The little drone made a low buzzing sound, a bit more than a dragonfly. It was about twice the size of that insect and weighed three and a half ounces. We were on the roof of a three-story building. The locals would have been unhappy if they knew, but so far, our presence was our little secret.
I’m Tommy Carmellini, and sneaking around is what the CIA pays me for. It’s in my job description somewhere. I was here today with Travis Clay and Joe Bob Sweet, who were what the agency likes to refer to as “covert operatives.”
I watched the drone soar above our heads, watched Clay maneuver it around with the joystick on the control unit until he was sure it was functioning properly and the telemetry was good. I checked the small television screen, adjusted the contrast and brightness, then nodded at Trav.
He flew the drone off the edge of the roof and dropped it gently, stopping at each window as it came up on the monitor.
We thought our guy was in this three-story apartment building—or what had once been an apartment building back when the people of Somalia paid rent and obeyed laws. They didn’t do either anymore.
Before we went in to get him, we wanted to know where in the building he was and who else was there, and in what rooms.
I watched the monitor over Travis’ shoulder, and when he flew the thing to the next window, I glanced around. We were squatting near a water tank. People on the street couldn’t see us, and people some distance away, or across the street in that dump building, who could couldn’t tell who we were or what we were up to.
Mogadishu reminded me of some sections of Newark and Detroit, only worse. Dirt streets, trash, abandoned vehicles and ruined buildings, the stench of raw sewage, dirty people in rags carrying weapons . . . all in all, I thought it looked like hell might look when I got there. Seventeen years of civil war had brought them to this.
Believe it or not, when I joined the CIA I thought I would be spending my time in Europe or Russia or exotic places like China or Istanbul. I did a little of that, sure, but these days it seemed that the third—no, make that the fourth—world had my name upon it. Tommy Carmellini.
Using a device that picked up electromagnetic energy, I checked the satellite transceiver mounted on the roof one more time. It was hot. As amazing as it sounds, someone in the building was on the Internet.
After the drone had looked in every window, Travis flew it back to the roof and we conferred. The third-floor rooms were empty except for one man, who we thought was the guy we were after. Travis stowed the drone in his backpack.
I checked across the roof. Joe Bob Sweet was hunkered behind the remains of a chimney, keeping watch on the street below, the main drag.
Like me, Travis and Joe Bob were wearing dashikis and sported unruly beards. They also wore sweatbands that kept long, unkempt hair out of their eyes. Compared to them, I looked like a boot recruit. We smelled as bad as we looked.
I nodded at my two colleagues, who had their backpacks on and their weapons in their hands, then opened the door that led down into the building. I was following the wire from the satellite antenna. The installation expert hadn’t bothered to drill holes in the walls or floors to get the wire out of the way; he had merely unrolled the thing, so it ran down the steep stairs, then along the poorly lit, trash-infested hallway to a closed door. The insulated wire ran under the door.
My little EMI receiver indicated the wire was hot.
Travis and Joe Bob already had silenced MP-5s in their hands. I put the electronic gizmo away and got out my Ruger with the silencer on the barrel. Travis looked at me and I looked at him as I slowly turned the knob on the door. Didn’t see any locks. After all, locks only kept honest people out, and in Somalia, there weren’t many of those folks left alive.
The door moved a millimeter.
I took a deep breath and opened it slowly, oh so slowly.
There was a guy sitting at a table by the window with his back to me. He was staring at a computer monitor. Didn’t see anyone else.
I walked across the space between us as slowly and silently as I could. The man must have seen my reflection in the computer screen, because he turned suddenly, startled. I jammed the silencer barrel against his teeth, and he froze.
Travis was right behind me. Joe Bob charged for the open doorway that led into another room, a room we couldn’t see.
Fear. I could see it in the eyes of my guy. He was one scared fella, which was fine with me. He had a right to be. If he even twitched, I was going to kill him as dead as a man can get. Maybe he saw that in my face, because he remained frozen, immobile, as I turned him slightly and began checking him for weapons.
Behind me I heard a single shot, then a stutter from the MP-5. Then another. I didn’t even turn around.
Travis went charging for the other room. He was in there too long.
“Joe Bob caught one.”
Shit! I thought this floor was empty!
The shot must have been heard all over this building. We had mere seconds.
“Help me,” I said urgently.
Travis whipped out a plastic tie and secured my computer guy’s hands behind his back. Then he pulled out a preloaded syringe from a bag on his belt. “Sweet’s gut shot,” he said. “A fucking kid.”
“Where’d he come from?”
