When a bloodthirsty jihadist is given a nuclear weapon and a chance to forever alienate Israel from American support, all hope rides on thirteen expendable SpecOps veterans almost as insane as the suicidal plan they're given to stop him.
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This rag-tag gang of has-beens has never worked together before, but Dwight "Rocco" Cavarra has less than a week to train them and lead them on the hairiest operation of their lives. It's not bad enough that they have to plow through an African civil war, infiltrate a fortified terrorist encampment and steal a black market tactical nuke from a mob of fanatic sociopaths - there are Israeli wild cards in play: two death-dealing Mossad agents who don't necessarily share Cavarra's agenda. When the mission is compromised before it has even started, Rocco and his Retreads are caught between bloodthirsty local warlords and the genocidal government in a fight to the death. And this battle might be just the first in the next world war.
This leg of the journey was far shorter. The plane landed on a river so wide, it must have been a branch of the Nile. The pilot kept the engines running and used the propellers to pull them along the water to a dock projecting from an ugly city.
Even from a distance, Cavarra could see most of the buildings were in sad shape: Shattered windows, entire outer walls missing from apartment buildings...figures moving about in the cutaway rooms. The air stunk of garbage, rot, urine, feces and death. Dead animals and heaps of rubbish floated along the river downstream from the city. Groups of children played in that same water, oblivious to the filth floating by.
On the dock stood a black man in loose-fitting print cloth of an orange-dominated pattern. He helped Cavarra get his bag unloaded and extended his hand to steady Cavarra as he disembarked.
No sooner had Cavarra planted his feet on the dock than the door of the plane slammed shut and the engines throttled up. He turned and watched the sea plane turn, taxi and take off back in the direction they'd come from.
"Pilot's about a unfriendly mug," the man on the dock said, in what sounded like a Detroit accent. "Almost like he don't wanna stay here on the dark continent, huh?"
1805 14 AUG 2002; BOR, SUDAN
(At a double-time.)
Well, me and Superman had a fight
I smacked him in the head with kryptonite.
Busted his skull and pulped his brain
Now guess who's datin' Lois Lane?
Me and Batman had a fight too
His puny fists against my 7.62.
Riddled his body with lead and steel
Now guess who's drivin' the Batmobile?
Cavarra chuckled and slung his sea bag over one shoulder. "I thought it was my company he didn't like."
The terrain along both banks of the river was lined with exotic trees and tropical vegetation. Just beyond it was elephant grass as far as the eye could see--except east and south, where mountains broke up the horizon, and directly in front of Cavarra, where the dingy city of Bor marred the landscape.
"Welcome to the Sudan, Johnny Rambo," the man said. "Name's James--I'm your guardian angel. Call me 'Mugabe' when we're around locals."
"I'll just get in the habit starting now, Mugabe," Cavarra said. "Do you have the weapons I ordered?"
"Supposed to come in today. You know you only got twelve men, right?"
"Why all the extra artillery?"
Mugabe started walking. Cavarra followed him off the dock to dry land, then along a trail towards a reeking slum of mostly ramshackle huts with a few permanent-looking, stark block buildings thrown in.
They hopped in a black Dodge Ramcharger with water buffalo horns mounted to the hood. They left foul-smelling Bor and rolled down a rough country road through a vast expanse of grassland, spotted with blackened patches of scorched earth.
"What happened out there?" Cavarra asked, pointing at the burnt fields.
"Government troops burn the crops just before harvest," Mugabe said. "Infidels don't deserve to eat. Savvy?"
"How much of my crew is here, so far?" Cavarra asked.
"All present," Mugabe replied. "Some only been here a matter of hours, some longer. Brought in a few by the river on airboats, some overland by truck."
Several miles out of Bor they came upon a village. Mugabe steered them in between the mud huts and dilapidated tin and cardboard shacks. Malnourished children stared at them curiously as they passed. Some skinny adults whispered to each other.
"They dress nice enough," Cavarra said. One might expect residents of a place like this to wear tattered rags or something, but the women wore colorful dresses and the men nice shirts and slacks.
"Peeps here dress like this every day," Mugabe said. "What they wearin' right now is the only clothes most of 'em have."
"'Peeps'?" Glancing sideways, Cavarra imagined a tongue-sized dent in Mugabe's cheek. If he'd been in-country for any time at all, Mugabe should have lost the ghetto edge on his Ebonics. That it was still so pronounced when speaking English suggested self-parody.
The village was considerably cleaner than Bor, although half-wrecked recently, by the look of most of the huts.
Mugabe drove through the dirt streets to a church building that looked like it had been through a siege. Cavarra recognized bullet scars all over the brick. All the wood was fire-blackened, the windows broken and smoke-stained.
