The kid disappeared through the door to his house.
Deckard jetted down the road that was getting shelled by the Syrian Army. Gunfire chased after him. Voices yelled behind him. His boots beat the street. His heart was beating right out of his chest as he did the only thing he could do.
Deckard swerved down a side street as another burst of AK fire skipped off the pavement behind him. He was vaguely aware of the black bars closing in on either side of his vision as he sprinted for an open doorway. He was getting tunnel vision, target fixation. Flight was his only option. Fight would be like a suicide mission but worse.
His legs powered him up the stairs. He could hear footsteps beating up the steps after him. On the second landing, he pivoted and fired off a ten round burst with his rifle into the shadows below him before charging back up the stairs.
Where was he going?
A Syrian fighter jet screamed overhead and dropped its ordnance somewhere in the Nusra-controlled neighborhood. The building shook on its foundation as the bombs detonated. Deckard didn’t give it much thought, but simply steadied himself and continued on.
His heart rate had to be close to 120 beats per minute at this point. Deckard kept moving, unable to process the fact that he was operating at sub-optimal levels, unable to make the most rational decisions. The little reptile brain in the back of his head was threatening to take the wheels from him. Deckard’s legs were burning when he reached the fifth floor and burst out onto the roof.
Where was he going?
He sprinted hard.
Holding the Kalashnikov in one hand, he pushed off into a long jump that ate up the distance between the rooftop and that of the adjacent building. He landed on the balls of his feet and kept moving. Half of the building had imploded on itself, the roof having collapsed but still hanging on by the metal rebar inside it. The cement slab created a ramp. Another gunshot snapped from behind him as he slid across the final few feet off the remaining rooftop like a baseball player and then skidded right down the collapsed roof that sloped down at an angle.
He slid down to the fourth floor surrounded by a cloud of dust. Bouncing to his feet, he scrambled through what was left of someone’s kitchen and down a hallway with cracking stucco on the walls and ceiling. Behind him, he heard the Liquid Sky members who had slid down behind him and were now shouting at each other as they looked around for him.
Finding an open door in the hallway, Deckard took it and ran into another apartment. This one still had civilians in it. An old woman wearing a scarf over her head pushed two grandchildren into a bedroom as Deckard ran through the living room. There was a small balcony that looked over a narrow side street. Deckard quickly judged the distance. A squad of soldiers was moving down below, several of them smoking cigarettes. There was no way to immediately tell if they were Nusra fighters or Syrian Army.
Deckard planted one foot on the railing and propelled himself into mid-air, to the balcony across the street. He barely cleared the ten-foot gap, stumbling over the railing and tripping over himself. The wooden doors that led inside were locked, but had some give to them. He was about to kick them in when he heard a burst of gunfire. Ducking down below the railing, AK fire chopped through the wood and sprayed him with splinters.
Down on his hands and knees, he saw a loose panel on the door and pushed it in. Tossing his rifle ahead of him, Deckard slithered through the hole like a worm while the door continued to be reduced to toothpicks. Staying low to avoid the hail of gunfire, he rolled into the next room just as a grenade went off on the balcony he had just left, blowing both doors off their hinges. He didn’t bother to look back.
Arriving at the apartment door, Deckard twisted all three of the locks open and was back outside in another hallway. He still didn’t know who the armed men were below and in a moment of clarity he realized that he had moved far enough through the urban sprawl that he had no idea where he was. Was he still in Nusra territory or had he crossed into a neighborhood held by the Syrian Army? Maybe he was in the no-man’s land in between.
The hall was lit by a column of sunlight cutting down through a gaping hole in the roof. Finding the stairwell, Deckard took it up figuring he would be safer moving across rooftops then risking it with the roving patrols on the ground level. It was a calculated risk; there would still be snipers, indirect fire, and airstrikes to contend with.
This was no surgical raid he was on now. This wasn’t Special Operations, it was straight-up combat that had more in common with Hue City, Fallujah, or Stalingrad.
Half of the staircase had crumbled away along with the exterior wall. Deckard turned sideways and moved foot over foot, carefully edging his way up to the roof as he looked out over the city. Black smoke rose from a dozen places in Homs. Another surface-to-air missile rose from a street up into the sky. The boom of the main guns on former Soviet tanks sounded. In between the cannon fire, Deckard thought he heard footsteps in the hallway behind him and hurried up the stairs.
The sun beat down from the morning sky, causing him to squint. He continued to stay low. Approaching the lip of the building, he turned his head sideways and slowly lifted it high enough to see across the way. There was a full street between the building he was on and the next so he moved to another side of the roof, looking for a way to cross. This time there was only a narrow alley between the two buildings. Deckard quickly vaulted to the other side. Once across, he breathed a sigh of relief. If there were any snipers out there, they hadn’t bothered shooting at him.