The computer guy was trying to watch Travis and me; his eyes got big as saucers when he saw the syringe. Whatever he had been expecting, that wasn’t it.
Clay didn’t bother pulling up the guy’s sleeve or any of that nurse stuff; he merely jabbed the syringe needle through the dirty shirt straight into the muscle and pushed the plunger.
The guy collapsed before Clay could get the syringe put away. Clay stepped quickly back into the other room.
I stowed the Ruger and checked out the computer, which was an old IBM clone. I was prepared to operate—take out the hard drive—but saw that the computer box wasn’t very big. I jerked the plugs off it, stuffed it into my backpack and carefully put both arms through the armholes.
I ran the three steps into the other room. Joe Bob had taken a slug right in the gut, then put three into the kid’s heart. I merely glanced at the kid, sprawled across a filthy mattress. I saw he was small and dead; his pistol lay near his hand.
Joe Bob was on one knee, bleeding.
“Help me get him up,” I grunted at Travis. The two of us lifted Joe Bob onto my shoulder. He weighed about a hundred and eighty, so I wasn’t going to move fast with him there. “Goddamn fat slob,” I told Sweet as I walked into the other room. Travis picked up the computer guy like he weighed about fifty pounds and tossed him over his shoulder. Clay weighed maybe a hundred and fifty, but it was all muscle and bone.
“We got him,” I said into my headset and received two mike clicks in reply.
Away we went, back the way we had come onto the roof. Kept going to another roof, then another. I wasn’t going fast, not with Joe Bob draped over my shoulder and his MP-5 in my hands. If anyone was curious about the gunshot, they were waiting for the news to fi nd them.
I could hear the chopper coming. Glanced around, saw it and stepped out where the pilot could see me. It was an Italian chopper and carried the markings of an Italian petroleum company.
There was just enough room on that roof. The pilot eased that thing in there slick as a whistle, and Travis tossed our prisoner through the open door onto the floor, then scrambled aboard. The crewman on the chopper helped me with Joe Bob, then grabbed my hand and I vaulted in.
The floor came up and threatened to hit me in the face.
I turned and glanced at Travis, who was bent over Joe Bob working on him. He didn’t have to say anything to me. I could see Joe Bob’s pasty face and see his eyelids flutter as he tried to remain conscious. We were going to have to get him to a doctor quick or he was going to die.
The bad news was that the nearest doctor and surgical facility were at a French base in Tadjourah, Djibouti, which was at least eight hours away by chopper.
I looked at the unconscious computer guy and wondered if he was worth the life of Joe Bob Sweet, a twenty-nine-year-old Texan, a Special Forces sergeant on temporary duty with the CIA, an all-around good guy and father of two little towheaded kids.
The chopper flew us northwest toward our base. Joe Bob bled out during the flight. After a while the brown eyes in his chalk face focused on infinity, and Travis and I could get no reaction from him. No pulse. No respiration.
I took a seat by the door and watched Africa go by.
A V-22 Osprey delivered us to the desert two weeks ago, to a site the experts had picked for us. Actually it was in Ethiopia, not Somalia, but I am probably not supposed to say that. I don’t think anyone in the American government asked the Ethiopians if we could use their desert, but I am something of a cynic. It was about as lonely a place as one could find on the planet, and conditions were a bit Spartan. We hammered a tube into the ground to piss in and dug a hole to poop in. We erected four tents, built up dirt berms around them to stop shrapnel and bullets, and between them built a food and ammo dump below ground level. Two of the tents were for the other guys to sleep in, one housed the com gear, and one was mine. All mine. With my own cot and vermin and flashlight. I felt like an Eagle Scout.
We did some serious camping. The sand and dirt got into everything, including our food. We bitched a lot, but that didn’t help. Gave up shaving. And bathing. Worked out every day, cleaned our weapons and played cards. At one point I was $152,000 ahead, but I lost twenty grand and the deed to my ranch the next day when one of the guys filled an inside straight. I tried to keep my gambling wealth in proper perspective; the bastards would never pay off.
This afternoon when we arrived in a cloud of dirt, the other guys got busy refueling the chopper while I sent an encrypted message via satellite telephone to my current—and I hoped temporary—boss, Jake Grafton, head of Middle Eastern covert ops for the CIA, telling him we had Omar Ali and one KIA.
Walk into a room and collect a bullet in the gut from a kid.
Truth was, I suspected, that Joe Bob hesitated half a second when he saw it was just a kid . . . and the kid drilled him while he hesitated.
You can train and train and train until you are eligible for your pension, but in the real world, you are going to hesitate for just an instant.
