?’
The guy was wheezing after another nudge in the nuts from Mike’s shiny toe cap but he managed to breathe out the words ‘Five hundred each.’
Five hundred? That was just downright insulting. Five hundred bucks just added insult to injury.
‘OK, fuckwit. Stand up!’
Mike dragged the guy, protesting and unsteady, to his feet. He probably didn’t have much time before the guy’s buddies showed up, maybe armed with more than their obvious stupidity. Time to wrap this up. Mike took a half step back and swung his boot as hard and fast as he could into the guy’s groin. Something burst inside the guy’s shorts and the guy’s eyes rolled up inside his head as he collapsed onto the damp tarmac in the dark alleyway. One down and unlikely to be out on the jogging circuit anytime in the next six months. If he recovered from the surgery.
There was a light rain and Mike knew that meeting informants in dark alleys wasn’t the way you were supposed to conduct the business of gathering intelligence. But sometimes you had to ignore the rules and meet up with scared individuals in dark, crazy places where they weren’t likely to be seen. It had seemed like a solid tip. A useful lead. And now he was holding his breath as he glimpsed round the corner of the alleyway and spotted the car, glistening in the rain, windscreen partially obscured by an oily film of water. Two guys up front. Mike had obviously been destined for the economy, no frills ride in the trunk.
He breathed slowly as he slipped a telescopic steel baton out of the holder on the side of his belt. In one fluid movement, he sprang forward towards the car, one snap of his wrist uncoiling and locking the baton and with a wide swing of his arm, he slammed the steel tip of the rod through the shattering explosion of the passenger side window and into the head of the guy on the other side of the door. The guy had been too shocked to react, blasted with shards of broken glass and hammered solidly on the side of his head, his body whiplashing over into the driver. Before the driver could react, Mike’s elbow had cocked back in a flash before driving the steel rod’s hardened tip forwards and through the gap in the shattered window, lancing past the cut and unconscious passenger and into the driver’s temple. It was all over in a heartbeat. Mike stepped back, breathing deeply, striding round to the driver’s door and checking the area for other unfriendlies or witnesses. There was no one else. He opened the car door and dragged the driver out onto the wet tarmac. Big guy. Muscles but carrying some fat too. Pure amateur. Mike patted the guy down, took out everything he found and crammed the items into his jacket pocket. Left the idiot on the deck where he belonged.
He repeated the quick pat down with the passenger. No weapons. Just calloused knuckles from hitting a defenceless gym bag. They must’ve forgotten to tell him that gym bags don’t hit back. He was planning to know everything there was to know about these guys but right now he had an appointment at the docks. He brushed the shards of broken glass from the driver’s seat, climbed in and started the engine. Thought seriously for about a second and a half about reversing the car over the legs of his would-be assailants but they were out cold, lying on the wet pavement in an unsavoury part of town and he had their cell phones in his pocket. If one of the local drug gangs just happened to find them – which could easily happen within the next couple of minutes – they’d most likely be hauled off to a damp cellar, stripped naked and tied down whilst most of the neighbourhood took turns to play a rousing game of San Quentin Shower Time. And the game would focus repeatedly on those pale and puckered Caucasian butts. Somehow, it seemed entirely fitting and, for reasons that the Company shrink would fully understand, Mike found the thought highly amusing. He gunned the engine, a swirl of raindrops patterning the seat beside him, and drove off into the night.
The DIA was recruiting experienced soldiers and operatives on an unprecedented scale. Money was flowing, contacts were being signed and the Direct Intelligence Agency was stamping its mark on most of the world’s trouble spots. Their offices in Cyprus were heavily guarded and wired directly into most of the world’s intelligence agencies. Their funding was drawn primarily from the United States’ massive military budget. Governments that wanted to avail themselves of the Agency’s discrete range of services had to be more creative than simply offering suitcases full of cash and the occasional truckload of high-grade cocaine. They had to be prepared to offer unlimited access to their domestic intelligence services and allow the kind of clandestine co-operations on their territory that would undoubtedly cause howls of public outrage – if they happened to suffer the nuisance of a free press.
Although many of the Private Military Contractors could lay claim to some form of military training, not all of them were seasoned combat soldiers. The troubled areas of the Middle East needed experienced troops who could help to restore something that resembled peace and order. But there were never enough experienced troops on hand to get the job done. In fact, it was widely acknowledged that not all PMCs were really up to the job. In the early days, the lure of tax-free Dollars and very few rules had persuaded barrack-loads of rear echelon supply clerks to offer their services as private contractors. All you had to show were a couple of year’s service and a few weeks training as a bodyguard and you were in. There were snorts of derision when the fabled blanket and bean counters reacted poorly under fire. The DIA had learned the hard way that it had to pay big bucks to attract and recruit the right kind of guys. So it was prepared to pay a premium for the kind of mind-set that only develops in the crucible of frequent combat and fire fights. They needed people who reacted automatically when the situation got noisy and it made a firm decision to enlist operatives and mercenaries who weren’t afraid of loud noises. That shift in recruitment policy raised the average standard of the guys who showed up for interview and gave the DIA access to the kind of highly-trained soldiers who could make a major difference on the ground in all theatres of engagement. It soon became obvious that the PMCs frequently knew a lot more about combat than the officers who’d been tasked with leading patrols. The older guys, not always attired in conventional military uniform, would keep clear of the command and communication vehicles – the first and obvious targets for IEDs and ambushes. They were known for their finely tuned instincts and could often sense a problem before the bad guys punched the trigger and fired off an RPG or a roadside explosion. They had the kind of well-honed tactical appreciation for terrain that more senior officers often lacked. Eyes on the lookout and boots on the ground were still a major contribution to military campaigning. Cornering hostiles in a mud brick compound and ordering up a 500kg bomb drop still required highly trained individuals who knew how to get the job done and still live to enjoy a shower and a cold brew in the evening. They weren’t always popular with the regular troops. They weren’t part of the unit’s traditions. They dressed differently and were often accused of arrogance. There was more than a hint of jealousy. The PMCs were being paid a lot of money and they weren’t dumb enough to take risks for the sake of a medal or a unit citation. They were there to find and kill the enemy, to take prisoners, gather intelligence and add the weight of their experience to any operation’s combat efficiency. And sometimes they were tasked with more unorthodox missions. The DIA had proved itself especially useful at running black ops.
Mike Ducane hadn’t applied to join the DIA. They’d approached him directly the month he was due to complete his last tour with Special Forces. Suddenly he was faced with the prospect of doing the same kind of work but for a lot more money plus the kind of operational freedom that would probably make his life a lot easier. His Commanding Officer had actually encouraged him to join. It was another way to serve his country and the CO had hinted that he would be taking up a senior position in the upper echelons of the DIA within the year. In other words, with a lazy wink of the eye and a slow nod, the CO made it abundantly clear that he would still be Mike’s boss. And Special Forces people always took care of their own. Mike would be in good hands.
The interview with the resident DIA shrink had taken place in an anonymous Agency office in Maryland and, if Mike had been applying for any other kind of a job, the psychiatrist would’ve been frantically punching the secret alarm button underneath his shiny desktop and summoning a team of burly assistants and a sturdy strait jacket. It wasn’t simply a question of whether Mike possessed the psychological strength to handle the pressures of his work. He most certainly did. The problem was that he thrived under the stress. He excelled in crisis situations. It was one of the reasons that he sought out the dangerous conditions that most normal human beings would strenuously avoid. And then, the shrink had to admit that the Special Forces files were absolutely correct in their assessments, it was obvious that Mike Ducane actually enjoyed what he did. Out in the field of combat, that was probably a very positive advantage that would preserve his private version of sanity. Back in the real world of mortgages, wives, house plants, children and a nine to five existence, it was probably a recipe for disaster. Mike Ducane would always need a legitimate outlet for his talents. One assessment suggested that he might make a successful career on Wall Street. It also added the cryptic comment that it would provide the ideal place for Mike to make a killing.
Rain beat down harder on the windshield and swept in through the smashed passenger window, pooling on the leather seat and ruining the upholstery. Mike smiled. He was concentrating on the wet road as he drove but thinking about his would-be assailants. Their hides were probably also being ruined – by a sweating line of whooping, drugged-up, tattooed and gold-toothed gang bangers. Christmas had come early in Gangland. Someone might even put the pictures out on the Internet.
He’d called in the situation and given the names of his attackers, mentioned Danny Lubinsky and confirmed that he was on his way to scope out the dockside warehouse where he was supposed to have been delivered. He felt the comforting pressure of his SIG 226 pistol against the back of his right hip. This was the US. If he’d drawn his weapon and started blasting away at his assailants, the paperwork would’ve buried him for a week. Despite what people loved to believe in the Hollywood version of reality, you couldn’t just start blowing civilians away and hope the evidence would disappear in a swirl of smoke and stage magic. He’d dealt with the immediate threat and he hadn’t killed his attackers. They weren’t even armed. All they’d brought along to the kidnap attempt had been a lack of preparation and a bucket load of stupidity. He’d neutralised them for sure but he hadn’t killed them. If they happened to get scooped up by a gang of amphetamine-fuelled psychopaths, who’d happily dismember the bodies when they’d finished with their fun, that was their fault for coming out to play in the middle of the night in a very unsavoury neighbourhood. Mike knew he couldn’t just start shooting civilians on American soil without the Agency’s sanction and approval. Otherwise he’d have thinned the ranks of the ungodly at the local supermarket checkout line on more than a dozen occasions.
The warehouse was surrounded by a rusting wire fence that dripped with the heavy rain that was fell in frigid curtains of cold water and it couldn’t offer anything more than token resistance to an intruder. The lack of security was a good disguise. The building looked old and decrepit, run down and completely lacking in anything worth stealing. Ignoring the cold, the damp and the discomfort, Mike got down onto his belly and crept along the cracked tarmac to get a closer look at the warehouse. As expected, he found a pair of new SUV s at the back of the building but with only guy visible behind a steering wheel. A guard to make sure no one got tempted to boost the expensive vehicles or steel the customised rims. Two vehicles gave him an idea about numbers. One guy pretending to be on guard duty but keeping himself warm and dry inside the vehicle provided clues about how many guys might be waiting to greet him on the inside. Mike had noticed a faint light behind one of the filthy windows and had a good idea where the reception committee was waiting to greet him. He was pretty sure Danny Lubinsky would not be one of the meeters and greeters. That would be the role of the guys with the bolt cutters and the blow torches. He moved closer to the building, using the scattered piles of debris to hide his approach, until he could get behind the two vehicles. The darkness and the rain helped him to blend into the background. He’d smeared oily dirt onto his face to cut down on reflection and now he was crouched behind the occupied SUV and was able to see that the door’s locking bolt was in the up and open position. He slipped forwards and took a firm grip on the door handle before wrenching it open and slapping the extendable steel rod hard into the guy’s temple. It was over in a heartbeat. The guy crumpled in his seat as Mike caught his bulk to prevent him from collapsing onto the steering wheel and hitting the air horns. There was a 40 calibre Glock, and a brace of spare magazines secured in a fancy shoulder harness plus a very nice stainless steel Smith and Wesson five-shot revolver strapped to the guy’s ankle. Mike nodded his approval. Good choices. But completely useless if you weren’t paying attention and doing your job as a guard dog.
