Without Fear: New Excerpt
Without Fear by New York Times-bestselling author Colonel David Hunt and R. J. Pineiro is the second action-packed Hunter Stark thriller steeped in authenticity.
Southern Afghanistan, 2005. NATO forces are battling the Taliban across Kandahar Province. In a terrifying twist, the rebels unearth a tactical nuclear bomb lost in the final days of the Soviet occupation. The years buried in the sand have damaged it, so the Taliban seeks the help of al Qaeda to secure replacement parts through its contacts in Saudi Arabia, the Opium Cartel, and the Russian Mafia. Doing so, however, inadvertently alerts the Americans, the Russians, and the Israelis.
Hunter Stark and his team of CIA contractors are on the chase, dispensing explosive waves of violence to track where the Taliban is hiding the weapon. But Russian Spetsnaz and Israeli Mossad operatives are also in the region following their own agendas―as is NATO―triggering chaos and confusion.
The stakes skyrocket when a courier delivers the components and the weapon becomes functional, forcing Stark to drive full throttle, without fear, into a world of terror, going beyond duty and honor to prevent the unthinkable.
No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
—General George S. Patton
COMPOUND 45. NORTH OF LASHKAR GAH. SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN.
Colonel Hunter Stark used an ATN DNVM-4 digital night vision monocular to follow the movements of his sniper, Sergeant Major Ryan Hunt, who advanced methodically, almost imperceptibly, under a quarter moon.
Like a predator, Ryan crept through the thicket in search of the perfect vantage point on the hill overlooking the compound designated by their CIA employer as a Taliban IED factory.
A ghillie suit, a net garment covered in loose strips of burlap designed to blend its user with the environment, broke up Ryan’s slim physique.
Stark frowned. The same camouflage suit that helped keep Ryan hidden made it difficult for him to track the sniper’s movements, even with the night vision gadget.
“Where the hell’s Pretty Boy, Colonel?” whispered Master Sergeant Evan Larson, his large frame kneeling next to Stark on a wide ledge protruding beyond the rocky hill, roughly a hundred feet above their target. The windowless one-story structure surrounded by a six-foot-tall mud wall had a single access point wide enough for a truck. But it lacked a gate or outside guards. About a hundred feet separated the compound from the perimeter wall, forming an inner courtyard that Stark viewed more as a buffer zone, a place for those inside the compound to fire on anyone approaching the premises unannounced.
“It’s okay to be jealous, Chief,” replied Ryan over the secure channel.
Prior to the start of the raid, Stark had made sure his team switched off all sat phones and muted the sounds on all electronic equipment, including the black Casio G-Shock watches everyone wore. Only the AN/PRC-148 Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radios, the MBITRs, remained enabled, though connected to earpieces and voice-activated throat mikes designed to pick up the slightest of whispers.
“Not my fault you look like Steroids-R-Us and can’t get dates,” Ryan added. “At least from two-legged species.”
Stark glanced over at his second-in-command and watched him grin. Even on his knees Larson’s bulk rose above him ominously, his head wrapped in a desert camouflage bandanna, his eyes hidden behind a pair of PS15 night vision goggles. He held a massive M2 Browning .50-caliber air-cooled machine gun that made Stark’s Heckler & Koch MP5A1 suppressed submachine gun look like something from aisle three at Toys-R-Us.
“He’s almost in place,” the colonel said, stretching a gloved finger toward an outcrop roughly five hundred feet to their right. “I’m more worried about those damn dogs by the entrance.”
“Yeah,” Larson whispered in his baritone voice, before pointing to their left. “And the goats.”
“These hags aren’t stupid when it comes to simple security,” said Stark, shifting the DNVM-4 to the large clearing separating the compound from the foot of the hill.
The goats and dogs roaming around by the gateless entrance to the courtyard and inside the grounds served two purposes: to sustain those who cared for them with food, and also with money, once they were sold, and as an early warning system. Dogs and goats possessed great senses, barking and bleating when something bothered them.
Excellent proximity alarms on four legs, Stark thought, which also explained the lack of outside guards. As long as the animals remained quiet, there was no reason for anyone to venture out. But the presence of the animals meant there were no IEDs buried in the area.
