Mr. Haas was waiting for our guest when we walked into the safehouse. I couldn’t tell if the guy looked relieved or even more terrified when he saw Haas standing by the door.
I suppose Haas was kind of scary, at least if you don’t deal in scary for a living. He was a thin, hatchet faced man with pale skin, pale eyes, and black hair that always seemed to be immaculately combed, even out here. He usually wore a suit, and tonight he was wearing slacks and a white shirt with a black tie. It seemed a little incongruous in this setting, but it was just kind of his way. I’d never seen him wear the khakis, polo shirt, and ball cap ensemble that Nick had dubbed the “CIA starter kit.”
Of course, Haas wasn’t CIA, at least not anymore, if he ever had been. We hadn’t ever heard which three-letter agency he’d worked for before he became a spook-for-hire. Of course, Haas was a cypher to us because he wasn’t one of our spooks. He was on our employer’s payroll, not ours.
The year before, in the ending phases and aftermath of the East Africa job, Praetorian Security’s resident retired officer and Machiavelli, Tom Heinrich, had started up a Spooks-R-Us section of the company. His reasoning had been that we had been thrown into a highly volatile situation without enough information, and he’d determined not to let that happen again. As a result, we now had about a dozen former spooks on the payroll, from at least three different agencies.
But Haas wasn’t one of them. He worked directly for Liberty Petroleum, and had been in Iraqi Kurdistan since before we had come aboard.
Liberty Petroleum had risen in the wake of the collapse of several major energy companies after the dollar’s crash a few years before. They had come to Iraqi Kurdistan because they were one of the only Western oil companies that was still on its feet, that was willing to risk working with the Kurds, while surrounded by increasingly hostile regimes. The Kurds had a lot of oil wealth under their soil, and with a lot of the world unwilling to do business with them, in large part because of the reaction that would come from the Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian governments, they were more than willing to work with Liberty.
Liberty’s reps hadn’t been on the ground for a month before they started looking for better security. They came to us because, even though most people had no idea what really had gone down in Djibouti and Somalia, much less in Yemen, Praetorian Security had gotten a rep for being the hard-nosed bastards who would kill anyone and everyone who tried to fuck with your people.
Oh, the media, at least what was left of it, loved us.
Iraq had been in the throes of an on-again, off-again civil war since about 2012, when the last American troops left. It had its flare ups, but was constantly smoldering in the background. That chaos had occasionally spilled over into Kurdish territory of late, in spite of the often quite competent efforts of the Peshmerga. With things in Iraq, and along the “Green Line,” which was the unofficial border between Iraq proper and Iraqi Kurdistan, getting increasingly tense, our security operations soon expanded well beyond just pulling overwatch on the oil fields.
In short, Liberty Petroleum had found themselves holding a vested interest in Kurdish security. Given that those interests probably meant we’d have a chance to kill a lot of jihadi bad boys, we were fine with that.
Haas nodded to us without as he beckoned the guy we’d picked up into the other room. That room actually had a door instead of the curtains that were strung across most of the other doors in the safehouse. The guy went in and Haas followed, closing the door behind him.
Jim and I dropped our gear near the door, across from where Larry was sitting on watch with a KSG shotgun across his lap. Larry was a mountain of a man, going bald, with a dark goatee. He had been a teammate of mine when we were both with MARSOC, before we’d gotten out and gone private sector.
“How’d it go?” Larry asked.
“Bad guys were trying to get our friend there,” Jim replied as he grabbed a bottle of water from the corner. “We ended that.”
“Not only that,” I put in, “but our friends the Iraqi Police had a checkpoint set up less than a mile from here.”
“That’s not good,” Larry said. “They pushing the Kurds again?”
“That’s what Rizgar said, after he pulled our asses out of that particular sling,” I answered.
“Alek’s going to want to know,” he pointed out.
“I know,” I answered, as I caught the water bottle Jim tossed to me. “I’ll call him as soon as we’ve got some results from Haas’ debrief of our boy in there.” I cracked the cap off the bottle and took a swig as I swept aside the curtain into the back room we had set up as our comm center.
