Jack Mars is the USA Today bestselling author of the LUKE STONE thriller series, which include the suspense thrillers ANY MEANS NECESSARY (book #1), OATH OF OFFICE (book #2), SITUATION ROOM (book #3), OPPOSE ANY FOE (book #4), PRESIDENT ELECT (book #5), OUR SACRED HONOR (book #6), and HOUSE DIVIDED (book #7). He is also the author of the new FORGING OF LUKE STONE prequel series, which begins with PRIMARY TARGET.
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Copyright © 2018 by Jack Mars. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Getmilitaryphotos, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY JACK MARS
LUKE STONE THRILLER SERIES
ANY MEANS NECESSARY (Book #1)
OATH OF OFFICE (Book #2)
SITUATION ROOM (Book #3)
OPPOSE ANY FOE (Book #4)
PRESIDENT ELECT (Book #5)
OUR SACRED HONOR (Book #6)
HOUSE DIVIDED (Book #7)
FORGING OF LUKE STONE PREQUEL SERIES
PRIMARY TARGET (Book #1)
PRIMARY COMMAND (Book #2)
KENT STEELE SPY SERIES
AGENT ZERO (Book #1)
March 16, 2005
2:45 p.m. Afghanistan Time (5:15 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time)
Bagram Air Base
Parwan Province, Afghanistan
“Luke, you don’t have to do this,” Colonel Don Morris said.
Sergeant First Class Luke Stone stood at ease inside Don’s office. The office itself was inside a glorified corrugated metal Quonset hut, not far from where the new runway was going in.
The air base was a wonderland of constant sound—there were earth movers digging and paving, there were construction workers hammering together hundreds of plywood B-huts to replace the tents that troops stationed here had previously lived in, and if that wasn’t enough, there were Taliban rocket attacks from the surrounding mountains and suicide bombers on motorcycles blowing themselves up at the front gates.
Luke shrugged. His hair was longer than military guidance. He had a three-day growth of beard on his face. He wore a flight suit with no indication of rank on it.
“I’m just following orders, sir.”
Don shook his head. His own flattop haircut was black, shot through with gray and white. His face could have been carved from granite. Indeed, his entire body could have been. His blue eyes were deep-set and intense. The color of his hair and the lines on his face were the only signs that Don Morris had been alive on Earth for more than fifty-five years.
Don was packing the meager contents of his office into boxes. One of the legendary founders of Delta Force was retiring from the United States Army. He had been handpicked to launch and manage a small intelligence agency in Washington, DC, a semi-autonomous group within the FBI. Don was referring to it as a civilian Delta Force.
“Don’t you dare call me sir,” he said. “And if you’re following orders today, then follow this one: decline the mission.”
Luke smiled. “I’m afraid you’re no longer my commanding officer. Your orders don’t carry a lot of weight these days. Sir.”
Don’s eyes met Luke’s. He kept them there for a long moment.
“It’s a deathtrap, son. Two years after the fall of Baghdad, the war effort in Iraq is a total balls-up. Here in God’s country, we control to the perimeter of this base, the Kandahar airport, downtown Kabul, and not a whole lot else. Amnesty International and the Red Cross and the European press are all screaming about black sites and torture prisons, including right here, three hundred yards from where we’re standing. The brass just want to change the narrative. They need a win in capital letters. And Heath wants a feather in his cap. That’s all he ever wants. None of that is worth dying over.”
“Lieutenant Colonel Heath has decided to lead the raid personally,” Luke said. “I was informed less than an hour ago.”
Don’s shoulders slumped. Then he nodded.
“No surprise there,” he said. “You know what we used to call Heath? Captain Ahab. He gets fixated on something, some whale of a thing, and he will chase it to the bottom of the sea. And he’ll be happy to take all his men with him.”
Don paused. He sighed.
“Listen, Stone, you have nothing to prove to me, or to anyone. You’ve earned a free pass. You can decline this mission. Hell, in a couple of months, you could leave the Army if you want and come join me in DC. I’d like that.”
