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Camp Tornado Point, Anbar Province, Iraq
Two months later
Her nose burned as she inhaled the dry air, heavy with diesel fumes that barely masked the stench of the burn pit and the overpowering fragrance of night-blooming jasmine. To Camille Black it was the sweet scent of life on the edge, the smell of money, the perfume of Iraq. She coughed dust and smiled as she circled her new mine-protected personnel carrier, a six-hundred-thousand-dollar Cougar, admiring it as if it were a Ferrari. In this part of Iraq, it was her Ferrari. Its V-shaped underbelly made it look more like a boxy boat than a small troop transport, but it could channel away blasts that would rip open an armored Humvee. As she watched several troops saying short prayers and kissing pictures of loved ones, she ran her hand along the vehicle's side and sent off her own lonely prayer. She felt a blister in the desert-tan paint and she pretended to care.
Without warning, Drowning Pool's "Bodies" blared over the Cougar's sound system, heavy metal shifting the mood. All at once, the men put away their photos and got in each other's faces, shouting the song's angry words about letting bodies hit the floor. "Three! Four!" They counted with the lyrics, laughing and smiling, pumping themselves up for the night's combat mission, a mission that she, too, was supposed to be part of, even though at the moment it didn't feel that way to her. When the song was over, the operators slapped each other on the back in a bravado of brotherhooda brotherhood that Camille had grown up with.
She admired the men. Some of the operators wore the short beards and moustaches favored by Force Zulu and Delta Force and others sported shaved heads typical of Navy SEALs. All but one had more wrinkles than their active-duty counterparts and they all had fatter paychecks, Black Management paychecks that she had signed. They were the rock stars of the Iraq War. And they were hers.
The men's bodies moved with the heavy metal rhythm of combat as they groomed one another, inspecting each other's equipment, cinching their buddies' gear and slapping duct tape over loose straps. None of them seemed to notice as she walked into the shadows on the other side of the Cougar, smiling. There she quietly sang "Bodies" to herself as she felt for her extra magazines of ammo to make sure everything was there and accessible. She touched her USP Tactical pistol, then her knife to confirm positions and she tightened her webbing. After she checked her XM8 assault rifle, she was geared up, ready for action. And she was amped.
She circled back around the vehicle. By then the men had already crammed themselves and their war gear into the back of the Cougar, ready for a preemptive raid on what Black Management intelligence suspected was an insurgent safe house. As Camille approached the crew door, one by one each man stopped inspecting his weapon and stared.
But no one spoke to her.
She grabbed a rung and started to climb aboard. Her body armor and gear weighed her down, but she was determined to board without assistancenot that any was offered to her. It stung. All of her life she had trained with Special Forces operators and she knew what they thought about women accompanying them into combat. No matter how many times she had proven herself in battle, they never quite trusted her. She remained an interloper in their shadowy male world, the very one that she was raised to inhabit. She hoisted herself up, barely able to get her center of gravity far enough inside.
The men were tightly packed on benches along the side walls and they seemed to spread out a little more as she searched for space.
"Like it or not, boys, you need to make room for me."
"Put yourself down right here, sweetie." An operator grinned at her as he patted his thigh.
"You really want a lap dance from a woman with a Ka-Bar knife strapped to her ankle?" Camille smiled as she pointed to the Marine combat knife her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. "I'm game if you are."
He elbowed his buddy and they scooted aside. Camille Black took her place among the operators, pleased with herself.
In the twenty minutes since they'd left the base, no one had spoken to Camille. The Cougar's air conditioning was fighting the summer heat, but it was a losing battle. The air was warm and stale and the ride hard. A man with a scar the entire length of his right forearm sat across from her, staring at her, calculating something. She looked him in the eyes and he wouldn't look away or even blink.
His dark eyes looked intelligent, the wrinkles around them, experienced. He was bald and most of his face was clean-shaven, but taunting the Black Management dress code by several inches was a long narrow moustache and a thin veil of a beard that outlined his jawbone and came to a point well below his chin. As she studied him, she realized he could only be the operator known as Genghis.
