Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the legendary Terry Kovack, Steve Ireland is a trained killer. With his Special Forces team, he does his job quickly, quietly, with absolute certainty. And in the war against terror, his services are needed more than ever. Now, he finds himself hunting a different kind of prey. For when he is called upon to stalk and destroy a Middle Eastern terrorist cabal, he slowly realizes that he is following in another assassin's wake. Someone is staying one step ahead of Ireland and his team, taking out the enemy in his own way with lethal precision, and disappearing into the dark.
But what Ireland doesn't know is that his search for the truth will lead him to confront the ghosts of the past. A band of fighting men who were never supposed to exist; a team of soldiers who will go anywhere and fight anyone for their country; and a legacy that runs in Steve's own blood. . .
The Return Of The Dog Team
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Kilroy and Vang Bulo were driving east on the Baghdad to Azif highway in East Central Iraq. They were west of Azif, on a ridge overlooking the town. A Coalition truck convoy had been several miles ahead of them. It consisted of a half dozen or so trucks carrying construction supplies and building materials. It was going through the center of town when a bomb went off.
The bomber's timing was off by a few seconds, and so all of the convoy escaped the blast but the last truck in line. It got smeared.
Its fellows knew better than to stop and try to help. There was no help for the straggler. It was gone. Besides, the would-be rescuers would only have ridden into an ambush. The rest of the convoy speeded up and raced out of Azif, east along the highway toward Greentown.
Kilroy pulled over to the side of the road and drove off it, sheltering behind a farmhouse wall. "Bullets, bombs, beheadings — that's Iraq today," Kilroy said, adding, "My kind of place."
Vang Bulo made no reply. None was needed for so patently obvious a statement of fact. Kilroy was made for the boiling pot that was contemporary Iraq. So was Vang Bulo. They were killers, both of them. But not any ordinary, everyday killers. They were Dog Team assassins — a killer elite.
They were in a dark tan SUV. Even idling, the engine had a heavy sound that spoke of plenty of automotive muscle. The windows were rolled up, and the air conditioner was blasting. It was midafternoon of a November day. The rainy season had begun, though it was dry now. Dry and hot.
Kilroy said, "Let's let things settle out before making our run."
Vang Bulo said, "All right."
Kilroy sat behind the wheel, Vang Bulo occupied the passenger seat. Kilroy, an American in his early forties, was raw boned and rangy, with a long, narrow face and eagle-beaked nose. Vang Bulo was a Ugandan, a big black guy, huge, hulking, bald, with a soccer ball–shaped head.
Both men wore sunglasses and civilian clothes, khakis, and hiking boots. They were outfitted with flak jackets and sidearms. Assault weapons and grenades lay near at hand, squirreled away in various places in the vehicle's front compartment. Plenty more weapons lay stowed in the rear, a mini-arsenal's worth.
Those who go forth in Iraq today had better go well armed. Especially a pair of infidel outlanders such as Kilroy and Vang Bulo.
This part of the country was better watered than most of Iraq, brightening the tableland's browns, tans, and grays with welcome flashes of green: a line of palm trees, a weedy field, a trickling stream. The overcast sky was hazy, yellow-white. Hot.
The town of Azif lay in a shallow, saddle-shaped hollow several miles long that dipped between a pair of low, gently rounded ridges running north-south. The SUV stood just below the inside crest of the west ridge.
Not all the wall they sheltered behind was intact. Parts of it had been chewed up, allowing the two men to see through the gaps to the town below, while affording them and their vehicle some cover. Up on the ridge where they were, the landscape was empty of all but a few scattered ruins, some boulders, and trees. No people. There were plenty of people down in town, out on the streets, but their attention was focused near at hand and not on the remote slopes beyond the city limits.
The center of town lay north of the highway. A commercial area of several square city blocks was clustered with two- and three-story concrete buildings that had been built mostly during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a Sunni, and Azif was a Sunni stronghold.
