His war is over and former special forces captain Gerry Gallen is enjoying the relative peace of running a cattle ranch in Wyoming. But when he's asked to lead a team to Jordan to retrieve his wartime sergeant, he agrees. Landing in Amman, Gallen re-enters a world of Arab gangsters, American mercenaries, and the constantly shifting loyalties of the CIA. And watching over his every step is the lethal presence of Hamas – a daily reminder that Gallen is working under the constant threat of death. Nothing about the gig is what it seems and as Gallen realizes that his former boss has stolen 3 million dollars from some powerful locals, the specter of Iraqi aggression rears its head. But why are neo-Baathists chasing Gallen? And what do they want with the cargo he is carrying? Hunted, beaten and trapped, Gerry Gallen is a man running two races. Can he break clear before lightning strikes?
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By Mark Aitken
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Mark Aitken
All rights reserved.
Fourteen minutes into the third period Gallen found the watcher. He was sitting five rows back and about seven seats south of the halfway line at the Sublette County Ice Arena. From his vantage point in the visitors' team box Gallen had a direct line of sight on the guy across the floodlit hockey arena. The yells of the hockey fans filled the Wyoming night but the heavy-set African American who'd stalked to his seat early in the first period breathed shallow through his nostrils and showed more interest in the visitors' box than the game between Sheridan Hawks and Pinedale Glaciers, two high school teams.
Taking his eyes from the watcher, Gallen got back to the job and refocused on Dave McCain, the Hawks' star centre, who sucked on a water bottle as Gallen crouched at his right shoulder.
'This Houseman prick ain't such a genius,' said Gallen, hoping the coach, Billy Higgins, couldn't hear him cussing about the Pinedale centre who'd been causing so many problems for the Hawks. McCain's momma was a Christian and Billy didn't want her having an excuse to pull Dave out of the team. 'He's letting his left wing drift in front of him with the puck, and when the winger gets checked this Houseman is taking the puck forwards with momentum and there's a hole up the middle.'
McCain, a high school senior with college potential, nodded. 'Maybe I'll hold back, let someone else make the check on Houseman, right, Mr Gallen?'
'And make sure your right wing is man-on-man with their left.' Gallen stood and patted McCain on the shoulder. 'Just wait for Houseman to accelerate into the channel and come forwards, knock that little prick on his ass.'
A whistle blew above the yells and a roar of approval rose from the home fans. The ref had called a hooking penalty on a Hawks player and the 4–3 advantage to the Glaciers was starting to look strong.
Billy Higgins moved adjacent to Gallen. 'Shit, Gerry. We're getting killed by the calls — this ref from the Blind Institute?'
Dwayne Marsh came in off the ice to start his penalty and sat on the bench heaving for breath, questioning the ref's relationship with his mother. The rest of the Hawks told him, 'Way to go, Dwaynie,' and, 'Forget that blind cocksucker.'
Gallen stamped his feet to get some warmth into his boots; the game clock said four minutes to go. He turned back to Higgins. 'We need to stop Houseman. He's killing us more than the ref.'
Higgins' moustache moved up and down with his gum-chewing. He was a cattle farmer who dressed in a suit every Saturday night to coach the team. 'You told Dave that?'
Dave McCain turned in his seat and looked up, sweat pouring out of his helmet, down his face. 'Sure, Coach — we gotta use man-on-man with their left wing, and I'll hold back, make a run at Houseman when he comes through.'
Higgins gave Gallen a knowing look. They'd played high school hockey together twenty years ago and while Higgins was a classic grinder — the hard-working defenceman on which a team was built — Gallen had been coached by his dad, Roy, and his style was inventive, cunning and a little dirty.
The Glaciers were changing two players so Higgins clicked his fingers at Dave McCain. The centre spat between his skates and stood.
'Marty,' screamed Higgins at the ice, his big face purple with exertion. 'Come in.'
