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"Does this place have a name?" Calvin James asked.
David McCarter, the lean, fox-faced Briton and former SAS operator who was leader of Phoenix Force, gulped the last of a can of Coca-Cola, crushed it and tossed the can behind the passenger seat of the MRAP. From the driver's seat, James shot him a disapproving look, which McCarter met with a measured stare. Finally the lanky black man from Chicago's South Side allowed a wide grin to split his features.
"According to the chart," Rafael Encizo said from the rear of the MRAP, "it doesn't. This village isn't even supposed to be here." He checked his satellite phone again, which was patched to a feed from thermal imaging satellites overhead. The delay was considerable, but what the stocky Cuban-born guerrilla fighter was observing was essentially a real-time top-down image of the target coordinates. "I'm showing a huge drop-off near one corner of the village, though. Probably part of the natural mountain formation."
"Got it," James said. "I'll try not to drive us over any edges."
Phoenix Force, the covert international counterterrorist team headquartered at the top-secret Stony Man Farm, had split its five members between the Farm's two prototype MRAP vehicles.
The MRAPs had been modified and customized by John "Cowboy" Kissinger, the Farm's Armorer. Each Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle was a four-wheel-drive armored personnel carrier with a V-shaped chassis designed to deflect explosives. The armor offered protection against 7.62 mm armor-piercing rounds and even rocket-propelled grenades. The body of the MRAP was, in fact, touted as "blast proof," although McCarter had his doubts about that.
Powered by Caterpillar C-7 diesel engines coupled to Allison automatic transmissions, the heavy vehicles boasted 330 horsepower. They had both driver's-side and passenger's-side doors, as well as rear hatches for the troop compartment, while a roof hatch allowed access to the armored machine gun mount on the roof. McCarter's MRAP sported a 7.62 mm M-240 medium machine gun, while the vehicle behind it mounted a MK-19 automatic 40 mm grenade launcher.
In the rear vehicle were the stolid, soft-spoken Canadian giant, Gary ManningPhoenix Force's burly demolitions expert, once a member of an antiterror squad of the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeand T. J. Hawkins, the youngest member of the team. Hawkins had been both a paratrooper and an Army Ranger before he was recruited to Phoenix Force.
McCarter took his own secure satellite phone from his web gear and reviewed the mission data once more. It contained, among other things, a file that listed a series of coordinates. These were all sites at which the Pakistani and Indian military forces had come into conflict, despite a ceasefire that was supposed to portend peace and prosperity for the region. That had been the general idea, anyway. McCarter had about as much faith in political rot such as that as he did in the supposedly bomb-proof hull of the vehicle in which he sat. Promises were nice, but as an American president had once said, "Trust, but verify."
A pair of thermal imaging satellites over this part of the world had been "borrowed" by Aaron "the Bear" Kurtz-man and the Stony Man cybernetics team, re-tasked to monitor the upper Kashmir region and its bordering territory. It was through those satellites that the Farm was tracing the pattern of military skirmishes between the neighboring countries. Yet both nations claimed it was the other country doing the initiating. Neither would admit to having taken part voluntarily.
The President was worried about the stability of the region. Responsibility for shoring that up fell to Phoenix Force.
The assignment was simple enough. Phoenix was being sent in as a spoiler. They were to find an area, or areas, of localized Pakistani-Indian conflict, then neutralize that conflict to the best of their ability. McCarter had no illusions about what that meant. Apparently some UN peacekeeping troops had already been sent in, per a resolution from the United Nations itself, in an attempt to enforce the ceasefire. A good deal of power players in the international community, McCarter gathered, had been involved in getting the Indians and the Pakistanis to stop shooting at each other over Kashmir. The "world community"a term that had always struck McCarter as ridiculoushad decided to send in several units' worth ofjoint peacekeeping forces.
The soldiers had never returned. Not alive, anyway.
Whether by the Indians, the Pakistanis, or caught between the cross fire of the two, the UN troops had been ground to pieces in this cold, mountainous battleground. Now Phoenix Force, outnumbered by an order of magnitude, was being sent in to meddle in the same nasty business. There would be no friendlies on the field. The troops of both India and Pakistan could be expected to shoot to kill, to ask any questions after the fact. McCarter was not going to let Phoenix Force be taken out so easily. That's why they were traveling in the armored MRAPs and loaded for bear where their personal weapons were concerned.
Each man of Phoenix Force was equipped with his usual pack and kit, including an earbud transceiver connecting him, through his satellite smartphone, to the other team members. Each man also had a modular Tavor assault rifle with a 40 mm grenade launcher under the barrel. The GTAR-21 rifles were equipped with quick-acquisition reflex sights and 30-round magazines. Their cyclic rates had been adjusted by Cowboy Kissinger, who rated them at roughly 800 rounds per minute.
