by Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 2

2

A Country He was Not Supposed to be In

July 2005

Harmon’s hunch proved fortuitous for both the Air Force and Meese, W. The Air Force because he’d uncovered a potentially valuable new asset; the recruit because it gave him the purpose he’d been searching for.

When Sgt. Delarosa came back three days later to report recruit Wade Meese had not only equaled, but beaten his earlier score, hitting thirty-seven out of forty, including being perfect at eight-hundred meters, the young man’s fate was sealed, at least as far as the Air Force was concerned.

Based on Lt. Harmon’s strong recommendation, following basic training Meese went to the Air Force’s eleven-day Advanced Designated Marksman School (ADMS), followed by the even more intense nineteen-day Close Precision Engagement Course (CPEC). While he could have washed out of either, he didn’t; instead finishing both near the top of his group.

After graduating from CPEC in the fall of 2002 he was deployed to Afghanistan and assigned to a security detail at Bagram Airbase, the center of U.S. presence in the country and their battle with the Taliban.

For six months, between October 2002 and March 2003, Meese and his spotter spent eight hours a day behind their respective scopes. In those months they wracked-up sixteen confirmed kills of snipers either seeking to damage the F-16s, Huey helicopters or giant C-130 cargo planes parked on Bagram’s vast runways or harass American security patrols on the outskirts of the base. But Meese was only one of nearly a dozen other sniper teams competently executing similar duty, so his superiors agreed they could spare him for a “special” assignment.

Because it had not escaped their notice that in the CPEC he had not only demonstrated deadly accuracy at long distance shots, but surprising skill at field concealment; in other words, he could keep the enemy from even knowing he was there until it was too late. Which is why, in the spring of 2003 he went back to the U.S. for the crash, two-week Basic Military Mountaineer Course (BMMC) at Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Returning to Afghanistan in May, while he was still officially based at Bagram, Meese found he’d been reassigned to a Special Operations Group (SOG) – it was never quite clear if they were still under military supervision or if somehow “another government agency” (nobody ever said CIA, of course) had taken charge – to address a different and more challenging problem the Americans faced.

***

The northeast corner of Afghanistan is a narrow spit of land a little over two-hundred miles long, east to west, varying from a mere eight miles to up to forty miles wide, north to south. On maps it’s called the Wakhan Corridor, but informally is known as The Panhandle. It is sandwiched between Pakistan to the south, China to the east, and Tajikistan to the north. And it also happens to be along the northern edge of the Hindu Kush, some of the most remote and rugged mountain terrain in the world.

Remote except for one factor, two of the northern spurs of the fabled Silk Road pass through it. Where in past centuries it was spices, silk, gunpowder and gold moving over its rugged trails, now it was drugs; raw opium or its refined end-product, heroin and hashish. While the United States military wasn’t bothered much by small parties of a few smugglers for local benefit, either consumption by family or friends or sale for needed cash, they were more than a little troubled by the caravans of three or four dozen donkeys whose payloads, worth millions, ended up helping buy arms and equipment for the Taliban.

They would learn about the caravans either through Afghani informants or by spotting them already on the mountain trails with high-altitude aerial surveillance.

So, starting in late May, 2003, equipped with a Barrett M82 .50 caliber sniper rifle, which had a longer effective range, to say nothing of a great deal more hitting power than the American military’s standard M24 sniper rifle, now Airman First Class Wade Meese was sent into the Wakhan Corridor on “missions of opportunity” to interdict and disrupt the drug convoys.

He would be helicoptered to a remote location in the western parts of the corridor, then make his way overland alone and on foot – an understatement if there ever was one – to intercept the caravan. Each mission meant he might be in the field for two and sometimes three weeks at a time.

***

In May of 2005 an informant shared with his CIA handler rumors of a large caravan supposedly originating in Afghanistan carrying more than a ton of raw opium through Tajikistan and into Russia to be sold. For the Americans, it was too tempting to pass-up.

Which is why in early July, Meese found himself perched on a shoulder of the Alichur Mountains at not quite twelve-thousand feet, watching a narrow donkey trail paralleling the Pamir River, the common border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Unfortunately, the south side of the Pamir River butted hard up against the steep flanks of the Nicholas Mountains and so the trail – one of the Silk Road’s northern routes − sat on the north side, which meant both the trail and he were in Tajikistan.

It was not the first time he had pursued targets into a country he was not supposed to be in.

Next: In the Kush

© 2019 Dave Lager

Learn as you go

“Life’s a dance you learn as you go, sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow; don’t worry ’bout what you don’t know, life’s a dance you learn as you go”

“Life’s A Dance,” Allen Shamblin & Steve Seskin

In my head I just substituted the word “writing” for “life” and “skill” for “dance,” and suddenly these lyrics from a counrty-western song seemed awfully relevant.

