We were only about half a block away from Saint Augustine’s Church when the explosion shattered the morning calm.
I saw the ugly black cloud of dust, smoke, and debris billow out from around the corner a fraction of a second before the ground shook with the tooth-rattling boom. Scott and I dove between a van and a box truck, getting into the questionable cover of a crooked brick wall that bordered the narrow lawn on the side of the street. I glanced up at the clear, cold, blue sky, scanning between the barren branches above for fast movers. My hand had instinctively moved for the pistol under my jacket, even though there wasn’t a blessed thing I could do with it if the EDC was bombing Wroclaw.
The sky was clear, though, and no more explosions followed that first big one. Instead, gunfire rattled down the street near the church, and yells and screams split the morning air as the smoke rose higher in the sky.
Scott and I looked at each other for a second before we both drew our weapons. I pulled the radio out of my back pocket.
“Chatty, Deacon,” I called. “Contact at St. Augustine’s. Meet us a block southeast of the church. Bring everything, and contact the Policja to let them know we’re coming in!”
“Roger,” Tony Barnhart replied. There was a pause, presumably while he checked the map. “Five mikes.”
Scott cursed under his breath. “A lot can go wrong in five minutes,” he muttered. He was faced down the street, his PR-15 9mm held at the low ready. His gloves were almost too thick for the Polish pistol—we hadn’t had pistols when we’d gotten to Poland, months before, so we’d wrangled a few out of the locals—but Scott had never liked the cold. He’d always claimed it was because he was Asian, to which I’d always countered that Japan got some pretty cold winters, too.
“Nothing for it,” I replied, my breath smoking. “We’re not exactly down here to play react force, and I’m not all that keen on running in there with only two of us with pistols.”
The fact of the matter was, we were in Wroclaw for some R&R. I’d have been fine with staying up north, in Gdansk, but Hartrick had insisted. He’d had some idea that I would have been looking for a mission if we’d stayed up there.
I had no idea where he got that idea. It wasn’t as if I’d been prowling around the TOC for days, showing up early for every intel brief every time the Germans or the Russians so much as twitched for three weeks straight.
Okay, maybe that’s exactly what I’d been doing, regardless of the fact that I was still recovering from getting the last of the grenade fragments pulled out of my leg, and Jordan had needed two surgeries on the gunshot wound in his arm. I think Hartrick sent us south just to get me out of his hair for a while.
It had been the nicest day in weeks, so Scott and I had decided to walk the streets after breakfast. I couldn’t say that I’d enjoyed big cities in a long time, but any fresh air was welcome after being cooped up for days under the snowstorm that had hammered Poland recently. It had kept the hostile activity down, but there’s only so long you want to be cooped up in a hotel suite with seven other dudes before you start to go crazy. It had just so happened that we’d gone out just in time to run into another terrorist attack.
Whooping European sirens were starting to blare across the city. The Policja were responding quickly. No big surprise; they’d had plenty of practice since the EDC had turned their baleful eye toward Poland.
Those bastards had shown no compunction about using terrorists as proxies and distractions.
Another siren started closing in on us from behind. I turned, peering past a parked van on the street, and spotted the flashing blue lights in a moment as the blue-and-white Polish police car raced toward us.
Keeping my weapon pointed at the snow-covered sidewalk, I stepped out into the street and raised a hand. I really, really didn’t want to have the Polish cops get right on top of us before they noticed two guys with pistols out, barely a block from an ongoing firefight with terrorists.
The Policja car started to slow as the two Polish cops saw me. A hand was raised in acknowledgement in the windshield.
Then a burst of machinegun fire ripped down the street just over my shoulder, smashing into the cop car’s windshield with a series of hammering reports, shattering glass and spattering red against the suddenly clouded window.
I hit the street hard, rolling out of the line of fire behind the box truck. The Policja car skidded as the driver stomped on the brake, the back end breaking free on the ice and snow that was still packed on the street. It hit the back corner of the parked van with a loud bang that wasn’t quite drowned out by another long burst of machinegun fire that thundered down the street.
The van lurched forward under the impact, and I had to scramble to get out of the way before I got crushed between it and the box truck. Scott grabbed me by the jacket and hauled me back up onto the sidewalk before I got pinched.
I heard a door open behind me, and what sounded like a lot of cursing in Polish. But then the bad guys were coming into view and there was no time for screwing around.
The first of them came into view across the street, dashing behind a parked Lada. He was short and bundled up, wearing a thick, puffy jacket and a dark balaclava, carrying what looked like an AK. I started to track in on him, but he disappeared behind the car.
I almost shot at him anyway; cars don’t make good cover. But I only had a 9mm and about fifty-one rounds. Until Tony and the rest got to us with our long guns and gear, I needed to make every shot count.
