Authors: Cat Johnson
transferable. They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement of the copyright of this work.
Copyright © CAT JOHNSON, 2008
Cover art by Beverly Maxwell
ISBN Trade paperback: 978-1-60202-095-5
ISBN MS Reader (LIT): 978-1-60202-094-8
Other available formats (no ISBNs are assigned):
PDF, PRC & HTML
Linden Bay Romance, LLC
Palm Harbor, Florida 34684
This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or business establishments, events or locales is coincidental.
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever with out written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First Linden Bay Romance publication: April 2008
“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn't even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”
Heraclitus, 500 B.C.
This book is humbly dedicated to my military muses;
Sean, currently somewhere in Afghanistan, for letting me steal his images, his words, and his inspiration; and to his soldiers, who often labor unappreciated for all they do. Stay safe.
Janelle, for having the toughest job on earth, that of military wife, and for cheerfully answering all of my many questions and sharing her husband’s limited time with me.
Chilly, the man of few words, for loaning a few choice ones to me. And Gary, for going above and beyond in support of my writing. I hope he knows how greatly I appreciate all the things he does for me.
As with all of my military novels, any inaccuracies or liberties taken with the facts are purely my own.
Kneeling, Army Staff Sergeant David “Hawk” Hawkins surveyed the barren wasteland of the icy terrain ahead. Gusts of brisk winter air howled across the desolation, the frigid area vacant of all life save his squad. Hawk’s breath froze before him in mid-air each time he exhaled.
With the raise of a gloved hand, he signaled his men. The silent wraiths emerged from the ground, cloaked in the arctic mist, the only signs of their corporeal selves the barely discernable crunch of snow beneath boots. Upon his sign, Hawk’s squad stealthily approached their final destination on the side of the mountain.
This mountain had become Hawk’s own personal Hell. He was beginning to feel as though his many sins had come to bear and his sentence was this god-forsaken place.
Hawk decided to err on the side of caution and signaled for a short halt as he considered the juggernaut before them. Through frozen lips, he whispered as softly as a lover’s caress into his radio. “Bravo team, you’re on over watch. Alpha team, move out.”
As they had traveled on this path to Hell for the past hours, hours that seemed more like days, Hawk had divided his squad into two teams. Two entities separate yet bound together, one always supporting the other, providing security. He’d chosen his two best men to lead the teams, soldiers he would soon have to trust, not only with his own life, but also with the lives of them all.
Without a word, the two groups responded to his order by moving quickly and surely into position. The over watch team, opening fire into the rocks above, broke through the icy stillness as the air erupted with the belch of gunfire. Tracers flew through the icy air like mad yellow jackets on a sunny day.
Hawk hit the rocky ground hard, knowing his body would pay later. But right now, he couldn’t feel a thing, not while the adrenalin surged through his veins as bullets struck the snow-covered rocks protecting him.
Hawk heard a familiar “pop”. “RPG! Take cover!” he shouted, not bothering with the radio, as the rocket propelled grenade cut a trail through the air, exploding nearby and showering him with debris as he lay behind cover.
As his men returned that less than friendly greeting with their own volley, his thumb engaged the selector lever on his rifle as his finger slipped onto the trigger. The scene seemed to move frame by frame to Hawk’s eye as his brain and body, both on autopilot, processed and reacted to the situation.
Hawk’s eyes traced the path the RPG had taken back to its owner whose fate was decided in the moment he began to rise from cover before Hawk’s sights.
He squeezed the trigger.
Following the quick flash of his barrel, Hawk
barely took the time to watch the man fall before he yelled, “Bravo team, maintain supportive fire.”
With Bravo suppressing the enemy above, Hawk sprung from the ground and sprinted to join Alpha team. Diving behind protective cover, he knew he had to choose the next course wisely.
“Alpha team, follow me,” Hawk ordered as he began to maneuver far right in an attempt to flank his opposition. Using a partially covered route as the supportive fire kept the enemy pinned in place, he moved quickly, too fast for the terrain.
“Shit,” Hawk hissed as his boot slipped on the treacherous footing. Moving too rapidly could mean a fall from what was in all probability a deadly height, while moving too slowly could give the enemy the advantage and mean his squad’s demise.
Taking a steadying breath that would hopefully reach down to his feet, Hawk ran as a few enemy rounds peppered the path around him. There was no choice but to accept the risk and drive forward if he wanted to win this battle.
Through his headset, Hawk heard the welcome news that B team had scratched two and continued to suppress the remaining enemy element. Two less bad guys to worry about as Alpha team got into place to assault the remaining opposition from the right.
Hawk waited until the last possible moment and then ordered, “B team. We’re in position. Lift and shift fire.”
And please try and not hit us
, he added silently, praying to whatever godly force aided soldiers in battle that none of his men would fall to fratricide.
He saw the enemy scramble. Having been pinned down, they failed to see Hawk’s approach until too late. As they attempted to swing their weapons to ward off the surprise attack to their right flank, they fell one by one. To their credit, or perhaps as a testament to their stupidity, none tried to surrender but instead fought to the bitter end.
