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THEIR CAREERS pushed Swanson and Dodge in different directions after that. Mike Dodge, with a wife, chose a more conventional path, while the single Kyle Swanson was swept up in special operations. Two years later, when Marine Corps Brigadier General Bradley Middleton was kidnapped by mercenaries and terrorists in Syria after the first Iraq War, Swanson went in and got him back but was mortally wounded in the fight, buried in Arlington, and posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was huge news throughout the nation and the Corps, and Mike and Becky mourned the loss of their friend.
However, things are not always as they seem, and three years later, Mike was shocked one evening to answer the front door of his two-bedroom home in Oceanside and find Kyle standing there, alive and well, beer in hand, ready to regale Becky with wild stories. It had all really been a major league Pentagon paperwork mistake, he said, and they couldn't very well take back the medal, nor unbury him. Instead, they had bounced him around on special assignments until someone could figure out an appropriate job for a dead guy.
The surprise reunion became a party that continued at a seafood restaurant on the Coast Highway just south of Del Mar. Back home about midnight, Kyle got down to the business part of his resurrection and the surprise visit. First, he swore them both to secrecy, making them put their hands on the family Bible.
"Everything I told you earlier was bullshit," he admitted. "I'm sorry, but I had to see how you were both doing before I divulge the actual story. Tell no one what you are about to hear, not tomorrow or ever."
Swanson then confessed to Mike and Becky how he had been officially washed from the records to help create a totally black spec ops organization that was known as Task Force Trident. It was a handful of specialists who answered only to the president and was turning the War on Terror on its head by taking the fight right to the enemy's doorstep. Some really bad people had been learning there was no safe place to hide if they attacked America and its allies, and that there would be no martyrdom awaiting them, nothing but a bloody end. Trident could access any and all assets of the U.S. government to accomplish its missions; drones and SEALs and Delta Force and B-52s and computer geeks and federal agents and local cops and forensic psychologists could be called as needed for support. There were no paper trails to backtrack, and no punishment for carrying out the strikes, which were cleared personally by the president of the United States.
Kyle said that Trident had reached a stage where he really needed a partner he could trust out there in the boonies, and who was better at this game than Mike Dodge? Mike looked ready to sign up on the spot. Becky pulled back.
Think about it and talk it over, Swanson urged. Let me know tomorrow. Bumps could be expected in both pay grade and expenses. Big bumps, Kyle said. The Dodges talked all night before turning down the offer. It was the right move for them, Swanson admitted, but he at least had to try.
* * *
INSTEAD OF RUNNING and gunning in dangerous special operations, at the end of another five years, in 2014, Gunnery Sergeant Mike Dodge found himself in command of the Marine security detachment at the U.S. Consulate in the peaceful diplomatic backwater of Barcelona, Spain. He wore a coat and tie to work, commuting from the two-bedroom apartment where he lived with Becky and their one-year-old son, Timmy. The place was all the way to the Reina Elsinda station, last stop on the Metro's L-6 line, and it was a quiet life, a good life for a man with both a sense of duty and a family.
On a bright Monday morning, when Dodge stepped from the train station, he immediately had a prickly feeling along his arms and neck that sent him into a state of alert. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but the gunny had often felt that special tingling just before trouble broke out back during his combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At least on the surface, everything seemed fine. A line of Spanish locals and citizens of other nations wanting to obtain visas and process business permits had been forming for the past hour at the main gate to the consulate. All were orderly, standing there for a specific purpose, reading newspapers and drinking coffee.
Four Spanish cops were in front at the barrier that controlled vehicle entry. Dodge walked over to exchange greetings, and they confirmed that there was just the usual morning traffic and pedestrians.
Dodge walked into the consulate through the heavy main door, crossed the polished stone lobby floor, and was greeted by the day-shift guy, Corporal J. V. Harris, in uniform at Post One behind the bulletproof glass wall. Dodge eyeballed him to be sure he was squared away. J. V. stood six-two, with a square chin and broad shoulders, and was an imposing figure although he was only twenty years old. Buttons on the short-sleeve khaki shirt and the buckle of the white web belt were in exact alignment. A holstered pistol rode on the hip of his dress blue trousers, and the white cover was perched firmly on a high-and-tight haircut. "Top of the morning, Gunny," Harris called out, buzzing him through the reinforced transparent entrance to the business area. "Another excellent damned day in our beloved Marine Corps. Sergeant Martinez is in the back." Rico Martinez had been the night man and would be changing into his civvies to go home.
"What's the threat assessment?" Dodge asked.
"Low. Martinez reports things were quiet all night. Nothing since I came aboard."
Dodge's eyes studied the young Marine. "Are you sober?"
"Of course, Gunny."
"And the guys at the House?"
"Absolutely. It was sort of a rough night in Barcelona, but if you want them, they can be on deck quick enough."
Dodge shook his head. That meant they were probably as hungover as sheets flapping on a clothesline. He couldn't shake the itchy warning feeling. "Matter of fact, I do want them. Call over there and get them up. And you stay sharp."
