Authors: Sean Ellis
Tags: #Fiction & Literature, #Action Suspense, #Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Science Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
A Nick Kismet adventure
Published by Seven Realms Publishing, LLC
Copyright 2013 Sean Ellis
Cover art by J. Kent Holloway
Kindle Edition, License Notes
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Payable in Blood
For a moment, silence reigned supreme in the desert; an otherworldly stillness that seemed an oddly appropriate punctuation mark for the violence that had occurred only a few seconds before. Sergeant Alexander Higgins, of the 6
Queen Elisabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles, listened intently, waiting for the one, insignificant sound that would herald the end of that quasi-peaceful instant of time.
The world did not disappoint.
He spied a hubcap turned on end and spinning wildly like some toy from his childhood, and almost smiled at the reminiscence. The hubcap was one of only a few pieces of recognizable debris left over from the explosion that had ripped a car apart right in front of him, and taken the life of his comrade-in-arms Corporal Sanjay Singh.
Singh’s body lay between Higgins and the American army lieutenant Nick Kismet. Kismet was the nominal leader of the team—what was left of it—that made a covert insertion into southern Iraq. The mission called for them to rendezvous with a high ranking government official who had expressed a desire to flee what many believed was the sinking ship of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Higgins hadn’t understood why they had been saddled with an American officer, or why CENTCOM had utilized his regiment for the assignment; Gurkhas were tough soldiers to be sure, but clandestine operations were not their forte. Nevertheless, orders were orders. They had crossed the desert sands in a CH47 Chinook helicopter, an aerial platform that looked to Higgins like a school bus with rotors at either end, and made a flawless entry, arriving practically on top of their target without raising a single alarm.
Then things had gone south.
The American officer had left with the defector, offering no explanation for his decision. The two men climbed into a battered Mercedes sedan, leaving Higgins and his platoon to trail along behind them on foot. Along with three of his men, the Gurkha sergeant had set a murderous pace, hiking through the sand alongside the paved roadway that connected the river city of Nasiryah to the Bedouin communities of the desert. Higgins had begun to wonder about the wisdom of trying to follow Kismet; what if the defector was taking the lieutenant all the way into the city?
Nevertheless, after an hour of hustling across the austere landscape, they had spied the car, sitting abandoned on the roadside. Footprints led away, down into a narrow ravine, to the partially buried remains of some ancient Sumerian structure. Weapons at the ready, Higgins and his men had followed the trail expecting almost anything but what they discovered in those ruins.
Lieutenant Kismet held audience with the dead.
The defector and a dozen or so others—young men, women and children—had been lined up against the wall and massacred. A scattering of brass cartridges, shell casings for the 5.56-millimeter NATO rounds, lay on the floor a short distance away. Kismet was ministering to some of the mortally wounded victims, offering final comfort rather than assistance—all were beyond saving. Higgins had no idea what had happened, but one thing was glaringly obvious: the shots that had murdered the defector and his family had come from Kismet’s weapon. The American’s CAR15, a smaller version of the M16s Higgins and most of his men carried, stank of recent discharge.
Kismet had denied shooting them, but his protestation of innocence was wasted on Higgins. Civilians or not, the Iraqis were, after all, the enemy. Kismet’s superiors would no doubt demand a more scrupulous accounting, but that was their business, and no concern of the Gurkhas.
They had returned to the car, anticipating a short ride back to their rendezvous site and an end to the mission. However, as Corporal Singh had reached for the door handle Kismet had shouted for him to stop. Too late, the Sikh had worked the lever and triggered the bomb. The blast ripped the car apart, smashing Singh into an almost unrecognizable pulp.
Kismet had known.
Even now, as he stared at the American officer, Higgins wondered what kind of trap he and his men had been sent into.
The burning car sent a towering column of smoke and fire into the sky, a beacon that was almost certainly visible in the nearby city where members of the Nebuchadnezzar Division of the Republican Guard had reportedly been stationed in anticipation of war; a war that had begun that very night in the skies over Baghdad. Those paramilitary soldiers would surely come out in force to investigate the explosion, and would find the shattered remnants of the Gurkha squad hastening across the sands.
And yet, there was something about the American that Higgins found strangely inspiring. He had seen young officers freeze up at the first sight of blood, the first taste of combat. Kismet was different. He could almost see the American reaching down into his deepest reserves of courage, tapping into an inner fire. It might not be enough to get them through the dark night ahead, but Higgins respected what he saw; he would willingly follow such a man into Hell itself.
Still, there remained the matter of the defector’s death, the massacre of his family, and the nagging question of who had set the explosive device in the car.
He would follow this young lieutenant, he decided. But if they survived the night, he would have some tough questions of his own for the American with the strange name.
Private Mutabe, injured in the blast, was walking unassisted, but he would be useless if they were engaged by the enemy. The blood flowing from the long shrapnel wound in his left arm had been stanched, and although he still had the use of his right arm, the morphine injection administered by Sergeant Armitraj to dull the pain would also deaden his reflexes in the heat of battle. Armitraj had already freed Mutabe of the Minimi machine gun he carried, shouldering the burden of the weapon and its heavy ammunition bandoliers.
