Warriors (9781101621189) (9 page)

BOOK: Warriors (9781101621189)
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Wow,” Gold said. “So you must have grown up completely bilingual.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Call me Sophia.”

Seldom had Parson seen Gold so impressed. Apparently, it was a big deal to place out of DLI.

“Where are you from?” Parson asked.

“I was born in Sarajevo, but I grew up in Seattle.” Irena spoke English with no accent that Parson could detect.

“What brought your parents to Seattle?” Parson asked.

“The war,” Irena said. “I don't remember it, but the fighting destroyed our house. Our whole Serb neighborhood got wiped out.”

Parson feared he'd put his foot in his mouth, but the young woman did not seem offended. Still, her answer left him puzzled. She might not remember the Bosnian War, but he sure as hell did. He'd flown his first combat missions in that bloodbath, mainly taking relief supplies to Muslims under attack from Serbs. The Bosnian Serb Army had carried out a genocidal campaign, and he'd always felt frustrated that the international community hadn't done more to stop those bastards sooner. But evidently there were innocent Serb victims, too. The proof stood right here in front of him.

The Bosnian War had never completely ended for Parson. Other conflicts, the events of 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had consumed him for more than a decade. But the impact of his first battle experiences, in a war now obscure to many people, left permanent marks.

He never forgot the way his youthful belief in an ever-advancing humanity crashed and burned in the Balkan hills. For the second time in the twentieth century, concentration camps appeared in Europe—and politicians split hairs about how the numbers didn't compare. As long as six million hadn't died, it wasn't genocide. So killing a hundred thousand was okay. Well, maybe not okay, but stopping it would be . . . complicated.

Nowadays, he knew, a shaky peace held in Bosnia and other breakaway Yugoslav regions such as Kosovo. Intelligence agencies, peacekeeping forces, and Interpol still hunted war criminals from the 1990s. International observers kept an eye on things and hoped to prevent the match strike that would reignite the war. Parson guessed that was why Rivet Joints still carried Serbo-Croatian speakers like Irena.

But how had Webster talked someone into sending the jet to Manas? Parson harbored no sympathy for drug traffickers; he'd just as soon shoot every one. However, to employ this kind of hardware against a run-of-the-mill opium ring made him wonder. Used needles in the gutters of Stockholm or Chicago told of wasted lives, but they did not threaten anybody's national security. Maybe somebody suspected this thing could get far worse than a few more dead addicts.


. Information operations. Getting the message across.

Throughout history, Dušic knew, the best military minds understood these concepts. Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Napoleon may not have used those terms, but they certainly grasped the ideas. So did Dušic. In a better world, he believed, his intellect might have propelled him to the office of defense minister by now. But the meddling and interference of lesser cultures had steered his nation, and thus his own life, in directions unintended.

No matter. He had the brilliance, and now the means, to correct all that. So he turned his thoughts toward ways to maximize the effectiveness of his opening mission. An apparent Muslim attack on the Patriarchate would ignite public opinion, most certainly. But Dušic would get only one shot at this. When his car bomb ripped apart the holy site, he wanted all Serbs as ready for war with the Turks as he was. A leader must communicate, and a communicator must prepare his audience. By the time Stefan and the rest of Dušic's team destroyed the Patriarchate, Serbs would view it as the latest and most extreme outrage in a series of provocations.

Sun Tzu, Dušic recalled, said all war is deception.

On a mission of deception, Dušic rode in the passenger side of Stefan's SUV. Darkness had settled on the countryside, and the Toyota's headlights pierced an empty road and dense forest outside Tuzla. Andrei and Nikolas rode in the back.

Stefan slowed and turned right onto a path of crushed macadam barely wide enough for his vehicle. The path snaked through the trees, led uphill into an open field atop a knoll. A cemetery appeared out of the gloom, crumbling crucifixes of stone. Some of the monuments had stood for so long that rain and snow had worn the Serbian Cyrillic lettering down to indecipherable grooves and scallops.

Beyond the graveyard, an Orthodox church appeared. From the looks of it, the church was a one- or two-room affair that might have served a rural community for centuries. Nothing like the cathedrals of Belgrade. On this evening, no one attended but the nighthawks. And Dušic's team.

“We shall burn for this,” Nikolas whispered.

“Quiet!” Andrei hissed.

Dušic smiled to himself. Andrei, at least, had gotten the message about who was in charge. He elected not to threaten Nikolas now, not even to upbraid him. If Nikolas felt that way about the church, perhaps he could eventually understand the larger plan.