It was pretty spare as such things went; we were in a safe house, not a Forward Operating Base. The necessity of being ready to break out and run, not to mention keeping a low profile, meant that our setup wasn’t much different from a small recon team’s in the field. A laptop, a satcom setup, and a shorter range VHF radio were all we had set up. Batteries and the backup radio were still packed in kitbags on the floor.
Little Bob was sitting against the white concrete wall, the VHF radio handset to his ear. He looked up from the laptop when I walked in.
“Any word from Bob or Juan?” I asked.
Little Bob shook his head. We called him Little Bob for two reasons. One, he was fucking huge; he could give Larry a run for his money on sheer physical size. Two, we already had a Bob on the team, and he had been with us a lot longer than Little Bob. “Nothing besides their normal check-ins,” he said. He had a surprisingly soft, high voice for such a big dude. It wasn’t squeaky, or feminine, but it didn’t sound like he’d spent the better part of a decade living in shit and yelling at subordinates or superiors, depending on the circumstances. He had; the guy had done five years with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He just didn’t sound like it.
“From what I could hear out there, it sounded like you and Jim found some excitement tonight, though,” he went on, pointing toward the door with his chin.
“You could say that,” I replied. “Some bad guys were on the target, and some pushy Iraqi Police tried to stop us about four blocks from here.”
He frowned. He was one of the newbies on the team since I’d taken it over from Alek, but he was no dummy. We wouldn’t have hired him if he had been. “They’re getting bolder. You think they’re getting ready to finally try for the push on Kurdistan they’ve been making noises about for the last couple of years?”
“Maybe,” I answered after finishing off the water bottle. “There’s nothing concrete, though Haas’ little friend in there might say something different. We’ll have to see. Everybody else crashed out?”
“All but Malachi,” he said. “He’s on rear security.”
I nodded. “When did you go on radio watch?”
“About an hour ago. I’m good.”
I waved at him and went back into the main room. Jim was already sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his rifle next to him, with his arms folded across his chest and his eyes closed. I went to do the same; one of the first things you learn in this business is get what sleep you can, when you can.
No sooner had I settled myself against the concrete than the door to the back room opened, and Haas came out, lighting a cigarette.
I stayed where I was and watched him. I’d dealt with Haas long enough to know to let him start talking in his own time. He was thinking, lining up all the little data points in his head. When he had a picture, however partial, he’d fill us in.
He walked over to the photomosaic/map of Kirkuk we had tacked to the wall and studied it for a moment before half-turning toward us. “Well, he doesn’t know who was after him tonight,” he said. “In the course of a half hour, it changed from AQI to plainclothes Iraqi Police, to Jaysh al Mahdi, to any one of about five criminal enterprises he owes money to.” He snorted. “Knowing him, I find the last possibility to be the most probable one. Those debts are how I turned him in the first place.”
“So who is this guy?” Jim asked.
“He is a guy who is related to a guy who knows things,” Haas said. “And that guy who knows things tends to talk about them around family to express how important he is. This individual let slip the other day that there are fifteen hundred more Iraqi Police headed to Kirkuk, along with a division of the Iraqi Army; Assam doesn’t know which one, but it’s probably the 12th Motorized Division out of Tikrit.”
I frowned. “Is this the first we’ve heard about it?”
“So far,” he said. “Which raises a few questions; is he telling the truth, and if so, what are they hoping to achieve?”
“They wouldn’t send only a division if they were thinking of pushing on Erbil or Sulaymaniya,” Jim mused. “Even they’ve got to know the Pesh are better prepared than that.”
“Could it be Hizb-al-Sunna trying to pull a fast one?” Larry asked. “Tikrit is a pretty solidly Sunni town, and the Army has gotten as divided as any branch of the government.”
Haas shook his head. “It doesn’t even have to be that complicated,” he said. “A division might not be enough to move on Kurdistan itself, but remember, the Iraqis still don’t—and probably never will—consider Kirkuk part of Kurdistan. I think the more likely scenario is that they’re getting ready to try to push the Kurds out. It’s happened before. And if there’s one thing Sunni and Shia alike can agree on in this country, it’s that they all hate Kurds.”