He was able to move down the city block by crossing from rooftop to rooftop. Deckard heard a few shots crack, but none of them felt close enough to be meant for him. Eventually, he got to the end of the block. There wasn’t a stairway that led below, so he had to drop down to the balcony on the top story and push inside. Down on the street, another T-72 tank rumbled towards the front lines. Did it belong to the Army, or was it one of the Nusra-captured tanks? The battlefield was a confusing zigzagging patchwork of terrorists, soldiers, and para-military forces.
Moving down to the ground level, Deckard waited in the alcove where the front door lay ajar. It was basic infantry training taking over. Stop, look, listen, and smell. He opened up his senses, alert for sounds of the enemy. A few voices sounded from outside, but then they passed and moved on. Deckard slowly inched to the door to take a look outside. It was a ghost town out there. A breeze carried the smell of diesel fuel and burning trash but nothing much was moving.
Deckard knew he had to press on. He had to put some distance between himself and Liquid Sky. That was his immediate concern; then, he could regroup and figure out his next move. Across the street he saw a garage. It had one of those metal roll up doors which had been crinkled and ripped away by an explosion sometime in the recent past.
Watching and listening for a few more seconds, he decided the coast was clear and sprinted out of the alcove and across the street. This time someone did shoot at him. A lone gunshot snapped behind Deckard as he ran. Whoever fired needed to learn how to lead a moving target. Deckard ignored it and continued running, then ducked, and glided right through the gap between the garage door and the concrete wall. He was glad to be back behind solid cover, even though he tripped over debris on the floor as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Picking his way through the rubble, he emerged from the garage and into several empty rooms that looked like they might have been used for storage at one time. The back door wouldn’t budge an inch despite Deckard putting his weight into it several times. Something was blocking the way on the other side. Looking for another way out, he found a small window covered in brown dust and grit. Turning a metal handle, the window screeched open on its hinges. He crawled out and into some more collapsed rubble.
The door did indeed have a cement pillar collapsed on top of it. In fact, the first floor of the adjacent building had collapsed and made a wall that led up to the second story. An overhang was created by the ceiling of the second story. Somehow, a glass chandelier was intact and swinging from a chain on the ceiling. It had been a dining room up until the war kicked off.
Deckard slung his Kalashnikov and ran at the collapsed floor. Planting a boot on the wall he vaulted up and out, his hands reaching out and grabbing the edge of what was left of the second story floor. He kicked his feet a few more times off the cement slab while pulling himself up into the dining room.
Walking from heel to toe, the former Special Operations soldier crept forward. On the opposite end of the building, it looked like most of the exterior wall had been blasted away. The interior was covered in pockmarks and streaks where bullets had chipped away at the walls. As he got closer, Deckard could see down into the street below. There were a couple of burnt-out cars in the street. A half-dozen dead bodies were also sprawled below with bloated stomachs and flies in their eyes.
Deckard also noticed where murder holes had been punched in what was left of the wall, giving covered positions to fire from. Everything was quiet.
That was when Deckard realized that he had just walked into the middle of an ambush line occupied by a dozen gunmen.
Bill clenched his jaw so hard, that he chipped a molar.
The Iridium phone was buzzing. Looking at the screen, he saw the number of the incoming call and knew it was one he had to take. The client.
Breathing hard, he extended the antenna and accepted the incoming call.
“This is Bill,” he answered gruffly. No code names or secret-squirrel nonsense. He wasn’t in the mood for the client’s usual bullshit.
“Uh, yes, this is Nancy,” his contact answered with her usual cover name. The Iridium phone had a crypto sleeve that scrambled their conversation to eavesdroppers but basic precautions were still taken.
“We’re under the gun at the moment over here Nancy,” Bill said, putting on a show for her. “Trying to meet the terms of our contract.”
“We understand and appreciate that.”
“We’ve received some additional information which we felt you would want to be informed of immediately.”
“You recall the incident in Nevada?”
“The one that got our contract dropped until you picked it up?”
“Right. We’ve been searching for the party or parties involved in a string of attacks including Nevada, and the company who worked those projects, your former client, has completed their investigation.”
“A source in Mexico confirmed who was behind it. A dangerous mercenary. He is believed to be a major stakeholder, if not the leader of, a private military company based out of Kazakhstan.”
“What’s this got to do with me?”
