Consciousness came and went; the pain was constant. It was the day after the ambush. The flesh wound in Cruz’s right thigh still oozed blood and the entire right side of his body wore a purple-yellow smear of bruise. It hurt so bad he could hardly negotiate the raw landscape that strobed in and out of focus all around him in the harsh sunlight. But Ray Cruz, a gunnery sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, was one of those rare men with a personality of hard metal—unmalleable, impenetrable, unstoppable. Back at battalion, he was called the Cruise Missile. Once fired, he kept moving until he hit the target. Since 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion was a Special Forces–rated unit, it got all the cool jobs, and he was the go-to guy on patrol security, Agency snatch-and-grabs and various countersniper and IED problems. He ran Sniper Platoon. He was always there, in the shadows on the ridge line or the village roof—sometimes spottered up, sometimes not, with his SR-25, a beast of a .308 semiauto with a yard of optics up top—paying out survival for his people at long range in packages that weighed 175 grains apiece. He never missed, he never counted or cared about the kills.
Yet now, no one would confuse him for what he was. He was dressed in the loose-fitting, easy-flowing tribal garments of the Pashtun, the people of the mountains. He looked like Lawrence of Afghanistan. His brown face was crusty with beard and filth, his lips cracked. He wore sandals and a burnoose, obscuring his visage, and not one item of government-issue clothing. He was also among goats.
There were fourteen of them left. It is fine to love animals until you try to herd goats. The goats weren’t into team spirit. They free-ranged, somewhat raggedly, depending on need or whim, and Cruz was able to keep them moving roughly forward by constant screaming and beating with his staff. And when he swatted at them with the staff, the weight went to his damaged leg and a new blade of pain thrust up into his guts. They shat everywhere, without apparent effort or awareness. They attracted flies in clouds. They smelled of shit and blood and dust and piss. They babbled constantly, not so much a classic bah-bah-bah but more of a whiney singsong bleating, like kids on a long bus ride. He hated them. He wanted to kill them with the rifle under his robes, eat them, and go home. But he had a goddamned job to do and he could not make himself quit on that job. It wasn’t will or habit, it certainly wasn’t out of any notion of the heroic or Semper Fi or memories of Iwo and Chosin and Belleau Wood. It was just that his mind wasn’t organized in such a way as to consider alternatives.
The rifle shifted uncomfortably under his swirl of robes. It was a little lighter than the SR-25, a Russian-designed, Chinese-manufactured thing called a Dragunov SVD, with a skeletal wooden stock and a longish barrel, looking a little like an AK-47 stretched in a medieval torture machine. A battlefield pickup from some long-forgotten firefight that its owner came out of second-place winner, its strap bit into his shoulder and its rough surfaces gouged him as it slipped this way or that. It was awkward, a heavy piece of crudely machined parts, mostly metal, with knobs, bolts, buttons, ledges, and all sorts of things sticking out of it. It represented the Russian school of ergonomics that was “Fuck you, end user.” A Chinese 4× sight had been clamped on top with a strange range finder—it looked like a cartoon of a ski-jump slope—as part of the reticle information that only someone from an East-bloc culture could dream up. He hated it. Yet he was lucky to have it. And one magazine of ten 7.62 × 54 sniper-grade Chinese cartridges.
It was all he had left. He’d started with a spotter, an ample supply of food and water, and no bullet having blown six ounces of flesh off his leg. The trek the long way around to Qalat would only be three days in. After the shot, maybe a day of escape and evasion. Then his spotter would put in the call, and a Night Stalker would helo them out and they’d be back at FOB Winchester in time for beer and steak. And the Beheader, as Ibrahim Zarzi, warlord of the southeastern Pashtun tribes, opium merchant, prince, spy, charmer, betrayer, Taliban sympathizer, and Al-Qaeda liaison was known, would be sucking poppy from the root end first.
But it didn’t happen that way. Reality seldom follows mission-op outlines.
