Nine men with weapons and gear made for a tight fit in the little van. We ended up stacked up on the street as each man piled in, trying to climb into a seat without getting rifle or pouches snagged on seats, seatbelts, or door frames. Chris was already in the driver’s seat, looking over his shoulder as I climbed into the right seat. I didn’t have to worry about the crowding; privilege of command. Chris had the heater running full blast, and I was already sweating under my jacket, despite the cold.
“Come on, come on!” Chris was a bit older than I was, but he tended to be a bit more excitable. He’d been a SEAL before the Triarii, but he was now a minister in some splinter Protestant church, and an all-around nice guy. “They’re moving while we’re still sitting here!”
The van rocked on its shocks as nine big men in combat gear clambered aboard. I was trying to watch every direction at once, scanning windows and doors all around us. While the obvious threat might have run to the south, I’d learned a long time before that there was rarely only one threat, and the obvious one might not be the most dangerous. If there was one terrorist cell in Wroclaw, there might very well be a second. Or a third.
A long, rattling burst of gunfire crackled off to the south, punctuated by the heavy thud of an explosion. “That doesn’t sound good,” Greg chirped.
“It’s a terrorist attack,” Reuben grunted as he got in and pulled the door shut. “There’s nothing good about any of this.”
Bosko was on his radio, which had just gone nuts. I craned my head around to look at him. “What’s going on?”
“They have stormed the Wieża Ciśnień,” he said, listening closely to the radio. He met my eyes. “They have open fields of fire from the observation level, for a very long distance.”
“Hell.” I reached for my vest, then remembered that I didn’t have a detailed map for Wroclaw, not with the kind of fidelity I’d need. “Can you guide us to a covered and concealed position we might be able to stage from?”
“Yes.” He frowned. “There is much open ground around the tower. It will not be easy to reach it.”
“We’ve got pretty precise rifles, a belt-fed, and smokes,” I replied. “Just get us a spot where we can set in overwatch and a base of fire, and we can handle it.” I might have sounded a bit more confident than I felt; rushing a building that was being held by a fanatical enemy was never an easy proposition, especially across open ground. But one of the other things I’d learned lately was that when you’re working with foreign allies, you really have no choice but to be utterly confident in your own abilities, at least when you’re talking to them.
If Bosko saw through my bravado, he didn’t say anything.
Chris didn’t bother to try to turn around, but just said, “Heads down!” as he craned his head around to peer out the back window, threw the van in reverse, and stomped on the gas. We struggled to lean aside, out of his line of sight, especially as he came awfully close to smacking the back of the van into the side of a station wagon parked on the street.
He sped to the end of the block in reverse, passed the southern cross street, then braked hard, throwing everyone backward, shifted gears, and roared around the corner. The van wasn’t the newest or the greatest, but it still had enough horsepower to get where it needed to go with all of us crammed inside, without wallowing like some other vehicles of its type might have under similar circumstances.
Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic. Some of that was simply because the Poles had gotten used to hunkering down when something blew up or somebody started shooting. Some of it was because gasoline and diesel were being sharply rationed. Gdansk was still open, but the amount of oil making its way into the Baltic that wasn’t controlled by the Russians was still slim. The French Navy hadn’t screwed with many tankers, not with the Abraham Lincoln task force still in the North Sea, but the number of tanker captains willing to risk the run through the Skagerrak and Kattegat wasn’t as high as it needed to be.
The Poles were doing some business with the Russians, but they were understandably reluctant to put all their eggs in that basket. Few hatreds in the world run quite as hot as the Polish hatred for Russians.
“To the end of the block,” Bosko said. Chris leaned on the pedal, and we sped down the street toward the flashing blue lights where another Policja vehicle had stopped, just on the north side of the corner. As we pulled up behind the vehicle, I could just barely make out the peak of the water tower through the trees ahead.
“Everybody out,” I said. My heart rate was going up again as I contemplated the problem ahead, even assuming that the Policja turned to us to take the tower back. I’d calm down once the action started, but anticipation always starts screwing with me in the meantime.
