Wraith

Wraith

by James R. Hannibal

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Overview

After the towers fall on 9/11, Lieutenant Nick Baron and the rest of the 81st Fighter Squadron are desperate for action. But CENTCOM puts them on the sidelines, leaving the young Warthog pilots restless—and reckless. Then the unthinkable happens. During a high-risk training flight, a rookie wingman slams into the ground.
In the darkness that follows, Nick wonders if he will ever learn to trust a wingman again—or even learn to trust himself. He will soon find out. Despite the black mark on his record, Nick’s application to the elite Stealth Wing is approved. A recruiter for a new covert team has taken note of Nick’s unique combination of skills. Suddenly Nick is swept into Operation Cerberus—a top secret mission that will take him from a harrowing flight over a black testing facility to a fight for his life on the Iraqi Dunes.
“Hannibal brings together a terrific mix of real air technology with intrigue and nonstop action. A true suspenseful story that will keep you turning the pages until the exciting finale; it really is a great tale.”—Clive Cussler
“Get out of the way, Nelson DeMille. Brad Thor—you’ve got competition!”—Raymond Benson
“A feast for thriller lovers!”—Grant Blackwood, New York Times bestselling author of The Kill Switch

INCLUDES A PREVIEW OF SHADOW CATCHER
James R. Hannibal (Lt Col, USAF Reserve), author of Shadow Maker and Shadow Catcher, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who has flown the A-10 Warthog, the MQ-1 Predator drone, and the top secret B-2 Stealth Bomber, totaling over a thousand combat and combat support hours. He regularly reviews terrorism-related nonfiction for the New York Journal of Books.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698196780
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Series: Nick Baron Series , #3
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 316
Sales rank: 66,470
File size: 958 KB

About the Author

James R. Hannibal (Lt Col, USAF Reserve), author of Shadow Maker and Shadow Catcher, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who has flown the A-10 Warthog, the MQ-1 Predator drone, and the top secret B-2 Stealth Bomber, totaling over a thousand combat and combat support hours. He regularly reviews terrorism-related nonfiction for the New York Journal of Books.

Read an Excerpt

 

King Khalid Military City

September 2001

A single F-117 stealth fighter lumbered down the runway at King Khalid Airfield—its angular black fuselage standing out in sharp contrast to the bleached pavement under the glaring Arabian sun. The crew chief wiped the sweat from his brow and shook his head as he watched it lift precariously into the air. He’d never really thought a jet like that should fly—the thing looked like a fancy rock, and rocks should stay on the ground where they belong. Certainly it shouldn’t fly in the daylight like this.

Daytime flights were usually not part of the Nighthawk repertoire, especially when they were in theater, but the Black Sheep had been doing it with regular frequency ever since they’d arrived in Saudi Arabia. A black jet in broad daylight didn’t seem very stealthy at all. On top of that, they were all training missions. There had been several minor strikes against Iraqi targets over the course of the last month, but the Nighthawks were left out of all of them.

No matter, thought the crew chief as he began the long walk back to the hangar. Worrying about the sense of it isn’t my job. Ours is not to reason why . . . and so on and so on. Instead, he turned his thoughts toward the ice cream they’d be serving at the mess tent later. Lost in his musings, he failed to take note of the big AWACS aircraft sitting empty at its parking location across the ramp. In fact, the flight line was full of aircraft and none of them had their engines running. King Khalid Airfield was uncharacteristically quiet.

*   *   *

A half mile away, in a small room beneath King Khalid’s main command facility, General Robert Windsor hovered over a pair of sergeants. He paced back and forth and glared at the men as if the fate of the world rested solely upon the speed of their work. His eyes burned through the backs of the sergeants’ necks and they quickened their pace, arranging laptop computers and cables atop a folding table.

The small room in which the sergeants worked was known as the Room of Death, or ROD, to the men and women associated with it—the most secure American location in Saudi Arabia. Buried two floors beneath the main facility, under several yards of concrete, its primary purpose was storing secrets.

The ROD’s taupe walls were lined with locking file cabinets stocked with binders, tapes, hard drives, and other forms of classified media. Most of the cabinets also held inventories and access lists for the two rows of tall safes that filled the room’s interior. Next to the door sat a single desk with a computer, a printer, and a nameplate that read MR. JOSEPH MOORE, but Mr. Moore was conspicuously absent. While many individuals from several different fields knew the combination to one or another of the safes, only Mr. Moore knew them all, and it was a matter of great pride for him. Today he’d been unseated from his throne, exiled from his own empire.

General Windsor smiled for just a moment, thinking of the diminutive bald man, sitting in the office across the hall, slowly coming to grips with the fact that there were still operations that he wasn’t cleared for. Then the smile dropped from his lips. “Let’s go, gentlemen,” he pushed. “Shadow Zero One is approaching the border and we need to get confirmation.”

The general’s men hooked the laptops up to a stack of appliances on a rolling cart. Once the computers were booted up, the sergeants transformed from laborers to technicians, expertly typing commands, bending the machines to the general’s will. On the left computer a map appeared with a little blue arrow near the border of Iraq; every ten seconds the little arrow inched forward. The right computer displayed two windows. In one there was a live video feed of a large house on the outskirts of Baghdad, a main residence with a north wing, a south wing, and a circular drive on the east side. The other window held a raw command line, similar to an old DOS prompt. Above the flashing cursor two data lines read:

LINK ESTABLISHED

READY

“Can’t you get a better refresh rate on Shadow?” Windsor asked.

