Camp Victory. The US army compound at Baghdad
Lucy and her crew sat on crates and watched marines transfer money from a bomb-proof Peli case to a black canvas holdall.
The soldiers had locked themselves in a caged section of the warehouse. Four men stood around a trestle table. Two to count and re-count, two to bear witness. They stacked bricks of hundred-dollar bills in vacuum-sealed plastic.
“Got to be three, four million at least,” said Lucy.
Lucy and her team were wearing full body armor. Lucy had a cheery Sheraton conference badge pinned to her flak jacket. “Hello, my name is … FUCK YOU.”
“That shit is straight from the Federal Reserve,” said Toon. African-American. Black Power fist scribbled on the breast plate of his vest. Bald head. “Consecutive serial numbers. You could steal it, but you couldn’t spend it.”
“Bet some oily Swiss fucker would give you thirty cents on the dollar. Still a cool million.”
“Split five ways? Wouldn’t go far.”
“I’ve been broke so long, I wouldn’t know how to spend it.”
“Look at those clowns,” said Toon. “Cherry motherfuckers. Green as grass. They’ve been in-country five minutes. We could take them out anywhere between here and the Interior Ministry. Wouldn’t even put up a fight.”
“No. Make the drop. Cash the check.”
“Fuck that shit. Five hundred dollars a day. Is that how much your life is worth? Five hundred bucks is nothing.”
Lucy shook her head.
“My motto? ‘Live to spend it.’ No use being rich and dead.”
“No one would give a damn,” said Toon. “Victimless crime. Not like this stuff is going to feed starving orphans. They’re just greasing some Provisional chieftain for a bunch more reconstruction contracts. Only a sucker would stay honest in the middle of this shitstorm.”
Lucy watched a rat scurry along a roof girder high above them. She rubbed her eyes.
“All right, boss?”
“Yeah,” said Lucy. “Just tired.”
Huang entered the warehouse by a side door. A combat medic and a good driver. He rejoined the crew and sat on a crate.
“What did you get?” asked Amanda. A Californian rich girl gone bad. She had blonde hair, a nose ring, and a meth habit. She had found redemption in the meditative breath control and serene focus of an airforce rifle range.
“The orderly is a cool guy. Happy to see a bottle of Jim Beam. He broke out a bunch of Percocet. A few Vicodin. Smoother ride than guzzling fucking NyQuil.”
Amanda and Huang bumped fists.
“You got to score some more Oxy. Pure, sweet buzz.”
“Fucking pill freaks.” Voss. Tall, lean, early forties. He had a thick South African accent. “You think you’re dealing with combat stress. You’ll just rot your fucking brain, bokkie.”
“A person has to relax.”
“So cook up a spoonful of smack. Do the job right.”
The crew adjusted their scopes, their buckles, their laces. A series of pre-mission survival rituals. They checked mags and chambered. Green tip tungsten carbide penetrators.
Lucy bit the cap from a Sharpie. They wrote call-signs, grids and frequencies on their forearms.
“Radio check,” said Lucy.
They each wore a short-wave TASC headset. The radio was clipped to their webbing. Five-hundred-meter range. The mike was a Velcro throat-strap. The earpiece was a constant open channel.
Lucy stepped away from the group. She thumbed the pressel switch on her chest rig.
“Check, check, check.”
An uptight CO. Hard to tell rank. Most marines removed insignia and ditched the salute when they moved in-country. Overt signs of seniority might attract a sniper’s bullet.
The buzz cut surveyed Lucy’s team with contempt. Mercenaries. Long hair and tattoos. All kinds of trophy jewelry and charms: sharks’ teeth, rosaries, bullet pendants. They wore their sidearms at the hip instead of the chest plate snap-holster favored by regular army.
Soldiers of fortune. No code. No honor.
They signed for manila packets. They tore open envelopes and counted cash. They tucked money in the map pocket of their vests next to sweetheart photos, goodbye letters and power-of-attorney.
“Time to move out,” said the CO.
The team stood and headed for the trucks. Voss had FUCK THE ARMY scrawled on the back of his vest.
A three-car convoy. Marines up front in a Humvee with a .50 cal mounted on the roof. Two black, twelve-cylinder GMC Suburbans behind. The GMCs were ghetto-rigged with heavy ram bars, ballistic windows and Kevlar panels.
They climbed into the first Suburban. A marine private took the wheel. Lucy rode shotgun. Amanda and Toon took the back seat. A young marine sat between them, hugging the padlocked money bag, trying to hide his fear.
Huang took the wheel of the third vehicle. Voss was rear gunner. He took a fire position at the tailgate.