Mike was moving fast, scanning the guy’s wallet and papers for clues. Suddenly, things started to make more sense. He bundled the guy over onto his side, took off the guy’s fancy hand-tooled brogues and used the shoelaces to tie up his wrists and ankles, moving fast with practised efficiency. His instructors at Fort Bragg had told him it was just like roping and branding a steer. In seconds the driver was trussed and secured in a very uncomfortable position that would make it very difficult for him to move and make a nuisance of himself. Whenever he eventually woke up that is, dazed and confused and in a lot of pain. Mike closed the car door, drew his SIG and moved quickly in a low crouch to the warehouse entrance. If things were going to get noisy, at least he’d be totally prepared to put a fusillade of well-aimed rounds down range.
The warehouse door was slightly open but Mike could sense someone standing on the other side. He couldn’t explain it. He couldn’t see through the rotting wood and peeling paint but he felt that someone was there as he tuned in to the micro signals that betrayed someone’s presence. In the field, you learned to pay attention to those instincts. You learned to tune in to those feelings. Humans had been hunting and gathering for thousands of years. Humans had highly-developed hunting instincts. Those instincts were still there. They just had to be coaxed and cultivated, brought out into the open and sometimes it was like having your own built-in scanning radar. Especially when you were the hunter.
Mike inched forward towards the edge of the door, controlling his breathing, moving like an extension of the cracked and filthy concrete beneath his body. His suit was ruined but that’s why he usually bought clothing that was practically disposable. He stretched one arm forward and slipped the tips of his fingers beneath the old door, gently applying pressure until it began to swing slowly outwards. The hinges creaked and the door moved as if it had been caught by a gust of wind. As it swung open, Mike eased himself smoothly up into a crouch and waited until the guard stepped forwards to check the exterior. Mike was below the guy’s line of sight. It was dark and it was raining. The first clue that something was wrong arrived in the form of Mike’s flattened palm that shot up from below as Mike launched himself upwards and caught the guy under the chin with a blow that landed like an artillery shot. The shock of the strike stunned the guard and he was unconscious before he hit the ground. He landed with all the grace of a bag of wet cement and Mike was crouching over him in a heartbeat, scanning the interior whilst running his hands over the body, smoothly extracting weapons and a wallet. Nothing moved. All the sounds had been masked by the noise of the rain hammering down on the rusty, corrugated iron roof. Two down. Mike guessed there would probably be a maximum of four more on the inside: a bodyguard, two guys to apply the bolt cutters and blow torch treatment and someone in a fancy suit with the price tag conspicuously dangling from the sleeve to ask the questions. He had a pretty good idea who he was dealing with now. There was absolutely no rational reason for him to be risking his life by going inside and tackling the guards single handed. He’d called it in. He was supposed to recon the perimeter and wait for the back-up team that was on its way. The problem with that options was that he’d taken the clumsy abduction attempt personally. Plus, he could always explain his actions in terms of the immediate tactical considerations. Surrounding the building with heavy duty firepower could easily turn into a standoff and a potential blood bath. If Mike’s suspicions were right, these guys would not be willing to surrender. He knew he had an opportunity to capture a key individual for interrogation. He knew that time was a critical factor. He knew that he wanted to make a hefty investment in some serious form of payback. He rose up from the unconscious guard and moved forwards in a crouch, the SIG’s foresight following the line of his eyes as he scanned from side to side and slipped into the warehouse.
The four-man reception committee was waiting in a dusty, wide storage area that hadn’t been used for storage since the recession had closed down the business nearly ten years earlier. The senior guy, young, pony-tailed, dressed in an expensive suit with the price tag still on the sleeve, seated on an old chair and smoking, spoke to his goons and they all laughed. Always a good idea to laugh at the boss’s jokes. In the middle of the dimly lit space was a very sturdy wooden chair, complete with thick electrical cable that would serve as wrist and ankle restraints. Mike noticed the collection of cordless power tools arrayed on the floor and nodded in appreciation. A technological upgrade on the old bolt cutters and blow torch approach. He also noticed the small pile of plastic sacks on the floor that would be so handy for disposing of whatever was left of his body, once these guys had finished chatting with him. Nice. They were loud. They were laughing. They smoked and spat on the dirty concrete. Some private joke, no doubt. They obviously didn’t mind being overheard. He could hear them quite clearly and was not in the least surprised to confirm that they were exchanging obscenities in their native Russian.
People often assumed that Special Forces were just highly-trained muscle that could be aimed and pointed at the nation’s enemies with deadly effect, like a bunch of compliant psychopaths. The truth was that the Army was careful to select these guys because of their intelligence. Physically and mentally tough – for sure. But also smart. Mike already spoke half a dozen languages and possessed a range of technical skills that would probably earn him a doctorate in a couple of highly specialised areas. He spoke Russian with a Moscow accent and could understand everything that was being said in the echoing, high-ceilinged warehouse. They were clearly not planning on entertaining him with jokes and chilled vodka. They were actually looking forward to drilling holes in various parts of his anatomy. Really nice people. Mike couldn’t help thinking that the world would be a much better place without them.
Pony tail displayed a swathe of tattoos above his expensively hand-tailored shirt collar but these days they were more likely to be an affectation rather than evidence of time spent in a Russian penal colony. They were a criminal status signal, sometimes a badge of office, often the way for a crime boss’s spoiled offspring to advertise their credentials. So, who was going to walk out of the building on their own two feet and who was going to dragged out in a body bag? Mike was making very rapid calculations. He never agonised over his decisions. The cost of human lives didn’t always register at the top of his list of priorities. He decided the two goons who’d been appointed as torturers were superfluous to his plans so he rose up out of the shadows, took aim and shot them both, double tapped in less than a second, one hollow point round to the centre of the chest and one to the head. They were both dead before they hit the dusty ground. So much for the rules on using deadly force. Yeah. Paperwork and explanations – that was for later.
He advanced forwards, the aim point focused on the bodyguard’s chest, aimed at the centre of mass and he shouted clearly in Russian for the men to raise their hands and keep them up. The body guard had been trained to respond so he represented the immediate danger. One twitch and Mike would put him down. Pony tail probably had no idea how to shoot. That’s why daddy sent him everywhere with the muscle and firepower to keep him safe. Up until now. Bodyguard was rapidly assessing his chances as Mike moved towards him and somewhere deep in his thickly boned head, he worked out that he wouldn’t survive an attempt to draw his weapon. Better to stay alive and maybe find a chance to turn the tables and save the boss’s kid later. Mike could see the messages passing through the bodyguard’s head as he barked out a fresh command and told the pair of Russians to get down on their knees. He had to shout. Their ears were still ringing from the gunshots that had eliminated the pair of dead goons who were bleeding out onto the dusty concrete floor. Nothing like a couple of rapid and unexpected executions to get people’s attention. Nothing like four rapid and concussive gunshots to mess up your hearing.
Mike positioned himself about ten feet from the pair of guys, close enough to cap them both if necessary, not close enough to be grabbed. They were on their knees with their hands on their heads and Pony Tail was starting to look very, very nervous. Beads of sweat had left dark stains on his perfectly white shirt collar. Mike circled round slowly behind them before stepping up to the bodyguard and kicking him hard between the shoulder blades. As the big man sprawled forwards, Mike instantly knelt on the bulky Russian’s back and rammed the SIG’s warm muzzle up against the base of his skull. The bodyguard was tense, checked but working out possible moves when Mike punched the base of his pistol into the nerve plexus below the guy’s ear. All the tension evaporated from the gorilla’s body and Mike hit him again in the same spot just to be sure. Better than Novocaine and instantly effective, the guy was unconscious and unlikely to be feeling lively for a while. Next, Mike turned the SIG towards Pony Tail. He addressed him in his fluent Russian.
‘OK, little Missy. Time for you to get your pretty little dress dirty. Get yourself face down on the floor and keep your dainty little hands on your head or I’ll show you what it’s like to be crucified.’
Once Pony Tail was down on the ground, Mike patted him down and discovered a very expensive, customised Walther that had probably never been fired. He used the guy’s belt to secure his hands behind his back and then he tied up the bodyguard because you really didn’t want a guy like that waking up and thinking he could save the boss’s kid with a suicidal act of bravado. Mike looped a cord around the bodyguard’s massive neck and secured it to the bindings that he’d used to tie up the guy’s wrists and elbows. He was packing a .50 calibre Desert Eagle in a massive shoulder rig. Not the most accurate gun in the world but enough to intimidate the uninitiated and potent enough to end a lot of disputes. Provided you could actually land one of those artillery rounds on target. Russians. Mike sometimes suspected they got most of their ideas from watching gangster movies about Russian mobsters.
In Mike’s defence, he could’ve stopped right there. He could’ve waited for the support team to roll in and take over. That would’ve been the right thing to do. But he’d taken the abduction personally and his curiosity was in overdrive. Russians. Yeah. Now things were beginning to make sense. This wasn’t Mike’s first encounter with the Russians. They had a history. And it went all the way over the water to Syria.
Without his entourage of goons and heavily-armed muscle, Pony Tail had lost an awful lot of his swagger and arrogance. With two guys dead at his feet and his massive bodyguard face down and leaking drool in the dirt, there was no point in shouting threats at a guy who was obviously capable of killing him without a second’s hesitation. Pony Tail did exactly as he was told and Mike strapped him into the sturdy wooden chair and picked up a cordless power drill. He knew he didn’t have a lot of time before the back-up team arrived to take over so he’d have to dispense with the social niceties and get everything done as quickly as possible.
Pony Tail’s name was Pavel Illyich and Mike knew exactly who his daddy was. He placed the tip of the drill on Pavel’s trembling knee and looked into his eyes.
‘One chance, Pavel Illyich, and one chance only.’ Mike’s Russian pronunciation must’ve persuaded his new friend that he was dealing with a fellow psychopath from the Old Country.
‘I’ll tell you what I know but I swear I don’t really know very much. Please believe me,’ he sobbed. ‘My father does not tell me everything.’
Mike pushed the hardened drill pit a little harder against Pavel’s knee cap. The Russian flinched but there was nowhere for him to go.
‘One chance, Pavel, Illyich. Don’t waste it. What were you told to find out?’
Pony Tail hesitated, possibly out of fear, possibly stalling for time. Mike assumed the latter and carefully pulled the trigger on the drill, setting it slowly in motion against the expensive rough silk fabric of Pavel’s suit. The fabric around the knee twisted and split and the slowly rotating drill made contact with skin. Pavel yelped. ‘Syria! My father wanted to know about your work in Syria. That’s all.’
Mike shook his head. ‘You sure about that, Pavel Illyich?’
He increased the speed of the drill and pushed it into the young man’s knee cap. There was a moment of resistance and then the drill was cutting through tissue and the thick bone of the patella. Blood sprayed outwards as the drill forced the scarlet liquid into swiftly rotating gouts, channelled by the drill, out of the ruptured flesh and into the dusty air. Pavel screamed, struggling against the hardened electric cable restraints, bucking wildly until Mike withdrew the drill.
