I'm not really sure what the f•©k happened. The last thing I remembered before coming to in a dingy cellar surrounded by musty vegetables and the smell of goats and my own blood was being on the helo. Weeell, perhaps I should back it up a bit further. I joined up at seventeen. Dad was in the Army. A twenty year vet of Panama, the First Gulf War, and Kosovo before he was smart and got out before the gutting of the military by Clinton got his successor in trouble. I grew up knowing I was never going to be in one place for more than three years before we were going to be sent somewhere else. The unofficial motto of military families is "Home is where the Army sends you," and that is more true than they would probably like to admit. I go back that far to explain how I got to the cellar. I knew before I even got into high school that there was not a chance in hell of my parents being able to afford college for me. Sergeants in the Army don't make enough to start college funds. Sergeants in the Army barely make enough to cover the bills they have every month. Especially these days, when the benefits that used to induce young men to join have been whittled away. So I was either going to have to work my ass off at a job and go to school at night or find somebody else to pay for it. And then 9/11 happened. Dad came really close to seeing if he could get back in the Army when that happened, but mom took him into their bedroom, yelled at him for about an hour before bursting into tears on him. He never could stand to see her cry, so she won.
I was already figuring on joining the Army out of high school, but 9/11 changed my plans. Or rather, it made me decide to accelerate them. I was already bored with school, getting good grades without much effort, so when I saw those planes slam into the World Trade Center and plunge into the Pentagon and heard about what Todd Beamer and his compatriots did, I knew what I was going to do. I did my two and a half years in high school before dropping out at sixteen and getting my GED before working for half a year at a gun range and joining on my seventeenth birthday with mom's grudging support and dad's sad pride. Sad because he really wished he would be the generation in our family to make the next generation well enough off that we would not need to sell our blood for others' freedom and prosperity. I would be the fifth generation of MacShanes to fight for our adopted country. Not that coming to America changed what the MacShanes did. We Irish have been fighting each other or someone else as far back as we can remember. I guess great-great-grandfather Fearghus MacShane thought he could break the chain by coming to the U.S. But me joining in 2004 showed what folly that was. Besides, we are good at our jobs. Only one MacShane has died in action since we got here and he was unfortunate enough to be on Luzon when the Japanese came ashore. He died somewhere between where he had been killing Japs and the first stop on the Bataan Death March. His almost lifeless body had been surrendered with the rest of the near-starved Americans and Filipinos who gave up, already wounded and near death. At least according to one of the survivors of the death camps.
Boot camp was fairly easy given I was already conditioned to obey orders and was in very good shape. I spent more time in Jump School, then Ranger School, then Sniper School before being sent out into the jungles of Central and South America to practice for six months on drug cartels and wannabe terrorists. Another six months in the Philippines helping to teach the Filipinos how to kill Abu Sayyaf. While there, I managed to pick up some Arabic and a buddy got me started on Persian and a smattering of Urdu. Turned out I had a knack for languages he could not believe. That, of course, got me send home for more in-depth schooling in all three languages before I was sent to the lovely hellhole known as Afghanistan as part of the watered down Obama surge.
Six months into my deployment I was sent out into the hinterlands along the Afghan-Paki border with intel that there would be a high value target coming across the border from his safe house in Peshawar for a meeting with Taliban leadership in eastern Afghanistan. The helo set my spotter and me down ten miles out from the meet spot just after dark and we humped to a ridge running just north of the little hamlet in which a Taliban chief lived. Supposedly this was some kind of strategy session between Taliban and al-Qaeda for some big multi-hit attack they were planning for Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Peshawar, Islamabad, and Karachi. The Taliban were getting pissed with the Pakistani government for helping the U. S. Intel was for a lot of soft targets with high casualties. At least that was what CENTCOM and the bright boys in Langley figured.
It was freezing cold, winter having long ago locked the hinterlands of Central Asia in its grip. There wasn't any snow on the ground around the hamlet yet, but weather reports were expecting some and so Jimmy (Cpl. James Cagney Riccelli-my spotter) and I were loaded down with cold weather gear, Afghan terrain ghillie suits, weapons, ammo, observation gear, provisions, and snow camo, just in case we were still here when the flakes started coming down. As we walked over the broken terrain, we collected withered foliage and twigs to weave into each other's suits until we were satisfied that we would be invisible when we found our spot.
