Authors: Stephen Coonts
Tags: #Qaida (Organization), #Intelligence officers, #Assassination, #Carmellini; Tommy (Fictitious character), #Fiction, #Grafton; Jake (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #Espionage, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Undercover operations, #Spy stories
October — Iraq
Ragheads dragged the driver out of the vehicle and took him away,” the sergeant told the lieutenant, who was sitting in a Humvee. “They shot the woman in the car. She’s still in it. Iraqi grunt says she’s alive but the assholes put a bomb in the car. They’re using her as cheese in the trap.”
“Shit,” said the lieutenant and rubbed the stubble on his chin.
The day was hot, and the chatter of automatic weapons firing bursts was the musical background. The column of vehicles had ground to a halt in a cloud of dust, and since there was no wind, the dust sifted softly down, blanketing equipment and men and making breathing difficult.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer Third Class Owen Winchester moved closer to the lead vehicle so that he could hear the lieutenant and sergeant better.
He could see the back end of an old sedan with faded, peeling paint sitting motionless alongside the road about fifty yards ahead. Three Marines and three Iraqi soldiers were huddled in an irrigation ditch fifty feet to the right of the road. On the left was a block of houses.
‘Let me go take a look,” Winchester said to the lieutenant.
“Listen, doc,” the sergeant said, glancing at Winchester. “The rag-heads would love to do you same as they would us.”
“I want to take a look,” Winchester insisted. “If she can be saved …” He left it hanging there as distant small-arms fire rattled randomly.
The place was a sun-baked hellhole; it made Juarez look like Paris on the Rio Bravo. The tragedy was that real humans tried to live here … and were murdered here by rats with guns who wanted to rule the dungheap in the name of a vengeful, merciless god, one who demanded human sacrifice as a ticket to Paradise.
The lieutenant had been in Iraq for six months and was approaching burnout. The wanton, savage cruelty of the true believers no longer appalled him—he accepted it, just as he did the heat and dirt and human misery he saw everywhere he looked. He forced himself to think about the situation. A woman. Shot. She would probably die unless something was done. So what? No, no, don’t thinks like that, he thought. That’s the way they thinks which is why the Devil lives here. After a few seconds, he said, “Okay. Take a look. And watch your ass.”
The sergeant didn’t say another word, merely began trotting ahead in that bent-over combat trot of soldiers the world over. With his first-aid bag over his shoulder, Winchester followed.
They flopped into the irrigation ditch directly opposite the car, where they could see into the passenger compartment. There was a woman in there, all right, slumped over. She wasn’t wearing a head scarf. They could see her dark hair.
Fifteen feet from them was the rotting carcass of a dog. In this heat, the stench was awe-inspiring.
An Iraqi soldier joined them. “She has been shot,” he said in heavily accented English. “Stomach. I get close, see her and bomb.”
“How are they going to detonate it, you think?” Winchester asked, looking around, trying to spot the triggerman. He saw no one but the Iraqi soldiers and Marines lying on their stomachs in the irrigation ditch, away from the dog. The mud-walled and brick buildings across the way looked empty, abandoned, their windows blank and dark.
“Cell phone, most likely,” the sergeant said sourly. “From somewhere over there, in one of those apartments. Or a garage door opener.”
“Saving lives is my job,” the corpsman said. “I want to take a look.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Probably.” Winchester grinned. He had a good grin.
“Jesus! Don’t do nothin’ stupid.”
With that admonition ringing in his ears, Winchester ditched the first-aid bag and trotted toward the car. From ten feet away he could see the woman’s head slumped over, see that the door was ajar. He closed to five feet.
She wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and a bomb was lying on the driver’s seat. Looked like four sticks of dynamite, fused, with a black box taped to the bundle. The woman moved her head slightly, and he heard a low moan.
Winchester ran back to the ditch, holding his helmet in place, and flopped down beside the sergeant.
