Assassins – Excerpt

HE FELL through space, grabbing for the ripcord but it wasn’t there. Icy night howled past, clouds and black peaks racing up. Spinning out of control he yanked the ripcord but it was his rifle sling. He snatched for the spare chute; it was gone. I packed it, he told himself. I had to.
Falling out of the dream he felt great joy it wasn’t real, that he was safe in his bunk. Then waking more he realized he was in a thundering tunnel, huge engines shaking the floor, the aluminum bench beneath him vibrating. The plane, he remembered.

“Jack!” The Jump Master in a silvery space suit shook him. “Going up to drop height! Twenty minutes to the Afghan border.” The Jump Master bent over the three others and gave them a thumbs up: The mission is on.

He took a deep breath. The engine roar loudened as the two Pratt & Whitneys on each wing clawed up through thinning air. He bent his arm, awkward in the insulated jump suit, to check his altimeter. 8,600 feet.

“You’re falling at a hundred twenty miles an hour,” Colonel Ackerman had reminded them last week in Sin City, “at sixty below zero. Guys die if they wait one extra instant to deploy their chute. Always remember, Maintain Altitude Awareness.”

Tonight anything could happen over the Hindu Kush. MiGs, high winds, tangled chutes, enemy waiting on the ground. Hindu Kush meant Death Mountains. He thought of his father’s last chopper into Ia Drang twenty years before, the green hills below the Huey’s open door, the rankness of jungle, guns and fear. Do you know when you’re about to die?

Glancing round the rumbling fuselage he was stunned at how lovely and significant everything was: a strip of canvas dangling from a bench, the rough fabric of his jump boot, a rifle’s battered stock, the yellow bulb dancing on the ceiling, the avgas-tainted air. Next to him Owen McPhee stood up, awkward and bearlike in his Extended Cold Weather suit, smiled at Jack and shrugged: Never thought we’d do it.

“They might still abort,” Jack yelled over the engine noise.

McPhee grinned: Stop worrying.

Jack turned to Loxley and Gustafson. “Time to get ready, girls.”

Bent over his rucksack, Sean Loxley gave him the finger. Beyond him Neil Gustafson glanced up, his broad face serious. “I been afraid,” he called, “that we’d get scrubbed.”

Jack tugged his kit bag from under the bench to final-check its contents: padded wool Afghani jacket, long wool shirt, trousers, two goatskin bags of grenades and AK cartridges, a blackened tin pot of rice and dried goat meat, two Pakistani plastic soda bottles of water, a woven willow backpack, a Soviet Special Forces Spetsnaz watch. He slid on his parachute, nestled the canopy releases into his shoulders, secured all the straps and turned to help Loxley. “If these chutes don’t open,” Loxley yelled, “we’ll never have to do this again.”

At first Jack hadn’t liked Loxley, his own New England conservatism put off by Loxley’s cheery California surfer cool, Loxley’s wide gregarious grin and the bad jokes about Home Office and military politics. Loxley talked too much, Jack had thought. A lightweight. But Loxley had always backed it up, always come through, always put his buddies first. And he made them laugh; even tough-faced sarcastic McPhee with his small hard mouth, tight on the balls of his feet as a welterweight, couldn’t keep from grinning. “You dumb hippie,” he’d growl, trying not to laugh.

The Jump Master raised both arms sideways, bent his elbows and touched his fingertips to his helmet. Jack nodded and slid his padded leather helmet over his head, tucked the goggles up on its brim, settled the Makarov pistol on his thigh. Now the JM raised his right hand, thumb to his cheek, and swung the hand over his nose. Jack took a last breath from the plane’s oxygen supply and slipped on his radio unit and mask, gave the JM a thumb up to say his own oxygen was working.

22,500 feet.

“To avoid Soviet and Paki radar,” Colonel Ackerman had told them, “it has to be a Blind Drop.”

“No marching bands?” Loxley had snickered. “No girls waving panties?”

“We’ve calculated your Release Point based on your DZ,” Ackerman said. “And where we think the wind’ll be.”

“In the Hindu Kush,” Loxley added, “I can’t imagine wind would be a problem.”

“There’ll be no external resupply. No exfil. We’ve devised an Evasion and Escape but you may want to change that on the ground.”

“You’re making it sound like we’re not really welcome.”

Ackerman glared at him. “Remember up there, Maintain Altitude Awareness.”

