Steve Barber unlatched the trunk of the ancient Citroën and opened it an inch to hear the sounds of the night. Fresh air rushed in and he filled his lungs. He held his body frozen, legs cramped and neck stiff from eight hours in the confined space, and absorbed the village through his eyes, ears and nose. Voices were distant, the tone easy. It was pitch black, with just a wisp of lantern light coming from a mud-brick building fifty meters away. Dinner fires still offered a touch of garlic and onion mingled with the wood smoke.
Raising the lid higher, he climbed out with just the whisper of his clothing rubbing against his pack. He held a Glock equipped with a 17-round magazine—he’d attached the silencer while waiting for nightfall. He planted his left foot on the stony ground, cringing at the crunch his boot made on marble-sized pebbles scattered along the road. Slow and steady, he retrieved his pack, lowered the trunk lid, and crouched behind the right rear side of the twenty-seven-year old French car. After a 360-degree scan, he darted to the north wall of the building against which the Citroën was parked.
He had been in the trunk since being driven to the village and, even though the temperature had not exceeded 20 degrees Celsius that afternoon, sweat soaked his clothes down to his Phenix Fast Assault soft boots. But now it was a cool 9 degrees. A relief. A few quiet stretches and isometrics. Ready to move.
He had memorized the layout of the village, every detail from the bends in the streets to the depths of the wells, from the collapsed wall on the outskirts near the graveyard to the grove of broad-podded Acacia trees where the ground sloped toward a dry creek bed. Even in the dark, Steve knew this was the southwest corner.
He checked his watch—2334 hours. He drank some water from the pouch in his pack while he assessed his environment. Although there would be a full moon later, it was not yet visible. Steve didn’t use night vision goggles. He relied on his training and eyesight, and dispensed with the ten ounces of equipment. As usual in December, it had not rained in this part of Egypt for days. A layer of dust covered anything that had not been recently touched or didn’t move—like the ancient headstones in the graveyard, the names and dates obscured. Steve didn’t think about death. No point. What will be will be.
He pondered the operational plan, the one he’d gone over twenty times before. The intel briefing just before he climbed into the Citroën for the long ride indicated his targets would be found in or near the village town hall. He’d find that building on a street thirty meters from its intersecting with the west side of the village square. He’d recognize it from the other battered buildings around—it had two stories and glass windows, the only such building in this tiny village. He had ninety-six minutes to make the kills.
Steve removed his short-barreled Micro Tavor assault rifle from his pack and slipped the strap over his shoulder, fixing the weapon to his lightweight combat vest. The Tavor was fitted with a 30-cartridge magazine and, like the 9mm, a silencer. He moved furtively through the village, avoiding a local police station that would be easy to take, but which would certainly alert the village—and the targets. Two or three times he pressed his back against the wall of a building, frozen in shadow as someone passed nearby, the rippled camouflage paint on his face and hands blending with the mottled brick. He carried two knives to silence potential alarm-givers, the new KABAR Marine combat knife and a Gerber TAC 2, but he would only take that action when absolutely necessary. He was not a killer. He was a warrior.
Moonlight broke over the horizon as Steve reached the street where the village town hall stood fifty meters away in crumbling disorder, its roof tiles chipped, panes of glass in the arched windows cracked and gray with grime. It was as though the building reflected the cruel minds of those inside. That building might be a deathtrap. Avoid the debris by the front door so you don’t alert those inside. Steve’s habit of talking to himself was annoying, even to him. Sometimes he said the words aloud. But he wouldn’t make that mistake here.
An emaciated dog of mixed breed rushed out of a narrow side alley, snarling. Steve drew a light pistol from a holster strapped to his right thigh; the gun loaded with a veterinarian’s dart filled with a strong sedative. He knew dogs could give you away, but didn’t like killing them. He made sure the op-order provided this equipment. Good thing you aren’t ten pounds heavier, Fido, he thought, as he fired the dart into the middle of the dog’s rump, instantly silencing it. I’d have shot you. He bent to one knee, gently removed the dart, and placed the dog against a building.
Close now, he slipped into a small alcove and spoke into his communications microphone. A technician read satellite infra-red image information into his earpiece: two targets inside the building in the northwest corner; a third outside the building in the middle of the north wall; a fourth across the street from the town hall entrance on the south side. Remainder of exterior was clear for fifty meters. All four targets had been almost motionless for at least the last forty-seven minutes. Steve whispered acknowledgement.
He scanned the area. There. The man across the street from the entrance was leaning against the wall of a small doorway, asleep, his weapon lying across his lap. He would take out that man first, then the two inside and kill the fourth as he left the village to the west. He focused for a few moments, visually measuring everything, and then, pulling his Glock, counted off in his mind the precise cadence of his paces and actions. One, two, three, four, five, six, shoot number one. Turn, one, two, three, four, five. At front door. Open. One, two, shoot number two. Turn, one, shoot number three. Turn back, one, shoot number two again. One, two, back at door. Look. Get out, close door, turn left, one, two, turn left, one, two, three, four, shoot number four. Leave town.
He moved effortlessly, focused, trained to do, not feel. As he reached the first man and verified the target, their faces memorized—burned into his brain—he fired two silenced rounds into the head and one into his heart. That’s three.
Steve reached the entrance to the town hall and pried the door open with his KABAR knife. His eyes had adjusted completely to the deep darkness long ago. He found and confirmed his targets. Two shots in the head of the first target; two shots for the second. One shot into the heart of the second, back to the first for the same shot. Nine.