Faith had never played much of a role in Dušic's life. As a Yugoslav cadet, the state became his religion. Communism fell, but the state remained, infested by traitors who had converted to the creed of the invaders centuries ago. Dušic despised the Turks more from his gut than from his soul. But he knew most Serbs loved their Orthodox traditions. For Dušic, then, religion existed as part of the battle space, a factor in the combat environment. A commander must know and utilize the human terrain.

Stefan stopped the Toyota, turned off its engine and lights. With no particular effort to stay quiet, Dušic opened his door and stepped out. The nearest houses lay three miles away, a tiny farming village. Even if someone heard noise, they'd probably think the priest had come to meditate or study.

Clouds scudded overhead, briefly revealing a thin, glowing crescent, the moon a cold shaving of itself. The symbol of the Muslims. The sight filled him with hate, strengthened his resolve like reloading a weapon.

Andrei and Nikolas emerged from the SUV, opened the back. Each man lifted a jerry can. Stefan took a can of spray paint from his glove box. The ball bearing rattled inside the can as Stefan shook the paint.

Dušic would not normally oversee a task so menial. Right now, the job felt more like a prank than a strategic move. A chore for
s, led by a junior NCO. But he wanted to observe Andrei and Nikolas before trusting them with greater responsibilities. If they failed to carry out this simple mission—well, Dušic wore his CZ 99 under his coat. But he did not expect to fire the pistol again. Dušic employed violence the way a painter worked with a brush: just the right strokes, made more powerful by judicious use. He had already established his point well enough.

At least he harbored no worries about Stefan. Dušic's old friend had proved his worth many times, and Stefan was something of an artist himself. One of his kills—a pair of kills, actually—became the stuff of legend during the Bosnian War.

Back in '93, with the siege of Sarajevo well under way, Dušic's unit occupied a position overlooking the Vrbanja Bridge. Stefan and other marksmen performed such fine work trapping the Turks within the city that the route the shooters guarded became known as Sniper Alley.

But on the afternoon of May 19, word came down that a ceasefire would take place, just for a few minutes. Some foolishness about a Serb and Muslim couple, Sarajevo's Romeo and Juliet, who wanted to escape the terrible fighting and cross the bridge to a life of wedded bliss. Perhaps they expected to float through Sniper Alley on a blanket of love, accompanied by flocks of doves and butterflies. Raise their mongrel children in Paris or Los Angeles.

The very idea made Dušic want to vomit. He had received no order to check fire, not from Mladic or anyone on the general's staff. Maybe another lieutenant, someone with no more authority than Dušic, yielding to sentimentality, had issued a command beyond his rank. To Dušic, then, not an order at all. More like a request. A stupid one, at that.

Some of the soldiers, however, apparently intended to play along with this maudlin drama. The firefight raging around the remains of the Union Invest building seemed to simmer down. The cackle of automatic weapons faded to sporadic bursts, then stopped altogether. Dušic kneeled beside Stefan in a hide site screened by dead tendrils of English ivy.

A young man appeared on the street near the foot of the bridge. He carried a knapsack. The man stopped, turned, spoke words to someone Dušic could not see. A woman caught up with him, and she also carried a knapsack.

“Shall I let them pass?” Stefan asked.

Dušic rolled his eyes, gave no order one way or the other. But he smiled when Stefan placed his cheek to his Mauser.

On the street below, Romeo took Juliet's hand for a moment, released it. Then he walked onto the bridge. Strode with his knapsack like some worthless tourist hiker who has spotted a youth hostel in the distance.

Stefan let him take only a few steps.

In the next moment, Dušic saw everything: The minute tilt of the barrel as Stefan aimed. The pigeon that glided over the bridge. The glint of sunlight off Romeo's watch. The flex of tendons in the back of Stefan's hand as he pressed the trigger.

The Mauser's report rolled across the ruined city in waves. Smoke curled from the muzzle, and more smoke wisped from the breech when Stefan racked the bolt and chambered another round. Romeo lay in a motionless heap.

The woman screamed and ran toward him.
The stupid bitch actually ran toward him.
What did she think would happen? Stefan fired again, dropped Juliet just a few meters from her dead lover.

Stefan raised his head from the rifle and scope, surveyed his handiwork. Reached for his bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a drink. Offered the bottle to Dušic.