“That’s right, girls. Know when you’re high …”

“If this mission existed, which it does not, its purpose would be to build an Afghani guerrilla movement against the Soviets, not tied to the Pakis but on your own. By themselves the Afghanis can’t beat the Soviets. But with our help – your help – we might just reverse the Soviet conquest of Asia and get the bastards back for Vietnam. But we don’t intend to start World War Three or fuck up our relations with ISI. So once you drop out of that plane we can’t help you.”
Slender and rugged with a black moustache and graying curly hair, Levi Ackerman had lost his right forearm in the same Ia Drang battle that had killed Jack’s father. Ever since then he’d watched over Jack, got him into West Point, then after that fell apart and Jack had finished at University of Maine, Ackerman got him into the military ops division of Home Office – “I want you near me, kid.” Would Ackerman now send him to die?
In the thundering airless fuselage the JM swung up his left hand and tapped the wrist with two fingers of his right, opened and closed his palms twice: the Twenty-Minute warning.

34,000 feet.

“When I was a kid,” Loxley said, “my Grandma use to make Afghans–”

“Your Grandma,” McPhee yelled, “was a chimpanzee –”

Jack plugged in his backpack oxygen and checked his AIROX on/off valve.

“Whatever you do, guys,” Ackerman had added, “don’t get split from Jack. He’s your squad leader, knows the lingo, the country. Lose Jack and you die.”

The Red Light over the rear ramp flicked on. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, their weapons trainer, Captain Perkins, used to say in Sin City, but action despite it.

They could still abort. The JM would give the abort signal if an Unsafe Condition existed either in the aircraft, outside it, or on the DZ. As if the whole damn mission weren’t insanely unsafe.

Haloed in the Red Light the JM gave the Ten-Minute warning. Eight times his hands closed and opened: Wind speed 80 knots.

Way too fast. They’d have to abort. But the JM swung his arm outward, the command to check their automatic ripcord releases. Jack slid his combat pack harness up under his parachute, its seventy-pounds added to the chute’s forty-five making him stagger backward. He checked that the sling of his AKMS rifle was fully extended and taped at the end, that the tapes on the muzzle, front sight, magazine, and ejector port were tight and not unfurled except where he’d folded over the ends for a quick release.

“Strela?” Jack called. McPhee lifted up a long heavy tube wrapped in sheepskin and lashed it vertically on one side of Jack’s combat pack. Jack helped Loxley and McPhee lash two more Strela tubes to their packs. Jack secured his rifle muzzle-down over his left shoulder, the curved magazine to the rear so it nestled against the side of the chute and wouldn’t tangle in the lines.
With a fat gloved thumb he pushed the altimeter light. 39,750 feet. The JM gave the Two-Minute command. Jack tightened his straps, checked everyone’s oxygen pressure gauge, patted their shoulders. Be safe, he told each silently.

His breath was wet and hot inside the mask; his beard itched. His goggles fogged, the Red Light danced. Buzzing filled his ears. The plane shivered, the ramp cracked open, began to drop. Air sucked past. Beyond was black. A styrofoam cup scuttled down the fuselage and blasted out the hole. The JM gave the salute command: Move to the Rear.

Jack switched on his bailout oxygen and disconnected from the plane’s oxygen console. This was what happened when you got executed, you numbly stood up and let them put a bullet through you.
The JM gave the thumbs up Stand By command and Jack gave it back. He thought of his father in the chopper, his father’s Golden Rule: “Do what you say, and say what you do.” Keep your word, and speak the truth. So when you die you’ve lived the way you should.

The Green Light flashed on. The JM swung his arm toward the hole and Owen McPhee dropped into the darkness. A second later Neil Gustafson. Then Sean Loxley.

Jack halted on the ramp. You’re going to die. That’s all. The JM swung down his arm. Jack arched his back and dove into the night.

HE SLAMMED INTO the plane’s wake, spinning wildly, stars flashing past. He flung out his arms into the Stable Free Fall Position but the offbalanced Strela on his pack made him spin faster. He was icing up, had to Maintain Altitude Awareness, tumbling too fast to see his altimeter. Cold bit through his gloves into his fingers and into his elbows and knees where the jumpsuit was tight.You drop a thousand feet in five seconds. How long had he fallen? He hunched to balance the pack but that made him spin worse. He shoved the chute left to offset the Strela and combat pack; the tumbling slowed, the huge white-black Hindu Kush rushing up. Grabbing his left wrist he pushed the altimeter button. 29,000: he’d dropped ten thousand already. In a few seconds, at 25,000, he could deploy the chute.
Safe now. Thicker air hissed past, the black ridges and white cliffs of the Death Mountains rising fast. To the east, behind him now, Chitral Valley and Pakistan. To the west the snowy peaks, barren slopes and desert valleys of Afghanistan.

