A December wind howled down the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan. George Ferrar tried to shrug off the cold that seeped through his Pathan waistcoat and vest. He pulled the shawl up over his mouth to conceal his breath in the frosty air.
The nighttime crawled with armed and desperate men, and the commando in charge of his undercover unit was an unstable jerk.
But it was a good time to be in Afghanistan.
Sure, Ferrar trudged along plagued by uncertainty and reeling from the effects of September 11. But he was trying to restore order to the world.
America had come under attack. World markets were faltering. Terror had begun its incipient reign. And for the moment, Afghanistan was where he belonged.
Ahead of him, five other veterans of undercover warfare picked their way up a steep trail toward the mouth of Tora Bora's main cave.
He couldn't keep his eyes off the evidence of previous mortar attacks. Huge craters pitted the cliff. Corpses of fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban lay headless, limbless and stiff. Unexploded ordinance littered the crags of the slope.
Now he would finish the job.
He hefted the assault rifle to his shoulder. A gun was a normal accoutrement for local tribesmen, and he needed to fit in. It would serve him well, as would the entire arsenal beneath his waistcoat.
He hadn't started out his career in the Army as a walking battle platform, but technological improvements and the aggressive Green Berets had turned him into one.
In addition to all the gadgetry, he still clung to the know-how he had acquired through long experience of undercover warfare. And he still had his Maine farm boy instincts.
Under the myriad stars that illuminated the mountainside, he looked hard at Alpha, the jerk in the lead.
Operation Jawbreaker used code names like Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. But jerk fit the guy much better.
Alpha was signaling them with a cautionary motion of the hand. The group stopped and waited.
From his position at the end of the line, Ferrar swept the surrounding hillsides for signs of the enemy. Anyone else in that desolate valley would be unfriendly, because the rest of the Allied troops were nowhere near. In fact, they were busy creating a predawn diversion down at the airport that morning.
As usual, his eyes came to rest on the large, strong frame of Alpha. The guy lowered his assault rifle and casually rested it on the frozen corpse of a terrorist fighter.
Ferrar knew Alpha well enough. As a soldier, Alpha was as ruthless and dominant as any alpha bull. As a man, he was Tray Bolton, the foster son of the Director of the CIA. As a former friend, he was the muscle-bound, backslapping jock that Ferrar had competed against in classrooms and gridirons from high school through college.
Only desperate times could throw the two of them into the same unit. And desperate times had indeed arrived. Quite simply, with her freedom at stake, America needed her best.
Bolton was pulling a night-vision spotting scope out from under his waistcoat.
Ferrar winced. Bad move, Tray.
Above the team of men, a boot scraped against loose scree near the entrance to the cave. A shot rang out.
A second later, the commando designated as Bravo somersaulted down the steep slope, a bullet hole drilled through his forehead.
Footsteps retreated above them.
The unit scattered behind several outcroppings of rock. Ferrar edged closer to a sharp overhang that had snagged his fallen comrade. No breath escaped from Gopher O'Brien's lips. That's okay, he tried to communicate telepathically with the still body. You don't have to hold your breath anymore.
Except Gopher wasn't holding his breath.
Ferrar bent over and cursed silently, trying to clear his throat. "Bravo is down," he finally rasped into his voice-activated headset.
Ferrar had engaged in many nighttime operations before joining the CIA's handpicked Special Operations Group, and he had never used a night-vision scope in close combat situations before. Its objective lens could easily reflect light and tip off the enemy.
Instead, he would sniff the air for a trace of sweat or gun oil. He rolled the brim of his Pathan hat off his ears to listen.
Alpha had played it far too casual.
Sure, in the preceding weeks the war had come to a swift conclusion in Afghanistan, and Taliban and al-Qaeda scumbags were on the run. American and allied ground troops had moved in trying to smoke the terrorists out of their mountain strongholds. And the last pockets of resistance held out in God-forsaken places like that Tora Bora region.
But the unit of combat-hardened special ops veterans couldn't afford to let their guard down yet.
If they were lucky, they might flush out leaders of the Islamic terrorist group, maybe even snare bin Laden or Mullah Omar. Perhaps they might come across a cache of al-Qaeda weapons, ammunition, equipment, documents, videotapes, maps, or false passports. If al-Qaeda left nothing behind, at least the mission could establish that the terrorist organization had slipped out of the region.
The only thing that they couldn't do was to get killed, like Gopher O'Brien.
With the entire might of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps behind them, they would not fail to take the cave.
