SOMEWHERE IN LATIN AMERICA
Sean Lindstrom jumped out of a perfectly good airplane with a smile: the long-planned raid was finally happening. He always felt more alive at times like this than he ever had in his wife’s bedroom.
Experience took over immediately, of course. Not much time to do anything during a low-altitude jump, but at least nobody was shooting at him the way they had in Panama. His squad had all gotten out safely, ready to hit the ground running. Static line jump, so the chutes opened as soon as they exited the airplane.
No moon out, but his night vision was good enough to orient himself by as he looked for the landing zone, a mud bank beside the river scoured flat during last week’s floods. That stretch of mud had made the whole operation possible, a covert drop into rebel territory. Nighttime was vital but nobody wanted to land in the middle of unseen trees. Then the mud bank had showed up, one valley away from the hacienda where the last good guys lived, and higher-ups green-lighted the raid.
He was immensely calm, fully alert, as he came in toward the treetops. Mind and body working perfectly together, preparing for combat. As he looked for the LZ, a flash of light flickered past the corner of his eye. Yellow light, like a fire, high on a mountain. The hills beside the river blocked his view, with only seconds left before landing.
He hit the center of the landing zone perfectly, feet and knees together. Only two men had landed in the trees and one in the water, thank God. Fast, silent action by the rest of the squad saved them, with only a multitude of scratches to show for the adventure. They gathered their chutes and formed up just inside the tree line minutes later, the medic immediately going to work with antibiotics and bandages. It seemed to take forever but actually went remarkably smoothly. Of course, lots of practice in night drops and combat experience helped.
“All here? Good.” Sean double-checked quietly. He was in command on this raid, thanks to Lieutenant Benson’s close encounter with his son’s skateboard just before the squad’s scheduled deployment.
They were supposed to meet a local guide the next day but he was from the hacienda’s folks. If what Sean suspected was true, the fellow would never speak to an American again on this earth. More than likely, he was chatting to St. Peter even as the unit formed up. “Anyone see something at the hacienda while coming down?”
“A couple of flashes, maybe gunfire,” Adam Hepburn, his oldest friend, offered. One of the younger Rangers hissed briefly, as if flinching. “No chance to see much, though.”
“Anyone else?” Silent head shakes answered him. Sean made up his mind. “We’re supposed to go to ground amongst those hills. I want us up there as fast as possible so we can see what’s going on. Cache everything possible, except what’s needed for an ambush.”
“Yes, sir,” they snapped and went to work.
Two hours later and barely an hour before dawn, after visiting some of the worst scenery he’d ever had the pleasure of enduring, Sean and Adam crept up to the hillcrest and looked across the mountain valley. Sean automatically steadied his heartbeat, so he could better study the scene.
Below them lay the river’s other branch, a frothing silver stream twisting through the jungle. Like the stretch he’d just crossed, it was running high and fast, full of rainwater and nasty critters. A bridge crossed it at one point, with the small, deserted village of San Desiderio on the mountain flank. Burned fields and shattered buildings showed the rebels’ handiwork. A narrow road twisted up the mountain beyond to the old hacienda, where the last decent folks lived ? or had lived — in this valley.
Fire leaped from the hacienda’s windows and doors, sending a column of smoke and flames into the sky. A boxy shape blocked the flames then rolled clear. Sean focused his binoculars carefully. A truck? No, a very big car. Another bulky shape was silhouetted briefly, and a third. The rebels were behaving according to pattern.
Sean smiled thinly. He’d be delighted to repay those assholes in kind. He handed the binoculars to Adam, waved the squad forward to look for themselves, and took a long swig of water from his canteen. Adam was short and dark, one of the fastest sprinters he’d ever met. He was an urban kid, from a good family in Seattle, but he’d taken to Army life like a duck to water. Hell, he’d even become a Delta Force operator.
After a long survey, focused notably on the hacienda and San Desiderio, Adam handed the glasses back. Their eyes met. Nothing more needed to be said, not between men who’d started out as Ranger buddies during Ranger School.
Sean tucked the binoculars away and the squad slithered back to where they could speak quietly. He’d remind the men what the rebels were like now, then move them out. “Miller, what’s the raid pattern for the local rebels?”
Gary Miller possessed a degree in Elizabethan poetry from Harvard, plus one of the sneakiest minds Sean had ever had the pleasure of working with. He answered readily. “They prefer to attack just after dark. Kill the men and children first, rape then kill the women. Loot everything portable and torch the remainder. Leave just after dawn.”