“I’m sorry, sir. Ten seconds is the best the software can do.”

“Remind me to have Colonel Walker find me better software, then.”

The sergeant pulled out a small memo pad and made a note.

“There he is,” said the general, turning his attention to the other laptop.

On the screen, a black Mercedes pulled into the driveway, followed by two more. A gaggle of uniformed men piled out of the trailing vehicles and fanned out. One of them spoke into a radio. Then the driver of the lead Mercedes got out, strolled to the right rear door, and pulled it open. A familiar figure stepped out sporting his signature beret and obnoxious black mustache.

“Get the snapshots.”

The sergeant clicked his mouse a few times and a row of pictures appeared at the bottom of the window.

“That one,” snapped Windsor. “Send it.”

The sergeant grabbed the picture with his mouse and dropped it into a folder on the computer’s desktop. Then he typed the file location into the command prompt and added the send command. The computer pondered its task and then TRANSMITTED flashed on the screen. A few moments later another message popped up: RECEIVED.

Suddenly the video in the other window rapidly swung away from the compound and settled on a distant horizon. The general could see the lazily winding path of the Tigris River stretching away to the southeast.

“What happened to the feed?”

“Fargo Two One is bingo, sir. He’s RTB,” said one of the sergeants, indicating that the source of the video, a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, was low on fuel and that its operator had turned the remote-controlled airplane toward its recovery base.

The general scowled down at his underling. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“The Predator has been on airborne alert for nearly a day, sir. Don’t worry, we have confirmation now and Shadow will be there within minutes. We’ll get him.”

“We’d better.”

*   *   *

Fifty miles south of Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Jason “Merlin” Boske pulled up the snapshot of the car and its passenger on his right console display and compared it to a hard-copy photograph. The house on the screen matched the house in the photo, except the house in the photo had a little red triangle printed over the south wing. Intelligence was certain that the bunker was there, under that section. Merlin checked his position. He’d be over the target in less than five minutes.

The whole idea of this mission made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. His presence here risked exposing the entire program, and for what? A practice run? No, Colonel Walker had called it something else. A validation. Whatever.

Merlin put his concerns aside—focusing instead on checking his systems one more time. Four minutes later he called up his infrared targeting system, showing the house in luminescent green. A chill went up his spine. He checked the snapshot again. It was the same house, the same as in the photograph and the same as in the snapshot from the Predator feed. POTUS isn’t gonna like this, he thought.

The house was the same, but the vehicles were gone.

*   *   *

General Windsor’s eyes flared as a new message popped up on the right laptop. He balled up his fist and punched one of the aluminum filing cabinets, leaving a large dent. Despite his violent display, the message from Shadow remained on the screen, blinking, taunting him:

SHADOW 01 RTB

REHEARSAL CANCELED

TARGET ESCAPED

Windsor had been setting this up all year. In February POTUS, the President of the United States, had requested that an option be quietly developed. A covert group in the Pentagon came up with the plan: Use progressive strikes to clear a radar path for a Predator, then use the UAV to get real-time coordinates for the target and pass the imagery and location to a stealth fighter. POTUS had liked the idea, but he needed proof. “I’ll authorize whatever assets you need,” he said. “Just show me that you can make it happen; everything but the final step.”

By mid-April the operation was under way, removing critical air defense radars in southern Iraq. The Iraqis made it easy, taking potshots at U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone—giving justification for retaliation strikes. Those strikes slowly cleared a path through the radar net for the Predator.

Then the Black Sheep of the 8th Fighter Squadron arrived in late July. At Windsor’s direction, the stealth fighters flew training missions only, at all hours of the day, hugging the border but never crossing into Iraq. Windsor intended to lull the Iraqis into a false sense of security. Iraqi spies played their part by reporting Nighthawk movements in and out of the airfield and AWACS controllers made subtle references to the stealth fighters’ flight paths over unsecure frequencies. Over time, the Iraqis became accustomed to the idea that the Black Sheep were just there to fly training missions and flex American muscle.

Things rose to a climax in August with a couple of F-16 strikes against radars at a pair of surface-to-air missile sites. With the objective radars taken out, Windsor moved forward by diverting an unmanned surveillance plane north on the twenty-seventh as a test case. Not only did the Iraqis see it, they shot it down. It was the first hint of a serious flaw in the plan. Maybe the Predator was just too easy to see on radar.

Intelligence analysts determined which sites might have snagged the UAV and the strikers targeted those sites on the twenty-eighth. That was two weeks ago. Windsor thought it was enough. Clearly it wasn’t.

“He saw us coming. They must’ve picked up the Predator again,” fumed the general, heading for the door. “POTUS wants an option that I can’t give him with the assets we have. Clean up this mess. I’ve got to make a phone call.”

The sergeants began packing up their temporary control center as General Windsor stepped out into the hallway. A passing airman nearly mowed him down. “What’s your hurry, mister?” The general was in no mood for juvenile clumsiness.

“Sorry ’bout that, sir,” mumbled the young enlisted man and rushed on without so much as making eye contact.

“What on earth?” He walked after the kid, ready to tear into him, but as his eyes followed the airman down the hallway he noticed several other people rushing into offices. The sound of tense voices emanated from every workspace.

Something was very wrong.

Part One

Chapter 1

Nineteen stealth bomber pilots sat at the two long tables in the flight kitchen at Whiteman Air Force Base. The rising Missouri sun broke through the wide glass entryway on the east side of the small facility—the warm promise of its morning rays made hollow by an unseasonably cold wind whipping across the flight line outside.