27,500. He couldn’t see the red chemlites on the others’ suits. But no one had broken silence. So they’re fine too. We made it. He felt a warm happiness, the fear receding.

26,500. He reached for the main ripcord handle.

25,250. He pulled the ripcord; the pilot chute yanked out the main bag and he lurched into a wide downpulling arc. Tugging the steering toggles he swung in a circle but still couldn’t see chemlites, only frozen Bandakur climbing toward him, the snow-thick valleys eight thousand feet below, dim lights to the east that could be the village of Sang Lech. He lined up to fly northwest across Bandakur so he’d hit the DZ on the mountain’s western flank. The stars above the black dome of his chute were thick as milk. The great peaks rose past him, entombed in ice. He sucked in oxygen, felt peace.

A huge force smashed into him collapsing his chute; he somersaulted tangled in another chute, somebody spinning on its lines. “Cutaway!” he screamed. They looped round again, caught in the lines. Jack wrenched an arm free but that spun him the other way, the tangled chutes swung him down and the other man up then the stars were below him so for an instant he thought he was falling into space. He yanked the chute releases and dropped away from the tangled chutes, accelerating in free fall till with a great whoof the reserve chute jerked him up and the tangled chutes whistled past, the man wrapped in them. “Cutaway!” Jack screamed into his radio. “This is Tracker. Cutaway!”

“This is Domino,” McPhee said. “What’s your situation?”

“Tracker this is Silver,” Loxley said. “I can’t see you. Over.”

“Come in, Whiskey!” Jack yelled at Gustafson. “If you’re caught, cut away the main chute and deploy reserve. Maintain Altitude Awareness. Cut away!”

His hands had frozen. “Whiskey!” he screamed, “what’s your situation?”

He switched off his oxygen. Bony ridges climbed past. Below was a tiny chemlite. “Whiskey,” McPhee radioed Gustafson. “Do you read me?”

Rocky ridges coming up fast. If Gustafson hadn’t deployed his reserve he’d have hit by now. A fierce wind was blowing snow off the peaks; they had to land into it. Short of the DZ, way short. Maybe in the boulders. Bend your knees. Roll with the fall. He snapped off his chemlite.

“Whiskey,” McPhee radioed. “Do you read me?”

Bend your knees. Loosen shoulders. Adjust rifle so it doesn’t smash ribs on impact. The ground raced up. He dropped the combat pack and Strela. The mountain slammed into him; he tumbled backward his head whacking boulders. He leaped up and scrambled downhill unbuckling the chute harness and stamping on the chute, dragged it together and knelt on it.

A steep stony slope, wind screaming, shaly rock clattering down. He snatched off his helmet and clutched his head, blood hot between his fingers, the pain unbearable. He untaped his rifle, checked the safety. “Tracker here,” he whispered, gripping his skull to hold in the agony. He feared his skull was broken, the way the blood poured out. “Touchdown. Over.”

“Silver here,” Loxley answered. “TD. Over.”

“Domino here,” McPhee said raggedly. “TD. Over.”

“Whiskey!” Jack called. Silence, hissing of wind in the radio. “Stow your chutes in your packs and link up,” he told them. “Look for my chemlite. Over.”

“Domino here,” McPhee said. “Come to me. Over.”

“I want us uphill.” Jack gritted his teeth. “Get up here.”

“Hurt,” McPhee grunted. “Not going anywhere.”

The blood running out Jack’s nose had frozen in his moustache. Clutching his skull he steadily descended the slope, each step jolting new agony into his head. When he reached McPhee, Loxley was already there. “Goddamn rocks,” McPhee groaned. “Goddamn leg.”

Clamping a light in his teeth Loxley eased off McPhee’s boot. “Tibia and fibula both broken.”

Behind the wind Jack heard a faint rumble through swirling snow. How could a helicopter be up here at night? “Wrap it,” he snapped. “Chopper!”

“Can’t see us in this,” Loxley yelled into the wind. “What happened?”

“Gus hit me from above,” Jack yelled back, making the pain worse. “About eighteen. We tangled. I cut away at the top.”

“He streamed,” McPhee said, as if stating the worst might prevent it. He gripped his radio. “Whiskey! Do you read me?”