The walk up the ridge was a slow, nervous one because the Taliban warlord was known to be twitchy. The hamlet was rumored to be booby trapped for a half mile around and more than one of the village's kids lost limbs before the villagers sent them to live with relatives. We made the crest of the ridgeline easily enough and began inching our way down as the sun was beginning to come up. We made one last inspection of our suits and then settled down for the day. We had drawn cards before leaving the FOB and so I got to doze while he kept watch. We switched off a couple more times before dark and then grabbed our gear and began inching our way around the hamlet. The warlord's house was on the southwestern side of the village, according to the Intel weenies, so he could be closer to Mecca than anyone else. We slipped through a couple of roving patrols closer to the village and a third nearly walked right over us just after we set up once more for the day.
Sipping water from our camel packs and chowing down on MREs set us up for the long wait for dusk. Jimmy dozed whilst I watched. Intel said the meet was supposed to take place today at dusk with the players all arriving in time to do evening prayers together.
I was about to wake Jimmy up when I noticed movement on the eastern road into the village. I used my scope to get a quick peek, making sure of the sun's angle before doing so. On the far side of the village a convoy of six SUVs had stopped at the four Taliban watchers set on the road. After a few minutes of chit-chat, the guards let them drive on into the village. They drove straight towards the southwestern quarter of town and parked outside the sprawling house that was probably the former residence of the town headman. It was also the house I had been keeping an eye on all day, marking who came and went and when. I had counted seven men so far and all seven boiled out as the SUV doors started opening. Three more men that I had not seen also came out and I smacked Jimmy on the side. Target Beta, the Taliban chief, was the last to exit the house.
As Jimmy was rousing himself fully, I started looking at the guests and finally spotted Target Alpha. He and the Taliban chief kissed cheeks ritually and I centered the scope on Alpha's chest. Jimmy had gotten his scope up and was rattling off distance and wind numbers for me. This was not going to be an easy job and we knew it when we accepted it. One shot was hard enough to hit and get out. Two was going to be harder and these guys were even twitchier than the Intel weenies had led us to believe. Every single guard was scanning the countryside and the village streets as if the 1st Infantry Division was going to come crash the party.
"Get ready to hop, Jimmy," I said as I took a breath and held it, squeezing the trigger. Even before Alpha was going down I had exhaled, resighted on the chief, inhaled, hold, and squeeze.
"Alpha down, Sarge. Center mass," mutter Jimmy. "Beta down, center mass. Time to skedaddle!"
I popped off a few more shots as Jimmy slowly started squirming his way up the hill and northward. I made sure to take out the engines of the SUVs and got two more of the al-Qaeda thugs when they popped their heads up before snapping the scope closed and following Jimmy. I heard shots hitting behind me but it had taken them too long to pinpoint where my shot had come from. We were out of there. Mission accomplished.
It was nearly ten miles to the pick-up LZ and within the first five hundred feet I knew we were in trouble. Qaraqul-wearing, AK-toting goons started popping up out of the barren mountains screaming at each other in very unflattering terms regarding Jimmy and me in nearly illiterate Pashto. These boys were mixed groups of Pakis, Afghanis, and those nigh-legendary "foreign fighters" you hear so much about from Pentagon briefings. I told Jimmy to start jettisoning any of his gear that would identify him as a sniper, making sure to conceal it as best he could. I began doing the same with any gear I could afford to lose while keeping my rifle and ammo. We were not going to get out of this without me creating some diversions.
I sent Jimmy up the ridge and found a nice cluster of rocks from which I started tracking the search patrols. They were nervous and poorly trained and they were doing what nervous, poorly trained troops do: shooting at anything that moved or looked out of place. I began watching one group in particular on the lower slope because every thirty seconds or so one of the kids poking their AKs into the weeds and brush would pop off a burst into a bush. Sometimes it was nothing, other times they scared the shit out of some poor squirrel or marmot or jerboa. I began timing their shots with one of my own, picking off stragglers while everyone was busy watching the idiots with nerves of linguine.
