Night fell over Kirkuk with the usual mingling of the call to prayer with honking car horns, sirens, and sporadic gunfire.  There hadn’t been any IED blasts for a few days, and that night was as quiet as ever, aside from the shooting.  Of course, in Iraq, shooting wasn’t necessarily a surefire way of knowing that somebody was getting fucked up.  These people, and I include the Kurds in this, had a scary disregard for the laws of gravity.  They fired weapons into the air to celebrate all sorts of things.  Weddings, births, funerals.  It made it really difficult sometimes to tell when something was going down, or somebody was just really happy, and decided to chance getting one of their own rounds back the hard way.

            We waited until the sun was well down and the bulk of the populace had gone inside before we went to work.  Just because we were in technically friendly territory didn’t mean we necessarily wanted a lot of people see where we were going, much less how.

            Bob and Little Bob headed out first, to go retrieve the vehicles we would be using.  They were a little special, and so we kept them cached at the Liberty Petroleum compound outside the city, near the Baba Dome East complex.  We didn’t want just anybody poking around them.

            While we waited for the Bobs, the rest of us got our gear together.  We packed all of it; we weren’t planning on coming back here.  Even in friendly territory, we didn’t like to keep a safehouse in one place for long.  Hal would probably relocate a day or so after we left.

            We stacked rucksacks and kitbags full of gear and optics just inside the door.  It was dark, and most of the populace had turned in, but we didn’t want to chance wandering eyes, whether human or the electronic eyes of the UAVs that the Iraqis had bought a few years back.

            Then we sat down on our rucks and waited.  It often comes to that.  You get everything lined up, you’re ready to go into enemy territory, or at least unfriendly territory, and then you wind up just sitting there for a couple hours, trying not to let your mind get too far into how badly things could go, or how short your life could wind up becoming over the next hours.  There wasn’t much talking, and most of us tried to sleep, mostly without success.  I was still going over the plan in my head, even as I closed my eyes.  Had I accounted for all the gear and supplies?  Was the route good?  Had I gone over all the possible contingencies?

            That got me started on contingencies.  We’d all seen over the years just how pear-shaped things could get downrange.  East Africa had only been the most serious example.  Of course, it was now the yardstick for all such planning, and I found myself going back over how wrong some of that job had gone, and applying similar scenarios to the present task.

            It wasn’t terribly encouraging.


            About three hours later, the trucks showed up, rumbling and rattling their way down the street from the north.  We started stirring, and Hal pushed out security to make sure we could load up unobserved.

            There were two trucks; one a big water tanker, the other a dump truck.  Large vehicles like them weren’t all that common on Iraqi streets, but they weren’t terribly remarkable, either.  At least not on the outside.

            The inside was another matter.  While an inspection, either looking in the top of the tank or the dump truck’s bucket, would show water in one and gravel in the other, just as expected, both were blinds.  The water only filled the top quarter of the tank, with a black-painted false bottom beneath it.  The dump truck was the same.  Underneath the false floors were spaces for up to five operators, albeit cramped space, and their gear.  Fiberoptics provided the ability to look out in all directions.  An extensive comm suite was built into the trucks’ frames.  They were our UURSVs.  Ultimate Urban R&S Vehicles.  You can thank Malachi for that bit of inanity.

            Larry had, after the groans had died down, and Malachi had gotten a couple of hefty smacks upside the head for coming up with another acronym, pointed out that if you squinted at it, UURSV looked kind of like “Ursa,” the Latin word for bear.  So we started calling them Bears.  And we still gave Malachi shit for the original name.

            Loading up took some doing.  While Hal’s guys held security, we opened up the hatches on the undersides of the Bears, which really weren’t very big; they had to fit inconspicuously as far under the vehicles as possible.  It made for a tight squeeze for the rucks, and for guys like Larry and Little Bob.  We unscrewed the hatch covers and started shoving the gear through first.  Men and weapons would go last.