“Awesome,” I growled. “Ethnic cleansing by mechanized infantry. I need to call Alek.” I stalked back to the comm room for the satphone.
Alek picked it up after only a couple of rings. “Talk to me, Jeff,” he said.
Alek had been one of the founders of our little company, and team leader for the founding team. I had been his assistant team leader for several years, through the unpleasantness in East Africa the year before. Afterwards, we had had to rebuild the team; several of our friends and brothers in arms had fallen in Djibouti and Somalia. With the company expanding, Alek had reluctantly let Tom pull him into more of an operations chief position. He was now sitting in our primary operations center in Erbil, while we were down in Kirkuk trying to sniff out whether or not the Iraqi chaos was going to get pushed into Kurdistan, and Caleb’s team was doing the same thing in Mosul.
“We got the contact,” I reported, “but not without incident.” I filled him in on the brief firefight in the street, and the IP presence in what was ostensibly an area policed by the Peshmerga. Then I told him about what Haas had found from the contact.
He didn’t say anything for a minute, but just mulled it over. Finally he asked, “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking we need to push down to Tikrit,” I answered without hesitation, “and see if we can get a gauge as to whether this is just an attempt to Arabize Kirkuk like Saddam did in the ‘90s, or if it’s a prelude to an actual offensive against Iraqi Kurdistan. Or both. We can’t really figure that out from up here.”
I could almost see Alek shaking his huge head. “I need you guys on the ground in Kirkuk. You guys are the tripwire if something does start heading this way.”
“So send Hal’s team,” I replied. “Even if they aren’t planning on pushing past Kirkuk, we need to know if they’re going to try to push the Kurds out of the city. The Kurds aren’t going to stand for that. Half this province is already de facto part of Kurdistan, and the client has facilities here. If this particular tinderbox goes up, we could find we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands. Especially if the Kurds decide to resist here, you know it’ll spread into Kurdistan proper.”
“We have Kurdish contacts and support in Kirkuk,” he argued. “We’ve got nothing in Tikrit. Hal’s team just stood up; I don’t want to throw them into that kind of a zero-support situation.”
“So send Hal’s team here, and we’ll go to Tikrit,” I said. “As far as I can remember, even though I’m getting a little old and my memory’s a little hazy, we had jack and shit for support in Somalia last year, brother.”
“We also lost a lot of good guys in East Africa last year, if you remember,” he countered, his voice tight.
I clenched my jaw. He was right. Even a year later, the holes that those guys had left in the teams still hurt. Most of them I’d known for years. We’d all seen some action in the military before we’d gone contract, but I’d never seen the casualty rate we’d endured in East Africa. A lot of that had been due to the either nonexistent or untrustworthy support we’d gotten from the CIA on that job. We’d been in the wind, and paid the price for it in the lives of our brothers. Alek didn’t want to see that happen again. Neither did I, but playing things too cautious had never gotten a mission accomplished. None of us had gone into this business expecting to die in bed, either.
“I remember,” I answered after a moment. “I knew Hank a lot longer than you did. I also know that if we weren’t willing to risk losing anybody else, we wouldn’t be in this country right now. And Tikrit’s not even seventy-five miles away; that’s a lot better than anywhere we were in Somalia.” I paused for a second. “I know you better than that, Alek. Didn’t we start this company precisely to get away from the risk-averse REMFs putting the choke collar on what had to be done? Since when did you start worrying about playing it safe? You know that isn’t how we work.”
I heard him sigh on the other end. “You’re right. Damn it. All right, I’ll get Hal’s team moving down to you. Keep up operations until they get there. I’m sure you’ll give them a pretty thorough changeover. Just don’t go looking for trouble just to break them in.”
“I’d never do such a thing,” I said, managing to keep my voice level.
“Yeah, bullshit,” Alek snorted. “Keep me in the loop, brother.”