By the time we were nearing the ridge line, it was full dark and there were groups of nervous, heavily armed thugs roaming the lower slopes. Someone down in the village must have more than wind whistling between his ears because none of them were waving flashlights or torches as they searched the darkness for us. They were basically quartering the slope from the bottom now, concentrating on the likeliest egress for a shooter. That gave us time, which was a benefit to us. Unfortunately, it was also cutting off the route we really should have been taking because the ridgeline was quite a bit lower and easier going to the northwest than it was to the southwest. We had to deal with steeper terrain and about a thousand feet more in elevation. It being dark and the searchers making so much noise, Jimmy and I risked making a little more noise ourselves to use a little more speed to climb the hill and skip over the ridge.
By false dawn, we had made the ridge and were making better time by simply running flat out. We were almost at the southern base of the hill when I decided that we had better find a hidey hole for the day. There were a number of caves on the hill but I nixed that idea when Jimmy suggested it. Any local will know every hole in the ground around that village and point the searchers right to it. Instead, I found us an expansive clump of bushes into which we dug ourselves for the day, again switching on and off watches.
When Jimmy woke me for my watch it was with a fear in his eyes I had never seen. "Don't know if we're getting out of this one, Sergeant," he whispered fatalistically. "I don't know where they all came from, but I saw more patrols today than could possibly live in that collection of glorified goat pens. And they must have called for help across the border, because I saw a couple more SUVs with Paki plates roaming around out there."
"Get some sleep, Jimmy. Slow and easy and we will get out," I told him, trying to put as much confidence in my voice as I could. As I used my scope to look around, I was beginning to think he might be right. There were qaraquls with the odd kafflyeh here and there for as far as the eye could see, even with a scope. It was going to take us days, or rather nights, to get past the patrols and I was beginning to think the patrols were probably out as far as the alternate pick-up LZ.
It was a long, nerve-wracking day with at least two close calls as patrols came close enough for me to hear them complaining about being summoned by stupid Afghanis who can't protect their leaders from weak infidels about to run home with their tails between their legs.
By sundown, the sloppy troops patrolling the valley between Jimmy and me and the next ridge were tired, irritated, and hungry. About a half-hour before dusk, a flatbed grumbled and coughed its way over the ridge from the village and into the valley laden with food. I could smell a popular Afghani soup, bread (naan), and plenty of spices. Our mouths watering, Jimmy and I took the diversion as an opportunity to break open our MREs while the noise wouldn't matter. MREs next to the fresh cooking I smelled was not a great comparison, especially having come to like some Afghani cooking since I got in country. We ate quickly and quietly, then cleaned up and got ready to leave our bolt-hole.
As soon as it was full dark we moved, shivering as the temperature plunged. The stars, which had been bright and clear for a week, were soon blotted out by clouds and the wind began picking up. Apparently the meteo boys knew what they were talking about when they warned we might see a blizzard. I was of two minds about that. On the one hand, snow was easier to track in and made nights harder to be invisible. On the other, if it was a blizzard, maybe these boys would call it a night and leave us to the storm.
The first flurries started around midnight and by two a.m. the patrols were gone and Jimmy and I were running full out into the teeth of a blizzard. We had long-since lost feeling in our toes and fingers but the looming face of another ridge reared up from the valley floor, a sight both welcoming and disheartening. It was steeper than the ridge behind us was and far from weakening, the blizzard was picking up strength.
"S-sean! W-we h-have t-t-to f-find sh-shelter!" Jimmy roared over the howling wind.
I nodded numbly and we pause to change into our snow gear before starting to scour the mountain for a cave, as dangerous as that might be. It took us an hour to find something that was more than a dimple on the side of the mountain and when we did it was plain we were not the first humans to seek shelter there. Nor would we be the last. Just inside the entrance was a pile of wood covered by an oiled goat skin rug along with fodder for horses. Seeing that, we immediately searched the entire cave, finding that it was both extensive and empty.