"Your crib, for now--just call it Fort Rambo." Mugabe killed the motor, got out and strolled up to the front door. A pair of lazy brown eyes scrutinized them through a jagged hole where a burst of bullets had splintered through the wood.
Mugabe clapped Cavarra on the shoulder and said, "Here's da man, fellahs."
The eyes stared hard at Cavarra. The door opened and Mugabe led the way in.
Cavarra stepped inside the vestibule and the door shut behind him. The interior of the building was lit with kerosene lamps. The plaster of the inner walls was cracked and pockmarked, and there appeared to be large blood stains on the floor. The man who opened the door was a tall, lanky black man Cavarra recognized from the photograph as Leon Campbell, one of his snipers.
Other men crowded into the room. "Fellahs," Mugabe said, "this here's Johnny Rambo Number-One. Your Commanding Officer from here on out."
Cavarra turned to Mugabe. "I need a word with you in private."
"Who's covering the back?" Cavarra asked.
"There's no window in back," someone said.
"Is there a door?"
A few men mumbled in the affirmative.
"Well, I want someone covering it. I also want a body at those windows on either side. I'll be busy for a few minutes. When I come back, I want it squared away. Then we'll break the ice."
Without waiting for a response, Cavarra walked into the worship area. In the dim light several pairs of eyes measured him, sizing him up as if they might have to fight him. It was something rough men from rough outfits did, and it could be unnerving.
Pews were overturned, shot and blown to pieces. The place reeked of old cordite. The floor was splotched dark brown with dried blood. Cavarra paused for a moment and Mugabe took the lead. Cavarra fell in step behind him and they made their way to the room behind the baptismal chamber.
Blood splatters decorated this area, too. Mugabe shut the door behind them and sat on a box of charred bibles. "Private enough for you?"
"What happened here?" Cavarra asked, seating himself on a stepladder.
"There's a civil war goin' on here, Rambo."
"Yeah, no kidding. But this is a church."
Mugabe looked surprised at his naïveté. "Christianity's illegal. And here these folks had the audacity to practice it right out in the open in a big, fancy building. That's like showin' your hiney to Khartoum."
"Were these people armed? Did they resist?"
"They weren't armed, but I guess you could say they resisted. They didn't submit to Allah, now did they?"
Cavarra reached over to the wall and scratched at the dried blood with his thumbnail.
"Sudanese who practice tribal religions are the ones take up arms against the government," Mugabe said. "But most of the Christians are pacifists. The preacher here got hisself crucified--literally."
Cavarra decided he was naive, after all, and shook the impertinent thoughts from his head. "This building is un-sat. We need to get out of this town and secure an area out in the boonies."
"That'd draw attention, Johnny. Set up some tents out in the swamp, bunch of you corn-fed boys dittyboppin' around with weapons and gear--that looks too much like a SPLA operation. Save that for when you make your rendezvous with the rest of the posse."
"We got civilians crawling all over the place outside," Cavarra said. "We can't observe all the avenues of approach from here, and I don't have enough men to cover the entire town. Where's the main force holed up?"
"Can't tell you that. They don't know where you are, either. Opsec. You were briefed on where you be linkin' up, though."
"Look," Mugabe said, "nobody comes here, anymore. The other folks in town don't trust the government, so they ain't gonna drop the dime on y'all."
"Where can I find you?"
Mugabe laughed. "I get around too much for you to find me. But I be checkin' on you. Like I said, the weapons and gear should come in today. I'll holler at you then."
Mugabe rose and left. Cavarra breathed deep and remained seated while consulting his small spiral notebook. He had an overwhelming amount of tasks to accomplish in a short time, so he needed a moment to prioritize.
Cavarra reentered the main room of the church after a few minutes. Before he could say anything, a short, somewhat overweight man with a fat nose and crooked teeth approached and saluted.
"How you been, sir?"
Cavarra returned the salute instinctively, then extended his hand. "Hiya, Zeke. Long time, no see. How's civilian life?"
Zeke Pappadakis shook hands, then patted his beer belly. "A little too good, Rocco."
"I hope you're still sharp up here." Cavarra said, pointing to his temple.
"Sharp as a marble, sir."
"You can knock off the 'sir' garbage, Zeke. The buck stops here and I say forget the dumb stuff. Is the spook-puke gone?"
"Yeah. It's just us, now."
Campbell was still at the front door, and men were at each side, looking out the windows. Others gathered around facing Cavarra. "Who's got the back?" he called out, loudly.
"That'd be me!" a voice drawled back.
Cavarra looked over the men around him, matching the faces with the photos he'd seen. They all studied him the way wolves must eyeball new additions to the pack. They looked for signs of weakness, sure there must be some--visible or not. He almost had to fan the air to see through the testosterone cloud.
"Can you hear me back there?" he asked, toward the unseen man at the back door.
