The desert felt downright cold in the hour before dawn.
Hank Foss drew back the cutoff sock cuff on his wrist just far enough that he could make out the faintly luminous hands on his watch dial. Five more minutes. He slipped the cuff back in place and looked over at Cole Spencer, who lay in the shallow wash next to him.
Spencer’s pitch-black face was obscured by a mottled pattern of sand and loam camouflage paint, just as Hank’s considerably lighter complexion was. He met Hank’s eyes and nodded. Hank nodded back, then started double-checking himself.
He’d handed his rifle, a thoroughly customized 7.62 battle rifle that had started its life as a DPMS Oracle, off to Spencer, along with his assault pack. All he had left on was his chest rig, his belt kit, and his pistol, a suppressed SIG Tactical 1911. The holster was a miserably large chunk of nylon strapped to his thigh, but he found it preferable to any of the other carry options, and he couldn’t just carry the damned pistol as his primary.
At least, once he was done with this first phase of the operation.
Every strap had been taped, every buckle muffled. His pat-down in the wash was only to make sure that nothing had worked its way loose on the movement into position, along with giving him something to do while the last couple of minutes of the countdown ran out.
The Triarii were not above using radios for coordination, but there was a reason that Hank had left his turned off in his assault pack. Events of the last couple of years, since he’d retired from the Marine Corps and joined the Triarii, had convinced him that only a force able to operate without the technological toys that the US military had become so attached to was going to ultimately come out on top when everything really went pear-shaped. Furthermore, he knew that the bad guys had a lot of electronic listening devices and encryption cracking on their side. The bunch of terrorists, activists, and cartel sicarios in the three target buildings about two hundred thirty yards away were no exception; in fact, they probably had more than the Arizona cops had.
Even if they couldn’t listen in, the bursts of electronic noise that would mark nearby transmissions, that far south of Phoenix, might give the game away. And Hank wanted these bastards inside. So, they’d planned the hit the old-fashioned way, using phase lines, time hacks, and specific non-electronic signals. He and Spencer had worked out the times to give each squad plenty of time to get into position from their respective attack positions, the farthest out being two miles away.
He checked his watch one more time. Thirty seconds. He covered the watch and started the countdown in his head.
As Papa Two Four’s section leader, technically he should stay back with the rest of the assault element, letting the scouts move in and deal with the exterior security. But even as an 0369, Infantry Platoon Sergeant, he’d never been good at staying back and just coordinating. He’d developed the skill to be right up in the thick of things, leading the way—often when his butter bar platoon commander was completely lost—while still maintaining enough situational awareness that he could direct his squads as needed.
Hank Foss had never been good at directing rather than leading, even when that was what he was supposed to be doing.
His mental countdown hit zero, and he was out of the wash, crawling forward on hands and knees, keeping the creosote bush he’d picked out as his first bit of concealment between him and his target.
It took a couple of minutes to reach the bush. He was still far enough away that he could move more quickly without making so much noise that he was going to alert his quarry. As he got closer, his movements were going to have to get slower and more deliberate, and he was going to have stay lower. After all, he’d already seen the night vision tube jutting from the man’s face. The Triarii didn’t have the nighttime advantage that American shooters had gotten used to over the first couple of decades of the GWOT.
Of course, the Fourth Balkan War had disabused most of those paying attention of the idea that the Americans would always own the night. The Serbs had been well-equipped and savvy; they should have been, given that the Russians were passing some of the best of their previous generation of kit along.
Hank hadn’t liked fighting the Serbs. None of the old-timers who’d been involved in the peacekeeping in Kosovo in the ‘90s had still been around, but he’d quickly learned the hard way what those guys had figured out; the Serbs might be thugs, but the Kosovars were worse.
That experience, most notably one particular night outside of Lipljan, had taught him a lot. Which was why he was being so careful tonight.
He’d thought about going without NVGs altogether; they were a notorious bastard to wear while crawling or in the prone. But while he might have gone old-school, he wasn’t willing to give up the advantage entirely. This despite the fact that his own PVS-14s, as ancient as they were, were dragging his helmet down and trying to put his face in the dirt, giving him a crick in his neck as he craned to see his target around the base of the creosote bush.
There. The man was as geared up as any of the Triarii hidden in the desert around the place; his chest rig and body armor doubled his bulk, and the M249 SAW’s form was distinctive even from just shy of two hundred yards away. The desert camouflage he was wearing looked pale in the NVGs’ green image, including the balaclava that covered his face. He looked like a soldier, not a thug for hire.