“And steal all the target’s vehicles, to carry the loot,” Sean added. “Everyone think that description covers what’s going on up there?” He jerked his head toward the hacienda.
“Yes, sir,” came the quick answer from multiple throats.
“Anyone think there’s a civilian alive up there?”
The response was slower this time but just as steady. “No, sir. Not by now.”
“No way can we reach that hacienda before those assholes leave it. But their weakness is those vehicles. They’ll have to drive them through that collection of rubble called San Desiderio before offloading them. If we can reach there before they do, then we use Plan A to crush them.”
“Plan A, Lindstrom?” Adam Hepburn questioned, dead-pan. Great straight man. Sean would owe him a beer when they got back.
“The one we created first and practiced so damn much, before we received the latest so-called intelligence.” Sean’s voice dripped sarcasm. He glanced around at the intent faces. “Our mission is to ambush and kill those pond scum. It’ll be a hell of a forced march, getting down these hills and across that river before dawn, but we’re Rangers. We can do it.”
The men grinned mirthlessly, their white teeth startling against their camouflaged faces. They didn’t even groan. Forced march through a swamp at night and they just nodded. “Hooah, Sarge,” one assented from the back.
“Hooah,” Sean agreed. Minutes later, they were on their way, racing to kill a passel of murderers before they could disappear back into the swamp.
“Sadist,” Adam hissed softly as they started down the hill. “Wasn’t Ranger School enough for you?”
“Masochist,” Sean retorted and grinned at their oldest joke. Ever since Ranger school, whoever provided encouragement was labeled”sadist,” while the other was called”masochist” for enduring the worst the Army could dish out. Sometimes Sean was the masochist and Adam was the sadist. It didn’t matter who carried which name, as long as the job got done. He quickened his pace.
The rebels rumbled down the mountainside into San Desiderio an hour after dawn, their stolen cars and truck engines wheezing from exertion. Most of the pond scum were sleeping, their drunken snores barely audible above the engines.
Sean watched, waited, every nerve alert and yet relaxed. He was still sopping wet from the armpits down but that didn’t matter. Leeches had found him in the swamp, which was also unimportant. The only thing that interested him now was seeing all the rebels corralled so they could die.
The last truck clattered in, just as the lead truck approached the outskirts on the other side. Sean calmly sent up a flare.
Immediately, a small explosion ripped the air, then a large one as the lead truck blew up. The pattern repeated an instant later as the last truck exploded. The rebels woke up with a start and immediately start firing randomly. But his Rangers, Sean was proud to note, used proper fire discipline. Steady, accurate, careful shots began to drop the raping, murdering assholes. Sean fought too, all the while watching and giving the few orders needed.
A man jumped out of an old Ford sedan and began to run, silhouetted against a burning truck. His limp and the cigar clenched between his teeth identified him immediately as El Jefe, once a university student but now the rebel leader. Sean squeezed the trigger as coolly as if he was on a firing range. El Jefe crumpled into the mud, motionless. Sean allowed himself the luxury of a small, congratulatory smile.
The firing died down quickly after that, with all of the rebels dead. Mission accomplished and time to move out. They should be able to be picked up the next night and back home a few days later. His son, Mike, would be thrilled. They’d be able to attend that Alan Jackson concert and do some fishing together. Maybe pick up that golden retriever Mike wanted so much.
Tiffany, his wife, would be furious, though; she’d planned to use his bedroom to sort her spring clothing, while he was gone. And she was probably trying right now to break into his lockers. Tough. She’d just have to stop snooping. He didn’t poke his nose into the things that kept her happy, as long as the family budget stayed balanced. She’d promised to do the same for him, when she threw him out of her bed while complaining of her physical inability — and he’d damn well held her to that promise. It was the least she could do for him.
One day, Mike would be grown up and he could think about a divorce, when his son didn’t need a proper home life. But until then, he gritted his teeth a lot and tried to think of Tiffany only as his son’s mother, not the bitch from hell who’d used the creases on his uniforms as”cut here” marks. And worse.
It would be too dangerous to dream, especially of a woman who watched him as if he was the center of the universe, not a jerk that ruined her life with a pregnancy. Because if he ever found a woman like that — someone who made time slow until only the two of them existed — he’d do anything and everything to keep her. Hell, he’d even explore his darkest fantasies for a woman like that. But not, of course, while he was married to his son’s mother.
Still, he hummed a favorite stadium rock tune as he led his squad back into the jungle, for the start of the long trip home. A Queen tune about somebody to love.
Excerpt from The Switch by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2005 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved