(Thanks to Caty for Beta-ing.)
I love a bit of proper soldiering.
No mystery. No grey areas. We are here to do bad things to a bad man.
Who put my little girl at risk.
I'm still trying not to take my luck as a good omen. The Major filled me in on exactly who Baryktabasov has been making friendly with lately and sent out feelers to find where he might be hiding Arlington. In six hours I not only had a verified location, I had a schematic of the compound.
And a patrol.
Seems the Major is missing a bit of proper soldiering himself.
"Security gets a bit boring, but while I'm sure my client would not take it amiss if Baryktabasov were to end up collateral damage, I won't turn my company into a mercenary operation. Fortunately, he will be out of the country for the next couple days. I've pulled in two men I can trust from the field. That's all that can go missing for a night without raising any red flags. Now I was thinking Mac and Lister can take the south entrance..."
"Hold it. Are you sure about these numbers?" I ask. "Seems to me with the VIP they would have upped security."
It's a small compound around the mobster-with-aspiration's typically ostentatious house so it takes me and Mehrjui an hour to hammer out an assault plan with Sod's Law contingencies. I am an unknown quantity Mehrjui doesn't trust, but he doesn't ride the issue and it's a nice surprise when he doesn't pull rank when it comes to tactics. We are able to come up with something were both happy with. It's insane, but they don't pay us the small money for sane.
Still, it's nice to gear up in the black Nomex and greasepaint, carrying a small arsenal to make some proper mayhem to take out a proper bastard.
Now, waiting in the jeep in the dark on the edge of the property, I mentally run through the tactical plan as I check my gear; the fist-sized black canisters of flash bang grenades stowed on the opposite side from the standard L2A2 grenades, ka-bar knife, extra magazines for my HK MP5 rifle and the P-226 pistol, extra Hatton rounds for the sawed off Remington 870 shotgun strapped to my thigh. My PLCE webbing keeping everything exactly where it is supposed to be. Happy bunnies. I feel the beginnings of the adrenaline pumping through my blood as that odd calm washes over me.
The Major is quietly abusing the Americans while he uses night vision goggles to observe a canine unit passing along the perimeter of the chain link fence.
The evening breeze wafts the smell of lemon blossoms from the garden and there is a passing warm sensation on my back where the poem is tucked into my belt, but I swallow the sharp ache down and reply mildly, "Yanks aren't all bad."
"...Blonde or brunette?"
"Gingers aren't American or British," he lectures. "They're gingers. They need their own homeland."
I make of show of considering this. "I'd book my next leave there."
"You, me, and half the male population."
"Team two, in position," comes over our earphones and the Major gives the order to move up through the outer perimeter fence and the woods surrounding the house. We have a nine minute window to go over the fence and move through the woods to the inner wall. Plenty of time.
While team two moves to cover both entrances to the house, Mehrjui and I will go through the garden and around the garage to enter the house from the west side, working our way up the kitchen stairs and then back down to meet the second team for extraction.
We reach the garden wall and wait for the signal.
Suppressors, popularly misnamed "silencers," only cover the supersonic noise of the bullet and the muzzle flash. Even with them guns still make plenty of noise and soon the cracks of the exploding gunpowder fill the night air as Mac and Lister go to town, causing maximum confusion while keeping their exact locations unknown. The security staff open fire too quickly to be of any use, and soon it sounds like WWII.
That's the signal.
Heart pounding with mingled terror and anticipation of the hunt, jacked up with adrenaline to the point I feel like Superman. I find the cool space between the two that gets me in the zone, bringing everything into crystal sharp focus.
It's up and over the gardeners shed and we're in.
We ghost along the inner wall. I take out one security guard in front and out of my peripheral vision watch another in the garden drop. Mac is covering us. We reach the corner of the three car garage and check the front of the house to see how Lister is holding it down. While he has good coverage for anyone approaching from the main gate, he doesn't have the best firing position for the entrance itself and two of Baryktabasov's muscle have managed to find shelter.
Mehrjui ducks back, flinching as a round strikes the corner of the garage. "Cheeky bastard!"
"By the column," he replies.
I swing out as we both take aim and fire. "That'll teach him."
The second one is in the shelter of the doorway, from what we can hear of his panicked screaming and pounding on the door, he has been locked out. Not only is this funny as hell, this means there is a good chance our goose has not flown.
As we move to go through the patio doors, Mac comes over the coms.
