Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
The man scanned the room, and his eye fell on Hakeem. He walked slowly across the floor and stood before the honored guest. Then he spoke. “Hakeem.”
At the sound of the man’s voice, recognition flooded Hakeem, and he dropped to his knees in front of the man. Next to his father and his uncle Ali, this was the man most responsible for the warrior that Hakeem had become. He had taught Hakeem, trained Hakeem, disciplined Hakeem, prepared Hakeem, and sent Hakeem out into the world as a warrior for honor. This was the man who had created his cherished brass medallion so many years ago. If there was one man still alive whose approval Hakeem craved, it was this man. The Scorpion.
Hakeem bowed his head and said with deep reverence, “Al-’Aqran.”
Thursday, January 8
Chièvres Air Base
A sixteen-foot-long moving truck with French lettering on its side pulled up next to the plane moments after the C-37A Gulfstream V touched its wheels down at Chièvres Air Base in Belgium. Quickly, the men of the U.S. Air Force’s 309th Airlift Squadron helped Jim Hicks and his team transfer their equipment through the cold, steady rain.
Ten minutes later, the truck was on its way.
Hicks and his number-two man, Jay Kruse, sat up front, while the other six members of the team rode back in the box.
“Predator team, stay sharp,” Hicks radioed to the men in back. As a show of respect and as a nod to Riley Covington’s participation, Hicks had named the two ops teams after the PFL teams affected by the Platte River Stadium bombings. Hicks’s team was designated Predator team, while the team Scott Ross and Covington led was Mustang team.
Hicks had instructed the men in the rear to set up a mobile surveillance suite as they traveled. By the time they had completed the two-and-a-half-hour trek to Paris, they would be ready to go.
On the drive down, Hicks thought through the past week. He had continued to be impressed by Scott Ross’s abilities and even—though he hated to admit—by Riley Covington’s.
What was it about Covington that he didn’t like? Was it simply the fear that his relative inexperience would get people killed? If it were truly that, Hicks knew he wouldn’t have gone along with Scott’s plan from the beginning. He wouldn’t risk American lives for anyone’s feelings. Was it a personality thing? Maybe, but the man seemed like a genuinely decent guy—not the stuck-on-himself football prima donna Hicks had expected.
Am I jealous of the guy? Jim wondered. Do I want what he’s got? But what is it he’s got? I don’t want his lifestyle. I’ve got all the junk I need, and as for the spotlight, I much prefer life in the shadows.
Am I jealous of him and Khadi? I saw the way she was looking at him during our training week—ways I once hoped she’d look at me. But that was a long time ago. She’s much more like a daughter than a love interest now. What about Scott? C’mon, how could I be jealous of Riley Covington’s relationship with Scott?
A feeling in the pit of his stomach told Hicks that this last possibility might be truer than he had hoped. Okay, jealous of one guy’s relationship with another guy—that’s a realm I certainly don’t want to delve into.
But as he drove, he realized that despite their age difference and relatively short acquaintance, he had begun to see Scott as a true friend—something that he had rarely had in his life.
Hicks shook himself out of his introspection as the truck approached the northeastern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, located a little more than eight miles outside of the city center. The revelation that the explosives used in the Platte River Stadium attack had been French had come as no surprise to Hicks. The Parisian suburbs had been a hotbed for disgruntled Arab youth for a generation, and the region’s influence and importance in the world of terrorism were rapidly increasing. CIA sources within the Islamic youth movement had indicated with a strong certainty that the base for the Cause in France was in the neighboring communities of Aulnay-sous-Bois, Livry-Gargan, and Clichy-sous-Bois.
The truck turned off Boulevard Charles Floquet and parked at the top of Rue du Commandant Brasseur. The team’s target house was on the left side of the street, two from the bottom of the block. Their intelligence indicated that this house was a gathering place for an insurgent group that included two key leaders of the Cause. According to the report, the group was currently meeting in the house along with several soldiers. The strike team’s goal was to neutralize the soldiers and remove the leaders to a safe house where they could be held and interrogated.
A week’s worth of tension filled each man in the truck; this was the beginning of what they had been called together for.
