They heard the first gunshots when they were still half a mile outside of Khost. Both marines glanced at Harm, their ears no doubt interpreting the varied sounds as easily as his own. There were at least two handguns as well as several rifles involved in the sporadic exchange, and, unfortunately, it sounded like Anwar might have picked up some friends in town.
"Sounds like the party's started without us," Fontaine commented as all three men picked up their pace.
A few minutes later, the outskirts of Khost swallowed them. The gunfire had given way to silence. Dusty streets, hastily abandoned, reminded Harm of the westerns he'd watched as a kid. All they needed were some tumbleweed and a campy musical score.
Harm's radio crackled. He grabbed it, his eyes continuing to scan the darkened windows and doorways that lined the street along which they walked.
"Rabb," he answered.
"Where are you?" Clay's voice held its usual impatient edge, unobscured by the static filling the transmission.
Harm didn't have any breath left to joke around. "We just entered town." Clay would know which direction they were coming from, so additional details would only increase their risk. "Where's Anwar?"
"We've got him pinned down in a rug shop north of the mosque." Harm had seen the distinctive dome-shaped structure as they approached the city. "But if he breaks loose, he'll most likely be headed your way."
"How many people are with him?"
"Three or four."
"Roger that," Harm acknowledged.
He returned the radio to his belt as the three of them moved up the vacant street in a loose wedge. Corporal Fontaine had point with Harm and Corporal Ellis flanking him. Not long after, their path intersected a thoroughfare running almost directly East-West through the center of the town. The street was cobbled with sandstone blocks, and nearly wide enough for two cars to pass. Like the rest of the area, the street seemed deserted, though Harm caught an occasional glimpse of faces peering out at them from shadowed recesses.
"This will take us to the mosque, sir," Fontaine told him, indicating the new street.
Harm nodded and waved him forward, then turned his attention back to the empty shop fronts that surrounded them. If any of the civilians hiding inside had a weapon and decided to use it, they could be in a world of trouble.
They had only gone about a hundred yards when the sound of gunfire erupted again, this time much closer. The three soldiers immediately spread out, taking up defensive positions on either side of the street. Harm jammed his back against the rough adobe wall, eliciting a grunt of pain. Next to him, Corporal Fontaine dropped to one knee and raised his rifle.
Harm grabbed his radio. "Clay! What's going on up there?"
For a moment, only silence answered. Then the radio crackled and Clay's voice emerged, scratchy and filled with pain. "Heads up, Rabb. Anwar's got a vehicle."
Harm didn't have a chance to ask for any further details as the growl of a diesel engine starting split the air.
"Look sharp," he told the two corporals. "Anwar'll be headed our way any minute." The narrow streets guaranteed it. A heavy vehicle wouldn't fit down anything but the boulevard on which they stood. He motioned to Fontaine to follow him as he backed toward the nearest doorway.
Harm drew on his crash course in Marine Recon as he cleared the interior of the little shop, earning him a nod of surprised approval from the corporal. The shop's proprietor had wisely departed out the back, so they took cover in the open doorway. Across the street, Corporal Ellis was doing the same.
"It ain't much of an ambush, sir, but it'll have to do," Fontaine concluded.
Harm didn't have time to answer as a drab-colored truck rounded the corner at high speed. Like many trucks in that part of the world, the back of the truck was covered in canvas that flapped on its iron frame. Harm spotted two men in the cab, their faces obscured behind a web of cracks in the windshield.
Across the street, Ellis opened fire. Harm and his companion followed suite, concentrating on the driver of the vehicle. Harm saw the white-shirted figure jerk spasmodically at the same time as something small and dark arced toward their position and bounced in the dust in front of their feet.
"Grenade!" Fontaine yelled.
Instinctively, Harm threw himself backward, away from the threat. The grenade exploded in a roar of heat and dust. Harm felt a flash of pain as he slammed into the ground. For a moment, he lay stunned, feeling the patter of falling debris and bits of plaster on his scalp as it rained down around him. Apparently he'd lost his helmet. Through the ringing in his ears, he could hear the splatter of gunfire.
"Fontaine?" he rasped. He coughed to clear his lungs, the spasm sending a red wave of pain through him. "You okay?"
The gunfire stopped. Groaning, Harm forced himself to roll over. Through the gaping hole that had once been the doorway, he could see tail end of the truck. As he watched, a man jumped down from the back—Anwar.
Harm shoved himself to his feet. A little ways away, Fontaine lay on his side, both hands clasping a shrapnel wound in his stomach. He looked like he was barely clinging to consciousness.
Staggering, Harm grabbed his rifle from where it had fallen and went to the hole in the wall. Across the street, he could see one of Ellis's boots sticking out of his doorway, the rest of his body hidden by shadow inside the building. Harm couldn't tell if he was dead or not, but he wasn't moving.
Anwar walked around to the near side of the truck and headed for the cab. He opened the driver's door and began to pull the man's limp form out from behind the wheel.
Harm cautiously approached, his rifle trained on his quarry. Anwar didn't notice him until he was only a couple of yards away. The terrorist spun around, his hand going to his waistband where the butt of a handgun protruded from his belt.
Harm pulled the trigger. About halfway through the motion, the rifle jammed. Harm had only a moment to realize his weapon must have been damaged in the blast before finding himself on the wrong end of Anwar's .45. He froze.
"Drop the rifle." Anwar's English was clear, though tinged with a German accent. "And your belt."
Harm obeyed slowly, tossing his useless rifle aside and then unfastening the utility belt that held, among other things, his sidearm. He tossed that away, too, his gaze never leaving Anwar, and raised his hands.
Harm took two steps backward. Around them, nothing moved.
"Turn around and get down on your knees." Anwar watched him calmly over the pistol sights.
Harm realized his opportunities were rapidly dwindling, but there was little he could do. The terrorist wisely kept his distance, making it impossible for Harm to try to take the gun. So he obeyed—slowly—hoping for a miracle. The rough edges of the paving stones sent spikes of pain through his knees, but that paled against the sharp stab of each breath. A little voice in his head whispered to him that he was about to die. He closed his eyes for a bitter moment, reflecting. How cruel was it that a third generation of Rabbs would be forced to grow up without a father?
"Your son is safe, Anwar," he said abruptly. "He's with his grandfather."
Rubber scraped against stone as Anwar took a step closer. "Why would you tell me such a thing, American? Are you trying to threaten me?"
Harm opened his eyes, staring at the grenade-ravaged store front in front of him. His only hope lay in this single connection between them. "No threat." An image of Mac filled his mind's eye—her proud, glowing smile at the thought of the life growing inside her. "I just… thought you'd want to know he's safe. You won't be able to go back for him."
There was a short pause. "We must all make sacrifices, commander," Anwar said softly.
Harm felt something slam into the back of his head, and everything went away.