“There’s a bomb on the driver’s seat,” he told the sergeant, whose name was Joe Martinez. “And she’s still alive. I think I can get her out of there before they blow it. Takes time to dial a phone, time for the network to make the phone you called ring. Might be enough time.”
“Might be just enough to kill you, you silly son of a bitch.”
“The door is ajar and she isn’t wearing a seat belt. I can do this. Open the door and grab her and run like hell.”
“You’re an idiot,” Sergeant Martinez repeated.
“Would you try it if she was your sister?”
“She ain’t my sister,” the sergeant said with feeling as he scanned the buildings across the road. “What do they say? No good deed goes unpunished?”
“I will go,” the Iraqi soldier said. He laid his weapon on the edge of the ditch, began caking off his web belt. “Two men, one on each arm.”
“She’s my sister, Joe,” Owen Winchester said to Martinez. He grinned again, broadly.
The sergeant watched as Winchester and the Iraqi soldier took off all their gear and their helmets, so they could run faster.
“You fuckin’ swabbie! You got balls as big as pumpkins. How do you carry them around?” Martinez laid down his rifle, took off his web belt and tossed his helmet beside The rifle. “I’ll get the door. You two get her.” He took a deep breath and exhaled explosively. “Okay, on three. One, two, threeeee!”
They vaulted from the ditch and sprinted toward the car. The sergeant jerked the door open. The other two men reached in, Winchester grabbing one arm and the Iraqi the other, and pulled the wounded woman from the car, then hooked an arm under each armpit. Joe Martinez picked up her feet, and they began to run.
They were ten feet from the car when the bomb exploded.
The limo pulled up to the front door of the Hay-Adams Hotel after a short jaunt across Lafayette Park. A Secret Service agent standing there opened the passenger door. The president got out and walked into the hotel, accompanied by two agents. He didn’t look right or left, just walked straight across the lobby to the elevators and went into the first one. One agent joined him. Together they rode in silence to the fourth floor. Another Secret Service man was standing there by the elevators when the door opened.
At the end of the hallway, the agent with the president rapped on the door. When it opened, the president went in. The agent stayed outside in the hallway.
“Thanks for coming,” the man who greeted the president said. He was in his early fifties, with graying hair and a square chin, still trim and fit and apparently as vigorous as he had been when he played cor-nerback for Boston College.
Sorry about your son, Hunt,” the president said. He held on to the other man’s hand, grasping it with both of his own. The president had had plenty of practice at this and knew damn well how to do it.
Huntington Winchester nodded, extracted his hand from the president’s grasp, and led the way to a portable bar. “I know you don’t drink, but I’m having one. You want a Coke or something?”
“Club soda with a twist.”
With the drinks in hand, the two men sat in easy chairs near the window. The White House was visible through the bare treetops of Lafayette Park.
Winchester took a sip of whiskey, then spoke: “The Marines tell me Owen, a sergeant named Martinez, and an Iraqi soldier named Abdul Something tried to pull a wounded Iraqi woman from a car with a bomb in it. They knew it was there and tried to rescue her anyway. Martinez said it was Owen’s idea, and I believe it. That was Owen; that was the way he thought. If there was a way, he would have tried it.
“The bomb exploded when they were only a few feet from the car. Killed Owen instantly, mangled Martinez’s arm. The Iraqi soldier escaped with only a concussion. The woman they were trying to rescue died in the helicopter that took her and Martinez to the hospital.”
The president didn’t say anything. Sometimes there isn’t anything to say.
Winchester took another pull on his drink, which looked like Scotch or bourbon. Then he said, “They’re trying to save Martinez’s arm. He may lose it.”
After a while, Winchester added, “You know the amazing thing? I don’t personally know anybody else who has a son or daughter in the military. None of the people on my staff, none of my executives, none of our friends, none of the people at my clubs, no one.”
The president sipped at his club soda.