In addition to the Tavors, each Phoenix Force team member had been issued a Ka-Bar-style full-size, fixed-blade combat knife and a Glock 19 handgun, although McCarter had insisted on a Browning Hi-Power. He and Kissinger had argued about it for quite some time, in fact, as Kissinger rightly argued for standardization among team members. McCarter simply could not abide any other pistol. He fought best and hit most accurately with the Hi-Power. He refused to compromise unless absolutely necessary.
Gary Manning, as the largest member of the team, had also opted to carry a heavy RPG-7 launcher and a supply of HEAT, or High Explosive Anti-Tank, warheads. These would provide them with additional range and better penetration when attacking enemy APCs. Anything more than an armored personnel carrier, such as a tank, would generally be too well armored for the RPG to touch, but they would, as one of McCarter's old SAS chums had been fond of saying, "burn that bridge when they came to it." The warping of the old turn of phrase was deliberate. McCarter always pictured running across a flaming bridge with gunfire at his back.
Certainly his life with Phoenix Force was no less "interesting" than that.
"Interesting" indeed described the situation in which Phoenix found itself. It would be caught between two hostile forces, neither of which would hesitate to shoot the team down and leave their bodies in a mass grave. At the same time, McCarter had spent enough time in the business of war to know that the troops against which Phoenix would be arrayed were just mortal men. Some would be decent human beings. Others would be less so. That was the hell of war, and the reason that no man took up arms unless he had to. McCarter would take no pleasure in taking out Pakistani or Indian troops in putting out this brush-fire conflict, but he would do it because it was necessary.
Then, too, there was the fact that the UN peacekeepers had been slaughtered. It would probably be impossible to verify who was most responsible for that, but if McCarter had to guess, his combat instincts told him both sides had probably factored into it. While many people made fun of UN peacekeeping troops and their baby-blue berets and helmets, McCarter had served with joint task forces before. He knew that, just as those on the enemy side of the battle lines, the forces making up a UN team were only as good, or as bad, as the soldiers pulled into service to do the job.
He'd seen the rosters of the dead, thanks to the Farm's excellent intelligence-gathering. Good men and even a few women had died as part of that peacekeeping force. The most likely scenario was that they had been caught in a cross fire between the Indians and Pakistanis. That would have resulted in the kind of carnage documented by the search-and-rescue team the UN had sent in.
Precisely where Phoenix Force was headed.
Where previous soldiers had failed, Phoenix Force would succeed. It was what they did. It was how they lived. But McCarter would not be glad to put down the rabid dogs that would get in their way. It was a necessary service, one that had to occur. But a man took no pleasure in killing rats that carried disease. He simply eliminated the rats because they were dangerous.
This was the most complicated part of Phoenix Force's rules of engagement. Technically an attack on forces fielded by India or Pakistan was an act of war. But both nations had repeatedly claimed they were not tasking armed forces to engage in conflict in the region. Somebody was lying or everybody was lying, but "the forms had to be obeyed," as Brognola was fond of saying. Everybody had to play the game as if they believed the other bloke was telling the truth. The absurdity of it made McCarter want to grind his teeth.
Calvin James brought the MRAP to a halt. Manning, in the rear vehicle, did the same. Through the viewports the men of Phoenix Force surveyed the small village ahead, which lay across a winding, barely visible road of dirt and rocks.
"Comm check," McCarter said. In his ear, the voices of the other teammates sounded as they counted off. There was the slightest of delays when James and Encizo spoke compared to the transmission of their voices in McCarter's earbud. That was the satellite delay. It was very slight, but worth understanding. Timing was everything in combat. No, McCarter corrected himself. Timing and flexibility.
Enough wool-gathering, he told himself. It was time to put things in motion.
"All right, mates, let's roll forward. Make for the center of the village. Gary, follow us and break right when we reach the halfway to center point. Circle around on the right flank and keep that MK-19 warm."
"Roger," Manning said.
"Put it to the floor, Calvin."
"Oh yeah," Calvin James crowed, shifting the MRAP into drive. The powerful vehicle lurched forward, its heavy run-flat tires kicking up plumes of dust that matched those of the following truck.
"Ten o'clock," Encizo said, watching through his port. "I've got twono, three running from structure to structure. I saw at least one slung rifle, probably an AK."
"Copy," James acknowledged.
"Break left and follow him, Calvin," McCarter directed. "Gary, proceed as we discussed. We'll meet up back at the center of the village."
"Affirmative," Manning said.