At Hicks’s go-ahead, Jay Kruse slipped in the earbuds of an iPod nano and jumped out of the cab while Hicks joined the rest of the team in back by slipping through a door that had been cut between the back of the driver’s cab and the container box. Hicks watched on a monitor as Kruse waved his hand in front of the mini camera that had been hidden in his left earbud, and he banged the side of the truck once as acknowledgment that they were picking up the signal.
Kruse began walking toward the house. The whole team watched his progress on the monitor.
Suddenly the picture was completely obscured by something that as quickly disappeared. Ted Hummel, the team’s tech guru, burst out laughing.
“What was that?” Hicks demanded.
“That was the nano, sir,” Hummel replied. “Apparently old Kruser just discovered that I loaded the thing with nothing but Jerry Lewis.”
Hicks couldn’t help laughing with the rest of the team. “Okay, guys, keep focused.”
Kruse passed the house without slowing down and came to the end of the block. Everyone in the truck tensed as they watched his next move. If he proceeded straight across Boulevard de l’Hôtel de Ville, it meant everything was clear from his perspective. A left turn meant abort.
Kruse stopped at the corner, looked both ways, and then crossed the street. When he got across, he squatted next to a streetlamp and attempted to stall for time by lighting a cigarette—something that Hicks hoped would take him a while in the misty rain that was falling outside.
Hummel tapped the monitor, and the picture changed from Kruse’s live signal to a tiled view of the shots he had just taken of the house. Hicks leaned in and examined the images closely, then tapped the one on the bottom right. Immediately that picture went full screen.
“Okay, we all know our assignments,” Hicks said. “Kasay and Johnson, you’re with me. Guitiérrez and Musselman, you’ll want to watch out when you go around back. This anomaly here—” Hicks pointed to a small shadow protruding from the rear of the house—“could be a bogey. Once we’re inside, you guys all know the faces of the ones we want alive. The rest . . . well . . . try to remember we don’t want more of an international incident than we’re already going to create. But if you see a gun, be sure you shoot first. Check each other out; then let’s roll.”
Even though these men were professionals, it still paid to be careful. Each man paired off with another and checked the other man’s body armor, his weapon, and his communication system. The only one who would be out of communication was Kruse; Hicks didn’t want his number-two man to get caught walking around these parts wearing a wire.
Hicks slid back through the makeshift door and into the cab. He put the truck in gear and drove the half block to the target house.
As soon as the truck stopped, the team was out. They were wearing civilian clothes—various shades of dark button-down shirts tucked into loose charcoal pants. Each member wore a fabric mask covering the lower half of his face and carried an FN P90 submachine gun and a MK23 handgun. Four of them also carried two M84 flashbang grenades.
As Hicks approached the door, he could hear the sounds of Arabic voices and loud laughter inside. The smell of freshly baked khubz warmed his nostrils. So far, their intel seemed right.
They reached their positions—three men in the front of the house, two in back, and one on each side. “Predator Three has one hostile down in back,” Hicks heard Guitiérrez say through his comm.
“Copy,” Hicks replied.
Hicks had been counting since he left the truck. When he hit twenty, he said, “Go, go, go!”
One team member on each side of the house tossed a flashbang through the windows. A second later came the rapid-fire sound of the four stun grenades. Hicks and the team burst through the doors while the people in the house were still dazed and trying to clear their heads enough to figure out what had just happened.
Hicks, Steve Kasay, and Chris Johnson found themselves in the main room, the center of which held a long table surrounded by eight men.
“Hands up! Get your hands up!” Hicks yelled, knowing the men probably couldn’t understand his words but hoping the intensity of his voice would stop them from doing anything stupid. Gunfire erupted from an adjoining room, causing one of the men at the table to reach for the gun that was lying by his right hand. With a quick two-shot burst into the man’s chest, Hicks made sure that neither that man nor any of the others would make that mistake again.
“Predator Four has Umari,” came a call on Hicks’s comm, telling him that Brad Musselman had captured the first of their targets.
“Predator Six’s sector is clear,” Arsdale said.
That meant that the second target had to be in Hicks’s room. The problem was, no one looked right. Hicks shouldered his P90, pulled out his MK23, and pressed it against the forehead of the man nearest him.
“Bazzaz?” Hicks yelled.
The man’s eyes were wide, and Hicks could smell him soiling himself.
Hicks cocked back the hammer. “Bazzaz?”