I told Jimmy to take some of the wood back to an area deeper in the cave where we had found fire-cracked rocks. He was looking more frozen than I felt and we both needed to warm up a bit. When what passed for dawn broke, I left my watch on the cave mouth and joined him farther into the cave. We got the wood burning and before long we were warm enough to strip out of our snow gear and inspect our toes for frost bite. We put our soaked socks out to dry and began thawing our only-slightly frost-bitten feet. More food made us feel even better. After we ate, Jimmy took up a post near the cave mouth so I could sleep. Six hours later we switched.
That became the pattern for the next two days.
The third day dawned murky but we could see the valley so we scoped out what there was to see before donning our snow gear and beginning the climb. It was worth the risk to move during the day, it turned out. The ridge was more a series of stair-stepping cliffs that quickly became a nightmare climb. It wasn't until dark that we began seeing movement in the valley but none of it was approaching our ordeal-by-mountaineering.
We lucked out about halfway up the mountain and saw a cave mouth to the left of our line of ascent in which we sheltered for another freezing night. After a long night huddled together to conserve body heat, we started out the next morning before the sun was fully up and reached the ridgeline by mid-afternoon. Looking back, we assumed we had gotten away clean because there was no movement in the valley to be seen.
The other side of the ridge was much easier going and we found another cave before full dark to huddle in for the night.
Things started getting fuzzy the next morning. I am not sure what went wrong. We got down into the next valley and followed its meandering course for a way before reaching the tertiary extraction LZ. We called in and were told a bird was about an hour out, to dig in somewhere, be a piece of scenery, and wait. Since there were two feet of snow on the ground, that was going to be difficult and the longer we waited, the more likely someone would come across our tracks.
Despite my worries, exactly an hour later, Jimmy heard the helo coming. I set the strobe and they landed on an area of snow we had tamped down for an LZ. We hopped aboard and Jimmy and I were on our way back home, or what passed for home in Afghanistan.
I guess that was about when things went to shit. As I said at the beginning, the next thing I know I am waking up in a musty vegetable cellar rank with the smell of goats and blood. I assumed it was mine since I could feel it trickling warm and comfortingly down my chill and aching cheek, arm, and back. Most of my body was either in pain or alarmingly numb and if there was anything resembling light I would probably have been able to see my breath in the biting air.
There were no windows and the only light was a single, narrow, very dim beam of what looked like fire- or candlelight arrowing down through the musty, dusty air to illuminate a dime-sized piece of dirt floor. I had neither the energy nor the ability to move closer to it to inspect myself. Not because I was tied up (though I was) but simply because I was so hurt. I could see that the ceiling above me was wooden but better fashioned than most I had seen in country. Usually you could see cracks between every plank in a wood floor, but this one appeared to have been built by a craftsman.
This observation had me wondering where I was and who had captured me. I did not hear anything in the space I was in, so I could only assume Jimmy was not here. I remembered the helo and that could only mean we got shot down. It was a blank, though. The last thing I could recall was sharing a tight, triumphant smile with Jimmy and the two door gunners as the Blackhawk lifted off from the snowy valley floor and turned west-southwest away from the LZ. The pilot had reported our pick up and ETA at the FOB and then ... nothing.
I think I dozed because the next thing I remember was a harsh pounding, as if someone was banging on the door to the house above me. I heard Pashto voices, panicked, educated Pashto voices along with some scrambling around before a door opened. A hearty greeting was given before the same voice yelled with outrage. Whoever was at the door pushed their way in. Multiple whoevers, if the sudden crashing and banging was any indication. Dishes breaking, wood splintering, cloth tearing. Cautiously angry Pashto yelled and Pakistani Urdu snapped back, ordering silence.
"I know you can understand me, old man. You think this hovel fools everyone, and the locals, they are fooled," a cold Paki voice said, rather high and melodic. A civilized, educated man owned that voice. "The ignorant villagers avoid you in your isolated valley; they call you wizard and shaman. But they sneak down here at night for healing or magic or whatever it is they need but don't want their neighbors or the imam to know about. And you are useful enough to be left alone. But I know you are more than you seem, so I also know that if we allow an American helicopter be shot down just across the border and there is a body missing that you are the most likely to have aided in that disappearance."