The "structures" on either side, as the MRAP threaded its way down a side passage between the buildings, were a curious mixture of stone and "shanty modern" construction. Anything that could be employed to bolster the dwellings against the cold and wind had been done. There were sheets of corrugated metal and even layers of tarps lashed with wire. Windows, if there were any, were shuttered slits carved in the exteriors. No structure was more than a single-story tall. Many buildings, which McCarter guessed to be the older ones, exhibited less haphazard construction from stones and mortar. As they drove deeper into the village, the stone buildings began to predominate, which made sense.
Something struck the hull of the MRAP.
"What was that?" Encizo demanded. "It was the right rear panel. Was that a rock?"
"My money's on gunshot," James stated.
"I think it was a rock," Encizo argued.
More impacts struck the hull, and this time there was no mistaking the hollow metallic chatter of Kalashnikov-pattern assault rifles behind the fusillade. Encizo grinned as James shot him a glance and held out his hand, rubbing his fingers against his thumb.
"Where's my money?" James asked.
"We didn't get to that," Encizo said.
"Technicalities, technicalities," James said. He urged the MRAP faster. "Which way you want to go, David?"
"Circle this stone hut on our right," McCarter directed. "Rafe, get on the phone and have the Farm patch us through to the Pakistanis and the Indians. Give them our coordinates and ask them if they've got forces here."
"We're really going to play this game?" Encizo asked.
"Just think of them as very fast rocks until we hear otherwise," said McCarter.
"Whoa!" James shouted. "Contact front!"
The armored personnel carrier that rolled across their path bore the crossed-swords insignia of the Indian army. A machine gun turret at the top of the APC was wheeling in their direction.
"Back, back, swing left!" McCarter shouted.
"Aye-firmative," Calvin said. He hit the gas and the MRAP hustled back in a flurry of gravel and dirt plumes.
"One, this is Two," Manning said through the transceiver link. "We are taking heavy small-arms fire. Elements of the Pakistani military are coming up on our flank. I saw a tank with a green insignia. Swords under a crescent moon."
"That's Pakistan, all right," said McCarter. He looked back to Encizo. "Got that, Rafe? It's a party and everybody's invited."
"India says they don't have any units at these coordinates," Encizo reported. "No word from the Pakistanis yet."
The MRAP shook as an explosion nearby kicked up dirt and debris.
"That's a grenade launcher," Encizo noted.
"Keep her moving, mate," said McCarter. "Stay mobile. Keep the speed on until we get confirmation."
"David, we are moving in your direction," Manning reported. "Coming up on your four o'clock. They're herding us your way and we need to respond with force."
"That is a no-go. Repeat, a no-go," McCarter declared. "Two, use of force is not yet authorized."
"Understood," said Manning. "But if we don't get word soon we may be overwhelmed. Sooner or later they're going to hit us with something our armor can't take"
Whatever else Manning said was lost in the noise and vibration of McCarter's MRAP. They were taking machine-gun fire now, and nothing of too small a caliber. McCarter didn't think it was .50-caliber BMG or anything as potent as that, but neither was it something light. The MRAP's armor was up to the task so far, but he did not want to push it.
They had a lot of mission ahead of them before this was over.
"Bring us around," McCarter ordered. "We need to link up with Two and then find a quiet corner."
"Not that way!" Encizo shouted. James was starting to turn into what was a crowd of soldiers in cold-weather gear. They were using the corners of two of the older stone structures for cover.
"Back it up, back it up," McCarter urged.
James did so. But now the passage behind them was blocked by the Indian APC. Again the MRAP shook under its turret gun.
"Rafe? Any word?"
"Coming in now," said Encizo.
"Well?" James demanded.
"Pakistan states " Encizo said, listening, two fingers to his earbud.
"You are killing me, mate," McCarter said.
"No units at these coordinates," pronounced Encizo. "I repeat, the Pakistanis disclaim any involvement in conflict at these coordinates."
"Rafe," said McCarter, "get up there."
As James maneuvered the MRAP to get it out of the APC's line of fire, McCarter saw the second MRAP rocket between two buildings. More slowly, what the former SAS operator swore was a Type 88 Main Battle Tank pursued Manning's MRAP.
"Gary, on your six!" McCarter said.
The only answer was the thunder of the automatic grenade launcher atop Manning's vehicle. Several of the stone buildings on either side of the second MRAP were damaged as the explosions from the hail of automatically released 40 mm grenades filled the unpaved street with dirt, rocks and shrapnel.
Another metallic clatter, closer this time, banged the roof of McCarter's vehicle like a drum. That was Encizo on the machine gun in their own turret. Shooting the gap between two buildings that were little more than corrugated tin shacks, James managed to cut the angle close enough to get Encizo in a position to fire on the APC. As McCarter and James watched through their viewports, Encizo's machine gun fire blew apart the man in the APC's roof turret.