Authors: Joshua Hood
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The men and women of the military, law enforcement, and emergency services put their lives on hold every day to protect this nation. This book is for you.
ason Kane stepped out of the shadows, which hung like skewed curtains over the tight alleyway, and moved silently toward the target house. Despite the “all clear” from the sniper providing overwatch to his rear, Mason's senses were on high alert.
His back was now exposed to the open street behind him, but Mason was trusting that Grinch had him covered. It was a hell of a thing, placing his life in the hands of another man, but Grinch was the best sniper he'd ever seen. If anyone had earned the right to cover his six, Grinch was the man.
Mason paused to wipe his face across the sleeve of his faded brown shirt, feeling the prickle of his thick salt-and-pepper stubble through the fabric.
“Fucking heat,” he muttered to himself.
Despite the early hour, the alley was muggy, and the trash strewn across the jagged cobblestones smelled of stale urine and rotting vegetables. It was a smell he'd become intimately familiar with during the years he'd spent deployed to Iraq, where he'd honed his ability to fit in among the Arabs he was paid to hunt. His dark eyes, olive skin, and knowledge of local customs and languages allowed him access to a Middle East that most Americans didn't know existed.
Mason pushed all of that out of his mind a second before inching the barrel of his AK-47 around the corner of the alley, and stepping out into the open. He spotted a doorway up ahead and quickly moved toward it, sweeping the AK back and forth as he moved. Angling wide to insure that it was clear, he stepped out of the street and into cover. He glanced behind him, just as Zeus's muzzle flashed around the corner. Mason felt better knowing that there was another gun in the fight, especially since the man behind the trigger was one of the few people he trusted.
The stocky Libyan, and the rest of Mason's five-man team, had been out for five days on a recon mission just north of their present location when they had gotten the call from Task Force 11's tactical operations center, or TOC. Instead of heading back to the safe house for some much-needed downtime, the team was given another target and ordered to move south.
Mason had pressed the battle captain for more details, but all the man would say was that a mission was in the works, and they needed to move. He could tell right away that Zeus didn't like the idea of going in blind.
“What do you think?” Mason had asked him.
“It's a bad idea,” the Libyan said as he pulled on his prized goatee. “Too many variables and not enough intel.”
Before Zeus had a chance to say anything else, the captain called back with another bombshell.
“The DOD's source is already on the ground. The mission's a go if you're there or not.”
“Shit,” Mason swore. He knew there was only one man they'd use for this mission: his old friend Mick Boland.
Mason stepped back out into the street and was moving up to the target house when Grinch hissed over the radio, “Fuck, I've got a rover.”
Mason froze as a man emerged on the street and bent his head to light a cigarette. Mason could smell the acrid tobacco burning as the man touched the end of the cigarette to the lighter and then blew out a jet of smoke.
“No shot,” Grinch whispered across the radio.
“Time to get up close and personal,” Mason murmured, easing the AK to his side. He silently slipped his custom-made JK knife from its sheath at the front of his chest rig before taking a careful step forward.
The bullet wound he had sustained to his thigh eight months ago throbbed as his right foot made contact with the ground, and he winced while pressing the AK against his body so it wouldn't bang against the concrete.
Mason was close enough to smell the sweat of the inky outline, which stood out among the heavy shadows. He knew that he was running out of time. Any second now, the
, or call to prayer, would be blasted from the speakers festooning the mosques dotted around the tightly packed neighborhood. If he didn't get his men off the street before then, they were screwed.
Already the American was running down a list of contingencies in case they were compromised, but with Boland on the ground and the strike team birds coming with or without his team in position, his options were severely limited. They were going to have to suck it up and pray they could stay hidden.
Mason stepped forward, clearing his mind, and carefully set his right foot between the jagged pieces of concrete littering the tight side street. He could feel the blood pounding in his ears, amplifying every step he took. Then the target moved.
Mason froze, holding his breath while the man shifted his weight to his right leg in an effort to get comfortable.
“One more step,” the American thoughtâat the same moment his left foot crunched down on an unseen shard of concrete.
The Arab flinched at the sound, his head turtling down to his shoulders, and he whipped around to see who was behind him.
Mason had the blade low, meaning to drive it into the base of the man's spine, but as the jihadist turned, his eyes wide with horror, he found himself out of position.
There was a flurry of movement: the fighter opening his mouth to scream and Mason driving his forehead into the crown of the boy's nose. Mason couldn't let him warn the men inside, and as the warm jet of blood sprayed across his face, he was already jamming the web of his left hand into the boy's mouth.
The youth recovered quickly, grabbing Mason's shirt and pulling him close as the knife came up. The boy was surprisingly strong, and Mason felt his ankle roll when the fighter grabbed the AK-47 hanging from his neck and tried to choke him with the sling.