Lucy watched the crew of the lead Humvee form a huddle and butt helmets.
“These fucking kids are going to get us killed,” muttered Lucy. She turned in her seat. “Weapons very free, all right? Don’t wait for an order.”
“Fuckin’ A,” muttered Toon, adjusting his grip on his carbine.
Amanda cracked her knuckles.
“Wire-tight and good to go.”
The marine kissed a St. Michael medallion and tucked it into his ballistic vest.
“Don’t feel ashamed, kid,” said Amanda. “Only a fool wouldn’t be scared.”
Engine roar echoed through the vaulted warehouse. High-beams shafted through broiling diesel fumes.
A marine private hauled back the hangar door and the convoy rolled out into torrential rain.
* * *
They drove parallel to a row of warehouses. They sped through a field of Conex shipping containers and headed for the perimeter wire.
The compound gatehouse was a narrow breach in a HESCO sand barrier with twin machine-gun sangars either side.
They got waved through. They sped down a fresh strip of asphalt laid across desert to the expressway. Route Irish. The twelve-kilometer thunder run between the airport and the Green Zone. They passed bullet-pocked signs for Fallujah and Ramadi.
They drove fast and tight. Rain lashed the windshield. Wipers swept-double time.
Adrenalin high. Lucy stroked the rubber custom grip of her rifle. Every smell, every texture, hitting with the heightened clarity of dreams.
A few other cars on the road. A white Toyota pulled close behind the convoy. An old man and his son. Windshield decked out with prayer beads and a gold fringe. Voss waved them back. They didn’t respond. He shouldered his assault rifle and put a shot through the front grille. The Toyota swerved across the median and hit a ditch jetting steam.
“Salaam Alaikum, motherfucker.”
They raced past checkpoints, blast barriers and concertina wire.
Baghdad up ahead.
Ministry buildings split open by Tomahawks. Homeless families bivouacked in burned-out offices. Campfires flickered in upper floors throughout the night.
The “Mother of All Battles” mosque. Each minaret shaped like a SCUD.
The skyline veiled in rain.
* * *
A tight side street. Slum housing. Crumbling concrete apartment blocks flanked a dirt road with a sewer trench either side. Lean dogs pawed garbage. A few locals in dishdashas sheltered in doorways.
Lucy pulled a map from the sun-visor pocket.
“What’s he doing? Your CO. Why the detour?”
“JTAC says a truck flipped outside the old college. It’s going to take them an hour to clear the road.”
“Not many people around,” said Toon. “I don’t like the atmospherics.”
Lucy slapped the driver on the shoulder.
“Tell your boss right in two hundred meters. We have to get out of these side roads.”
Burned-out cars. A rat-run alley blocked by oil drums full of rubble.
“They pay for a kill,” said Amanda. “You know that, right? Sunni militia. Plant a bomb, kill a white skin. There’s a bounty.”
“How much are we worth?”
“About three hundred dollars. Lot of money round here.”
“It’s the rain,” said the driver. “Everyone is hiding from the rain.”
“Your command vehicle. It’s got electronic countermeasures, right? For roadside?”
“I don’t like it.” Toon craned to look up. Balconies and snarled phone cable. “Classic choke point. Sitting ducks.” He turned in his seat and addressed the marine beside him.
“What’s your name?”
“Tell your boss to speed up.”
The young marine hesitated, then spoke into his radio.
“India One, this is India Two. Come in, over.”
“Go ahead India Two.”
“Contract suggests we move a little faster, over.”
“India Two, maintain radio silence, over.”
“Tell him to keep out of the road ruts,” said Lucy. “Perfect place for a pressure plate. Seriously. Tell him.”
“India One, this is India Two, over.”
“Maintain silence, India Two.”
“Contract suggests we keep out of ruts in the road.”
“Tell her to fuck herself, over.”
“Your CO is a fucking idiot,” said Toon.
“That’s Lance-Corporal Cortez. You call him Sir.”
The lead Humvee stopped.
“What’s the deal?” demanded Lucy. “What the fuck is going on?”
Cortez kicked open the side door of the Humvee and got out.
“Fuck,” muttered Lucy. She extended the butt-stock of her assault rifle. She flicked the safety to Off, selector to Burst. She popped the door of the Suburban, ran across the street and threw herself against a cinder-block wall. Rifle to her shoulder. She scanned windows, parapets and balconies. No movement.
Voss in her earpiece:
“Fuck is going on, boss? Fucking dead meat out here.”