With his quarry spotted, Hank could look for the route to his next bit of concealment. He’d have to cross a short open area before he could reach the next bush. So, he got down flat, his head turned so that he could watch his target without lifting his profile further, and started to creep forward.
It felt like a lot longer crawl than it was. Part of that was because he was so exposed; there was no cover or concealment between him and the man with the SAW other than the darkness and the man’s complacency. Which Hank wasn’t going to bank on, given the fact he was patrolling with a SAW and wearing NVGs.
He kept watching the man as he crept forward, inching ahead with as little overt movement as possible. If he could see the man with the SAW—not to mention the two others to his right and left, the one on the left being a good fifty or sixty yards farther away—then the man with the SAW could see him. Just don’t look too closely over here for the next few minutes. Keep looking farther away. Look for headlights, or silhouettes advancing out of the desert. Better yet, keep thinking about how much it sucks that you’ve got rear security, where nobody is going to come at you.
Hank knew that thinking at the enemy wasn’t going to do shit. He didn’t believe in telepathy or any of that kind of woo. He’d seen some weird stuff in Kosovo, but not weird enough for him to genuinely think he could Jedi mind trick the enemy. That didn’t stop him from thinking really hard at the soon-to-be dead man ahead of him anyway.
He reached the next bush, and almost put his gloved hand right on a cactus growing around the base of it. As it was, a couple of the spines poked through his shooting glove a little, anyway, and it took every bit of self-control he had not to jerk his hand back with a curse. That was going to sting for a while.
Looking up, he saw that his route selection had paid off. He hadn’t just been looking at the angle from the current bush; he’d been thinking ahead, gauging the route by the tiny bits of concealment between him and the target, along with the movement patterns of not only the man he was stalking, but the others off to either side. Now, he had a low, scrubby tree between him and the man with the SAW, and would for about half the remaining distance.
He got up and started forward in a low crouch, carefully placing each step and rolling his foot so that his soft-soled boots made almost no noise against the gritty desert floor.
A quick glance to either side showed him that the others were doing well; he couldn’t see anyone off to the south, and he just barely made out the low lump that must have been Carrington creeping in from the north. He couldn’t hear anything from either man, either, which was also good. They were also roughly the same distance from their targets; timing would work out right.
The next step after he reached the tree and sank back down onto his belly was going to be a little trickier. If the man had been closer to the house, he would have had more options. There was another shallow wash running alongside the circular driveway, studded with more trees. But the man with the SAW was outside the wash, which meant there was still a wide swath of open ground between them, with little in the way of places to hide.
It didn’t matter. It was time for misdirection. He’d been keeping a count in his head the entire way in; he was on schedule. His diversion was about to come…any…minute…now.
An engine roared in the night and headlights shone on the road to the west. The lights turned in through the gate on the south side of the property; Hank could see the glow over the low mound of the underground house in front of him. And just for a moment, his target turned to look toward the south, just like they’d hoped he would.
It wasn’t absolutely vital to the plan that all eyes look toward the lights. Each of the scouts moving in on the three target buildings had multiple means of eliminating the sentries. Hank had his knife, a garrote wire wrapped around his wrist, and the suppressed .45 on his hip. He was close enough to take a shot right then, though he’d have to dump several rounds into the target to make sure of the shot, and he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t make any noise.
But the man turned and started to move along the edge of the wash to try to see what was going on, even as Hank got up and moved toward him, quickly but silently.
Voices rose out front. The young men in the lifted Bronco were armed and ready if things went sideways, but their primary purpose was to cause a disturbance, to act like drunken assholes who thought they would invite themselves to a party. They expected to be met with hostility and to be turned away; they’d pull off in another couple of minutes.
In the meantime, Hank closed in on his prey, his knife already in his hand.
He slipped down into the wash behind the SAW gunner’s back, and moved quickly from shadow to shadow. In a few seconds, he was right behind the man, who was yelling something in Spanish toward the sentry off to the south.
Hank waited until the other sentry had replied dismissively, then he struck.
He hit the man from behind, clapping a hand over his mouth and nose under the NVGs, twisting his head hard to the side as his boot went between the man’s legs, throwing him off balance even as the knife tip went in under the jaw, severing the carotid artery at the same time that six inches of blackened steel punched up into the brain.
It was all over very quickly.
He lowered the body carefully into the wash under a tree as he looked up just in time to see Michaels nearly decapitate the other sentry with a garrote wire. The two forms went down into the scrub, and then Michaels came up, giving him an “all clear” hand and arm signal.
