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FOR ONLY A MOMENT, LESS time than needed to take a breath, Gunnery Sergeant Kyle Swanson lifted his eyes from the dark path uncoiling before him and looked above the surrounding snow-covered peaks. A crescent moon rode in the cold night sky, with a shadowed edge so clean that the Marine sniper could make out the pimpled edges of individual craters with his naked eye. An early astronaut once described the lunar emptiness as magnificent desolation, and Swanson thought the same description was a good fit for the sheer and ragged mountains of western Pakistan. Up, down, or sideways, no matter where you looked, there was nothing in these badlands but more nothing. His eyes went back to the narrow trail, and he used his left hand to brush the stone face of the mountain, feeling for outcroppings of rock or tufts of weeds that could provide handholds, while he kept his boots at least six inches from the edge of the trace. Beyond that was only a sheer drop of perhaps a thousand feet into a black chasm.
"I vote that next time, we just dump a bunch of cruise missiles on this place," said Staff Sergeant Joe Tipp, who was climbing right behind him. "My legs are on fire. Cupla cruise missiles would have saved us from humping these damned mountains."
The six Marines from Task Force Trident had been on the move for three consecutive nights, following a surly Afghan guide along impossible trails, up into the high elevations where the air was thin, then down into boulder-studded valleys, then up again. Before the dawns, they would take hide spots, set a guard rotation, and fall asleep exhausted, with every muscle sore and their weapons at hand. The only way through the Spin Ghars was to put one boot in front of another.
"A cruise missile wouldn't deliver the proper message, Joe. We don't want to just whip their asses; they have to know they've been beaten. This has to be up close and personal," Swanson said over his shoulder as he forced his protesting legs to make one more step, then another. Two short grenade launchers rode atop his heavy pack, while an AK-47 assault rifle was hooked on the chest harness, and encased in a special bag over his shoulder was a Russian-made SV-98 sniper rifle. Balancing the seventy-pound load was as important as the footwork.
"You really get off on sending this kind of message, don't you?"
Swanson snorted. "Bet your ass. Now shut up and climb."
This was their fourth black raid on hidden training camps across the border in the past three months. The official version of the mission stated that it was just a snoop-and-poop job by scouts from the U.S. Marine Special Operations Command, MARSOC, and the men would stay clearly inside of Afghanistan and under no circumstances venture into Pakistan. American and other NATO troops made such sweeps every day, probing for the elusive Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.
They had ridden out from a forward operating base in three closed Humvees, went through a couple of small villages of mud huts so they would be seen by curious eyes and reported up the terrorist grapevine as heading north. Once in the wilderness, darkness fell and things changed. The Humvees turned east at a dim intersection known as the Camel Crossroads and drove without lights for an hour over a rotten road, following deep ruts up the incline toward the mountain passes. They stopped. Eight Marines and the guide dismounted, and the vehicles returned to the crossroads and continued north to another forward operating base, again intentionally attracting the notice of enemy spies who concluded it was a routine resupply run, not worth worrying about.
By the end of the first night, the commandos were deep in the mountains, at an isolated and abandoned observation position that overlooked some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet. They rested all day, and things changed again that night. Two Marines were left behind to set up a communications station that would transmit periodic false mission reports back to head-quarters. The rest stepped out, wearing old clothes purchased in Afghan bazaars, carrying a variety of weapons that were not made in America and without any identification. Then they fell off the map.
Soon, not even the radio team knew where they were. No colored pins on maps at any base showed their position or their target. No unmanned Predators circled overhead for surveillance, and if things went bad, no fighter-bombers would be zooming in for air support and there would be no rescue helicopter. There was absolutely no indication that any Americans were in the Paki backyard, which meant there could be no leaks to the various tribal warlords of questionable loyalties.
Kyle climbed on, in the company of fighting men that he knew and trusted, all of them fully aware that there would be no after action reports, no medals for bravery, no mentions in the media, no memoirs later in life when they were all grandfathers and retired. Whatever happened out here, stayed here.
The only unknown was the Afghan guide, who was only about as trustworthy as any of the locals. He had worked for the Agency for five years and was given a plastic-wrapped brick of $100 bills in payment to take them into the forbidden zone. He would not be a problem. Either he did as he was told or he would be killed and left in the mountains. Such was Kyle Swanson's unforgiving world.