So the boy shot Joe Bob, and he still had to kill him.
We put Joe Bob in a body bag and settled in with beer to wait for Ali to wake up. He slept the rest of the afternoon.
Our two interrogation experts checked him from time to time to ensure he wasn’t oversedated, and we got on with the evening meal, which consisted of MREs and Tabasco sauce. Man, you eat that stuff for weeks, you become a hot sauce junkie.
The interrogation guys, Joe and Skeeter, talked to me over a beer, ensuring they knew precisely the information we wanted from Ali. This certainly wasn’t the first guy this team had snatched and, if the world kept turning, wouldn’t be the last. In fact, snatching bad guys was our mission, why the Company sent us here in the first place. What with all the Islamic fundamentalist rebels, terror groups and jihadists, we were in no danger of running out of bad guys any time soon. Looked like a career to us.
What happened to them after we squeezed them dry kinda depended on how bad each dude was. Real bad actors went into a hole in the ground. Guys from mud-hut villages who were doing the bad-guy thing because they were bored, or it was the only game in town, could be sent to Gitmo, there to rot while American politicians wrung their hands and wept. Gofers and kids and hangers-on could be relocated in the middle of the night and turned loose with an admonition to go forth and sin no more. No one knew if they did or didn’t—sin anymore—but there is a place in this world for hope.
Omar Ali was a case in point. He was the computer geek for a pirate named Ragnar up the coast from Mogadishu. This past summer Ragnar’s boys captured a yacht with four adults on it, two men, two women, and Ali got busy on the Internet trying to find out what these four captives might be worth in the ransom market. Then the gig went sour, somehow, and the pirate captain on the yacht killed all four of them.
So our boy Omar Ali was up to his nuts in conspiracy, piracy and murder. He also knew all about the pirates, who, what, where, when and why, how they operated, and so on. Hence the snatch.
That night we sat in the African dirt, stuffed with food containing enough preservatives to mummify King Tut, which we had washed down with Tabasco sauce and beer, looking at the stars on a black African night while we waited for Omar Ali to wake completely up. We talked about everything on the planet except Joe Bob Sweet. Finally the encrypted satellite phone started buzzing.
It was Jake Grafton, my boss.
Now don’t get me wrong; I personally like Grafton and have worked for him several times through the years. It’s just that the stuff he handled these days was usually red hot, and in dump places, like the Middle East and the horn of Africa. I am on the Company payroll as a tech-support guy, which means I crack safes, plant and monitor bugs, tap telephone lines, diddle with other people’s computers, stuff like that, usually in fairly decent places, like Europe or China or Japan or Australia or Canada or California or Washington or . . . Oops, I’m probably not supposed to mention the stateside stuff. Anyway, Grafton borrowed me from time to time to handle chores for him. Like I said, I liked him well enough but wanted our professional association to be temporary, and the more temporary, the better.
Tonight, after exchanging pleasantries with me, he said, “The Osprey is coming for Ali. Put him and Sweet on it.”
“You want us to find out what he knows before we send him?”
“No. That wouldn’t play well in an American court.”
I couldn’t believe it. Just when you think there are no more surprises left in life. “They’re actually going to try this guy? Let him lawyer up and cry for the cameras?”
“Justice thinks they got enough on this dude to lock him up for life. They want to give it a whirl.”
“Yessir. But after the press release, don’t plan on us going back to Mogadishu to snatch anyone else. It’ll be impossible.”
“I’m sorry about Joe Bob, Tommy. I’ll write a letter to his wife, and we’ll send someone to see her, get the process started. Ain’t much, I know, but Joe Bob signed on for the king’s shilling and knew the risks.”
Sympathy was not one of Grafton’s major virtues. Maybe he had seen too many corpses.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Tell the guys to hang tough, Tommy.”
“We need more beer and gasoline for the generator.”
“You got it.”
Omar Ali went flying out of our lives an hour later. After we had off- loaded the fuel drums and some boxes of rations, we put Ali on the V-22 Osprey with his computer. We strapped him to a stretcher and gave him another shot, so he was sleeping like a baby. Joe Bob’s corpse went on, too. The tilt-rotor Osprey lifted off, raising the usual cloud of dirt, and flew away low with its lights off, across the desert toward the sea.
We put on flea powder and cleaned our weapons again and used the hole in the ground.
“Next time it could be you or me,” Travis Clay muttered. “Any one of us. Or all.”
“Yeah,” I said and tossed him another beer.
Excerpted from Pirate Alley by Stephen Coonts. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Coonts.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
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