The players swapped mid-flow as the power play started: five players now on the ice for the Sheridan Hawks against the full six for the Glaciers. A scuffle started against the boards before Pinedale could properly use their advantage, and as the ref broke it up, Gallen watched the mystery man in the crowd stand and edge along his bleacher, the hockey fans leaning back and forth like metronomes to keep their eyes on the ice.
The crowd booed as the referee sent a Pinedale player to the penalty box. With both teams down to five players, the game restarted with a quick face-off in the Hawks' defensive zone. Dave McCain swooped on the spilled puck, beat one man and drove up the ice, offloading to his left winger who swerved towards the boards and squeezed past a too-brutal attempt on him.
'Oh no,' said an elderly woman behind the Hawks' box as Dave McCain received the puck and slapped a shot at goal without even pausing to line it up. It hit the back of the net and Gallen whooped as he felt Billy Higgins' heavy arm slap around his neck. The scoreboard said 4–4 and three minutes to play.
'Shit, Gerry,' said Higgins, jumping on the spot. 'Shit!'
Higgins had taken over the high school squad for the Hawks having had a mediocre season with the bantams the previous season. He was hated by some of the hockey faithful in Sheridan because he came from Clearmont, which meant he may as well live in Gillette. With a 0–2 start to the season, he needed this game, which was why he'd talked Gallen into being his assistant coach, and why Gallen had accepted.
The crowd built to a hometown roar as the ref brought the puck to a centre ice face-off, and Gallen felt the old excitement grip in his jaw and clench in his fists. There was nothing in the world like going into the last couple of minutes of a tied hockey game and for a split second he wanted to be out there.
The Hawks sitting on the bench thumped their sticks into the boards as the crowd yelled and the puck spilled out of the face-off. Two boys chased it to the boards and a Glaciers defenceman got behind a Hawk and rammed him chest-first into the plexiglass. The ref called play on and Billy Higgins had a meltdown. 'You see that, Gerry? That was a minor, right there.'
A voice bellowed from Gallen's right; it was Ernie du Toit, the Pinedale coach. 'Nothing wrong with that check, Billy — nothing a bunch of girls couldn't handle.'
Gallen stopped Higgins moving towards du Toit, pointed him back at the game.
'Plenty of time for Ernie,' said Gallen.
Patting his old friend on the shoulder, Gallen cast his eyes across the opposite bleachers. The watcher was nowhere to be seen.
'Charlie, get ready.' Higgins slapped one of his players on the back.
The boy called Charlie didn't acknowledge. The entire bench was leaning forwards as the Pinedale Glaciers moved up the ice from their defensive zone, their signature move about to be executed by Darren Houseman. The Pinedale left winger took the puck from Houseman and angled back to centre ice as Houseman skated in behind him. Gallen was about to yell at McCain to pull back but the Hawks' centre was already slowing up, pulling back from the line and calling in his right wing to make the check on his opposite number. Houseman accelerated towards the puck that was laid back by his left wing and poured through the hole in the line as Dave McCain skated straight at him at full speed. Houseman, who'd already made this move work several times in the game, looked up to see the white Sheridan jersey filling his vision. The crowd gasped as McCain dropped his shoulder and swung his hips, sending Darren Houseman into the air, mouthguard flying, and landing on his helmet with a sickening crack.
Seeing the puck at his feet, McCain slapped it to his left wing and skated up the ice, taking back the puck in front of the Pinedale goal and, having wrong-footed the goalie, edged in what looked like an effortless goal.
Beside them Ernie du Toit was screaming at the ref for a penalty as the Pinedale players helped Houseman off the ice.
'Nothing wrong with that challenge, Ernie,' yelled Billy Higgins through cupped hands. 'Nothing a bunch of girls couldn't handle.'
The locker room looked like a battlefield as Gallen went from boy to boy, giving each a few words of analysis and encouragement. It was the role Billy wanted him taking with the team, so the head coach could work on strategy and administration. One of the last on the visitors' benches was Dave McCain, his mouth slack with exhaustion, down to his thermals and nursing a big ice-pack on his left shoulder.
'Nice tip with Houseman,' said the eighteen-year-old.
Gallen smiled, seeing himself in this plucky kid. 'You handled it perfectly. It was a totally legal hit.'
'Glad the ref saw it like that,'cos du Toit don't.'
'The only thing that matters is that scoreboard, Dave,' said Gallen. 'Du Toit don't mean shit.'
'Coach didn't think so,' said McCain, swigging on a Gatorade.
'What do you mean?'
The kid shrugged. 'Du Toit came to the door while you were in the john. Coach left with him.'
'Christ,' said Gallen, standing.
There was a crowd of beer drinkers in the car park as Gallen burst out of the players' entrance, the cold hitting him in the V where his Bauer down jacket fell open. Pushing through a ring of rednecks in Carhartt jackets and lace-up boots, Gallen was in time to see a spritz of blood fly through the night air and Billy Higgins stagger against a ten-year-old Silverado. Du Toit — his suit jacket draped on a car hood — moved surprisingly lightly on his thick legs and threw a big right which Higgins ducked before swivelling to his left and throwing a fast overhand left punch into du Toit's ear.
The Pinedale coach sagged slightly, his hands rising to cover up, and Higgins regained his balance, grabbed the bigger man by the shirt collar and started an old-fashioned hockey pummelling: no art or style, just a cattleman's right hand pumping back and forth into his opponent's face.
After nine unanswered shots, Higgins stopped and left Ernie du Toit with his hands on his knees, blood cascading onto the wet concrete, steam shooting from his busted mouth. Grabbing his jacket from one of the drunks, Higgins saw Gallen and made for him, checking his own nose for blood as he walked.
'Sorry' bout that,' said Higgins. 'Ernie needed my opinion on something.'
A tall cowboy with a Willie Nelson beard tried to drop a shoulder into Gallen, saying something about 'Clearmont homos' and 'Sheridan County faggots'. Giving the bearded guy a smile, Gallen tried to push through with Higgins in tow but the cowboy reached for Gallen's collar. Reacting instinctively, Gallen slapped down on the man's elbow crook, pulled his wrist back in a twist and brought the man to his knees in a fast ikkyo. Hearing the tendons snap in the man's forearm and wrist, and the gasping screams begin, Gallen knew he'd overreacted. He'd been trying to detune from life in the field but it wasn't always easy — even the basic Aikido self-defence moves taught to recon Marines were not intended to score points at a tournament; they were designed to incapacitate.
Letting go of the man's useless wrist, Gallen turned to face the crowd: at least nine, some sober enough to fight, others drunk enough to try. A beer can sailed over his head and Gallen felt Coors splash his face as his assailant's sobs echoed around the car park.
'This is over, fellas,' said Gallen, in the voice he used to use when the men had been drinking. 'Let's shut it down, huh?'
Snowflakes drifted through the floodlight beams and Gallen knew it was time to go. As he turned towards the locker room with Billy, he sensed movement before he saw it properly. Something rose out of the parking lot floodlights and seemed to be flying — this one more than a beer can. Too late, Gallen realised a trash can was being swung in an arc at the back of Higgins' head. Grabbing at his friend's head to protect him, there was a dull thudding sound and the trash can came no further.
Someone had intercepted the can and a fight was starting. Pulling Billy around behind him, Gallen looked for the danger and saw two rednecks unconscious on the concrete. A figure pursued another man around the prone form of the cowboy with the busted wrist while the rest of the beer drinkers turned and fled.
Panting for breath, watching for the next missile, Gallen kept his eye on the man who'd come to their aid. A man who knew exactly what he was doing. When the crowd had dispersed, the man walked back between the two unconscious men and stood in front of Gallen.
'You're Gerry Gallen,' said the watcher from the fifth row. 'Can I buy you a beer?'CHAPTER 2
The Corral Bar seemed okay for a meeting. Gallen remembered it from his teenage years when he'd travelled with his hockey team and Pinedale's Corral Bar had let the drinking age slide. He arrived early, saw the ID cards on the security guy, the security cameras and the signs that warned of breaking the law, and he knew none of the Hawks high school players would be sneaking in here. Then he checked the pool table area, the washrooms and noted a kitchen with saloon doors. If he stood in the right place he'd be able to check the kitchen when a waitress hit those doors.
College snowboarders and cowgirls were filling up the place, so Gallen bought a handle of Bud and took a stand-up table that wrapped around a pillar near the pool tables. The Blackhawks–Maple Leafs game was into the second period on the plasma screen but there was no commentary because the biggest screen in the honky tonk played gangsta rap videos loud enough to shake the walls.
The man who called himself Daly walked into the place at nine pm, as promised, and seeing Gallen he pointed to the glass.
'Bud,' said Gallen, keeping his eyes on Daly as he turned towards the western-themed bar. Daly was about Gallen's age — mid-thirties — and wore jeans and ice boots that had been on a shop shelf the day before. So the dude wasn't from the area, which supported the LA accent.
Daly placed two handles of beer on the table and a wooden bowl with a large packet of peanuts inside it. He sipped at the beer and looked around at the skiers and western girls, a smirk on his face. 'Man, these white folks sure like their gangsta music.'
'The tourists like it.' Gallen raised his glass and clicked it with Daly's.
'What they play in the local bars?'
Gallen shrugged. 'Waylon, Johnny, Merle.'
'Shit,' said Daly, still casing the room. 'Sounds like a law firm.'
'They've been called worse,' said Gallen, sipping. 'Thanks for that before, in the car park.'
'Not a problem,' said Daly, waving it away. 'Saved them boys from a real beating.'
'Yeah?' said Gallen, knowing that the fighting he'd seen from Daly was the kind of thing he'd been taught in the Marines.
'Oh yeah. That boy of yours hits like a steam piston.'
Gallen laughed, the beer relaxing him. 'Yeah, Billy and Ern been at it since they was hockey midgets.'
Daly widened his eyes. 'Midgets?'
'Hockey midgets,' said Gallen. 'Fourteen-year-olds. One year they both made state and fought on the bus all the way to their game with Montana. Been at it ever since.'
'Sure, Gerry,' said Daly, shaking his head. 'But grown men in car parks?'
'Yeah, what I said,' said Gallen. 'So, Daly. What do you want?'
The big man eyeballed him for a moment and then softened. 'Direct. They said you were direct, Gerry.'
'Like I said.'
Daly put his glass down on the table and tore the top off the peanuts, poured them into the wooden bowl and pushed the bowl to Gallen. 'Gotta job for you, Gerry.'
Gallen took a small handful of nuts and fed himself methodically as he scanned the bar for back-up or eavesdroppers. The Marines Force Recon career was history now but he still found it easy to slip into the focused and adrenaline-charged state that had kept him alive in the field for eighteen years. Washing the peanuts down with the Bud, he returned Daly's stare. 'I gotta job, Daly.'
'Sure, Gerry, but you do contracts, right?'
'I'll take your hay off for five dollars a square bale, twenty for a round,' said Gallen. 'That's the only contracting I do and you'd better be old or a widow to ask me in the first place.'
'Not what I meant.'
Gallen breathed out through his teeth and looked away. The one thing they didn't teach you in special forces was how to handle life after the Life; what to do when you were turned out yet still couldn't look at a bed without cringing at its crappy corners. The Marine Corps had invested hundreds of hours of intel staffers telling them what they could never say to the media or their friends, but they never told people like Gerry Gallen that once they were trained and battle-hardened they'd be sought after for private work. 'Who sent you?'
Excerpted from Strikeforce Lightning by Mark Aitken. Copyright © 2013 Mark Aitken. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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