            Larry and Little Bob stayed out to drive.  Jim and I would ride shotgun.  Paul led the way into the tanker, wriggling his way through the hatch, pushing his ruck and rifle ahead of him.  Once he was in, he turned and reached out to take the rest of the gear before anyone else followed him in.  Bob was doing the same in the dump truck.  Once all the gear was in, Nick, Bryan, Juan, and Malachi wormed their way into the compartments.  Jim and I closed and latched the hatches.  Now the Bears looked like worn, beat-up old working trucks.

            It was almost 0300 when Jim and I finished our final walk-arounds and climbed into the cabs.  We might not see each other until we exfiltrated from Tikrit.  It wouldn’t do to have two such vehicles seen hanging around the same area.  Larry fired up the tanker as soon as I was in the passenger seat, my gear and rifle secured under the floor panel, and we trundled off to the east.  We had the longer route; Jim and Little Bob would be taking Bear B straight south.

            We wove our way through the streets of Kirkuk until we hit the main road heading southeast, toward As Sulaymaniyah province.  It wasn’t much of a road; it wasn’t paved, but was just gravel.  It was still better laid than any in Somalia.

            As we got out of the city and into the flat, open farmlands that surrounded it to the south, I picked up the intercom.  “How’s the ride back there?”

            “I’m glad we decided to pad the inside of these things,” Nick replied.  “It’s still going to be pretty fucking cramped when you and Larry get in here.”

            “Since when were you ever comfortable in a hide?” I asked.

            “Since never,” he allowed.  “So much for going private sector for an easier life.”

            “You wouldn’t want an easier life,” I pointed out.  “You told me that five years ago.  Said something about getting out because things had become too easy.  You knew where your next paycheck was coming from, etc.”

            “I don’t remember saying that,” he said.

            “Of course you don’t.  You don’t remember what you said yesterday,” I taunted.

            “Fuck you,” he chuckled.  “Your memory’s not much better than mine.”

            “Hey, it may not be by much, but it’s still better.”

            There was a pause, then, “I can still kick your ass.”

            “You wish,” I replied.  “You’re still playing catchup from after you got out.”

            Larry was listening to this byplay, shaking his head and chuckling as he watched the road.  The banter came easily, even in spite of the stress of the mission.  It was how we passed the time, and kept from thinking too much about what might be coming down the road.  We still had to think about it, and I can tell you, every one of us was.  But for a little while, as we focused on the task at hand, we could distance ourselves from it a little.

            The lights of Kirkuk dwindled in the rear-view mirror, as flat fields stretched on either side of the road.  The farmhouses, some cloaked in palm groves, but others simply standing alone among the fields, were dark.  Even in an oil-rich country like Iraq, power was getting sketchy, and usually was all but nonexistent in the rural areas.

            As we neared the small villages of Yehyavah and Leylan, we found that it wasn’t just the rural areas.  The two small towns, separated only by the road, were as dark as any of the farmhouses.  I couldn’t tell if any of the houses had a generator running; the rumble of the truck’s engine, along with the little additions we’d made to make it rattle more than it should, made hearing much of anything outside the cab all but impossible.  There were no lights showing, though, even through windows.  Granted, it was the wee hours of the morning, but I would have expected at least someone to have a light on for security.  Unless having a light on had turned into an invitation, anymore, which was entirely possible.

            The intercom crackled.  “Jeff,” Nick said, “we’re getting some chatter.”

            A lot of the money—of whatever denomination—we’d made in the last year or so hadn’t gotten banked so much as it had been put back into gear and equipment.  Among that gear was some top-quality signals intelligence, or SIGINT gear.  We could listen in on just about anything but SINCGARS frequency-hopping transmissions, or anything tight-beam.  That made intercepting Al Qaeda or Jaysh al Mahdi signals a breeze.  They were getting more sophisticated, but that sophistication hadn’t bled over into their communications, yet.

            “What kind of chatter?” I asked.

            “Nothing concrete,” he replied, “but it does sound like bad-guy chatter.  Can’t pin it down, yet, this translation program’s not that great.”

