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( I )
If there's one thing my sea daddies taught me, it's that life is short. You gotta grab it by the balls while you still can, enjoy those little moments of pleasure.
You know the moments I mean. Whether you're drop-kicking the butt of some tango who's dreaming of paradise while fondling his suicide vest, or maybe reaming a new orifice for a C21 officer, you have to make the most of the opportunity. Savor it. Life just doesn't contain that many moments of personal triumph.
But there are also moments when you have to relax and just let life flow by.
Like, for instance, when you're hurtling over the countryside in an Mi-8TV/India helicopter so close to the ground that the crew chief's spit can rebound off a rock and hit the pilot in the face.
Those tracers in the distance?
Nothing to worry about. They're not even firing in your direction. Yet.
The surface-to-air missile battery looming to the right?
What's the fuss? That's designed to shoot down airplanes, not helicopters.
The fact that you're flying over the disputed area of Kashmir, across one of the most volatile borders in the world?
Certainly a plus.
You don't think?
Then maybe it's a good thing you weren't with us.
But truth be told, I couldn't have been more relaxed if I was back at Rogue Manor, sipping a medicinal Sapphire prescribed by the good Dr. Bombay himself.
There were plenty of reasons to relax. For one thing, I had no direct role in the operation. On paper at least. I was just there to observe, a guest of the Indian government.
Of course, we weren't in India at the time, but I'm never one to stand on technicalities. I was certainly ready to observe — watching the bullets fly out of my MP5 counts, right?
So why shouldn't I relax and let the helo toss me around a bit?
* * *
This would normally be the part where I'd explain what the hell I was doing in Kashmir. But my editor likes it when I get right to the action, so we'll save the explanation for a little later.
For now, let's just say I wasn't in Kashmir, or India for that matter, to knit sweaters.
* * *
The helo banked into a sharp turn to tuck around the mountain. Treetops scraped the undercarriage, tussling it a bit before letting go. Our Mi-8TV/India was a special demonstration version of the Russian Mi-8TV, which itself is a souped-up Mi-17 with guns, missiles, and assorted nasty shit designed to complicate the enemy's day. You can think of it as Russia's answer to the MH-60DAP, the armed Blackhawk hand-built to ferry spec op troops deep behind the bad guys' lines (DAP = Deep Armed Penetrator, or some vulgar variation thereof).
The Indians had recently purchased several Mi-17s and were reviewing the Mi-8TV/India as part of their plans to upgrade their military. Helicopters have a problem flying at high altitude, which can be a problem in the Himalayas, since even when you're low there you're pretty high. Kashmir ain't the Himalayas, but some of the valleys there clock in at five thousand feet, so it ain't low either. I'm happy to say the Mi-8TV was doing fine. Better than my stomach, even.
I'd mentioned tracers.
These were actually not being fired at us, even though they were in the general vicinity. They were part of a training exercise being conducted by the Indian army close to the border of the disputed area it shares, or rather doesn't share, with Pakistan. Kashmir-Jammu is claimed by both Pakistan and India, and occupied by both … and China. Just to keep things interesting.
That's right. China controls about twenty percent of the historical demarcation of the region claimed by India. That's not quite as much as Pakistan, which I believe has between thirty-five and thirty-nine, but it's more than enough to keep things interesting.
(And complicated. The State Department used to have some good backgrounders available to the public, but you won't find them online anymore, at least not unless you have my intel and computer geek Shunt's skills. If you care for a book, Victoria Schofield's Kashmir in Conflict is among the better choices.)
Pakistan and India aren't at war right now, but tensions are always high between the two countries. Both armies have been known to hold maneuvers on their respective sides of the line, partly to keep their troops sharp, partly to show the other side they're not taking guff, and partly just because.
Tonight's action was none of the above. The maneuvers, with live ammo, were being staged to draw the Pakistan army's attention away from our little op. While all eyes were focused on the border area, we were dropping in on a little schoolyard roughly fifty miles behind the Pakistani lines.
Generally when you're a passenger in a helicopter, you don't measure distance in miles, or kilometers for that matter. You measure it in time and stomach acid.
It took us roughly fifteen minutes and two Maalox moments before we cleared the mountain and slid down into the valley that ran up toward our destination. It was a long fifteen minutes. Every one of the fifteen people aboard, including yours truly, felt their intestines steadily tighten with every minute that passed.
That exception was Shotgun, aka Paul "Shotgun" Fox, one of my young bucks who was shadowing me on the mission. Besides his mandatory Twinkies and a slightly crushed package of Drake's cakes, Shotgun had brought along a huge bag of peanuts for the mission. He ate them the entire time we flew, cracking each with his fingers, pinching the nuts into his mouth, then tossing the shells on the floor. I don't think I've ever been in a helicopter that smelled just-roasted before.
One that wasn't on fire, I mean.
