WARNING: This chapter contains disturbing imagery and may not be suitable for all audiences.
“Why do they always run, Big D?”
Sergeant-Major David Dawson clutched his M-4 as he humped his ass up the incline. A German shepherd crouched by the top of the incline. Ears flat against his head, he stared at the far side of the hill. His sides heaved and his tongue lolled out of his mouth, but David could swear the dog was laughing.
“The dog liked chase.”
Robertson snorted. “We should make him an honorary member of our squad. He’s already bagged one bad ‘un with your help.”
He shrugged. The dog had control of one hand, but the bad guy had a weapon in both and he’d planned to use it. Charred bushes and trees created gray smudges in his peripheral vision. Where the hell had the Phoenix gotten so many hills? His knees ached; pain radiated down his spine. The stitches from where his late commanding officer pulled at his skin. Damn, but he loved the service.
“Just once, I wished the assholes would trip. They always trip on the movies when they’re being hunted.”
And they’re always scantily clad women. David smiled. He liked nearly naked women just on principal. “Guess, they didn’t watch the movies.”
“Oh, they’ve watched them. They know we’re going to smoke their asses as soon as we get them in our sites.”
“They shot first.” Near the top of the hill, he dropped to his knees and scrambled forward. Sprinkles drummed on his helmet. For a moment, the twin scents of damp Earth, wet fur and asphalt overrode the stale barbecue smell.
Private First Class Robertson belly flopped on his right. The kid wasn’t even winded from the two and a half mile sprint.
“Guess they didn’t expect us to fire back.” Near the top, he scooped up some of the gray ash and smeared it onto his tan and green helmet. Last thing he needed was to poke his head over the hill and have it blown off. Mavis wouldn’t like it, and he’d be damned if he allowed Lister to have her, even if Mr. Goldstars was a general.
“Fucking morons.” Robertson rolled to the side and removed his Close Combat Optic. “We’re in a damn military convoy. We’re armed and know how not to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Yeah, but they hardly dressed the part. No combat shirt, kevlar vest or flak jacket. He and his men could be scavengers just like the scum they pursued. Removing his own scope, David dropped it into his pocket. Despite the weak sunlight, he wouldn’t have the glint of light reveal their position. For all he knew, they’d just run pell mell into a trap. He would not be responsible for getting the majority of the healthy servicemen killed.
Ray, a six-foot-seven Latino with enough muscles to make a body-builder drool, dropped his two large bags. “Candy. Get your candy here.” He snapped his fingers and the dog walked closer. He scratched the German shepherd’s ears. “Next time, I’ll bring biscuits for our latest recruit.”
The other six members of his squad fell to the ground, replenished their rounds of ammunition then checked their weapons.
David fingered the throwing knives in each boot and the extra clips in his pockets. Good to go. In the span of a heartbeat, he belly-crawled across the cold asphalt to the top and peered over. The dog appeared on his right, his ears worked like radar stations.
A brick and stucco high school hunkered in the valley below. Their quarry hobbled across the weed-infested parking lot aiming for a the wrought iron gate. Two look outs crouched in the northwest and southwest corner of the auditorium’s flat roof and aimed their rifles in David’s direction.
Robertson’s sigh stirred the dusting of gravel on the road. “Two Smokies on the far building, might be a gymnasium, given its height.”
On the far east side, Robertson’s lookouts smoked. The red eye of their cigarettes glowed intermittently and their weapons dangled from their backs. Beyond the auditorium lay an elongated u-shaped dirty white stucco building, no doubt holding the classrooms. Four pasty men, stripped to the waist, batted a soccer ball across the yellow grass.
“Four kicking around in the quad.” That made eight near the buildings.
Their quarry shouted. The dog growled. The players in the quad stopped.
“Shh.” He pressed his finger to his lips and eyed at the dog. The German shepherd quieted.
“Word about our arrival is spreading.” Robertson wet his thumb and held it up in the still air.
Three of them strolled to the side to pull their shirts over their flabby bellies. One laughed, kicked the ball into the air and caught it. He tossed it from side to side while the others stared at him.
