Amos Black was sitting in the center back seat of the black HiLux, with Bryan and Hassan crowding him on each side. Bryan was there to quietly kill Black as soon as he showed any sign of treachery. Hassan was there to help coordinate with the team of Hussein Ali’s finest that was running overwatch. Hussein Ali had suggested that his boys should take this, but I’d declined, and Mike had backed me up. This was our hit, for very special reasons.
The man Black had fingered looked nondescript as hell, especially in southern Iraq. Short, skinny, short black hair, neatly trimmed beard, black dishdasha, talking on a cell phone. There was nothing in his appearance to suggest that he was anything special.
Not that that was in any way odd in this strange, shadowy war. Some of the nastiest opponents were the ones who looked like frail businessmen. And according to Black, this guy was one of the top commanders of the Abdul Qadir Brigade, a sub-unit of the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Sham.
Right now, this skinny, inoffensive-looking motherfucker was walking down a still-crowded street in a primarily Sunni part of Basra. There weren’t a lot of majority Sunni areas here in the south these days; in fact, until things really got nasty between Moqtada al Sadr’s Jaysh al Mahdi and Zarqawi’s AQI, much of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia lived pretty intermixed. Not anymore.
The street was narrow and increasingly dark as night descended. A few of the streetlights flickered to life, but with the fighting that had been going on in Basra for the last couple of months, things like power had gotten pretty hit-or-miss. Trash and sewage had always been secondary (or tertiary, or lower) priorities; there was standing water in the street—and it wasn’t the rainy season yet—and trash was piled against the dingy buildings.
I lifted the mobile phone to my ear. It was a cheap, local throwaway job, that kept hitting me with Arabic text messages from the local cell provider. I hit the speed-dial and after a moment, Jim’s voice scratched over the circuit. “Go.”
“Our guest is coming at eleven,” I said. “I told him to wear black. He says he’s running late, just getting out of the Laundromat now.” It sounded like ordinary chitchat if anybody was listening in, but I’d just sent a description of his dress, his direction of movement, and identified the point he was passing in those three short sentences.
“I see,” Jim replied. He had him. I nodded to Nick, who put the HiLux in gear and turned us onto another side street, pushing ahead out of sight of the target.
“You can move to the safe house now,” Black said quietly. “I told you, that’s where he’s going. We can get set up to hit it as soon as he goes in.”
I half-turned to look at him out of the corner of my eye. “That’s assuming a lot of things,” I said. “One of the biggest items on that list is assuming that they didn’t change all the safe houses and procedures once you didn’t show up again.”
“It’s possible,” he conceded, “but I doubt it. This isn’t a Project safe house. This is one of Abu Tariq’s hidey-holes. It’s his cousin’s place, I’m pretty sure. He comes here regularly, even before ISIS started moving in down here to start killing Shia wholesale. He’s vicious as hell, but his tradecraft sucks; he’s a blunt instrument. Relies more on fear and heavy security than finesse for survival.” The most vicious of Islamist militias in Iraq had started calling itself simply the Islamic State a while back, but most of us still called it by its earlier name—ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham.
There was a long silence, as Nick continued to follow our leapfrog pattern to pick up the alleged Abu Tariq a few blocks down. Black just sat back in the seat. He’d apparently resigned himself, for the time being, to our distrust. Considering how we’d picked him up, that was probably wise.
After all, it isn’t every day you find yourself working with an American clandestine operative who’d been mentoring and supporting a former Al Qaeda affiliate. And, they were only “former” because they’d managed to get kicked out of AQ for being too savage even for that band of cutthroats. Think about that for a second.
Of course, he’d had a good story about how he and several of his fellow contractors had been suckered into it. It was even a fairly plausible story, given what we knew about the guy he’d claimed was coordinating the whole mess. Collins had come after us under the guise of a State Department bureaucrat, trying to force us out of Iraq, probably because he was afraid we were going to stumble across his little Project.
Black had been more than willing to cooperate with us since he was captured after the taking of the Basra police station about a month before. Fingering an ISIS command cell was one of the first juicy nuggets he’d offered. Of course, our company, Praetorian Security, was getting a bit of a rep in certain circles for not fucking around. He knew that the possibility of a bullet in the brain and a shallow, unmarked grave was hanging over his head. I suspected that that threat had more to do with his cooperation than any idealism or disgust with the black project he’d been a part of for the last year or so.