At the end of one table a short, stout man in his midthirties stared reluctantly at his plate. Major Brit “Murph” Murphy ran his fingers through a disheveled mop of dark brown hair and sighed. Awkwardly he lifted a forkful of something akin to eggs, and glanced at an older pilot who sat in the far corner of the room. A yellow badge hung from the left breast pocket of the lieutenant colonel’s flight suit, its bold letters proclaiming his position as an exercise evaluator.

Murph noticed the evaluator checking his watch, and doubted that he would get the opportunity to finish his breakfast. He shifted his eyes back to his fork, tipping it to let the runny mixture fall back to his plate with a series of muted splats. No real loss.

Murph considered the high-tech Motorola radio in the evaluator’s hand and then eyed the ancient receivers that he and the other pilots wore strapped to their hips. “Cold War relics,” he muttered, catching the eye of the pilot next to him. “We fly a two-billion-dollar jet, yet we carry the very same radios that the B-52 pilots carried in the eighties. We’ll be lucky if we hear the call at all.”

The other pilot only shrugged in response. He was not Murph’s copilot. Murph’s copilot had chosen to sleep through breakfast.

The 509th Bomb Wing’s semiannual operational readiness inspection—a practice war—had begun on Saturday, when the command post called in the pilots and their support crews for the arduous task of readying their aircraft for combat. That was usually a fifteen-hour job, but because of a leaky hydraulic reservoir, it had taken Murph and his copilot—along with a team of maintenance techs—more than forty sleepless hours to prepare their jet, leaving them both bereft of sleep.

The crews that hadn’t spent two days fixing a broken jet had been living in an alert shack on the flight line, listening to scripted intelligence briefings that described an ever-escalating and totally fictional political standoff. When that standoff reached its inevitable breaking point, there would be a surprise alert launch to test the bomber crews’ response times.

In every exercise script, the breaking point occurred on Tuesday morning, so it really wasn’t much of a surprise. And today was Tuesday. Every pilot in the exercise knew that an alert launch was imminent. Every pilot, it seemed, except Murph’s partner—the rookie.

Murph choked down his last piece of dehydrated bacon as he watched the evaluator stand up and walk toward the glass doors. The lieutenant colonel stepped out into the sun and lifted his collar to shield his face against the wind. After a brief glance up and down the flight line, he raised the Motorola to his lips.

“Here it comes,” Murph warned the others.

The ancient receivers crackled to life. “Alert Force, Alert Force, scramble, scramble, scramble! I say again, Alert Force, Alert Force, scramble, scramble, scramble!”

For a split second the pilots sat frozen, staring at each other across the table like gunfighters about to draw. Then chairs flew and silverware clattered as they jumped from their seats and headed for the door in a mad dash for the alert vehicles. It was a matter of pride to be the first pair out of the parking lot.

Instead of racing with the other pilots, Murph calmly wiped a crumb of bacon from his lips, stood up, replaced his chair, and casually walked out of the facility. While the other pilots ran off in pairs, he jogged alone, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun and scanning the flight line for the twentieth man. “Where are you, Tony?” he grumbled, wondering if his partner’s ancient radio had woken him up at all.

Fifty yards from the flight kitchen, ten midnight blue sedans sat waiting for the sprint to the hangars, and fifty yards beyond the vehicles the alert shack tilted precariously with the wind, straining against its tie-down ropes.

Murph shook his head. The proud days of Strategic Air Command were gone. In the glory days, breakfast would have been good, hot, and free, and the alert shack would have been a brick building with showers and a gym. This morning the food was nasty, cold, and four bucks a plate, and the alert facility amounted to nothing more than a big brown tent with a diesel generator.

Should he get the car running or go to the shack and retrieve Tony? Finally Murph made his decision and began a full sprint for the tent, assuming that he would have to drag his sleeping crewmate out of bed. His crewmate proved him wrong.

A tanned, half-naked figure shot through the tent flaps like a bullet from a gun. Anthony Merigold was new to the B-2, having finished mission qualification training just a week before. He stood six foot, three inches tall with dark hair, broad shoulders, and strong Greek features. In a flight suit, Tony Merigold looked so much like a poster boy for the Air Force that the older pilots called him Captain America, even though he was only a lieutenant.

As Murph looked on in horror, the younger officer sprinted across the pavement wearing nothing but a pair of gray boxer briefs and black boot socks. His flight suit whipped in the breeze, slung over his right shoulder, and his combat boots bounced along, dangling from his left hand by their strings. Murph stopped short, making an abrupt turn to join his streaking partner in the sprint to the car. “Oversleep, did we?”

“How was I supposed to know it was gonna happen now?”

“It always happens on Tuesday morning.”

“Yeah? Well . . . maybe you could’ve told me that yesterday.”

Tony reached the car first and tossed his boots on the floorboard of the passenger side. Murph jumped in the driver’s seat and cranked the engine. He punched the gas pedal to the floor as Tony desperately tried to get dressed.

“Great,” said Tony, angrily slapping the dashboard.

“What?”

“I forgot my shirt.”

“Zip your flight suit up to the neck and nobody’ll notice.”

Tony nodded and ripped the zipper to its upper limit. “Ow!”

“What now?”

Tony’s response was strained, almost whispered: “Chest hair.”