The Polish cop scuttled over to us, dragging his PM-98 submachinegun around to point it down the street. He almost pointed it at Scott’s back; he was still rattled, and I saw with a glance that he had his partner’s blood spattered across his face. I grabbed his muzzle and forced it down, just as the terrorist behind the Lada popped out and fired at us, the muzzle blast kicking up a bit of snow as bullets smacked into the van above our heads.
Scott opened fire right then, but I couldn’t look. I shoved the Polish cop farther behind the box truck to get him some cover, while I dropped flat behind the rear tire, punching my pistol out with both hands, finding the sights and letting my breath out with a cloud of steam. The terrorist was only showing his head and a bit of his shoulders.
There was enough glare coming off the snow that I had to squint one eye. The PR-15’s initial double-action trigger pull felt like it weighed a hundred pounds as I dragged the trigger back, concentrating on keeping my press even and crisp, forcing myself not to rush the shot.
The bad guy had leaned out some more, pivoting to turn his AK toward the sound of Scott’s fire. I shifted to follow, then the trigger broke, the 9mm sounding like a pop compared to the rattle of AK and RPK fire. His head jerked back and he flopped, bouncing off the Lada’s trunk and hitting the snowy pavement with limp finality.
Yells echoed down the street, and a moment later, a renewed storm of automatic fire blasted at us. The box truck rocked with the impacts, and shattered glass showered down onto the sidewalk. Bullets snapped overhead, smacking into trees and blasting bits of plaster and concrete off the multi-story apartment building above us.
“Shit!” Scott lunged backward, scrambling away from the incoming fire. The Polish cop, swearing and yelling in Polish, half stood and ripped off a long burst with his PM-98, until I grabbed him and hauled him back down before he got his head blown off.
More bullets punched holes through the thin sheet metal just above our heads with a staccato series of loud bangs. If those bastards figured out that they just needed to shoot lower, we were screwed.
The fire redoubled, and the world momentarily turned into a small hell of noise and fear as bullets chewed into the truck above us, ripping through sheet metal, shattering what glass remained, and showering us with fragments.
Then it stopped suddenly. While sirens were still whooping, people were still screaming, and terrorists and Policja were both still shooting, for a brief moment, it seemed very quiet right there on the side of the street.
Our Polish police companion was still muttering under his breath. I’d picked up some Polish over the last few months, but not enough to make out what he was saying. I couldn’t worry too much about it right then, anyway.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and pushed myself up off the ground, easing around the truck to clear the street next to us, little by little. I didn’t know for sure how close Tony and the rest were; that brief engagement had felt like it had taken a small eternity, but I knew it had only been mere seconds. Adrenaline does that.
The man I’d shot was still lying flat and still behind the Lada, his AK in the gutter. I stepped out, carefully easing around to get a view of the whole street before I moved out any farther.
Smoke was still rising from St. Augustine’s. Blue lights flashed farther down the street. Gunfire popped and cracked, both the heavier rattle of the terrorists’ AKs and the lighter pops of Policja 9mms.
I risked a glance back the way we’d come. No reinforcements yet. “Come on,” I croaked. “Looks like they turned south, between the buildings.”
Without waiting for a response, I dashed across the street. If I was going to be getting into a street fight with heavily-armed terrorists, I wanted something more substantial than my sidearm.
I skidded down behind the Lada, hitting a knee and bringing my pistol up, just in case the bad guys had anyone watching their six and waiting for someone like me to do something like this. Fortunately, they didn’t; if they’d been watching the street and been competent shots, I probably wouldn’t have made it across.
My shot had been good, all right. The dead man was lying on his back, staring at the sky with one eye. A bloody, liquid mess seeped where his other one had been, and the red puddle under his head was slowly spreading in the snow.
I reached down and grabbed the AK-47 he’d dropped, glancing over it before holstering my pistol. Most of the bluing had been worn off, and the wooden furniture was dinged and cracked. It was loaded with a 75-round drum, though he only had the regular 30-round mags in his chest rig under his jacket. I stripped out the drum since I had no way of knowing how many rounds were left, rocked in a fresh mag, then grabbed the rest and stuck them in my jacket pockets.
He sure wasn’t going to need them anymore.
I peeked over the Lada’s trunk, finally able to take a little bit of a pause to look over the wider situation. Several Policja vehicles were splayed across the street near the clouds of smoke that still billowed from the far side of St. Augustine’s sky-blue steeple. I could see the blue-uniformed Policja mostly hunkered down behind their cars. They weren’t advancing yet.
The bad guys had forced open the gate leading into the churchyard on the south side of the street. As my eyes tracked in on it, I saw a burst of muzzle blast puff out through the opening, accompanied by a staccato thunder of gunfire. I couldn’t see the shooter, but he was keeping the Policja pinned down.
“Scott!” I bellowed. “Moving up!”
“Roger!” I couldn’t quite see him; he and our cop were on the far side of the box truck still. But Scott would have the sidewalk covered.
