Contract to kill, p.1
Contract to Kill, p.1Andrew Peterson
Also by Andrew Peterson
First to Kill
Forced to Kill
Option to Kill
Ready to Kill
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Andrew Peterson
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
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Cover design by Chris McGrath
To the memory of Patricia Taylor (1925–2015). Aunt Pat was a matriarch in our family—her kindness and compassion will be missed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shindand District of western Afghanistan
Tanner Mason tuned out the engine’s drone and fought off a nagging fatigue. Outside the comfort of his vehicle, if he could call it that, a drab desert loomed under a twilight sky. Anything not beige was either brown or gray.
Looking around the cramped interior, he wondered if the MRAP truly was mine resistant and ambush protected. So far it hadn’t been tested, which was just fine with him. He’d seen the hulks of other MRAPs in the scrapyard, and some of them looked pretty bad. Fortunately, his employer spared no expense when it came to protecting his people. Mason didn’t know what one of these twenty-five-ton babies cost, but the Marine Corps variant, the 6x6 Cougar, went out the door at $750,000.
Mason’s convoy held four vehicles, three of them belonging to Beaumont Specialists, Inc., plus one German unit for support. This was a private-military-contractor mission, with Mason in command.
Each MRAP held ten men, consisting of two operators and eight combat personnel. Mason didn’t like the term “mercenary” and never referred to himself or his men that way. They were private military contractors. PMCs. Technically, they were guns for hire, but didn’t that describe all combat troops?
Sitting across from him, Chip Hahn looked straight ahead with his usual neutral expression. A Korean American, Chip was the same age as Mason at forty-one. He’d rarely met a tougher individual than Chip, and he valued him as his second-in-command. Chip had once said that Mason looked like the blond villain from Die Hard. Mason conceded a slight resemblance—at least from the neck up. The rest of Mason mirrored a professional cage fighter, because he’d once been one.
Today’s objective sat in the middle of a remote village sandwiched between two seasonal river basins. A local bigwig known as Mullah Sanjari had been positively identified as the man responsible for coordinating and conducting more than two dozen IED and RPG attacks against coalition forces. BSI’s mission was twofold. First, kill or capture the mullah. And second, recover or destroy any weapons or ordnance found inside his walled compound.
Over the past eight days at varying times, Mason’s convoy had driven in and out of the village without incident. Their MRAPs would roll in, drive around, and then leave. The strategy created a sense of normalcy, a ploy that had worked well in other locations.
Today would be different.
Mason made eye contact with Chip and mouthed, You okay?
Butterflies, Chip mouthed back.
Mason nodded. Me too. He pressed the transmit button and spoke calmly through his boom mic. “Two minutes. Final weapons and radio check. Everyone check in with squad leaders.”
After the sequence of radio calls ended, Mason told his troops, “No one hesitates. We shoot first and sort things out later. Sixty seconds.”
Just inside the village, the convoy detoured east to avoid using the same route they’d taken the day before. The ride got rougher as the convoy increased its speed.
Mason received his twenty-second call from the driver.
“Everyone brace yourselves. We’ll be braking hard. Turret gunners on my mark. Ten seconds.”
The M2 gunners were already in their slings, so all they had to do was straighten up.
The roar of the engine stopped and the rear doors flew open.
“All squads, move out!”
Warm air assaulted Mason’s face as he started a mental stopwatch.
As rehearsed, the Germans fanned out to position themselves at each cross street.
Mason yelled, “Eighty-fours!”
Half a dozen stun grenades flew over the compound’s wall toward the buildings in the northeast corner.
Concussive blasts shook the wall, creating waterfalls of dust.
One of Mason’s men stepped forward and used a shotgun to make a ballistic breach of the compound’s only door.
In a crouch, Mason led the assault team through the opening.
He pivoted toward the buildings and saw three ethereal forms materialize through the dust and smoke.
Mason dropped to one knee, leveled his M4, and waited an extra second to verify they were enemy combatants. They were. AK-47s had a distinctive shape.
Before the Taliban could recover from the stun grenades, Mason fired three quick bursts.
Two went down, but even with multiple chest wounds, the third gunman tried to bring his AK up.
Hahn finished him while Mason changed magazines.
The rest of Alpha squad followed them over to the closest building and ducked next to its wall.
He’d keep Bravo and Charlie outside until needed. If this turned into a Taliban trap, there was no sense in risking more than one squad.
Although Mason spoke Arabic, he nodded to his translator, who yelled for anyone inside to surrender. When no one responded, Mason issued a hand signal. His men stayed low, broke the windows, and tossed stun grenades into the buildings.