Murph closed on the vehicle in front of them as both cars headed for the northernmost hangars, three-quarters of a mile away. The alert crews were supposed to drive at a safe but urgent speed, but Murph’s speed was always a little more urgent than safe. As he passed the other car, Murph smiled and waved. The other driver shook his fist while his passenger pretended to write down their license plate number on his hand.

A few moments later Murph screeched to a halt in the white box painted on the pavement in front of Hangar 2. A deafening buzzer warned them to stay clear as massive doors slid open to reveal a beautiful charcoal-colored aircraft. Both pilots hopped out of the car and paused, awed by the spectacle. The Spirit of Texas glared back at them over its slightly curved beak, looking mean and alien against the backdrop of a hundred halogen lights.

Inside the hangar, the crew chief punched a big red button on the B-2’s nose gear and a contoured hatch appeared as if from nowhere, extending a short ladder to the floor. A tremendous rushing sound filled the air as two huge generators fired up inside the aircraft.

The two pilots ran toward the ladder. Waiting below the hatch, the crew chief gave Murph a knuckle bump, but he stopped short with Tony, raising an eyebrow at the lieutenant’s stockinged feet.

“Hey, at least I’m not naked,” said Tony.

As the younger pilot rushed up the ladder with his boots, Murph signed the crew chief’s log. Then he walked briskly around the plane, checking for any tools or maintenance equipment that might obstruct the taxiing aircraft. He glanced up at the munitions in the B-2’s weapons bay. Even though the briefings were scripted and the enemy was fictitious, the bombers were loaded with real bombs—enough conventional firepower to turn a small country into a smoking crater. It had to be that way to accurately test the wing’s response times.

Murph’s B-2 carried a thirty-six-thousand-pound mixture of GPS-guided destruction, including four standard two-thousand-pounders, four two-thousand-pound penetrators, and four GBU-37 five-thousand-pound GAMs—GPS aided munitions—better known as bunker busters.

“The area’s clear and the weapons are good!” shouted Murph as he climbed the stairs to join his partner. He jumped into his seat, put on his Bose headset, and waited for the lead stealth bomber to initiate a check-in.

“Rage, check.”

“Two . . .”

“Three . . .” Each crew counted off in sequence up to ten. Then there was silence.

“What now?” asked Tony.

“Now we wait.” Murph checked his watch. It was 7:55 A.M. Central Time. The date was September 11.

Chapter 2

Pale rays of afternoon sunlight poured through the narrow windows of the fitness room at the 81st Fighter Squadron in Spangdahlem, Germany. The light formed two bright columns across the sectional rubber floor, yet it offered no heat at all. Lieutenant Nick Baron attacked a 150-pound punching bag with fury. He moved his six-foot frame around the bag with practiced ease, his steel blue eyes intently focused on the target, his blond hair matted to his forehead with sweat. He was not broad shouldered, but he was muscular, and the heavy bag shook violently under the power of his blows.

As he shifted his weight for a roundhouse kick, Nick felt a presence enter the room. He paused for a fraction of a second, pulling the kick to avoid the new obstacle, and then continued to punish the bag. He would not be interrupted; there were sixty seconds left on the timer. Undaunted, the intruder moved to a more obvious position. The two columns of light fell into shadow.

“You’re in my way and you’re blocking my light.”

The intruder, a red-haired, freckle-faced intelligence specialist named McBride, gave him an apologetic shrug. “I’m sorry, sir, but your presence is requested in the Vault. Immediately.”

The timer expired. Nick brushed the young airman aside as he punched off the alarm, and then grabbed a small towel to dab his face. “Tell Oso that if he wants to interrupt my workout, he’s going to have to drag my sweaty carcass out of the gym himself.”

The kid lowered his eyes, but he insistently stepped in front of Nick again. “Sir, the major was called away to the wing headquarters. You are in charge of the mission planning section until he gets back.”

“So?”

“So, we think the United States may be under attack.”

*   *   *

Breaking news was always hit-or-miss at the 81st. Unlike their counterparts in the States, the American squadrons in Europe had no television news playing in the squadron—no Fox News or even CNN. More often than not they depended on the squadron wives to call in. The pilots called it the wives news network, or WNN. Once again WNN had outpaced the Air Force intelligence pipeline. The commander’s wife had alerted him to the tragedy. Now McBride and the squadron’s other enlisted analysts—called intelligence specialists—were playing catch-up, trying to pull information from the slow classified Net.

Nick followed McBride into the Vault, so dubbed because it was protected by a large steel blast door and because it housed most of the squadron’s classified work. A giant map table covered in charts filled the center of the large room. One wall held three doors that led to small briefing rooms, while the other three walls were lined with computer workstations dedicated to each of the squadron’s tactical sections—one wall for Intelligence, one for Weapons, and one for Mission Planning. Airman McBride led Nick to that third set of workstations, where another specialist pushed back from the computers to make room.

Airman First Class Will McBride had always made Nick think Andy Griffith must be right around the corner. He had Opie written all over him—in his appearance, in his innocence—yet he was one of the best intelligence analysts Nick had ever worked with.

“What’s the story, McBride?”

“We have two potential attacks on the same complex in New York, sir.” The analyst showed Nick a series of data transmissions and news clips on the workstations. An airliner had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Then, seventeen minutes later, a second aircraft had crashed into the South Tower, eliminating any speculation that the first was a bizarre accident. Even as the kid spoke, the phone rang.

Another specialist grabbed it, and as he listened to the caller, his eyes widened. He looked up, covering the receiver. “They just hit the Pentagon.”

“We’re at war,” McBride said quietly.

