Chapter 1

 

Edge of Defiance

 

 

A City in Iraq. Ten years ago…

 

Captain Derrick ‘Hawk’ Blackwell lay on the military-issued camp cot he’d dragged outside the command tent to look up at the stars. On clear nights, there was nothing like the stars above the Iraqi desert. Besides that and the kleicha cookies, there wasn’t much here to write home about.

Not that he had time to write. They were either coming in off a mission, on a mission, or prepping for the next one. Tonight he might actually get a full six hours of sleep before prep started at oh-six-hundred Sleeping outside the tent meant he had slightly less chance of being woken by some other officer in the middle of the night for questions.

His men slept on the other side of the forward operating base. As members of the Joint Task Force Two, the Canadian elite special ops unit, they all knew how to sleep anywhere, anytime. But if the choice was a cot in a noisy tent or outside in the quiet, he’d take the dark every time.

He shifted slightly and hugged his weapon to his chest. He didn’t even like laying it down in the sand beside him. Two of the most important things he’d learned first in the infantry and then in the still newly formed JTF2 were that his rifle had to be within reach at all times, and to take care of his feet. A soldier who couldn’t walk because of infected blisters was a useless soldier.

And Derrick was a good soldier. He loved what he did and wouldn’t change anything. His mother might worry that he’d never find a wife, but that was only because she wanted grandkids one day. And hell, at twenty-eight, he was too young for kids or marriage. He made a mental note to wake a bit early to see if he could send off a quick email to his mom in the morning. He couldn’t give her any details, but at least he could let her know he was alive.

He closed his eyes against the stars and slept.

 

* * *

 

“Captain Blackwell,” a breathless voice said. “Wake-”

“I’m awake,” Derrick said, his eyes open and his mind alert. No trace of sleep clouded his thoughts, he’d been trained too well. The kid who’d woken him wasn’t that much younger, maybe twenty, but by his wide brown eyes and the excited tremble in his voice, this was his first deployment. He probably hadn’t even fired his weapon yet. Based on the earphones and mic attached to his helmet, he wasn’t a regular grunt who’d go on patrol but a POG, a Person Other than a Grunt. Probably a specialized trade that would stay and work at HQ. Most likely a signaler, from his kit.

He glanced at the kid’s uniform. “Sit rep, Private Adams.”

“There’s a distress call, sir,” Adams said. “They’re taking heavy fire.”

Derrick stood and strode toward the command tent, leaving the cot where it was. Someone else would deal with it. “Which unit?”

“Call sign Charlie Two One,” Adams said. “Not one of ours.”

Derrick frowned. Even though they were part of a coalition, most of the countries liked to deal with their own units. Everyone tended to keep out of each other’s way, except during a coordinated mission. He definitely wasn’t on the list to organize international rescue missions.

“Who’s in the command tent?”

“Captain Harris.”

And now he understood. Harris was a Powerpoint Ranger who followed SOPs exactly, and while the army needed soldiers who followed orders, they needed officers who could think on their feet. Sometimes, that meant throwing out the rule book.

He threw back the door flap and grimaced slightly as he entered the brightly lit, smoke-filled tent. Most of the smoke came from Captain Harris and his ever-present cigarette. He had no idea how the man passed his PT tests as a chain smoker.

Derrick strode to the radio where another young operator listened to different channels. His shoulders visibly loosened when he spotted Derrick.

That wasn’t a good sign. These kids thought he had some kind of authority here just because he was special ops.

Harris glared at Private Adams. “Why did you wake up Captain Blackwell? I told you I had it handled.”

Adams stood his ground but didn’t say anything.

“I happened to run into the private when I was outside,” Derrick said. “I’d like to hear the distress call.”

“I don’t think-”

The other private turned the radio to speaker. A calm, deep voice came online. “…surrounded by fifty tangos. One injured. Need medevac-”

Harris turned off the speaker. “This isn’t your concern, Blackwell. Remember, you have a briefing at 0600.”

“Turn the radio back on,” he ordered. The private did.

“-I repeat, this is Charlie Two One. We’re pinned down. Grid location delta two, section bravo niner. Requesting evac immediately.”

The voice stayed calm despite the gunfire in the background. Derrick knew this man had seen enough action to control himself. A slight southern twang told him he was US military.

“Why aren’t the Americans there?” Derrick asked.

“There’s another firefight in the south, sir. I believe a bird was shot down. All their detachments have gone to help. It’ll take them twenty minutes to reroute some of their forces.”