I have no idea how he managed to eat them. In my mind, you can't eat peanuts without a cold beer to savor the flavor.
None of the Indians we were with complained. It wasn't surprising. Shotgun stands maybe six-eight in his bare feet. He weighs three hundred pounds, give or take a side of roast beef or two. Which he'd had a particular hankering for ever since we came to India.
Not to give you the impression that the Indians we were with were small guys, much less that they were wimps. On the contrary. We were observing the inaugural mission of India's Special Squadron Zero — the rough Indian equivalent of my old Red Cell outfit. And they were about to take action against a terrorist cell that was using Pakistan as a safe haven.
Our target had once been a small farm on the outskirts of a village I'll call Heartburnville. I'm using a fake name because the village was not affiliated with the terrorists, and in fact was exploited by them. The tangos would go into town and take what they wanted from the stores without paying — not usual tango practice, I might note, and a real mistake in this case, since it stirred up feelings against them. At the time, I thought this had helped lead to our receiving the intelligence on their plans. That little ass-u-me assumption proved incorrect.
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
The helo took one last hard bank and pitched forward, pirouetting into a small field at the base of a hill. "Go! Go! Go!" yelled the team sergeant, urging the men out of the chopper.
The sergeant was Sanjin Phurem, a fortyish army noncom who'd served in Kashmir before being assigned somewhere in southern India. Like everyone else in Special Squadron Zero, he was a volunteer.
Shotgun and I followed the Indians out. There was just enough moonlight to see the rocks that littered the field. I moved to my left, looking for the unit's commander, Captain Dyas Birla.
Birla was an Indian naval officer who had been part of Marcos — the Indian Marine Commando Force or MCF as it's often called in India. You can think of MCF as a marine recon unit with SEAL aspirations. His skills were more administrative and political than actually combat-related, an unfortunate by-product of the Indian military system. Still, he did lead from the front, the number one characteristic you need in a special warfare officer.
"Good so far, yes, Commander Rick?" he asked as I ran up.
I'm not sure exactly why or when he had decided to give me the title — he must have skimmed my first book,2 stopping about midway, then put three and two together — but he meant it as a compliment, so I grunted. Things were looking decent, but we had a bit of a walk ahead of us — so as not to attract too much attention, the helo had dropped us a little more than three miles from the actual target. The chopper's muffled engines would have been almost impossible for anyone there to hear.
"We will commence our operation at exactly 0300," Captain Birla told his men as they set out. "We will observe strict radio silence until this point, unless there is the necessity of communication."
That gave us two hours to walk exactly 3.2 miles, or 5.15 kilometers. Piece of cake.
Shotgun smirked at me.
"No communication until Murphy steps in," he said.
"Murphy doesn't use a radio," I told him. "He's everywhere."
"Kind of like Santa Claus," said Shotgun. "Or the Good Humor man. Want some peanuts?"
I shook my head and started walking. Shotgun's reference set is a little different from most normal human beings.
Roughly an hour later, we arrived at the fence of a madrassa — or "a Muslim school, college, or university that is often part of a mosque" as Webster succinctly puts it in his dictionary.
What Webster doesn't say is that such schools are often used as training sites and havens for terrorist organizations — most famously the organization operated and funded by a certain Saudi Arabian real estate developer known for his great love of Americans and general kindness.
Good to see you recognize sarcasm when you hear it, grasshopper. You can sit at the head of the class.
The madrassa in this case was run by a lovely group of religious fanatics and would-be mass murderers who called themselves India for Islam. When they were feeling a bit loose, they would let go of "for" and just use India Islam. Clearly a bunch of wild and crazy guys.
Like a lot of Muslim terrorist groups, India for Islam wasn't directly associated with bin Laden, at least as far as we knew. It had sent a few suicide bombers into the Indian portions of Kashmir, but had had relatively small ambitions until very recently. Over the past six months, it had recruited committed jihadists and nuts — excuse me, dedicated Islamic students — wishing to engage in a demonstration of the Prophet's peaceful intentions. It had established this school, filling it with some three dozen bright and bushy-tailed freshmen. Their study included Blowing Up Infidels 101 and Torching Nonbelievers 102.
We were about to give them an upper level class in Butt Kicking, with Ass Whipping as an elective.
Now if this had been an American operation, we would have arrived with all sorts of real-time intelligence literally at our fingertips. At a minimum, we would have had a Predator overhead, supplying real-time infrared, and more than likely a communications-stealing "asset" probing the airwaves as well.
But this was an Indian operation, and they don't have a flock of Predators, let alone Global Hawks and EC-130s straining to get into action. So the mission had been planned according to old-school doctrine. Our little group was just the advance team, scouting ahead for the main assault team, a Marine Marcos force of roughly three platoon-strength that would arrive in fifty-nine minutes.