“Kids from our socioeconomic group aren’t supposed to join the military,” Winchester continued. “They never think of it, and if they do, their parents demand that they change their minds. And having a draft wouldn’t change that. I was too young for Vietnam, but all the older men I know managed to avoid the draft back then some way or other, or if they did get drafted, they wound up on a general’s staff in Europe or Tokyo. Caught the clap three or four times and had a marvelous time. Not one of them actually went to Vietnam and risked his precious ass.
The president shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He was old enough for Vietnam, yet somehow ended up in the National Guard, which in those days rarely got called up for active service overseas. Today, in the absence of the tens of thousands of young men a military draft would bring in, the National Guard and reserves were getting called up for extended active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just how he managed to land that Guard billet when the waiting list had hundreds of names on it was a question that he had asked his father, who merely shrugged. “I didn’t call anyone,” his father the senator had said, and the president had believed him. The truth was the senator didn’t have to call—his influential friends would take it upon themselves to ensure that the senator’s son didn’t have to join the common herd in the Army and risk life and limb in combat. And no doubt that is what happened. That’s the way it has always worked in America for the scions of wealth and privilege.
Of course, the president had known all that even then. The question to his father was the sop to his conscience. He didn’t want to go to Vietnam—no one he knew did—and since he was his father’s son, he didn’t have to. Being mortal clay, he had let it go at that. Still, the memory of that little compromise with fate wasn’t anything to be proud of.
“Owen enlisted in the Naval Reserve three years ago,” Winchester continued, “after his sophomore year in college. He was in premed, knew he wanted to be a doctor, help people. Signed up to be a corps-man. Took all the training, did the drills on weekends, all of it, and then four months ago his unit was called up and sent to Iraq. He was in his first year of Harvard Medical School.
“His mother didn’t want him to join the military three years ago, and she threw a fit when his unit was called up. Demanded that I pull strings—call you and our senators and Admiral Adams.” Adams was the chief of naval operations. “Yeah, I know Adams, too. We’ve bird hunted in South Dakota together.”
He sighed and took another slug of his liquor. “I refused. Told her this was Owen’s choice, and I was proud of him. The truth was that if I had pulled strings and denied him his opportunity to serve, an opportunity he sought, he would have felt betrayed. I couldn’t do that to him.” He took a deep breath, exhalerJ slowly.
When the news came last week that he was dead, Ellen told me she was divorcing me. She’s moved out, hired a lawyer. The process servers are probably looking for me right now.”
“I’m sorry, Hunt,” the president said. He put the club soda on the stand beside the chair; he didn’t want any more of it.
“Owen was our only child. God fucking damn!” Winchester finished his drink. “So here I sit, dumping all this shit on you, as if you weren’t carrying enough of a load as it is.”
“You’re my friend, Hunt. Have been for twenty years.”
“You have a lot of friends,” Huntington Winchester said. He went to the bar and poured himself another, came back and resumed his seat. He eyed the president carefully.
“The real problem is that people in my class view the war on terror as a nuisance, something that doesn’t really affect us. Blue-collar kids join the military and risk their lives and limbs; notour kids, who are getting first-class educations and going to med school, or law school, or getting a finance degree and joining some Wall Street firm. We sit in our big houses with maids and chauffeurs and modern art collections and all the rest of it, reading in the newspapers about suicide bombers murdering people and watching the mayhem on television. We think it is someone else’s fight. It isn’t. That’s what Owen understood. It’sowr fight.”
“We are fighting the terrorists, Hunt,” the president said. “The best way we know how. Is it going well? Depends on whom you ask. But we’re doing our best. I assure you of that.”
Winchester wasn’t buying. “Our enemies are not the thugs who kidnapped that man from that car in Iraq, murdered Owen and that woman. Our real enemies are the people who put them up to it—the imams who preach hate, who are defending a fossilized religion that has been unable to come to grips with thirteen centuries of change, and the people who are financing terrorism, the scum who enjoy seeing other people suffer or who want to buy peace for themselves. Those people are the enemy.”