“Why send men, Major?” Ray had asked the battalion intelligence officer, the S-2, in the S-2 bunker, to an audience of the CO, the exec, and the Sniper Platoon lieutenant. “Can’t our Agency friends send a missile? Isn’t that what they do? Have some zen master pinball kid sitting in a trailer in Vegas flying a joystick take him out with a Hellfire?”
“Ray, I shouldn’t tell you this,” Colonel Laidlaw said, “but it’s your ass on the line, so you have a right to know. The Administration has tightened up on the missile hits. Too much collateral. The UN squawking. This guy’s complex is in heavy urban. You go all Hellfire on his ass, yes, you probably send him to his God. But you send two hundred other rug weavers along with him and you’ve got the New York Times violin section in full blast. These folks don’t like that.”
“Okay, sir. I can take him. I’m just worried about the E and E from Qalat. I want to get my guy out and also my own ass. Can we have Warthogs standing by to cowboy up the place if it gets tight? We won’t have enough firepower to shoot our way out of anything.”
“I can get you Apaches ASAP. Our Apaches. I don’t want to lay on Air Force Warthogs because I’ve got to go through too many chains of command and too many people have to sign off on it. It’s not all that secure.”
The marines liked the Air Force guys because they thought the A-10 gun tubs were so well armored the pilots had the confidence to get down to marine level before they started blowing shit up and killing people. They thought their own pilots lacked the killer instinct—and the armor—for nose-in-the-dirt flying. They hung far off, launched Hellfires, then went home and slept between clean sheets after martinis in the officers’ club. Some even had girlfriends, it was rumored.
So: no Hogs, maybe Apaches. That was it and it never occurred to Ray to come up with a turndown. If he didn’t do it, somebody else would, and whoever that somebody was, he wouldn’t be as good as Ray.
It had to be done. The Beheader—the nickname came because it was rumored he was the mastermind behind a kidnapped journalist who’d suffered that fate when he’d gone off on his own in Qalat to get the Taliban side of the story—was an eternal problem for marines in the southeastern operating area. When IEDs went off as command vehicles passed in resupply convoys, it was because the Beheader’s spies had infiltrated and knew how to ID the one Humvee out of twenty-five that carried brass. When patrols were ambushed, and major ops had to be launched to get them out of the trouble they’d gotten into, and the shooters had mysteriously vanished into nothingness, it was suspected they had simply ducked into the off-limits Zarzi compound. When a sniper dinged a CIA operations officer, when a mortar shell or an RPG detonated with far too much accuracy to be a random shot, when an Afghan liaison officer was found with his throat cut, all the signs pointed to the Beheader, who was in all other respects a wonderful man; a charmer; a handsome, well-educated fellow (Oxford, University of Iowa) with impeccable table manners who, when he allowed Americans, including high-ranking marine officers, into his home, boldly violated Islamic taboo by designating a liquor room, where a superb bartender made any drink you could imagine served under a little paper umbrella.
“I want this guy dead’r ’n shit,” said the colonel. “I had to fight command and the Agency to get a kill authorized. Ray, I’d love to push the button and watch the computer kids whack him, but it’s not going to happen. You’ve got to walk in, drop him with a rifle shot, and walk out.”
“Got it,” said Ray.
The shooting site had to be the roof of the Many Pleasures Hotel, across the street from the Beheader’s compound. Once a week, the man was predictable. At twilight on Tuesday—it was always Tuesday—he left the compound by armored Humvee and went into the Houri district, where he visited a nice young prostitute named Mindi, with eyes like almonds, hair the color of night, and ways and means beyond the imagination. And why didn’t he just move her in? Well, concubine politics. He had three wives and twenty-one kids, and already wives number one and three hated each other; his second concubine was plotting against his first concubine; all the women were lobbying incessantly for a trip to Beverly Hills; and what little domestic tranquility that could be had would be shattered by adding Mindi to the mix. Thus it was felt that not only her sexual skills but the fact that she was deaf and dumb gave the Great Man a peace and serenity unavailable in his own hectic home.