To be honest, I kind of like the old ways. Eyes in the sky are never a substitute for boots on the ground. And intelligence is never a substitute for common sense. But then I was an old-school guy before old-school was popular.
The squad circled the perimeter of the property, observing the two large buildings at the center of the compound …
We'll skip ahead — you're only missing the boring, crouch-through-the-mud-and-breathe-silently stuff …
Within a half hour, Special Squadron Zero had determined that there were two lookouts on duty, both on the eastern side of the school facing in the direction of the border. Additionally, each building had a sentry sitting in the vestibule near the door. Our intelligence had indicated that the building to the east — one-story, flat roof, school-type structure with eight or nine classrooms — would generally be empty for the night. The second structure to the west — three stories, also a flat roof, about three-quarters as long as the first, though just as wide — was used as a dorm, housing one to two dozen "students" and at least three teachers.
The students were committed jihadists; their teachers were crazy psychos, and we should consider them all armed and dangerous. Even when asleep.
So far, so good. Intel solid, and the op was running right on schedule. The captain radioed the main assault team and gave them a green light.
Shotgun practically giggled.
"When's Murphy showing up?" he asked, shaking his head. He produced a Three Musketeers bar from his tac vest — I have no idea how he manages it, but the boy is basically a walking snack bar. If he were in the Peace Corps, he'd be a one-man famine relief force.
"Who is this Murphy, Commander Rick?" asked Birla.
I thought Shotgun was going to choke on his chocolate.
"You don't know who Murphy is?" he asked. "Murphy is the king. Murphy is the man. He makes the law."
"Jeez, Captain. Murphy's Law. You never heard of it?"
"Is this physics? Every action there is an opposite and equal reaction?"
Murphy's Law — whatever can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible moment — is indeed a law of physics, but I set the captain straight. I didn't want Shotgun choking on his food.
"Oh, yes. Plenty of room for Murphy," said Birla. "We are ready for all contingency."
Shotgun winced. If there's one thing my guys know, you don't bait Murphy. You never ever say out loud that you have the drop on him.
Even if, like Special Squad Zero, everything is under control. Especially then.
But you can't blame Captain Birla, really. Things were in good shape. The helicopters with the main assault team were twenty minutes away. All we had to do was wait for them to arrive.
And we would have — if that had been the plan.
* * *
A few of my most faithful readers have taken it upon themselves of late to point out that yours truly is no longer the proverbial spring chicken. Concerned about my health, they have suggested that I take a more laid-back role in my ops, going so far as to suggest that I now devote myself less to fun and games and more to mellower pursuits.
I'm not exactly sure what they have in mind. Golf with hand grenades?
In any event, I am well aware that my mortal carcass doesn't spring back as quickly from the whacks of everyday life as it once did. Further, I believe that while I have a duty to impart my wisdom to the next generation, I know full well that I don't have to get my balls shot off in the process. So, to the extent possible, I have started to delegate.
Which is why I stayed back with the captain and listened on the radio while Shotgun moved toward the house with Team Alpha.
* * *
"We're at the window," reported Shotgun, who was acting as Alpha's commo man. "Interior is clean."
"Proceed," ordered the captain.
Shotgun dropped to his knees, letting Corporal Sesha Nadar climb up onto his shoulders. Then Shotgun rose slowly, boosting Nadar to the window. After double- and triple-checking that the hallway was clear and that there wasn't a wired alarm, Nadar tried pushing up on the window to open it.
You'd be surprised how many windows in theoretically secure buildings aren't locked. But this one was locked.
Not a problem.
The corporal took out a small suction cup and placed it on the windowpane. He looped a string through the hook at the back of the cup, then twirled it around his thumb. Pulling a glass cutter from his tac vest, he cut a large, less-than-perfect circle. A gentle tap, a quick pull, and he had a hole a little bigger than his forearm. He reached in and found the two locks securing the window.
Sixty seconds later, Team Alpha was inside the building, moving down the hall toward a back staircase about fifteen feet from the window. The guard in the vestibule at the doorway was a little more than a hundred feet away, down the long, darkened corridor. If he was awake — again, you'd be surprised — his only view of the hall was through a small window at the side of the interior door. Though dim, the red light above his head made the vestibule where he was far brighter than the hallway, and the very slight glare on the glass made it nearly impossible to see through without pressing his eyes against it.
And why would he even bother? His job was to protect the interior. That meant watching the door to the outside, not the inside. The hall was the last place he expected a threat.
Corporal Nadar, on point, slipped into the staircase. Nadar and everyone else on the team were wearing night goggles.
Trotting up the steps, he tiptoed to the landing and went down to one knee, looking down the hallway.
It was clear.
The corporal counted off the doors, mentally marking their targets — rooms five, eight, and twelve, odds left, even right. Shotgun, meanwhile, went forward to the landing at the front of the building to act as a lookout there; Sergeant Phurem stayed by the back stairs. The other six men split into twos, each taking a room.