            “Does it sound like something we need to loiter for, or do we go ahead and push?”  I wasn’t going to pass up any information we could get, and if AQI or Jaysh al Mahdi was sniffing around Kirkuk, it couldn’t mean anything good for our employers, regardless of what the Iraqi government might be up to.  If it smelled like something brewing that they might need warning about, we needed to see what we could find out.  Jim could handle Tikrit for an extra day, if need be.

            That was one of the advantages of working this way.  We had a hell of a lot more operational flexibility than we ever would have staying in the uniformed military.  Sometimes our liaisons with Liberty got a little bit nervous about just how fast and loose we played with mission parameters, but one of our founding principles had been, “Ground truth trumps all.”  We had also borrowed an old Delta commander’s axiom, “When in doubt, develop the situation.”  We didn’t have the kind of support and backup that we might have had if we were working with the Army or Marine Corps in the old days, when they could still project power.  We were the tripwire between our clients and the bad guys.  So we had a tendency to check things out when they caught our attention.

            There was a long pause before Nick answered.  “I can’t be sure, but this does sound like a little more than a couple of cells talking.  I think we might want to stick around for a little bit.”

            I pointed to the side of the road, and said to Larry, “Let’s pull off and kill it.”  He nodded, pulling the truck over into the open field just to the northwest of Yehyava and shutting the engine down.

            I reached under the dash and pulled out the thermal binoculars.  They were bulkier than the thermal attachments on our PVS-14 night vision, but they had a lot better resolution.  If there were bad guys out there in the dark, I wanted to be able to see them first.  I started their cool-down, then reached under the panel and brought my rifle and mags up to where I could get at them quickly in the event we needed to shoot our way out.  That was considerably less than ideal, but it never paid to count on ideal.

            With the binoculars cooled down, I raised them to my eyes and scanned the town.  Larry, having shut down the truck, was retrieving his own night vision and FAL from their compartments under the floor.

            The town was still and cold.  I saw a few dogs rooting around in the trash on the outskirts, and a couple of donkeys, but no people were moving, at least not where I could pick them up.  Granted, Yehyava was decent-sized as far as rural Iraqi villages went, and there were a lot of cinderblock walls and narrow streets where somebody might be lurking, without being visible from outside the town.  We weren’t necessarily going to see much from here, but I figured we’d probably find out more from the SIGINT rig that Nick was listening to in back than from direct observation.

            I lowered the thermals and keyed the intercom.  “Talk to me, Nick.”

            “Stand by, Jeff.”  Nick sounded like he was rummaging through something.  I realized it was probably the little glorified Rolodex we kept with most of the major known terrorist players and their known aliases.  It was a risk taking it along, but it was a helpful little quick reference, and wasn’t all that different from the decks of cards that had been used in the past, particularly when going after HVTs in post-Saddam Iraq during the US occupation, before we had pulled out and the civil war had erupted.

            It also helped to have the hardcopy, because none of us entirely trusted anything that ran on batteries.  We’d all experienced too many instances of the fancy electronic toys shitting the bed.

            “Wow,” he finally said.  “Holy shit.  Jeff, I don’t think we’ve got an attack or anything here, I think we’ve got a meeting going on.”

            “What makes you think that?” I asked, the thermals back at my eyeballs as I held the intercom mic with one hand.

            “I’m recognizing a couple of kunyahs,” he responded.  “It sounds like Abu Fariq and Saif al Salahudin are on site.”

            “Damn,” Larry muttered.  “Those aren’t small-fry.”

            They weren’t.  Abu Fariq was a known Al Qaeda in Iraq “facilitator.”  He didn’t usually get his hands dirty himself, but he was a top supplier and smuggler.  Saif al Salahudin was a hitman, for lack of a better term.  He didn’t generally go for big, explosive ops, but he had personally killed at least twenty-five high-level government officials.  There were suspicions that several of them had been executed for not following instructions from either Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, which was doing less and less to distance themselves from the resurgent terror organization.

            “What the hell do those two have to talk about?” I mused, watching for any sign of the entourages that Abu Fariq in particular would have along.  There wasn’t anyone outside on this side of the town.  “Al Salahudin doesn’t usually go for the bigger ops that would require Abu Fariq’s services.”