“Since pinpointing his identity we have been working this issue on our end. We have SIGINT hits on a cellular phone which we believe is in the target’s possession. We realize that this target was not part of our original agreement, but we are prepared to double Liquid Sky’s fee if you are able to resolve this issue for us. We have a last known location for his cell phone.”
“Let me guess.”
“Homs, Syria. His name is Deckard.”
Bill hurled the phone through the air. The satellite phone slammed into the side of a nearby building and shattered into a dozen pieces.
Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a walkie-talkie. It was an off the shelf model that they had brought along with them for internal team communications in case cell phones didn’t work in the city. Pressing the transmit button, the receiver beeped in his hand.
A hiss of static came over the line.
“Yeah?” Rick’s voice answered.
“The client just offered to double our fee if we kill Deckard. I will personally match that amount for whichever of you kills him.”
“A cool mil?”
“We’ve lost him but The Operator is working on picking up his trail.”
“I want that fucker’s head on a plate.”
The sound of gunfire came over the walkie-talkie. He could hear both Rick and The Operator’s voices. Nadeesha and Ramon were out there looking for him as well.
“Never mind,” Rick came back over the line with. “That has got to be him.”
“Let me know when you’ve got his scalp in your hand.”
“You got it.”
Deckard wrenched the AK-47 from the Iranian’s grasp. In the awkward way he had his hands on the rifle, he was holding it upside down. Somehow he managed to depress the trigger with his pinky and sweep the barrel in a long arc that split horizontally across the ambush line that three other Iranians had occupied. They went down with gut shots and sucking chest wounds.
Pulling the Kalashnikov away, he fell to the ground as bursts of gunfire sounded throughout the hollowed out second floor of the building. He had walked right into the rear end of an ambush line manned by Quds Force foreign fighters. With Iran backing the Assad regime, Quds Force was calling much of the shots and scoring many of the victories for the Syrian military.
Although they were dressed in a mix-match of camouflage uniforms, Deckard could tell their nationality as they yelled to each other in Farsi. Point-shooting the Iranian he had struggled with for the rifle, he yanked on the trigger over and over, adrenaline taking over. As the Iranian went down in a hail of gunfire, another peered out from behind a concrete column. Deckard fired on him, but his poor trigger control skewed the shots off target, kicking up cement dust as they streaked off the pillar.
Twisting and turning, he scrambled in the opposite direction as gunfire snapped over his head.
Putting another support column between himself and the Iranian he had failed to shoot, Deckard ran. At the end of the bomb-blasted building, he found a shattered window and dived through. There were no heroics involved, he simply fell ten feet down to the ground and landed in a heap. Thankfully, his own Kalashnikov helped break his fall when the rifle swung on its sling and butt stroked him in the chin. He felt the pain explode in his head.
Pulling himself up to his feet, he stumbled forward with one hand on the wall of the building, trailing his fingers just behind him as he hobbled on. Arriving at the mouth of the ally, he glanced across the road. His options were limited. Instead of dashing across the street, he button-hooked down the street and put a burnt out Volkswagen bus behind him in case the Iranians were looking for him on the streets.
Finding a building with the front door bashed in, Deckard walked towards it, hoping to find some refuge inside as he shook off the pain in his jaw.
His head automatically snapped toward the sound.
Rick stood at the other end of the street with The Operator.
Both immediately went into a shooter ready position, rifles up. Deckard flung himself towards the door as they opened fire. Their shots cut through the air and dinged off the VW bus. As he high crawled into the doorway, a fusillade of fire responded to the two Liquid Sky members. The had street just become a two-way range. Deckard smiled.
“That’s my boys.”
Quds Force was engaging Liquid Sky.
Deckard crawled inside the building and then jogged through a hallway strewn with garbage, everything from bicycle tires to baby diapers littered the interior of the building. It sounded like the gunfire was getting closer. He was effectively doubling back on his former position now. Or so it seemed. Things got confusing real fast in the urban labyrinth. There wasn’t anywhere he could stop and ask for directions, either.
Stepping over a pile of old books and newspapers, Deckard came out into an empty lot that looked to be a real garbage dump. He held his breath and crossed it quickly. As he hopped over a wall to get to the next building, another couple shots snapped right next to him. Hitting the ground on the other side of the wall, he was hit by deja vu.
In their first encounter, he had pursued Liquid Sky with the same level of aggressiveness.
Naji watched the two Western mercenaries give chase after the other infidel who had attacked them. The fighters in his cell of Iranians wanted to gun the two men down as they crossed the garbage dump. Naji held up a hand, stopping them in their tracks.
The Iranian commander spoke into his radio and quickly received a response from a Syrian artillery battery on the other side of the city. He waited for the two foreigners to climb over the wall before calling in the artillery strike. He shifted from a known point, the last call for fire mission he had radioed in earlier in the morning. It was only a block away and he was fairy certain that the first shells would be on target.