We hung up, and I headed back into the main room to try to catch some sleep. It bothered me that Alek was getting so mother hen-ish. I’d know the guy for a long time, and it wasn’t his style. But then, he hadn’t been stuck in the TOC, while the guys he’d been fighting alongside a year before were out on the pointy end before. I imagined it was just bugging him to let us go out and do the dangerous stuff while he was relatively safe. Fortunately, I was confident enough that he’d listen to me when I called him on it, if he got too overprotective. It was a dangerous business we’d chosen, and our decision the year before to take any opportunity to hurt the growing tide of Islamist tyranny whenever we could just made it more so.
It probably wouldn’t take Hal very long to get his team geared up and ready to go, and down to Kirkuk; it was less than sixty miles to Erbil. But they still probably wouldn’t get there until the next morning, so I was going to take the time to get some rest, and let the team do the same, as best we could. Things would get interesting soon enough, I was sure.
Bob and Juan got back about two hours later. I woke up as they pulled up; I don’t think any of us have a problem with waking up in such situations. Getting to sleep—that could sometimes be interesting. I got up, checked that my 1911 was still on my hip, and stretched. It hadn’t been much sleep, but one thing I’d learned a long time ago, somewhat from watching team leaders who did the opposite, was that a TL doesn’t necessarily get a lot of sleep. He’s responsible for everything his team does or doesn’t do, and that means being aware of everything that happens. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for relaxation.
They didn’t come straight in. That would have been asking for a blast from Larry’s shotgun in the face. Instead, the radio crackled.
“Fort Apache, this is Shiny,” Bob called.
“Shiny, this is Hillbilly,” I replied. “Send it.”
“Authentication Five November Six,” he said. “We are out front, coming in. Don’t shoot us.”
“Your authentication’s good, Shiny,” I said. “Why would we shoot you?”
“Because Monster’s been on post since we left, and is probably looking for some way to break the monotony by now,” he answered wryly.
Larry snorted. I just shook my head, though Bob couldn’t see it. “Just get in here.”
“Coming in,” Bob said. The radio went silent. A minute later, there was a tap on the door, and Bob came in, with Juan in tow. Both were carrying the gear they’d had secreted in the Opal sedan they’d driven out into the city. “Hey, boss,” Bob said, as he set his gear down. “Sounded like there was some excitement down your way. Did you and Jim get a piece of that big blowup down south?”
“Not the blowup itself,” I responded. “But we did get to play a little.” I filled him in. “Now, what did you guys see out there?”
“There’s a lot of movement out there for after dark,” Bob said, after downing half a water bottle. It was getting on towards fall, but it was still hot as hell in Iraq. “We sat just outside the Arrafa Canteen and watched something like a dozen militia patrols come and go. There weren’t any bombings or shootings in the area; this felt like command and control. Whether it was AQI or just a glorified neighborhood watch, well, I couldn’t really tell.”
I looked over at Juan. Just going by time in uniformed service, Juan should have been senior to Bob. Bob separated after just eight years; Juan had retired at twenty-two. But Bob had been with the team and the company longer, and he had been in East Africa. That counted for a lot around Praetorian these days.
Bob had come to Praetorian with the training, but little of the combat experience. He’d been a pretty-boy newbie with a chip on his shoulder. East Africa had changed that. He’d seen good friends and good operators shot dead and blown apart, not because they’d done anything wrong, but just from the fortunes of war. He’d fought like hell, just like the rest of us, and came out a wiser, more serious, and more mature operator.
Even so, someone with Juan’s experience could easily have developed a chip of their own, having to be second to a guy like Bob. That Juan showed no sign of any such reaction spoke volumes about his own professionalism.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t get much of a vibe off any of them myself,” he told me. “I think Bob may be right, some of them were just the local equivalent of neighborhood watch. But these days, that doesn’t necessarily rule out Al Qaeda or Mahdi Army.”
“Either way,” Bob said, “There’s something going on in Arrafa. I think it bears watching.”
I nodded. “We’ll definitely send the next set of eyes up that way. Get some water, eat something, and hit the rack for a bit. We’ve got maybe another day on site, then Hal’s boys are going to take over for us. We’re headed for Tikrit.”