More concussive thumps compressed the air.
At the fifteen-second mark, a single muffled shot rang out.
“Bravo, advance, advance!”
Mason used a forefinger to point at the door next to him, then drove a fist into his palm, like a hockey referee signaling a boarding penalty.
Bravo breached the door and entered the building, leapfrog style. Calls of “clear” sounded as each room was searched and secured.
Mason and Chip followed them inside through air smelling like rotten eggs and burned electrical wiring. In the back room, his men stood around the source of the gunshot. Rather than be captured, Mullah Sanjari had taken his own life.
Chip put a forefinger to his lips and pointed to a rug under the table.
Mason issued a hand signal for everyone to clear the room, putting a wall between them and the mullah’s chamber.
“Go get Hutch,” Mason whispered to Hahn. “It could be rigged with an IED.”
As Hahn left, Mason signaled for his men to hold positions. Special Agent Hutch worked for the ATF as an explosives and arson expert, and his experimental embedment with BSI’s special ops unit was being evaluated by the ATF brass. As far as Mason was concerned, Hutch was an invaluable asset, and Mason hoped he’d be able to keep him permanently. Mason really liked the ATF guys because they treated him and his contractor colleagues like equals.
Hutch appeared twenty seconds later.
“Sergeant Hahn thinks we’ve got something under the rug. Give it a look. I’ll cover you.”
Mason took a knee, pulled his Glock, and nodded to Hutch. He pointed his weapon at the center of the rug as Hutch flattened himself on the dirt floor. Before pulling the rug aside, the ATF agent checked its entire undersurface for trip wires. Beneath the rug, a three-foot piece of plywood served as a trapdoor entrance to a typical spider hole.
Hutch rechecked it for trip wires, then produced a pen magnet and slowly passed it over the entire surface of the plywood. He looked at Mason and issued a thumbs-up. Hutch made a three-finger gesture with his right hand, then grabbed the plywood with his left hand.
Mason nodded, and Hutch counted to three with his fingers. On three, Hutch flung the trapdoor aside and rolled away from it. Mason squinted and kept his handgun pointed at the dark hole.
In Arabic, he ordered anyone who might be hiding to speak up and identify himself. When nothing happened, he looked at Hahn and made a gesture like breaking a twig. Hahn reached into his belly pack and removed a couple of light sticks. He snapped them, shook their contents, and tossed them into the hole.
Hutch rolled back to the hole and peered inside. “Jackpot.”
“What have we got?”
“A shitload of RPG and mortar rounds,” Hutch said. “They’re stacked in wooden crates. It also looks like there’s close to fifty thousand rounds of AK ammo . . . Chinese made.”
Mason looked at Hahn and Hutch. “You two get down there and check it out. Don’t touch anything until SA Hutch clears and photographs it.” He pushed his transmit button. “We’re checking out an underground chamber. All squads maintain positions.”
Hutch followed Hahn down a primitive log ladder.
“We’ve also got a cardboard box full of ball bearings,” Hutch said. “There’s some electronic shit, batteries, cell phones, wires, and thumb switches. I’d say we’re looking at a bona fide IED factory. It looks like someone’s been prying AK rounds apart for the powder. Gotta be several thousand empty casings down here . . . Wait, there’s another box under the table. Holy shit!”
“What?” Mason asked.
“Greenbacks,” Hutch said.
From the hole, Hahn issued a low whistle.
“I’m coming down.”
Mason told the rest of his squad to stay alert and then descended the ladder. Hahn pointed his flashlight into the box, and Mason stared in stunned disbelief. He’d heard of this, but he’d never seen it. After all the violence he’d seen in Afghanistan, he thought it strange that a box of cash would affect him so strongly. He felt its undeniable attraction even as he despised the ugliness it represented. Temptation came in many forms, but this had to be one of its most powerful lures. A childhood memory surfaced of finding a twenty-dollar bill on the street outside a video arcade. Mason had been exhilarated. It was like discovering a pirate’s treasure. He’d known about money—the tooth fairy had left him a few quarters—but he’d never held a twenty-dollar bill before. Later that night, he’d studied it with a magnifying glass, every little detail. Someday, he’d vowed, he’d have lots of bills like that.
He sensed Hahn’s stare and averted his eyes from the money. As inviting as it might be to pocket several bundles, Mason resisted the urge. Blood money, he thought. This stuff paid for dead soldiers.
“How much is it?” Hahn asked.
