Authors: Mark Henshaw
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For my father,
First Sergeant Carl M. Henshaw, USMC, who held
in his hands but never got to read it. I miss you, Dad, every day.
Who sows fear, reaps weapons.
16 April 2006
Al-Yusufiyah, Baghdad Province, Iraq
25 km southwest of Baghdad
The house seemed out of place for this town, larger and more ornate than the others Marisa Mills could see from the rooftop. She guessed that there were only a hundred buildings scattered across the settlement, all bricks and dirty cement, mostly shops on the ground floors with apartments above. This particular home was one of the largest structures of any kind within sight, smaller only than the three mosques she could identify. It was two stories, white with columns in front and a small dome on top. A mud-colored concrete wall enclosed the villa’s courtyard, head-high with iron gates on opposing sides. The owner was clearly Sunni. No such home would have survived unscathed in this town had the owner followed any other religious path. The Sunnis here had little tolerance for the Shiites, less for the Americans, and the butchery of recent months had left Marisa wondering whether the residents weren’t killing just for sport now.
That the owner had money wasn’t even in question. Whether the man supported the insurgency was a question that the Army Rangers moving to surround the building intended to settle.
“They’re moving a bit fast on this one,” Marisa observed.
“You know the Rangers,” the man to her left said. “They’re not really happy unless they’re engaged in a little property damage.” Jonathan Burke held his own field glasses to his eyes and swept them over the soldiers moving toward the house.
“Patience is a virtue.”
“And not actually part of the Ranger Creed,” Jon noted. “I thought you were going to miss this one.”
“My flight was late.”
“I keep telling Congress I wasn’t even at Abu Ghraib. But you know congressmen. They lie so much that they can’t believe anyone else tells the truth. But it helped that there are no traffic laws around here. I made up for lost time after we landed.”
“I thought patience was a virtue.”
“No sense rushing into a firefight if you can take your time and shut the enemy down before things begin,” she replied. The two CIA officers were lying on a rooftop a hundred meters from the raid site. The woman was, in fact, lying closer to Jon than was strictly necessary but he seemed oblivious to Mari’s frustration. A pair of Rangers were prone near the edge of the rooftop forty feet to their right. One half of the sniper team there had his hands wrapped around a Barrett M82 rifle. The other was staring at the house through a Leupold Mark 4 spotting scope.
“You sound like a Sun Tzu disciple,” Jon said.
“Nope. More like Stalin.” She stared down at the compound through a pair of Leica Viper binoculars and envied the courtyard roof inside. Any shade in this country dropped the temperature twenty degrees, but she and Jonathan were in the open, exposed to the Iraqi sun for which boonie hats and sunglasses helped little even at this early-morning hour. Although the sun still sat low on the horizon, it was well over a hundred degrees, and would be twenty degrees hotter by noon. “Who was the first guy who thought settling down
would be a good idea?”
“The Sumerians,” Jonathan replied. “First settled at Eridu in the Ubaid period, about 5300 BC.”
“Did the Good Lord not give you a sense of humor or did you get it shot off?” She could see Rangers moving to the outside corners of the compound wall, ready to catch any of the “squirters” who might manage to slip out once the raid began. Humvees and an MRAP sat on the four roads surrounding the building, turning the intersections into kill zones covered by mounted M240B machine guns should the enemy bring reinforcements armed with anything heavier than light arms. The Army had assigned a helicopter to the operation, some model she couldn’t identify, which was circling at a distance. Marisa would have preferred an AC-130, but she supposed that an airborne howitzer was overkill for this sort of thing.
“My talents don’t lie in comedy.”
“No, they lie in puzzles,” she told him. “That’s why I’m surprised you’re still here. The big riddle’s been solved—there’s no WMD in this country. The only thing left is a big manhunt and that’s not a puzzle. It’s just prisoner interviews and tedious grunt work. I’ve been watching you long enough to know that you don’t do tedious.”
“You’ve been watching me?”
“Langley would recall me if I didn’t watch people,” she said. “But there’s a new unit in the Directorate of Intelligence I think you should consider. It’s called the ‘Red Cell.’ George Tenet stood it up right after 9/11. Sounds like they’re a bunch of contrary thinkers who don’t have to tie every little comment back to some piece of intelligence like the rest of the analysts. I think you’d be happy there.”
“I thought you wanted me around.”