I knew my Assistant Team Lead well enough. I didn’t have to see him to know he was on it.
I got my feet under me and dashed across the side street, skidding down to a low knee behind a van parked with its rear pointing toward the open gate. I could have gone farther, but when I was running basically solo, I didn’t want to over-penetrate and expose myself to that gate without having a bit better idea of what I was dealing with.
Easing out past the hood, I just got a glimpse of the bad guy’s shadow. He was set in well back from the opening itself, giving himself a narrow arc to shoot at the Policja, but keeping to the cover of the thick brick wall as much as possible. He fired off another long burst, green tracers spitting up the street with a stuttering roar. The sporadic AK and PM-98 fire in response seemed anemic in comparison, even as the 7.62 and 9mm bullets spat fragments of cement and brick off the wall with hard, sharp cracks.
I couldn’t see if he had a buddy, but so far, it sounded like it was just him. I hadn’t heard a second gun, and from where I crouched, I couldn’t see anyone else. Which told me, in the analytical part of my brain that never quite shut down even in the middle of a firefight, that he was holding the rear for his buddies.
If these assholes were who I thought they were, that meant he probably wasn’t expecting to live through the next few minutes. And he probably had a suicide vest for when the time came.
I really wished I had some frags right about then. But wish in one hand…
“Deacon, Chatty, we’re coming up on your six.” I glanced over my shoulder to see the green loaner van we’d driven down to Wroclaw in coming up, slowing as the smoke and tracer fire came into view.
“Roger, Chatty. Unload and move up to join Weeb on the south side of the road. We’ve got a single shooter inside the gate; suspect that he’s on a one-way trip.”
I could have dropped back to the van and picked up my vest and my OBR. But I was already committed, and the faster we took this bastard out of the game, the better. So instead, I waited for the bad guy’s fire to slacken, then left the dubious cover of the van, staying low and keeping the AK’s muzzle and open sights pointed at the gate, sidestepping out and looking for a shot.
Gliding as best I could over the slick, icy pavement, I angled toward the street, all too conscious of how close I was getting to the Policja’s line of fire. The Poles had redoubled their fire as the bad guy had stopped to reload, and a crackling storm of submachinegun and rifle fire was now chewing into the brick wall around the terrorist’s hiding place. He’d hunkered down; I should have seen him already.
Two more steps and I had him. He’d rocked a fresh mag into his RPK, and looked up just as I settled the front sight post on him.
To his credit, he didn’t hesitate. He yanked up the long-barreled light machinegun and fired, the burst ripping over my head so close that I could feel the bullets’ passage. But he’d have been better off if he’d aimed.
The AK in my hands was still on “Auto.” I stroked the trigger, stitching the five-round burst from his crotch up into his head as the muzzle tried really hard to keep climbing. He jerked under the impacts, screaming for a moment before the fifth round blew a hole through his brain, scattering a spray of red across the snow behind him as he slumped.
I didn’t close with him immediately, but reached back with my off hand and flipped the selector all the way down to “Semi” before putting a final round through his skull. I’d seen the bulk beneath his chest rig; he was wearing an S-vest, all right.
I usually tried to avoid employing the “insurance round.” Too often, I’d seen it boil down to cold-blooded murder, where a mortally wounded man, his guts in his hands, screaming his head off, had been finished off “just in case.” But when you’re facing jihadis, sometimes there just wasn’t any other choice. I hated it, and I hated them for making it necessary.
And at that point, given their target and the S-vest, I had no doubt that these were jihadis.
I didn’t cross the street right away, even though the gunfire had died down. Some Polish cop was still screaming and yelling as another kept shooting at the gateway. No sense in taking chances with a suicide vest, or getting shot by some trigger-happy Policja officer, shaky from adrenaline.
“Deacon, Chatty.” Tony sounded as bland and blasé as ever. He was as given to emotional displays as he was to talk. “Is that you on the north side of the street?”
“Affirm.” I glanced up and down the street. The Policja were starting to close in. “Have we got a Polish terp?”
“This is Weeb,” Scott called. “Officer Bosko here speaks some English.”
“Have him call his buddies and warn them to stay back until they can get EOD over here,” I told him. “I’m pretty sure this dude’s got an S-vest on, and I don’t know what kind of failsafes they might have put into it.”
I stayed put, my weapon still pointed at the dead man. It was instinct, more than anything else; there was no way he was getting up.
I could hear more sporadic gunfire to the south as Tony and Jordan, both fully kitted out with vests, helmets, and weapons, ran across the street to join me. Tony, who was already bulky enough between his massive build and his SAW vest weighted down with 7.62 ammo belts, had a kitbag slung over his shoulders, and as they took a knee next to me, he shrugged out of it and dropped it next to me.