Mason slammed the blade into the hollow between the fighter's neck and shoulder, so hard that he felt the hilt grind against the collarbone. Zeus appeared next to him in a flash, his hands reaching out for the boy's rifle. Mason pulled the young jihadist closer, feeling the boy's dying breath against his hand and the rough fabric of his shirt as they stumbled into the building.
Mason's momentum carried them into the corner, where he dumped the body against the wall. Bright arterial spray welled up beneath the blade's hilt, misting over the wall, as the boy's heart hammered in his chest. Mason watched his face grow pale and his chest heave as he fought against the icy grip of death, but the blade had pierced his heart, and a moment later the boy took a final, shaky breath and went still.
Zeus moved past him to pull security down the hallway, an M18 claymore mine peaking out of his assault pack.
“On me,” Mason said into the radio before limping to the door.
His ankle throbbed in his boot, and he could feel it swelling as he yanked the knife out of the fighter's shoulder. The blood creeping down the boy's shirt reminded him of wine spilled on a tablecloth as Mason wiped the bloody blade on his pants and slid it back into its Kydex sheath.
“My bad, boss,” Grinch said after he slipped through the door, pausing to let Mason count him in.
“And here I was thinking you were worth a shit,” he said, smiling to let him know he was joking. Mason tapped the medic, Blaine, and T.J., the breacher, on their shoulders as the two men slipped into the house. Counting himself, that brought his count to five, and he knew that the team was all accounted for.
“Keep babying him, and he's never going to learn,” Zeus said, yanking the claymore from his pack before kneeling to attach it to the door.
“Don't be jealousâyou're still my favorite turd,” Mason said, grinning at his best friend.
“I'm not jealous,” Zeus replied. “I just don't think he's ready to take over, even though you're getting too old for this. Do you need an aspirin for your old-lady ankle?”
“Fuck off,” he replied, his ankle still throbbing.
Mason knew that Zeus was right. He hadn't been a hundred percent for the last eight months, but he thought he'd done a better job hiding it. The fact that he was unable to keep anything from Zeus wasn't surprising, especially after all they had been through, but Mason still refused to admit what was becoming increasingly clear.
He was slipping, and he should have never agreed to this mission.
Mason's team was carrying the wrong gear for this operation. He'd wanted to go back to the safe house so they could trade out their battered AKs for the suppressed Heckler & Koch 416 assault rifles they usually carried, but the captain overruled him.
“My sniper is the only one with night vision, and it's dark as shit out here,” Mason tried to explain.
“Not my problem. Just get to the grid,” the faceless captain ordered.
“Fuck that. I'm not putting my team at risk for this bullshit,” Mason said before hanging up on the man.
He hadn't even slipped the sat phone back into his cargo pocket before it was ringing again. This time it was Colonel Anderson, the commanding officer of Task Force 11, on the line. Mason cursed as soon as he recognized the number. He knew it was going to be a one-way conversation before he even answered.
Mason and the colonel had never gotten along. The first time they'd metâeight months priorâMason and Zeus were in handcuffs after members of the task force had captured them in Libya. Anderson had been a major then, and Mason was charged with treason. It didn't matter that Mason was cleared; Anderson had already made up his mind that the olive-skinned operator was a piece of shit, and never wasted an opportunity to let him know it.
The colonel cut right to the point: “You can get your ass to the objective, or you can let Boland go in by himself. It's your choice.”
Mason knew he was being played, but he didn't have a say in the matter. Loyalty had always been his weakness, and Anderson was taking full advantage.
“I think it's time for a vacation,” Zeus announced, bringing Mason back to the here and now.
“Not again,” Mason said.
Zeus had been talking about different exotic locations for weeks, and ignored Mason's exasperated reply, “Look, we have work toÂ do.”
“I've narrowed it down,” Zeus said as he finished emplacing the mine.
Outside, the opening wail of the call to prayer echoed over the city, coaxing it gently to life. It was a sound Mason had come to hate because it reminded him that no matter how many men he killed or how much he suffered, he could never go home again.
“Save the travel agent shit until after Boland'sâ” Mason heard movement coming from the floor above. He raised a finger to his lips as he slipped a suppressed Glock 19 from its holster.
He limped over to the stairs, the pistol pointing to the second floor while Zeus moved across to his right. The Libyan scanned the landing with his own pistol and then motioned that he was going first. Mason felt Grinch's hand on his shoulder, signaling his readiness. He checked to ensure that there were still two men pulling security on the bottom floor before the three of them slipped up the concrete steps, covering the landing as they moved.
Zeus moved to the near side of the hall, with Mason tight on his back. Grinch crossed the narrow space, pulling security on the right side of the hallway. Zeus slipped to the threshold and peeked in, his pistol at the ready. Unlike Mason, he carried a modified 1911 that the American had bought him for his birthday. Holding the .45 in front of him, he scanned the room, taking in two empty sleeping mats lying near the back wall.