Climbing the rugged terrain with him now were five experienced commandos, none below the rank of sergeant or with less than seven years in the Corps. Joe Tipp was right behind him, occasionally bitching about life in general. Next was Staff Sergeant Darren Rawls, a tall African-American who was a natural athlete and hardly felt the muscle pains shared by the others on the mountain. Captain Rick Newman was in the middle of the line, technically in command of the operation but with the primary task of doing officer stuff, like talking to other officers when required, so Swanson could do his job. The fifth was red-haired Staff Sergeant Travis Stone, a grinning little killer rat. Trailing and covering the rear was the wiry and always-silent Sergeant Eliot Brenner.
Just before the mission's fourth daybreak, as the serpentine trail descended toward a broad plateau, the guide suddenly stopped, then scurried back to Swanson. The patrol froze, instantly alert as the possibility of action replaced the drudge of climbing.
"What is it?" Kyle asked.
The Afghan pointed toward a long and rocky ridge and said in fractured English, "Al Qaeda, mister. Taliban. Just there."
Swanson shed his pack and crawled forward on elbows and knees to a cluster of big rocks that allowed him to peer downward without exposing his head on the horizon. At the foot of the steep mountainside was a valley floor about five miles distant, where a crude camp of tents and small structures had been built.
Captain Newman crawled up and flopped beside Kyle and scanned the valley with his binos. "Bingo. We're here."
"Yep," Swanson confirmed. "Let's get settled."
The Tridents spread out and found individual hides for the day, caught some sleep and spent their waking hours counting enemy noses and charting range cards to the various huts and landmarks. They did not speak, just watched the base camp in which the terrorists believed they were invulnerable. The six silent men were deep in the forbidding mountains, where their enemy had been protected by a truce between the local warlords and the Pakistani army, left alone for so long they felt free to do as they wished.
In the late afternoon, three civilians were brought out from one of the huts, their hands tied and their eyes covered with black strips of cloth, stumbling as guards shoved them forward. A fighter who looked like a member of the training cadre called out to the terrorist trainees and pulled a knife from his belt. Obviously giving a demonstration, he crouched at the knees and thrust quickly forward and back with the blade to show what he wanted done. A dozen of his eager students formed a circle and one of the prisoners was pushed into the middle.
The instructor then shouted out the names of individuals, and the summoned trainee would step into the circle and repeat the lunge attack, but making sure to only slice lightly into the terrified prisoner. The man had to live long enough for everyone to get a turn. When the first trainee finished, then another name was called, then the next, and the crying prisoner's garments turned crimson with blood until he finally collapsed. After a final bit of instruction from the senior fighter, one of his younger acolytes bent down and cut the victim's throat.
Another circle was formed with other trainees, and the ones who had already finished the knife exercise became spectators, cheering and catcalling to the others while the second bound civilian was slashed. The exercise ended when the third prisoner had been slain. The instructor gathered his men for a verbal review of their work, then dismissed them. The three bodies were hauled away for burial.
Swanson swallowed his rage. Emotion could not be allowed to enter his thoughts and the slaughter of those three prisoners made him focus even more. Still, he waited, chewing nuts and dates and thinking until, finally, the sky darkened. Almost time.
The moon had reached the crescent shape three nights ago and now shone like a sign to mark the start of the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, the holy month of Ramadan. Thirty days of fasting. In the valley, the forty terrorists and their half-dozen instructors settled down to break their daylong fast and enjoy the first food, water, and sweet chai they had been allowed to consume since before dawn. Their voices swam up the mountainside, the giddiness of a small celebration. Afterward, they would offer the last of the five daily prayers, the Isha.
Swanson drank some water, wiped his hands, and passed the word to prepare to move out. He called for the guide and when he approached, Kyle kicked the man's legs from beneath him and dropped him to the ground. Joe Tipp was there to wrap duct tape around the ankles and put plastic flex ties on the wrists. Another strip of tape went over the mouth.
"You have done well so far to get us here, my friend, and we do this not to harm you but just to insure your silence," Kyle told the guide. "We cannot afford to trust you. Stay still and quiet and you will be fine. I promise that we will pick you up on our way out. Attempt to warn those bastards down there and you will wish you were dead long before you actually are."
The guide stared into the set of gray-green eyes and the cold face and nodded. He understood.
The six Trident Marines picked their way downhill, carefully planting their boots to prevent stumbling or sliding on rocks. There was no hurry. It was dark and the terrorists in the camp were still milling around, finishing their food and drink.