‘Let’s try that again, Pavel Illyich. What were you told to find out?’
Pony Tail sank forwards, gasping for breath, still shocked by the intensity of the pain. His entire leg throbbed and pulsed, waves of agony radiating out from his shattered knee cap. Mike placed the drill against the other knee. ‘I’m waiting, Pavel Illyich, and we don’t have a lot of time left.’ The head of the drill began to turn slowly as Mike pressed the trigger.
‘Syria! I tell you! It’s about Syria. Please don’t do that. Stop the drill. I will tell you. I swear.’
Mike released the pressure on the trigger but left the dripping bit in contact with Pavel’s shaking knee. ‘I’m listening, Pavel Illyich. You now have my full, undivided attention. Don’t waste it’ He buzzed the drill for a second against Pony Tail’s knee. ‘But you only have one chance to tell me everything. If you don’t, things are going to get really ugly and I’m talking about drilling your nuts to the chair. Want to find out how that feels? No? OK. So talk.’
By the time the back-up team arrived five minutes later and secured the area, Mike was waiting for them at the warehouse door, a friendly wave to greet them as they aimed their sites on his chest and scoped his dirty face with their night vision goggles. ‘Stand down.’ The voice crackled in a dozen earpieces. ‘It’s Ducane and he looks unharmed. Check the interior.’
Mike briefed the team commander and suggested a discrete medevac for Pavel Illyich. He’d passed out as expected towards the end of the interrogation but Mike had learned enough to explain why the Russians were interested in his recent work in Syria and why they’d decided to dispose of him in several weighted, plastic sacks off the end of the dockside pier. It almost made sense.
The team commander came storming outside less than a minute later and pointed a finger at Mike.
‘What in the sweet name of Christ do you think you were doing in there? Hey?
You…you…..you…..Jesus, Ducane! You drilled holes in the guy’s kneecaps! With a power drill!! What were you thinking??’
Mike looked at the team leader and shook his head. ‘It’s a religious thing, Jeff. You know – Do unto others?’
The team commander stared in disbelief at his colleague, standing quietly in the shelter of the doorway, covered in dirt and filth and blood, with oily mud and freshly minced human tissue on his face. He looked almost serene.
‘Mike? There will be seventeen shades of Hell to pay for this. If Homeland Security hears about you torturing some Russian gangster right here on American soil, they’re gonna lock you up in the psycho ward and throw away the key.’
Mike smiled, his white teeth almost bright against the background of his blackened face.
‘Jeff, first of all those Russki bastards were going to use those power tools on me, with the specific aim of compromising national security issues. Then they we’re going to chop me up and dump what was left of me off the end of the pier. Plus, they’re involved up to their Armani-covered asses in issues that have a direct bearing on the security interests of the United States. And we do not have time to follow the rules here and request authorisation. This is serious shit, my friend, and we gotta do what we gotta do.’
Jeff shook his head in disbelief. Mike patted him gently on the shoulder. ‘Come on, Jeff. It’s all in a good cause. We’re the good guys. Remember?’
The team leader looked at his shoulder and noticed the blood stained palm print that Mike Ducane had just deposited on his fresh combat fatigues. ‘Sure, Mike. The good guys. Right. I’ll try real hard to remember that the next time I pay a visit to the Company shrink.’
Syria was a mess, a rolling cluster-fuck of violence and torture, mayhem, refugees, religious fanatics and political manoeuvring. And that was on a good day. ISIS had declared its avowed intent to turn back the clock to some imagined golden Age of the Prophet. They were building a medieval Caliphate of true believers that would extend all the way from the ancient capital of Damascus to the far reaches of the entire Middle East. Turkey was also included. The new religious state would cover North Africa and extend into the Balkans and aimed to retake Spain from the unbelievers. It was a crazy nightmare plan that drew in thousands of gullible young men who were told every day on the Internet that their faith was under threat, that they had a solemn duty to obey the Word of God, that they had been called upon to take up arms in defence of the true faith. It was a potent message and, as a recruitment campaign, it had certainly worked. ISIS had swelled its ranks with thousands of largely inexperienced, unemployed, untrained but enthusiastic young men. The ISIS leadership, cynical and calculating, knew that they were nothing more than AK47-toting cannon fodder. Expendable resources. Screaming fanatics who would charge an enemy position and soften up the defences before the more experienced soldiers moved in. Bearded young men who swaggered through the captured towns and villages, looting and raping and killing the civilian population. However, in combat against the Kurdish military, their swagger had quickly turned to fear as they were outfought and slaughtered by the disciplined and determined Peshmerga militias. As a military force, ISIS was faced with a host of limitations. They survived in part because sections of the local populations supported their religious objectives, provided food and shelter. They also survived because they had help from some very unusual sources.
But it was an impossibly complex situation. Allies in the conflict were just as likely to kill each other as their supposed enemies. And casting an ominously dark shadow over the proceedings, Russia had declared a major interest in the conflict.
Mike had read the briefing reports before he’d headed out to Syria with the DIA. You really only needed to read the history to understand Russia’s involvement in the region. Russia had needed access to the sea for hundreds of years and the Syrian port of Tartus supported the Russian Navy’s presence in the Mediterranean. It was as simple as that. That meant that Russian ships didn’t have to make the long voyage back to the Black Sea through the narrow Straits of the Bosporus to refit and resupply. It was the Russian navy’s only port in the Mediterranean and the Russians were determined to keep it, whatever the cost. They had no moral interest in political or religious groupings. They didn’t keep count of civilian deaths. They were going to keep their base at Tartus at any price and, by supporting the old Ba’athist regime that had built the facility back in the 1970s, they calculated that they could keep the port with minimal disruption to their longer term plans to control the Eastern Mediterranean. They would’ve been equally happy to hold hands with the devil and drink to his health – as long as they could hold and eventually expand the facility at Tartus. On the surface, Russian objectives looked pretty simple. But when a major international power is run by a despotic government and organised crime gangs, things are never that simple.
The rest of the world was all too aware of a resurgent and militarily aggressive Russia. Any doubts about Russia’s real intentions had been brutally dispelled in the Crimea and the Ukraine. You couldn’t ignore the piles of body bags and the corpses of thousands of dead civilians. Old hands who remembered the days of the Cold War would nod over their morning coffee and cigarettes and remember that the Ukrainians had been Russia’s oldest ally. Some things never changed. Russia needed its naval bases and was fully prepared to spill precious blood and spend its treasure in the pursuit of its strategic goals. And Syria was only one of the world’s blood-stained trouble spots where the Russians were seeking military and economic advantage.
Mike knew Syria. He’d been sent there as a Special Forces Military Advisor. He spoke Arabic and he liked the people. Despite the chaos and horrors of the war, the traditions of hospitality still survived and Mike had found himself squatting in village huts with wizened tribal elders, surprised to be so warmly welcomed in ways he had not expected. His small team of specialists had been charged with training local Syrian militias and Iraqi regulars in the dark arts of counter-insurgency. The mission had given him a chance to learn a lot about the country and to make some valuable contacts. It was there, in a military camouflaged tent set up on the edge of a range of dunes, that he’d met a Syrian liaison officer, a strikingly beautiful woman that he quickly came to know as Fatima Trigo. Dark-eyed and with the soft burnished skin of her Berber ancestors, black hair so thick and lustrous that it never properly fitted beneath her cap, Mike had been irresistibly drawn to her and she had answered his obvious interest with a passion and ferocity that had taken his breath away. Mike Ducane, in the middle of a bitter war and against his wildest expectations, had fallen in lust with all the teenage enthusiasm of first love.
Syria posed plenty of problems and offered very few solutions. The US had been reluctant to put Marines on the ground to wipe out the ISIS military presence in the region though many senior generals had stated that it was the only realistic way to confront the problem. Civilian casualties would’ve been high and the Administration had decided to support the local opposition forces with training, uniforms and weapons. It was a compromise and it gave ISIS time to re-group and consider other tactics. They knew they weren’t performing well against well-armed troops so they decided to hit back at their enemies in places where there were no battle lines or attack helicopters. They instructed their young fanatics to return to Europe, to attack civilians in their home countries. It gave ISIS more publicity than they could ever have wished for. But it hardened many governments’ resolve to step outside the rule book and hit ISIS hard and hit them where it would hurt the most.
The Syrian posting was Mike’s last tour before rotating out of the Service and he’d been thinking about life outside the military and how he could be with Fatima when the DIA made contact and offered him a very lucrative contract that would make the best possible use of his particular range of work skills. His CO had said it was just like those Washington politicians who left office one day and just happened to fall into highly-paid positions on Wall Street the next. Mike had said he’d like to think about it. He’d blinked once, looked up at his CO and then said ‘OK, Sir. I’ve thought about it. Where do I sign?’ Six weeks later, Mike Ducane was back in Syria. Fatima had laughed when he called her that evening. She’d promised him that she would find a very special way to celebrate his return.
Where the Russians had been carpet-bombing civilians – and nobody at that stage really knew why – the DIA had been tasked to find and extract a number of key ISIS personnel. Drone strikes looked spectacular on the evening news and certainly scared the shit out of the enemy – Silent Death From Above sounded almost Biblical – but the main objective was to learn as much as possible about the enemy’s operations and that involved snatching guys on the ground and delivering them for interrogation. It was considered much harder to interrogate dead guys than living ones so the DIA needed their subjects alive and able to talk. That meant sending specialist teams into enemy territory to make the snatch. It was a high risk strategy and every single DIA operatives knew they’d be killed if captured. But only after a week or two of slow torture. Better to put DIA personnel in the way of danger than Delta Force or SEAL Teams. It was a simple expedient but the Administration could not afford to have their Special Forces people captured and publicly beheaded. It was obviously a high-risk venture. So the DIA sweetened the deal by putting a bounty on the head of every target. One operative called it his Ferrari Fund which was ironic because he insisted on driving a beat-up old Chrysler back home in the US. No accounting for taste.