"D, did you switch entry points?"
"Negative," Mehrjui replies as I try the doors.
"I think we have a new player, doesn't look local. Just went in one of the eastern ground floor windows."
The major and I look at each other in the dark. Shit. But "Roger," is his only reply.
Baryktabasov hasn't skimped on the structural security. The glass in the doors to the patio is shatterproof, forcing me to announce our presence using a Hatton round to blow the lock. Mehrjui rolls a flash bang in the room and we duck as it goes off. He then hits one guard that was in the room in the chest while I drop another that had poked his gun in the doorway. We hold our guns at the ready as we clear the room. The acrid smell of the grenade hangs in the air and my heart races as we listen to the sounds of the house.
Most of the gunfire is coming from outside. No noise on this floor. No sign of the new player. Target must upstairs. Shouts from above and footsteps moving down the marble stairs, we have to move before we are trapped in this room.
I take the lead into the foyer and drop two men coming down the main stairs, which confirms to the entire house to our location.
"Information, preparation, and bugger all," Mehrjui says.
With a curt nod from me we abandon our plan to go up the kitchen stairwell and move quickly up the main stairs, trying to cover the opposite rail and second floor landing above our heads. Two shooters are sheltered behind the second story walls, pinning us on the lower stairs. I lob a flash bang like a cricketer bowling straight up and over the second story landing, turning away from the light and noise as we run up the stairs to leave two more bodies on the deck.
More shouts, gunshots down the hall. Instinctively we both move towards it.
Lister's voice rings in my ear. "D, I have reinforcements flanking my position."
"Shoot and scoot."Mehrjui replies, advising him to retreat while engaging sporadically to keep the enemy confused to our numbers and location.
I have a fucking heart attack as a bloke pops out of a doorway almost into my face, looking as surprised as I feel. His shot swings wide. He's too close for the MP5 to use except as a bludgeon, so I jam it under his jaw, throwing him back. Double tap and done.
In the meantime, Mehrjui has been covering our rear, downing two more in the hall. Anyone thinking of coming out now is having second thoughts.
I give myself a second for my heart to move down out of my throat. I hear a voice, an American voice, begging, in a room down the hall.
All caution gone I run to the room the voices are coming from and kick the door in, just as there is a gunshot.
In the dim light from outside, I find I am covering the brunette I saw outside my flat. Who has his gun trained on me. Fuck.
Three bodies in the room, Arlington among them lying vacant eyed on the floor, half his brains scattered across the furniture. FUCK!
"Who are you?" I demand loudly, letting Mehrjui know we aren't alone.
"You did not think you were the only loose end Mr. Arlington attempted to get rid of, did you?" His accent is RP with a slight shirring of the Levant. He is already moving towards the double doors leading to the balcony, keeping his gun level with my face the entire time.
"You're with Sharq, trying to build a better Afghani tomorrow." I quip sarcastically, just managing to keep the anger and frustration out of my voice.
The bastard actually laughs a bit, "If you want a bunch of idiots to fly a plane into a building, you get a true believers. If you want an intelligence issue resolved, you hire…."
"I was going to say "...a professional."" He reaches behind him to flip the catch on the balcony doors. "Zahir Sharq is a valued client, nothing more."
"So what now? Do I have to track that rat bastard down just to sleep at night?"
"Even if you could Sergeant Porter, Mr. Sharq has greater concerns than pursuing petty personal vendettas across the globe. If you stay out of his business, you have nothing to fear from him. But I do have something to fear from your new friend the Major, so I thank you for your assistance getting to Mr. Arlington and bid you good night." And with that final dig at my professional ego, he is out the door.
"Fucking prick!" My curse is followed by gunfire as Mehrjui, who had made his way onto the balcony from another room, follows him to the banister.
I'm on the balcony right behind him, but the assassin is gone.
"SHIT!" We both echo, looking like idiots pointing out guns at nothing as we hear another security team start to sweep the house. We both look to the garage and without asking, start moving towards it.
"Arlington?" Mehrjui asks as the gunfire starts up again behind us and we break into a run.
He doesn't even blink, but taps his com. "Abort, abort, abort."
We cover the other as we each make the eight foot jump to the top of the garage and then down to the ground. Moving as quickly as safety will allow us to cover our arses, we make our way to the back wall.