She wiped rain from her eyes and looked down the street. A Fiat Tempra station wagon parked by the roadside fifty yards ahead. The vehicle was empty. It sat low on the rear axle. Might be stacked with artillery shells. Might be a bunch of twenty-liter palm oil drums filed with a bath-tub brew of ammonium nitrate and aluminum filings.
Cortez slowly walked toward the Fiat. He stopped seventy-five yards out. He checked for disturbed earth. He scanned the ground for secondaries or a command wire. He checked balconies and windows, tried to gauge probable line-of-sight for a trigger man crouched with a cellphone detonator and a video camera.
“Hey. Cortez,” shouted Lucy. “Let’s back up, all right? We’ll turn round. Get out of here.”
The corporal peered through the Fiat window. An empty back seat. An empty trunk. He relaxed. He jogged back toward the Humvee.
“Okay,” he shouted. “Let’s go.”
Guy steps out of a doorway and shoulders an RPG. Flash. Billowing back-blast. Streaking projectile. Lucy screaming “Get Down!” Cortez looking at her like “What the fuck?” The grenade hits him between the shoulder blades and suddenly there is nothing left of the CO but pink mist.
It rained meat.
RPG guy stepped from the doorway again. He hurriedly clipped a fresh sabot into the smoking barrel and shouldered the weapon. A young, bearded guy in baggy trousers and white shirt. Lucy shot him through the left eye and blew out the back of his skull. He was thrown clean out of his flip-flops.
A compadre ducked out of the doorway and snatched up the RPG.
The driver got out of the Humvee and looked at scraps of wet muscle draped over the hood and windshield. Shock. Paralysis.
Lucy ran across the street. She grabbed him by the collar of his tac vest. His name patch said DANVER.
“Specialist. Did you radio it in?”
“You have to get it together. Every mobbed-up Sunni in this quarter of the city will be heading this way.”
“We can’t leave the Corp.”
Lucy glanced around. Scorched flak jacket and ribs beneath the Humvee. Arms and legs in the street. The corporal’s head lay in the sewer trench, still wearing a K-pot helmet. Pooled blood and rainwater.
“We do not have the time to police this shit up.”
Crack of AK fire. Muzzle flash from a high window. Dirt kicked up around their feet. They took shelter behind the Humvee.
“Contact,” screamed Danver. “Fire for effect.”
A marine squirmed through the roof hatch of the Humvee, racked the .50 cal and swept walls and windows with heavy fire. The vehicle rocked on its suspension. Jackhammer roar. The weapon ejected a stream of smoking brass. He pulverized balconies and blew craters in cinder block.
Toon and Amanda joined Lucy behind the Humvee and fired full auto up the street. Four-second burst. Reload. Rally shout:
A kid ducked out of a doorway and spray-fired his AK, so green he closed his eyes and looked away as the weapon bucked in his hands. Amanda dropped him double-tap: efficient center-of-mass kill shots that shook him like hammer blows.
Another kid jumped from an alleyway. Distant shout:
Toon stepped out from behind the Humvee. Bullets spitting dirt at his feet. He selected full auto and ripped the kid’s chest open. The kid fell dead. Toon dropped the spent mag and wedged a fresh clip in the receiver. Full auto. He made the dead kid dance.
Lucy dragged Toon to cover.
“You fucking idiot. Trying to get killed?”
Huang and Voss took flanking positions in doorways and guarded the rear.
“How many we got?” shouted Toon. “How many shooters?”
“Two. Three. End of the street.”
Two shooters at a window seventy yards down the street. Amateurs. Spray-fire. She waited for a reload lull. Lucy popped single shots, blowing chunks out of the windowsill. Suppressive fire. She felt calm. A flow state. This was where she belonged.
The last two rounds in each mag were red-tip tracer to alert she was running low. She ejected the clip, pulled a fresh thirty-round STANAG mag from a vest pouch and slapped it into the receiver.
Danver dragged a backpack from the cab. He crouched behind the Humvee and worked the radio.
“Tell them we are by the old telephone exchange,” shouted Lucy.
“All call signs, this is India One, heavy contact, taking RPG and sustained fire. Grid: niner, six, two, five…”
The windshield took hits but didn’t break. Spider web cracks in the ballistic glass.
Bullets splashed mud and rainwater.
“JTAC says stay put and dig in. The Quick Reaction Force are staging at Camp Freedom. We should have air cover in ten minutes. Mechanized exfil in twenty.”
“This is nuts. We have to pull the fuck back, get out of this enfilade.”
“RPG,” screamed Amanda.
The guy stepped out of an alley. Amanda shot him in the gut as he pulled the trigger. Flash. Billowing blast of rocket efflux. Streaking projectile.