The two great branches of Islam are Sunni and Shia. They stand in about the same relationship to each other today as the Catholic and Protestant faiths held toward their opposite numbers during the Hundred Years' War. Most Arabs are Sunni. Most Iranians are Shiites.
Modern-day Iraq was created after World War I by the British — by Winston Churchill, in fact. It is a Frankenstein monster stitched together from three separate and mutually antagonistic groups: the Kurds in the north; the Sunni Arabs in midcountry; and the Shiites in the south.
The Sunnis make up less than twenty percent of the population, yet have dominated the country (and their countrymen) for the last thirty years — three hundred, if you count back to the Ottoman Empire. The Shiites make up over sixty percent of the population. Now, in any democratic election, the majority Shiites would wield the lion's share of power, a reversal that the once-dominant Sunnis can only regret. The Kurds in the north had a big hurting put on them by Saddam Hussein. They hate the Sunnis, but are willing to form alliances with the Iraqi Shiites.
Next door to Iraq is Iran, a Shiite state ruled by the ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom. Iraq and Iran had a hot war during the 1980s, featuring World War I–style trench warfare and megacasual-ties on both sides, poison gas attacks, minefields cleared by squads of boy martyrs, and various other horrors.
Sunni Azif was located about thirty miles east of the border with Iran and was of strategic importance in the region. So was nearby Quusaah, a Shiite town located several miles northeast of Azif.
Iraqi democracy's rough rise found the minority Sunnis mounting the most violent insurgent attacks against the American-led coalition. The Shiites hated the Americans, too, but were willing for now to lay back and let the Americans knock off the even more hated Sunnis.
Such a tangle of hostilities can sometimes yield strange alliances. A sinister combine of radical Sunni militiamen, criminal gangs, and even more shadowy Iranian elements had come into being in the Azif border zone and was making itself objectionable in various underground ways. The Dog Team's Top Dog had sent Kilroy and Vang Bulo to nip it in the bud. Exterminate it, root and branch.
Beyond the handful of city blocks' worth of commercial district lay Old Town, the real center of Azif. It looked like a mound of yellowed sugar cubes. Many of its buildings had been continuously occupied since first being built several hundred years before.
The heart of Old Town was the Red Dome Mosque. Its pointed dome was actually more reddish brown than red. It had three minaret towers and dominated the town's skyline. The mosque's spiritual leader, fiery radical Sunni fundamentalist preacher Imam Hamdi, dominated the region's politics.
The district's slums seethed with thousands of men, women, and children who would have liked nothing better than to see the Shiite-dominated interim government, and especially its American enablers and advisors, boiled in oil. Gangs of violent young males trembled in eager anticipation of the day when the Imam would give them the word to rise up in jihad, or holy war, against the occupying infidels.
Until then, there was still plenty of hell for them to raise against the hated invaders: kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and other fun and games. Such as this most recent bombing.
A column of smoke rose into the sky. The smoke was oily black, greasy. It climbed up and up, forming a spindly black funnel. It came from the bombed-out truck that lay on its side in the middle of the road. The gas tank had gone up, and the vehicle had burned quickly, becoming a charred, gutted hulk.
The fire had peaked but was still burning. It must have still been pretty hot, because the crowd ringing it was keeping their distance. Scores of people were massed on the roadway around the blazing wreck. From the ridgetop vantage point, they were blurred, antlike figures. The swarm was restless, agitated, its members streaming back and forth in constant motion around the blast site.
"Party time," Kilroy said, indicating the crowd at the bomb site. "They haven't had this much fun since the last time they blew up the U.S. embassy."
"There's no U.S. embassy in Azif," Vang Bulo pointed out.
"Uncle Sam will have to build one, then, so they can blow it up."
"They seem to be doing all right at blowing things up without it."
It was warm inside the SUV, close, even with the air conditioner running. Vang Bulo's face was misted with sweat. He took off his visorlike sunglasses. He was slightly pop eyed, with yellowed eyeballs. He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing them with his thumb and forefinger.