He looked out from under his heavy black eyebrows. The only way they could fail was if someone had tipped off the enemy in advance.
Above him came the sound of resistance fighters waking and scattering, their feet pounding deep into the cave complex.
Well, the enemy was certainly tipped off now. The covert operation had turned overt.
He yanked off his fabric hat, ripped open a pack of greasepaint and smeared it across his broad face. Then he pounded a dull green helmet onto his head and stared at Bolton's back. Tray Bolton had already lost one man and given up the element of surprise. Now he was letting valuable seconds tick by. Was Bolton waiting for an invitation to tea?
Tray Bolton finally motioned for the unit to advance and pursue the retreating foe. Ferrar scrambled up the remainder of the trail and flattened himself against the lip of a neatly carved, squared-off entrance to the cave.
He pressed both shoulders against the cold stone and held his rifle barrel close to one ear.
Kneeling beside him, Charlie tossed a CS tear gas grenade into the cave. It bounced and popped, coming to a hissing skid some fifteen feet away.
Ferrar and the rest of the men threw off the last of their tribal gear and pulled gas masks over their faces. Listening through the sucking noise of the ventilator in his mask, he heard no choking inside the cave and no more footsteps. The al-Qaeda fighters had retreated sufficiently far into their lair.
Charlie and Delta darted past Ferrar and took up positions inside the entrance. Over his shoulder, he noticed that the sky was turning a faint indigo up the valley where Pakistan lay. Unfortunately, the unit would be silhouetted against the dawn.
Slipping past him, Tray Bolton and Echo hugged the walls of the cave and advanced until they reached the cave's next aperture.
Another tear gas grenade bounced deeper into the complex. In the deadened space, the released tear gas hissed down further chambers inside.
With the four other operatives safely inside the cave, Ferrar was the last to enter. He kneeled on the stone floor beside Bolton and aimed an ultrasonic radarscope straight ahead. The faint LCD screen displayed an orange image of the room. There were three openings in the next chamber.
Bolton hand-signaled for the men to fan out. Charlie and Delta, who were the ex-Army Rangers Pug Wilson and Al Moxley, would take the right. Meanwhile Echo and Foxtrot, the former Green Berets Colt Sealock and Ferrar, would advance down the center.
Presumably, Bolton, the former Navy Seal would take the left.
Without a sound, the men separated and began the time-honored tradition of covering and advancing down the rough-hewn sandstone corridors.
With tear gas still lingering in the air, Ferrar had to keep his mask on and couldn't use his night vision scope. Instead, he and his partner wordlessly switched to the radarscope. Colt attached it to the floor and aimed it like a black flashlight into the gloom.
The readout showed the subterranean complex expanding into still more openings. It was essentially a labyrinth. Their unit would never be able to investigate the entire excavation. Moreover, they would most certainly encounter hidden nooks, trapdoors, concealed rooms andÉ
A sudden shockwave from his right nearly knocked him out of his boots. He grabbed his ears as an explosion thundered through the cave.
"Landmines," he whispered fiercely into his headset transmitter. The place was booby-trapped.
The explosion deafened him momentarily, but not enough to mask the anguished cries of Pug Wilson and Al Moxley.
Colt whipped out a metal detector the size of a long-barreled pistol and jabbed the earpiece in an ear.
While Colt scanned the floor for buried mines, Ferrar whispered into his transmitter, "Charlie and Delta are hit."
He stared hard into the silent, acrid-smelling blackness.
They were losing men fast, and they weren't finding a thing. Of course al-Qaeda wouldn't give up without a fight. And the cave, built eons ago to fend off invasion attempts and reinforced to withstand Soviet bombardment, was not about to give up all her secrets at once.
For the unit to continue would be sheer folly. Half the men were down. With only Bolton, Colt and himself left, Ferrar saw the odds stacking up rapidly in the enemy's favor.
He yanked Colt by the collar.
"We're falling back."
Gutsy American commando George Ferrar has uncovered terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan trying to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the United States. He informs the Pentagon, CIA and FBI, but everybody seems to think that he is the culpritÉincluding the woman he loves. The race is on to save the nation. Can Ferrar find the bomb before America's military, FBI and police stop him? Enjoy the vividly portrayed locations, fascinating cultural details and international intrigue from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, England and Canada. Then hold on tight for a bone-jarring chase across AmericaÉby road, rail, air and sea. In the end, he and his lover must escapeÉTHE TRAP!
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