Mike had taken part in two DIA snatch operations. The first had involved infiltrating a heavily-guarded Syrian village compound to stalk and seize a very elusive target. They were stalking a skinny little guy with a ridiculously bushy beard who’d been given three very young girls as his share of the booty after the village had been seized. He’d been living with his twelve-year old slaves for nearly a month. When the young ISIS warriors had walked unopposed into the village, two of the elders had been beheaded and one had been crucified to add a sickening slice of drama to an ISIS publicity video. The villagers had been terrorised into complete submission. The DIA believed that the target had been responsible for moving funds electronically from ISIS sponsors in Saudi Arabia and he was identified as a very useful subject for interrogation. That’s how you got inside an organisation’s infrastructure and cut up their logistical supply lines. Mike and his team had been surveying the village from a hidden lay-up position for two days and two nights, defecating into plastic bags and waiting for their chance to move in. Just after sundown on the third evening, their scrawny target emerged from the cellar where he’d been concealed to get some fresh air and stretch his legs. He had two bodyguards, young men with AK47s in their hands and bandoliers of ammunition swathed dramatically across their chests. The four-man snatch team moved forward in complete silence, leaving a two-man sniper team behind in the lay-up position, an ideal spot that provided an excellent field of fire in case of a problem. Concealed in the shadows and moving in a low crouch, the team emerged like ghosts from the gloom and shot the two bodyguards in their heads from close range with a silenced volley of low velocity .22 rounds. They were dead before they hit the sand. Mike had his hand over the target’s mouth and nose before he even knew that his guards had been hit. A swift injection into the guy’s scrawny neck and he collapsed like a small sack of potatoes as his body was smoothly hoisted over a powerfully muscled shoulder and then the team was moving out, the lead man carrying the target and the other three covering the retreat. The sniper team was already preparing to move as the four-man squad approached the lay-up position. A light wind stirred the desert sand but everything else was silent. The team had called up the extraction helicopter with their supporting gunships and the DIA men had moved fast, taking it in turns to carry the target, jogging over the sand to the pick-up point. They were sweating but they were laughing with the adrenaline rush, their human cargo duct-taped and secured on the floor of the chopper, promises of cold beers and a well-deserved celebration after their days and nights in the desert. The Ferrari Fund could now handle the additional cost of a power roof and about a year’s worth of gas. Mike wasn’t thinking about cars or money. He was planning a hot shower and two days and nights wrapped up in the arms and supple thighs of the beautiful Fatima Trigo.
The second mission had not been quite as smooth. Mike could never be accused of being superstitious but something had been bugging him about the mission right from the start and he hadn’t been able to work out what it was. There’d been a lot of talk about the target around the base and that in itself had been unusual. The DIA had been tasked to capture a prominent ISIS commander and suddenly it seemed as though everyone knew about the target’s identity. Operational security was supposed to be watertight but there was excited chatter amongst the admin staff about capturing a major prize. The target was identified as a local military commander and Mike thought it would’ve been much easier to hit the guy with a drone strike. Eliminate him in a cloud of super-heated pink mist. But Washington wanted to know what the guy knew so the snatch mission had been sanctioned and approved. To Mike, the risks didn’t make much sense but his experience made him an obvious leader of the snatch squad. So he’d studied the intel and the maps and set out with a heavily armed team to grab the guy.
In war, the best laid plans can change before the first shot’s fired. The teams moved into position at night and used two well-concealed hideouts to watch for their prey. They were dug in outside a small village that had been modernised with a handful of concrete buildings and Mike immediately noticed the large number of armed guards patrolling the perimeter. ISIS didn’t have guard dogs, partly because the animals were considered as unclean but also because ISIS lacked the resources to train animals to do the job. There were plenty of Moslem countries that employed guard dogs but, fortunately for the DIA teams, the new Islamic Caliphate wasn’t one of them. The guards were on high alert and used a pair of Toyota flat-bed trucks mounting 12.7mm heavy machine guns to drive in circuits around the village perimeter. Occasionally, they’d pull up in a cloud of dust and fire off long bursts into the desert, bright tracer rounds arcing into the low dunes. Reconnaissance by fire. As if they knew someone was out there. Not a good sign. By late morning, a convoy of vehicles rolled into the village, led by a captured Iraqi armoured personnel carrier. The surveillance teams could only watch in frustration as a group of ISIS guards hustled a black-robed figure out of one of the low, concrete buildings and into the back of the armoured vehicle. The convoy roared out of the village in a choking cloud of dust and black diesel fumes and headed back in the direction they came from. The turbaned figure sure looked like their target. It also looked very much as if the mission had failed. The teams couldn’t move from cover during daylight so they’d have to stay in place until nightfall before calling in the extraction helicopters. It looked as if ISIA had snatched their own man right from under the noses of the DIA snatch squad.
There was an atmosphere of gloom in the dugouts as the teams considered their position, baking and sweating in the fierce desert heat, pumped up for action and faced with the prospect of going back empty-handed. Mike kept up the observation routines because that’s what you did when you were in a concealed position and didn’t want to be surprised by a wandering goatherd. And then he noticed that the guards were still in the village. The target’s security detail was still there. Defending a militarily insignificant fly-blown village far from the battle lines. And what was a military commander doing so far from the action anyway? Mike keyed his throat mike and told the other surveillance team to stay sharp and keep eyes on the village. Maybe the target hadn’t moved after all. Maybe the ISIS guys knew they were under observation and had arranged a decoy, offering a distraction for a drone strike or an attack because the real target had to stay in the village. No point moving him if he could be followed to the next hideout. Mike was mulling over the options with his team and decided to call in his suspicions, requesting permission to extend the mission for a few more days on the basis that the target might still be in the village. DIA Central agreed and considered a drone strike on the convoy that was snaking its way slowly across rough ground about twenty-five kilometres from the village. By hitting the convoy, DIA would be telling ISIS that they’d taken the bait. A drone was tasked to the mission and the Hellfire missile that blew the captured Iraqi armoured vehicle apart in a shower of hot steel fragments was followed by a stream of 30mm cannon rounds that tore the rest of the convoy vehicles to shreds. ISIS had willingly sacrificed its vehicles and men just to hide the location of one of its commanders. Mike received confirmation of the drone strike on his headset and settled down to watch. He was intrigued by the situation but he had a gnawing suspicion in his gut that something was seriously wrong. If ISIS knew they were under surveillance, the mission was already compromised and the next step would be to make a rapid exit and try again sometime later. They had water and rations for five days. It was hot. It was very uncomfortable and they had to relieve themselves in carefully sealed plastic bags. It’s what they’d been trained to do. It was one of the reasons they were being paid the big bucks. And, as team leader on the ground, Mike concluded that the target was probably still in place and, if ISIS had been sure about the surveillance, they could’ve rustled up a company of bearded fanatics to scour the area to capture or kill the infidels. Mike scratched at his thick stubble and smiled. Another week in the desert and he’d start to look as if he’d been radicalised too. The position was risky but none of the guards had been out to the low scrub and dunes to make closer checks since the convoy had pulled out. And that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Mike either. So they watched and they waited and they sweated in the desert heat. Calculating the probabilities, Mike decided to hang tough and wait. Something was wrong but he couldn’t work out what it was. The team needed to stay in place to find out. If they drew a blank, they could always abort the mission and make a silent withdrawal during the night to their pick up point.
It was dark, high cloud above the desert plateau and no moon. Mike had been sleeping when one of the team woke him in complete silence. They were all used to going from a light sleep to wide awake in about a heartbeat. He knew where he was and he was immediately paying full attention to his team mate.
‘Major movement round the blockhouse. They’re all wide awake. Something’s happening.’
Mike rolled up to the low edge of the dug-out position and scanned the village with the night-vision equipment. The guards were wide awake now and forming a perimeter around the concrete buildings, taking up positions along the dusty approach road to the north. Then he thought he heard something in the distance. Vehicles. Moving slowly but heading towards the village. They were driving without lights, a dozen trucks and SUVs, invisible without the night vision goggles. Mike updated DIA Central via the satellite link as the first of the vehicles drew up next to the largest of the low, concrete buildings. And there to greet them in the darkness was their target, stepping out with arms wide open, large as life, to embrace three men as they climbed out of the lead SUV and stretched. They had AK47s in their hands and were sporting turbans, beards and baggy pants, typical ISIS garb, and Mike said to himself ‘Well, hello there, my little bearded buddy. Fancy seeing you there.’ The three other men in the lay-up position were also wide awake, weapons ready and standing by for whatever might develop.
‘Say what, Mike?’ Nick Savage was Australian SAS, highly trained and exactly the kind of guy you’d want to have besides you in your fox hole. They spoke very quietly. Whispering actually sounded louder and carried further than a low voice. You learned things like that long before they sent you out to hunt and kill your enemies for real.
‘Target’s still there, Nick. You were right. They sent out a decoy. Makes you wonder what’s going on down there, doesn’t it?’
‘Doesn’t make sense, Mike. They acted as if they knew they’d been eyeballed but they must’ve assumed we’d pull out as soon as the decoy left the area. They don’t look like they’re worried about surveillance.’
Mike nodded in the darkness. ‘And that could mean that the location is more important than the guy we’re supposed to grab.’
Nick nodded agreement in the cramped confines of the dug out position. ‘Or the target’s got fuck-all to do with leading the faithful into martyrdom ‘cos the little bludger’s got a more useful set of skills on his CV.’
‘Nick?’ Mike moved the night vision lenses to check the other vehicles. ‘What the fuck’s a bludger?’
‘Christ, Mike. Don’t they teach you English in the Boy Scouts?’
‘Wait up, Nick. This is getting interesting.’
Mike keyed the switch on his throat microphone and alerted the other team to make sure they had eyes on the perimeter. ‘Check behind you as well, guys. I don’t want the sneaky bastards creeping up on us from the rear.’
Down in the dusty village, the guards were unloading wooden packing cases from the backs of three trucks, grunting and sweating despite the cool of the desert night. One man stumbled in the darkness, dropping a wooden box, and received a heavy boot to the groin together with a string of curses for his clumsiness. The crate hadn’t broken but the man’s groans carried on the night air, a reminder to the other men to take more care with their charges. By three in the morning, with the unloading completed, the three visitors emerged from the concrete building and mounted their SUV, waving at their host and signalling to the other vehicles to start up. With low revving engines, the convoy drove slowly out of the village and made a wide circular detour across the sand before heading back towards the rough track that led north. In the village, the clouds of dust settled and everything became silent.
At three thirty in the blackness of the night, Mike received an encrypted satellite communication from DIA Central, ordering him to reconnoitre the concrete buildings and assess the feasibility of snatching the target. He was also tasked with investigating the contents of the wooden crates. This was a discretely funded clandestine operation. No one told him to be careful or to avoid putting himself at risk. He was expected to use his judgement and get the job done. Staying alive was always assumed to be a given. DIA Central was aware that the guards had been awake for most of the night and would be at their lowest level of alertness at around four in the morning. If Mike and his team could penetrate the village perimeter and access the concrete building, they could complete their mission and be back on board the evacuation helicopter by five thirty. Sounded good. In theory.
Mike had his orders so he quickly got his team ready and instructed the second group to provide over-watch from their hidden position. They were all highly trained and very experienced combat veterans. They knew what to do if a fire fight developed. They knew where they would withdraw and stand by for the cavalry to swoop in and get them out of harm’s way. They knew all about the pain and sweat of training hard to fight easy. But fighting was never easy even though the training was always very, very hard.
In the cold darkness of the desert night, sand dunes cracking and groaning as they contracted in the cooling air, the four-man team slipped noiselessly out of their hide and made a silent detour to the south of the village, aiming for a gap in the roughly-defined perimeter where the fewest number of guards had been observed. They wanted to avoid contact with the bearded soldiers. Contacts could easily turn noisy and the snatch teams were working at a severe disadvantage in terms of numbers, they were operating far behind enemy lines and there was a lot of open terrain between the village and their extraction point. Stealth and surprise were their prime advantages. None of the militiamen were patrolling. They were huddled in small groups, AK47s across their knees, wrapped up in coarse blankets and dozing. Mike was crouching behind a low dune, scanning the way ahead with his night vision goggles, when a small light flared and the team instantly got down into the sand. Someone was smoking. One of the guards had lit a cigarette. Poor discipline, certainly, but also a sign that they were not on high alert. Mike and the team waited for five minutes, watching the faint glow of the cigarette, and then moved off away from the direction of the sleepless militiaman to find a better point to slip past the perimeter guards.
