combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004

Between a Rock

          Dark shadows moved among the angular shades of boulders in the dim pre-dawn light, descending the steep slope of broken rock. The silent and methodical progress of the four men masked exuberance within. Nine million dollars apiece, they figured. Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri; the highest payout for two-of-a-kind in history.

          "We're here," Paul spoke quietly. He turned off his GPS.

          Ibrahim and Tom slid a flat stone aside, triggering a small clatter of gravel down the mountain.

          "We're fucked," Tom said, not bothering to whisper.

          Everything was gone, even the trash. Nobody spoke for a minute.

          Ibrahim voiced what all of them were thinking. "We're not really just going to abandon our mission now, are we?"

          "That's exactly what we all agreed to do if this ever happened." Paul didn't sound enthusiastic about quitting, though he'd set the rule. Paul was third generation West Point, an Army Ranger colonel who'd taken his full-pension retirement after twenty years of service. He'd sold his security consulting business the year before to organize this hunting party.

          "I don't think we anticipated our cover being blown after finding them and before completion." Benny Steinberg never stopped thinking like a lawyer. Working for The Company, as everybody there referred to the CIA, he did contracts day in and day out. A sabbatical year of mountaineering was what he'd told everybody — he needed to clear out the cobwebs.

          Tom seized on Benny's point. "All I'm saying is, we can live off what we're carrying for a few days, easy, and that's all we need." An ex-Ranger like Tom could go a few days on water alone.

          "Obviously," Paul said, "whoever stole our shit isn't out to kill us, or we'd be dead. Right?"

          "Correct," Ibrahim said. "We were probably spotted by local tribesmen. Our gear is highly valuable to them, and word will get passed around their clan that we're here. But it will be at least a day before any decision is made to come looking for us."

          "Will they?" Paul asked.

          "Yes, I think so, if only to capture and ransom us."

          "Maybe they'd ransom you guys," Benny commented, "but I'll get the Danny Pearl treatment." He made a slashing motion across his throat.

          Ibrahim shook his head, no. "That was a political kidnapping, a propaganda statement. You don't have anything to worry about from the people around here."

          Benny raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

          "Why are we talking worst case?" Tom asked. "Once we tag Osama and Ayman and call in the cavalry, we'll be riding back with our homies."

          "Because it could happen," Paul replied. "We're doubly vulnerable now, and we've all got to understand that and accept it, if we decide to proceed."

          "Let's do it." There was no tone of doubt in Tom's statement.

          "My grandfather will spin in his grave if I walk away from nine million dollars." Benny smiled, imagining his grandpa alive saying, "What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing hunting Muslim fanatics in the mountains of Western Asia?" And Benny would answer, "One of our best contractors had this great idea and I knew where to get the info, so —"

          "You sent me into these mountains nine months ago, five months before you," Ibrahim said. "And finally, yesterday, God be praised, I saw with my own eyes the two men most responsible for bringing shame on my people, and my faith. We must finish this."

          Paul looked from man to man, and nodded his head. "Good deal. Now let's find a place to sleep."

          The team moved laterally on the face of the mountain, into a narrow brush-filled ravine. A trickle of water glazed the rocks, gathering in shallow pools. The sun was coming up over the shoulder of the slope when they finally found a level spot large enough for three of them to lie down huddled together for warmth. Through the day, each man stood a three-hour watch while the others slept.

          Benny didn't dream at all for the first four hours. Then the nightmare started again. It was always the same. His captors beat him, drugged him, forced him to read confessions. Then they came with the last dose. He knew that meant they would slit his throat while he slept and cut off his head, holding it up to the camera, dripping. His fiancée would see the videotape. Benny woke up. He asked himself, was this really worth it?

          Yes, Benny knew he had to do it — wanted to do it. He thanked God he'd found Ibrahim. Without him the mission would have been a non-starter. That one old school connection made all the damn alumni functions and fund raising worthwhile. Hard to believe the guy was born in this piss-poor wilderness and made it to New York City, Columbia University, and Johns Hopkins Medical School.