The man slowly lifted his hand and pointed to the head of the table, causing the man sitting there to dive for his gun. Kasay brought the butt of his weapon down hard across the man’s forehead, bringing that movement to a halt. Hicks hurried over and lifted the stunned man’s head by his blond hair. He held a picture next to his face. “Add a beard and subtract a dye job . . . yep, we have a winner!” He let Bazzaz’s head drop back down on the table.
“This is Predator One. We’ve got Bazzaz!” Hicks yelled into his comm. Then to Kasay he said, “Zip him up!”
So far so good, Hicks thought. With both targets acquired, now it was time to beat a hasty retreat. “Predator Five and Six, get into the main room and secure these bogies,” Hicks ordered. “Predator Three and Eight, hold front and back door. All others, back to the nest. I want everyone home in ninety seconds!”
As they ran to the truck, Hicks saw the two captives being carried on the shoulders of his men. Both of them looked terrified, and there was blood running down Bazzaz’s cheek from a gash on his forehead.
When Hicks got to the truck, Kruse was already behind the steering wheel, ready to roll. Hicks waited outside the back of the truck—he wouldn’t set foot in the vehicle until he knew all his men were safely inside.
A minute later, the other four members of Predator team ran from the house and dove into the rear of the truck. Hicks followed them in and slammed shut the back doors. They all braced themselves as Kruse punched the accelerator.
Hicks looked around the truck and smiled grimly—two prisoners and all eight members of the team accounted for. No good guys hurt.
But then he noticed Kyle Arsdale holding his right arm. There was blood oozing between his fingers.
Arsdale saw Hicks moving toward him and laughed. “Don’t worry, boss, it’s not deep.”
“What happened?” Hicks asked.
“Some grandma—,” Ted Hummel began.
“Hey, my arm, my story!” Arsdale said. “There was this elderly lady—”
“Elderly?” Hummel interrupted. “She was ancient—had to be eighty!”
“Yeah, maybe, but she was a spry eighty! Anyway, she’s in the kitchen, cutting some lamb for the boys, when we come in. I see her, and she’s acting all hurt and stunned. But as soon as I got close, she went all ninja on me! Granny had some skills! I felt bad clocking her, but what else could I do?”
Hicks laughed with the rest of the team, then turned to Carlos Guitiérrez, Predator Three and the team’s medic. But before he had a chance to say anything, Guitiérrez reached for his medical kit and said, “I’m on it.”
The two prisoners, Hamdi al-Umari and Taha al-Bazzaz, bounced around on the floor against the rear wall of the truck’s container box. All the team members were able to steady themselves, but the two prisoners, with their hands zip-tied, bore the brunt of every turn and pothole. Both men were in their late forties and both were directly responsible for supplying the explosives that had killed and wounded thousands in Denver.
Hicks walked over to them and dropped to one knee. Al-Bazzaz had his head down, the blood from his cut dripping on the floor between his thighs.
Al-Umari, on the other hand, was staring defiantly at Hicks. Suddenly he began shouting something in Arabic. Seeing no apparent understanding, he switched to French and finally stilted English. “I . . . laugh . . . their . . . deaths!” He finished by spitting directly into Hicks’s face.
One team member swung for the captive, but Hicks deflected the blow. He used his sleeve to slowly wipe the saliva off his face, then smiled and nodded at the prisoner.
Al-Umari apparently misinterpreted this gesture to mean that he could say whatever he wanted—probably thought Hicks’s restraint a part of the ridiculous American commitment to free speech. He grinned and said again, “I . . . laugh . . . their . . . deaths!”
As the final word came out, Hicks lunged. His left knee landed with a crunch against al-Umari’s ribs. All the man’s air shot out of his lungs in an audible burst. Hicks grabbed the terrorist’s hair and flung his head back against the side of the truck. His knife was out of its sheath with a metallic ring and instantly was pricking blood from the prisoner’s Adam’s apple. “As I will laugh at yours,” Hicks said in Arabic. “As I will laugh at yours.”
He slammed al-Umari’s head one more time against the truck, then stood up. He looked at Guitiérrez and, pointing at al-Umari, said, “Stitch him up next. I want them both ready and in their right minds for interrogation when we get to the safe house.”