They moved into the village at a low crouch, placing each foot carefully, toe first, to minimise noise, scanning for targets and listening, all senses tuned into the environment, hyper-alert for any sign of danger, weapons set to auto and fingers stretched along the trigger guards. It seemed that everyone was asleep now. There were snores from blanketed bundles of men, guards who’d been awake for too long before succumbing to the body’s demands for sleep. Mike signalled the group forwards to the low concrete building where the crates had been unloaded, the building that might still contain their target. There was a faint hum from a generator somewhere inside and Mike noticed cables strung loosely from the roof to another building about thirty feet away. Power lines and shielded telephone cables. No sign of an antenna because they’d probably set up the mast some distance from the communications centre to avoid the attention of a guided missile strike that would home in on the radio signal. Cute. But not fool proof.
Mike stationed one man at the door of the building to cover their retreat and cover their backs. The door opened easily on new hinges and Mike picked up a faint light at the end of the corridor. There were voices. Someone was awake. Voices talking on a radio. They didn’t have a lot of time so Mike put a man on the door to the radio room, silenced .22 pistol at the ready, whilst he and Nick carefully opened up the remaining door in the corridor and found the wooden crates that had been delivered that night and carefully stacked, far from prying eyes. Nick covered the doorway, suppressed pistol at the ready, clearly visible to his team mate a few yards down the corridor. The generator was somewhere beyond the radio room. They could hear its persistent hum in the background. Despite the cool of the night, beads of sweat ran down Mike’s back. One of the long wooden cases had been prised open, the thin nails slightly bent and twisted, the lid resting on top of its hidden cargo. Dozens of tightly wrapped plastic packages, sealed with duct tape, hard as bricks. He didn’t need a degree in bio-chemistry to guess what was inside. One delicate slice with his razor-sharp combat knife and Mike’s suspicions were confirmed. Heroin. Pure, unadulterated heroin. Mike made a quick calculation and drew in his breath. About 250 kgs in total. Holy shit! It was a staggeringly huge quantity of the drug. This was completely unexpected. This was way beyond the military agenda of the new Islamic State. This was something else entirely. He slipped an unopened packet into his combat jacket, put the lid back in place and nodded to Nick to move out.
The radio room was silent. Mike counted down with his fingers and in one smooth movement the three men entered the small space, each one tracking for targets but finding only their startled quarry, frozen in shock with a laptop in front of him, the screen displaying a very imaginative group of two men and a woman in an impossibly complicated and probably uncomfortable position. Mike had his pistol jammed up against the man’s forehead in a split second and whispered to him in Arabic to remain completely silent.
To his surprise, the man stuttered ‘Don’t shoot!’ In Russian. Mike pushed the barrel’s suppressor more firmly against the man’s head. There was no time to waste. Why was he speaking in Russian? With one smooth practised movement, Nick jabbed the end of a hypodermic needle into the guy’s neck and his eyeballs rolled upwards as he collapsed. Nick had him up and over his shoulder in a classic fireman’s lift that left one hand free to keep the business end of his suppressed pistol pointing forwards. Everything was happening smoothly. It was beginning to feel like an adrenaline-fuelled training exercise.
‘Wait one. Movement around the concrete building.’ It was a message from the over watch team. The voice in Mike’s earpiece caused him to turn and check behind him. They were out of the building and moving silently beyond the village perimeter when the silence was suddenly broken by a loud shout. A voice was calling out in very loud Syrian Arabic ‘Where’s Suleiman? Suleiman has gone! Wake up! Everyone! Wake up! Find Suleiman!’ The voice carried clearly on the cool, night air, and Mike signalled to his fire team to pick up the pace. He called to the other group for news on what was happening in the village but he didn’t need to wait for a reply. He clearly heard a truck’s engine starting up and suddenly the darkness was split by a searchlight probing the dunes.
The voice in Mike’s earpiece was exceptionally clear. ‘You’ve got company, Toyota flat-back, one driver and one gunner and they’ve got a heavy calibre machine gun mounted on the back. Get ready. They’re heading your way.’
Mike dropped to one knee and told Nick to keep heading for the lay up position with the prisoner and to take one other man along to provide cover. Things were about to get noisy. Nick and his teammate were kneeling behind a low dune, assault rifles on auto and watching the Toyota truck as it swung noisily out of the village and headed in their direction.
‘Over watch. Stand by to engage targets. Concentrate on the village. We’ll engage the truck.’
The reply from the over watch time came back immediately. ‘Second truck moving out from northern perimeter, heading towards our position.’
Mike’s gun sights were trained on the approaching vehicle when it swerved to one side and the spotlight suddenly illuminated Nick and the other team member as they jogged over the sand dunes. The two men both dropped to the deck instinctively as the 12.7mm machine gun roared in the night and bright tracer rounds arced towards them, chopping up the sand and sending gouts of dust spraying up into the cold air. Mike opened fire and blasted the cabin and its contents from about sixty yards. High velocity rounds sliced through the truck’s door and eviscerated the driver as Mike’s buddy aimed a long burst of fire that blew the machine gunner out of the back of the truck and left his headless corpse crumpled on the sand. The truck turned to one side and wedged itself nose-deep in a dune, engine still revving wildly. Seconds later, a 40mm grenade from the over watch team exploded on the grill of the second truck and turned it into a smoking cluster of burning metal. The teams were buying themselves some time but they had to move fast. Mike was up and running in a crouch, moving over the low dunes as AK47 rounds whined overhead. The guards were wide awake now and emptying magazines into the night. Things had suddenly become seriously noisy.
‘Man down. Repeat: man down.’
It was Nick’s wingman. Mike and his buddy covered the remaining couple of hundred yards at a sprint and dropped down besides their colleagues. The prisoner lay sprawled out on the sand, unconscious, unharmed and still breathing. And Nick had a hole in his chest from a high velocity 12.7mm round that had collapsed one lung and sent splintered bone fragments spinning throughout his chest and abdomen. He was still barely conscious but it was clear that he wouldn’t last much longer. For some bizarre reason, Mike’s thoughts flashed back to a mission in Africa and a French Legionnaire muttering in French over a dying comrade, ‘This little puncture can’t be repaired.’ Mike shook the thought from his head and grabbed Nick’s hand as the over watch team hammered rounds and 40mm grenades into the village. Nick’s eyes were clouded. He probably couldn’t even see.
‘Mike?’ His voice was hoarse and weak.
‘I’m here, buddy.’
‘Bludgers, mate. Class A, fuckin’ bludgers.’
‘I’m going to give you something for the pain, Nick. Then we’ll get you out of here.’
‘Pain?’ A gout of blood spilled from between his lips. ‘Can’t feel a fuckin’ thing, mate.’
Mike punched the morphine styrette into Nick’s exposed shoulder and quickly added two more. His eyes rolled up and Mike signalled to the remaining men, one to carry the prisoner, one to provide cover and he would carry Nick. No one got left behind.
As they co-ordinated their approach to the second lay up position, the over watch team confirmed that the cavalry was on its way but that they would have to move out to avoid ground fire from the village. They disengaged from a confused and disheartened enemy and took it in turns to carry their prisoner. Nick had died and, against all the rules of common sense and the logic of sharing the burden, Mike wouldn’t let anyone else carry the body.
They sat in the evacuation helicopters, one carrying a bound and duct-taped prisoner, the other bearing Nick’s shattered body and Mike smelt the drying blood that had soaked his combat fatigues as it mixed with his sweat. You could always throw away the clothing, scrub away the blood. But you could never wipe away the indelible sense of loss that burned in his soul and left scars in the depths of his heart. The heavily taped plastic packet that lay in his jacket pocket weighed more heavily than the kilo of heroin it contained.
Three days later and Mike was back at DIA Headquarters in Cyprus, answering the enquiry into Nick’s death and filling in the details and nuances that might’ve been missing from his formal mission report. The heroin had been a major surprise to the DIA. The prisoner had been very reluctant to co-operate and the Agency had quickly dispensed with the usual courtesies and resorted to hard interrogation methods to persuade him to talk. There was a sudden sense of urgency and Washington wanted results. At any price.
Back in the US, Mike had been given two weeks leave and a chance to talk with the Company shrink. The Agency was always concerned with the mental health of its operatives and was wary of any risks that their highly-trained killers might one day be tempted to vent their stress and inevitable frustrations on a slow-moving check out queue at the local supermarket. One DIA director had said that field staff should be kept behind bars in special zoos until required for action. In the military, those zoo facilities were usually known as barracks.
The Company shrink was very well qualified and had a lifetime of professional experience with combat veterans. He understood what his patients had to endure from a psychological perspective and he was determined to help as many of them as he could. Physical scars healed much faster than the mental and emotional ones. He was also paid to flag any danger signs that someone was cracking up or exhibiting potentially dangerous behaviour. That could mean the end of a DIA contract and the start of a new and exciting life with the US Postal Service.
‘So, how are you feeling, Mike?’
‘You really want to know? I’m curious. That’s how I feel.’
‘Curious? About what?’
‘About how the mission got compromised. About the contradictions. About the things we discovered out there.’
‘And what about Nick’s death? How does that make you feel?’
Mike paused. He was thinking about the question. He wasn’t really sure about the answer.
‘Well, Doc. He’s dead. And how I feel isn’t going to change that particular fact.’
‘But it must’ve affected you deeply, Mike.’
Mike paused again. He liked the shrink. He knew the guy was really trying to help him but he also knew he couldn’t pretend to feel things that he just didn’t feel.
‘It was just bad luck, Doc. A stray round in the dark. Hit him and took him out. And he died. I know it might sound weird but you get used to death. I lost a buddy to a snake bite in Latin America a few years ago. A snake bite, Doc. In the twenty-first century. Death’s all around you and a lot of the time it’s pretty random. You can’t always make sense of it so you have to accept it, put the conventional feelings to one side and get on with your job. That’s what we’re paid for. I liked Nick. Damn good soldier. I’ll miss him but I don’t dwell on it.’
‘My professional concern is that you’re repressing your feelings, Mike, hiding them in a pressure cooker. And one day that pressure cooker could suddenly explode. My job is to help you release the pressure easily so that there’s no damage.’ The Doc smiled at Mike, hoping he was getting through.
‘I understand the principle, Doc, but do you see any signs that I’m not dealing with the situation? Exactly. My focus is one hundred percent on the job and I want to get back into the field as soon as possible.’
The Doc nodded slowly, noted his concerns in the file and passed Mike psychologically fit for duty. They shook hands and the shrink smiled again as he told Mike to take good care of himself.