The grenade punched through the windshield and blew out the command Humvee. Lucy threw herself down and lay in the mud. She hid her face from the scalding pressure wave, the supersonic corona of metal and glass.
She struggled to her feet like a boxer trying to beat the count. Concussed. Deafened. She tongued a tooth. She had lost a filling. She wiped blood from her nose with a gloved hand.
She grabbed Danver by his tac-vest and pulled him upright.
Debris imbedded in the road. Jagged shards of metal dug into walls, coiling smoke. Acrid stench of cordite.
The gunner rolled off the roof, legs and hair on fire. Lucy slapped out the flames, seized his collar and dragged him across the street.
A volley of AK fire. Bullets blew rock chips from a nearby wall.
Lucy kicked open a door and pulled the injured man inside, Danver on her heels. Toon and Amanda followed closely behind her, laying down fire.
A shuttered hair salon. Big mirrors. Beautician chairs. Wigs and hair extensions hung from the wall like scalps.
“Go firm,” she shouted into her radio. “Huang, we need you.”
They lay cover fire as Huang sprinted down the street.
Huang unzipped his trauma kit. He cut away the guy’s tattered pants and wriggled on Nitrile gloves. He swabbed the wounds with Betadine and pressed burn gel dressings on weeping flesh. He checked the kid over, patted him down for wounds.
“Fucker’s veins are collapsing. Shrapnel. Must be an internal hemorrhage somewhere.”
The gunner fumbled at his groin.
“Don’t worry,” said Huang. “You haven’t lost your dick.”
Huang pulled his bayonet from a belt sheath and sawed at the injured man’s clothes.
The soldier trembled and arched his back. Grand mal.
“Can’t you give him something?”
“Blood pressure is too low for morphine. You. Danver. Help me find the bleed.”
Voss ran through the doorway, slammed against a wall and slid to the floor. He was panting. He dropped a spent magazine and slapped a fresh clip into the receiver.
“More of them by the minute. We can’t stay here, boss.”
Crackle of gunfire. Lucy crouched in the doorway. She gulped from her canteen. The Humvee was ablaze. Ammunition cooking off. Pistol rounds popped like corn. .50 cal rounds discharged with a heavy thud. The street filled with the sour stench of ignition.
“Were there phosphor grenades in that thing?”
“A few,” said Danver.
“The SUVs are starting to burn.”
“Where’s the money?”
“Fuck the money.”
“We should throw a strobe.”
“No need,” said Lucy. “Choppers will see the smoke.”
Bright arterial blood bubbling from a hole in the injured man’s belly.
“Smells like shit,” said Danver.
“Gut wound,” said Huang. “Intestinal bleed. The guy is pretty messed up. We need those fucking Bradleys.”
Lucy glimpsed movement in the lead Suburban. Private Rubin, frozen with fear, money bag in his lap.
The hood of the SUV was enveloped in flame. The tires were ablaze. Burning oil and brake fluid trickled into the gutter. Rubin was starting to nod on the back seat, overcome by fumes.
Lucy gripped her rifle and prepared to sprint to the SUV. The wooden doorframe beside her exploded. She fell backward into the salon and rolled for cover. She pulled a shard of wood out of her cheek.
“Sniper. He’s on the roof directly across the street. Mandy, lay suppressing fire. Brass him up. Toon, get Rubin out the car.”
“I’m going to take this fucker down.”
Amanda ducked out the doorway and directed burst-fire at the parapet across the street.
Toon ran to the SUV. He shouldered the money bag and pulled Rubin clear.
Lucy ran across the street and kicked in a door. Some kind of trashy boutique. She toppled mannequins as she ran for the stairs. Three flights. A ladder to a roof hatch. Lucy paused to catch her breath. A sudden wave of too-old-for-this-shit. Her hands were shaking.
She shook out cramps and climbed the ladder. She prodded the hatch open with the muzzle of her rifle.
She lunged up and out. She rolled clear and lay prone.
A wide, flat roof slick with rain. A rusting satellite dish. A couple of air-con units. A water tank. Thick smoke from burning vehicles in the street below. The bitter stink of melting plastic.
Lucy got to her feet dripping rain. She walked along the parapet. A young kid wrestling to reload a massive Dragnov rifle. He looked twelve, thirteen years old.
A gap between buildings. A thirty-foot drop into a garbage-strewn alley. She ran, and vaulted the chasm.
Lucy’s boot clinked spent shell cases. The kid looked round. They stared at each other.
“Drop it,” shouted Lucy.
It broke the spell. The kid struggled to work the rifle bolt.
“Drop the fucking gun.”
The kid chambered the weapon and raised it. Lucy shot him in the chest. A tracer round pierced straight through him like a streak of laser light.