The big door hissed closed and locked. Harris added, "The RSO and the consul general are already back there." The RSO was the regional security officer for the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service and technically in charge of overall consulate safety.
Dodge walked down the hallway, his eyes flicking to every door. Several consulate workers were at their computers at the front counter, getting ready to deal with the morning line. I'll keep Martinez around for another hour, he decided.
It was less than a minute before eight o'clock when J. V. Harris picked up a secure telephone and dialed the House. The telephone rang once, twice, three times, but no one answered. He hung up, planning to wait a few minutes and give them one more try before reporting to the gunny, who would rip them all a new one if they didn't answer. Corporal Harris hung up and buzzed the security lock again, to allow a consulate worker with a big ring of keys to exit through the barrier so he could open the heavy, bulletproof main door. The business day was about to begin.
* * *
THE MARINE HOUSE, a spacious Spanish-style structure of white stucco with a traditional red tile roof, was the official living quarters for five U.S. Marine Corps consulate guards in Barcelona. It was also a party place. When the large main room and manicured garden were not in use for diplomatic functions, it was one of the more popular nightlife addresses in the Sarrià/Sant Gervasi district. Off duty, the Marines knew how to have a good time.
Early on Monday morning, Sergeant John Dale was on his knees in the bathroom, paying due homage to the porcelain god after the latest Sunday night party. "I think my brain is broken," he moaned, then his stomach seized and he retched again into the toilet. The feast of paella, roast pig, beer, and red Rioja wine had tasted much better going down than it did coming up. He flushed and slumped back against the chill finish of the tub, awaiting the next upheaval from his protesting stomach.
The two other Marines in the House were Sergeant Pete Palmer and Corporal Chet Morrison, both sleeping off their own hangovers. Palmer had a girl with him. The large house was laid out along a central hallway, with a big living room and dining area flanking the curved entrance alcove. Kitchen, bedrooms, and two full baths were lined down a central hallway that emptied into the manicured backyard, which had an enclosed swimming pool. It was the best place that the twenty-year-old Dale had ever lived, far beyond his dreams growing up in his small town in Indiana. A hell of a lot nicer than his last posting in Afghanistan.
A dry and aching spasm clutched his stomach and he barfed again, and this time knew he was finally empty. There just can't be anything left down there. Sick as a skunk with an exploding skull, but finally empty. Staring into the mirror as he washed his face and brushed his teeth, Dale promised to pace himself next time. Someday. Maybe. Wearing just his boxer shorts, he headed barefoot for the kitchen and a big glass of water while the coffee brewed. The living room was a wreck, but by noon the maid would clean it, the gardener would fix the flower beds, and the handyman would repair any damage, all on the government dime.
Dale drank deeply and looked out through one of the broad windows in the rear and saw the fresh April sun rising, with its orange light glistening along the thick border of juniper bushes and tall blue-green Spanish fir trees. Things were a mess out there, too. It was about eight o'clock, but by evening it would all be squared away by the people who were paid to pick up after them and fix things. Like magic. This was his first embassy posting, and he liked the duty.
Had he been looking out of the front windows instead of the rear, Dale would have seen a small van coast to the curb, and five bearded men climb out and hurry through the front gate that opened without so much as a squeak. They all carried AK-47 submachine guns. With a low threat assessment throughout the area, all weapons in the Marine House were locked away in a safe. There was no local police security protection, for only an idiot would attack a group of Marines.
One of the men outside unspooled what looked like a long, narrow piece of weather stripping and snapped the prefabricated adhesive explosive around the edges of the heavy front door, then hustled for cover. A second one pressed the command detonator button, and a hard explosive charge smashed the quiet morning and blew the door to splinters. While the smoke was still thick, the five attackers rushed inside with their guns up and fingers on the triggers.
Sergeant John Dale was caught in the kitchen, where the blast of the door had left him sprawled on the floor beside the table, dazed and blinded by flying debris. The first burst of full-auto gunfire ripped his chest and stomach as the other gunmen hurried down the hallway, kicking in doors and shooting. Corporal Chet Morrison was leaping from his bed when he was knocked backward, stitched by a hail of AK-47 bullets. Sergeant Palmer and his girlfriend were still untangling themselves when a gunman stepped into the room and shot them both repeatedly.
The attack team, working from a map that had been carefully drawn by the maid, checked every room and closet, plus the garden and the tool shed, then hurried back to their car. As it sped away toward the harbor and a waiting fast boat to take them away from Spain, the Marine House telephone began to ring.
* * *
FOUR HUMPBACKED Volkswagen Eurovans were parked bumper to bumper and with engines idling along the Carrer del Doctor Francesc Darder, less than three hundred yards south of the consulate. Each vehicle contained five men and an assortment of serious weapons. When the man in the passenger seat of the lead vehicle, a brown-eyed veteran fighter named Djahid Rebiane, received verbal confirmation that the Marine House raid was complete, he spoke one word softly to the driver, "Vámonos." Let's go.