Sniper’s Day : Chapter 1

Sniper’s Day

A Ro Delahanty Novella

By Dave Lager

“But from each crime are born bullets
that will one day seek out in you where the heart lies.”

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Part One: Tajikistan

1

Boot Camp, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas

Monday, May 13, 2002

Lt. Harmon ran his finger down the clipboard, checking the rifle range qualification scores of his recruits. They were pretty much what he expected after a decade as an U.S. Air Force basic training command officer: a few poor scores in the teens and low-twenties; barely qualifying scores in the upper-twenties; and some decent scores in the lower-thirties.

“At least this bunch seems to know one end of an M4 from the other,” he commented to First Sergeant Delarosa, his Lead Drill Instructor.

“Ain’t nobody shot a toe off yet, Sir.”

It was a running joke among recruit training people; given the strict safety rules and close supervision by range personnel, to their knowledge no one had ever actually “shot a toe off.”

“Unh,” Harmon grunted.

But as he reached two thirds of the way down the list, his finger paused at a score of thirty-six. Glancing up at Delarosa with a frown of disbelief, he said, “This for real?”

The sergeant, who had been training recruits at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base even longer than the lieutenant, knew what had caught his officer’s attention, “Yes, Sir.”

All military recruits, no matter which branch of the service they sign up for, receive similar basic training. They were going to be soldiers and so shared the common, if not always likely possibility they could at some point find themselves in a combat situation. One of the fundamentals they were required to demonstrate in order to graduate was a basic skill with an M4 carbine, the standard long-gun used by most services. They needed a minimum qualifying score of twenty-six out of forty pop-up targets – all assumed to be enemy combatants – from at close range to up to three-hundred meters away, or a little over the length of a football field. Scores in the upper-twenties were good, in the lower thirties excellent; a thirty-six out of forty was extraordinary, to say the least.

Running his finger to the left, Harmon said, “Meese, W. What’s his story?”

“Nothin’ special far as I can tell. You know how these kids are. Some of ‘em lay their hands on a weapon the first time and start bragging what great hunters they’ve been and are gonna ace the test.”

Harmon finished the sergeant’s thought, “And then bitch up a storm something must be wrong with the weapon because they barely passed.”

The two shared a grunt-like snicker, as the type was almost a cliché around boot camps.

“Heard anything about this Meese’s background?” the officer said. “I gather he didn’t mention hunting.”

“No, Sir,” Delarosa said with a shrug. “He worked at a pizza parlor before signing up. I heard him mention once he thinks he’ll probably end up a food service specialist.”

“Unh… What kinda kid is he. Not another class clown I hope.” Neither the lieutenant nor the sergeant had much use for recruits who didn’t take their training seriously.
Delarosa shook his head, “He’s different, quiet, keeps to himself, doesn’t pal-up with the others – you know, trade digs, tell jokes, eyeball the female recruits.”

To Delarosa, a recruit was a recruit; a warm body he needed to turn into a neophyte soldier. If he heard a sexist remark it earned the entire squad twenty-five push-ups on the spot, so any offenders soon learned to keep their thoughts to themselves.

“He’s a little guy, only five-seven. Never bitches about the dust or the sweat.” Delarosa didn’t have to add he heard that complaint often in arid south-central Texas. The first few weeks of basic training includes lots of rigorous physical challenges, mostly to assess the recruits’ stamina but also to see who can deal with the discomfort of combat and not complain too much. That Meese wasn’t a whiner earned him a few respect points with Delarosa and Harmon.

“When the range sergeant gave him his weapon and told him what to do,” Delarosa continued, “he stepped up to the firing line and did it, nice as pie.”

Harmon raised his brows, pleased, “And you were there? Saw this?”

“Always am, Sir. I like to see how they do the first time they handle an M4.” He paused for a second, thinking, then added, “You know how some people can just pick-up a guitar and start playin’ it like it was the easiest thing ever? That’s the feeling I got watching him with his weapon.”

“What’s your gut telling you?” Harmon had learned to respect his subordinate’s opinion; a smart officer always did, after all, Delarosa was the one with the recruits on a daily basis and had over the years seen lots of them come and go.

“Like lots of the kids these days, he signed up after 9/11; wanted to serve. But I have the feeling he’s driftin’, just looking for a place to land.” It was not uncommon for young people barely out of their teens to hope service in the military would help them find a purpose.

“Okay… Look, I’ll check his ASVAB, see if it’ll tell us anything,” Harmon said.

All recruits for any service branch take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a series of assessment tests that, along with their personal preferences, as well as what the particular branch needs, helps determine their specific duty assignment if they make it past basic training.