Mike used his time in Maryland to do some research, to check the files and talk to people who knew about the Russian crime syndicates. One week after his formal meeting with the shrink and Mike’s cell phone received a coded message from a Russian gang member asking for a meeting. The elusive contact said he’d got himself into a situation and was afraid for his life. Something about a misunderstanding concerning a large amount of money that had mysteriously gone missing. He was willing to talk to Mike in exchange for an escape route to South America and a suitcase stuffed with cash. He wouldn’t talk to the Feds because too many of them were on the Russki payroll. It had to be DIA. It had to be a black ops guy. It had to be Mike. It sounded legit. So Mike decided to play.
Coded messages to Mike’s cell phone obviously set off alarm bells. How did this guy get Mike’s number? Where did he get the codes from? In many ways, the approach was clumsy and completely unprofessional. It lacked finesse. It sounded just a little desperate. While the DIA was checking out the background, Mike was feeling distinctly impatient so he decided to set up a meeting and find out for himself. The contact sounded scared and would only meet up at night in a darkened alley in a part of the city that you only visited when you absolutely needed to score a small bag of non-prescription pharmaceuticals. Anyone else would’ve declined the invitation. Mike actually looked forward to it.
The visit had not revealed the supposed informant’s identity but it had resulted in the complete and mysterious disappearance of three would-be assailants, the death of two Russian would-be torturers and the capture and interrogation of a very large but singularly unintelligent Russian bodyguard and the secret hospitalisation of his boss’s son. After his close and extremely unpleasant encounter with a cordless power tool, the son had become remarkably co-operative and was still relieved that his interrogator had turned out not be Russian after all. Otherwise, his dismembered remains would undoubtedly have ended up in the dark, oily water off the end of the dockside pier. But Mike had confirmed that, whatever he’d stumbled across in that dusty concrete building during his recent mission in Syria, it was clearly tied in to the Russians. No wonder they wanted him dead. The connection was staggering in its implications for the region. The Russian military had put troops on the ground, they were carpet-bombing targets, launching cruise missiles and flying attack helicopters against ISIS – whilst running a major drugs operation with their sworn enemies. He’d come across some strangely weird and contradictory situations in his time, that was for sure. He’d seen families in Afghanistan torn apart by blood feuds and tribal loyalties. He’d seen brother sell out brother for hard cash in parts of war-torn Africa. He’d seen betrayal up close and personal in Colombia. But Russians running drugs with religious nuts in Syria came close to the top of the list in his personal catalogue of crazy. Yet, in a way that followed the unorthodox weave of his warped way of thinking, it made perfect sense. When you dropped the normal, moral revulsion at the drug, heroin could be used as a very versatile form of international currency. It could be used to generate vast amounts of cash. It could be used to fund the lavish lifestyles of politicians, generals, oligarchs and military commanders of all religious persuasions. It could be used to buy weapons and pay for sophisticated military technology. It could be used to fund a war. Someone was undoubtedly getting very rich on the back of this business. More than likely, a lot of people were getting very rich. Some of them were creating their own version of an earthly paradise for themselves without having to face the inconvenience of martyrdom. And what better place to process, manufacture and refine the drug than a war-torn province that was far beyond the range of international scrutiny? Mike wasn’t sure where the raw opium was coming from but it wasn’t hard to imagine the vast swathes of poppy fields that were being cultivated and lovingly tended in Afghanistan. DIA analysis of the brick that Mike had brought back confirmed his suspicions. There were plenty of places in the world where you could be killed for the price of your running shoes. When you worked out the value of all that smack, you quickly realised how big the stakes were and how cheaply your life could be bought and paid for.
By a strange coincidence, ever since the botched attempt to kidnap Mike had gone so dramatically wrong, Danny Lubinsky had dropped off the radar. The interrogation crew that had been instructed to find out everything that Mike knew before dumping his remains in the water had disappeared without a trace. On hearing the news, Pavel Illyich’s father had turned an intimidating shade of crimson as he completely lost his temper, spitting vodka and fragments of smoked sausage at his cowering underlings, screaming at them to get out and find his son and shooting one man in the groin for not moving quickly enough.
The DIA had secured Mr Pony Tail in a comfortable cell that was fully equipped to deal with his shattered knee caps and which also permitted DIA personnel to administer a cocktail of drugs that encouraged the young thug to talk very freely about everything he knew of his father’s criminal empire. It was a very revealing account. Pavel Illyich’s father survived in part because of his powerful contacts back in the Old Country. He was obliged to funnel cash to these individuals via a series of offshore companies and, in return, they offered their ‘protection’. It was the same kind of deal that criminal gangs offered to businesses right across the Russian Federation – the notorious ‘roof tax’ that ensured your business didn’t burn down and that key personnel weren’t shot dead in the middle of the night.
The Russian crime boss had received detailed instructions from Moscow to locate and interrogate Mike Ducane and report back immediately. It was a matter of the highest urgency. Danny Lubinsky had been dutifully paying his version of the ‘roof tax’, even though he was based in the US, and Pavel Illyich’s father had instructed him in the clearest possible terms to pick up Mike, primarily to make sure his own people weren’t compromised if anything went wrong. Better to use expendable cut-outs whenever possible. The old KGB ways still survived long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Danny’s hirelings had failed to report in, Danny Lubinsky had panicked. And rightly so. Failure could only result in extreme punishment. Losing his nose and his ears would be the least of his worries. So he stuffed handfuls of cash into an overnight bag, grabbed a couple of very expensive, false passports, told his guys he had to make a trip to Canada to sort out a couple of personal problems and flew down to Panama before heading further south and into the depths of obscurity. He didn’t really look forward to starting a new life in a missionary outpost somewhere in the Amazon Basin but it was a much more attractive proposition than waiting around for his psychopathic roof tax landlord to turn up and start asking questions with a set of pliers and a blow torch. Danny Lubinsky disappeared.
‘Mike Ducane, you lucky son of a bitch!’ The Operations Chief was a barrel-chested man with a bald head and a fanatical eye for detail. He was also known for his barracks room sense of humour. ‘Forget the day job. I’m taking you to the casino tonight and putting everything on 13 black, you’re just so damn lucky!’
Mike looked up at the Ops Exec and smiled. ‘Sounds like you’re putting ketchup on the shit sandwich again, Chief.’
They were in a briefing room at DIA Headquarters in Cyprus and Mike had been summoned to receive new orders.
‘You’re going back to Syria with a chance to pick up a Major League bonus, Mike, my boy. How lucky is that?’
The truth though was a lot simpler than plain old luck. Mike’s language skills and specialist combat experience made him an obvious choice for missions against ISIS. Except this time, the mission wasn’t just against ISIS. They were going to seize a major ISIS player and find out exactly how he was connected to the Russians.
The air conditioning hummed in the background as Mike listened carefully to the briefing. Three senior DIA analysts explained the mission and filled in the background details. There was no discussion of the dangers or the risks. Just the operational details and it was obvious right from the start that the mission had been put together very quickly, which implied a ton and a half of pressure bearing down from Washington. No wonder they were using DIA. If anything went wrong, Mike could see that this gig was way too risky for conventional forces. Washington needed complete deniability, which meant that the DIA team was already listed as expendable. Sure, the bonus represented the largest chunk of cash Mike had ever been offered in his life but very few DIA field operatives were in the game just for the money.
They needed the rush that could only be found at the sharp and noisy end of field work. It wasn’t a death wish. Far from it. Deep down, they needed to win and beating Death was part of the game. Some said it was the most intense and life-affirming experience a human could possible endure. It could be so intense that it became utterly addictive. Mike just called it another day at the office. And that was another reason the Company shrink kept an extensive and expanding collection of case notes on Mr Michael Ducane.
‘Mike, we’re short of time here and we’ve already selected the guys to go with you. You can check the list and let us know if you’ve got a problem with anyone we’ve chosen but preparations begin today, fifteen hundred hours at the Simulation Facility, and you’ve got a lot of work to do. Any questions?’
Mike picked up his briefing file and the notes he’d made and stood up from the table.
‘When do we go?’
‘Soon, Mike. We’ll confirm departure details to Syria tonight and then, once we get the green light, you’ll have twenty-four hours notice to be on target and begin the op.’
Mike just nodded as he left the room and then decided to get a bite to eat and load up on fluids. The Sim Fac could be gruelling and they’d be doing practice drills in the heat for hours on end. Train hard, fight easy. Why did everyone keep saying that? It was such a dumb expression. It was never easy.
Things were moving fast and three days later Mike and the DIA team were touching down in Baghdad before moving by helicopter to their forward operating base in Syria. For Mike, in some ways, it felt like coming home.
‘Well, hello stranger.’ Fatima Trigo opened the flap to Mike’s tent and stood silhouetted against the evening sky in her combat fatigues and officer’s hat, smiling and nodding, hips swaying ever so gently as she stepped inside and tossed her ridiculous hat into the corner.
’I heard you were back. How could you leave me alone for so long, hey?’ She had her arms around his neck and kissed him, moving her mouth from his lips to bite the edge of his jaw and lick his ear lobe. Her hands slipped inside the back of his fatigue pants and squeezed his butt. Yeah. It sure felt like coming home.
Security around the Syrian operating base was not as rigid as it was in Baghdad. The perimeter presented a formidable array of barbed wire fences and mine fields, machine gun posts and sentries. But, once you were inside the security cordon, you could move around fairly easily and, even though everyone in the camp knew about Mike and Fatima, people followed the unwritten convention to ignore them and give them as much privacy as possible. There’d been plenty of ribald humour at first, but the DIA personnel quickly accepted that Mike had got lucky with a strikingly beautiful Arab woman and some believed she might actually be good for him. Mike was strongly inclined to agree.
Fatima was lying on the floor in Mike’s arms, sweat cooling on her smooth skin, stretched out on a pile of blankets because the army cot was just too small for two people to share, especially when they were writhing and twisting and threshing around in the throes of passion. The guys in the neighbouring tents had got used to the yelps and grunts and muffled screams that could be heard whenever Fatima was sharing Mike’s tent. It had become a standing joke in the camp. She didn’t seem to care. Her ancestry was desert Berber, the fierce, black-skinned nomads of North Africa, warriors who’d conquered and ruled Spain in the name of the Prophet. Syrian born and bearing a Spanish surname, Fatima Trigo was a fearsome combination of raw beauty, taut physical strength and intimidating intelligence. And Mike was hopelessly crazy about her. If he could’ve avoided the obligatory return trips to Cyprus and the US, he would’ve stayed in Syria and lived happily ever after in the Spartan surroundings of his field tent. As long as he could share it with Fatima Trigo. But life had other plans.
‘Mike?’ She coiled a sweat-slicked leg around his hip and drew herself even closer, nuzzling his ear. ‘Why were you away so long?’
‘You were away too, remember?’
‘I had to make my report in person but I was only away for a couple of days. You came back to camp and then just disappeared for weeks. You abandoned me. I was lonely. I was feeling most severely neglected!’
He laughed at her very poor impersonation of a whining teenager and she giggled as she moved her hand down the ridges in his taut abdomen.
‘So are you going to tell me why you abandoned me or do I have to persuade you?’
She gently squeezed his balls and suddenly she had his full attention. He gasped. ‘OK. I’ll tell you everything. Just – don’t – stop – with – the – torture!’