"Major, I do not know why you, and your predecessors before you, have felt so threatened by my existence," an old, growly bass voice replied in Urdu, making the younger, higher voice of the Major sound as if he were a Chihuahua yapping at a St. Bernard. "I have often thought you and your ilk fear me, fear the fact that I and my clan have always been here; that we had the strength to not fall at the feet of the Persian and Indian conquerors, sloughing off the old ways for your Prophet. And every time something goes wrong in this district, I and my family are accused of being American or Soviet or British agents or sympathizers. Did I see the crash the other morning? No. I heard the crash and the celebrating lunatics you shelter and their deaths when the Americans avenged their fallen, but I did not see anything and I certainly did not steal one of the bodies!"
A steely silence greeted that retort. "Watch yourself, old man. The village chief and his clan protect you and keep the 'lunatics' out for now," the Major finally replied, his high voice hot with fury, "but their influence is not all-powerful and they are not immune to death. Make yourselves too much a nuisance and I will arrange for the Americans to think one of their 'high-value targets' lurks in this shack. Let's go!"
After much stomping of boots across the floor over my head, the door slammed and several people let loose held breaths. "Make sure he is gone, Alla, and then go check on our guest. He may be awake by now and we need to start working on some of the more serious wounds," the old man ordered, his voice hard. "I doubt they will be back tonight, but we cannot assume the snow will keep them away or from leaving a watch. They know the American survived and they suspect someone is helping him evade capture. Chief Mullakhail was keeping a lot of pockets full of poppy gold on both sides of the border and I suspect Major Taj was one of the beneficiaries. That said, Azzam, I believe you will have yet another cold night as lookout. If any of the good Major's men lurk, give them something else to do."
"Yes, grandfather. The usual disguise?" another deep, growly voice said, this one young and full of enthusiastic mischief.
"Don't let them so close this time, boy," the old man said quellingly, though I could hear a smile in the rebuke. "You cannot count on them not having surveillance equipment this time and too many tales of Yetis will stir up the outsiders."
I must have been concentrating too hard on the conversation because I missed the other footsteps. Light was suddenly streaming down into the basement and a shadowy figure in a full-length dress was looking down at me. "He is awake, grandfather. Those thugs must have woken him," a sweet, angelic voice said, her tone scathing and irritated. My vision must have been off because I could not make out anything about her other than the alluring figure shown by the dress. There were stairs descending below the trapdoor she held open and I saw I was surrounded by vegetables and sacks of grain.
She walked down the steps, her boot-clad feet clumping noisily on the wooden steps. Her dress looked like undyed wool, gray and white in the dim light. It did not hug her figure but it was also not the baggy, featureless garb a lot of the women wear in the religiously conservative areas. One could see a Mennonite or Amish woman in such a dress and not think anything of it. She walked over to me and squatted, hands sweeping her dress around thin, strong legs. The dress also failed to conceal the fact that she had been blessed by the tit fairy. She wasn't porn star huge but she definitely had a chest she wouldn't be ashamed of when wearing a swimsuit. I still couldn't make out her face, though her eyes seemed to flash with scorn as she noticed me noticing her.
"I see he is rude like they say Americans are," she snapped over her shoulder before turning those liquid black orbs on me. "I am already unclothed in his mind, his gaze is so bold!"
"N-not quite unclothed," I stuttered weakly in broken Pashto. I understood the language much better than I could speak it. "But I can s-see your b-beautif-ful form in a swimsuit."
A smile tugged at her sculpted, pouty lips. "So, you understand. Did you understand the Paki thugs?"
"D-did th-they r-r-really kill J-Jimmy and the helo cr-crew?"
"They killed you, too, fool! If not for my grandfather, your heart would have stayed still," she snapped, placing a warm hand on my forehead, grimacing as it came away with blood. "He is fading, grandfather! We need to move him to the table and sew him up, now!"