He looked back toward Carrington’s position, but couldn’t see the other scout. Nor could he see any of the others who were currently killing the rest of Jose Ravela Muñoz’s outer security.
He waited, stock still and listening as the truck pulled away, the headlights dwindling down East Old Highway 84. If something was going to go wrong, it would be now. He was sure that something was going to go wrong; he’d been at this far too long to believe that it would all go according to plan, no matter how well they’d planned or how thoroughly they’d rehearsed. And they had rehearsed this part; rehearsed it over and over and over. Most of the last week had been devoted to rehearsals for this handful of minutes. But reality never really corresponded with the conditions in rehearsals.
He thought he might have heard a faint yell, suddenly cut off. That definitely had been a couple of pops, the sounds of suppressed pistol shots.
Somebody had heard something. A door slammed, and a querulous shout in Spanish sounded faintly from the northernmost house. The front door of the underground house opened a few yards away from where he crouched, and a head poked out, peering into the desert night, but without NVGs, the guy wasn’t going to see much.
Hank was suddenly tempted to draw his suppressed pistol and take the shot. The guy in the doorway had an Uzi in his hands, making him a target. But it was too long a shot, and he didn’t want to risk blowing the whole thing now. Especially since the rest of the assault element was supposed to be closing in in the next thirty seconds.
The faint rustle and thud of boots on the sand reached Hank’s ears. He glanced over his shoulder, to see the assault element running toward him in a file, Spencer in the lead. They’d moved off to the northeast enough that their approach should be mostly shielded by the trees along the shallow wash just outside the underground house. That they were moving in a ranger file helped keep their footprint to a minimum.
Spencer reached him first, skidding down into the wash. He looked like a hunchback because he had slung Hank’s pack and rifle over his own, adding to his load and forcing his head down. But Spencer was a hunter and a backpacker; the weight had barely slowed him down.
It took seconds for Spencer to shrug out of the pack and hand it over along with Hank’s rifle. Hank took the rifle, checking it by feel in a handful of seconds, while the rest of the two assault squads broke up into three seven-man assault teams in the wash, and got set for the final push.
Things were about to get loud.
In fact, it looked like they were going to get loud sooner than planned. The door slammed open again, and four men with rifles came out into the driveway, spreading out and scanning the desert outside as they came. All four were wearing body armor and NVGs. The man in the lead called out, “Emilio?”
There was nothing for it. He’d wanted to stay quiet for a little bit longer—in fact, right up until they kicked in the doors—but there wasn’t going to be any quiet way to deal with this bunch.
No battle plan survives for long. Period.
It was less than forty yards to the closest sicario. As the Triarii spread out, the Bravo assault team moving closest, since they had farther to go to reach their target building, Hank leveled his rifle, finding the nearest man’s head and shoulders above the low wall that stood above the wash, shielding the driveway from flash floods.
He had the rifle canted, picking up the angled RMR red dot sight in his NVGs. It was as easy as putting the brilliantly glowing dot on the man’s upper chest and squeezing the trigger.
The first unsuppressed shot of the night boomed in the desert quiet, and all hell broke loose.
The rest of his Triarii down in the wash had been waiting for it. The echoing thunder of his first shot was immediately drowned out by a crackling roar as half a dozen other AR-10s spoke, spitting flame from the sixteen-inch barrels.
The four men were smashed off their feet in a split second by no fewer than three one-hundred-forty-six-grain bullets punching through their heads and torsos. They collapsed in the driveway almost all at the same time, as if their joints had suddenly all stopped holding them together.
Hank and his boys were already moving. Spencer was leading First Squad’s Bravo team at a dead sprint toward the far house, and Amos Lovell, at the front of Alpha, was already shooting at the next closest, the thunder of the 7.62 battle rifles drowning the lighter bark of any return fire, if there was any. Lovell had already broken off on the movement from the first wash; he’d been within striking distance by the time Hank had opened fire.
Hank was clambering up out of the wash with Third Squad’s Alpha team at his back, taking his hand off his rifle’s forearm to grab a tree to help him haul himself over the bank, only to slap it back into position when a figure appeared in the doorway ahead, lugging what looked an awful lot like a belt-fed machinegun. His first shot was hasty, smacking paint chips and bits of metal off the door frame, but it made the man flinch and duck, giving him the split-second he needed to get his sights on him as he glided forward, moving just fast enough that he could still shoot accurately.
His next pair smashed the man back against the doorframe, leaving a dark, wet smear on the white plaster inside.
Then he was at the door with Huntsman behind him, giving him the bump. He went through with his rifle leveled, hunting for targets.