And then the fun began.
I wasn't there, but I had worked with the team during the run-throughs, so I have a fairly good notion of what happened next. The team members waited by each door, looking toward the sergeant for a signal to proceed. As soon as he lowered his arm, they entered each room — there were no locks — moving quickly and as quietly as possible.
The rooms were monklike cells, one student per room. The only furniture in each was a bed and a small chair. There were no closets or bathrooms.
The Squadron Zero members approached the beds, each taking a side. The man on the right had a small towel in his hand. He clamped it over the sleeping man's face and held it there for a few seconds. The other man was poised with his submachine gun, ready to strike the sleeper's head with its butt if necessary.
It wasn't, not in any of the rooms. The towels each contained a heavy dose of chloroform, a primitive though effective knockout agent.
Sweet dreams, dark princes.
Two of the three targets struggled initially, choking just a bit as their half-sleeping brains struggled to make sense of the strange direction their dreams had suddenly taken. Then their bodies went limp. The third man went off to a deep slumber so quickly that the Indian corporal with the towel wasn't positive he even went out. Just to make sure, he removed a syringe from his vest and supplied a shot of a Demerol-like sedative.
Trussed and slumbering, the three tangos were removed from their beds. One by one they were taken from the rooms and carried back to the staircase where the sergeant was waiting.
At this point, you may be thinking: Why not just slit their throats and be done with it?
Good question, grasshopper. And while there aren't always good answers to good questions, in this case there is.
Two of the men being carried down the hall were terrorists whom our sources indicated had carried out an intelligence mission in India roughly six weeks before. Special Squadron Zero wanted to "debrief" them — find out who had helped them get in and out of the country, how much they had learned, where they had stayed, etc.
Oh, their target would be nice, too. Our information was that it was related to the Commonwealth Games — not exactly a big surprise. No fewer than two dozen terrorist groups were said by various Indian intelligence agencies to be targeting the Games. Knowing exactly which venue they were aiming at and why would give us more information about what the terror groups knew of India's vulnerabilities.
The third man was a spy, planted by the ministry that had formed Special Squadron Zero.
Who was who?
Another good question — but this one couldn't be answered by anyone on Team Alpha, or Special Squadron Zero for that matter. Not even the captain knew. Nor did I.
Did I hear someone make a joke about all tangos looking the same? How un-PC.
The information wasn't given to us to help protect the identity of the spy in case things went very far south. Whether a good decision — read "bad" — or not, it greatly complicated our situation, since we wouldn't know whose throat not to slit if things went sideways rather than all the way south.
Which naturally would mean we'd just kill them all and be done with it.
The snoring tangos were carried from their rooms to the staircase. The team prepared to exit the building the same way they had come in.
Exactly thirteen and a half minutes had passed. The marine assault team, on schedule and ready for action, was six and a half minutes from touchdown. By Sergeant Phurem's watch, they were two minutes and twenty-nine seconds ahead of schedule. Getting out of the building only required another ninety seconds; they were that far from christening Special Squadron Zero with a successful op.
Then the sergeant noticed that tango number two, removed by Corporals Takin and Vasari, alias Smith & Wesson, was not one of the men they were assigned to grab.
The man had a mole where he was supposed to. But he had a scar on his cheek that didn't match the description. And by even the roughest guess at his size, he came up six inches short.
"Maybe he just received the scar," said Corporal Vasari.
The sergeant admitted it might be a possibility, but wondered about the height.
"It was just an estimate," said Takin.
Sergeant Phurem frowned, and looked at Shotgun.
"We can't take that chance," said Shotgun. "We have to look for the right guy, and take him, too."
Shotgun volunteered to go through the rooms and look. The sergeant had no other choice. He told his best man, Corporal Baskar Bhu, to help.
"You have three minutes," the sergeant told them. "Three minutes and then you leave. Everyone else goes now."
"Plenty of time," said Shotgun. "Piece of cake."
* * *
Yes, that is what we call ironic foreshadowing. Glad you're keeping up.
* * *
There were twenty-four rooms on that floor. The team had gone into three, which left twenty-one to check out. Shotgun and Corporal Bhu split up. If my math is correct — and the nuns at St. Ladislaus Hungarian Catholic School were pretty much sticklers in arithmetic — that gave Shotgun and Corporal Bhu something in the area of seventeen seconds to check each room.
They gave it a good try. Shotgun was in his third room when he heard Corporal Bhu whisper that they were out of time and had to get going.
The message was followed by a gagging noise — exactly what you'd expect to hear if Corporal Bhu was being strangled.
Shotgun started to back out of the room he was in. As he reached the hall, he heard something else — the heavy thump-thump-thumber-rump of the approaching assault helicopters.
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Marcinko and Jim DeFelice