And based on the way the kid clenched his jaw, these guys wouldn’t last that long.

Derrick nodded and brought the map of the city and spread it on the table with the radio. He located the man’s position. Shit. That was the problem. They were well into insurgent-held territory. Well away from the British base on the far side of the city and nowhere near any American base, since they operated in the south. What were these guys doing there?

Didn’t matter, he told himself. They were the only ones close enough who could help Charlie Two One.

A bird could get them in quick. He could gather his men and be there in minutes. “Charlie Two One, this is Alpha Zero. We are fifteen mikes out, and will support extraction.”

“Roger, Alpha Zero.” The man’s relief was clear in his voice. “We’ll be waiting.” He didn’t say to hurry, but the implication was clear.

Derrick turned to the private. “Stay with him on the channel. Let me know everything.” He pointed at the other private. “Alert the standby Griffon crew that we need them for an emergency evac. Then alert my team, tell them I’ll meet them on the helipad in two minutes.”

Harris stood between him and the door, his face showing a mix of fear and anger. “We need to wake up the colonel. These aren’t our guys. The protocol states—”

Derrick gathered up the map. “Fuck protocol.”

“Just because you’re JTF2 doesn’t mean you can allocate resources for an impromptu mission.”

An impromptu mission? Who was this asshole? “Did you hear that call? Those men are in trouble. We’re the closest support. They need help now, not after we politely knock on the colonel’s door asking for his permission to do what needs to be done. They will die if we do nothing.”

Harris shook his head. “You don’t have the authority to do this.”

“I do now.” He strode past Harris.

“I’m waking up the colonel.”

“You do that,” Derrick called over his shoulder. He had no time to waste.

 

* * *

 

Derrick peered through his NVGs at the streets below. The pilot of the Griffon, call-sign Cosmo, had them coming in high and fast – too high for an RPG to get a decent shot. Derrick and his five teammates sat on both of the Griffon’s open sides, strapped in with their legs dangling out. All scanned the ground below, looking for enemies and friendlies.

They flew over the residential area, a sea of stone-colored flat roofs decorated with satellite dishes. The buildings gradually got taller, with more apartments and office towers as they edged toward the downtown.

“Half a klick north, Captain,” Cosmo said over the comms.

He looked toward the downtown, and an open square where the locals held markets, executions, and protests over foreign invaders.

“Roger,” Derrick said. There. He spotted the telltale flashes of muzzle fire in the dark streets and cursed. A small unit of men fought and slowly fell back from parked car to parked car, forced toward the open square as the enemy stalked them from behind and along each of the side streets.

“They’re herding them,” he said over the comms to his men and the pilots. “We need to help them hold off the tangos until the Americans get there for an evac. If we don’t, they’ll be surrounded completely in the square.” They couldn’t let that happen.

“Hawk,” Cosmo said to him calling him by his nickname. “This could turn into a complete charlie foxtrot.”

“It already is a clusterfuck,” Derrick said.

“Sir.” One of his men pointed back to the south. “They’re building a blockade along the streets in the southern sector. The rescue party won’t be able to get through.”

“I see it,” he said, already calculating the best strategy for exfil.

“Hawk, I’m getting an order from the base to bring you all home,” Cosmo said.

“I think your radio’s about to go on the fritz,” Derrick said. “Those men down there won’t survive without us.”

“Copy that, Hawk.” Cosmo reached forward and flicked a switch. “What’s the plan?”

“We’ll fast-rope to the intersection two blocks to the south and west of them, behind the insurgents waiting in that alley. Then I want you to blow the alley to hell. We’ll guard the route while you take to the sky before they can send an RPG your way.”

“Want continued cover fire?”

“As much as you can give us without getting hit.”

“Roger that. But Hawk?” Cosmo hesitated. “I don’t have enough room to take all of them.”

Derrick nodded. “I know. Call backup as soon as our boots hit the ground. They won’t have a choice but to send help once we’re down. I suspect the Americans will find a way to us, too. These men just need a bit of help to survive.”

“You sure about this, sir?” his sergeant asked.

No. So many things could go wrong. The insurgents could leave their barricaded alley and fire on them while they fast-roped to the ground, killing his men and downing the bird. Or they could get caught up in the same trap as the unit down on the street, and be herded to the square for public torture and execution. Sometimes he hated the burden of making these life-and-death decisions for his men, but that’s what leaders did.

“Those men need us,” he said over the comms to everyone. “If it were us down there, then I’d pray to God that someone would come support us.”

His men nodded.

“Let’s do this, sir.”