Nick bowed his head and silently uttered a prayer. He prayed for the souls lost in the attacks. He prayed for comfort for their families. And he prayed that God would give all of them justice.

Chapter 3

“How long do you think it will take before we know who’s responsible?” asked McBride.

“We know exactly who’s responsible.”

“Bin Laden?”

Nick nodded. There were few in the U.S. intelligence community who didn’t already know that name. The rest of the world would know it within hours.

For Nick keeping tabs on Islamic terrorists had started as little more than an odd hobby—a complement to his work as a student in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. But as the years passed and the terrorists’ activities escalated, the hobby had become an obsession. Each heinous act struck him more deeply: the Hatshepsut massacre in Egypt, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole in Yemen. With each event, it became more personal.

Nick’s hobby file tracked the known locations of Bin Laden and a number of his lieutenants: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mohammed Atef, Tariq al-Majid, and several others. He knew their names; he knew their faces; and because he knew their crimes he would gladly assassinate any one of them if given the opportunity. Sometimes he wondered if that hatred—that desire for blood retribution—made him just like them. At the moment, he didn’t care. Like every other American fighting man, he wanted revenge.

Nick glanced down at McBride’s gently humming workstation. “You wanna nail down some targets?” he asked, pulling a chair out from the desk.

“You think they’re going to let the 81st strike back?”

He sighed and pushed the chair back into its place. “No. At least, not immediately.” A hint of envy crept into his voice. “If there’s going to be any retaliation, the brass will go to the heavy hitters first.”

“You mean the B-2s,” said McBride, rolling his eyes. “You’re going to have to let that fantasy go, sir.”

Nick’s desire to fly the stealth bomber was no secret in the 81st. He had submitted an application to the B-2 wing several months before, despite the fact that he didn’t meet the minimum experience requirements. To everyone’s surprise, the hiring board had flown him to Whiteman for an interview, but the reception was lukewarm. He had returned less than three weeks ago, feeling defeated. Now he was just waiting for the official rejection letter.

“Go ahead, make fun. But I’ll bet the stealth bombers are starting engines as we speak, just waiting for a set of target coordinates.”

Chapter 4

Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri

24 September 2001

Tony Merigold sighed as he left the highway and turned toward the main entrance to the base. It had seemed a tragically fortuitous coincidence. Ten stealth bombers, loaded for bear and brimming with fuel—all manned with fresh alert crews at the moment the nation was attacked. Tony and Murph had waited an hour before any news came from the command post. Finally a runner had appeared at the base of their ladder with news of the attack. He told them the order was to wait. And wait they did.

For a full four hours twenty pilots sat in their loaded bombers, not one of them growing the least bit weary and every one of them dying to receive a go signal. But the go signal never came. They were ordered to shut down their engines. Then they were sent home to wait some more on telephone alert status, and, twenty-four hours later, even the telephone alert was canceled. That was two weeks ago.

As he passed through the gate, Tony glanced up at the historic B-29 that guarded the main entrance to Whiteman. It served as a reminder of his squadron’s distinguished and somewhat controversial history. On 6 August 1945, two of the 393rd’s B-29s had departed the island of Tinian in the South Pacific. A few hours later one of them, the Enola Gay, had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with the Great Artiste flying in a chase position as a scientific observation platform. Since then the Tigers had flown a variety of bombers: B-47s, B-52s, F-111s, and finally B-2s. But the Great Artiste remained an honorary member of the fleet, preserved as a testament to the squadron’s heritage.

Nearly every morning since his arrival at Whiteman six months before, Tony had slowed to admire the old bomber as he passed through the front gate, but not lately. For the last two weeks he’d hardly noticed it at all, hurrying past on his way to the squadron, anxious to find out if America had come any closer to striking back.

The squadron building was a large, brick-covered structure that the Tigers shared with 325th Squadron’s Cavemen—more reminiscent of a maximum-security prison than a flying squadron. A ten-foot fence covered in motion sensors and topped with concertina wire surrounded the facility while unseen eyes packing unseen weaponry monitored the perimeter.

It took Tony fifteen minutes to work his way through multiple layers of security and climb the stairs to the squadron level, where a large preserved tiger—fixed in midstride with head lowered, as if stalking unwary prey—guarded the door. He placed his hand on the tiger’s glass case. “Well, girl,” he said quietly, “we took a big hit. Do you think we’ll ever go out and settle the score?”

The tiger, whose name was Autumn, looked back with empathetic eyes but stoically held her tongue. Tony sighed. “I don’t know, either.”

Murph met Tony as he entered the squadron’s weapons office, raising his hand for a high five. Tony hesitantly reciprocated. “What’s up? Are we finally going to war?”

“Not yet, but when we do, you and I are crewmates for night one.” Murph held up his hand again.

That’s what I’m talking about.” Tony threw his high five with more fervor this time. At least things were getting serious enough for the commanders to set down a crew schedule. Murph explained that the colonels had laid out the framework for the first few missions. The two of them had not just made the list, they’d been handpicked to go in on the first night.

The excitement of Murph’s revelation wore off as hour after hour passed with no other news. Tony found it difficult to focus on his work as the assistant weapons officer. He spent the rest of the day picking at bomb inventories, waiting for a phone call that would order him to send those bombs to the planes. But the phone call never came. Soon it was time to go home—another day of inaction for America while jihadists the world over laughed out loud.