Suppressing a chuckle, he leaned against the door frame to watch the show.
Deckard kicked in the back door and barged inside the abandoned building. Taking a few steps inside, he immediately jolted backwards, wobbling back towards the door. The bottom floor had been blown out sometime during the battle for Homs. The concrete slab had cracked and collapsed into the basement. With Hezbollah and Liquid Sky both on his ass, he was running out of places to go.
Then he heard the crunch of debris grinding under two pairs of combat boots. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Rick and The Operator as they dropped down over the wall. The Operator snarled, his teeth exposed as he brought his AK-47 into play.
Without missing a beat, Deckard twisted back around and threw himself into the gaping hole in front of him. He landed hard and rolled, then scrambled forward. The Liquid Sky shooters lost their line of sight on Deckard as he moved deeper into the basement and were forced to drop down behind him.
That was when the arty strike fired by the Syrian Army rained down.
Deckard was tossed into one of the retaining walls at the edge of the basement as the Syrian Army fired for effect. Both Liquid Sky shooters were also knocked off their feet. The artillery rounds never found their exact target, but the blast radius shook the entire building on its foundation. The concussion rattled Deckard’s teeth as cement dust engulfed the basement.
Then, the building pancaked in on itself as the upper levels collapsed. Once one of the outer support walls collapsed, the roof of the building gave way. The weight slammed into the top story and collapsed down into the second story. The entire building came down like a house of cards, right on top of the three Americans trapped in the basement.
Deckard coughed as he pushed himself onto his hands and knees. Everything was black. Running his fingers over his face, everything felt intact. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but it wasn’t because he had been blinded. The building had collapsed and trapped them in the basement.
He heard something shuffle in the dark. A boot slipping on a piece of debris.
“Where is he?”
“I can hear him breathing.”
Deckard froze where he was with his hands planted in front of him. He slowed his breathing and could feel his lungs taking in the cement dust with every shallow breath. The moment he made some noise would be the moment that the two Liquid Sky shooters vectored in on him. He had lost his rifle as he fell during the artillery barrage. He dared not sweep around the ground looking for it. The Liquid Sky gunmen probably still had their weapons and would start shooting the second he made a sound.
It was quiet. Nothing moved. Deckard swore that his joints were emitting an audible groan as he shifted his body weight. Somewhere in the darkness, two rifle barrels were sweeping back and forth waiting for him to make a mistake. Slowly, carefully, he reached out with one hand. His fingertips gently brushed across the floor as he looked for something to grab hold of. A rock, a piece of rebar, anything he could use as a weapon.
Sweeping around with his right hand, he found nothing. With his weight supported by his left arm, he was growing fatigued. Dehydration, physical exertion, and the stress of combat had beaten him up. Slowly, he switched arms and began sweeping around with his left hand. A few more shells came down somewhere outside.
It was unnerving. He could also hear Rick breathing once or twice. He sounded like maybe he was to Deckard’s two o’ clock somewhere. The Operator was a ghost.
Finally, he found something. His hand brushed up against a broken piece of concrete. Carefully reaching for it, Deckard grabbed it in his fist. Now he had something to fight with. As he lifted the concrete block and pulled it towards him, a low grinding sound echoed in the basement. A piece of rebar had been sticking out of the end of the block. As Deckard pulled it, the metal bar scratched against the floor.
Boots pounded towards Deckard. He made it from down on his hands and knees to being up on one knee before one of the Liquid Sky mercenaries blasted into him. In the dark, there was little sense of depth perception by sound alone and the mercenary had simply charged into the dark. Deckard swung the concrete block and clipped his opponent but couldn’t tell where.
Deckard recognized Rick’s voice as he yelled out in pain.
But Rick still had momentum on his side and carried Deckard down to the ground. He struggled to prevent the back of his head from slamming on the floor and splitting wide open. The fall jarred him but he was still in the fight, still swinging the concrete block. This time it glanced off Rick’s shoulder. But now Rick was on top of Deckard and knew where he was. Rick’s fists began to rain down on Deckard.
Then, Rick was snatched off of Deckard. One second he was there, the next he was gone. A dozen feet away the fight continued, fists bashing flesh and boots scuffing around the floor. Deckard rolled over and crawled away. The Operator had gone into autopilot again, taking down Rick while thinking it was Deckard.
Deckard found a wall and began tracing it to the back of the building. Behind him, he could hear someone’s head getting slammed against the ground and he was pretty sure the grunting that came with each slam belonged to The Operator.
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