Marisa looked at Jon sideways, subtle, hoping he would catch her gaze.
Was that one professional or personal?
There were very few women assigned to Task Force North, most of them were from CIA’s Special Activities Center, and Marisa Mills was far and away the one who drew the most attention from the men. The soldiers watched her for reasons not remotely professional and usually came on to her like the D-Day invasion. Jon was different, always subtle, maneuvering around her. He was a puzzle all his own. She didn’t know where she stood with him—but she liked a man who could put her off balance. It didn’t happen often. “If you’re going to stay, I’ve got some uses for you,” she said, choosing her words with care. “But I have to think about what’s best for my people and not just for me. This is boring stuff, it’s going to go on for years, and ‘Sherlock’ isn’t a term of endearment in the DoD.” It was one of the more polite names she knew had been aimed at the man lying to her left.
Jonathan looked at her sideways but didn’t answer further. “I’m surprised you found this one,” she said, changing the subject. “We’ve had Mr. Farzat under the hot lights for three weeks trying to crack him.”
“The guy had saved fifty copies of the same Microsoft Word file on his laptop and they were all thirty megabytes in size. I thought that was worth a look.”
“But you don’t read Arabic.”
“Not a word. Total chicken scratch,” he agreed. “I do Farsi.”
“And you’re not a cyber-analyst,” Marisa observed.
“And you still managed to get enough intel from it to pin this place as an insurgents’ weapons cache,” she finished.
“That last bit has yet to be proven,” Jon said.
“Humility doesn’t become you, Jon. But that was some nice work,” she told him.
“I aim to please.”
“What made you think you’d find something?” she asked.
“Everyone makes mistakes. You just have to find them.”
“That’s a happy thought. But you weren’t the first one to look at that laptop. Why didn’t any of the other guys find it?” Marisa asked.
Jon shrugged. “The hard drive was stuffed with porn, and not the pretty kind. They were probably too busy with those particular folders.”
“So why were the Word files so large?”
“They all had embedded graphics. That’s when I called one of your boys who does read Arabic. Farzat was counterfeiting bills of lading for cargo boxes transiting the Syrian border at al-Qaim. They had everything listed as ‘medical supplies.’ My guess is that he was trying to make sure the forms didn’t look fuzzy when printed. So some of the Deltas took a day trip and grabbed some of those ‘supplies.’ Artillery shells, every one of them, all made in Iran. Probably meant for IEDs.” Jonathan reached up and adjusted the focus on his field glasses a hair.
Marisa cursed. “I’d love to grab a few of those Iranian Quds Force officers who’re teaching the insurgents how to build them. Send them back to Tehran minus a few choice body parts.”
“No argument here.”
“And all of the crates were addressed to this place?” Marisa guessed.
“Yeah, but we can’t figure out who owns the house. There was no addressee on the bills and half the property records in this country went up in smoke when the Army invaded.”
“Whoever does hold the deed probably has an arsenal in the basement. Maybe we’ll get lucky and this’ll be the one that leads us to Zarqawi.”
“Hope springs eternal,” Jon said. He pointed, then looked back through his binoculars. “Curtain’s going up.”
At the compound wall, a Delta Force operator cut the chain by a side gate with bolt cutters and eight more moved past. The Deltas were all unshaven, scruffy hair, dressed in tactical pants and boots, with body armor over their T-shirts. They split into four-man stacks, half taking a position by either side of the door. The second man in the stack left of the door began fixing a frame charge to the front while his team scanned the area for threats.
“I hope nobody’s on the other side when that goes off,” she said.
“Nobody important, anyway.”
• • •
The frame charge ripped the door from the hinges, shredding it to kindling in an instant. The left stack of Deltas were through the hole before the sound faded, M4 carbines raised to eye level. Marisa watched the right stack follow through her Leica.
“Always love that bit—” Jonathan started.
erupted from the far street north of the compound, smoke and fire rising. He twisted his head and watched as the Humvee flipped in slow motion onto its side, the Ranger inside already dead and starting to burn. Silence on the comm, then yelling, and Marisa swearing off to his right, but his brain refused to process the jabber. Gunshots started to sound . . . somewhere, the cracks of M4s firing off rounds. He tried to scan the rooftops through the scope, but the time passed by so slow. Rangers on the street were yelling at him and each other and he couldn’t move fast enough—
Then the world snapped into focus.