          Paul dreams the same dream every day. He and Tom wait, concealed by darkness, one hundred meters from the outer perimeter of the terrorist base. At this distance, there is nothing to see, unless it's daytime and you know exactly where to look. In the moonless night, the camouflage netting covered cave entrance is totally invisible, even through their night vision scopes. The sentry walks his post. One shot from Tom's silenced rifle and the man drops. Inside the perimeter, Benny and Ibrahim take rear guard positions.

          Paul and Tom move quickly to the inner sentry line. Each man takes down a guard. In less than a minute, darting from boulder to boulder, they get within fifty meters of the cave. Tom removes what looks like an ordinary rock the size of a softball from his backpack and sets it down among similar stones. A minute later, Benny and Ibrahim join Paul and Tom as they scramble up the gravelly slope as fast as they can. The team is three hundred meters from the cave when the first dead sentry is noticed. The Al Queda leaders know they've been found and will break camp in hours. By then it will be too late for them; the radio beacon in the fake rock pinpoints where the choppers bearing Rangers will arrive at dawn.

          Tom sleeps fitfully, one moment dreaming of building a new house with a bedroom for each of his three kids, a den with billiard table, a greenhouse for his wife's orchids, a pool, a four-car garage, a — The next moment, an Al Queda communications expert intercepts the radio beacon. The Muslim fanatics figure out his team must be nearby and send out a platoon equipped with AK-47s, RPGs and night vision goggles. How many can he kill before —

          In his dream, Ibrahim is introduced to the village girls, over and over, until they merge into the ideal child bride, fearful, hopeful, naïve. Returning to his homeland to find a suitable bride was the perfect cover story. And who wouldn't want him for a son-in-law? He is the successful American Doctor, his parents representative of two powerful local clans. The girl removes her burkha, revealing herself, naked.

          Suddenly, Ibrahim is a child again, playing with his older and younger brothers. They taunt the goat until it charges, then leap aside. When the goat tires of the game and refuses to pursue them, the brothers walk to the stream. With mud and stones they build miniature water works and canals where wood chip boats carry tiny piles of seeds to imaginary mills. The sun is going down behind the mountain. His mother calls them to dinner.

          "Up and at 'em, gentlemen," Paul's quiet voice stirred the three dusty poncho-covered sleepers.

          Benny assumes Tom and Paul are used to field operations where you sleep by day and work by night, and Ibrahim must have pulled plenty of night shifts during his medical residency. But after four months, he still wasn't with the program. Benny sat up, dazed, trying to remember what came next. "Was I dreaming, or did we spot Osama and Ayman yesterday?"

          Tom was already on his feet, peeing into the bushes. "Damn straight, we did."

          "We got lucky," Paul added. "They're only one canyon over from where we stand. A little hustle tonight, and we're in the money."

          Ibrahim turned to Paul. "That was not luck, Colonel. I believe the goat was there for a reason, as a messenger."

          "Well, yes, everything has a reason." Paul was a some-Sundays Lutheran, as religious as the next guy, but didn't attribute lucky breaks to divine intervention.

          Tom listened to their exchange with a smile. "Ibrahim, noticing that goat startle from a kilometer away, at night, that's sharp tracking skill, no matter what you call it."

          Something had made the goat bolt up the slope, sending a cascade of small rocks down the mountain. Focusing their night vision binoculars on the area below the rock fall, the brief parting of a camouflage net over the cave mouth betrayed the Al Queda camp. The team staked it out from their perch across the canyon all the next day. They agreed there was no mistaking the tall Arab, or the portly one with glasses.

          Paul studied the handheld GPS display. "Our best bet is to go down the hill about three hundred meters, then traverse until we reach a little saddleback ridge that will connect to the back side of the mountain their canyon backs up to. Then, we'll climb up to a pass, over and — bingo."

          "How far?" Tom asked.

          "About five kilometers."

          Benny tried to form a picture of the route in his mind. "So, we're basically almost circling back?"