“Not everyone seems concerned.” David continued his scan of the area. Fire had raced over the mountain, clearing the vegetation and leaving only a few black scarred trunks. Lice could find better cover on a bald man’s head. Fortunately, they’d experienced this kind of thing in the Sandbox.
In the football field north of the auditorium, humans were caged in chain link pens–half-naked women, bound men, and huddled, silent children. Nearly two handfuls of armed men strolled the perimeter. The dog’s lips peeled away from his fangs.
“Shit-fuck-damn, Sergeant-Major.” Robertson raised his M-4 and peered down his iron sight.
Only a string of three swear words from the private, did he not see the same thing? The scene below was worth twenty at least. David contained the fire of hate. To see such a thing, in his own country, when had people become such animals? He sank his fingers in the dogs fur, felt the quiver of muscle under his hand. “We’ll kill the bad guys. Free the people.”
Black and white; right and wrong.
The private’s finger settled on the trigger. “Give me a minute and I can treat all the fuckers to a dirt nap, easy-peasy.”
“We play this smart. I don’t want civilians used as flesh shields.” Fisting the back of Robertson’s jacket, David scooted back down, dragging the swearing private along. The dog followed. His tail swept the ground as if he waited for instructions.
“I can hit them, Big D.” Despite his ego, the kid was a first class soldier and an even better sniper.
“I’m counting on it.” David squat-walked to the dirt on the side of the road and etched out the layout of the buildings in the ashen powder.
His men crowded around him. The air practically hummed with purpose. Gut clenching in pre-mission jitters, he drew the oval of the stadium. They had to get the targets away from the civilians to minimize casualties. A deep groove marked the crescent-shaped mountain arcing around the school.
“Four up top. Four more here.” He marked xes on the quad. “Over a dozen on the ground.”
And God knew how many more in the buildings. Too bad the Almighty wasn’t talking.
Ray, the munitions mule, dragged his bags closer. “Which is the high priority target?”
Hell if he knew. But their quarry hadn’t run inside any building to report the counter attack. Either the gunplay had rattled the guy or he wanted to shake the shit out of his shorts before reporting his failure. Then again, there was always option c–the guy with the soccer ball. His balls drew up tight. That settled it.
“Black-haired caucasian with dreadlocks wearing dirty jeans, black sneakers and no shirt.” Although he might have put it back on by now. “He has a serpent tat on his left chest down his arm.”
Robertson gently attached his sight. “I’ll take him out first.”
He nodded. “I want you and Michaelson up on the ridge.” The motorpool PFC was the second best shot in the squad. Together they’d take out any target in the open. Too bad, the targets in the quad were animal enough to dive for cover once the skull started flying. “Clean up the quad then the rooftops before going down to the gallery.”
He poked the guards near the prisoners. Lots of open space there, plenty of time to pick off the fleas before they could reach safety.
Michaelson wiped dust from his goggles before grabbing another clip from the bag. “We taking prisoners?”
Hell no. They barely had enough room in the convoy for people worth saving. These targets didn’t even rate a bullet. But they did deserve to die. Fortunately, it was his job to give anyone who followed the evacuation route a chance to survive. Which meant taking out the trash and sweeping it away.
“We’re sending them to a new detention facility called Hell.”
“Oh, this is going to be fun.” Robertson grinned before leaping to his feet. He kept his weapon at the ready as he charged up the ridge, out of sight of those at the school.
The dog looked at the private before staring at David.
“We’ll radio you once we’re in position, Sergeant-Major.” Puffs of ash rose from Michaelson’s heels as he raced after his comrade.
“Come on boy.” With the dog loping at his side, David jogged across the cracked asphalt and down the hillside. Charcoal twigs and branches crunched under foot. Arriving at the base, he scanned the area. A drainage ditch sucked at the retaining wall that ran to the school’s entrance. The pink stucco blistered and flaked off in patches. Where parts of it had collapsed, upside down triangles appeared along the length. Near the second and fourth one, the vegetation had been trampled.
If they ran behind the retaining wall, they could get close enough for a little shock and awe. But there was always the possibility they’d lose some hostages. Damn. He ran his hand down his face before creeping out just far enough to get a clear view of the parking lot. Not even a stripped car to hide behind.
He’d have to split up his men. Again. From his pocket, he extracted a yellow and gold High Explosive Round and loaded it into the fat M203 slung under the barrel of his M-4. “Vegas and Singleton, wait here until Robertson clears the rooftop. Once we begin the flash/bang, you infiltrate the football field and recover the hostages.”
“Yes, Sergeant-Major.” They both nodded before loading their own grenades and rechecking their weapons.
“Robertson, which way are the targets facing?” David back tracked along the road, keeping out of line of sight. He hoped, prayed, felt the other three members of his squad ghosting behind him and the dog hunting at his side. Damn, where was the smoke and fire when he needed it? And just why had it stopped raining after that piddling? God, if you’re listening, we could use a break about now.
“They’re still facing your position, Sergeant-Major.” Robertson’s huff and puff came through David’s earpiece and rasped inside his skull.
“How close are you to your position?” He trotted farther away from the school. Finally. The bricks folded back on themselves. Rainwater dribbled out of the neighborhood via a concrete channel and emptied into the ditch.
“Anything stirring in the neighborhood in front of the school.”
Time ticked by in heartbeats. He glanced over his shoulder. Another five feet and the targets on the roof would be able to see them. It had been a miracle, he and his men hadn’t been picked off running up the street like a bunch of green recruits.
“Nothing stirring, I…” Robertson cleared his throat. “I think it’s a dumping ground, Sergeant-Major.”
“Roger that.” David jumped into the ditch and ran for the opening. Mud squelched under his boots. He ran up the other side, ducked behind the retaining wall then followed it around the corner. He drew up short.
Naked bodies of every kind lay in neat rows along the street. Only an infant in a pink onesy still wore clothes. It stood next to a decomposing couple posed in a sixty-nine position and was held up by the fire hydrant that had no doubt caved in its skull. Here and there men and women rotted in obscene positions. Unattached limbs were strewn across dead lawns, like discarded props in a zombie movie. Soft bellies disappeared in the hunger of flies and predators. From one blackened doorway, two coyotes with blood beards stared back at him.
The dog whined. He held his breath to a count of four then released it to the same count. Maybe humanity didn’t deserve to survive. “Jesus Christ!”
PFC Folger slammed into his back. “Sorry, Sergeant–” The kids eyes widened and green tinted his pale complexion. His freckles stood out like liver-spots and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his skinny neck.
David stepped forward blocking the view. The kid hadn’t been with them in Iraq. Hell, he’d flown drones from Germany and shot the bad guys like a video game then moved onto guarding the gate at their temporary base. He did not have the time for the kid to shut down, nor could he spare a man.
But a liability would endanger them all.
Ray hitched the spare munitions bags higher on his shoulder. His jaw thrust forward before he shook his head and stared fixedly at the openings in the wall. Janovich gagged, swallowed it down and filed by behind Ray.
He nodded to them as they passed. The dog sat down, but stared after his men. “Look at me, Private.”
Folgers brown eyes locked on his. He didn’t even blink. “Sir?”
David let the slip pass. “We’ve got targets to destroy, a mission to complete, do you understand?”
“Target. Mission.” Folgers swallowed again. Finally, he blinked then a shudder rippled through him. He tightened his grip on his weapon and his chin raised a notch. “I won’t let you down Sergeant-Major.”
“Let’s move out.”
Folgers stepped around David and jogged to where Janovich and Ray crawled passed the opening in the downed wall. Scanning the area, he followed. Too bad the targets would be taken out cleanly. For this, they should suffer; they needed to suffer.
“We’re in position, Sergeant-Major,” Robertson whispered in his earpiece.
“Status of targets?” He crawled across the dirt and rocks poured in through the collapsed retaining wall before jumping to his feet and closing in on his men. The dog raced ahead and waited by the next opening.
“Still alert on the rooftops. Down in the grass, Priority one has dressed for his funeral and seems to be using original quarry as a punching bag. In the pens, the targets are clustered in four groups.”