The two Polish cops were still in their car, hunkered down in their seats, on the radio. Bosko and I trotted up, staying low to keep from attracting attention if the terrorists had shooters up in the tower, and came up to the driver’s side window, Bosko calling ahead on the radio before we moved, to make sure they knew we were coming. Neither one of us, it seemed, wanted to get shot by the Policja. I’d been around enough mid-trained cops not to trust their target discrimination if they got surprised, particularly in what already amounted to a combat situation.
The driver rolled down the window and he and Bosko talked while I leaned out with my OBR and cranked up the scope’s magnification, trying to get a better look at the target. The red brick water tower had two peaked spires, one on the main body of the tower itself, the other above an observation deck that protruded on the east side, looking somewhat like a flying turret on a castle. Even with the scope cranked up to eight power, I couldn’t see any movement in the observation deck’s windows, but since I was burning between the bare branches of several trees, and the sun was glaring off the window glass, that didn’t mean much.
Bosko straightened up some from the car and got on the radio again. A moment later, he tapped my boot with his own. “The command post is there.” He pointed to the building above and half a block to the west. “We can go through the buildings to reach it without exposing ourselves to the terrorists.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. Let’s go.” Bosko at least had a good grasp of the terrain and use of cover and concealment, which was a damned sight better than what I’d come to expect from cops over the years. Especially some of the ones we’d worked with Stateside, in the places where we weren’t necessarily considered right-wing terrorists.
Bosko bent to speak to the cop in the car, who said something flippant in return, though even with my extremely limited grasp of Polish, I could hear the brittleness in his voice. Wroclaw was supposed to be a safe area. A haven from the war. It had been bombed once or twice during the EDC offensive, but the southern push had been a feint. Gdansk had been the real prize.
Unfortunately, the reality of modern war was that there were no rear areas. When the enemy willingly unleashes scum like these on target populations, everyone and everyplace is a target.
“Come with me,” Bosko said, swinging around the back of the vehicle and heading for the steps that led up into the apartment building above us.
I waved at the rest to follow. They had spread out across the street, taking up security positions while Bosko and I had figured out the next step. They were all out of the line of sight from the tower, too.
Even after all this time, it occasionally strikes me just what a pure pleasure it is to work with professionals.
The interior hallway was mostly lit by the bright sunlight pouring in through the glass doors on either end, though the overhead lights were still on. The lobby was deserted, though I thought I saw at least one door close as we crossed to the back door.
Bosko led us out into a courtyard, not far from where we’d parked the van, but sheltered by the three-story brick and concrete buildings all around. There was still snow on the ground and on several of the vehicles parked in the courtyard. He trotted across, ignoring the patches of snow and ice, and paused at the door, calling up on his radio before pushing through and waving at us to follow.
I had a hunch that Bosko had been in combat before. After the initial shock from getting his partner blasted right next to him had worn off, he’d adjusted fast. I’d have to ask him, when this was all over, if he’d been in Gdansk, or one of the other fights out to the west.
Most of the lights in the building were off, and we trotted up darkened stairs to the top floor. Uniformed Policja with rifles, submachineguns, and a few shotguns were stationed at the landings. The Policja had armed up more openly since the war had kicked off. Especially with the Wojska Lądowe, the Polish Land Forces, committed to the borders in force, the Policja were the first line of defense when one of the EDC’s agents of chaos struck in the cities.
The interior was ancient, filthy, and stank of mold. In fact, the building appeared to have been mostly abandoned until the Policja had needed it for an overwatch position. Which was fine with me; it meant fewer civilians around, potentially getting caught in the crossfire.
The command post had been set up in the hallway outside a south-facing apartment. The Policja were gathered around a large radio set, two of them peering through the doorway with binoculars, while an aging, sallow-faced man with deep bags under his eyes stood behind them, talking on the radio while he scanned a tablet in his other hand.
“Zastępca Inspektor?” Bosko said by way of greeting, saluting. The sallow-faced man held up the hand holding the radio handset without looking at him, his eyes still fixed on the tablet.
The Deputy Inspector—I’d figured out most of the Polish ranks, in the Policja as well as the Wojska Lądowe—spoke curtly into the radio, then handed the handset and the tablet to a junior cop before turning to us.