Not sure how long the lights were out this time. The sun was shining through a small window and onto the foot of the bed my body was laid out on. The blankets were rough but warm and smelled like goats. Then again, most of the region tended to smell either like goats or spices. The thought of spices made me realize I was starving and could smell something cooking. There was a bandage wrapped around my head, one covering my left arm from armpit to fingertips, and one I could feel wrapped around my upper torso. Whatever happened to my back, it hurt like a motherf•©ker, stung, and was tight enough that I was sure there were many, many stitches involved.
Since there was no splint on my arm, I felt safe using it to help lever myself into a sitting position. It hurt and I was sure the left bicep was at least damaged, if not torn or otherwise cut. Once up, I spent a moment or three making sure I didn't fall. The room was spinning like a top, quickly making me nauseous. I must have made a noise because I heard footsteps coming toward the room's only door. Fleeting thoughts of flopping back down and playing dead floated through my head but the thought of flopping onto my injured back or jarring my aching head made me re-evaluate that idea.
So when the door opened, the vengeful angel from the night before stood in the doorframe looking at me in amazement. She wore a black and white dress similar to last night along with a white shawl-like head scarf with black fringe. She was even more beautiful than my fever-dreams made her. She had a triangular face with sculpted cheekbones Hollywood actresses and models pay surgeons for and a graceful jaw line that ended in a strong, stubborn chin. Her pouty lips were pressed together in a firm line and those liquid black eyes glared at me down an eagle's beak nose that was flaring with ire, giving her an impressive glare. Her skin was smooth, flawless, and a creamy, dark bronze shade.
"Still putting me in a swimsuit or am I now completely unclothed?" she snapped, entering the room. Mesmerized by her beauty, I somehow missed the tray of food she was holding.
"Sorry," I muttered in Pashto. "You are just gorgeous and my poor male eyes can't seem to drink enough of your countenance to quench the thirst of my heart."
She shot me a withering scowl before setting the tray on the crude but sturdily made bedside table. I realized food wasn't the only thing on the tray. Rolls of linen and a bowl of mashed herbs were also present. The glaring goddess propped the two pillows up and helped me sit back, watching me like a hawk.
"How much did that hurt?"
"A bit. I'll get over it."
"I asked for medical reasons, you American idiot!" she snapped, plopping a bowl of stew on my lap. "If you can sit up, you can feed yourself. I will be back in a minute. I forgot the water and cloths. Eat all of that stew. You need the nutrients."
She stalked away, leaving me to my meal. Watching her move reminded me of watching documentaries about tigers or snow leopards; she had a deadly grace about her. Given the culture of the Afghan-Paki border region, I would not think any woman could fight in a trained way, but I was having trouble thinking around her and I seemed to have a type. My first girlfriend was a black belt in Jeet Kune Do who won enough tournament trophies to fill her father's study. My second girlfriend was known as Hellcat in the gang she ran with because she beat the shit out of any guy that messed with her. And the last girl I dated was one of the unarmed combat instructors at Ft. Benning. Whoever this woman was, I was hooked.
The stew I could have done without. I recognized the smell immediately; it was a border region staple made of vegetables, spices, and goat. After a tentative bite, I nearly inhaled the entire bowl. Goat stew never appealed to me but whoever cooked this was an artist. It was nearly as good as mom's beef stew.
A sound brought my face up out of the bowl to see an amused angel with a faint smile tugging her pouty lips reluctantly upward.
"Hungry, were you?"
"I haven't eaten since night before last," was my mumbled reply.
A dark look came over her as she shook her head. "You were fed two nights ago and again yesterday morning and evening. Mostly watery porridge," she informed me, her voice sounding almost gentle. "You remember eating the night before the crash? That was four days ago. You woke and fought us, despite your wounds, thus the reason you were tied up when you woke in the basement, three days ago. We almost lost you after Major Taj left. The head wound was superficial but also came with a concussion. Your left bicep was partially severed by what we assume was shrapnel from the exploding helicopter. And you have minor burns and more cuts on your upper back and a few on your hip and legs. The hip and leg wounds are mostly scratches compared to the rest."