As Tony trudged across the parking lot on the way to his car, another pilot grabbed him by the arm. “Hey, Captain America, we’ve been looking all over for you.” The man’s lips spread into a crooked grin. It wasn’t malice. He had a three-inch scar left by a wayward hockey puck that always distorted his smile, hence his call sign—Slapshot.

Still smiling, Slapshot jerked his head toward the officer’s club across the street. “There’s a meeting in five. You don’t wanna be late, do ya?”

Tony hadn’t heard about any meeting but he dutifully followed his fellow Tiger over to the O club. Slapshot held a side door open for him. “Hurry up, dude. Through here.”

Tony hesitated. “We’re not going through the main entrance?” Scar or not, that smile looked devious. And he knew that this particular door led to the small billiard room at the rear of the O club bar, not the conference room where officer meetings were usually held. What kind of briefing took place at the back of a bar?

He didn’t have much time to think about it. Slapshot became impatient, grabbed him, and shoved him through the door. Tony stumbled into the room and gaped at what he saw.

Every pilot from the Tigers stood at attention along either side of the billiard table. Murph, rather than the commander, stood at the head. He wore an absurd, tiger-patterned robe and held a sledgehammer like a king holding his scepter. Mugs of beer and soda lined the table. Slapshot smacked Tony on the back, closed the door, and took his place among the others.

“Attention to orders!” bellowed Murph. “Let it be known to all these present that Lieutenant Tony C. Merigold has successfully demonstrated the dedication and skill required of a combat-ready Tiger.” Murph locked eyes with Tony. “Lieutenant Merigold, you have been deemed worthy by the unruly mob before you . . .”

Murph trailed off and there was an awkward pause. “Ahem . . . the unruly mob before you . . .” he repeated, looking disapprovingly at the others.

The pilots took the second cue and let out a series of grunts and grumbles to imitate the unruly mob their leader had mentioned, their low rumblings growing into an uproar before Murph held up his scepter in a call for silence.

“As I was saying,” Murph continued, “we now deem you worthy of joining the Tiger Pride, and therefore we must christen you with an appropriate tactical call sign. Come forward!”

The other pilots started shouting once again and propelled Tony toward the front of the room. Someone handed him an oversized shot of brown liquid. Without thinking, Tony tossed it back, and immediately another was placed in his hand. He gave Murph a confused look, but his crewmate offered no explanation. Instead, Murph picked up an ancient lacquer box and walked ominously in his direction.

*   *   *

Tony woke up on his own couch the next morning to the sound and smell of bacon sizzling in his kitchen.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said Murph, “but I took the liberty of raiding your fridge. You hungry?”

“Most definitely not.” Tony struggled to a sitting position. “Did you stay here all night?”

“Had to. You were in a bad way when I drove you home; too bad to be left alone. You’ve got to get yourself a wife.”

“I’ll get right on that,” said Tony, trying to force a smile, “but who needs a wife when I have you?”

“Cute. You remember anything?”

Tony squeezed his eyes shut, trying to overcome the pounding in his skull. “I remember that you named me Drake, citing something about my naked exit from the alert tent looking like a baby lizard emerging from a leathery egg.”

“Well, at least you remember your name.” Murph waved a set of tongs in Tony’s direction like a wizard wielding a magic wand. A drop of grease splattered on the tile at his feet. “You are the mythical Drake, the young dragon, born into the world with great promise for combat.” He winked. “I came up with that one. And I’m particularly proud of it so don’t let it go to waste.”

“Drake.” Tony repeated the name, as if trying it on.

Murph turned back to the stove. “It could have been much worse, Drake. Some guys get named after fish. You remember anything else?”

“Just that there was way too much booze and a ritual involving a pair of sweat socks that have been with the squadron since Vietnam.”

The older pilot chuckled over his pan. “Good memory. Most guys block that part out.”

Both men fell silent for a while, listening to the sizzle and pop of the bacon.

“Murph?” said Drake, finally breaking the silence.

“Yeah?”

“We’re gonna get him, aren’t we? I mean Bin Laden, and the rest of those Tally-whatevers—we’re gonna take ’em down, right?”

“Yeah, Drake, we’ll get ‘em. You and me, bud. We just need someone in D.C. to man up and make the call.”

Chapter 5

Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany

Nick felt detached from history, watching his country move along the path to war and wondering whether he’d be permitted to take part.

In the first two days after the attacks he and McBride had compiled a report on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda for the Wing Intelligence Office. In it, Nick theorized that Tariq al-Majid was one of the primary planners of the attacks, making Iraq a potential secondary battleground. Al-Majid had recently been sighted crossing into Iraq from Turkey, which was consistent with reports that he was Bin Laden’s liaison to Baghdad. Nick’s report initially received a lot of interest from the local brass, but it was shelved when the order to go to war hadn’t come.

For two weeks, the pilots heard nothing about the war. Then Nick’s commander, whose tactical name was Redeye, called a meeting.

All thirty-six pilots gathered excitedly in the squadron auditorium, certain that Redeye would finally announce they were headed for Afghanistan. Instead, like a doctor giving a room full of patients bad news, the commander informed them that the Joint Chiefs had decided to leave the American forces in Europe entirely out of the war. They were being held in reserve in case a new front opened up.

The air of anger and frustration was palpable.

After the meeting the pilots returned to their duties with their heads hung low in disgust. Nick felt impotent, emasculated. He didn’t just want to go to war against the terrorists; he needed to go to war.

“Shake it off,” said a short, wiry major, patting Nick on the back. “We’ve got a flight to brief.” He opened the door to a small briefing room and stood to one side as Nick and two other pilots filed in.

