Long Shot by Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin and Donald A. Davis is book #9 in the Kyle Swanson Sniper Novels series (Available August 16, 2016).
A top Russian intelligence agent has defected to the West and the only man with whom he will speak is Kyle Swanson, who busted him out of the U.S. Marine Corps Scout/Sniper School years ago. The defector proves to be an Edward Snowden-type gold mine of amazing secrets about the When, Where and How of President Vladimir Pushkin's next grab for lost Soviet territory.
But Swanson, now a special contractor with the CIA, soon begins to believe that it is all fool's gold being sprinkled by Moscow to ignite an open military fight with NATO and the United States.
Using his own deadly methods, the sniper sets out to find the truth, but to slow him down, the Russians kidnap Swanson's beautiful friend Calico, the CIA station chief in Estonia..
From Italy to the Arctic Circle, Kyle Swanson is on the hunt, convinced that the defector actually is running a complex plot to hand Russia a kingdom in the north. But Swanson seems always to be a step behind because there is a traitor within his own chain of command. To stop the madness, Swanson must deliver a kill shot a hundred miles away from a border bridge in Estonia, where a Russian Army waits on the far shore as a government official crosses over with an invitation to invade.
THIS HAD TO BE a head shot. Under normal circumstances, a sniper goes for the chest, which not only provides a larger area and is thus an easier target, but the chest also is the gateway to the vital organs of the body. A big bullet in there goes spinning and bouncing around, breaking bones and shearing veins and pulping muscles, and collapsing the frail human machine that made life possible. Kyle Swanson knew that as he ignored the easy shot and instead dialed in on the head of Roland Lewis Martin from Bellwood, Indiana. The CIA sniper knew a lot of other things, the total of which meant that young Mister Martin had richly earned the .50-caliber bullet that would soon tear off his entire skull and leave his quivering body with a bloody stump of a neck.
Martin was a nice-looking young man, at least as seen through the powerful scope mounted on the Excalibur sniper rifle. Only twenty-nine years old, he still had the muscular build of his days being an offensive tackle on the Bellwood High Blue Jackets football team. The continued physical conditioning was a testament to the exercise he had received in his years of fighting for ISIS, the murderous Islamic State jihadists. His hair was black and cut short, and his cheeks wore a stubble of beard. The broad nose had been broken twice, healed a bit crookedly, and his teeth gleamed plastic and bright after so many caps and root canals. His white cotton shirt was open at the neck, showing the deep tan. The sleeves were rolled up, exposing the blue tattoo of a snake that coiled from his wrist to his elbow on the right arm. Martin had picked that up in Yokohama during his short career in the U.S. Navy, which had taught him computer science. The black slacks were clean and pressed, with matching socks and leather loafers. A tiny earring twinkled on the left lobe. The tip of his left little finger was missing due to a childhood tractor accident. In all, he looked pretty good; a capable poster boy for ISIS, a former cold-blooded killer turned recruiter.
Swanson had decided to use the new clear polymer-encased M33 ball ammunition for the job instead of the standard brass, primarily for the lighter weight. The 687-grain bullet was a shade under five and a half inches in length, would leave the muzzle at a velocity of 11,091 foot-pounds of energy to cover the 200 yards to the head of young Mister Martin in only two-tenths of a second, actually .231 seconds. It would strike with enough power to take down a tree. The plastic covering on the bullet interested Swanson. Trying out new things was part of his day job.
Rain was on the way and the air seemed heavy, even apprehensive, as if the weather knew something was going to happen and wanted to serve up an appropriate background of thunder and lightning. The skies would burst and the dark clouds would empty and the Eternal City of Rome would be cleansed once again. So far, not a drop. That was a good thing. The three young people at the table of the sidewalk café could remain outside, talking, as the ISIS recruiter slowly reeled in his catches in the sunlight. The sniper watched as a girl with long brown hair leaned close to Martin. She appeared to be in her midteens. Her friend, a brunette only a couple of years older, snapped their smiling picture on her cell phone, then showed it to them. They all laughed. Martin topped off the wineglasses of his American visitors. An unfolded street map of Rome lay on the table.
From his prone position on the third floor of a rather common yellow neoclassical villa on Quirinal Hill, Kyle Swanson could see an edge of the elegant Trevi Fountain, into which the girls and Martin had tossed a few coins and wishes before they all settled in at the corner café a few blocks away. It was hard to find a place from where you could not see any monuments or splendid ruins in Rome, for they were everywhere, old stones with stories to tell. The three million people in the city passed through the historic paths with a leisurely pace that was bred into them. Nothing ever happened fast in Italy. The brothers Romulus and Remus probably took their time while being suckled by the she-wolf in the founding legend. The dolce vita was the city’s charm, and it was practiced from the Vatican to the Coliseum. Of course, Romulus murdered his brother later on. Brutus assassinated his good buddy Julius Caesar. Various Popes were poisoned, strangled, stabbed and one was thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around his neck. Life was not the most expensive thing in Italy.