"I'm Dwight Cavarra, and I'll be your C.O. for this operation. How much have you been told about what we're doing?"
Nobody said anything, so Cavarra pointed at tall, skinny Fava-Vargas, who had been singing an Enrique Iglesias song when Cavarra entered the room. "What do you know about it?"
Fava-Vargas widened his eyes and contorted his mouth. "We're supposed to insert into a terrorist camp and steal a bomb. That's all I was told."
Cavarra looked around. Everybody nodded. That's all anyone had been told.
"Mr. Mugabe's bosses have formulated a plan, but I think we're going to do it a little different," Cavarra said. "I'll give you a warning order tomorrow morning, most likely." He leaned back against the arm of a still-intact pew. "We don't have much time, so we're gonna have to do a lot of stuff simultaneously, and I won't have time to explain every little thing. This isn't a regular military unit, obviously. I'm not gonna be acting like the typical officer, either--my involvement in this mission goes right down to every boot sole that touches the ground. Think of me as a non-com if that helps you.
"Outside of Zeke, here, I haven't worked with any of you before. And frankly, this mission would be hard enough to pull off even if we were a tight-knit unit. So we can't afford any BS, pissing contests or dissension in the ranks. Whatever petty differences crop up between us, we're gonna have to suck it up and drive on. So I need to know, right now, if there's any one of you that can't hang. Sound off now, and I'll have Mugabe arrange to get you back home mos-koshee. Otherwise, I expect loddy-doddy-everybody to dedicate yourself to this team, and the job ahead of us, a hundred-and-ten percent." His eyes locked on Zeke just to make it clear there would be no favoritism.
"With all due respect," said Force Recon vet Charles Mai, a Hawaiian with the build of a fire hydrant, "I myself can handle any mission that comes my way. But I don't know jack about you, who put you in charge, or if you can hang." His tone belied any pretense of respect.
Zeke rolled his eyes.
Cavarra stifled a groan. In one ear and right out the other. We're off to a great start.
"Okay," Cavarra said. "I retired from the US Navy at the rank of commander. That would be the equivalent of your rank of lieutenant-colonel, Gunnery Sergeant Mai."
Mai should be familiar with Naval rank, but men with ignorant attitudes ought to be prepared to have their intelligence insulted. Cavarra preferred to treat people like reasonable adults. Unfortunately, it wasn't always possible unless people behaved like reasonable adults.
"I've gotten wet in Grenada, Panama and the Gulf as a SEAL," Cavarra said, "and this is hardly the first time I've been in a command position."
Mai was undaunted. "Even if that's true, those are dubious credentials: You squids screwed the pooch in Panama."
Cavarra stared at him. Dubious credentials? Who's running around teaching jarheads big words like that? Evidently Mai was determined to cause trouble.
"If you're asking to see my DD-214, Mai, I'm afraid I didn't bring it with me."
Zeke and a couple others snickered.
"If you want to discuss Panama, we can do that in private," Cavarra said, taking a few casual steps toward the marine. "Since you're questioning who's in command, here, I'll assume you missed my introduction by our CIA liaison. Who else missed it?"
"I heard it," said Carlos Bojado, a Mexican leatherneck, in a tone that suggested he didn't believe it.
"Then please get Mai up to speed," Cavarra said. "And I'll address this question to anyone else who doubts my 'credentials': Who recruited you? Who paid for your transportation over here?"
"The Agency," Zeke answered, for everyone.
"And Mr. 'Mugabe' is our CIA contact, right?" Cavarra scanned over the faces again. Few replied verbally.
Now he looked directly at Mai. "And did anyone hear our contact, or anyone else from the Agency, announce Gunny Mai to be in command of this gaggle?"
"Well?" Cavarra said. "Were you put in charge here, Mai?"
"No," Mai admitted, quietly.
"Well shazam. May I continue now, Gunnery Sergeant Mai?"
"May I have command of this unit back, Gunnery Sergeant Mai?"
"Well thank you very much. Why don't you either shut that ugly scar under your nose or pack your trash for the next boat out of here."
Mai glanced around at the others and shrugged.
Inwardly, Cavarra was relieved. He had upped the stakes on Mai so quickly, it might have come to settling the matter outside. And had he been forced to thump Mai in front of everybody, the gunny would have become a liability to the team.
Cavarra made eye contact with all the men around him. "Now are we done with that, or does anyone else want to waste our time playing ignorant games?"
Most of the men looked down at the floor, embarrassed for Mai, except Mai himself; Bojado; Greg Lombardi--a man who'd earned both Special Forces and Ranger tabs in the Army; and Sam DeChalk--a bejeweled mercenary from Illinois. No one spoke.
"Good. Where's my armorer?"