“Here’s what I want you to do, Sergeant. In the next day or so take him back out to the range. Run him through the qualifying round again. If his score is even close to this one, see what he can do at four-hundred, six-hundred and even eight-hundred meters.” Eight-hundred meters is half-a-mile.

“What should I tell him?”

Harmon shrugged, “Tell him he had a good score – I figure he knows it already – and you want to see if he can do it again.”

“What’re you thinking, Sir, Robinson?” Delarosa wondered aloud.

The U.S. Air Force’s Counter Sniper School was based at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. Counter snipers were used to augment security around the perimeter of combat zone air bases to keep enemy snipers from damaging planes or other equipment from long distances.

“We’ll see. We haven’t had a really good sniper candidate in a couple of years,” Harmon said with an expression both hopeful and skeptical.

Next: Chapter 2: A Country He was Not Supposed to be In

© 2019 Dave Lager

The front of my Paris apartment

“My writing often contains souvenirs of the day – a song I heard, a bird I saw – which I then put into the novel.”

Amy Tan (1952- ) – Novelist

Way back when, I read several of Bob Ludlum’s early thrillers. Almost always set in some exotic location, I remember being impressed by the often minute detail in his descriptions that nonetheless perfectly set the mood for the scene. I used to wonder if he spent hours on end wandering the streets and back alleys of Prague or Istanbul or Shanghai gathering these impressions, maybe jotting them down in a notebook (this was pre computer days) to be pulled out later when needed. And I used to smile at the idea that somewhere along the way some unsuspecting Ludlum fan would come across one of these descriptions in a book he was reading and suddenly exclaim, “Oh my god, he just described the front of my apartment building in Paris.”

Sniper’s Day

He had many names…

Wade Meese was his birth name …

He was known as Natty among the fraternity of military snipers, after the famous frontier sharpshooter, Natty Bumpo.

Never There was his secret CIA codename, because on his clandestine missions into the wild Hindu Kush he was officially “never there.”

And he was Skassa – “ghost” – to the Taliban-sponsored drug smugglers that were his targets along the ancient Silk Road, because they never knew when or where one of his deadly .50 caliber bullets would find them.

His most grave “mission” though would not be in rugged Afghanistan, but a sniper vs. sniper dual with a SWAT Team’s designated marksman named R. Delahanty on the shores of the Mississippi River in rural Iowa.

Next: Sniper’s Day Chapter 1

© 2019 Dave Lager

As in…

“Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.”

Aldous Huxley (1894-1965) – Novelist, philosopher

…trying to make some sense out of those experiences for myself and others through writing.

Sniper’s Day: An introduction

Early last year I shared a quote from James Michener – famous or infamous, depending on how you look at it, for his massive tomes – that very much resonated with me. He said, “Whenever I start a book, I swear it’s going to be a short one. But then it’s, ‘Who was his grandfather? And how did he get there in the first place? And what kind of animals is he chasing?’”

That’s exactly what happened to me with the “Story of Neshnala” series of posts in my blog last year that had begun as an intended half-dozen entries and grew to twenty-seven by the time I was done.

This time it was what started out as a three or maybe four chapter “cop incident” in the fourth Ro Delahanty novel, “Twists and Turns,” that I am currently drafting. It was going to be a shootout with a rogue ex-military sniper involving Ro after she becomes the designated marksman for a new multi-county Joint SWAT unit. My original intent was that it would be told entirely from Ro’s point of view in “Twists.”

But then, a la Michener, the questions began: But what kind of background would the sniper have? What led him to become a sniper in the first place? Why would this former military sniper go rogue? Was it just plain blood lust or did he miss “the game”? What would their encounter be like? What kind of chess-like moves would an experienced sniper use and what counter moves might a rookie sniper like Ro respond with? Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could tell the story from each of their respective points of view?

But trying to do that within the pages of “Twists” would mean the sniper story would virtually take over, making “Twists” into a very different book than I wanted it to be… So, the idea was planted and then grew and grew…

Ro’s point of view account of the sniper shootout will still consist of several chapters in “Twists and Turns.”

But his story – the sniper’s story – has turned into a thirty-nine chapter, nearly forty-thousand-word novella; what I now think of as a “companion” novella to “Twists” that I’m calling “Sniper’s Day.”

I hope – he said with fingers crossed – that “Twists” will be ready for publication roughly a year from now. At this point I’m not sure whether “Twists” and “Sniper’s Day” will be issued simultaneously as two separate books, or I will publish them together as a single book, “Twists” as the main book, “Sniper” as a bonus novella.

However, I like the “Sniper” story and don’t really want to sit on it for a year, maybe more, so starting next week I will share “Sniper’s Day” with you one chapter at a time. Hey, way back when it was common for magazines to serialize a novel a chapter at a time, wasn’t it? And a blog is sort of like an online magazine, isn’t it?

