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I first saw them on the slip road. They were trapped in a muddle of traffic, jostling to get through, eager, anxious, impatient; the mood of the driver transmitted down through the steering wheel and the throttle into the jerking, pushy movements of the car. I'd watched them as we drove past with that dawning of unease that comes from instinct, and now they were behind us, framed in my rearview mirror, kicking up a plume of road dust as they wove through the morning traffic on the highway through Fallujah. Pickups loaded with workers on the open backs, loose-fitting robes snapping in the milky warm slipstream, moved to let the black BMW 7 Series charge through. They were like members of a herd making way for a big predator that had earmarked its prey farther into the throng.
I knew what was coming now just as the herd, watching from their pickups and battered sedans, did. They simply watched the pursuit with relieved interest, glad not to be the one pursued and hoping, above all, not to be noticed. To be honest, I'd known what was coming from the moment I'd seen the BMW, with its blacked-out windows, stuck temporarily on the slip road. It was typical, too typical, of the vehicles used by gangs of insurgents in Iraq, and as they loomed up in my mirror, I knew with utter certainty they were about to strike. But the difference was that I'm not one of the herd.
I used to be a warrant officer in the British SAS and now I'm a soldier of fortune. I'm a hired gun, a mercenary if you like, and I'm the man who was trying to keep the other four guys in the car alive on the drive from Jordan to Baghdad along the most dangerous road in the world, down the Fallujah bypass and around the Ramadi Ring Road. It's a route they call "the Highway to Hell."
There were four others in the car, a TV crew from a major UK network and a Jordanian driver, and as I watched that BMW gaining on us, all my senses combined to help me stay focused on keeping my clients and myself alive. I barely took my eyes off the mirror, leaving my peripheral senses to tell me if other predators had joined the chase, but as events unfolded, it was to be just us and them. Ahmed, my driver, had seen them, too, and I didn't have to tell him who they were. He started to mutter and jabber under his breath and I couldn't tell whether he was praying or cursing, only that he was terrified. He never usually perspired, but within seconds beads of sweat were running down his forehead and the side of his neck.
The BMW was cruising behind us, closely matching our speed, and that's always a real giveaway. They call it a "combat indicator" in the military, but I didn't need any indicators; I'd had a shit feeling about them ever since I'd spotted the BMW on the slip road.
Then they began moving up on us with evident hostile intent and I weighed in my hands the AK-47 lying on my lap for a moment before resting it back there again. I had my window open, but I closed it to hide behind its tinted glass. The BMW came up alongside us and the black window in the front came down like a theater curtain, revealing the driver and a guy who had the air of a man in charge sitting alongside him.
They cruised past us at a good speed, nice and steady, though, since they had nothing to worry about--it was their backyard, they were the top predator in the chain, and they were going to take their time. I guess they were thinking that maybe we were rich Iraqis or Kuwaitis, or that Japanese tourists would be nice--and yes, believe it or not, they do come sightseeing from Tokyo. The crew in the BMW would have loved the three-man Western TV crew on board--all that hostage money--and whatever happened, they'd have the camera kit and three satellite phones to sell. A real steal, and just for good measure, Ahmed would be slotted like a dog.
Ahmed kept on muttering under his breath and they were still in no hurry to put him out of his suspense as I watched them come alongside us a second time. Again they drew back behind us, only to spurt forward and come back alongside us yet again. Maybe they were enjoying their game of cat and mouse. The clients were sleeping off a hangover on the backseat. No need to wake them, I thought, nothing they can do about it.
Anyway, I had one advantage because our big GMC four-wheel-drive SUV gave me a view down onto the gunmen, and as I looked into the car, their back windows were lowered and I saw three armed men on the rear passenger seat. In the front, the driver was wearing a sick smile behind a shemag that had partly fallen away from his face; the guy alongside him had his shemag wrapped around his features as he leaned halfway across the driver to wave and gesticulate out of the window with his AK-47. I've got one of them, too, I was thinking, but I'm not showing it. His eyes were burning with hatred and disdain and he obviously wanted us to pull over, but I couldn't believe it when I felt us slow down as Ahmed, the man with most to lose if you count his life, actually began to obey.
"Fucking drive, Ahmed," I snarled at him. His foot went down again and we temporarily spoiled the synchronized driving display of the scumbag in the 7 Series, but they were soon backing us.
Ahmed was gibbering out loud in Arabic in a constant flow of verbalized terror as I looked through my tinted window at the four armed men in the car. Years of experience told me that their demeanor and the way they were holding their weapons meant that the last thing they were expecting was a real fight. They must have believed they had all the cards and that much sooner than later we'd be pulling over to the side of the road to deliver them their prize. I decided to keep my ace well hidden under the table, on my lap and out of sight.
They forged ahead again and the boss leaned across once more, but this time he shoved the AK in front of the driver and out of the window and let a burst go across our hood to encourage us to pull over. I fought hard with any idea of dropping my window and lifting my AK off my lap and into sight. Ace under the table was my lifesaving mantra at that moment, ace under the table. I pushed everything else out of my mind but my sight of the gunmen and the thought of the ace I would play. I knew what I had to do, because the next time he fired, the burst would pour directly into our vehicle and that would be a very bad thing.
I stared through my tinted window across the three feet of door metal and swirling dusty air that separated us and I could clearly see that the scowling gunman next to the driver was trying to eyeball me. I lowered my window as I looked back at him. I looked straight through him and then I did it. I played my ace, but even then I didn't lay it on the table. They never saw my cards. I just pressed my finger onto the trigger of the Kalashnikov still resting on my lap and let go a long burst of fire.