After a quick survey to insure his own men were still alive and standing, a small smile crossed his frozen lips as Hawk allowed himself barely a breath to enjoy the victory. Many a dead man had learned, too late, not to celebrate prematurely. There was still much to do.
“Bravo, establish security. Alpha, search the area.”
His men, up until this moment silent, efficient killers, suddenly transformed into jubilant boys, filling the air with whoops and chatter as soon as they had completed the quick job of checking the downed enemy and clearing weapons from them.
Shaking his head at their behavior, he didn’t bother to correct them; they had been swift and the work was already done. Instead, he called in to base to report the situation and do a bit of bragging of his own.
“Team One to Base. This is Hawk. Over.”
“Go ahead, Hawk. Over.”
“The enemy has been eliminated. Awaiting further orders. Over.”
“Return to base for debriefing. Over,” the disembodied voice told him.
“Copy that. Over and out.” Hawk sighed and looked at the crimson-spotted snow surrounding him. His only hope, when the time came many months in the future, was to bring all his men back from Afghanistan to their loved ones, alive and unscathed.
Well, perhaps that wasn’t his only hope. He wouldn’t mind something warm in his belly right now: coffee, food or whisky, any of the three would suffice. Hell, he wasn’t picky. And while he was hoping, he hoped the journey back down to base would be easier than the one here. There was no way it could be any worse.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, Hawk couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Fuck,” Hawk mumbled, lowering his head against the driving wind and thinking that his protective facemask wasn’t doing so great a job of protecting him at the moment.
“Sergeant?” Ryan Pettit, his second in command and the man who’d led Alpha team that day, questioned Hawk’s comment, squinting against the sudden snow squall blowing tiny ice daggers into all their eyes.
“Nothing. It’s just…I think I cursed us a bit back there up on that mountain. I assumed the trip back down would be easy, and this is what I get for that hope.”
His Alpha team leader laughed. “Well, you know what they say. Put your hopes in one hand and shit in the other hand and see which one fills up fastest.”
Hawk laughed at that just as he spotted Wally, aka Trent Wallace, his Bravo team leader, suddenly emerge out of the blizzard from somewhere next to Pettit. Visibility was limited pretty much to the distance of your hand in front of your face. Thank god they’d finished off the enemy before this thing hit.
“I thought it was wishes, not hopes. Put your wishes in one hand and shit in the other,” Wally sputtered stiffly, looking and sounding as miserable as Hawk felt. They were all talking a little funny at the moment. Impending frostbite does that to a person.
“Hopes, wishes, same damn thing,” Ryan grumbled as he swiped at his face with one gloved paw, knocking away the snow that had built up on his eyelashes and brows.
“Yeah. Pretty much,” Hawk agreed. Hopes, wishes, both were useless.
Starting to look like the abominable snowman himself, he began feeling uncharacteristically superstitious, probably due to hypothermia and hunger. Then and there, Hawk swore to himself he’d remember in future not to do either, wishing or hoping. Not if this kind of torture was the result.
Thanks to the sudden storm, the journey down the mountain took them twice as long as the trip up. The only solace was that they walked away victorious and without any loses. When they finally arrived at base, Hawk gladly sent his men back to their temporary lodging to eat and get warm while he sat and waited, not so gladly, to be debriefed by the commanding training officer in charge of this shindig.
And he was taking his sweet damn time, too, long enough that Hawk had the opportunity to lean his head back against the wall in the warm office, close his eyes, and review the day, his life, his future… This much reflection was definitely evidence that he was deliriously tired.
As his thoughts drifted aimlessly, he couldn’t help but wonder where the hell the time had gone. It seemed to Hawk as if he’d just gotten back to Germany from his third deployment in Iraq and yet here he was, in the field once more, in the frigging Alps no less for a Mission Readiness Exercise. But he’d do whatever it took, even freezing in the Alps, to prepare his new unit before they headed out again, this time for Afghanistan, the Kabul Province, to be exact.
He’d thought Iraq had been bad, but from what he’d heard, Afghanistan made Iraq look like the frigging French Riviera. Awaiting them in the far mountainous outskirts of the city of Kabul would be a few makeshift shacks for living areas, a generator or two, and a small cooking area. That was the extent of what he’d been told they could expect to find in the way of comfort. Supplies would have to be flown in by chopper to reach them. He’d heard there had been improvements and that more may be done before he arrived. One could only hope. Not that it mattered how sparse or unimproved conditions were, they would still complete their assigned mission.
He and his men had been so busy the past few months, using their combined experience from their tours in the sandbox to help train the guys in other units at the base in Hohenfels, they’d pretty much gotten the shaft for time to train themselves for this new deployment. Hawk hoped they all wouldn’t pay the price for that once they hit Afghanistan, where the platoon would be doing dismounted ops the majority of the time, far from assistance and farther from home.
But he wasn’t in Afghanistan yet. Instead, he sat there at base camp on the mountain infamous for breaking people, trying to recover from one of the hardest damn training exercise he’d ever been through. In fact, he’d hardly thought about his upcoming deployment in hours since the “enemy” force he’d faced today demanded every last scrap of his attention.