The colonel fingered the adjusting wheel on the DNVM-4, scanning the edge of the trees until he spotted two more ghillie suits, worn by his last two operators, both former Navy SEALs, Michael Hagen and Danny Martin, the latter also a heck of a pilot. But on this pitch-black night they did not hold MP5A1s. Their suppressed weapons were slung behind their backs, freeing their hands for the bags they carried. Martin was after the Afghan shepherds, locally called Kuchis, and was armed with bags filled with chunks of raw beef laced with etorphine, a semisynthetic opioid one thousand times more powerful than morphine. Hagen had goat detail, carrying two bags of Manna Pro treats made with real anise, delivering a licorice flavor goats found irresistible—and also spiked with the powerful tranquilizer.
Stark watched the green images of his men, which the DNVM-4 amplified from the available starlight, toss their goods into the clearing before retreating into the forest.
“You guys missed your calling,” said Chief Larson over the secure channel. “Petting zoo specialists.”
Stark shook his head.
“Hey, Ryan,” said Martin. “Didn’t you tell me that using steroids shrinks the Big Dipper?”
“Yep. Turns it into the Little Dipper,” replied Ryan. “I keep telling the chief that.”
“Ahh,” said Martin. “That explains the Browning.”
“Think a mustache will help?” asked Ryan. Martin had recently grown one that made him look like a 1980s porn star.
“Nah,” Martin replied. “You need the rest of the package to go along with it.”
“Screw you both,” said Larson. “I’ll have you know I’m proportionate everywhere.”
“Knock it off,” said Stark, focusing the DNVM-4 on the animals sleeping along the perimeter wall surrounding the dark compound.
Slowly, like ghosts materializing out of thin air, four Kuchis stood by the entrance and took a few tentative steps toward the lure. They were large, white dogs, measuring almost three feet at the withers and sporting massive jaws. Intrigued, they moved gradually—and most importantly, quietly—alerted by their olfactory receptors and possessing almost three hundred million of them, compared to the six million in humans. Primal carnivore instincts overpowered their normal reflexes to protect the grounds. Ignoring the goat treats, they went straight for the beef.
It took the strong narcotic less than a minute to drop the dogs as they walked back to the perimeter wall.
The goats came into view a moment later from inside the patio, dark green shapes appearing by the entrance and venturing beyond the wall, grazing about, pausing to test the air. Their sense of smell, although quite keen, was more optimized to detect predators than treats, so it took just a bit longer for the herd to pick up the licorice scent. Stepping around the sleeping lumps of their shepherd friends, they foraged the clearing quickly, and also quietly, and within a minute all movement ceased on the grounds.
“Hey, look, Chief,” Martin said. “Sleeping goats. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
“Nope,” Ryan chimed in. “There will be absolutely no patronizing with sedated goats.”
“That’s okay, boys,” Larson replied. “Sooner or later you will have to sleep.”
Stark looked at his large second-in-command and sighed, focusing his energy on the task at hand by asking, “How’s the range, Ryan?”
“Comfortable, Colonel. Five hundred yards. In position.”
The instant the sniper signaled that he had set up his McMillan TAC-50 rifle fitted with a sound suppressor on a rocky ledge, Stark put away the monocular and lowered his set of PS15 goggles.
“We’re live,” he said, starting the digital stopwatch on his Casio while giving the order to start this CIA-financed raid. According to satellite and UAV images, plus an earlier recon of the target in daylight, a dozen men occupied the compound, some as guards and the rest as explosives technicians. Improvised explosive devices were the number one cause of injury reaching the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, and the U.S. government had launched a covert campaign to eliminate them at their origin.
The team advanced in almost total darkness, reaching the edge of the clearing and pausing in the waist-high brush. Stark had considered a diversion, perhaps a car crash on the compound’s north wall, but he feared telegraphing his position and having the rebels inside blow themselves up—and his team along with them. And besides, it was so damn dark that unless the residents had night vision equipment, all they’d see would be the muzzle flashes of his team’s suppressed weapons before their brains were ejected from their skulls.
So stealth was the name of the game, and Colonel Stark left that in the capable hands of Martin and Hagen, who advanced first. The former SEALs covered the couple hundred feet of dark expanse in under thirty seconds, stepping around the still figures of dogs and goats with the grace of NFL running backs, finally reaching the perimeter wall just to the right of the entrance.
“Still clear, Romeo?” asked Larson.
“Crystal,” replied Ryan.
Stark checked his watch. Fifteen seconds.
Larson took off next while Stark brought up the rear, using his MP5A1’s sights to scan the top of the compound’s wall, the entrance, and the tree line behind them.
He pressed his back against the mud wall next to Larson, across the entrance from Hagen and Martin, whose camouflaged faces stared at him, MP5A1s held tight against their chests, bulky sound suppressors pointed at the ground.