Major Hector “Oso” Garcia was the 81st Fighter Squadron’s weapons officer. Like many, Oso’s tactical nickname was misleading. Early in his career, someone had thought it an entertaining incongruity to tag the diminutive Hispanic pilot with the Spanish word for bear. Political correctness was for PR officers, not for pilots.

Nonetheless, Oso was well respected within the squadron. He was a graduate of the USAF Weapons School, the Air Force equivalent to the Navy’s Top Gun. As the weapons officer, he was the squadron’s chief instructor pilot and the commander’s trusted adviser on all issues of tactical importance. He was a gifted fighter pilot, a knowledgeable tactician, and an even match for Nick at the base jujitsu club, despite Nick’s twenty-pound weight advantage.

The small briefing room was stuffy and cramped, much too small for four grown men. Its worktable was also small, and the three pilots seated there looked as if they’d been banished to the children’s table at a Thanksgiving meal.

Standing at the front of the room, Oso seemed oblivious to the others’ discomfort. He slowly detailed the contingencies of the training mission, covering all the reasonable what-ifs that could occur, like radio failures, in-flight emergencies, and a downed flight member. Finally, he switched to the tactical portion. He laid a map on the table and pointed to a line that snaked through the interlocking valleys of southwestern Germany. “This is our route for ingress, and this ridgeline on the edge of the Rhine Valley marks the forward edge of the battle area—the line of scrimmage, if you will. Keep your Hogs five hundred feet off the deck, masking against the ridgeline, and climb only for radio relay. Things are always easier if we can avoid being seen.

“Our ground contact is Snake One Five, played by Second Lieutenant Joe Forester. I sent Forester out this morning to scout targets and told him to be somewhere near the small town of Böchingen.” Oso grinned. “That means we’ll find him within a hundred yards of the pub on the east side of town. Snake One Five will pass us target coordinates and tack our eyes on for confirmation.”

After another twenty minutes discussing tactics, Oso asked for questions. When nobody spoke up, he turned to the youngest pilot in the room. “Collins, are you sure you’ve got the plan? We need to get you fully qualified in case the brass change their collective mind and let us into this fight.”

Nick glanced up from the map and looked over at the young wingman. The primary purpose of the day’s mission was training for the kid, Brent Collins, who was not yet qualified for combat missions. Oso would be grading his performance, and no wingman ever wanted to screw up in front of the weapons officer, but Collins had even greater cause to be nervous. He had already failed three mission qualification flights since arriving from the schoolhouse. If he failed another one, Redeye might send him to a cargo unit.

Brent looked at the maps in front of him as if they were written in Chinese. “Uh . . . no questions, sir. I’ve got it.”

*   *   *

On the way to the crew van that would take them to the aircraft, the fourth pilot, Bug, slowed his pace, holding Nick back as well. A look of concern clouded the huge Nebraskan’s face. “You think Brent is ready for this? He didn’t look very confident in there.”

“He’s just scared of Oso,” said Nick, offering a half smile. “We’re not doing anything today that he hasn’t done twenty times already at the schoolhouse, right?”

“What about the Irish Cross?”

Nick stopped walking at the mention of the complex tactical maneuver. Oso had briefed it as one of the tactics they’d be using, but its intricate design would definitely stretch Brent’s capabilities. Up ahead Oso and Brent had already reached the van. The major tapped his watch and beckoned to them.

Nick waved back and pushed Bug onward. “It’s Oso’s mission,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”

Chapter 6

Nick led Bug past rolling hills covered in the rusty hues of autumn. He stuck to the valleys as much as possible, picking his way south and east. When Wizard Flight arrived in the training area a few minutes earlier, Oso had split them up, sending Nick and Bug south toward their briefed holding point.

Nick found the ridge that formed the line of scrimmage between the simulated friendly and enemy territories, then followed it until he spotted the small microwave tower that marked their holding point. He checked the point against a satellite picture on his kneeboard. Just as the photograph showed, an access road ran north from the tower facility, then made a gentle turn to the east and climbed through a saddle in the ridgeline. “Wizard Three is established at X-ray,” he called.

“Wizard One is established as well.” Oso’s voice sounded distant over the UHF radio. “Snake One Five, Snake One Five, this is Wizard Zero One. How do you copy?”

“Wizard Zero One, Snake One Five reads you loud and clear,” Second Lieutenant Joe Forester replied. “Call ready for my position and your first target.”

“Stand by, Snake,” said Oso. “Wizard Flight, move to position one.”

Nick led Bug through the saddle to the forward side of the ridgeline, where both pilots could get a clear view of the target area. Beyond the saddle, the terrain rapidly fell away, exposing the flat expanse of the Rhine River valley. The orange and red foliage gave way to tan and brown fields separating a few small Rhineland towns; among them the target area, Böchingen, several kilometers past the ridge. Both pilots made sure to stay low—well below the terrain behind them—so that a civilian in Böchingen might not see the Hogs even if he looked directly at them. “Wizard Three is in position,” Nick transmitted.

“Copy that. Go ahead, Snake,” said Oso.

The lieutenant described his position to the A-10 drivers and Oso confirmed that they all had visual contact with the Humvee just east of the town. From that point forward Joe described the targets in relation to his own location. “Do you see the soccer field west of my position?” he asked, using the field as a reference that would give the pilots an easy way to visualize distances on the ground.

“Affirmative,” Oso responded.

“Using the length of the soccer field as one unit, look two units northwest and describe what you see.”