There were moments when he realised how difficult it was to speak when you had a perfectly hardened nipple firmly between your lips but the thought was soon lost as Fatima bucked and groaned and rolled beneath him. The guys in the neighbouring tents just turned up the volume on their headsets and drowned out the muffled screams with the pulsing beats of their favourite musical downloads.
The operation got the green light two days later and Mike immediately assembled his team for a final briefing and equipment check. He reminded everyone that, if they were captured, there would be no cavalry charging over the hill to rescue them. They were on their own. They were facing a brutal enemy and, if they were caught, they would be tortured before they were summarily executed. So, avoiding capture was paramount. Better to go down with guns blazing than to put yourselves in the hands of a bunch of crazies who tortured for the sake of torture. There were no cyanide capsules hidden inside a hollow filling but the accepted wisdom was that it was better to put a round in your own head than allow yourself to be taken. Black ops were supposed to be secret, discrete and deniable. You couldn’t send in a bunch of heavily armed mercenaries to do a job and then cover their asses with a Delta Force rescue mission, gunships blazing away and Wagner on the ship-borne speakers. That was never going to happen.
Mike had drawn extra ammunition and 40mm grenades for the mission. They all knew that when it came to a fire fight, the guy who ran out of ammo first was usually the one who lost. You didn’t get points for style. Despite the additional weight, each man drew a Claymore anti-personnel mine to stow in their packs. If they had to fight their way out, Claymores could buy the team valuable time. Despite the assurances from DIA Central, Mike was still concerned about the possible breach of security that had soured his last mission. He wasn’t superstitious by nature but the experience had made him much more cautious than usual.
The mission had been allocated two helicopters, advanced machines that were equipped with anti-radar camouflage and the latest in engine noise-suppression technology. The angular-bodied choppers were much quieter than their standard, military counterparts and that made them perfectly suited for night insertion operations. They came in one at a time, black as the night, hovered briefly over the rocky desert floor, deposited their live cargo and swooped away, flying low over the dunes and back south to their distant base. In the silence of the desert, the teams formed a close circle with weapons pointing outwards, waiting for the choppers to disappear over the horizon, checking to be certain they hadn’t been compromised. The desert was cold and still, apart from the occasional cracking of cooling rocks. There was no wind and the mission had been timed to take place close to the dark of the moon. The ten men waited in silence until Mike raised one fist and signalled for the first group to move out. They had a long march in front of them and Mike put two of his team on point to reconnoitre ahead and two guys covering the rear as they set out in a diamond formation that offered all-round protection as they covered the rocky terrain, weapons ready and heavy packs pulling at the straps on their shoulders.
They were making good progress when Mike called a halt to rotate the men’s positions within the diamond patrol shape and give the guys a chance to rest and top up their fluid levels. He was mindful of the additional weight from the ammo and Claymores and wanted to make sure the teams stayed alert and in the best possible shape. Dehydration was a killer even in the nocturnal cold of the desert and the speed of their marching pace combined with the weight of their packs and weapons meant the guys were sweating. They all knew they had to stay hydrated and each of them had brought along small packets of tissue salts to replace the losses from sweating. A lot of their Special Forces training had been based on the virtues of good, old-fashioned common sense. Denying yourself water and imposing unnecessary discomforts just led to a reduction in operational efficiency and that was the short cut that often led to mistakes. The kind of mistakes that could get you and your buddies killed. So they topped up their water levels, popped some tiny mineral salt pills, breathed deeply and gave their muscles a stretch to keep the circulation pumping. Every man kept his weapon to hand and his senses switched on to full alert. Even during a break, the team posted lookouts to maintain maximum vigilance. It became a normal feature of any patrol and that constant discipline of high level alertness had saved lives on countless occasions. The stars were partly obscured by high cloud, too high to provide rain but useful in reducing background light down on the ground. Mike checked his watch and raised one hand. The patrol rose up in their combat formation, tightened the webbing on their packs and headed out once again. The ground was rocky so they were leaving no obvious tracks to betray their passage but the last man in the group was responsible for making sure that there were no signs of disturbance in the ground. He carried a loose cloth on a short plastic pole that he could use to brush away any signs of footprints in the sand but his focus was very much on the rear quadrant to make sure no one was sneaking up from behind. The improvised mop wasn’t exactly a high-tech, space age instrument but, as countless desert patrols could testify, it worked just fine, didn’t need batteries and never broke down.
The teams were navigating via a military grade GPS handset but Mike always confirmed the heading with a compass that he carried in his breast pocket. The law of probability stated that if a piece of equipment could malfunction or go wrong, it would. So the DIA operatives appreciated the qualities of a simple instrument like a hand-held compass, an elegant tool that could always be relied upon if the sophisticated GPS device decided to go on strike in the middle of an operation. All good plans possessed the virtue of back-ups and alternatives.
They made good time and reached their lay up positions a good hour before sunrise, scouting the area first and agreeing that the pre-selected hides chosen from the satellite imagery were the right choices. They dug in, secured the area, checked their weapons and communications and settled in to watch over the quiet village that lay below them. They were dug in amongst rocks and sandy hillocks that surrounded a dust-blown hamlet, located in a shallow valley and sheltered from the desert winds by the scrub and rocky scree that formed a natural barrier against the elements. A single track wound down one side of the low hills from the north. It cut through the village and snaked its way through the scrub and wound its way to the south. Mike noticed the deep ruts in the primitive roadway and wondered what kind of vehicles had cut through the sand and shale and when they’d last made an appearance in the village.
As the sun rose and cast its first hint of warmth across the landscape, a solitary cock crowed and the village began to stir. A few small mud-brick houses opened their doors and darkly-robed women stepped out and began to gather at the well in the middle of the village to draw water. Mike was watching intently. He noticed that no one came out of the largest building, a more modern structure on two floors with a small satellite dish bolted to a steel mast on the roof. TV or communications? Two women each carried a heavy, plastic water container on their heads and made their way to the larger building. Two more followed. How obvious was that? They weren’t bringing water to their own houses. Their first priority was to bring water to whoever was in the main building. Mike checked in with the other team to see if they could make out any movement or detail from their position.
‘Eyes on main building.’ Mike keyed his microphone. ‘We need to know who’s in there but that’s the best candidate for target’s location.’
‘Movement on upper floor, last window on right.’
‘What do you see?’
‘Two Tangos in combat fatigues, one with binos, checking the ridges.’
‘Binos has beard and turban. Other guy – no beard and light skin. Possibly not local. Possibly not ISIS.’ There was a slight pause. ‘Drinking coffee. NATO standard’ That meant instant coffee with milk and two sugars. There were muffled laughs on the communication headsets. ‘OK. Just guessing about the coffee. Might be three sugars. Can’t tell exactly from here.’
Yeah, thought Mike. Humour was always a welcome guest at the party, especially when you were a long way from friendlies and holed up in a hot, cramped hole, scraped out in the hard desert ground.
In the late morning, there was movement in the two-storey building and two bearded bodyguards emerged from the main door into the bright sunlight, AK47s held in front of their chests and, a minute later, a short but stocky man stepped out and looked around. He was wearing a large turban and carried a stubby sub-machine gun in his left hand. Bingo.
‘Target confirmed. Has just emerged from the building.’
ISIS commanders were justifiably scared of drone strikes and they put a lot of time, energy and effort into keeping a low profile. Calling for fanatical levels of commitment from their followers, the leadership could always be relied upon to save their own skins whilst happily sacrificing the lives of others. With all those virgins waiting for them in paradise, Mike had often wondered why the leaders weren’t more ready to die for the cause. Snatching key figures for interrogation – though probably not to stand trial for crimes against humanity – was a new tactic that emphasised Washington’s need to understand more about their enemies. No point blowing up the commanders in drone strikes if they were just replaced within a few days by another band of psychopaths. Better to know how they were funded, who was supplying weapons and training, who was co-ordinating their recruitment campaigns, who was sending suicide bombers out into the world to attack civilian targets in faraway cities. Intelligence would help to disrupt their networks and starve them of resources.
‘Target having a smoke and smelling the roses.’ The second team confirmed the sighting.
‘Be a lot easier to call in a Paveway and turn him and his buddies to pink mist.’
‘He’s a popular guy and Intel can’t wait to meet him for a cosy chat.’
‘Check for movement in the windows. We need to know how many guys are in the building.’
‘They had about twenty litres of water delivered and they don’t look like they waste much of it on washing and personal hygiene. That’s got to be around ten guys. They could always send out for more water but there would have to be enough for everyone this morning. What do you reckon?’
The teams watched and noted each individual who came and went from the main building. Women collected water from the well and took it back to the huts and small houses that made up the village community.
Mike activated his throat microphone. ‘Question. Where are all the men?’
‘That’s right. ISIS guys in the main building but no men coming and going from the other houses.’
‘Maybe they’re working.’
‘Where? No one’s left the village since we got here.’
Every anomaly, every deviation from the normal routine could be a danger sign, a warning that something could be wrong with the situation. Mike was familiar with village routines in Syria. The community moved in set patterns and did their best to survive. But the absence of men from the village made him curious. And apprehensive. ‘Stay alert, everybody. I don’t want us to miss anything here.’
After the problems with the last operation, Mike had suggested that they make their move to snatch the target at the earliest opportunity. The longer they stayed in position, the greater the chance of discovery. At sunset on the following evening, Mike assembled the snatch squad and briefed everyone on the mission. All the guards were expendable and the plan was to neutralise everyone they met with the exception of the target. That meant extra .22 ammo for the suppressed pistols and two more guys to beef up the original four-man snatch squad. Mike ordered the teams to set up Claymore mines in front of the over watch position and a couple more to cover the planned line of withdrawal towards the pick-up point. If they had to leave in a hurry, they could buy some extra time with the Claymores. The over watch team had a sniper rifle and their 40mm grenade launchers to handle any opposition. They felt prepared and the operation would get under way at three thirty in the morning when the enemy would be at their lowest level of alertness. At least that was the theory.
Mike and his five men moved off into the darkness of the night, faces and hands completely camouflaged, stealing across the scrub like shadows, pausing every thirty seconds to check that they were still undetected. It was cold in the desert night and they wore bandannas over their mouths and noses to reduce any condensed moisture clouds from their breath. Over watch had night vision scopes to scan the village. Everything was quiet. The village seemed to be fast asleep. It was certainly cold and there were no guards outside the main building. No lights. The five-man team set up outside the main door and Mike discovered that it was unlocked. One man crouched down to cover their exit and the other four crept inside the building, night vision goggles amplifying the ambient light, searching for targets. They’d practised these drills a thousand times, instinctively knowing what each of them had to do. One man covered the stairs whilst the remaining three moved silently along the corridor. They’d decided to neutralise the ground floor first before proceeding to the upper level. They found four men downstairs, two in each of the crudely decorated, litter-strewn rooms, snoring in their unwashed uniforms and oblivious of the intruders. A quick succession of .22 hollow point rounds to the head at very close range and the team was ready to reload their pistols and move upstairs. Mike was worried. Four guards sleeping and no one on guard duty? No one at the front door? Either these guys were criminally sloppy or they wanted to make it easy for the intruders to get inside the building. For one long moment, Mike was tempted to abort the mission. It would be impossible to explain his actions to his bosses but every instinct in his body was screaming a warning. They were so close to completing their mission, it would be insane to quit right now. Mike waved towards the stairs and the point man moved carefully forwards. They were halfway up when all Hell broke loose. The lead man took two rounds in his armoured vest that threw him backwards and down the stairs.