“Thought you might want this stuff.” He leveled his Mk 48 at the explosives-laden corpse next to the fallen RPK without another word.
“What happened?” Jordan was watching the Policja, his muzzle pointed at the ground. He was slightly shorter than me, and while I’ve been described as having “resting mad-dog face,” he tended to watch everyone with a sort of default belligerence that had led to more than one fistfight. Unfortunately, given that Jordan tended to think of himself as a black man first and anything else second, many of those fights, and his belligerence, tended to be race-related.
He was still adjusting to Eastern European attitudes, and hadn’t necessarily gotten along well with the Policja we’d dealt with. Or many other Poles.
“Somebody bombed the church,” I replied, as I put the AK down and started to shoulder into my own vest, weighed down with 25-round 7.62×51 magazines, medical gear, survival pack, batteries, navigational tools, and a better antenna for the radio that I pulled out of my back pocket and shoved into its pouch. I slung my LaRue OBR, checked that the lens caps were off the scope, and then shoved the AK and the spare mags into the kitbag. “Then they tried to shoot their way out. Looks like they left a shahid to hold the rear when they shifted their escape route.”
Scott and the Policja officer named Bosko were coming across the street to join us, steering well clear of the gate. More sirens were whooping in the distance, and a knot of bundled up Policja were coming from the opposite side, also hugging the far side of the street.
If that S-vest was big enough, of course, then we were all danger-close, but there was only so safe you could be in a combat zone, and this fight wasn’t over yet.
Bosko was a tall, lanky man with pointed features and sandy hair. He was already talking fast as the other cops joined us, all of them glancing at us curiously. Fortunately, we were all in uniform, of a sort. The Triarii, being something of a cross between a militia and a private military company, didn’t have a proper “uniform,” as such, but we all tended to wear either plain olive green or tan fatigues, depending on the conditions, and we were all currently wearing our Triarii patches on our jackets. I hadn’t been a fan of the patches when they first started to get circulated, back when we were still a relatively clandestine organization Stateside, trying to plug the gaps in local security where the Feds or local government had either dropped the ball or were fanning the flames, but now that we had official recognition, thanks to a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, they were coming in handy.
I was pretty sure the patches were the main reason Officer Bosko hadn’t shot us from the get-go.
Tony stayed on a knee while the rest of us stood, his wide, stony face unmoved. Tony was like that. Jordan kept looking from one Pole to the next, almost suspiciously, as if he wondered if they were talking shit about the black dude. Scott kept his eyes outboard, though he was clearly paying attention. He’d picked up more Polish than most of the rest of us already.
As for me, I held my peace while the Policja jabbered at each other. I wanted to just start taking charge of the situation, pushing out to go after the rest of the terrorists. This was, after all, becoming too much of a common occurrence. The Poles had been harsh in their rejection of the “migrants” that had been flooding into Europe from the Middle East for over a decade, but they hadn’t been able to keep all of them out. To make matters worse, when the EDC had invaded back in the fall, they’d let a lot of small cells of Islamists, Communists, and simple violent criminals into the country. The European Defense Corps had been driven back across the German border, but their stay-behind elements were still wreaking havoc.
But as much as I wanted to go hunting, we were on leave, and were hardly part of the Policja’s response plan in Wroclaw. If I pushed too hard too fast, I might just make the situation worse. I can be the guy who starts getting pissed off when I think the decision makers are talking too much, but being a Grex Luporum—Wolfpack—team leader, I’d had to learn a certain degree of patience.
Bosko turned to Scott. “You are the American mercenaries?”
Close enough. “That’s us,” I said. He looked between the two of us for a moment, as if unsure just which one of us was in charge. Scott nodded toward me before turning his eyes back toward the smoke-wreathed churchyard. “We’re available to help, if you can use us.”
Bosko studied me for a second, took in our weapons and gear, and then turned to the squat, flat-faced officer who seemed to be in charge of the group of Policja who had joined us, rattling off another stream of Polish that was too fast for me to catch more than a couple of words. The officer looked at me, then nodded, almost grudgingly.
“You are the special ones, yes?” Bosko asked. He seemed a little more eager for us to get involved than the other guy. He’d watched me shoot a terrorist in the head from across the street with a pistol, after all.
I nodded. “We’re a Grex Luporum Team, yes.”
He nodded back, quickly telling the flat-faced man something. I thought I heard “GROM” in there somewhere.
Our reputation seemed to be spreading in Poland.
The older officer squinted at me, took a deep breath, and nodded. He said something in Polish that I couldn’t quite make out, and then Bosko said, “The criminals are fleeing south on foot. If we move in your vehicle, we might be able to cut them off. There are Policja units already moving, but most of them are in pursuit.”
I smiled coldly behind my dark red beard. “Let’s go hunting, then.”
Strategic Assets is currently available for preorder, and will be available on Kindle and in Paperback on July 24.