As he returned to the front door, and as the news crackled through his earpiece, he saw that two women had discovered the man across the street. They did not yet know he was dead; he could tell because they were not yelling. He instinctively raised his weapon and aimed at the woman on the left. Even at this distance, he could kill each instantly with one shot. Why the hell are they out this time of night? Steve asked himself. Shit! He kept the target for a split second, assessing scenarios and outcomes. He pulled his weapon down. I don’t need to kill them. I can finish this and get out. Okay, move it!
Steve slipped to the north side of the building and as he approached and verified the fourth target, the women shrieked like wounded animals, long and loud, as he knew they would. Undistracted by them, he put the standard three shots into the target and continued westward out of the village at a measured run. Twelve. An even dozen. Keep that thirteenth shot in the chamber for luck. He holstered his 9mm and unstrapped his assault rifle.
After fifty meters, he barked into his microphone. Someone barked back into his earpiece. The village behind him exploded with shouts and curses. A dark figure stepped into his path raising an AK-47. Steve veered slightly left and raised his Tavor. Without breaking stride, he sprayed the man with fire, sharply shifted two meters to his right, and kept running as the dead man soared backward, his shattered weapon firing wildly into the night sky.
Time for evasive action. He darted left down an alley, just a space between two buildings large enough for him to run through, then turned right as he emerged, heading toward the edge of town. He knew this would lead to a small group of Acacia trees and then to a dry creek where he could run first north and then west in the small depression next to the bank. Look! Listen! Pay attention! He pushed smoothly but quickly through the branches of the Acacia trees, twisting and turning to let the branches snap back into position, letting himself be hidden from view of the town as he reached the other side of the dense thicket. Fifty more meters and the village lay behind him.
Steve maintained an eight-minute mile pace, continuing first west for two kilometers, then south to the extraction point—the time had been moved up thirty minutes during the exchange back in the village. He heard the roar of engines and knew that pursuit would soon follow that sound. His advantage was the darkness and his stamina. Soon the sounds faded as he covered the distance to the designated point.
Forty minutes later, Steve reached the agreed-upon coordinates. He spoke into his microphone, heard a response, and unpacked his retrieval harness and balloon. As he waited motionless, crouched against a rock, he saw lights moving in the distance and heard gunfire. He sensed a snake nearby and held himself stock-still until he saw that it was a sand viper—judging by the horns and girth. Steve watched it slither north, its wide back illuminated by a sliver of moonlight. He blew it a kiss goodbye as it disappeared into a cluster of rocks.
Soon he heard the low rumble of the four MC-130H Combat Talon II engines, and then a voice in his earpiece. He stood slowly, scanned his surroundings, and removed the silencers from his weapons. He secured the 9mm but left the assault rifle at his front, attached to the vest. Steve buckled his harness, bringing the Tavor outside to return fire if necessary. He inflated and released the balloon with its tether line, and readied himself for the jarring impact as the aircraft flew overhead. Dim blinking lights came into sight. He saw the nose hook jutting forward from the aircraft like some big bug’s proboscis. One last scan of his surroundings. All clear. Roar—snap—whoosh—he soared up, trailing the C130 until he was hooked and brought into to the loading bay.
Once on board, Steve shed his pack and gear and went to a secure communications line to call his boss, the Undersecretary of Defense for Special Operations. He debriefed the Undersecretary on the events and outcome of the mission.
“Nice job, Steve,” said Undersecretary Vic Alfonse. “Those two women are very lucky to be alive. I’ll note in the report the risk you took, without jeopardizing the success of the mission, in order to avoid civilian casualties. Also, I’ll call my friends in SIS, the British Secret Intelligence Service, and let them know that the last four terrorists of the 2005 London Metro bombing no longer need to be extradited. Today is a very good day.”
“Thank you, Vic,” Steve said, gulping Gatorade. “I was able to visually confirm all four identities.”
“I’ll make a note to that effect as well. Again, well done.” Vic paused for a moment as if to let the two of them celebrate the outcome. “I want you to get some rest when you get back to Ramstein. Take a few weeks off. Enjoy the holidays. The week after New Years, I want you to come to DC for a briefing on your next assignment.”
“Looking forward to it. What can you tell me now?”
“You’re going to Israel. I’m seeing some problems with our intelligence collection in the Middle East. It’s making me irritable. More than that, I fear what I don’t know, and when it comes to the Middle East, not knowing is very dangerous. I know that from experience. I want you to look into it. Neither CENTCOM nor EUCOM are attuned to the situation—yet—but I want to have the answers before they start asking questions.”
“Great, sir, I mean Vic. Sorry, I’m still not used to calling you by your first name.”
“I understand, Steve. It’s actually an endearing quality about you. See you in January.”
“Mr. Barber?” the pilot broke in on the internal communications set.
“Anything we can get for you until Ramstein?”
“No, thanks. Just some quiet time for now and a long hot shower in K-town.”
“Great to have you on board, sir.”
“Thanks for the lift, captain. Good night.” Steve pulled off the headset and settled against his seat’s canvas, wishing he had a martini. He would like to get some sleep, but the adrenaline was still pumping and he expected to be awake until touchdown at Ramstein. No wounds this trip, he thought, as he pressed his arms, legs and torso, searching for the sharp pain of bruising or the sign of broken bone. Not a scratch. That’s a first.
Steve closed his eyes; put the night behind him. To his surprise, he started to drift off, exhausted. Israel. A harsh, yet beautiful, place. Something tugged at his mind. Masada. About 30 miles from Jerusalem, a place called Masada, which means fortress in Hebrew. Where did I hear that? Did I read it? I remember. That’s where the elite Israeli military units induct their members. A steep rocky hill rising over 1400 feet above the Judean desert on the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Vic seemed very on edge for a warhorse with his experience. Wonder why. Wonder why he’s chosen me.
* * * * * * *