Now Luke nearly laughed. “Don, not everybody around here is middle-aged. I’m thirty-one years old. I don’t think a suit and tie, and lunch at my desk, is quite my speed just yet.”
Don held a framed photograph in his hands. It hovered above an open box. He stared down at it. Luke knew the photo well. It was a faded color snapshot of four shirtless young men, Green Berets, mugging for the camera before a mission in Vietnam. Don was the only one of those men who was still alive.
“Me neither,” Don said.
He looked at Luke again.
“Don’t die out there tonight.”
“I don’t plan to.”
Don glanced at the photo again. “No one ever does,” he said.
For a moment, he stared out the window at the snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush rising all around them. He shook his head. His broad chest rose and fell. “Man, I’m going to miss this place.”
* * *
“Gentlemen, this mission is suicide,” the man at the front of the room said. “And that’s why they send men like us.”
Luke sat in a folding chair in the drab cinderblock briefing room, twenty-two other men sitting in the chairs around him. They were all Delta Force operators, the best of the best. And the mission, as Luke understood it, was difficult—but not necessarily suicide.
The man giving this final briefing was Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Heath, as hands-on and gung-ho a commander as there was. Not yet forty years old, it was clear that Delta was not the end of the line for Heath. He had rocketed up to his current rank, and his ambitions seemed to point toward a higher profile. Politics, maybe a book deal, maybe a stint on TV as a military expert.
Heath was handsome, very fit, and over-the-top eager. That wasn’t unusual for a Delta operator. But he also talked a lot. And that wasn’t Delta at all.
Luke had watched him a week earlier, giving an interview to a reporter and a photographer from Rolling Stone magazine, and walking the guys through the advanced stealth and navigational capabilities of an MH-53J helicopter—not necessarily classified information, but definitely not the kind of thing you want to share with everyone.
Stone almost called him on it. But didn’t.
He didn’t, not because Heath outranked him—that didn’t matter in Delta, or shouldn’t—but because he could imagine ahead of time Heath’s response: “You think the Taliban read American pop magazines, Sergeant?”
Now, Heath’s presentation was up-to-the-minute technology for ten years earlier, PowerPoint on a white backdrop. A young man in a turban and with a dark beard appeared on the screen.
“You all know your man,” Heath said. “Abu Mustafa Faraj al-Jihadi was born sometime around 1970 among a tribe of nomads in eastern Afghanistan or the tribal regions of western Pakistan. He probably had no formal education to speak of, and his family probably crisscrossed the border like it wasn’t even there. Al Qaeda runs in his veins. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, by all accounts he joined the resistance as a child soldier, possibly as young as eight or nine years old. All this time later, decades of nonstop war, and somehow he’s still breathing. Heck, he’s still rocking and rolling. We believe he’s responsible for organizing at least two dozen major terror attacks, including last October’s suicide attacks in Mumbai, and the bombing of the USS Sarasota at Port of Aden, in which seventeen American sailors died.”
Heath paused for effect. He eyed everyone in the room.
“This guy is bad news. Getting him will be the next best thing to taking down Osama bin Laden. You guys want to be heroes? This is your night.”
Heath clicked a button in his hand. The photo on the screen changed. Now it was a split image—on one side of the vertical border was an aerial shot of al-Jihadi’s compound just outside a small village; on the other side was a 3-D rendering of what was believed to be al-Jihadi’s house. The house was two stories, made of stone, and built against a steep hill—Luke knew it was possible that the back of the house emptied into a tunnel complex.
Heath launched into a description of how the mission would go. Two choppers, twelve men on each. The choppers would set down in a field just outside the walls of the compound, unload the men, then take off again and provide aerial support.
The twelve men of A-Team—Luke and Heath’s team—would breach the walls, enter the house, and assassinate al-Jihadi. If possible, they would carry the body out on a stretcher and return it to base. If not, they would photograph it for later identification. B-Team would hold the walls and the approach to the compound from the village.