            “Maybe he’s branching out,” Larry offered.  He had his own thermals out and was scanning.  He reached for the mic.  “Nick, have we got a DF on this chatter?”

            “Working on it,” was the reply.  “It’s close, but I don’t think the meet has gone down yet.  It sounds like they’re still trying to link up.”

            “Are they trying to talk each other in?  Can we get a rough location?” I asked.

            “Let me listen, and I might be able to tell you,” Nick answered.  I shut up and kept watching the town.

            For a while, the only sound in the cab was the occasional ping or creak from the cooling engine, or the faint rustle of either Larry or me shifting our positions.

            “So if we do have two HVTs here,” Larry ventured, “how do you want to play it?  Do we break out of the op to take ‘em, or do you want to just call it in and move on?”

            I thought about it for a minute.  It was a hell of a question.  The primary mission was still to reconnoiter Tikrit.  Overall, that could be way more important than two AQI bully-boys meeting in a Podunk little Iraqi farm village.  On the other hand, none of us liked leaving any of these fuckers standing.  If we could take them out on the way to somewhere else, usually we’d take the opportunity.

            I shook my head.  “We’ll hold here for a little while, and see if we can nail them down, then call it in.  Mike’s team might be able to helo in and hit them while we move on.  I don’t want to compromise our presence before we even get to Tikrit.”

            “Guys, I think I’ve got a general location,” Nick announced over the intercom.  “I can’t give you a precise position, but they are definitely south, in Leylan.  I might have a location picked out from their chatter, but we’re definitely going to have to move to get eyes-on.”

            “Roger,” I replied.  “Where to?”  I motioned to Larry, who put his thermals back on the seat next to him and reached down to start the truck up again.  I hoped that the bad guys in town wouldn’t be able to hear the truck starting, or at least wouldn’t get too suspicious about it, but sitting here with the diesel rumbling would raise suspicions, too.  In some ways, this was turning into a dress rehearsal for Tikrit.

            “Start moving due south; I think we’re looking at somewhere close to the radio tower.”

            I looked over at Larry, who nodded.  “I see it.”

            I keyed the mic again.  “Who’s running comm back there?”

            “Malachi,” Nick said.

            “Have him get a link with Alek or Imad back in Erbil, and put me through.”  We’d have to get Mike’s team up and the helo turning fast if we were going to make this work.  Granted, the bad guys didn’t have the fear they might have had back in the days when the US Army and Marine Corps effectively ran the country, but they still probably wouldn’t hang around all that long.  We had a narrow window of opportunity, and I wanted to take advantage of it.

            It took a couple of minutes before Imad’s voice came over the little speaker.  “Hillbilly, Spearchucker.  You guys aren’t in Tikrit already, are you?”

            “Negative,” I replied.  “We are in the vicinity of the village of Yehyava.”  I rattled off the four digit grid coordinate for the town.  “We have a SIGINT hit on two HVTs, Abu Fariq and Saif al Salahudin.  They appear to be having a meet in the town; we are moving to get eyes on the exact location.  Request Speedy’s team spin up and proceed to the target once we designate it.”

            “What is the security situation on the ground?” Imad asked.  He didn’t ask if we were sure; none of us would call an audible on a raid if we weren’t.

            “We are moving toward the target area, no outer security spotted yet,” I replied.  “We will update with any and all information we gather between now and when the team gets on target.”

            “Roger,” Imad said.  There was a pause.  “Speedy is on his way to the TOC now, estimate they will be wheels up in twenty minutes.”  Mike’s team was on QRF duty, which meant they were on fifteen minute strip alert as it was.

            Let’s see…wheels up in twenty minutes, maybe twenty more minutes until the helos could be on target.  We had forty minutes, maybe, to gather all the information that we could and pipe it to Mike and his boys, so they could come up with a solid plan in the air.  More like we had about twenty minutes.  All of this was of course contingent on the meeting going that long, and the targets staying in the vicinity.  It was going to be tight.