"Hup, sir." Former Special Forces Weapons Sergeant Tommy Scarred Wolf stepped forward. He wore a bright, lime-green sleeveless shirt, baggy print trousers and threadbare lime-green Converse high-tops. Lean muscle covered his average-sized frame. Blue veins pulsed down his long, sinewy arms and huge hands. His bronze face betrayed no trace of emotion, but his eyes burned with an intensity Cavarra liked.
"Our heavy metal is supposed to come in today," Cavarra said. "I'm gonna need some modifications done right off. You bring your tools?"
Scarred Wolf shook his head. "I told the suits back stateside what I would need. Tools are supposed to come in with the rest of the gear."
"Well, I sure hope they do," Cavarra said. "I ordered a few things, myself, you're gonna need. Pick out a work area in this building and get it squared away for when our trash comes in."
"There's a couple rooms in the basement that will work," Scarred Wolf said.
"Good. Make it happen."
"Hup, sir." Scarred Wolf grabbed a duffel bag on his way downstairs.
Now that was more like it.
"Where's my other sniper?" Cavarra called to Campbell.
Campbell shrugged, even as the voice from the back door answered, "Raat hyah."
"Somebody relieve those two," Cavarra said, pointing fore and aft. There was a moment of hesitation--most of these men were unaware of the others' respective ranks upon discharge and didn't want to volunteer if someone of lower rank was on hand. Finally Fava-Vargas and Jake McCallum, a six-foot-seven ex-Special Forces Engineering Sergeant, moved to take those posts. McCallum looked like Eddy Murphy's big brother, on stilts and steroids.
Campbell came front-and-center. Cavarra did a double-take when Cole appeared from the back. He was a former marine sniper from South Carolina and his dipped-in-pig-dung accent was something you'd expect to come out from under a pointy white hood. But he was darker than half the men present. His dossier listed his race as "other." Cavarra couldn't tell if he was of Native American, Arabic, or even Gypsy descent, but in any case he couldn't be called "white trash" or "redneck," despite the drawl. He had a lantern jaw, a unibrow and a fierce underbite. That and his husky upside-down-pyramid frame made him appear to be the missing link between man and bulldog.
Cavarra rested one hand on a shoulder of both snipers. "Soon as our trash gets here, I'm taking the two of you out to zero and do a little plinking. So get your gear together and stand by."
They grunted their acknowledgement and moved to comply.
"Where's my other engineer?"
Dwayne Terrell, the former SeaBee, turned from his post at the side window. He looked like a shorter, lighter-skinned version of McCallum, but no less muscular. "Right here."
Cavarra was about to assign someone to relieve him when Campbell returned with his web gear slung over one shoulder. "Suggestion, sir?"
"Rather than posting men on every side, why not just put one or two up on the roof? Better visibility up there, and less manpower needed. I can take the first watch until you need me on the range."
The suggestion was offered politely, in a humble way, but Cavarra burned with embarrassment. Campbell was absolutely right. Why didn't I think of that? I'm tripping up, here.
Several men watched Cavarra for his response. Undoubtedly, all of them had known officers too egotistical to acknowledge an enlisted man with a better idea, and waited for him to invent some lame excuse to nix Campbell's suggestion.
"Drive on, hero: Make it happen. Why don't you join him, Cole. I'll send your relief up, and I'll draft a duty roster tonight."
"Hoo-wah," Campbell said.
"Ooh-rah," Cole said.
"Heads-up play," Cavarra told Campbell, but the words were drowned out in the rustling of the two snipers moving out. Cavarra was glad it hadn't been Mai who'd thought of it.
He turned back to Terrell. "You go get with McCallum. First, I need you to build me a ladder for getting on and off the roof. Then I need you to put your heads together and draft a plan for a hasty rifle range. I want a zero range, a thousand-meter range, and see what you can come up with for pop-ups and moving targets from twenty-five to 200 meters."
Terrell looked like the weight of the world had just been dropped on his shoulders. "Sir?"
"See what you can dream up," Cavarra said. "I ordered some stuff you might be able to use. I need something safe, but quick. Copy?"
Terrell sighed heavily. "Copy that, skipper." He trudged back to find McCallum.
Cavarra kept firing off orders until every Swinging Richard was gainfully employed. Terrell muttered curses under his breath. Mai glared at Cavarra whenever he thought Cavarra wasn't looking.
One of the men remained silent the entire time. If Cavarra hadn't studied the photographs, his eyes might have passed right over him, so naturally did the man seem to blend into his surroundings. Cavarra knew the type. Guys like this could sham all the time and never get caught. They never got picked for scum details, CQ or guard duty. As long as they weren't stupid or weak, they could get away with murder until promoted into a leadership slot.
This particular chameleon was the African mercenary, Ehud Siyr.