Mason picked up a bundle of twenties and thumbed it. “Each wad is probably two grand. Some of them are fifties and hundreds. I’d say we’re looking at a minimum of two hundred grand.”
“What’s this guy doing with so much cash?”
“We’ll let command figure that out. After Hutch checks the box, we’ll take it with us. You’re on the money, Sergeant. None of it disappears on the way to HQ.”
“No sir, it won’t.”
Mason climbed out of the hole and told his interpreter to make a video recording of the entire compound to document the kills, the secret bomb-making stash, and all its contents. Maybe the CIA had a way to trace the cash. For all Mason knew, the money might be marked. Again, not his concern.
Once the video was complete, he had his men move the dead Taliban over to the compound’s door. He saw no reason to deny his enemy proper burials. Mason then ordered photos taken of all the KIAs for the CIA’s facial-recognition software. He sent Hahn into the hole to collect the cash and bomb-making materials, but told him to leave the AK ammo, RPGs, and mortar rounds there.
Next, Mason’s engineer put several C4 blocks in the spider hole with the remaining ordnance. Everyone hustled back to the MRAPs and crouched on their far sides.
After his squad leaders confirmed a head count, Mason nodded to his engineer, who detonated the charges.
Like the beginning of an earthquake, the ground shuddered.
Half a second later, a yellow-white fireball shot skyward, followed by a towering mushroom cloud. Secondary explosions rocked the compound as ordnance cooked off. Baseball-sized chunks of mud brick and splintered timbers bombarded the entire area, pinging off the MRAPs and surrounding buildings.
Chip stood and yelled, “Get some!”
Mason smiled and waved him back down.
He ordered his radio operator to relay the news: six Taliban dead, including Mullah Sanjari; a weapons cache and bomb-making center destroyed; and a large amount of US cash recovered. But most importantly, no friendly casualties had been taken. The raid on Mullah Sanjari’s compound was another gold star on BSI’s record.
A little over six minutes after arriving, the vehicles sped away.
Two clicks from the village, the terrain got steeper and more rugged. Before NATO’s ISAF troops arrived, the only access in and out of the village had been a footpath. Several years ago, bulldozers had carved it into a one-lane track. Although wider, it remained the village’s only access. For a click or so, the road weaved its way through a series of small canyons and seasonal creeks. The terrain sloped steeply away on one side and climbed sharply on the other. Coalition engineers had this road targeted for additional realignment, but it didn’t rank high on the priority list of projects. Mason had argued otherwise but to no avail.
A sudden radio call broke Mason’s thoughts.
The lead MRAP had eyes on a motorcyclist on the far side of the arroyos.
“Is he turning around?”
Solo motorcycles and scooters weren’t an uncommon sight, but all Afghans knew to avoid close contact with coalition convoys.
He couldn’t see Bravo’s MRAP, but the clatter of its .50 caliber M2 echoed across the rocky slopes like cracking thunder. Mason knew the salvo of white tracers sent an unmistakable message. If the motorcyclist kept coming, he would be fired upon.
Mason switched positions with his turret gunner to get an unobstructed look. When his vehicle cleared the next curve in the road, he brought his field glasses up. Four hundred meters distant, the motorcyclist had stopped where a dry creek crossed the road, but he wasn’t turning around.
Mason ordered a second warning burst.
More M2 fire roared from the lead MRAP, and this time Mason saw the tracers extend across the valley. They skipped off the road and raised a dust cloud. That did the trick. The man turned the motorcycle around and sped away in the opposite direction. He hadn’t gone ten meters when he lost control and went down.
Dumb shit, Mason thought. Through the magnified image, Mason watched the guy right the bike and repeatedly stomp on the starter pedal.
“Bravo, one more burst. Make it close.”
White tracers reached across the valley again. The motorcyclist ducked and covered his head. When the salvo ended, the man threw his arms up and kicked dirt toward the convoy. He was clearly frustrated at being forced to leave his ride behind. Well, too fucking bad. The idiot had picked a bad time to use this road—paid for with US taxpayer money and BSI’s blood.
The man began walking along the side of the road, constantly looking over his shoulder.
That’s right. Just give me an excuse.
Mason ordered the convoy to stop well short of the sidelined motorcycle. In an act of pure defiance, the man stopped walking and turned toward the convoy. He didn’t seem the slightest bit intimidated by the firepower facing him. Studying the guy more closely, Mason saw it was a younger man, but he had a hard look. Desert-schooled for sure. Mason grabbed the bullhorn’s mic with the intent of ordering the kid to keep going or die.
Without warning, the canyon’s wall erupted in three fierce blasts.
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