            Larry revved the engine, sending the tanker trundling back up onto the road that ran between the two villages, then across and back onto the bare dirt next to another farm compound that barely qualified as being on the outskirts of Leylan.  After some bouncing and rocking that was doubtless getting him cussed out by all the guys back in the tank, he found a rutted dirt track between the fields, and started us down toward the town proper.

            I had kept the thermals out, and was trying to see what I could.  There wasn’t much, even in spite of the bouncing; most Iraqis headed inside as soon as it got dark.  I could see a couple of dogs, and a glimmer of something warm deeper into the town, but no people, not yet.

            “We might have to get out and see what we can see on foot,” I said.  “I don’t want to drive this thing straight into the middle of their little powwow.”

            “I think you’re right,” Larry said, as he eased off the gas.  “Do we want to get the guys out of the tank?”

            “We’re going to have to get at least one out,” I said, as I hefted my rifle and reached for the door handle.  “We’ll need somebody out on backup while we run recon.  I don’t think we’ve got time for more than a driver to get out before we take off, though.  We’ve got to get eyes-on and back to the truck in time to pass the data-dump to Mike.”  I paused and reached for the intercom.  “Nick, Larry and I are unassing to get eyes on the target.  Get Bryan out here to drive in case things go pear-shaped.  We should be back in thirty minutes.  If we aren’t, and you don’t hear a firefight, hold for another ten, then get in contact with Mike’s team and come get us.  If we take contact, we will fall back to here, and need to be ready to move as soon as we climb on.”  We didn’t really have the leeway for the usual five-point contingency plan.

            “Roger,” Nick replied. “Bryan’s coming out now.”  I put the mic back on its rack, and reached under the seat where my bump helmet was stored.  It wouldn’t provide any ballistic protection, but it was light, and provided a more comfortable NVG mount than a Halo mount.  I fitted it on my head, attached the PVS-14s, checked them, and then opened my door and dropped out of the cab.

            I brought my rifle up and took a knee after I carefully closed the truck’s door.  Behind me, I could hear the faint creak of the tank hatch coming open, then the rustling and grunting as Bryan got his lanky ass out of the tank.  Bryan was taller than me, though we weighed about the same.  It made things interesting for him in tight spaces like the concealed compartments in the Bears.  Come to think of it, we had a lot of guys who were too big for such tight spaces, one way or another.

            He managed to pull himself out by grasping one of the ladder steps that was welded on the side of the tank, and levered his legs out before lowering himself to the ground.  His rifle and vest followed, then he was pulling himself up into the cab.  “I got this,” he said.  “Good hunting.”

            I raised my hand in acknowledgement, and led out.  Larry fell in half a dozen steps behind me.

            The town was a maze of walls, houses, and shadows.  The NVGs dispelled a lot of the shadows, at least enough to keep anyone from successfully hiding in them.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of open ground between those shadows, which pretty much precluded our using them to hide as well.  We were exposed, even with all the lights off; the moon was out, and though it was close to the horizon, and therefore dimmer than it might be, it still provided enough illum to see fairly well.  Our best bet would be to get close to the buildings and keep close, avoiding crossing large open areas as much as possible.  That presented its own set of problems.

            The first of those problems presented itself as soon as Larry and I got across the open field and over the road to the first compound we could get to.  As soon as we came around the corner, the dogs started barking.

            I didn’t know if any Iraqis actually kept the dogs; none of them seemed to have a home, but just roamed the streets.  I’d heard that most Iraqis, being at least semi-faithful Muslims, viewed dogs as unclean, so they wouldn’t keep them, but just let them run around feral.  They were also the nastiest dogs I’d ever run into.  Jim had had to shoot one in Kirkuk when it came for him, and wouldn’t back down to the usual posturing that turns a dog aside.

            Now the damned chelubs, as they were called locally, were about to compromise our little leader’s recon.  Fuck.

            I froze as we crouched in the near-nonexistent shadow of the wall.  We were in another open area, without vegetation or even walls for cover.  There was just nothing.  I scanned the surrounding buildings carefully as I lowered myself to a knee, my rifle up in the low ready position, my thumb resting lightly on the pressure switch for the PEQ-15’s IR laser.  Larry took up a position beside me, faced back across and down the road.