“Contact! Mortar, half klik north!” somebody yelled over the radio.
The mortar shell hit the rooftop seventy feet to the right. The shock wave knocked Jon prone and he felt it push him toward the edge. The wall of air, compressed hard, hit Marisa like a punch across her entire back and the woman pitched forward over the edge. Jon grabbed for her and managed to get his hand on her leg. Her weight dragged him forward. He pushed hard against the low wall with his one free hand, stopping his slide, then pulled against her, spinning himself until he could get his feet in front of him. He put his boots against the low concrete rise, grabbed Marisa with his other hand and pulled and lifted her back legs first with a grunt. He grabbed her belt and hauled, and finally she came up far enough to help, grabbing the roof wall with her hands.
She rolled over onto her back, chest heaving, eyes wide. Mortars went off below, more yelling in two languages. Jon looked right—
The snipers were dead, their bodies contorted and burning.
The Rangers below had no overwatch. The mortar crew had the high ground.
Jon scrambled to his feet and ran to the sniper post. The Barrett M82 was still there, lying by the parapet a few dozen feet away from its former owners. He lifted the gun, checked it for damage, then swung it to his right. The world seemed to be moving far slower than his mind was going.
“Contact! Small-arms fire at northwest corner!” Another call from the other side of the compound.
He could count the number of buildings with more than five stories on his two hands. The town was only a mile square and they were near the center, so any shot he had to take would be ridiculously close by sniper standards—
Near the center.
He didn’t like that thought.
“Contact! Small-arms fire and RPG, south side!” People were yelling over each other on the radio now, contacts in every direction.
“I suggest you D-Boys find a basement,” somebody called out over the radio to the men in the house.
“Screw that,” one of the Deltas in the house replied. “Nobody’s home and the party’s outside. Coming out.”
Another explosion tore up the dirt inside the compound’s northwest corner. The masonry soaked up the blast, protecting the Rangers on the street outside but they still ran for cover inside a covered porch just across the street. A third mortar round landed in the courtyard, this one ripping a hole out of the eastern wall.
Finally Jon found them. There, on the mosque, by the dome, two men standing by a tube pointed at the sky.
Up on a roof, exposed. Can’t hit and run.
One of them reached up to the barrel, dropped a round. Jon put the crosshairs on the man but he moved out of the way, reaching down for his next shell. Jon held the crosshairs on the empty space where the man would have to return. His heart was hammering at his ribs, hard enough to shake the rifle a bit, but the distance to the target was less than two hundred yards, close enough that it wouldn’t matter. He took a deep breath, let it go and stopped the urge to breathe again, then took up the slack on the Barrett’s trigger. The man stood. Jon drew his finger back.
The rifle finally roared and the .50 round punched through the insurgent’s chest cavity. The bullet ripped his heart out . . . and Jon, with the scope to his eye, saw sunlight through the hole at a hundred fifty yards.
The moment stretched out for eternity, the insurgent hanging in the air, the Iraq sun shining through his chest cavity, the look of shock just starting to form on his face—
Then the world sped up and the insurgent collapsed, falling out of sight. His partner froze and Jon shifted the scope onto the second target. The insurgent was panicked, not thinking, and started to fire his AK-47 wildly, desperately trying to hit whoever had taken down his friend. Jonathan didn’t think. He pulled the trigger again. The bullet entered the man’s face at his nose and severed his brain stem as it went out the back. His head came apart in a red spray and that moment also slowed down, burning the image into Jon’s mind with a clarity and definition that he’d never known before.
He stared at the space where the man had stood, trying to process what he’d just done. He closed his eyes tight. The image of the man’s head going to pieces was frozen there against the black void—
“Jon?” Marisa said, panic rising in her voice.
Jonathan opened his eyes again. Marisa had risen to a knee, her HK416 at her shoulder, shooting at someone he couldn’t spot immediately. Two more blasts ripped up bricks and rocks inside the compound within a second, dirt and cement flying in chunks, then a third. He scanned across the rooftops, couldn’t find the crews.
At least two more mortar crews . . . ground level, behind some buildings,
Not stupid like the first one.
He wouldn’t be stopping those with the Barrett. “Super Three-One,” he yelled into the radio, calling out to the orbiting helicopter. “Multiple mortars. Don’t see them on the rooftops. They’re all yours.”