Higgins and Kismet shared the effort of bearing the slain Corporal Singh on a hastily assembled litter. The American seemed to understand the psychological importance of not leaving fallen comrades behind. At the same time, both men knew in the event of an encounter with the enemy, they might have to cut and run.
They stayed near the road as long as they dared. Though they were fully exposed to the eyes of anyone who might pass by, they knew that once they retreated to the desert dunes, their progress would slow to a snail’s pace. For fifteen minutes they hastened along the roadside, until Higgins keen ears picked out the sound of a vehicle. Before he could voice a warning, they all heard it, and turned immediately into the open desert, seeking cover.
Higgins peered through his night vision goggles to get a better look at the approaching automobiles. He had no trouble locating them; the headlamps of two Land Cruisers burned brightly in the green monochrome display. He marked their location relative to the column of smoke that continued to hover above the bombed-out Mercedes. The Land Cruisers were on the move, following the distinctive trail of footprints left by the Gurkhas.
“Shit,” he muttered. “That tears it.”
“We’ll dig in here,” declared Kismet, not questioning Higgins’ assessment. “If we can overwhelm them with an ambush, it might buy us a few minutes.”
Higgins hefted his rifle and loaded a grenade into the M203 launcher affixed to the lower receiver. Armitraj laid out the Minimi on a dune crest, and then likewise readied a grenade. Kismet was left with only his CAR15, a weapon for close engagement if the grenades failed to remove the threat.
The two Gurkha grenadiers aimed at a spot roughly two hundred meters out, prepared to send the bullet-shaped grenades in a parabolic arc toward their destination. All that remained was to wait until the targets entered the kill zone. As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait very long.
Higgins’ grenade released with a popping sound followed an instant later by Armitraj’s. Both men hastily ejected the spent shell casings, reloading in the seconds it took for their ordnance to sail into the sky and drop back onto the road. The task was completed before the first 40-millimeter high explosive projectile detonated.
Higgins’ grenade hit directly in front of the lead vehicle, blasting its windshield inward. The driver instinctively swerved, careening toward the edge of the road even as the left front tire blew out. The Land Cruiser abruptly pitched over on its side, sliding gracelessly into the sand, as the other grenade found its mark.
The second Land Cruiser erupted in a pillar of fiery metal.
Armitraj laid his rifle aside, dove for the machine gun, and lit up the first vehicle. Higgins and Kismet also opened fire without hesitation on the wrecked vehicle, even as the dazed occupants tried to get free. Rounds from the Minimi cut through the Land Cruiser like a chain saw, killing anyone remaining inside. A lone figure—a soldier wearing the black beret and triangular insignia of the Republican Guard—struggled through the exposed driver’s side door only to fall in the crossfire of 5.56-millimeter ammunition.
The ambush had been so quick, so decisive, that Higgins found himself doubting the certainty of their victory. He kept waiting for the real battle to begin, but the desert was plunged once more into silence.
Higgins looked up at the American. Kismet was standing near Singh’s litter, motioning for the Gurkhas to resume their flight. Higgins nodded, hastening over to join the lieutenant, passing by the glassy-eyed Mutabe. The engagement truly was over, but how long until the next? He doubted their luck would hold now that the element of surprise was gone.
There were two more Gurkhas waiting for them near the original drop zone with all the supplies they had brought in anticipation of a forty-eight hour long deployment. Those men also guarded the radio equipment. With any luck, they had heard the sound of gunfire and already called for a quick evac. Whether or not the small group now fleeing across the desert could reach the rally point, much less even find it, remained to be seen.
Even before they started walking, a noise reached their ears: a convoy of vehicles was racing toward them. Higgins looked to Kismet. “We won’t get far.”
“And we won’t last long in a firefight. Maybe the sand will slow them down, too.”
They ran. Armitraj took a position behind the wounded Mutabe, pushing the drugged soldier along at a halting pace. If Higgins and Kismet had not been burdened by the task of bearing Corporal Singh’s remains, they would have easily outdistanced the first pair, but as it was, no one made rapid progress. Their pursuers quickly closed the gap.
After what seemed like only a few minutes of running, Higgins began to see strange patterns on the dunes; shifting figures of shadow that made the sand seem almost alive. He knew immediately what it was: the headlights of the approaching enemy convoy.
Armitraj turned and dropped to one knee, firing another grenade. Then, spread-eagled on the sand, he extended the bipod legs of the machine gun and gripped the trigger before the explosive round finished its journey, detonating harmlessly forty meters from the foremost troop carrier.
Kismet, at the front of the litter, stopped abruptly.
“Sir, we should keep moving. Armitraj will buy us some time.”
“So they can hunt us down one at a time?” He lowered his end of the makeshift stretcher to the sand. “I don’t think so. We’ll make our stand here.”