Stark looked up the hill in Ryan’s general direction.
“’Twas the night before Ramadan,” the sniper began, “when all thro’ the IED house, not a creature was stirring, not even a hag.”
Stark pointed the index and middle fingers of his left hand at Martin and Hagen, before stretching his thumb toward the interior patio.
The two SEALs moved at once, covering each other while zigzagging across the courtyard, before settling on a spot to the right of the compound’s metal door.
“Behind me, Chief,” Stark said, also going through the entrance, taking fifteen seconds to cross the patio and reach the other side of the door, back pressed against the stone wall. Larson joined him a moment later.
There were a number of options available to Stark at that moment, including setting off a shaped charge to take off the door, getting Chief Larson to blast its hinges with the Browning, or even having Martin pick the latch, which appeared simple enough. But all of those options carried the risk of his team rushing into the business end of a half dozen AK-47s if the interior force was somehow aware of their advance.
Or worse, setting off a chain reaction of IEDs.
So the colonel chose another way, nodding to Martin, who produced a smartphone.
“Play it,” Stark said, checking the Casio and reading forty-eight seconds.
“Play what?” asked Larson, obviously confused.
“Your girlfriend, Chief,” whispered Martin. His thick blond mustache shifted as he added, “Taped her while you were tapping her.”
Before Larson could reply, the audio clip of a couple of goats bleating broke the silence in the patio.
Even Hagen, who never smiled, could not hold back a grin while Larson gave Martin the bird. Stark kept his eyes on the door, MP5A1 ready.
The trick worked. Within thirty seconds the door swung open and three men hauling AK-47s rushed out.
But they didn’t get very far.
Stark shot two in the back of the head, the suppressed mechanism absorbing the reports while exit wounds vaporized their foreheads. Martin took care of the third one as the hag realized the ruse and tried to pull back, putting a 9mm round through his left temple, dropping him right over his fallen comrades.
“No other hags in sight,” reported Ryan, who had line of sight into the compound’s open door. “Must be nestled, all snug in their beds.”
The group went inside, Stark now leading, the MP5A1 up by his face, shooting eye scanning the foyer with Larson, Martin, and Hagen in tow.
Stark surprised two more guards drinking from cans of Coca-Cola in the hallway, and another one just beyond them, sitting by a pair of double doors with his head back against the wall, eyes closed, his AK-47 resting by his feet.
Two shots to the head each and the front of the factory was secured.
Stark pushed the dead guards aside and kicked the doors open, surprising six technicians, each huddled behind a worktable under bright fluorescent lights, surrounded by what had to be at least several thousand pounds of Semtex. Shelves and tables were jam-packed with aluminum pipes, detonators, timers, coils of wire, assorted tools, and other hardware—all the necessary ingredients to separate NATO soldiers from their limbs.
The air was thick with grease, solder, and body odor. The techs glared at Stark and his men in disbelief, their wide-eyed stares telegraphing the horror they felt when facing four armed men in full tactical gear, including body armor and goggles.
One of the techs tried to reach for something under his table. Stark shot him twice in the face and he collapsed right over his work.
The remaining five quickly raised their hands when their colleague’s brains splattered across the mud floor.
“Looks like the spooks were right for once,” Stark mumbled, checking the Casio. Two minutes, to the second. They had found an IED mecca as well as several computers, tablets, and a dozen smartphones. “Call them, Chief.”
Larson took off to contact the CIA contingent standing by a mile away.
Once the compound was secured and all technicians were flex-cuffed and hauled to the front of the building, Stark and team were to pull back to perimeter duty the moment the CIA showed up. Their goal this evening was to neutralize the site so that Langley officers could collect laptops, phones, and other gadgets that could be used to help locate other such facilities.
“Looks like we get full bonuses tonight, boys,” said Ryan.
Their contract included a clause for cash—and therefore tax-free—bonuses for every live tech they could deliver to their CIA employers. And since they had caught five techs, it meant each member of the team would get a full share on top of their regular pay. Stark had Martin use his smartphone to snap photos of their captives to include in his report.
“Vegas, here I come,” said Martin, popping one of his watermelon-flavored lollipops into his mouth before snapping images of each tech. The man had managed to quit smoking a year ago and now sucked on the damn things constantly. He rejoined Stark and Larson, who stood just beyond the entrance, by the comatose goats and dogs.