Think of yourselves as my beta readers of “Sniper’s Day.”

Next: “Sniper’s Day” cover and cover blurb

© 2019 Dave Lager

A little mad?

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”

Andre Gide (1869-1951) – Novelist, essayist, dramatist, Nobel laureate

I guess that makes all of us writers a little mad…

Settings #23 – The Twins killer condo in downtown Chicago

This is the final post in the Settings Series, not because I saved the best for last, but more like because this is the most difficult one to write. Certainly, the description of The Twins condo is quite straightforward, that’s not the problem. Rather it is explaining how that setting fits into the Ro saga.

The Twins are not even introduced until the second Ro novel, “The Celtic Riddle,” and then it is only in a few paragraphs of flashback. They are not mentioned at all in the third book, “Losses,” but make their reappearance in the fourth book, “Twists and Turns,” and will be featured prominently in that and subsequent books as I am now envisioning them.

Even though it would seem they have only a passing appearance in the first few books, the fact is they are a constant presence, not like a ghost, but more like what at first would seem to have been a forgettable routine life incident, but that later proves to have a lingering if unseen influence on Ro. I know I’m being more than a little cryptic here, but this is a case where I feel like I need to walk a tightrope between talking about them, but at the same time not revealing too much (spoiler alert).

Ro was introduced to The Twins in the fall of 2000, when she was an eighteen-year old freshman at Mississippi Valley Community College over in Grand Island on the Illinois side. Ro goes to visit her best friend, Atti Mehra, who is in the computer graphics program at Columbia College in Chicago. Atti sets-up a double date with these two rich guys known as The Twins, not because they are related but because they do everything together.

This is during what Ro later comes to think of as her Year on the Wild Side, when she explores partying and sex. Knowing her friend’s liberated attitudes, especially about sex, Ro assumes she’ll be expected to sleep with her date, which she kind looks forward to, broadening her sexual experience and so forth. Which literally turns out to be the case, as she and Atti switch beds and partners in the middle of the night. She even returns the following spring for a second encounter with The Twins.

The Twins’ real names are Tag Halvorson and Luke Comadai; both are independently wealthy and are big-time players in the party scene around Chicago. Their “killer” two-bedroom, luxury condominium is on an upper floor of a high rise on East Randolph St., looking down over Grant Park – when Ro visits for the first time they are watching the construction of what will later become Chicago’s Millennium Park – the lakefront is to the left and the Michigan Avenue skyline is on the right.

(The tall center building in the photo above is the Aon Tower; Tag’s and Luke’s condo is on an upper floor of the high-rise two buildings to the right.)

Although the condominium has a first-class kitchen – as well as an impressive wine cabinet – neither of the Twins cooks, so if they are having dinner guests of any kind they have a list of private chefs who they call to come over to cook for them; most of the time, though, they eat out at restaurants, rarely just the two of them.

Next to the kitchen is a large, casually furnished living room with sliding glass doors leading to a balcony and the spectacular view of the harbor, Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue.

Tag and Luke each have their own master bedroom suite on opposite sides of the kitchen-living room, each with a king size bed, a hot tub, its own bathroom and floor-to-ceiling views.

Of course, the young and still relatively naïve eighteen-year old Ro Delahanty was awe-struck by the understated opulence of The Twins ultimate bachelor’s seduction pad and their casual attitudes about spending money, but the recollection of her visit would linger and slowly take on significance over time because of how wonderful a lover Tag Halvorson had been. While all sorts of life circumstances would get in the way, it would be five years before Ro and Tag reconnect in “Twists and Turns.”

Next: I will be introducing “Sniper’s Day,” a novella.

© 2019 Dave Lager

I thought my pencil could compete with a baseball mitt

“Writers, particularly poets, always feel exiled in some way – people who don’t exactly feel at home, so they try to find a home in language.”

Natasha Trethewey (1966- ) – Two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner

It’s funny, the snippets of memory we hold onto that later prove to be trenchant about who we would become. I was in junior high school, having just gotten turned on to writing. My uncle and his two sons came to visit. The two boys spent much of the afternoon in the backyard playing catch – they never went anywhere without their ball gloves. While I was invited to join them, the problem was I didn’t even own a baseball mitt. Instead, I spent most of the afternoon in my room writing a short science fiction scene that I wanted to read to my uncle because that is what I thought I was good at and could therefore successfully compete with my cousins. As I recall, my uncle was gracious enough to listen, but even as a kid I recognized his body language was saying he was only listening out of courtesy, not because he was at all impressed.

Hmm, maybe I’m still trying to impress that uncle with my computer keyboard…

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