I just hit the ground on the other side when Mehrjui opens up from the top of the wall at three guys trying to flank us from the right. One down, one still moving on the ground, the third gets behind a tree and stays there. There's no time to deal with him. After Mehrjui hits the ground we leg it through the trees back to the outer perimeter, breaking speed records as we hear the dogs coming through the wood. They snap at our heels as we go up and over, run for the jeep, and get the fuck out of dodge.
We've half a mile down the road when I flip the safety on my 226. They aren't following. Probably waiting for orders from the absent Baryktabasov. Mehrjui checks the coms and confirms that the others got away safely.
My quarry was snatched out from under me. I have nothing to bring back to my C.O.. I rip my com off and throw it on the dash with a "Fuck!"
Still, I remind myself, any op you walk away from…
Mehrjui and I exchange a look and we both start sniggering, and then laughing in our relief, exhaling the extra tension out as our minds and bodies switch to a lower gear.
It peters out as he pulls the jeep over where he has stashed a Hyundai. We change into civilian clothes and ditch the jeep before getting on the M41 toward the site for my extraction.
"You're not bad for a complete fuck up, Sergeant." Mehrjui says into the silence as he pulls on the motorway.
"You're not bad for sitting on your arse for three years, Major."
"Dariush. "D" if that's too much for a British tongue."
"…What happened back there?"
I sketch out the scene in the bedroom and from there we compare notes on the entire assault until the silence stretches out again.
"So I take it you're not being run out of Sterling Lines?" he asks of the SAS HQ in Credenhill.
"Er…No. It's more of a joint effort between Military Intelligence, SAS, and MI6. "
I can't reveal more than that, so the silence returns. I watch Dariush's fingers tap on the steering wheel as he wrestles with questions he knows he can't ask.
Whether by Returned to Unit or by choice, it is never easy leaving the Regiment. A great many of us are never happy returning to regular military service after the freedom, action, and brotherhood of Special Forces. And most SAS troopers face sitting behind a civilian desk with the same horror an Arabian would being tied up in a stall for the rest of his life. So many blokes end up in the private security or mercenary fields.
But it's never quite the same.
It's four hours to the extraction site, so I let the Major wrestle.
Arrangements for the trip back aren't so hurried. A Merlin is picking me up the far side of the Tajikistan border for the trip back, hopping through the British FOB's until they can put me back on a C130 at Camp Bastion.
We cross the border at sunrise and find the extraction site in the Pamirsky National Park as the sun has cleared the horizon. The Merlin revs up as they see us approach.
"Wanna lift?" I ask him.
He says nothing, but sticks his hand out, looking at me with a second appraisal as I shake it.
As I am strapping myself in, I watch "D" as he pauses in the backwash.
"Ready?" the pilot asks through the headset.
"D" dashes up to jump in the Merlin and I give the pilot the thumbs up. Clipping himself in and donning a head set as we take off, he sits back in his seat and crosses his legs like he expects the flight attendant to bring his complimentary cocktail any minute now.
"So…are you going to tell me what the hell happened in Basra or not?"
After catching up on sleep in a couple spare bunks through a twelve-hour layover in Cypress, we touch down on English soil 56 hours after I left it, empty handed but knowing that danger is over and my Lexie is safe.
I've decided I'm o.k. with that.
Layla isn't. Her only whip hand over the CIA now a single recorded conversation on flash drive they can easily disavow. I suspect what really makes her unhappy is that she will have to apologize for seizing their agents. She grills us through the debriefing for hours, first me, then Dariush, then both of us, then me again.
"For fucks sake! I only saw him in the dark for a couple minutes, there was no time to look for him, and if I don't get something more to eat than crisps and donuts, I will shoot someone."
She glares, but responds primly, "You're free to go. I'll look over your reports and we'll go over them again tomorrow in case you remember something else."
"Great," I growl and head for the door.
I hear her pen tapping on the table as I reach it "...I seem to remember something about a celebratory drink?"
I buy the drinks, but she pays for the dinner. After getting some decent food in me I wonder what I so pissed off at her about. We chat about what I think of Dariush and possibly bringing in his company as Section 20's own front rather than using one of MI6's. I smirk, watching the officer build her little empire. I know who will keep it running just like the Sergeant's Mess always does. She seems to know that too.
"We're moving you to Camberwell," she says as we walk down the street from the restaurant. "It's not so fashionable, but it's closer to the office and you won't have to fight the traffic over Vauxhall Bridge. We should have your things there by tomorrow."