‘Contact! Contact! Tangos approaching the building!’
Mike heard the automatic weapon fire from his buddy outside the front door and the staccato bursts of AK47s answering in an overwhelming crescendo of noise. His point man was shaken by the hits to his body armour, dazed from the tumble into his buddies but mercifully unwounded. The team swung their assault rifles into position as one man and sent a burst of fire up the stairs to sweep the upper landing. The over watch team was firing into the village. ‘Pull out, guys. It’s a trap. Tangos in the surrounding houses, estimate between twenty and thirty hostiles. They’re moving in.’ Mike popped a fragmentation grenade up the stairwell to force his attackers back. He fully appreciated the disadvantages of making an assault upstairs so he pulled his team back to the ground floor. ‘Move, move, move! We need to get out of here right now and the front door won’t work.’
He called his man back from outside the door, rounds chipping the concrete walls and shredding the cheap wooden door frame. ‘Out the back, boys! Time to get out of Dodge!’
Two men covered the front door, firing short, three-round bursts to deter the enemy as Mike ran to the back of the building. He knelt behind the concrete wall and tested the rear door. It was unlocked. ‘On me, guys.’ He slowly opened the door and a volley of shots splintered the woodwork. ‘Over watch. Take out the hostiles at the back of the building.’
Five perfectly placed sniper rounds and two high explosive 40mm grenades cut down the ISIS soldiers at the rear of the building. Mike and his team felt the shock wave from the grenades as the over watch squad switched their fire to the front of the building. ‘Time to go. Let’s move it, guys. No one gets left behind!’
The five men burst out of the shattered rear door and sprinted towards the village perimeter, AK 47 rounds whining over their heads. Someone was shooting from an upstairs window. There was no time to stop and return fire. Over watch put a high velocity Lapua .308 round through the shooter’s head and the team ran on. ‘Break right!’ shouted Mike as he made a quick detour to the south, running hard and hoping to lead any pursuers away from their lay up position. ‘Tangos in pursuit. About a dozen guys on foot. Engaging.’ The voice from the four-man over watch team was calm and collected, totally professional and ice cool in the face of imminent danger. ‘Correction. Tangos heading this way.’ Mike knew that the over watch fire team had attracted the guards’ attention. He keyed his throat mike. ‘Over watch. Claymore time.’
The guards lacked the kind of training that taught the virtues of fire and manoeuver, of covering your buddies as they rushed forwards in a co-ordinated assault. They just screamed and ran forwards, squeezing off rounds wildly and praying that some of them would strike the enemy. When they were fifty yards out, over watch detonated the first Claymore and a super-sonic wall of high-velocity steel ball bearings swept the attackers into oblivion.
‘Mike. Don’t know where they’re coming from but we have more unfriendlies heading in your direction. Counting about a dozen. Engaging.’
Mike and his team reached their lay up position and packed as much ammo as possible into their belts. They drank as much water as they could and prepared to launch a volley of 40mm grenades towards their attackers.
There was a note of concern in the voice of the over watch team leader. ‘Fuck! Mortars.’
Mike heard it too. Somewhere in the village, someone was firing a large calibre mortar and it was aimed at the over watch team’s position. ‘Where did that come from?’
Mike activated his comms link. ‘Break out. Break out. We’re compromised. Head for the RV. I’m calling in immediate extraction.’
The four-man over watch team didn’t even have time to pick up their gear as the third mortar round made a direct hit on their position and vaporised the squad in a boiling sea of high explosive and shrapnel. Secondary explosions lit up the night and three more Claymores blasted their deadly cargo harmlessly into the night. Mike was stunned. But he didn’t have time to be shocked. ‘Get up and get moving or we’re next.’
The six men carried their weapons, as much ammo as possible and their water. And they ran. The desert night was cold in a way that always surprises the uninitiated. The cold air felt good but they were all sweating as they ran across the hard ground, scanning for cover and knowing they had to reach the extraction point before the hostiles caught up with them.
The point man heard the noise first. ‘Chopper. To the north east. Is it ours?’
Mike shook his head. ‘Wrong direction. But ISIS don’t have choppers so it could be friendly.’
They slowed down and stopped for a brief pause, breathing hard and topping up their fluids.
‘Second chopper now. East.’ The team turned their heads, jaws open to amplify the sound.
‘That’s a big machine, Mike. Sounds like a transport chopper to me.’
‘Boys, we don’t have time to find out. Let’s move. We’ve got to get to the RV before the site’s compromised.’
Transport helicopters? Deploying ground troops? This was a serious development. Their only hope was to keep moving and hope the choppers weren’t equipped with thermal imaging equipment. Or they might find themselves on the receiving end of a stand-off missile that would put a real crimp in their day. Depending on who was flying the chopper. Depending on who might be on board the chopper.
They’d covered about six miles at a run, highly motivated to clear the area and pushing themselves hard, determined to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the compromised village. The squad slowed and stopped for a much-needed break, kneeling on the hard desert floor, breathing hard, drinking their tepid water and scanning the surroundings with their night vision gear, weapons at the ready. Mike had called in the evacuation and received the rendezvous co-ordinates. Another hard run and they would make it. That deeply engrained toughness that would keep them moving, ignoring the tired muscles and blisters, pushing through the discomfort, focusing on making a clean getaway. They stood up and got into formation, preparing to walk for a few hundred yards before picking up the pace when two dozen heavily armed troops emerged from the dunes and quickly surrounded them. They were wearing night vision goggles and carrying AK74 assault rifles equipped with laser sights. The six-man squad was covered with tiny scarlet pinpricks of light where the lasers lit up their targets. The team had been taken completely by surprise. Despite their training. Despite their experience. They’d been caught. It was Game Over. Check mate.
Mike was running half a dozen ideas through his head as an officer strode forwards and signalled to the startled group of mercenaries to drop their weapons. At that moment, they had no choice. If they’d wanted to kill them, the six men would already be dead. One word flashed up in Mike’s mind. Spetsnaz. Russian Special Forces. The uniforms. The equipment. Their ability to sneak up undetected. They’d been dropped off by chopper to intercept and ambush the squad and these guys were good. But what were they doing here? The Russians were supposed to be fighting ISIS on behalf of the Syrian government.
‘Which of you is Michael Ducane?’ The officer spoke excellent English. With his hands raised, Mike nodded his head. ‘I am. And who might you be?’ The Russian didn’t return the courtesy of a reply.
Two soldiers came forwards and secured Mike’s hands with plasti-cuffs before leading him off to one side. The officer walked back to his men and nodded once. The Spetsnaz troops opened fire in a deafening roar of high-velocity rounds and cut the squad down where it stood. Mike gasped. It was so completely unexpected. So brutal. And so unnecessary. An NCO stepped forwards and shot each man twice in the head with his assault rifle to make sure they were all dead. And then Mike immediately understood. No witnesses. And that sobering thought didn’t bode too well for his long term future either.
He was pushed along by two soldiers and the group made their way at a fast walk to a low plateau where the commanding officer called up the transport helicopter. ‘Package secured. Packaging eliminated. Standing by for pick up.’ Mike understood every word, not wishing to reveal his knowledge of the language, and wondering where this unforeseen disaster was heading. At the back of his mind, he knew he would happily eliminate each and every one of these sons of bitches and, if he could find half a chance, he’d take as many of the bastards as possible on a one-way ride to the fiery pits of hell. If there was any kind of an afterlife, he knew where he’d probably be heading and he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be short of company in the roasting pits of Perdition. Especially if that included this hardened bunch of killers in Spetsnaz uniforms.
Fifteen minutes later, he heard the distinctive whine of the helicopter’s engines as the machine raced towards the pick-up point. Two dozen hostiles, two squads of highly-trained elite troops, two dozen ruthless killers, all added up to a few too many guys to tangle with if he was planning to make a break anytime before the chopper arrived. He didn’t have too many options so Mike tried to relax, to conserve his energy. He was going to need every ounce of his reserves if he stood the remotest chance of getting away from this nightmare in one piece.
‘Michael.’ It was the officer. ‘We’re going for a ride now but we’ve brought someone along to keep you company.’ He laughed with his mouth. But somehow the laugh failed to make it all the way to his cold, grey eyes. A personal joke that he chose not to explain to his prisoner.
The military helicopter landed in a swirl of grit and dust and Mike turned his face away to keep the sand out of his eyes. Two troopers grabbed him firmly by the arms and hustled him on board, the rotors still churning up the ground dust, and then the rest of the Spetsnaz soldiers climbed on.
‘Well, hello, stranger.’ The voice stunned him as he took his seat in the dimly-lit interior.
He stared in disbelief. He couldn’t fully grasp what was happening. It took a full five seconds to assure himself that he wasn’t hallucinating. He looked across the cargo bay of the transport helicopter in complete shock and into the coal-black eyes of Fatima Trigo. ‘Hey! Why the dumb expression? Aren’t you pleased to see me, Mike?’
The officer pulled on a headset to talk with the pilot, confirming that everyone was on board and giving permission for take off. He looked at his prisoner as the engines increased their high-pitched whine and smiled. ‘I believe you’ve met before but allow me to introduce you to Major Trigo of the State Security Service. Did you know her father was a full colonel in the KGB? No? Well, Mr Ducane, as you say, the apple never falls far from the tree.’ He was laughing out loud as the helicopter lifted off and the noise was drowned out in the scream of the engines. Mike could only stare in shock and confusion and wonder what the Russians had in store for him. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t going to be party hats and champagne. As the cool night air from the desert washed over him, he speculated that whatever was being planned for him, it probably didn’t involve hours of exquisite pleasure in the silken embrace of Fatima Trigo’s naked thighs.
Former special forces operative and private military contractor, Sean Wilson is the creator of The Shadow Force novels. He has fought in some of the bloodiest wars in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and, of course, Afghanistan. Now his experience as a combat veteran adds depth, excitement and gritty realism to the adventures and characters he describes in his gripping stories. Every shot, move and action has been honed in the crucible of combat. Join The Shadow Force and breathe in the excitement of deniable black ops in the heart of the world’s most dangerous trouble spots.
Sean is happily married and has three children. He and his wife live in the lovely city of Portland, Oregon, and he is always happy to receive E-Mail from his readers.
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Deadly, deniable and classified as expendable, Shadow Force is an elite team of special forces professionals, highly-trained operatives working off-radar for the Defence Intelligence Agency, private military contractors who have the grim reputation for taking care of business wherever war and chaos reign. In the strife of war-torn Syria, it's hard to tell the difference between friend and foe and when the stakes involve billions of Dollars of pure heroin, things are bound to get complicated. Shadow Team leader Mike Ducane faces a tough assignment but who can he trust when the chips are down and you don't know who's got your back? Suddenly, Mike Ducane knows exactly what it means to be totally deniable and totally expendable.