Genghis studied her weapon. The lightweight assault rifle was a next generation kinetic energy system that the Army had hoped would replace the Vietnam-era M4 and M16 carbines until Pentagon politics killed the program. Camille loved its sleek design, molded polymer casing and clear plastic magazine. To her the XM8 seemed more like something used to blast space aliens rather than Iraqi insurgents. It had outperformed her expectations on the firing range and she couldn't wait to field test it, but more importantly, it was cool, jock-cool and it made her feel that way, too.
Genghis cleared his throat. "That's one sexy kit. Haven't seen that before here in the sandbox."
The men stopped talking among themselves and watched. Camille handed him the rifle. He weighed it in his right hand.
"Light enough for a girl, I see. So what's a little lady doing all dolled up with an XM8?"
"I know who you are." His teeth were stained from chewing tobacco. He tossed her the carbine. "There's never been a finer warrior than your daddy. Everyone agrees the Malacca incident never would've happened if Charlie had still been with his team where he belonged. It was a helluva blow to the unit when your mommy died and he chose to leave the Corps to raise his little princess."
"He raised a warrior, not a princess."
"We'll see, won't we?" Genghis reached for an empty plastic water bottle and spat tobacco juice into it. Brown sludge oozed down the side of the container and she turned away.
A few kilometers ahead on the potholed highway through Ramadi, Hunter's body moved with the beat of Metallica's "One" blasting through the Ford Expedition. The country sucked. His employer sucked. The mission sucked. Expecting high-stakes action, Hunter had left his beloved Marine Corps and faked his death to join Force Zulu, the Pentagon's new elite espionage and counterterrorism unit, but instead of daring raids with the latest high-tech equipment, he was sitting in an up-armored Ford Expedition, a spy undercover as a common mercenary working for Rubicon. He was one of the government's most highly trained operators, now crammed into a SUV with a bunch of bomb guys on his way to do a job that a bunch of first-year grunts could've accomplished. He'd stepped on enough toes over the years that military politics had to catch up with him sooner or later and damn him to this crappy assignment, spying on a military contractor that might have gone bad. At least he was playing ball and he was jazzed, ready for the game. He scanned the road ahead of them and noticed a small shadow moving on the overpass.
"Change lanes!" Hunter said, as the Expedition sped underneath the overpass. Froneberger, the driver, hadn't been in theater long enough to understand the danger above them. Hunter leaned over him, grabbed the wheel and turned it. Froneberger stomped the brakes and the SUV spun out of control. As they whirled around, the concrete retaining wall blurred in front of them, then a split second later the vehicle behind them streaked by. Hunter fought the driver's foot for control of the brakes as he struggled to steer. His thoughts raced and the seconds stretched. Everything seemed to move in slow-mo, except him. This was his favorite part of combatthe feeling that he could step out of time and act faster than light.
On the other side of the overpass, the vehicle weaved like a drunk as it came out of the spin. Hunter thought he saw something dark falling from above, the grenade that he had anticipated. An orange flash and a starburst of sparks exploded in midair. His ears rang from the loud bang and the vehicle rocked from the concussion, but the armored door held.
"Get us outta here! Now Froneberger!" Hunter said. He slid back into his seat, grabbed his AK-102 and cracked the door open. He sprayed the overpass with bullets, even though he knew haji was probably plastered to the concrete, spending quality time with Allah. The gunfire would keep him pinned down while the two other trucks in the convoy passed underneath. Then Hunter shouted at the top of his lungs, "Allahu akbar! Allah is great!"
He loved playing with their minds.
Titcomb leaned forward from the backseat and said over the blaring heavy metal, "Don't you want to go after himteach him a permanent lesson?"
"Nah, we've got to make sure we're first at the site. I'm determined to be there early. Black Management is muscling in on our turf and we need to kick ass and get out before they show. It wouldn't be pretty to run into Black Managementtrust me." At least that was the party line at Rubicon, but Hunter didn't believe it for a second and he knew it was more like the opposite. There were insurgent nests all over the country and he still hadn't figured out why Rubicon kept assigning him to take down targets just ahead of Black Management teams. Stella's shop did seem to have better local intelligence networks than Rubicon and had an edge at locating big arms caches, but he couldn't come up with an explanation that made sense unless someone in charge of contracts at the Pentagon or CIA was watching and Rubicon was simply trying to make itself look good at Black Management's expense. He would analyze it later. Right now he had a job to do.