“One minute,” said the spotter beside Kyle. A dark-haired Oklahoman with the lean build of a marathon runner, Dan Laird had been with the CIA Directorate of Clandestine Operations for almost five years after leaving Delta Force, and was no stranger to pressure. He was busy handling the spotting scope, the cameras and the communications. “Everything in the green.”
“Umm,” Swanson hummed in reply. He breathed with his mouth open slightly, feeding measurable amounts of oxygen into lungs that had been conditioned by years of aerobic training. His heart rate was under control, with his pulse steady at forty-five beats per minute. His mind was clear, focused as much as his eyes. A lot of things could go wrong in a minute, or even in a second. The fleshy tip of his right index finger rested lightly on the trigger of the long rifle, and the world before him was in slow motion. The target was right where he was supposed to be, his back to the street, unmoving in his chair, nothing beyond him but a meticulously parked truck that would eat the big bullet. The wanted terrorist filled his scope, but Swanson ignored that fact, for to dwell on the madness of this evil man might have stirred the sniper’s emotion, and that might alter the target picture; this was no time for buck fever.
Young Mister Martin had been dug out by the intelligence analysts of the Central Intelligence Agency some months ago, and at first they did not realize who they had found. He had been posting in chat rooms and using American idioms to woo impressionable girls in the United States into coming to visit him. Don’t believe all of that crap in the media. All Muslims aren’t evil just because there are a few crazies. Look at me! Do I look crazy or scary? Come on over for a visit and we’ll have some fun in Rome. His accompanying picture showed a handsome guy leaning against a white Mercedes convertible beside a beautiful beach. The man was a hashtag Romeo, and several American girls who had bought his Twitter act never returned home again. Once ensnared abroad, it was simple enough to drug them and smuggle them straight across the Tyrrhenian Sea to Tunisia and into lost lives they would never have imagined in their most horrible nightmares.
But as the ISIS trolls reached out for new brides and potential agents in the United States, the terrorist group was itself being trolled by even better hackers who were on the payrolls of many governments, and those were the bleary-eyed wizards who had hooked Roland Lewis Martin. When his picture beside the luxury car was studied, it was determined to be a Photoshop digital stage set. That aroused enough suspicion to wash it through multiple facial-recognition and other identification databases, which pointed up the blue snake tattoo, the missing fingertip and the pierced ear, matched his height, erased the beard, fixed the proper eye color by erasing the contact lenses, chalked in personality traits, and discovered that this target was really Abdul Ansari Mohammad, the jihadi American who had decapitated a captured U.S. journalist in Iraq on live video.
Washington moved to set the trap, and tagged Swanson to do the hit. For many years, he had been the deadliest sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was the trigger-puller for a top-secret special ops team known as Task Force Trident, and won the Congressional Medal of Honor and a salad of other decorations. That was all in the past, and while his current day job was vice president of the multinational defense industrial company called Excalibur Enterprises, he had another job, too. Like Laird, he performed special missions for the CIA.
With the cover of being a businessman, it was easy for him to arrange a business trip to Rome without arousing suspicion. The rest of the team was waiting for him there, including the two women operatives who would act as the bait. They were made up to appear to be in their late teens, although both were college graduates.
The girls rendezvoused with Martin at the famous Trevi, a magnet for tourists, and guided him to the nearby sidewalk café. He planned to take them out later for dinner and a sightseeing trip around Rome by night. It had worked before, and he had a confident swagger as they reached the table, which had been set aside by the cooperating Italian police, the Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Interna, or AISI, one of whom had become their waiter. Martin took the chair beside the street so his guests could watch the passing throng. The opening chitchat was friendly.
“Thirty seconds.” Dan Laird pressed a button on his cell phone, and the phone in the back pocket of one of the girls vibrated silently. Swanson watched the agent casually dab her lips with a white napkin, then say something to her girlfriend. She never looked up to locate the sniper. Her friend asked Martin where the bathrooms were located. He pointed inside, the two women smiled, promised to be right back, and pushed out of their chairs. The waiter also vanished. There were no other customers, and police a block away were quietly detouring tourists around the site. Martin, confident of his quarry and very pleased with himself, did not realize that he was alone on the street. He took a drink, fished his own phone from a pocket to send a coded message that once again, the kidnap operation was going very well.
“Area is clear. He’s all yours.” Laird’s words were businesslike, but Kyle could sense the tension and his peripheral vision caught the agent’s hands moving to cover his ears. Kyle preferred not to wear ear coverings, balancing the need to hear what was going on around him against the unconscious anticipation of a loud explosion.
Swanson had no further adjustments to make. The head was as big as a Halloween pumpkin in the scope, and steady. He slowly brought the trigger straight back with no lateral pressure, felt the slack disappear, and then came the explosion as the sniper rifle boomed. A .50-cal shot in the tight confines of an urban center sounded like a cannon blast, and the first thought of unaware people who heard it was that a terrorist bomb had been detonated. Pedestrians and tourists scattered, and pigeons soared away in flapping panic. Sirens began to whoop. Kyle soaked up the mighty recoil and brought the glass back on target.