The familiar metallic clattering of an AK was indiscernible inside the car as it filled with the most terrible, deafening cacophony of sound. Clat! Clat! Clat! It seemed to go on and on, filling my world with an awful fanfare of destruction. Clat! Clat! Clat!
The armor-piercing assault rounds tore through our door and their door, too, in a microsecond, ripping metal and flesh without discrimination in the 7 Series. I watched the driver's head explode as the height difference of the two vehicles laid it on the line. The gunman next to him screamed, openmouthed in horror, all hatred and disdain wiped clean from his eyes by disbelief, as the assault rounds sliced into him, too, and tracked through his body.
CLAT! CLAT! CLAT! My finger still pressed the trigger and rounds kept tearing across that tiny three-foot space for another couple of seconds, until the BMW suddenly faded and fell back. I followed it in the mirror and saw steam and black smoke billowing from under the hood, so that I knew the end of my burst had smashed their engine block.
I watched the BMW start to fishtail and skid as our previously close contact became a surreal disconnection. We were still in traffic, but cars and trucks were now evaporating from the scene of the high-speed shoot-out with practiced ease. But my imperative wasn't traffic flow, and the critical thing was my certainty that the driver was dead and his boss was probably dead in the seat alongside him, too. As for the three gunmen behind them, they hadn't even had time to spit, let alone respond, and they were left impotent as the BMW spun out of control.
"Drive, fucking drive," I screamed at Ahmed, and he floored it as I turned to the correspondent and his crew, who were now sitting transfixed and deafened by sound and fury after the rudest awakening of their lives.
"Okay, guys?" I asked, barely able to hear my own voice. They nodded rigidly through the haze of acrid cordite that filled the car. I watched as their eyes kept wandering away from mine toward the gun still resting on my lap and then to the door alongside me and then back again. They were trying to work out why I hadn't fired through the window, why the door wasn't a mangled mess, just pierced by a series of neat holes marked out by flash burns. They were trying to work out why they were still alive.
"Welcome to Fallujah," I said, but they looked very pale and not another word was spoken until we reached Baghdad.
Our journey had begun at dawn that day when light welled up over the city, still cooling from the heat of the day before like a giant concrete radiator, and the haunting wail of the call to prayer floated down from a mosque tower over downtown Amman.
That chant of the muezzin to the faithful, the cliched sound track to every documentary ever made on the Middle East--you know exactly what to expect, but it still gets to you every time and never fails to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. These days, it never fails to set me on edge. It's become the theme song for episodes of death and mayhem and starts the day with an unwelcome reminder that a religion founded on a philosophy of order and mutual respect has been twisted into an alibi for murder and bombing.
I'd already showered and shaved and my kit had been checked, rechecked, and checked again; now it was ready to go, so there was nothing to do but get on with it. That constant checking of kit is an abiding theme in my life and it gets to be such a routine that I almost find myself looking into the mirror to check that I'm taking the right bloke on the job. I grabbed my small day sack with a survival kit in it, checked that I had my ID and passport, and then went downstairs to join the others in the hotel foyer.
The correspondent was seasoned, his cameraman an experienced guy who knew the ropes, and the soundman-cum-fixer was the third member of the crew. Ahmed was a veteran on the run.
I went through the drill with them. It always begins with the briefing--the "actions on," as the military call it--when I cover what they've got to do in the event of a road accident, an ambush, or a hijack. I stood there feeling like a member of the cabin crew going through the preflight emergency drill, while my clients, sprawled out on the hotel's leather sofas, looked just as bored as the average business passenger on a scheduled flight.
They smiled wanly when I got to the bit where I told them, "Remember, we don't stop at service areas; we piss on the side of the road. And we don't look at our dicks while we're doing it; we keep aware and look about us."
There were no women on that trip, but it would have been just the same for them, with a biological variation, of course, and the guys knew that I was serious when I told them, "There are service areas, but they're a no-no since a CNN crew stopped at one and got rumbled by insurgents. They were followed and a few rounds were fired through the back of the vehicle. The driver was killed and they were very lucky to get away."
It was time to go and they hauled themselves out of their seats and joined the pile of aluminum camera boxes stacked up under the front awning of the hotel, alongside the SUV.
"Hard cases up against the backseats, please," I told them, and the camera boxes were packed where they would afford at least some protection from any incoming rounds to our rear. The soft luggage--rucksacks and holdalls full of clothing--were piled in front of the hard boxes.
While the kit was being packed, the correspondent paced nervously up and down, as though he was rehearsing a piece to film. He'd been up drinking with the cameraman into the early hours and all they wanted to do was to get into the vehicle and go to sleep.
Meanwhile, Ahmed dragged on a foul-smelling cigarette, and I placed myself upwind of him, carefully watching the unfolding scene as the rising sun glinted off my mirrored shades. He's a nice guy, Ahmed, a family man who knows only too well that captured Jordanian drivers are always killed by insurgents. Why? Because they're not worth a bean on the hostage market, and anyway, they've betrayed Islam by chauffeuring the infidel invaders. Like all the Jordanians who daily risk their lives on the Baghdad run, Ahmed's either very broke or very brave, or, I suspect, probably both.
I pointed toward the hood of the SUV and he lifted it so that I could personally check the oil and the radiator levels. I even checked the windshield wash. Check and recheck--it's attention to detail that keeps you alive. I glanced at the tires, too, just to make sure they had some tread on them; then Ahmed turned the key in the ignition and I watched the needle on the fuel gauge rise to full.
"Thanks," I told him. "You happy with everything?" Ahmed smiled in reply and I turned to the TV crew. "All aboard, guys, time to roll. Just make sure you've got everything you need."