Nick circled us around two blocks, coming out to the main street, where a few food kiosks were still open, hawking somewhat fresh food for the evening meal. Especially with the power being as intermittent as it was, most Iraqis didn’t rely on refrigeration, but bought their food a day at a time, sometimes a meal at a time. We were planning on taking advantage of that.
Nick brought us to a halt on the side of the street, and Hassan got out, going over to one of the booths that looked like the proprietor was about to close up shop and go home. It was getting dark, and few Arabs like to be out and about after dark, even in the cities.
I had my hand on the short-barreled .300 Blackout AR that I had next to my leg, a shirt thrown over it for concealment. Hassan was armed; even when he couldn’t carry his beat-up old Tabuk rifle around, he had a Beretta that he was never separated from. But it never hurt to be ready, especially in a city that had seen as much chaos and violence as Basra had in the last couple of months.
Hassan started talking to the vendor and bickered and haggled long enough for the target to come into view. He quickly paid the man for the food, then came back to the HiLux.
We watched Abu Tariq cross the street, moving with more of a purpose now that he wasn’t talking on the phone anymore. There was no communication, but I spotted the white Bongo truck that Jim and Little Bob were driving as it leapfrogged forward to pick Abu Tariq up farther down the line. It was risky running surveillance with only two vehicles, but we still hadn’t replaced the losses we’d taken over the last few months. We definitely had to “do more with less.”
Abu Tariq, assuming that was indeed who he was, crossed the street at something close to a trot, since what traffic there was wasn’t always inclined to stop for pedestrians. Nick waited until he was almost out of sight, then eased the HiLux across the street and after him. We actually passed him, making sure not to stare as we drove by, and parked half a block further down the street.
I was already seeing what Black was talking about when it came to Abu Tariq’s security. We had barely turned onto the street when we were getting the stink-eye from several young men with “jihadi fighter” written all over them. They were stationed in little clumps up and down the street, and appeared to be centered on one two-story house with dingy, whitewashed walls rising over the plain cinderblock exterior wall.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “This looks like damned near a platoon.”
“There are going to be more inside,” Black said. “Like I told you, he likes his security heavy.”
This was going to suck. Close quarters was already enormously dangerous, even when the opposition was only a couple of people. The more resistance, the nastier it got, and if you added in reinforcements coming from outside, it got even worse.
We stayed in place long enough for Hassan to get out, fiddle with something in the bed, and get back in. In other words, just long enough to see Abu Tariq—I realized I was thinking of him with that name, though more for the sake of convenience than anything else—go through the green-painted metal gate to the whitewashed house. As soon as Hassan was back in, and before one of the small groups of young, hard-eyed men could come and investigate why we were stopping, we were moving again.
“We need to get surveillance on that house,” I said. “I don’t want you exposing yourself in this neighborhood any more than necessary, Hassan,” I added, as he opened his mouth to say something. “We’ll go back to the base and find one of Hussein Ali’s boys to come back in. He can find a house that’s either abandoned, or the family has some bad blood with the ISIS types. Then we’ll slip two of us in there in the wee hours of the morning.”
I twisted around in my seat to look at Black. He was sitting back, his face blank. He did that a lot. “What, no protestations that you’ve already filled us in on everything?” I demanded. That wasn’t entirely fair; Black had been cooperative and had never given us the least reason that he was trying to push us toward any particular course of action. He had given every sign that he knew he was dealing with men who had become deeply paranoid about anything outside of the company, and he valued his own skin enough to avoid giving us a reason to indulge that paranoia.
He just shrugged. “I haven’t been in there in months; Abu Tariq accepted some support from the Project, but he made it plenty clear that he didn’t trust us, didn’t like us, and would have happily beheaded all of us on camera, one at a time. There were a few meetings there, but they were short. I can’t say that I’ve got all the details for you. Surveillance for a day or two would probably be a good idea even if you did trust me.”
I didn’t say anything, but just faced forward again as Nick drove us out of the target zone. I didn’t like Black—none of us did—but it had less to do with his personality than with what he’d been involved in. He was working hard to try to redeem himself, but it was an uphill battle.