This was exactly when Kyle had wanted to strike. He felt no alarm at all about violating any sacred religious rites, because the men in that camp were killers, through and through. This had nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with tactical advantage, for Swanson considered the fasting and prayer times of his enemy to present extraordinary opportunities, small openings during which their guard was down, their alertness dim, and their vulnerability extreme. He knew those terrorists would do the same to him if given the chance, and believed that it was savages just like them who had flown passenger jets filled with innocent Americans into the Twin Towers.
Beneath a broad thumb of boulders about five hundred meters from the camp, the Tridents stopped so Kyle and Captain Newman could study the area one last time. Things remained normal and security was loose.
"One close sentry straight ahead and another on that ridge about five hundred yards away," said Newman.
Swanson broke out his sniper rifle and peered through the PKS-07 seven-power scope to satisfy himself that the moon was providing enough light for him to see clearly. He whispered to Newman, "Take out the close sentry and I'll drop the other one at the same time. Joe Tipp, you spot for me."
Newman passed the word to Darren Rawls, who slithered off into the darkness, his long arms and legs propelling him forward at an astonishing pace and in total silence, with only his strong fingers and toes of his boots touching the ground.
The sentry lazily walked his position, his senses dulled by the cool night temperature and the big meal of lamb and rice he had just devoured. A dot of flame flashed from a match as he lit an opium-laced cigarette until golden ashes glowed at the tip. The fasting period also meant no smoking during the day, so he hungrily inhaled, held it in his lungs, and stared up at the moon as the drug's pleasantness spread through his body.
In an instant, a shadow rose behind him, a big hand cupped over his mouth and yanked the head back, and then the heavy blade of a sharp Ka-Bar, an old-school combat knife, ripped through the exposed neck, sliced the jugular vein, and dug for the brain. Darren Rawls eased the man to the rocky ground and knelt on him as he bled out. He clicked his radio transmitter once, breaking squelch to confirm his task was done.
Joe Tipp and Kyle Swanson had calculated the distance, elevation, and windage numbers for their target. Upon hearing the click in their earpieces, Tipp whispered, "Fire." Swanson applied a smooth four pounds of pressure to the trigger and the SV-98 coughed once, the flash suppressor eating up the sound of the gunshot. An instant later, a 7.62 mm bullet slapped into the broad back of the distant guard and tore out his heart and chest, dropping him without a sound.
Swanson put the sniper rifle aside and turned to Newman. "You find their commo shed?"
"Um. Yeah. It's that center building, looks like the overall headquarters. They really grouped all of those tents and buildings close together. Hooray for sloppy work."
"Shit, why not? They aren't worried about any air strikes on sovereign Pakistani soil, and the Paks sure as hell aren't coming after them. We're here to show they aren't safe, no matter where they sleep."
Tipp unstrapped a rocket propelled grenade launcher. "I still think cruise missiles would be a good idea."
"Let's go." Swanson growled and led the way down the trail, unlimbering one of his own RPG-7s. The old weapons were notoriously inaccurate and had a short range, but had been modified and updated, and in the hands of trained commandos firing down slope, they were effective and deadly. With both sentries out of the way, the group closed on the camp until they were less than a football field away, then at Kyle's signal, moved into a line, side-by-side, about ten yards apart.
They were in position within seconds, invisible in the darkness against the mountain backdrop, all with RPGs ready to fire. The terrorists were grouped together outside in the open area of the camp, kneeling in five lines on their prayer rugs and facing Mecca.
Swanson took a final range measurement, just a flicker of an invisible radar beam and spoke into the small microphone on his headset. "Set your detonators at one hundred meters. On my count of three, send the first volley into the crowd and then hit your assigned buildings with the second shot, again on my count. We want both salvos to arrive as a package. After that, we move into the camp and fire at will. There will be no survivors."
Captain Newman had assigned each commando a specific segment of the crowd of worshippers, so as to maximize the damage rather than having all of the rockets bursting in one place. The terrorists were no longer men, as far as any of the Marines were concerned: Just targets. Kyle aimed at the center of the cluster, and counted it off, "Three … Two … One!"
Excerpted from Clean Kill by Jack Coughlin and Donald A. Davis.
Copyright © 2010 by Jack Coughlin and Donald A. Davis.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin's Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.