DRY CHOKING HEAT. She hated it. It burned into her brain and body, as well as her eyes, despite wearing protective goggles from the midday sun’s glare overhead. The grit was everywhere, even in her damn underwear.
CIA Agent, Karen Stone, crouched down in the tight confines behind the huge boulder leaning in against the solid safety listening to the Special Forces team leader, Sergeant Johnny ‘Jack’ Daniels, whisper instructions to the rest of the group. Simmons spread out the tactical data across his knees as others peered in over shoulders, scanning the topography on the aerial and hi-res shots.
Stone wasn’t a part of their team. Just an observer. An unofficial, official observer. She had supplied the Intel and, as such, had come along for the ride, which was the official line— confirm the kill for the Agency. That was the supposition. At least, as far as the craggy-faced Sergeant Daniels was concerned. But she had her orders, other orders, outside of Daniels’ mandate. If these guys couldn’t bring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi down, then she had to. It was up to her to pull the trigger and make the kill.
If they could get close enough that was. Otherwise a couple of QRT Hornet Pave Low Helicopters would be called in as a last resort, and attempt to blow up the side of the mountain in the hope of penetrating the caves Zarqawi and his men were currently hiding in.
Easier said than done.
Squatting there in her sand-filled issue kit, sipping from the depleted water canteen, Stone contemplated the next couple of hours. How it might all go down. It wasn’t looking good. They hadn’t even made good time. The idiots had done the drop too far away, and the terrain was a killer. And, to top it all off, they still hadn’t had final confirmation from SitCom that the data was, in fact, accurate. The bastard Zarqawi could have easily pulled out the previous night.
With the initial Intel that had come from her and the sources she’d been working with for months, they had finally pinpointed the general whereabouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s camp. It was hidden a few clicks up in the valley. But this was one hell of a valley. The ridges either side were a three-in-one incline of rubble and boulders of deadly terrain. A trigger-happy sniper’s paradise. And every minute they loitered out in the middle of the day, they—and not the intended target—were the sitting ducks. She felt the skin prickle in the centre of her shoulders and it wasn’t just from the sweat that formed there, soaking her shirt never mind her flack-jacket, but with the sense of anticipation that came with every kill-mission.
Instinct told her something wasn’t quite right, though.
Stone stoppered the canteen and slipped it back onto her webbing, securing the clasp. She couldn’t afford to loose one damn drip of the precious liquid out here. She gave a cursory glance around the small group of various specialists, rubbing a finger over the bridge of her nose, a headache forming behind her eyes.
They were all good men. Ten in all, eleven people including her. Was it enough? She didn’t think so. But it would have to do. They didn’t have definitive count of numbers that they would be going up against, but hell, she had pulled off worse in similar circumstances. They just needed to get close enough, make visual contact he was there and well; she would take care of business.
This would be her fifteenth take down.
Fifteen sanctioned murders of various terrorist scumbags.
Pulling up her issue hard-hat, Stone ran long-fingers through her short-cropped sandy coloured hair. She wore the same issue kit as the rest, indistinguishable, except that hers bore no insignia.
Everything was ingrained with sand and grit. She even tasted it in her mouth. God how she hated being here, back in Iraq. Again. She was getting too old for this shit. But the thought of a desk job shuffling papers or, at best, doing analytical work, stuck in her gut.
Retirement? Agents didn’t retire. They died in the field. Usually young and gung-ho. Well, she wasn’t young anymore but gung-ho?
Yes. She admitted it to herself. She had become reckless. Times changed. She had changed. Changed the minute she had watched Louisa die in her arms, with a hole in her stomach you could have driven a four-ton truck through. A stomach-wound the worst kind of wound. Wound? Shit! The minute the shell had torn through Louisa it had been a death sentence. Louisa had known it too. Dying in agony, slowly bleeding out.
In that moment of Louisa’s death, in the minute when the world stopped turning and went dark, Stone had felt her heart shrivel up and die.
Stone, cold, dead.
She had become gung-ho then. In the months after Louisa’s death she had taken on two assignments. Quick, easy, deadly. She’d executed them to perfection. She’d wanted more but Deputy Director Peters had cut her short, put her back on this one, following the trail once again. Which was fine by her, she would happily eat dust for breakfast to get Zarqawi. And it showed.
‘Have you got a fucking death wish, Stone?’ Deputy Director had asked her at one point, just before being dispatched for this takedown. She hadn’t answered him because, in truth, she didn’t know. He’d still sent her anyway knowing she was the best and their only choice. She knew the target, knew the terrain, knew the risks and was the best specialist for the task. And more. She was now expendable and she knew it.
With a grim smile, she thought it would be ironic if it were a woman who took down Zarqawi.
Impatient, Stone moved over to the other side of the boulder, while judiciously scanning the area for any hint of movement. They had to make it at least two more clicks up the side, before sunset, to be in position to go in under cover of the falling light. It was going to be a tough one. They all knew there would be casualties. Hopefully all on the enemy’s side, and not theirs. But Karen knew otherwise. Knew even if these guys were the best and did their jobs. They still had to flush the rat out of the cave, otherwise—.
It didn’t bear thinking about. A standoff or worse, a prolonged firefight could spell disaster for them.
Daniels shifted his considerable bulk, as the team prepped for the final hike. He squatted, while eying the square-jawed Stone out the corner of his eye. Watching the agent scouting the terrain up ahead. He knew why she was there. He wasn’t green or wet behind the ears on his first assignment. He knew the score. He was also well aware of the ruggedly good-looking Agent’s growing reputation. A top agent who was now considered a risk. The last mission she’d been on that he knew about, hadn’t ended well. Four dead, including her partner.
‘Watch your back.’ The Colonel’s words echoed in his mind.
Shit! He didn’t need this. A wild agent hell bent on revenge, and with a death wish. He wanted the kill to go down clean. Fat chance of that happening. He didn’t mind being stuck with the caliber of agent like Stone, even if she were a woman, but the minute she put his team or the mission in jeopardy, he’d shoot her in the foot himself if he had too.
Stone turned to face Daniels.
“Ready.” Was all she said eyeing the well-armed group. She, herself, armed with her service issue M9 9 mm Beret pistol and the M25 sniper’s rifle she had acquired, now slung over one shoulder. And, unburdened by the backpacks the others laboured under, had the greater mobility.
‘Just get in there and kill the bastard.’ The Deputy Director’s words echoed in Stone’s mind. That was her intent. It had been one of Zarqawi’s teams that had fired the mortar at almost point blank range, directly at Louisa. This wasn’t just about taking down another scumbag; it was about revenge and the settling of a score. Over a year’s worth of work leading to this day, this moment.
She could taste it, metallic and bitter in her mouth: Payback.