The choppers would then touch down again and extract both teams. If for any reason the choppers could not land again, the two teams would make their way to an old abandoned American forward fire base on a rocky hillside less than half a mile outside the village. Extraction would take place there, or the teams would hold the former base until extraction could occur. Luke knew all this by heart. But he didn’t like the idea of a rendezvous at that old fire base.
“What if that fire base is compromised?” he said.
“Compromised in what way?” Heath said.
Luke shrugged. “I don’t know. You tell me. Booby-trapped. Staffed up by Taliban snipers. Used by sheepherders as a place to gather their flock.”
Around the room, a few people laughed.
“Well,” Heath said, “our most recent satellite images show the place empty. If there are sheep up there, then there’ll be nice bedding and plenty to eat. Don’t worry, Sergeant Stone. This is going to be a precision decapitation strike. In and out, gone almost before they realize we’re there. We’re not going to need the old fire base.”
* * *
“Madre de Dios, Stone,” Robby Martinez said. “I got a bad feeling about this one, man. Look at that night out there. No moon, cold, howling winds. We’re going to catch some dust, for sure. We’re going to catch hell tonight. I know it.”
Martinez was small, slim, razor sharp. There was not a wasted ounce of meat on his body. When he worked out in shorts and no shirt, he looked like a drawing of the human anatomy, each muscle group carefully delineated.
Luke was checking and rechecking his pack and his weapons.
“You always got a bad feeling, Martinez,” Wayne Hendricks said. He was sitting next to Luke. “The way you talk, a man would think you never saw combat before.”
Hendricks was Luke’s best buddy in the military. He was a big, thick-bodied hunk from the redneck wilds of north central Florida who had grown up hunting boar with his dad. He was missing his right front tooth—punched out in a bar fight in Jacksonville when he was seventeen, and never replaced. He and Luke had almost nothing in common except football—Luke had been the quarterback on his varsity squad, Wayne had played tight end. Even so, they had clicked the minute they first discovered each other in the 75th Rangers.
It seemed like they did everything together.
Wayne’s wife was eight months pregnant. Luke’s wife, Rebecca, was seven months along. Wayne had a girl coming, and had asked Luke to be her godfather. Luke had a boy coming, and had asked Wayne to be the boy’s godfather. One night, while drunk at a bar outside Fort Bragg, Luke and Wayne had cut open their right palms with a serrated knife, and shaken hands.
Martinez shook his head. “You know where I been, Hendricks. You know what I’ve seen. I wasn’t talking to you, anyway.”
Luke glanced out the open bay door. Martinez was right. The night was cold and windy. Frigid dust blew across the pad as the choppers prepared for takeoff. Clouds skidded across the sky. It was going to be a bad night for flying.
All the same, Luke felt confident. They had what they needed to win this. The helicopters were MH-53J Pave Lows, the most advanced and most powerful transport choppers in the United States arsenal.
They had state-of-the-art terrain-following radar, which meant they could fly very low. They had infrared sensors so they could fly in bad weather, and they could reach a top speed of 165 miles per hour. They were armor plated, to shrug off all but the heaviest ordnance the enemy might have. And they were flown by the US Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, code name Nightstalkers, the Delta Force of helicopter pilots—probably the best chopper pilots in the world.
The raid was scheduled for a night with no moonlight so the helicopters could enter the operation area low to the ground and undetected. The choppers were going to use hilly terrain and nap-of-the-earth techniques to reach the compound without appearing on radar and alerting any unfriendlies—especially the Pakistani military and intelligence services, who were suspected to be cooperating with the Taliban in hiding the target.
With friends like the Pakistanis…
The low-slung buildings of the air base and the larger flight control tower squatted against the staggering backdrop of the snow-capped mountains. As Luke stared out the bay door, two fighter jets took off a quarter mile away, the scream of their engines nearly deafening. A moment later, the jets reached the sound barrier somewhere in the distance. The takeoffs were loud, but the sonic booms were muted by the wind at high altitude.