Dušic raised the bottle to his lips, tasted the burn of slivovitz. Much like cognac, but with a sharper edge. He didn't normally drink with the enlisted, not even Stefan, but he made an exception this time. As he handed the bottle back to his sniper, he looked down to the bridge. Juliet was not dead.

Stefan had aimed lower, hit her somewhere in the torso. Lying on her back, the Muslim whore bled like a pig at slaughter. Forearms slicked with blood, she took her hands from her abdomen, rolled onto her side, then onto her stomach. Juliet pushed herself up with the heels of her hands, crawled. By centimeters, she dragged herself to Romeo. Embraced him there on the bridge.

She clung to life for perhaps fifteen minutes. It took that long for the spasms to stop, and when they did, Dušic knew she was dead. She clung to her lover for days. Sniper Alley remained impassable for the better part of a week. Eventually the command staff called Dušic's unit elsewhere, and someone cleared away the bodies.

Pure genius on Stefan's part, Dušic thought. The rifle barrel spoke as a poet's pen, an impressionist's brush. With two strokes, two words, Stefan had transformed a cheap romance story into an epic of nations. A message to Serbs:
Do not consort with the enemy.
A message to Turks:

As Dušic recalled the event, he thought of an untitled poem by Radovan Karadžic. The poem ended with these lines:

And two lovers

Shall stand by the first casket on hand

And kiss each other as I command

What a damnable travesty that the author of such words languished now in a cell in The Hague.

Dušic could not change the past. But he could alter the future by his command, and so he set his team to tonight's task.

“Keep your kerosene off the church steps,” DuÅ¡ic ordered. He wanted the steps untouched, for there Stefan would leave a message.

Andrei and Nikolas crept to the stone walls of the church, the dark outline of its bell tower backdropped by moonlit clouds. They worked by the green glow of penlights compatible with night-vision goggles. The men did not need NVGs for this mission, but Dušic supposed the green light would draw less notice from a distance than white light. As an arms dealer, he kept apprised of technology, and his troops, even the
s, would have the best.

Nikolas wrapped a cloth around the head of a ball-peen hammer. He swung the hammer against a windowpane. The warped glass shattered, though the cloth muffled the impact. Andrei lifted his jerry can and poured the liquid through the hole in the window.

The church's structure consisted mainly of stone, probably dug from the surrounding hillsides when kings ruled Europe, and men traveled by sail. But the roof, and of course the pews, chairs, and icons, were made of lumber and fabric. Fire could bring this building to the holiest purpose it had ever served.

s made their way around the church, breaking each window, pouring in kerosene. At the front steps, Stefan sprayed a few words, simple as a phrase of poetry. The verse would serve its purpose, but Dušic knew Stefan could never top his 1993 masterpiece.

At the last window, Nikolas dumped all that remained in his jerry can. He went to the Toyota and came back with a bucket of oily rags. Nikolas and Andrei picked up rags, shook them out. But then they hesitated, stood as if unsure what to do next.

Dušic knew when to use violence or threats. He decided now was not one of those times. Understanding, or at least the appearance of understanding, could serve as a tool as well. He had seen this kind of reluctance before, and he'd dealt with it swiftly and firmly. And since then, he had honed his leadership skills even further.

“Go ahead, men,” he said. “I share your mixed feelings. But you are about to make history.”

“Sir,” Andrei said, “are you sure?”

Good. “Sir” was very good. A trainable recruit.

“Torch it,” DuÅ¡ic said.

Andrei stepped over to a broken window, took a cigarette lighter from his pocket. Flicked the lighter once. Sparks spat from the roller, vanished. Andrei tried again, and a yellow flame guttered and danced in his fist. He touched the fire to the rag, and flames spread along the wrinkles of the cloth. Just before the fire reached his fingers, he tossed the rag through a shattered pane.

For a second or two, Dušic thought the flame had gone out. But yellow and orange light began to dance and refract from inside the church, mirrored in cracked glass. Nikolas lit a rag, tossed it through another window.

Dušic recalled an American expression from the Vietnam era:
Destroy the village to save it
. Poetic, for Americans. A concise statement of a regrettable military necessity.

s lit more rags, pitched them through the windows. The flames inside the church began to join, spreading along the run of spilled kerosene and leaping up walls to drapes and icons. Smoke rolled through some of the windows.

“Fine work,” DuÅ¡ic said. “Time to go.”

The team headed for the Toyota. Their commander held back for a just a moment. By the light of rising flames, Dušic read Stefan's words painted on the church steps:

Death to infidels.

BOOK: Warriors (9781101621189)
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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