“Stop sending!” Jack said. “We’ll get the Russians on us.” He stuffed all their jump gear under a boulder and jammed it with snow. Now except for their Spetsnaz watches, Russian field glasses, AKs, pistols, and Strelas, everything they had was Afghani. “Leave the channel open. In fifteen minutes try again.”

“Gus is our medic,” Loxley yelled. “Owen’s got a broken leg. If we abort, try for Pakistan –”

“Abortion’s for girls,” McPhee snarled. “We find Gus.”

Jack thought of Gus falling tangled in his chutes, icy rock racing up. “If his reserve didn’t open his body’s way behind us and there’s nothing we can do. If it opened he’s somewhere on this ridge.”

The radio buzzed, stuttered. “That’s him!” McPhee said. “Whiskey!” he coaxed. “Come in Whiskey . . .”

The radio was silent. One man gone, another injured. Jack’s head pounded like a jackhammer. He’d failed, the mission screwed before it even started. He broke away the chunks of frozen blood clogging his nose and mouth, slung McPhee’s rifle over his own, and pulled McPhee up.

“You asshole,” McPhee hissed, “you’re bleeding.”

“Bit my tongue when I landed,” Jack spit a dark streak on the snow. “No big deal.”

Loxley shouldered McPhee’s combat pack, stumbling under the weight, stood and looped the Strela tube over his other shoulder. “Where to, Boss?”

“We find a place to stow Owen,” Jack said. “Then we find Gus. Before the Russians do.”

WITH McPHEE HOBBLING between them they climbed Bandakur’s south ridge through howling snow that froze their beards and drove icicles through their coats. Every fifteen minutes they tried the radio but there was no sound from Gus.It was worse than Jack could have imagined; they might not live, let alone complete the mission. Pakistan seemed the only choice. If they could get McPhee back across the Kush without being caught by the Soviets or Pakis. He saw Ackerman’s taut angry face. You didn’t do what we trained you for.
“It’s not to put you in shape that we drive you so hard,” Ackerman had told them in Sin City, speaking of the five a.m. runs with full packs, the crawling on hands and toes under machine gun fire, the rappelling down cliffs and buildings. “You men were already hard as steel when you came here.”

“Not McPhee,” Loxley snickered, “he’s never been hard at all.”

Ackerman ignored him. “It’s so you know you can do them. Once you’ve done them, even in training, you’ll know in Afghanistan you can endure almost anything . . .”

“And you’re going to learn everything you can about ordnance,” Captain Perkins added. “From Makarovs to SA-7s, about setting ambushes and nailing a guy in the head at eight hundred yards. How to set Claymores and dig pit traps, how to get the jugular when you cut a throat, how to recognize Soviet infantry units and tell a T-72 tank from the later T-72S, and the RPG-7 from the RPG-16 . . .

“And no, RPG does not stand for ‘rocket-propelled grenade’. It’s Russian for rocket anti-tank grenade launcher – Reactiviniyi Protivotankovyi Granatomet, and I want you girls to know how to spell that.”

“We’ve been agitating these damn Afghanis for years,” Ackerman said, “fed them fanatic Islamic stuff till we finally got a fundamentalist government going in Kabul and the Soviets had to come in, for their whole soft Moslem underbelly – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and all that oil – was at risk . . . Now,” he’d added, “We’re going to do to them in Afghanistan what they did to us in Vietnam. We’re going to bleed them dry.”

Now the peaks blocking the stars and the sheer icy canyons filled Jack with a vast, desolate despair. A perfect place to bleed and die.

“The Special Forces man is the essence,” Ackerman said, “of the Art of War. He’s not where he appears to be, nor what he appears to be. He strikes where and when the enemy’s not ready. He inflicts great harm with few resources because he is the Tao of War.”

“The SF man,” said Perkins, “makes losing part of the enemy’s fate.”

Jack smiled, shook his head. “That is such bullshit.”

“Some day, if you’re good enough,” Levi Ackerman had answered, “it won’t be.”

Now within two months they had to report to Ackerman in Rawalpindi. Even if Gus was dead, they might still be able to reach Jack’s old village, Edeni, where people would care for McPhee. Then Jack could find his former enemy Wahid al Din, now a famous warlord fighting the Soviets. They could still start a third front uniting the Afghani opposition . . .

He took a breath, bit back the agony in his head, spit a clot of blood snatched by the wind. “Edeni,” he yelled. “Even if we can’t find Gus we’re going to Edeni.”