“Locked and loaded.”

“Ready to rock and roll, sir.”

His sergeant gave him the thumbs up.

“Take us down, Cosmo,” Derrick said. The bird swooped down toward the ground, coming to hover over a fairly empty street a few blocks from the fighting. Derrick lifted a thick, black nylon rope in his gloved hands, tugged to make sure it was securely clipped on the anchor arm of the Griffon, and then threw it out the open door.

He swung himself out and locked his feet around the rope as he slithered forty feet to the ground. He landed and brought his HK MP5 rifle to bear, moving quickly behind the cover of a parked car for a better view of the firefight.

Within seconds, his team was down. His sergeant tapped him on the shoulder even as the bird soared up and toward the alley where the enemy lay in wait.

Derrick signaled to his men and they spread out, but ran as one unit toward the fight.

The pilots lit up the alley with the .50 Cal, while the crew chief worked the mini gun. Screams echoed in the alley.

He clicked on his radio. “Charlie Two One this is Alpha Zero, over.”

“Alpha Zero, is that your sweet thunder I hear?”

Derrick smiled. “Come join the party.”

“Just give us the signal.”

“Standby.”

Derrick motioned his men close. Smoke and dust filled the night air, making it almost impossible to see beyond five feet. Screams and the thunder of the firefight meant he had to shout his orders. “We need to clear this alley. Tubbs and Smytty hold the rear. The rest of you, on me. Weapons free.”

His men spread out, rifles up and senses alert. They stalked as a unit into the clearing smoke of the alley.

His radio clicked. “Alpha Zero, they’ve got us pinned. They’re closing on the alley entrance trying to cut us off.”

Fuck. “Roger. Hold on.” His adrenaline spiked and he started to run, his weapon up.

A shape loomed out of the smoke. The silhouette wore no webbing or helmet. It raised a rifle and Derrick pulled his trigger twice. The man went down and he ran past. Twice more, figures came at him and twice more they fell. His men fired their weapons as more and more tangos appeared.

They no longer ran, but walked steadily forward as the insurgents became aware of them and focused their killing attention on them. Most had AK-47s, while others bore pistols, or even lengths of pipe and bats. This wasn’t an organized fighting force. This was a mob that had been rounded up. And that was a point in his team’s favor.

Derrick and his men knew how their own unit would react and move. They could count on each other to cover fields of fire surrounding them, so while their progress was slowed, it wasn’t stopped by any means.

But it didn’t mean that no one shot at them. As the point man, Derrick took the brunt of the shots aimed their way. Something slammed into the steel plate of his chest armor, knocking the wind out of him. He fired a burst straight ahead, spraying slightly to the left and right. A scream gargled and then cut off.

Tango down.

“Reloading,” he shouted to let the two men on either side of him know he was out of commission for a second as he popped out his mag and slammed in a fresh one. “Covering.”

Fire burned about twenty meters away. A parked car on its side.

“Charlie Two One, sit rep, over,” he said over the comm.

“Fifty meters north of the alley behind a white pickup. A fuckload of tangos between us and it. Thankfully none of them have used an RPG. Over.”

“They want you alive,” he replied.

“Affirmative.”

The light of the fires grew brighter ahead, along with the noise. “Closing in on the entrance.” He switched channels. “Cosmo, this is Hawk. Friendlies by the white pickup and in the alley. The rest is your playground.”

“Roger, Hawk.”

A second later, the heavy thumps of the .50 Cal echoed over their gunfire. Not enough. He pulled a grenade at the same time his sergeant did. Great minds.

They threw together and crouched down. He’d aimed for a parked car on the far side of the street where some tangos hid while the sergeant had thrown his into a pack of the enemy.

Three. Two. One.

One hell of a concussive boom hit them. His ears rang, but he could still hear the screams of the dying.

He stood, and so did his men. He didn’t bother saying anything. No one would hear him with their ears ringing from the grenades.

Time to get those men out.

The alley entrance was theirs. Derrick left two men guarding it while he and the sergeant ran to the white pickup, hugging the stone wall of the building beside them.

“Charlie Two One, we are moving to your position. Do not fire to your south. I say again, do not fire to your south.”

“Roger, Alpha Zero. We see you,” the deep voice said on the comm. “We’re coming to you, over.”

Ahead, four men came out of the smoke. One took the lead while another had his arm around a third man who limped, but both still held their assault rifles ready. The fourth covered their six.