Good, let the bastard suffer. Too bad it couldn’t last an eternity. He joined his men bunched up by the second collapse in the wall. Almost an entire section gone. Six whole feet of opportunity–for the bad guys–to pick them off. He eyed the packed dirt and followed it to a wooden board spanning the ditch.
Since someone took the time to roll out the red carpet, they would go in here.
“Any movement in the buildings?”
“Negative,” Robertson reported. “Looks like they’re making it easy for us.”
Yeah, because that’s what assholes did, make it easy to take them out. David waited for his balls to draw up tight or the skin between his shoulder blades to itch. Maybe this wouldn’t be a FUBAR moment. “Vegas. Singleton.”
The single word shot adrenalin into his body. Muscles warmed, pain disappeared. He stalked to the front of his men and double-checked his M203. “Take ‘em out.”
The dog crouched low. His muscles shuddered as he waited to take off.
The report of two rifles bled into each other until they sounded as one.
“Priority One is down.”
After he slid his optic onto his rifle, David’s heart picked up tempo. The M-4 settled into his arms like a favorite lover. His senses opened, feeding everything to his brain–the lazy path of an incoming fly, the burble of the water in the ditch, and the sweet anticipation in his mouth.
A second duet cracked across the valley. Then a third.
“Quad is clear.”
After two more blended shots, he rushed through the opening. The dog sniffed the air, caught a scent and leapt the ditch.
Wood thudded under his boots and the board bounced as he sprang across the ditch. Ten feet to the parking lot. Thunder rolled over the next volley.
“Galley chickens are running in all directions.” Robertson chuckled.
Gravel crunched under his boots. The dog panted. Seventy yard across the parking lot to the auditorium’s covered entrance.
“More like fish in a net,” Michaelson added his own bastardized cliche.
In his peripheral vision, he saw Vegas and Singleton hustle across the open parking lot, heading for the football field. Sixty yards to go. Thirty-three yards until he could use his grenade launcher. Bullets sprayed asphalt chips at his feet. The dog yipped.
“We’re taking heat.” He spat into his microphone. There were fuckers inside.
“Roger that.” Michaelson returned. “I’ve got movement three up, two left.”
Third floor, second window from the left. David glanced up. The auditorium was one solid wall of red brick. What the hell? Where was the shooter?
“I haven’t got a shot,” Michaelson growled. “The bastard is popping up and down like a weasel.”
“Got him.” Folgers squeaked in the headset.
He felt more than saw the private stop. White light winked from the second floor of the school building. Well, damn, he was looking in the wrong place. A red bead raced across the white stucco.
The weasel popped his head up.
Folgers found the target’s right eye, then his bullet found his skull.
“Game on, Folger.” Robertson spoke. “Maybe next time you can play with the big boys.”
Fifty yards. He began to breathe through his mouth and sited the glass front of the auditorium. Another red ball played on the glass ten feet from him.
“Damn it.” Michaelson swore. “The targets are taking hostages.”
“How many are left?” At forty yards, he pulled the trigger of the grenade launcher. He felt the recoil tear the stitches in his shoulder. The dog slowed, keeping pace. Warmth trickled down his chest. With a hollow k-thunk sound, the explosive arced from his weapon. A second one joined it.
“Three.” Robertson shouted. “Fuckers are hiding behind the naked women. I can’t get a lock.”
Faster. He pumped his legs harder. His men drew abreast of him. His round punched the glass and exploded. The second one landed a foot from the box office before going off. Glass bowed before splintering and blowing inward. The deadly slivers left the twisted metal frame dusted with sharp-edged glitter.
“Me neither.” Michaelson’s frustration prowled the space between them. “Come on. Come on, ladies. Get out of the way. Give me a clear shot.”
He didn’t urge them to keep trying. They would. Adjusting his hold on his M-4, he dumped the spent shell and reached into his pocket for another.
Folgers hit the first floor doors of the classroom building. Ray aimed higher, hitting the second story landing. The stuccoed balustrade showered the yellow grass with chunks of plaster and wire mesh.
David pressed against the outside wall and closed his eyes. What he wouldn’t give for a pair of IR goggles right now. He heard his crew fall in beside him, including the dog. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and opened the remains of the door. Metal squealed. He stepped inside, grinding to glass to sand under his boots. Well, it wasn’t as if the assholes didn’t know they’d made the Army’s most wanted list. “We’re entering the class rooms. First floor.”