The chopper’s engine whined into life. The rotor blades began to turn, slowly at first, then with increasing speed. Luke glanced along the line. Ten men in jumpsuits and helmets, not including himself, were all compulsively checking and rechecking their gear. The twelfth, Lieutenant Colonel Heath, was leaning into the cockpit at the front of the chopper, talking to the pilots.
“I’m telling you, Stone,” Martinez said.
“I heard you the first time, Martinez.”
“Good luck don’t last forever, man. One fine day it runs out.”
“I don’t worry because it ain’t luck in my case,” Wayne said. “It’s skill.”
Martinez sneered at that.
“A big fat bastard like you? You’re lucky every time a bullet doesn’t hit you. You’re the biggest, slowest thing out here.”
Luke suppressed a laugh and went back to his gear. His weapons included an HK416 assault rifle and an MP5 for close quarter fighting. The guns were loaded and he had extra magazines stuffed in his pockets. He had a SIG P226 sidearm, four grenades, a cutting and breaching tool, and night vision goggles. This particular night vision device was the GPNVG-18, far more advanced and with a much better field of view than the standard night vision goggles offered to typical servicemen.
He was ready to rock.
Luke felt the chopper taking off. He glanced up. They were on the move. To their left, he saw the second helicopter, also leaving its pad.
“You guys are the luckiest men alive, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” Martinez said. “Why’s that?”
Luke shrugged and smiled. “You’re riding with me.”
* * *
The chopper flew low and fast.
The rocky hills buzzed by below them, maybe two hundred feet down, almost close enough to touch. Luke watched the inky darkness through the window. He guessed they were moving at over a hundred miles per hour.
The night was black, and they were flying without lights. He couldn’t even see the second helicopter out there.
He blinked and saw Rebecca instead. She was something to behold. It wasn’t so much the physical details of her face and body, which were indeed beautiful. It was the essence of her. In the years they’d been together, he had come to see past the physical. But time was passing so fast. The last time he had seen her—when was that, two months ago?—her pregnancy had just been beginning to show.
I need to get back there.
Luke glanced down—his MP5 was across his lap. For a split second, it almost seemed alive, like it might suddenly decide to start firing on its own. What was he doing with this thing? He had a child on the way.
“Gentlemen!” a voice shouted. Luke nearly jumped out of his skin. He looked up, and Heath stood in front of the group. “We are approaching target, ETA approximately ten minutes. I just got a report from base. The high winds have kicked up a bunch of dust. We’re going to hit some weather between here and the target.”
“Terrific,” Martinez said. He looked at Luke, all the meaning in his eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Martinez?” Heath said.
“I love weather, sir!” Martinez shouted.
“Oh yeah?” Heath said. “Why’s that?”
“It ramps the pucker factor up to twelve. Makes life more exciting.”
Heath nodded. “Good man. You want excitement? It looks like we might be landing in zero-zero conditions.”
Luke didn’t like the sound of that. Zero-zero meant zero ceiling, zero visibility. The pilots would be forced to let the chopper’s navigation system do the sighting for them. That was okay. What was worse was the dust. Here in Afghanistan it was so fine that it flowed almost like water. It could come through the tiniest cracks. It could get into gearboxes, and into weapons. Clouds of dust could cause brownouts, completely obscuring any unfriendly obstacles that might be waiting in the landing zone.
Dust storms stalked the nightmares of every airborne soldier in Afghanistan.
As if on cue, the chopper shuddered and got hit with a blast of sideways wind. And just like that, they were inside the dust storm. The sound outside the chopper changed—a moment ago the loud whirr of the rotors and the roar of the wind was all you could hear. Now the sound of the spitting dust hitting the outside of the chopper competed with the other two sounds. It sounded almost like rain.
“Call the dust!” Heath shouted.
Men were at the windows, peering outside at the boiling cloud.
“Dust at the tailwheel!” someone shouted.
“Dust at the cargo door!” Martinez said.
“Dust at the landing gear!”
“Dust at the cockpit door!”