Bob finished off the water bottle. “What’s in Tikrit?”
“About another fifteen hundred IPs and a mechanized infantry division, that is supposed to be headed here,” I replied. He looked at me sharply.
“The city’s been strict-IP jurisdiction for years,” he pointed out. “If they’re bringing the Army in…”
“Yeah, it doesn’t look good,” I replied. “Right now its single-source, so we’re heading south to run recon and see if we can confirm it.”
“We got contacts?” Larry asked from the door.
“Nope,” I replied. “This is strictly going to be recon and surveillance.”
“Fuck,” Juan said. “It ain’t exactly healthy for a Westerner to be walking around any Arab city these days.” He was right. It hadn’t been for a long time. Westerners had become mob magnets a couple of years ago, in the latest Al Qaeda offensive, and it hadn’t changed much since then.
“Well, that’s why we don’t go walking around in daylight letting ourselves be seen,” I replied. “This is back to old-school Sneaky-Pete stuff. No engagement, no compromise. We’ll have to stay soft the entire time.”
“So if it turns out they are getting ready to move out, we don’t do anything to stop them or slow them down?” Jim asked from behind me. I hadn’t heard him get up.
“Not at the moment,” I answered. “Like I said, this is strictly reconnaissance. Now, things might change, and we’re going to leave the usual flexibility in the plan to allow for whatever the situation dictates. We are taking demo, just in case we need it, but concentrate on the R&S side for this one.”
“Shit,” Bob said, as he headed for his little corner of the safehouse. “I just fucking love urban R&S. Nothing like setting up in a building that you think is deserted, and then at about eight in the morning the workers show up.”
He had a point. I’d been on plenty of urban reconnaissance missions that had gone south when somebody had blithely walked into the hide, not expecting anyone to be there. I also knew of a couple of teams who hadn’t made it back after an incident like that.
“That’s why we don’t have any officers saying we can’t think outside the box,” I pointed out. “Get some rest. We still have to keep eyes out until we turn over with Hal, and now we’ve got planning to do on top of that. Hit the rack.”
Bob waved assent and lay down on his pad. Juan picked out a packet of food and settled himself against the wall.
Me, I headed back to my own corner. Tomorrow—I checked my watch and corrected myself. Today was going to be a long day. At least I could get a couple hours of sleep before we kicked things off again.
I rolled out as the sun was coming up. It was the time of day when people started getting out on the streets, going to work or going to the market before it got too hot. The second call to prayer of the day was echoing over the city, along with the pall of smoke from the previous night’s bombing. From the reports that Little Bob was picking up on his scanner, it sounded like several businesses had been torched in addition to the IED blast. Things were definitely heating up in Kirkuk.
I threw on a collared shirt over my soft armor, made sure my pistol was well concealed, and went for a walk. As Juan had pointed out, in most places in the Middle East, a Westerner on the streets was a mob magnet, and likely a dead man. Here, however, in the Kurdish quarter, things were different.
In spite of the fact that the US had pretty well abandoned Iraq to its own devices, and by extension, the Kurds, the Kurds were doing their damnedest to create a modern, Western state. Even while the Western states were falling like dominoes, crushed under the weight of debts they could never pay back and torn apart by lawlessness, the Kurds were still trying to get it right. The Kurdish quarter of Kirkuk was about the safest place in Iraq proper for anyone to walk at the moment. It didn’t mean I wasn’t still going to go armed, but I could manage to walk the streets without worrying about getting stomped to death and my corpse dragged through the streets.
I can’t say I liked Kirkuk, even the Kurdish part. Most of the city, be it Kurdish, Arab, or Turcoman sections, were made up of blocky brick buildings crammed together on either side of often crumbling streets, with filthy ditches on either side. Everything was covered with a patina of dust, and there was the mingled smell of diesel oil, rot, and shit in the air. The whole place just kind of sucked. From what I’d seen, the whole country was about the same. Erbil and As Sulaymaniyah were better off, but only by degree.