“Roger that.” Robertson interrupted his humming to answer. “Holy shit!”
He aimed straight then right as he stepped into the hallway. The dog snaked around his legs, sniffed the ground and then the air, then the ground again. Boxes crammed the space, reducing the aisle from six-foot wide to two. They’d stolen all the meals ready to eat. God knew where the medicine had gone.
“We’re clear of the bleachers.” Vegas’s spoke just before a gunshot echoed through his mike. “
David’s heart stilled but his body kept moving to the right and the wing of classrooms. “Report!”
The dog stared at the corridor where Ray and Janovich searched.
The sound of heavy breathing amplified inside his ear.
“That’s right, you beautiful ladies.” Robertson laughed. “You kill the bastards that kept you in there.”
Michaelson chuckled. “You can stop cowering, Vegas and Singleton. The women are taking care of the last three targets.”
He cleared the classroom on the right, while Folger worked on the left side. Only the scent of floor cleaner stirred in the empty space. Where were the desks and chairs?
“Oh! Did you see that?” Robertson gasped and another gunshot rattled the window. “She shot another one.”
“He’s not dead.” Vegas huffed. “She shot his dick off.”
“Damn, remind me not to piss that one off.”
“Ma’am? Ma’am?” Vegas raised his voice on the last word. “Can you put the gun down?”
David finished his sweep of the classrooms. Empty. All of them. “Someone ask them how many bastards there were.”
After meeting with Folger in the corridor they headed back to the entrance. Ray and Janovich were three-quarters of the way down the hallway. The dog darted ahead before stopping at the last classroom. He laid down on the floor and stared at the door.
“Yes, ma’am. We’re here to help.” Vegas kept his voice monotone. “Could you give me the weapon? The weapon… Thank you.”
He jogged passed the open doors of the rooms his men had already cleared. Beds sat in the center of the rooms. He didn’t want to know what they assholes had done with the blood-stained ropes, chains and belts that lay like dead serpents on the white floor.
“We got a locked one, Sergeant-Major.” Ray stood outside the second to last classroom on the north side. Behind him, Janovich aimed his M-4 at the faux wooden door.
“There seems to be a consensus that there’s twenty-five bad…” Vegas caught himself. “Bad guys.”
He added up the numbers in his head. They’d eliminated thirty-six targets so far. The math was off. Either some had kept hidden or they’d added a few new recruits–bad apples had a way of spoiling the whole bushel.
“Roger that.” They would have to search the rest of the grounds. He glanced at the dog. And he knew just where to start. Nudging Ray to the side, he waited for the other two to take their positions before kicking the door open. His knee twinged at the impact then girls squealed.
Slim young bodies in adult satin collapsed against the wall. Metal clanked as they slid like beads on a string along the chain that held them in place. They cowered in a heap in the corner farthest from him.
After scanning the empty room, David removed his finger from the trigger and lowered his weapon. “Just hold on, girls, and we’ll get you out of here.”
“We’ll finish this floor.” With one shot, Janovich popped the loop bolting the chain to the wall, then turned on his heel and left. Folgers dashed out on his heels.
The girls looked at him then the chain then back again. Great. Statues. “Slide the chain off then line up in twos behind me. We’ll remove the handcuffs once we get back to camp.”
The first girl in the line stood frozen. The dog loped into the room and bumped the leg of the first girl. With his nose, he nudged her hand atop his head. She blinked.
The second one eased the chain from their handcuffs and set her hand on the statue’s back. “It’s a dog!”
“That’s good. Help each other follow the dog. He’s a nice doggie.” The German shepherd accompanied him to the door. The girls shuffled behind him. Pausing he peered into the hallway. Folgers stood near the exit. He waved the dog onward. “Robertson, how far is it to the convoy?”
“Dammit, Big D. The Marines are two clicks out. Four trucks. Leave it to the jar-heads to arrive after the fighting is over.”
David glanced over his shoulder into the haunted eyes of the girls. The fight was far from over.