They attacked just as the big front door of the consulate was swinging open. Gunmen in the lead car took out the Spanish police in the guard shack with quick bursts from automatic weapons; then Rebiane got out and lifted the boom-device barrier that blocked the road. The other four Eurovans sped through. Djahid Rebiane shouldered his AK-47 and walked calmly toward the consulate, opening fire on the startled civilians in the line outside. Three went down before they realized what was happening as panic grabbed the others. At the guardhouse, two terrorists established a defensive security position while two others began to assemble the tripod, tube, and aiming device of an 81 mm mortar.
The worker who had been opening the door saw the first shootings and moved to close it, but he was blown away by a pair of rocket-propelled grenades that demolished the entire entranceway. Almost simultaneously, another RPG team attacked the windows on the right side of the building, and the automatic weapons chattered in suppressing fire.
The three Marines inside the consulate, all battle-tested veterans, did not panic but moved with precision, although clearly on the defensive side of things. Gunny Dodge picked up an Uzi submachinegun. Martinez, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt, came out of the back room fully armed and with a helmet and protective vest. Harris looked at the television monitors and saw civilians falling outside and a large attack team pressing in on all sides.
"No response from the Marine House, Gunny," he shouted.
Dodge also looked at the monitors. "We have to consider them dead. You guys hold in place while I get the RSO and consul general." Staff members were running down the central hallway to the safe rooms in the rear, putting Marine guns between themselves and the terrorists. Some of the secret squirrels began destroying sensitive equipment and shredding documents.
Dodge found the two State Department officials arguing. The RSO had his own weapon out and was telling Consul General Juanita Sandoval to get ready to move to an extraction point. She was refusing. Just then, the first mortar round hit the consulate roof and blew through the second floor, and the concussion knocked all of them to the carpet.
Up front, Harris and Martinez were hunkered into doorways as the first attackers charged into the destroyed lobby. Shooting would do no good because the thick glass that fronted the secure area was bulletproof on both sides. Djahid Rebiane knew that, and he brazenly strode through the lobby and slapped a small plastique charge against the inner door, then scrambled outside again. Martinez hollered a warning a split second before the detonation ripped the place apart. Harris loosed a volley into the opening, and then Martinez rolled into the hallway and opened fire, both ducking back to cover when a hand grenade came bouncing in.
Gunny Dodge and the RSO realized time was running out. The Spanish police would be on the way, but this was an orchestrated attack and would be over, one way or another, before any help could arrive. It was up to them to hold. The RSO ordered the consul general to get to the secure telephone in the safe room and call Washington immediately, but the woman hesitated.
"Maybe they only want to take us prisoner," she said. She had been a political appointee to the unimportant position of consul general in Barcelona, and her job was mainly to hold social functions. "Like in Tehran a long time ago. If we surrender, Washington will negotiate our release."
Dodge moved back toward the hallway, where the gunfire was increasing. "No, ma'am. Think Benghazi, not Tehran. These people want to kill us."
"But why?" Her eyes were wide in fear. "Let me just go talk to them. Maybe all they want is to give some demands, like the Basque separatists always do."
Dodge ignored her. It was up to the RSO to get her to an extraction point, if possible, and the gunny went crawling back up the hallway. Martinez and Harris were doing selective fire at a couple of terrorists in the lobby, who were doing the same thing back at them. There had been no general assault through the breach. Instead, indirect mortar fire was crashing into the right side of the building, opening still another gash. More gunmen outside found places in the rubble from which they could fire inside.
"How we doing, guys?" Dodge called out.
"Pretty good, Gunny. We've nailed a couple of the assholes, and they haven't come charging in." Martinez took a moment to change magazines. "Looks like they are just trying to hold us in place."
"Which means they are up to some other kind of shit," Dodge added. "So let's do a counterattack. Toss out a grenade, and we follow out to hit the front area and reclaim the outer doorway. The cops should be showing up soon."
"Or we can just hold the fort."
"I don't think that's an option. There has to be a reason for this to be going on for so long. They seem content that we are trapped in here, but they know a stalemate can't last forever." He slithered away back down the hall to alert the RSO and consul general as more RPGs and mortar rounds and automatic fire continued to smash into the building. Then within sixty seconds, it all was quiet again, as if someone were taking a deep breath. Everyone exchanged glances. Is it over?
Rebiane watched his men pull back and climb into the waiting Eurovans and head toward the open exit. His teams had used the time to place heavy crates of explosives at all four corners of the building, and he got out at the bullet-pocked guard facility and gently held the cell phone that would detonate the boxes all at the same time. Satisfied that all was ready, he ducked into a fetal position and thumbed the predialed number, which ignited a cataclysmic explosion that flattened the building. When the rocks stopped falling, Rebiane stood again and spent a moment watching a great fireball boil and curl and reach into the morning sky as walls and floors caved in. Nobody could survive that. Then he got into the van waiting for him, and it drove away.
Copyright © 2014 by Jack Coughlin with Donald A. Davis