As I walked, I was greeted by several Kurds, men and women both. In the Arab sectors, women steered clear and didn’t talk to strange men. Kurdish women even held billets in the Peshmerga. It probably helped that they wouldn’t be beaten to death by their male relatives for being seen with a man not their husband or relative. In fact, someone had done that within the Peshmerga sector of control just a month ago. The Pesh had hanged him the next day. There were still honor killings, but the KRG was really pushing hard to stamp them out.
I didn’t go far. I wanted to be close to the safehouse in case something went bad. I was the team lead now, and couldn’t be out of contact for long. But I’d wanted to get a feel for the city that morning.
The people I saw and met were wary, furtive. They went about their business, but they were looking over their shoulders. The Pesh were patrolling more aggressively; I saw two patrols in the space of a four-block walk. Loud noises tended to send people instinctively toward shelter. The few I spoke to shied away when I tried to talk about what was going on. People were spooked, and I couldn’t find out by way of casual conversation or observation whether or not it was just the violence the previous night, or if there was something else going on. I turned back toward the safehouse. There was still a lot of work to do.
It was almost dark when the four SUVs pulled up to the curb across from the safehouse. Bryan was on door watch, and peered through the curtains as they came to a stop. “I think they’re here,” he announced.
A moment later, the radio crackled. “Hillbilly, this is Dave,” Hal called. “We are in position, authentication Six Juliet Eight.”
“We have eyes on you, Dave,” I replied. “Come ahead.” I wasn’t too worried about the footprint of either the four vehicles, or Hal’s entire team coming in. The Pesh knew we were here, and in fact, while Liberty might be paying us, we were working for the KRG more than we were for the oilmen. Just kind of the way it worked out.
Hal was the first one in. He was tall, skinny, and sandy-haired. His callsign had come from the first few Hal 9000 jokes, to which he had responded with an eerie, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.” We couldn’t turn Hal 9000 into a workable over-the-air callsign, so we just settled on Dave.
We shook hands as the rest of his team shuffled into the now extremely cramped house. “I hear you guys get to go be Secret Squirrels down south,” he said.
“More like Ricky Recon, but yeah, something like that,” I answered. “Alek bring you up to speed?”
He nodded. “More or less. I’m hoping you guys are going to stick around for at least a day, help us set up, do left-seat, right-seat, that sort of thing.”
“That’s the plan,” I told him. “We can’t spare more than about a day, though. If what Haas told us is true, we might be on a tight timeline on this one.”
He grunted agreement. “If the IA’s moving, yeah, I bet. Let us get our shit squared away, and we’ll sit down and go over the turnover. I take it you’ve got a folder for me?”
I pointed at the ops room. “Right in there.”
He hitched his kitbag over his shoulder. “Let’s get to it, then.”
We went well into the night, going over the intel folder I’d worked up for Kirkuk. Local leaders, organizations, factions, neighborhood polarizations, everything was gone over. We had photos of Persons of Interest, and imagery of the city, sometimes block-by-block, that had been extensively written on. There were notes on ethnic and tribal divisions, transcripts of announcements from the mosques and any public meetings, as well as Haas’ notes on any and all of his contacts. It was a very thorough picture of what we’d managed to learn since we’d gotten to Kirkuk. It was still only a tiny glimmer of the ground truth, but it was a start.
Hal and Sammy soaked it up like sponges, asking pointed questions that sometimes Jim and I could answer, sometimes we couldn’t. The truth was, we hadn’t been on the ground in Kirkuk for much more than a week. They’d pass it all along to their boys, along with requiring them to go through the whole shebang at the next available opportunity. That was the way we worked in Praetorian. The more everybody on the team knew about the situation, the better.
Jim and I took Hal and Sammy out onto the streets for a while, getting the feel for the city, pointing out the major “poles” of the power matrix as we’d been able to perceive it. The sun was almost up by the time we got back. Fortunately, it had been a quiet night; aside from a few bursts of small-arms fire, there hadn’t been any major incidents. We got back to the safehouse and most of my team bedded down for the day. We’d pack up and get moving after dark.