            There was no other sound, no movement, no thermal signatures of curious people looking out to see what the commotion was about.  There was, in fact, no sign at all that the dogs’ barking had raised any kind of alarm.  I guessed that the locals were too used to the feral things yapping at all hours that they just discounted it now.

            I sincerely hoped that the AQI motherfuckers would do the same.  So far, it looked like they would.

            After a minute of waiting, acutely conscious that our time window was rapidly closing, I decided to take the chance and push.  I reached back, thumped my fist against Larry’s shoulder, and then got to my feet.  Behind me, I could hear Larry levering himself up as well.  As quietly as I could, I started forward, following the wall to my left.

            The compound terminated at another wide open space, crossed by two roads, with another cluster of houses on the far side of the second road.  There were still no signs of life, aside from the handful of dogs I could now pick out by their thermal signatures rummaging around in the piles of trash near the roads.

            There was nothing for it.  We had to get across that open space, and with the timeline being what it was, speed would have to suffice for security.  I looked back at Larry, and when he looked forward at me, I motioned that I was going to cross the danger area.  Not all that wise, running straight across a wide open danger area, but I didn’t see much choice at the moment.  If we tried going around, we’d just be on the road, which was easily as bad.  There were no good choices, especially as the minutes ticked away.

            Larry signaled that he was ready when I was, so I took off.  It was less a sprint and more a fast jog, but it got me across to the cluster of houses in less than a minute.  I dropped to a knee, already slowing my breathing, and waited for Larry, who had stayed in place until I got across.

            Larry joined me at the cluster, but rather than just following my lead, he put out a hand to keep me from moving, and started toward the opposite corner.  Continuing to make sure I covered the other way, I followed him, figuring that he’d seen something coming across that I hadn’t.

            He had.  He peered around the corner, then edged back and motioned for me to look, while he took up rear security.  I switched places with him, and eased my head around the corner.

            There was a Bongo truck sitting at the corner of the next cluster of compounds, maybe one hundred fifty meters away.  It was warm, and there were two men standing near it, both carrying AKs.  Bingo.  I took a long look around, to see if there were any others in sight, but they were the only ones.  I moved back from the corner, and motioned to Larry that we’d go the other way.  I wanted to circle around and see if we could get eyes on any more hanging around.  If we could get a good idea of the exterior security, we should be able to pinpoint the target building.  The number of vehicles outside might clue us in to how many there might be inside, as well.

            That, unfortunately, was more easily said than done.  Looking around the other corner, I could see the corner of a large compound in the vicinity of the target area, along with another man with a slung PKM.  But there was nothing but open ground to the side; in order to get a good angle on the target building, we’d have to cross at least another hundred meters, and this time within the field of view of the dude on the south side of the compound.  That was bad news.  Worse, any other way to get a better view would entail getting within twenty-five meters of the target compound.  No fucking way.

            I checked my watch, using my hand to shield the glow.  It had been ten minutes since we left the truck.  Decision time.

            I peeked out at the guy on the south side of the compound, trying to see if he had night vision.  It didn’t look like it, and as far as we’d been able to see, AQI wasn’t nearly that sophisticated yet.  Some of the other groups were; we were pretty sure that Jaysh al Mahdi had everything the IRGC had had ten years ago.  Mainly because it had been given the IRGC’s castoffs.  But AQI was still scraping the bottom of the barrel for equipment.

            The dogs started barking up a storm off to the north, and the guy I was watching turned to look toward the noise.  Perfect.  I ordinarily don’t like relying on luck, but here it was, and so I moved.

            One hundred fifty meters isn’t far.  If you’re sprinting, it’s even shorter.  If you’re trying to cross it fast but quietly, without drawing the eye of somebody who will shoot at you if they see you, it’s a long fucking way.  But I made it, even as I watched the sentry as best I could the whole way.