He lay on his back. He wiped rain from his eyes.
She could hear the thrum of incoming choppers. AH-6 Little Bird gun ships ready to lay suppressing fire at six thousand rounds a minute.
She knelt beside the kid. She examined the scorched wound.
“Can you hear me? Can you understand English?”
The kid smiled. Blood bubbled between his teeth.
“Fucking whore. Fucking American whore. You bad luck. You die soon.”
She grabbed the kid by his shirt and pulled him to his feet. He drooled blood and saliva. He pulled burned dollars from the ripped chest-pocket of Lucy’s flak jacket.
He held up the money.
“My god is greater than your god.”
Lucy threw him over the parapet. He fell three stories into the wreckage of the burning Humvee, and was lost in flame.
She crouched on the roof and picked wet dollars from rainwater puddles.
Midnight. The Al-Rasheed Hotel.
Lucy and her crew in their suite. The room was furnished with leather armchairs and lawn furniture stolen from the Scheherazade Bar on the roof. Stars and stripes nailed to the wall with a couple of bayonets.
A mortar attack had blown the power. A random shell fired over the Zone’s seventeen-foot blast wall had taken out a pylon. The room was lit by candlelight.
The team had stripped down to T-shirts and shorts.
“Hey,” said Amanda. “I saw this marine sniper on TV the other night. Reporter asked what he felt each time he killed a guy.”
“What did he say?”
“Wish I could sleep,” said Lucy.
“I got Ambien. Might have some Motrin.”
Amanda fanned herself with a magazine. Her good looks uglified by heavy tattoos and a nose stud.
“I popped three bombers,” said Lucy. “And NyQuil. Tripping my arse off. Too humid. Just can’t sleep in this heat.”
The distant sound of guys bellowing “Living on a Prayer.”
“Bechtel guys making their own fun until the power’s back on.”
Lucy pulled a fresh Michelob from an ice bucket and ran the cold bottle across her forehead.
Huang, Toon and Voss were asleep on the floor, weapons and flak jackets propped against the wall.
Lucy and Amanda sat in facing armchairs. Money and pills on the table. Half-eaten flatbread and lamb kebab.
Rain lashed the window.
“Did you see Toon?” asked Lucy. “Did you see him walk into line-of-fire?”
Amanda shrugged. She swigged vodka. “We’re coming apart. All of us. My ears are shot. Ringing. It never stops.”
“I think we’ve used up our luck,” said Lucy. “Playing Russian roulette each time we roll out Assassin’s Gate.”
“I’ve been broke. I don’t want to be broke any more.”
Amanda’s dad kicked her out when she was seventeen. She slept in a car for a year. Summer. Winter. Parked each night in the lot of a Holiday Inn.
“Tell me about the guy.”
“It was a prisoner transport,” said Amanda. “An old guy. Ex-Republican Guard. He told me about a convoy. A bunch of military vehicles escorting an armored truck. A shipment of stuff taken from the vaults beneath the National Museum days before Baghdad got hammered by Tomahawks and looted to shit. Said they took the truck way out into the desert. Said it was still there.”
“What was in the truck?”
“Gold. Lots of gold.”
“Where is this guy?”
“Do you trust him?”
“I don’t trust anybody.”
A table lamp flickered on and glowed steady.
The room powered up. The rising hum of air-con. A beep from the wall phone. A click as the TV returned to standby.
“Let’s talk to the guy,” said Lucy. “Hear what he has to say.”
She closed her eyes and basked in the breeze as the ceiling fan stirred the air.
TOP SECRET SPECIAL HANDLING NO FORM
Central Intelligence Agency
Directorate of Operations, Near East Division
Doc ID: 575JJUFG
MEMORANDUM TO: Project Lead, D.Ops
JABRIL JAMADI has been separated from former regime elements currently interned at JSOC’s temporary HUMIT screening facility at Balad, and is now held in solitary confinement at Abu Ghraib, Tier Four. I believe, sooner or later, he will inadvertently reveal the precise location of our objective at the SPEKTR site.
We will continue covert electronic surveillance of his cell. We have a listening device with an independent power source wired into the light fitting. We monitor visitation requests. We have resources available to track his movements following the authorization of his release. I feel this subterfuge is likely to prove more efficacious than rendition to our black sites in Egypt or Syria. JAMADI has so far proved impervious to standard interrogation techniques. I suggest we allow him to make contact with confederates outside the prison. We should look for an opportunity to turn him loose without arousing his suspicions. I am confident he will lead us to our objective.
CA Special Proj, Baghdad
Copyright © 2012 Adam Baker