He took us in, one of his plus eight men in green, wearing military equipment and carrying high-end AR-10 rifles, except for the biggest one, who had a short-barreled, belt-fed machinegun in his meaty hands. He shot a question at Bosko, who answered before turning to me.
“I told him that you are the American mercenaries, and that you are here to help. He has a SPAP unit coming already.” The Samodzielny Poddodział Antyterrorystyczny Policji were something like the Policja’s SWAT capability. Before the war, they’d done a lot of work around Europe, cooperating with the Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, and others. They were pretty good, from everything I’d heard. The question was, could they get on site in time? They’d been busy as hell lately.
I asked the question. “How soon can they get here?”
When Bosko translated, the Deputy Inspector grimaced. His answer was curt and not happy. “Anywhere from four to five hours,” Bosko said, mirroring the older man’s expression. “There was a major incident in Krakow. All regional units had to be called in.”
I motioned toward the doorway. “May I?” I suspected that I knew why they’d set up the CP in the hallway.
The Deputy Inspector might not have spoken English, but he understood my meaning. He nodded.
I eased past the young woman kneeling at the doorjamb, peering through binoculars, and looked out. Sure enough, there were three bullet holes through the window in the abandoned apartment, and broken glass on the floor. Somebody hadn’t been quite careful enough about keeping a low profile, and the terrorists had made it clear that they didn’t like being watched.
I couldn’t see much more from up there than I’d been able to down on the street. The sun was still blazing against the restaurant windows on the second floor, and while I thought I might have seen movement, I couldn’t be sure. It sure wasn’t enough to take a shot.
Not that opening fire right then was necessarily a good idea. Until we knew more about the terrorists’ dispositions, whether they had hostages—it was a restaurant, so they probably did—and when the SPAP was going to be in position to assault the water tower, opening the ball early was just going to get people killed.
Plus, it wasn’t my call right then. I might have wanted to go ahead and bull through and crush these guys, but the call to assault was going to be on the Deputy Inspector. And as I turned away from the door and looked at him, I honestly couldn’t tell if I thought that was a good thing or not.
“Well, then, I guess we wait.” I pointed to the next apartment over. “Is it okay if we set up an overwatch position while we wait for the SPAP unit to get here?”
Bosko translated. The Deputy Inspector studied me for a moment, then nodded with a few words in Polish. “He says yes, and thank you.”
“We’re here to help,” I said.
Hartrick might have kicked us out of Gdansk for a week to get out of the war, but right then, there was no getting out of the war.
We set in and waited. The building really had been abandoned; the apartment next to the CP was barren and unfurnished, which meant we had to either brace our rifles against the doorframe to hold overwatch on the tower, or else get too close to the window and risk kicking things off early.
War involves a lot of hurry up and wait. A lot. What stuck in my craw was that this waiting might just be unnecessary, and that we might be giving the bad guys time to prepare that we didn’t want them to have.
Tony was sitting against the wall next to our overwatch doorway, his Mk 48 sitting on its bipods on the floor. Jordan was leaning against the opposite wall, radiating his usual “fuck off” attitude. Chris and Scott were both on overwatch, each leaning with one hand on the doorjamb, that hand clamped around his OBRs’ forend, eye fixed to scope. Greg, happy and gregarious as always, was trying to strike up a conversation with any of the Policja who would give him a moment’s attention. David was playing with a knife, squatting against the wall next to Tony, humming something that sounded vaguely Deguello-ish. Reuben was snoring.
As for me? I paced.
I was getting close to wearing a hole in the floor, with the estimated time of arrival for the SPAP unit still two, two and a half hours out, when the whole building suddenly shook with a tooth-rattling boom. Shattered glass rained down somewhere nearby.
A moment later, as every head snapped up and I moved quickly to join Chris and Scott at the doorway, gunfire cracked and echoed across the city again.
“What’s going on?” I couldn’t see any activity.
“I don’t know.” Scott was tracking from one side to the other, trying to get a better view. “It’s not at the tower.”
The Policja’s radio was going nuts. I turned to Bosko.
“Another cell,” he said grimly. “They just hit the cordon on the east side with a bomb, and are shooting at the survivors.
“We have to move now.”
Strategic Assets is available for preorder, and will be released on Kindle on Friday, July 24. (The Paperback went live a little earlier than planned.)