I guess I'll have to find a hotel for the night, but something is up. "If you're moving me to Camberwell, what are we doing in Greenwich?"
"…Look, John. I've haven't been soldier for as long as you have, but I have worked intelligence longer. Who you trust is everything in this business, and not just to get the job done. Early on, I got to know one agent on the civilian side. Tough, smart, brilliant instincts. Made section chief in MI5. Very cool, very dispassionate. Too dispassionate. She had detached herself from everything and everyone. Lots of people do in this line of work, to protect the people around them and protect themselves. Or so they think. It took me some time to work out that the only way to not only physically survive this job but emotionally survive it is to find the right people and trust them. You used to have the Regiment, your patrol, and your family for that, but that fell apart and you spent a long time on your own. Now you are playing the lone wolf and in the field you do it very well."
Layla stops us on the sidewalk. "But as much as your ego may sometimes flatter yourself, you are not James Bond. No one is. Even in the field you have made some good choices who to trust."
I shift uncomfortably in my shoes, watching the traffic. "Must be handy to have an in with Thames House."
"She died last year. On the job, trying to save the Home Secretary."
"The Summit Hotel bombing."
Layla nods. "I was out in the field, heard about it from Collinson. Six people went to her funeral. Just six. Mostly people she worked with. And she was probably fine with that, but I don't think I would and I don't think you would. More to the point, I think I have come to know you Sergeant and I think you need someone who wants you to come home in one piece. You need someone to come home to." She nods towards the shop window we're in front of.
I follow her gaze and my heart stops.
Kip stands against the polished wooden book shelves in the shop window talking to someone. Her silky, untamable hair falls down her back. The straight gold locks barely covering richer red loose curls near her neck, a gentle disarray that doesn't fit into the sleek fashionable lines of city life. Her soft, square, country-girl face, with a brain too smart and restless to remain there. Yet there was something too daft and willful and romantic to fit into this world. My world, where people are defined by their jobs, their roles. Solider, father. I remember how it ripped my heart out to have that taken from me. It nearly ended me until I could risk everything to get that back. Yet Kip defines herself by nothing, accept perhaps herself. She seems to accept that she doesn't fit, doesn't make sense, and carves her own way. Standing apart, her narrow dark green eyes watching the world warily, yet scratch the surface and she was laughter and warmth and softness. Warmth and softness I could wrap myself up in.
Her pale skin, smooth and lightly dusted with fading freckles, is as clean as it was on board ship. Her rose pink lips moving as she says something and smiles a bit. Sadly. But not cold. Never cold. Her strong body and long curves. I remember those curves, her skin, her scent, her heat as she held me, writhed against me. She didn't stand back from the fire, she was the fire.
"She's clean," Layla says, and I realize I'm gawking and move back from the window so as not to be seen. Layla chuckles and I give her a dirty look. "Dani did a very thorough check." I take a breath and look at the sidewalk, again squirming a bit. "Don't worry about Dani, she's come through far worse. Her ego will survive you."
I have had a couple good C.O.'s in the past, ones that counseled as well as commanded, but I didn't expect it from Stick-Up-Her-Arse Layla. "Thank you. Boss."
"I'm just taking care of my assets. The Green Slime wants you around for a long time to use and abuse." But she flushes with pride at the Regiment's informal term for a C.O., and she can't hide the smile.
I can't either.
She hands me a slip of paper. "She's in Blackheath. I have to run. "
"More work, Captain?"
"I have a date, Sergeant." She starts back to the car, calling over her shoulder, "I'll see you tomorrow. Noon."
And standing on the street, for the first time in a very long time, I feel like I am in the right place.
I'm sorely tempted to walk into the store to snog Kip breathless, but I doubt the scene would go down that smoothly and the reasons I had on the ship are still valid. If anything, this entire situation has proven how thin the walls are between my life out there and the home I have here. Nor could I be sure to be there for her as a man should be. I could never keep Dianne happy, and my life is even less predictable now.
But Kip isn't Dianne I think, watching her bend over to shelve a book.
Right Porter, like you could live in the same city as that arse and not try crawling into her knickers.
Hope there's a chemists on the way to Blackheath.
~Continued in Ch. 10 of "So I Met John Porter..."
P.S. Yes, there is a slight tip o' the chapeau in here to my favorite shooting team in modern fiction: Rifleman Daniel Hagman and Rifleman Harris of the Sharpe series, by Bernard Cornwell.