Within seconds, the chopper was engulfed. Heath repeated each call out into his headset. They were flying blind now, the chopper pushing through a thick, dark sky.
Luke stared out at the sand hitting the windows. It was hard to believe they were still airborne.
Heath touched a hand to his helmet.
“Pirate 2, Pirate 2… yes, copy. Go ahead, Pirate 2.”
Heath had radio contact with all aspects of the mission inside his helmet. Apparently, the second helicopter was calling him about the storm.
“Negative on return to base, Pirate 2. Continue as planned.”
Martinez’s eyes met Luke’s again. He shook his head. The chopper bucked and swayed. Luke looked down the line of men. These were hardened fighters, but not one of them looked eager to continue this mission.
“Negative on set-down, Pirate 2. We need you on this…”
Heath stopped and listened again.
He waited. Now he looked at Luke. His eyes were narrow and hard. He didn’t seem frightened. He seemed frustrated.
“I lost them. That’s our support. Can any of you guys see them out there?”
Martinez looked out the window. He grunted. It wasn’t even night anymore. There was nothing to see out there but brown dust.
“Pirate 2, Pirate 2, can you read me?” Heath said.
He waited a beat.
“Come in, Pirate 2. Pirate 2, Pirate 2.”
Heath paused. Now he listened.
“Pirate 2, status report. Status…”
He shook his head and looked at Luke again.
He listened again. “Minor injuries only. Helicopter disabled. Engines dead.”
Suddenly, Heath punched the wall near his head.
He glared at Luke. “Son of a bitch. The cowards. They ditched. I know they did. It just so happens their instrumentation failed, they got lost in the storm, and they crashed seven miles from a Tenth Mountain Division bivouac. How convenient. They’re going to walk there.”
He paused. A breath of air escaped him. “Doesn’t that beat all? I never thought I’d see a Delta Force unit DD a mission.”
Luke watched him. DD meant done deal. It meant disappearing, laying low, bowing out. Heath suspected that Pirate 2 had pulled the plug on the operation themselves. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn’t. But it might be the right thing to do.
“Sir, I think we should turn around,” Luke said. “Or maybe we should set this thing down. We have no support unit, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a storm…”
Heath shook his head. “Negative, Stone. We continue with minor edits. Six-man team raids the house. Six-man team holds the village approaches.”
“Sir, with all due respect, how is this chopper going to land and take off again?”
“No landing,” Heath said. “We’ll fast rope down. Then the chopper can go vertical and find the top of this storm, wherever it is. They can come back when we have the target secured.”
“Morgan…” Luke began, addressing his superior officer by his first name, a convention he could only get away with in a few places, one of them being Delta Force.
Heath shook his head. “No, Stone. I want al-Jihadi, and I’m going to have him. This storm doubles our element of surprise—they’ll never expect us to come out of the sky on a night like this. Mark my words. We’re going to be legends after this.”
He paused, staring directly into Stone’s eyes. “ETA five minutes. Make sure you have your men ready, Sergeant.”
* * *
“Okay, okay,” Luke shouted over the roar of the engines and the chopper blades and the sand spitting against the windows.
“Listen up!” The two lines of men stared at him, in jumpsuit and helmets, weapons at the ready. Heath watched him from the far end. These were Luke’s men and Heath knew it. Without Luke’s leadership and cooperation, Heath could quickly have a mutiny on his hands. For a split second, Luke remembered what Don had said:
We used to call him Captain Ahab.
“Mission plan has changed. Pirate 2 is one hundred percent SNAFU. We are pressing forward with Plan B. Martinez, Hendricks, Colley, Simmons. You’re with me and Lieutenant Colonel Heath. We are A-Team. We will move into the house, eliminate any opposition, acquire the target, and terminate. We are going to be moving very fast. Go mode. Understood?”
Martinez, as always: “Stone, how you plan to make this a twelve-man assault? It’s a twenty-four-man—”
Luke stared at him. “I said understood?”
Various grunts and growls indicated they understood.
“No one resists us,” Luke said. “Someone shoots, someone so much as shows a weapon, they’re out of the game. Copy?”