Hunter stopped the convoy one click from the target. He shined an invisible infrared commander's laser pointer onto a satellite image and read it using his night vision goggles. The insurgent compound had one small building inside and it was ringed by a concrete wall with a single iron gate. In the mission briefing, the project manager had claimed that intel indicated that they should expect only light resistance. Without an advance recon team on the deck, Hunter felt blind, but Rubicon had refused to issue him one, claiming their forces were stretched too thin. He knew of a half-dozen qualified operators who were back at the base on "rack ops," snoozing away, so he suspected there were some things Rubicon's management preferred that no one observe. Maybe he would finally get the dirt on them so he could finish the suck mission and get back to the real action with his fellow Bushmen at Force Zulu. He had little respect for the overpaid contract soldiers who had left their country's service to become corporate warriors, contracted to anyone with the money for a private army. He couldn't wait to get away from them and back with his own kind. Why Stella would become one of them, he had a hard time accepting, even though he understood that, as a woman, she could never see any real action any other way.
He punched a couple of buttons on his handheld GPS to confirm that they had reached the target. The last thing he wanted to do was take down some goat herder's mud shanty by mistake like another Rubicon team had done a few nights ago. The backlit LCD screen glowed and he squinted as his eyes adjusted to the brightness.
"Get the headlights off and pull over." Hunter turned off the music, then spoke into his headset, relaying to the other vehicles orders to go black out. He looked in the rearview mirror at his men. Given a choice, he would have hired only one or two of them. The best operators gravitated toward the quality shops like Triple Canopy, Black Management and Blackwater. Rubicon snarfed up the table scraps without even bothering to do background checks. More than once he had heard troops bragging of the criminal records that they had left behind, including a South African who boasted that he was a bona fide war criminal.
"You know the game plan," Hunter said to the seven men in the SUV. "I want to breech the compound from two points. Froneberger, Titcomb, you're placing charges on the gate. Cronan and Reeves, think you can arrange for a nice big hole in the back wall? Shooters, take your heavy gun, climb up that dune and keep an eye on them." The two would stay at the rally point and provide cover with the PKM machine gun in case they were pursued by tangos.
"Got it, boss," Froneberger said. The others nodded.
"Let's do it," Hunter said as he opened the door. His body ached as he got out of the vehicle, pulling down the bottom of his flack jacket that had ridden up on him during the trip. The ceramic plate inserts made it hot and heavy, but comfort was not something he worried about in combat situations. He leaned against the SUV and popped a couple of Motringrunt candy. Since he'd been back in Iraq, it seemed he'd relied on that stuff even more than caffeine to keep him going.
He took his night vision goggles from his belt webbing. The Marine Corps always got the rest of the military's hand-me-downs and when even they were phasing out the PVS-7 NVGs Rubicon was issuing them. Cheap Russian weapons, old military surplus gear and rejects from the other playersRubicon must have been raking in the dough because they sure weren't spending much of it on the frontline troops.
He placed the awkward night vision goggles onto his head and suddenly the dark veil of night was lifted to reveal a blurry green world. His peripheral vision blocked out, he felt like he was looking through toilet paper tubes.
Everything appeared in orderno signs of tangos. So far the terrorists seemed to be bedded down for the night. He watched his explosives team work its way toward the target, dashing between spindly trees and scrub as they tried to conceal themselves. They were sailors and even though the Navy EOD school did turn out the best trained bomb guys, they seemed to skip over lessons in stealth. Only one of them really seemed to know what he was doing. Hunter laughed to himself as three of them ran straight toward their target, not bothering to approach on the oblique.
Squid. No wonder the Marines always had the urge to beat them upit was for their own goodsurvival training.
He took the night vision goggles off and rubbed his eyes. At first he wasn't sure, then he distinctly heard a truck engine coming from behind them. It sounded like the low growl of a tractor-trailer rig shifting gears. He hoped for a truckload of insurgents since he could easily ambush them and take them out, but his gut told him he wouldn't be that lucky. His greatest nightmare was Stellathe legendary Camille Blackriding along with her troops, nailing him as his Rubicon team poached Black Management's mission. Even though he had spent the past year on assignment infiltrating Rubicon, blowing his cover with them was the least he would have to worry about if she were along for the ride. He had stood her up a couple of weeks ago out of concern that Rubicon was becoming suspicious of him and the rendezvous might blow his cover. He knew she would still be fuming over it. The Marines might have coined the phrase No better friendNo worse enemy, but Stella was the one who really brought that to life.