Derrick signaled his sergeant to cover their retreat while he ran up to the leader, a man a couple of inches shorter than Derrick. Dirt and dust smeared his dark skin and beard, but didn’t hide his wide grin. A dark wet patch stained his upper arm. He’d been hit. “Fuck. We’re glad to see you boys,” he said.

Rounds strafed the dirt in front of them. They ducked and began picking off insurgents encroaching on them.

“Let’s get you the fuck out of here,” Derrick said. “Do you have an exfil location?”

“Not anymore. Our bird got shot down.”

So that was the source of the firefight in the southern part of the city. Derrick nodded and signaled them to head for the alley. He crouched with his back to the others to cover their retreat, firing at the insurgents who’d regrouped. They must have realized the helicopter wasn’t firing on their side of the street; now, they pressed in on them. Derrick changed his mag out again and kept firing.

A tap on his shoulder indicated the last man had passed him. He backed up, keeping the tangos off their six. The mob swelled in front of him. Where the fuck were they all coming from?

A quick glance. All of the men had made the alleyway. Derrick thumbed his comm switch. “Cosmo, we need as much cover as you can give.”

“I’ll do my best. They’ve brought out the RPG’s.”

“Pull up when you need to.”

“Roger.”

He laid down a spray of rounds and then sprinted for the alley. Shouts followed him.

He could almost feel the mass of insurgents behind him swelling up like a wave.

He passed the burning car. More insurgents came from the other side. If they managed to swarm him, he’d be lost.

He pushed himself hard. A round cracked against his back plate and he almost fell. Derrick strained to keep himself upright and still running.

Ahead, Tubbs, their demo expert held three fingers up. The rest of the team stared beyond him, their weapons firing.

Two fingers.

They all ran.

One.

The blast threw them further down the alley. Pain slashed Derrick’s side. He rolled and lay still. Smoke and dust clouded the air.

Fuck.

He was alive.

The ringing in his ears drowned out every sound. He pushed himself into a crouch. His men staggered to their feet. He did a quick headcount. Ten. They’d all made it.

Fire blazed at the end of the alley they’d just run through. That wouldn’t stop the insurgents long.

“We’ve got to move,” he yelled. He could barely hear himself.

He signaled his men and they ran. There were dark wet patches on more than one of them, but they couldn’t stop. Not now.

They ran from the alley and into the next. Their bird had flown off in a different direction, probably leading the insurgents on a merry chase.

After the last alley, the leader of the other team made them turn north. Where were they? Derrick tried to picture the city in his mind, but the streets blurred and ran together. He frowned. That wasn’t like him.

Was it getting darker? He stumbled, and one of his men was there. His sergeant. Stopping him. Saying something. Derrick couldn’t hear his words.

He shook his head, hoping to clear the fogginess, but it only made him dizzy. He swayed.

Fuck.

The other team leader came over and said something, touching Derrick’s side. He hissed in pain. He looked down. Blood. Now that someone had touched the spot, it seemed to release a searing pain into his numb body. His insides felt like someone held a blowtorch to them. He gritted his teeth.

“Fuck, sir,” his sergeant said. “What the hell are you doing running with that wound?”

At least his hearing was coming back. He bit back a groan. “Not much fucking choice, eh?”

His sergeant pulled out his med kit, dug through it and within moments had taped a thick gauze pad to his wound. “That’ll have to do for now, sir.”

The fog that had clouded his mind dissipated and the reality of their situation struck him hard, pulsing in time with the pain burning his side. They stood on the side of a lit street. His men had formed a defensive perimeter around him and the wounded man they’d rescued. One of man’s teammates sprayed something on the leg wound and murmured to him.

They couldn’t stay here. So far they’d been lucky and no one had noticed them, but the mob was only a few blocks away. They weren’t safe by any means. They needed to keep moving.

He took a step toward the other teamleader and winced. “Where’s our evac?”

The teamleader nodded. “ETA ten minutes. The RV isn’t far.” He slid his shoulder under Derrick’s.

“My turn to help you,” he said in a low voice when Derrick stiffened. “We can’t have you falling on us.”

“Make sure my men get out,” he said back, equally low.

“We’re all getting out. Thanks to you and your team,” the man said. “You can call me, Rider.”

“Hawk.” Derrick didn’t bother with names. He’d seen the way these men moved. And special ops soldiers didn’t give out their names to anyone.

Rider raised his voice so everyone could hear. “Save the chitchat for when this shit-show is done. We’ll laugh about it over a beer. Move out.”

The ten men moved deeper into the darkness of the alleys and streets, praying an evac met them soon.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

Chapter Two