“Looks like a grouping of twenty vehicles or so, mostly gray and white, on the southeast side of an L-shaped building.”

“That’s correct. We’ll call that parking lot an enemy staging area; the vehicles are your targets. Snake One Five is taking simulated mortar fire from that position. Destroy it immediately.”

“Wizard Flight, we’ll use strike pattern one with Mavericks,” said Oso. “Wizard One element has the north side of the target. Wizard Three, your element has the south side. Return to your hold point after the strike. Start your ingress at one minute from the hack. Three, sound off when you’re ready.”

Nick looked over at Bug, who gave a rock of his wings to signal that he was ready for the attack. “Three’s ready,” he reported.

“Here we go, then. Three . . . two . . . one . . . execute!”

Looking north, Nick strained to see Oso turn his Hog toward the target. He mentally reviewed the strike pattern, remembering that he had to wait an additional sixty seconds past Oso’s start time before he could lead Bug in. The timing would keep him out of the first element’s imaginary fragmentation pattern, but that was only part of the equation. In his mind’s eye Nick could see Oso, standing in the briefing room, drawing a line on the map along an east-west road running through the target area. To separate their flight paths and avoid a midair collision, Nick had to keep his element south of that road.

He picked up Oso’s Hog driving across the flatland. He knew his flight lead would climb and then bank in and point at the target, simulating a Maverick missile attack. Brent should follow shortly thereafter and do the same. But Nick couldn’t see the rookie. Where was he?

“The kid’s lagging the fight,” he muttered to himself. He hit the record switch on his heads-up display video and made an audio note. “Three October, Wizard Zero Three, first attack, this is Nick. Briefed attack is pattern one with Mavericks; Wizard Two is at least a mile late. I’ll have to delay my attack to avoid his frag.”

Nick maneuvered his element to account for the extra time. When he was ready to attack he gave Bug a wing flash and turned toward the target area. Bug followed suit and the two A-10s swept low across the rural German landscape. A patchwork of fields passed beneath them in a blur of brown and green. Eight miles from the target Nick angled his aircraft slightly away, making the space that would allow him to pop up and roll in for the strike.

“Wizard One, rifle two.” Oso launched his imaginary missiles.

Nick checked his distance from the target. It looked like his adjustment for Brent’s delay had worked.

“Wizard Two, rifle two.” The kid had finally taken his shot.

Nick counted a few more seconds, giving Brent’s pretend missiles time to find their targets, and then pulled the nose of his Hog toward heaven, knowing that—in a real fight—this was the most exposed he’d be to enemy fire. While still climbing, he banked hard to the left and pulled, cutting an arc through the horizon to point back at the earth. Then, after he rolled out and settled on the attack axis, he commanded his missile to open its infrared eye.

The green-tinted screen showed the target parking lot as a jumble of muddled shapes and shadows. He placed his crosshairs on the southwest side and zoomed in, picking out a vehicle that was glowing nicely on the display. Someone just arrived, he thought. The engine’s still warm. He commanded the missile seeker to lock, cross-checked his heads-up display, and pressed hard on the pickle button.

The Maverick screen went blank, simulating a successful launch. The missile on his wing, however, stayed where it was. It had no rocket and was hard-bolted to the station for training. Nick held the aircraft steady and patiently waited for the seeker to reset, as if a second missile had opened its eye. When the image of the parking lot returned he locked up another target and fired the second imaginary weapon.

The entire process, from settling his jet on the attack axis to launching his second Maverick, took Nick less than seven seconds. “Wizard Three, rifle two,” he called into the radio. He rolled the Hog on its side and pulled hard, turning it to avoid being fragged by his own weapons. Once clear of the fragmentation pattern, he turned his attention to Bug. He stayed low and arced around the target, ready to provide covering fire.

“Wizard Four, rifle two,” said Bug.

Nick watched his wingman turn away from the target. When Bug’s nose pointed his way, he flashed his wings to make himself more visible. “Four, Three is at your twelve. Follow me back to X-ray.”

“Wizard Four is visual, Three. Wilco,” Bug replied, letting Nick know that he saw him and would follow him across the ridge to the hold point.

“Wizard, call ready for next target,” Joe prompted again.

“Wizard Zero One, ready.”

Nick listened intently to the next description. On this attack they were to practice finding the target on the fly, meaning that Nick was not permitted to take his element to the other side of the ridge and watch during Joe’s description as he’d done the first time. They’d have to stay low and out of sight, memorize the description of the target, and then locate it once they pressed in for the attack. This also gave them less time to gain visual contact with each other. Each member of the formation depended on the rest to get the timing right.

“Your new target is an enemy command post consisting of three adjacent buildings running east to west,” said Joe. “Using the same soccer field as one unit, look half a unit southeast of your previous target. The group of target buildings is separated from all the other buildings by at least fifty yards on each side. They are wooden structures with white paint and they’re the only buildings in the area with blue-shingled roofs.”

Nick painted the picture in his mind, trying to remember what the area surrounding the parking lot looked like. Then Oso threw a wrench in the works. “Wizards,” he commanded, “this will be strike pattern three, with guns, Mavericks, and bombs. On this attack we’ll simulate a twenty-three-millimeter gun protecting the target area. Wizard Three, your element has the western two buildings. My element will take out the threat and the eastern building. Call ready.”

Nick paused to absorb the new information, looked to Bug for a ready signal, and then responded. “Three’s ready.”

“Wizards, three . . . two . . . one . . . execute!”

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