Hagen, the quiet one of the group, caught up to Martin while producing a pack of Sobranie Classics, a heavy-tar brand of the legendary Russian cigarettes, and a lighter. Always a heavy smoker, Hagen had gotten hooked on the strong brand during a short mission in Moscow back in 2002. He lit one up and blew the smoke in Martin’s face as they walked side by side.
“You know, Mickey,” Martin said, as they reached Stark and Larson, pointing at him with the lollipop before shoving it back in his mouth, “for being a damn mute you can certainly be an asshole.”
“Cover the perimeter,” Stark told them, while Larson stepped aside, the bulky satellite phone pressed against his right ear, the Browning slung over his left shoulder.
Hagen and Martin walked away, their MP5A1s at the ready as they disappeared beyond the outer wall’s entrance.
Stark kept his weapon pointed straight at their line of cash cows secured next to the building’s entrance. Their hands were flex-cuffed behind their backs, with the same large black zip-ties securing their ankles. And just for added security, Hagen and Martin had zip-tied the left ankle of one tech to the right ankle of the guy next to him.
They were all quite young, probably in their late teens, barely able to sport some semblance of the Sharia law mandatory beards. Three had already pissed their baggy pants from the same raw fear that glared in their wide-eyed stares, and based on the pungent smell, at least one of them had taken a shit.
Like most Taliban recruits, these kids were probably plucked straight out of farming villages or the back alleys of Kandahar or Lashkar Gah and forced to work at gunpoint or out of fear of retaliation against their families back home.
But to Stark, young or not, forced or not, afraid or not, the hags at his feet were directly responsible for the dismembering or deaths of American fighting personnel.
And today was judgment day.
Chief Larson kept the sat phone pressed against the side of his face, listening for about a minute. Nodding twice before saying, “Roger that,” he hung up and clipped the phone to his utility belt before walking back to Stark. “Colonel, the spooks are on their—”
“Chief! Behind you!”
Two figures had jumped over the east wall, rolled when hitting the ground, and already had their AK-47s aimed at them. Larson was facing the wrong way, and worse, his broad figure prevented Stark from swinging his MP5A1 at the threat. And Martin and Hagen were out of sight on the other side of the wall.
The first rounds of the AK-47s hit high, over their heads, peppering the compound’s wall, bathing them in reddish dust and debris.
Just as Stark and Larson dropped to the ground, Ryan’s .50-caliber round parted the air like a whip from a distance of five hundred yards, tearing up the lead insurgent’s chest. The bullet’s momentum, the product of its 1,500-grain mass traveling at nearly 2,600 feet per second, flipped the man upside down, the AK-47 whirling in the air. The follow-up shot came precisely three seconds later, one second for Ryan to manually eject the spent round and chamber another one from the five-round magazine feeding the TAC-50, and two seconds to aim and fire. The full metal jacket round slammed the second rebel in the head, nearly decapitating him.
Stark stood slowly, looked in the direction of his guardian angel, and touched the tip of his shooting finger against his right temple.
Larson said, “Oswald and Whitman were pussies, Romeo. Drinks are on me.”
Martin and Hagen ran back to the courtyard but Stark waved them down while Larson knelt by the dead Tallies, noticing another of their captives soiling his trousers and crying.
It took the CIA almost fifteen minutes to arrive in three black Jeep Wranglers. Six men and a woman got out, all wearing jeans and T-shirts and hauling bags. The team lead, who looked like he still sucked on his mama’s tit and who went by “Jones,” nodded at Stark.
The colonel just pointed at the captives and showed the CIA man five fingers before rubbing the thumb of his right hand against his middle and index fingers.
As his team disappeared inside the building, Jones looked at the zip-tied techs, then back at Stark, and said, “They smell like piss and shit.”
“Shit happens,” Stark replied, walking away.
“Dammit,” said the CIA man, before turning to one of his guys. “Find me some water, would ya? No way I’m smelling that crap all the way to KAF.”
“Let’s go, Chief,” the colonel said, letting the spooks do what spooks do while his team fulfilled the last part of the contract by providing security for the site until Agency personnel left the area. Then Jones would call in an airstrike to blow the place off the map.
But just as Stark reached the edge of the clearing, by the waist-high brush, Larson’s sat phone began to vibrate. The chief picked it up, listened for thirty seconds, and turned to Stark, his face suddenly gone ashen, as if he had just seen a ghost.
“Sir, that was my guy at KAF Central Command. Apparently the Royal Canadian Air Force has launched a retaliatory strike on this place.”
“That was the plan all along, Chief.”
“No, sir, as in right now. Fighters are five minutes out.”
“What the hell?”