Kilroy continued to watch the mob swarm around the wreckage. "Probably Waleed Tewfiq's militiamen. They're the ones who shot up that mail truck last week, the bastards." He and the other exchanged glances. Officially they were employed by a private contractor to secure the safety of the mail and ensure that it got delivered to U.S. bases. That was their cover. It was a good front for a Dog Team assassin duo.
The fact that Red Dome militiamen had indeed shot up a mail truck recently gave the Dogs a plausible reason for operating in the area.
Above the roadway, on a number of buildings fronting the highway, figures appeared on the rooftops.
Kilroy said, "Spotters."
The spotters waved their arms over their heads and shouted to attract the attention of the mob below. Once they had it, they began gesturing and pointing toward the east.
A new ferment stirred the crowd. They stopped surging toward the blast site and began moving away from it, arrowing away in all directions. Scattering. The swarm broke up into smaller groups, and those groups into individual figures, all putting distance between themselves and the wreck.
A speck appeared in midair above the eastern ridge, making a beeline west toward town. It cut the distance rapidly, a fast-closing blur that resolved itself into an aircraft: a helicopter.
An A-130 Spectre gunship. A formidable machine.
It neared Azif, slowing, then hovering high above the roadway blast site. It hung in the air to one side of the smoke column, tearing it up with the propwash from its rotors. Its massive shadow crawled across the ground.
The gunship had enough firepower to level the whole town. The area below was now empty of all but a handful of people, most of the crowd having scattered before the copter's arrival. Only the most hard-core fanatics remained, shaking their fists at the aircraft. Nearby, others huddled in doorways or crowded, hunched, in alley mouths, craning around the corners of buildings, heads tilted back, looking up.
The propwash broke up more of the smoke column, forcing it back down toward the ground, hazing the streets below. Obscuring the visibility. Buildings faded to vague outlines in the haze. Haze brought concealment, anonymity. Emboldening the local red hots. A couple of rooftop spotters opened fire on the gunship.
Small-arms fire went pop-pop-pop. Muzzle flashes speared through the blue-gray haze. The aircraft returned fire with a few bursts of light machine-gun fire, merely swatting at a few flies. It was the lightest and least they had, to minimize collaterals and avoid bringing down the buildings. Clouds of dust were kicked up by the rounds ripping into the flat concrete rooftops.
The sniping stopped. No telling if the shooters had been taken down or not.
Vang Bulo nodded with satisfaction. "That cleared the streets of the last diehards."
Kilroy said, "Good. With those idiots out of the way, all we have to do is wait until the gunship leaves. Otherwise, they might shoot our ass. Friendly fire kills you just as dead."
Suddenly, a line of fire jetted from somewhere deep in Old Town. It arched up and over the rooftops, trailing smoke, closing on the gunship. Kilroy puckered his lips as if to whistle, but no sound came out. He said, "Rocket attack!"
The gunship banked steeply, narrowly avoiding the rocket, which streamed on past it. The sharp, sudden maneuver put added strain on the engines and rotors, increasing the volume of its angry hornet buzzing.
The rocket continued onward, arching south, plummeting to earth on the open, empty flat about a quarter mile south of town. It struck with a boom.
The men in the SUV peered toward the rocket's point of origin. Kilroy said, "Looks like it came from the mosque."
Vang Bulo nodded. "I'm sure it did. Look there, you can see that the rocket's trail points straight down to one of the minarets."
Slowly, ominously, the gunship turned in place, pointing its nose toward the mosque with the brick-red dome. There was deadly intent in its slow, deliberate movements. But the gunship never made the fatal strike. It hung in place, holding its fire. The pause stretched past the point where action was still an option.
Kilroy sighed, a touch deflated. "No action today. Game called on account of politics."
Vang Bulo agreed. "A bad mistake, not hitting the mosque. Imam Hamdi is a fanatic, and Waleed Tewfiq is a cutthroat with a nose for other people's weaknesses. The surest way to encourage them to attack is to let them get away with something."