He glanced through the windows. The chopper fought through a brown shit storm, moving fast, but well below its max airspeed. Visibility out there was zero. Less than zero. The chopper shuddered and lurched as if to confirm that assessment.
“Copy,” the men around him said. “Copy that.”
“Packard, Hastings, Morrison, Dobbs, Murphy, Bailey. You are B-Team. B-team, you support and cover us. When we drop, two of you hold the drop spot, two hold the perimeter near the gates of the compound. When we go inside, two move forward and hold the front of the house. You’re also the last men out. Eyes sharp, heads on a swivel. Nobody moves against us. Eliminate all resistance, and any possible resistance. This place is bound to be hotter than hell. Your job is to make it cold.”
He looked at them all.
“Are we clear?”
A chorus of voices followed, each of differing depth and timbre.
Luke crouched on a low-slung bench in the personnel hold. He felt that old trickle of fear, of adrenaline, of excitement. He had swallowed a Dexedrine right after takeoff, and it was starting to kick in. Suddenly he felt sharper and more alert than before.
He knew the drug’s effects. His heart rate was up. His pupils were dilating, letting in more light and making his vision better. His hearing was more acute. He had more energy, more stamina, and he could remain awake for a long time.
Luke’s men sat forward on their benches, eyes on him. His thoughts were racing ahead of his ability to speak.
“Children,” he said. “Watch for them. We know there are women and children in the compound, some of them family members of the target. We are not shooting women and children tonight. Copy?”
Resigned voices answered.
It was an inevitability of these assignments. The target always lived among women and children. The missions always happened at night. There was always confusion. Children tended to do unpredictable things. Luke had seen men hesitate to kill children and then pay the price when the children turned out to be soldiers who didn’t hesitate to kill them. To make matters worse, their teammates would then kill the child soldiers, ten seconds too late.
People died in war. They died suddenly and often for the craziest reasons—like not wanting to kill children, who were dead a minute later anyway.
“That said, don’t die out there tonight. And don’t let your brothers die.”
The chopper rolled on, blasting through the spitting, shrieking darkness. Luke’s body swayed and bounced with the helicopter. Outside, there was flying dirt and grit all around them. They were going to be out there a few moments from now.
“If we catch these guys napping, we might have an easy time of this. They’re sure not expecting us tonight. I want to drop in, acquire the target inside ten minutes, and load back up within fifteen minutes.”
The chopper rocked and bucked. It fought to remain in the air.
Luke paused and took a breath.
“Do not hesitate! Seize the initiative and keep it. Push them and push them. Make them afraid. Do what comes naturally.”
This after just telling them to watch for children. He was sending mixed messages, he knew that. He had to get on script, but it was hard. A dark night, an insane dust storm, one chopper down before the mission even started, and a commanding officer who would not turn around.
A thought went through his mind, laser fast, so fast he almost didn’t recognize it.
Abort. Abort this mission.
He looked at the two lines of men. They looked back at him. The normal enthusiasm these guys would show was sorely lacking. A couple of sets of eyes glanced out the windows.
Sand was spraying against the helicopter. It was like the chopper was a submarine under water, except the water was made out of dust.
Luke could abort the mission. He could overrule Heath. These guys would follow him over Heath—they were his guys, not Heath’s. The payback would be hell, of course. Heath would come for him. Don would try to protect Luke.
But Don would be a civilian.
The charges would be insubordination at best, mutiny at worst. A court martial was practically guaranteed. Luke knew the precedents—a lunatic, suicidal order was not necessarily an unlawful order. He would lose any court martial case.
He was still staring at the men. They were still staring at him. He could see it in their eyes, or thought he could:
Call it off.
Luke shook that away.
He looked at Wayne. Wayne raised his eyebrows, gave a slight shrug.
Up to you.
“All right, boys,” Luke said. “Hit hard and fast tonight. No screwing around. We go in, we do our jobs, and we get right back out again. Trust me. This won’t hurt a bit.”