            He had moved to the corner of the compound, and was yelling something to the guys at the Bongo truck.  Probably wondering what the dogs were making a racket about.  I didn’t care.  I slid into the narrow roadway between another cluster of walled compounds and a soccer field, and took a knee in the shadows by one of the walls.  Larry made it in behind me, having followed when I moved.  That was almost just reflex, by now.  I should have filled him in, but there hadn’t been time.  Training and many years of working together had smoothed such things out, to where if one guy saw an opening and took it, the others just kind of went with the flow, unless it was something monumentally stupid.  We generally did a pretty good job of avoiding monumentally stupid, but shit does happen.

            As I peered out and scanned the compound, I breathed a faint sigh of relieve that I had dodged monumentally stupid once again.  There was no sign that we’d been heard or spotted, and I had an excellent view of what I was now sure was the target compound.

            It was pretty good-sized.  There was a two-story outbuilding in the corner of the wall, and I could see the roof of a sizeable building within, including a two-story section on the south side.  It looked almost big enough for a school; for all I knew, it either was, or had been.  These fuckers had no qualms about using schools and hospitals for their operations.

            I figured directions and distances as I watched.  There were two more sentries on the rooftop; one of them was smoking, which meant he was fucked when it came to night vision.  Both appeared to be carrying AKs, nothing fancy.

            Even as I watched, white light started to show on the outer wall, and then a black Opal sedan came up the road from the southeast.  The sentry on the ground just waved to it as it drove past, headed for the Bongo truck; I had to assume this was whichever HVT wasn’t already on site.

            We didn’t have time to woolgather; I made a quick estimate of bodies on site, increased it by a third, and took as much of a mental picture of the compound as I could, focusing on obstacles and possible points of entry.  It was going to be a very quick and dirty intel dump, but it was better than nothing.  I looked back at Larry, and pointed toward the truck.  He nodded, and we got moving.

            We didn’t take the same route back; that’s always a bad idea in bad-guy country.  Instead, we ducked through the dusty side streets, and came out only about two hundred meters from the Bear, but over six hundred from the target.  We moved across the open ground to the truck fast; we were running out of time.  I could almost swear I heard the helos inbound already.

            “Albatross, this is Hillbilly.  Coming from your five-o’clock,” I sent over the radio.

            “This is Albatross.  I have eyes on you,” Bryan replied.  “Come on in.”

            I trotted up to the cab.  Bryan was already getting out and moving over to the hatch.  There really wasn’t room for three guys in the cab.  “Do we have contact with Mike’s team?” I asked.

            “Just established,” he replied, as he unlatched the hatch cover.  “They’re ten mikes out.”

            “Just enough time,” I said, as I pulled myself into the cab and grabbed the mic.  Larry was already coming around to the driver’s side.  “Nick, put me through.”

            “You’re on,” Nick said.  I heard the click of the circuit changing.

            “Speedy, this is Hillbilly,” I called.

            “Send your traffic, Hillbilly,” Mike replied, in his slow drawl.

            I proceeded to give him everything I had—estimated numbers, equipment, the location and surrounding reference points.  I gave him my best description of the target buildings, and advised him that it appeared that the second HVT had just arrived on site a few minutes before.

            “Copy all,” Mike replied once I’d finished.  “Hang around until we have visual, in case we need you to talk us on,” he said.  “Once we’re solid, take off.  I know you guys have places to be.”

            So we sat there for a few more minutes, until we could hear the low roar of the incoming Bell 407s.  I could just barely see their heat signatures with my PVS-14s; they were running blacked-out and low.  A moment later, my radio crackled.  “Hillbilly, Speedy.  Give us a glint so we can confirm your pos.”

            I pulled the IR strobe out of my pocket, turned it on, and held it out the window, over the roof the cab.  “Roger, good strobe.  I have visual on you and the target site.  You guys are good.  We’ve got this.”

            “Good hunting, Speedy,” I replied.  “We are gone.”

            Larry started the truck, and we rolled out of town as the two helos swooped down on the target site like stooping hawks.  The bad guys never even knew we had been there.  That was what I called a good night’s work.

Alone and Unafraid Snippet 3

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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