The body of Roland Martin had been jerked almost out of the chair, but was still in it, canted sideways over the strong metal arm. The head was gone and the debris of the skull and brains had spewed in a long trail toward the parked truck.
“Done,” he said.
“Done,” agreed his spotter. Laird kept the camera recording as police vehicles wailed up to the curb, uniformed cops set up a perimeter and as soon as the two women came out, they were roughly arrested and cuffed and put into a marked van. That was part of the show in case ISIS had a watcher. The pair of agents was released as soon as they were out of sight.
“Strange,” said Dan Laird, looking at his cell phone as Kyle packed away the rifle. A police car was waiting for them downstairs.
“The boss is in town.”
“Marty?” Martin Atkins, the deputy director of clandestine operations, was long past his days as a field officer, but ran the secretive clandestine operations department with meticulous planning, including the care and protection of agents at the sharp end of the dark CIA spear. From the Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Atkins was like a spider in his web, controlling everything, and he seldom left it.
“Yeah. Probably wants a firsthand briefing on this op.”
Swanson had the Excalibur safely in its case and was straightening his clothes as Laird finished packing. “Maybe he wants to post that video on the Net. The op was symbolic and intended to remind those ISIS crazies that we can and will reach out and touch them whenever we please.”
Laird gave a deep laugh. “It would go viral in ten minutes. Let the social media pass the word for us.”
They took their time getting downstairs. Nobody was hunting them because the cops were in on the action, although they had not been told any more than they needed to know. The small unmarked car that met them had another agent at the wheel, and Swanson and Laird climbed into the rear seat. Kyle started thinking about dinner tonight, wanting something special before he and Laird left tomorrow to take out another ISIS recruiter, a British predator operating out of Cairo whose game was convincing gullible American kids to come visit the pyramids in Egypt.
The Agency safe house was west of the Tiber River in the working-class neighborhood of Trastevere, far from the grandeur of the Vatican but equally a part of Rome, a city that was saddled with a Madonna-whore complex. The people who served the upper-crust Italians and rich tourists had to live somewhere, too, and the squalid apartments along the tangled medieval streets of Trastevere had housed them for generations. The CIA had a multistory building with a middle-aged Italian couple living on the street level, where the stew was always warm in the little kitchen and the floor tiles were always chilly. Marty Atkins was waiting on the upper floor in a soundproofed room that had bulletproof glass in the window and was examined for electronic eavesdropping equipment daily.
His gray hair had grown out since the last time Kyle had met with him several months ago, and the new style gave him a more distinguished look, an obvious loss of some weight had sharpened his features. Laser surgery on his brown eyes meant he no longer wore steel-rimmed glasses. Atkins had figured out that further advancement in government required that he moderate his former hell-for-leather lifestyle and look like a gentleman when meeting politicians. His temper still needed work.
He was reading briefing papers when they entered, and put them aside to greet his visitors warmly. There was a tenseness about him, and a sense of apprehension. “Dan, hate to seem rude here, but I need some private time with Kyle. If you go on over to the hotel, I’ll spring for drinks for everybody in about thirty minutes.”
Laird shrugged. “Free drinks sounds good. Can I ask if this concerns tomorrow’s mission?”
Atkins exhaled and shook his head. “Yes. That job is not going to happen.”
Dan Laird had been around the Agency long enough to know when he was a supernumerary. Only two people were to be part of this conversation, and Laird made three. Counterintelligence was a fluid, ever-changing game. Nothing personal. Just part of the job. He winked and left without another word. They would tell him what he needed, when necessary.
Atkins motioned Swanson to an awkward overstuffed chair beside the table near the window, and picked up one of the briefing papers he had been reading. He studied the sniper. “Do you know a Russian by the name of Strakov? Ivan Strakov?”
Swanson did not recall the name immediately, but slowly an image swam into shape. Long ago, there was an intense, skinny enlisted man on an exchange training program between Russian naval infantry and the U.S. Marines. He wanted to be an elite sniper. Kyle, as the instructor, washed him out of the program because of poor shooting scores and had ordered him to undergo a thorough medical examination. The Russian had been hiding the fact that his vision was failing, but the scores spoke for themselves. He was a lousy shot. Strakov could no longer hack it, which meant the end of his career in the Russian marines.
“Yeah. I remember him, vaguely. Very intelligent and great with numbers, but so bad with a long gun that we called him Ivan the Terrible.”
“This is beyond top secret, Kyle,” Marty Atkins said as he handed over the one-page memo of a few short paragraphs.
Kyle read it, then slid the paper back onto the table. “When do I leave?”
“Go back to the hotel and shit, shine, shower and shave, then you’re outta here.”
“Where am I going?”
“You don’t need to know that yet. Call me when you get there.”
Copyright © 2016 Jack Coughlin & Donald A. Davis.
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Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin was with the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines during the drive to Baghdad and has operated on a wide range of assignments in hotspots around the world.
Donald A. Davis is the author of more than twenty books, including multiple New York Times bestsellers.