Kilroy shrugged. His attitude said, What're you going to do? That's the way it is. "You know it, I know it, the guys in the chopper up there know it, and I suspect that even CENTCOM might know it by now. The only ones who don't get it are the politicians in Washington — but they're calling the shots," he said.
Vang Bulo said, "Not all of them."
They knew what that meant. The Dog Team was strictly an Army operation, an above-top-secret one at that, from whose chain of command civilian politicians and administrators were excluded.
Kilroy indicated the gunship. "I can tell you what's going on up there right now," he said. "Base told them not to return fire on the mosque. The chopper crew is repeating their request for permission to do so. Base is telling them no. Too much risk of collateral damage. Of course, if they get their tail shot off, that's all right."
Abruptly, the gunship stood down, turning until it pointed east. It quit the scene, flying back to base.
"It's called 'winning hearts and minds,' I guess," Kilroy said, shaking his head. "Depressing."
Vang Bulo tsk-tsked.
Kilroy shook off his mood like a wet dog shaking off water. "Time to move, before the gunship is so far away that the locals come back out again."
His hands busy on the controls, he put the SUV in drive, rolling out from behind the wall toward the road. The vehicle lurched and jounced. Weapons and gear had previously been secured to prevent their bouncing around loose.
The SUV clambered heavily on to the blacktop road, rocking on its springs. Tires bit deep once planted on hard pavement. Kilroy pointed the vehicle downhill and stepped on the gas. The SUV swooped along the downgrade, plunging toward town. It moved along at a nice clip, not racing exactly, but not dawdling, either, picking up momentum during the descent.
Kilroy gripped the wheel in both hands, leaning forward. "NASCAR's got nothing on this!"
Wrecks began to appear on both sides of the road. Wrecks of other bombed, burned-out vehicles, some sieved with bulletholes. They dotted the roadside like boulders. The closer the road got to town, the more wrecks.
The road wasn't in such great shape, either. It was mottled with bad patches that were pocked by bullet holes and cracked by bombs. The SUV's tires thrummed over them. Like the wrecks, the bad patches increased as Azif neared.
The vehicle closed in on the blast site, as yet unnoticed by the locals, who were beginning to emerge from doorways and from behind cover to once more take to the streets. Their attention was on the gunship dwindling in the southeast.
The truck in the middle of the road had mostly burned itself out now. A thin blue-gray haze that looked like big-city smog blurred the scene.
Some rooftop spotters fired off rounds in the general direction of the now-distant gunship. Figures emerged from the sidelines into the open. They stood facing the direction in which the aircraft had flown. Their backs were to the western branch of the highway, so they didn't notice the onrushing SUV until it was almost upon them. Their shouts and shots had served to drown out the sound of its approach.
The vehicle slowed, weaving around some potentially axle-busting potholes cratering the pavement. It swerved to avoid a wagon wheel that lay in the middle of the road like some absurd relic of old Wild West days.
It was a donkey cart wheel. Two-wheeled wooden donkey carts were in wide use throughout Iraq, not only in the outlying rural areas, but even in the cities, including Baghdad. That made them a popular choice as bomb-delivery vehicles.
That was what happened here. A donkey cart loaded with explosives had stood at the crossroads, waiting for the target — the convoy — to arrive. But for some reason or another, the cart had been delayed until all but the last truck in line had already driven to safety.
The bomber had probably used a cell phone to detonate the IED, or improvised explosive device. That was military jargon for a bomb. The Red Dome Mosque militia was partial to cell-phone detonators. They'd picked up the trick from Al Qaeda bombmasters who were working with the Sunni insurgency. For balance, the Shiite insurgents were getting their lessons in advanced terrorism from experts sent by Tehran.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Return of the Dog Team"
Copyright © 2005 William W. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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This book like all his novels of this genre is action packed and keeps the reader turning pages and on the edge of your seat. I highly recommend this book to any reader that likes military action books. This is the first in the series which like his Ashes series is a must.
Awful. Couldn't wait to get through I kept thinking that it would get better it got awful