“That’s what he just heard, sir, and his intel is always right. A couple of IEDs killed some Canadian soldiers during an ambush an hour ago, wounded ten, and the hags even took three of the poor bastards alive—one of them a woman. Since Kandahar is under the command of Major General Thomas Lévesque, who happens to be French Canadian, well … there it is.”
Stark had been around the block enough times to know that when it comes to a place like KAF, controlled by NATO but swarming with personnel from a half dozen nationalities, plus their intelligence services, the left hand sometimes didn’t talk to the right hand. So, as a precaution, he always tried like hell to have someone on the inside at Central Command to warn him when hell was about to break loose anywhere near his team.
“Midnight!” Stark shouted into his mike. “Fucking midnight!”
Martin and Hagen scrambled up the hill, SEAL style, with ridiculous nimbleness. Larson, almost ten years their senior, tried to race after them but lost them in the dark forest, while Stark, the oldest of the group, did his best to keep up while changing frequencies. “Jones! Get the hell out of there!”
“Fighter strike … in five!” he screamed, as he nearly lost his footing, rushing through the slanted woods behind Larson while getting swatted by the branches as the chief’s large bulk swept through the brush, crushing and parting vegetation like a mad gorilla. “Get your people out of there! Now!”
Without waiting for a response, as his lungs and legs burned from the uphill sprint, Stark switched back to the team’s secure channel.
“Ryan! Where … the … hell … are … you?”
“Almost at the ledge, Colonel! Danny and Mickey are up here too.”
Damn you, young guys.
He pressed on, feeling the strain of his forty-five years—plus his old wounds, which had a way of surfacing at the worst possible moments. As he pushed himself up the uneven incline, his body protested the effort, reminding him of the shrapnel fragments still lodged in his lower back from some Colombian asshole ten years ago, plus the stab wound in his thigh from a mission in Bosnia back in the day, plus the ACLs on both knees from jumping from too many damn planes too many damn times. And there were those titanium rods and screws holding his left leg together from that misguided missile strike in the waters outside Kuwait City during a mission with the U.S. Special Forces in support of Operation Desert Shield. But his mind worked through the pain, ignoring everything, even the branches whipping him as he tailed Larson while checking his watch and seeing one minute gone by.
Switching frequencies, he shouted, “Jones … you guys … out yet?”
“Almost, Colonel. Hauling everything out now.”
Hauling everything? What the—
Taking a deep breath, Stark tried a final time to talk some sense into the stupid and inexperienced CIA operative before he got everyone killed. “Drop everything, Jones! Get out! Now!”
And once more, he returned to his team’s frequency without waiting for a reply. In this type of asymmetric retreat, where the enemy—and any bomb, even those made in America—could be literally everywhere, you had to have a stop what you’re doing and leave right now attitude. Such a moment had arrived yet again. In his mind, Stark had already done the math on the explosive charges of your typical NATO missile, plus the ridiculous amount of Semtex he’d just seen—enough to level a few city blocks.
But the colonel would later learn that, due to a mix-up with NATO commanders, a pair of Royal Canadian Air Force UAVs loaded with Hellfires would get there well ahead of the fighter squadron, with orders to fire as soon as they were in range.
“Damn Canucks!” Larson cursed, as they reached their emergency rendezvous, a wide ledge some seven hundred feet above the compound, where Martin, Hagen, and Ryan were huddled by the entrance of a cave-like rock formation lining the back of this plateau.
The master chief dropped the Browning and placed his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. “You know, Colonel,” he said, panting, “we all expect to die in this kind of war … probably any war … but you don’t expect it … to be at the hand … of your friend.”
Stark didn’t reply, taking in lungfuls of air through his nose and exhaling through his mouth while checking his Casio. It had taken them exactly ninety seconds to get the hell out of Dodge, meaning he still had over three minutes left to seek even better shelter, and he could only hope that the CIA contingent had also—
The blinding flash made everyone hit the ground as a vertical column of flames and smoke licked the night sky, visible for miles. The ear-piercing blast gripped the entire mountainside, shaking it like an earthquake, so hard that Stark thought his teeth would come loose.
The shock wave propagated radially, tossing the operators across the rocky ledge, as the world seemed to catch fire around them. The energy bounced from the face of the hillside and joined the rest of the blast spreading in the opposite direction, toward the desert, colliding against the massive sand dunes east of Lashkar Gah.
And unearthing the tip of an old Soviet bomb.
Copyright © 2018 Colonel David Hunt & R. J. Pineiro.