In any event, Tuesday at twilight, he predictably strode from his house to the vehicle, a distance of some ten yards. It was then and only then that he was vulnerable to a shot. Shooting suppressed from a little over 200 yards out, with just enough angle to clear the wall but still access the target, Ray could easily put a Chinese sniper bullet into the Beheader in his five-second window of opportunity. Chaos would ensue, and the militiamen in the bodyguard squad would have no idea where the shot had come from and would certainly begin firing wildly, driving people to cover. Ray and his spotter would fall back from the Many Pleasures Hotel, rappelling off the roof and making their way into the crowded Houri district, just a few blocks away, where they would go to ground. They’d just be two more faceless, bearded Izzies in a city full to bursting with them. The next night, they’d exfiltrate the city, make it to a certain hill about five miles to the south, and wait for the Night Stalker to come pick them up.
“It sounds easy,” said S-2. “It won’t be.”
On the first day, he and Skelton had passed a couple of Taliban patrols on the high track but attracted no interest from those wary fighters, whose gimlet eyes were used to piercing the distance for the sand-and-spinach digital camo of marine war fighters. The Tallys saw goatherders all the time, and if these two were a little more raggedy ass than most they saw, it didn’t register. They moved at goat pace, without urgency, without apparent direction, letting the wiry little animals eat, shit, and fuck as their goat brains saw fit, but generally moseying in the direction of the big market at Qalat where their thirty-five treasures could be sold for slaughter.
As part of their security procedure, Whiskey 2-2 avoided villages, slept without campfires, ate rice balls and unleavened sheaves of dry bread, and wiped their hands on their pants and shat without toilet paper.
“It’s just like the Sigma Chi house,” said Lance Corporal Skelton as they came to the top of a rise and found a tricky path down the other side.
“Except you don’t jack off as much,” said Ray.
“I don’t know about you, Ray, but I don’t need to jack off much. I had a real nice time with that blond goat last night. She’s a princess.”
“Next time, keep it down. May be bad guys in the vicinity.”
“She sure does moan, doesn’t she? Boy, do I know how to please a gal or what?”
The two men laughed. Lance Corporal Skelton didn’t have a Chinese sniper rifle under his robes and vests, but he did have ten pounds of HF-90M Ultralight radio, an M4 with ACOG, ten magazines, and a case containing a Schmidt & Bender 35× spotting scope. All that shit: he moved like an old lady.
They were in high plains country, trending north. The Paki mountains rose ahead, over the unseen border, mantled in snow and sometimes fog, more tribal territory where Americans couldn’t go for fear of execution upon apprehension. The land they negotiated was rocky and hardscrabble, clotted with waxy, tough, gray vegetation. Rocks lay everywhere, and each hill revealed a new landscape of secret inclines and defilades, and it was all brown-gray, coated with dust or grit. They were right on the border between the rising plains and the actual foothills, and out here it was desolate. Except of course they knew they were being watched and always assumed some Taliban was gazing their way through the scope of a Dragunov or a nice pair of Russian binoculars. So no American-jock crap as young athletic fellows are wont to do, no air jump shots or long, deep fantasy passes; no scooping up the hot grounder and firing to first. No middle fingers, no mock-comic “Fuck yous,” no hyperattention to hygiene, no acknowledgment that such things as germs existed or that Allah was less than supreme. Prayer mats, five times a day on the knees to Mecca; you never knew who was watching.
And, of course, somewhere up above lurked either a satellite or more likely a Predator drone configured for recon and riding the breezes back and forth behind a tiny turbocharged engine, so they were probably on monitors in living color in every intelligence agency in the free world. It was like being on Jay Leno, except for the Afghanistan part. So another sniper discipline was: don’t look up. Don’t look at the sky, as if to acknowledge that somebody was up there to watch over them.