The Black Management Cougar stopped behind the convoy. Camille was sure it was from Rubicon. For some bizarre reason, they had beaten Black Management to over a dozen job sites in just the past month. There were plenty of tango nests to go around and she couldn't imagine why they were doing it except to set her up at a time when both Black Management and Rubicon Solutions were trying to woo the CIA for another major no-bid contract. She waded through her troops, handed Genghis her XM8 and jumped out of the back. The extra pounds from her gear made her land hard and she felt the impact in her knees and hips. She really dreaded turning thirty.
A week earlier in a Herndon, Virginia boardroom, Rubicon executives in their thousand-dollar suits had denied ever muscling in on jobs assigned to Black Management, pointing out that there was ample work to spread among all of the private military corporations. That was trueand that was what made Rubicon's behavior all the more puzzling unless they were just trying to pull down her pants at a time she needed to look good. Then she had vowed that if she could ever prove Rubicon was poaching her sites, there would be war between the two private armies. Now she had caught them in flagrante delicto and she stomped across their first battlefield, ready to engage the enemy.
The Rubicon mission commander left the lead SUV and hurried toward her. She noted a familiar smooth gait, but couldn't see his face well enough to recognize him. Still, there was something about himhe walked like Hunter, she realized. She told herself it couldn't be him because his chest stuck out more than usual, but she knew ceramic plates in body armor could account for that. What the hell was he doing there, leading the Rubicon raiding party?
"Rubicon's not getting away with this anymore. I don't know what the hell you're up to, but stand down and get the fuck out of my way."
The commander now jogged toward her.
It couldn't be him, but it was. "You? I can't believe this."
"Quiet," Hunter said in a low voice. "We're in black out."
"Noise discipline because of a flat tire? Right. Don't worry. We're upwind of the target," she said, lowering her voice just in case.
"We're transferring an HVT and one of our vehicles got a flat. This really isn't what it seems."
"Nothing with you is what it seems. You say you love me; we're getting marriedthen you stage your death. You say you love me; we'll meet in Dubai and you'll make things rightthen you stood me up last weekend. And nownow you're working for the enemy, raiding my assignments, trying to ruin my company. I suppose you still love me?" Camille pulled her USP Tactical sidearm from its holster and pointed it at him. He had hurt her enough.
"Not now," Hunter said.
"And you're playing contract soldier now? I thought you despised us mercs. Guess you'll go to any lengths to screw me over, won't you?"
"Trust me. More than anything on this earth, I love you, Stella."
"And I love you, too." She squeezed the trigger and it felt good. Real good.
Hunter fell backwards and hit the ground. His troops piled out of the trucks, training their weapons on Camille. She holstered her gun, then held her clenched fist in the air, signaling her forces not to move.
He keyed his mike and spoke as he pushed himself up from the desert floor. "Stand down. Situation is under control. Repeat. Stand down. Situation is under control."
"The situation is not under control," Camille said.
"You bitch. It could've pierced the Kevlar if I didn't have the SAPI plates in. Did you ever think that it might've ricocheted off the plates and blown my fucking chin off?"
"Don't be such a girl. Besides, your chest looks like Mighty MouseI knew you were wearing them. Next time you can count on it that I won't be shooting at your ceramic plates."
"You blew my opsec."
"What operational security? I thought you said you were just changing a flat?"
"Stella," he whispered. "You have to trust me. It's not what it looks like. I am on your side. Please don't blow my cover. Make it look like this is only a turf war. Act like you don't know me."
"I don't know you." Camille shook her head. She was glad tears evaporated almost instantly in the arid desert.
A rapid pop of automatic gunfire erupted from the direction of the insurgents' compound.
"You have men down there?" Camille never let personal issues compromise her professionalism. When the shooting started, the private militaries were all on the same side.
Hunter nodded as he ordered his shooters on the dune to give them cover fire. The medium machine gun roared.
"You're rolling with me," Camille shouted. "I don't want you out of my sight. Radio your troops to fall in behind us." She turned and sprinted toward the Cougar. When she reached the back of the vehicle, three hands reached out to help her up.
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