          "Kind of. As the crow flies, we're only a little over a kilometer from them."

          "Got it."

          Backpacks on, canteens full, the men moved down the mountain, shadows once more. The crunch of gravel and the brief scrape of rock on rock were the only sounds as they picked their way, cat-like. Occasionally, a cold evening breeze interrupted the acrid stink of each other's sweat with the faint scent of some night-blooming mountain flower.

          At three o'clock in the morning, the team approached the pass over the mountain above the Al Queda camp.

          "Halt right there. You're covered," the firm calm voice came from ahead, up-slope and to the left.

          Paul thought the accent was West Virginia or maybe Kentucky. He noted the red laser designator dot in the middle of his chest. "OK, we're cooperating," he said.

          Nobody said a word as six night camo-clad figures materialized out of the darkness, each holding an M-16. Up close, there was enough starlight that Paul could see these guys were US Special Forces. He felt relief, mixed with disappointment. From Tom's, Ibrahim's and Benny's body language, he could tell they shared his mood.

          "Remove your packs and weapons," the Special Forces squad leader said. His tone wasn't hostile, but it wasn't friendly either.

          Slowly, the men removed their gear and dropped it on the stony ground. One of the soldiers went through their packs, using a tiny red flashlight. He removed their passports, ammunition, spare GPS, and the fake rock, which he handed to his squad leader. Another soldier distributed the team's weapons to the squad members.

          "Okay, put your packs on and come with us. No talking."

          It was early afternoon when they arrived at the small mountain village now serving as a Special Forces base. By Paul's estimate, they'd hiked over twelve kilometers from their capture point. The base personnel were all dressed like local tribesmen. Their captors led them into one of the windowless huts. The interior featured cots, hammocks, a water can and a bucket.

          The squad leader addressed Paul. "Welcome to the Special Ops Shangri-la. Enjoy your stay," he smiled. "The Commander will be here in a few minutes. Hang tight."

          As soon as the door closed, Tom yelled, "Fuck! I can't believe it. Busted by our own guys."

          Benny collapsed into a hammock. "Shit. We were so close, I could taste the money."

          Ibrahim sat on a cot. "My friends, the good news is they know where Osama and Ayman are. Justice will be served."

          Paul sat down and stared at the dirt floor.

          The door opened and a middle-aged American dressed like a village big shot entered. He removed his turban, revealing close-cropped gray hair. "Good afternoon. I'm Major John Smith, commanding officer of this sector. I know who you are and why you're here. This is a —"

          "Are we prisoners?" Benny asked.

          "Let me finish, please. This is a restricted area of military operations. You will be our guests until we deem it safe for civilians to travel. We ask that you remain in the village and within sight of your escorts at all times. Wear the native clothing you have. That is all. Good day." The Major turned and left without taking any questions.

          "So Benny," Tom said, "you're the lawyer. Are we prisoners?"

          "Not exactly, I think."

          "Well, while you figure that out, why don't we look around?" Tom got up and went to the door. They all followed.

          Outside the hut, they headed for the center of the village, followed by a "tribal" guard. The sound of multiple conversations all going at once spilled from the open doorway of a simple mud building that may have once been a one-room school or a town hall.

          Paul stepped through the doorway. The place went silent for a moment as two-dozen men, all westerners, looked up from their tea to check out the new arrivals. Then a chorus of groans, cries of "Oh, shit!" and "Merde!" filled the room.

          "What's the fucking problem here?" Tom inquired of no one in particular.

          A big red-faced man stood up and signaled for quiet. "You see, laddies," he said in a Scottish brogue, "every time another lot of you buggers shows up, our share goes down."

          "Share?" Benny didn't get it.

          "You mean the bounty on Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri, don't you," Paul said.

          "That's what we're all here for, isn't it? Come B-Day, we sign the Non-Disclosure Agreement, take our checks, and go home."


          "Bag- em Day — the fourth of October, 2004."

by David M. Schwartz
... who is an architect and freelance writer, with most of his published work being nonfiction in the fields of digital media and home entertainment technology.