What is it about a cafe…

“And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss.”

J. K. Rowling (1965- ) – The creator of Harry Potter

…or coffee house or watering hole that seems to have this attraction for writers? For me it’s my legal pad and a restaurant serving breakfast anytime, with a bottomless cup of coffee.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 9

9

You’re on Your Own Now

Thursday, July 7, 2005

The desperate need to pee is what woke him the next morning; it had been twenty-four hours since he’d relieved himself. He listened for a moment to the wind sighing among the rocks; tried reaching out with his feelings; nothing but emptiness.

But at this point, the slight risk of being shot by a hidden sniper was less troubling than wetting himself, so with an effort he pushed up on all fours. It turned out to be not that easy, partly because of the stiffness from being immobile for a full day, but also because there was thirty pounds of gravel and rock lying on top of him.

After emptying his bladder against the rocks at the back of the ledge he decided to assess: What he saw took his breath away.

The ledge continued back toward his old hide for only a hundred yards, then ceased to exist; the devastating effect of the rocket fire had come that close.

Moving to the lip of the ledge, he found he was at the top of the gulch, looking down at the U-curve of the trail twenty feet below. To his left a huge section of the trail was gone. Perhaps a man could scramble across the rubble, but no donkey laden with a hundred-plus pounds of contraband was going to traverse it.

Curving around to the right was the former fire zone. All that was left were a dozen dead donkeys lying on their sides, and a score of live animals milling around, tethered together, most still carrying their burdens, apparently waiting to be told what to do.

He sighed and shook his head, affected by the piteous sight.

Time to call in. It took a moment for the phone to find a satellite link.

“Natty?” The answering voice abrupt, as if he’d been waiting impatiently for the call. It was Irwin, a civilian they knew only by that name, not sure whether it was a first name or a last name, but who the military clearly deferred to. Meese’s sniper nickname was Natty, for Natty Bumpo, the frontiersman and sharpshooter from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels.

“You intact?” Irwin asked. It meant are you hurt in any way?

“I’m okay,” Meese said, “but the op is FUBAR.” Dating back to World War II, it was an acronym soldiers used for an operation gone wrong; it meant “fouled up beyond all recognition,” although more often than not the first word was replaced with a more gutter-level pejorative.

“We’d figured as much when you didn’t report in yesterday.”

Meese took several moments to deliver a sitrep, concluding with, “I’m gonna need an ex-fil plan.”

“No problem… Give us a few hours to find a way to haul you out of there.”

“Roger that.”

Then Irwin chuckled, “In a weird way, you oughta be complimented our Taliban friends expended so many resources to get you.”

“I guess so, sir.”

“Are you relatively sure you’re safe where you are?” Irwin asked. “I don’t want to move you unless I have to.”

“I think I’m okay here for now. But I only have a couple days food left, four if I stretch it.”

“Okay, stay put.” Irwin, who was always the epitome of the cool and collected professional, dropped his voice to a near whisper, “I know the op didn’t go according to plan… But what is it you Air Force guys say about a landing where you don’t crash? Any op you walk away from is a successful op… You did good… Hang in there, we’ll be back to you before noon tomorrow.” He rang off.

Meese turned to look for the backpack, thinking he now had time to prepare his last breakfast MRE – Meal Ready to Eat – after all, he had survived and so deserved a little celebration while waiting.

Except another task suddenly seemed more urgent to him.

He scrambled down to the trail, at the bottom drawing the Barretta just in case. He headed to the right, toward the donkeys, now looking at him expectantly. Using a Ka-Bar knife he first cut away their packs, immediately suspicious when many turned out to be much lighter than their bulk suggested. Checking, he found half were filled with plastic bubble-wrap; if any more proof was needed it had been a trap for his benefit, this was it.

He found the other bundles were packets of feed for the donkeys, which he slit open and scattered along the side of the trail. After freeing them from their harnesses and rope leads, he stepped back and announced to the animals, “Hey guys, that’s the best I can do to give you a chance to survive. You’re on your own now.”

It did not escape him that applied to his situation as well.

Next: A walk in the park

© 2019 Dave Lager

It’s so tempting…

“The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”

A.B. Yehoshua (1936- ) – Novelist

…to back into a story with some piece of what seems to be important background information but that doesn’t really move the plot along. The hard part is deciding what the specific first few words should be of an ACTION scene to use instead.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 8

8

Stealth and Evasion

Wednesday, July 6, and Thursday, July 7, 2005

Meese still didn’t move, knowing the best weapons now were hiding and patience.

His face buried behind the backpack, he frowned as the throb of the two helicopters didn’t change; they weren’t moving, weren’t returning to base… Maneuvering for another shot? Searching for the intruder? Had he been spotted running? Did they know he lived? Could infrared find him in the shallow hide? Would he soon feel the searing agony of a hail of machine gun bullets or the short-lived pain of another rocket blast obliterating his life?

After many moments the sound of the two helicopters seemed to shift, like they were exchanging position. Were they hovering? Were they dropping in fresh troops?

He waited, unmoving, for many minutes… Many minutes…

After what seemed like half an hour – although he hadn’t moved even enough to check his watch – there was the unmistakable crunching of boots on loose rocks and the sound of approaching voices. Apparently, they had scrambled up to the ledge to check if they’d gotten him or to flush him out if they hadn’t.

The voices moved closer. Although he did not speak Russian, it sure sounded like that language; but their tone was casual, not anxious or concerned, as if they were sure he was dead, as if this was just a formality, which meant they wouldn’t be looking that hard.

The volume and clarity suggested they were nearby, only twenty or thirty feet away. But what he didn’t know was a two-inch layer of dust and pebbles covered his body, making him indistinguishable from the mountainside, even masking any infrared signature.

He listened to the men moving around and what to him were unintelligible mutterings, but which had the tenor of bitching about the cold or that this was a waste of time. Minutes passed; eventually a barked command sounded as if it could mean something like “Let’s go” or “Move out.”

But… He had tried a dodge on them, so turnabout might be fair play. He didn’t trust them to be leaving… Hopefully they were.

The helicopters changed position but did not fade. Rather, he figured they were picking-up the remaining live soldiers and the bodies of those he’d killed. After what seemed like an hour, the two aircraft did move off, heading back upriver toward Lake Zorkul.

But it didn’t mean they hadn’t left a man or two – or for that matter, a fresh squad – behind, just in case their quarry wasn’t dead.

He waited… And waited… And was still…

He waited for the wind to talk to him, to share any warning sound not belonging to the desolate landscape – a movement, a muffled cough, a whispered word: Nothing.

The day dragged on, his senses focused, especially the sixth sense all soldiers who have survived a long time in combat seem to have, that danger was near: Nothing.

Sometime in the late afternoon or early evening he fell asleep. When he woke-up it was well after dark.

He was hungry; he hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday morning – fourteen, sixteen hours ago?

But darkness didn’t mean safety. There could be a sniper with a night vision scope waiting for him to reveal himself. Even if there wasn’t, stumbling around in the darkness when there were plenty of dangerous natural hazards was not smart.

So, with slow and painstaking movements so as not to disturb any cover, he slid his hand up to the parka’s chest pocket where he’d stowed what was officially called a Soldier Fuel Bar, but what was more popularly known as a Hooah Bar, withdrew it and moved it up to his mouth.

Tearing it open with his teeth, he pushed the wrapper aside and took a bite from the corner. It was raspberry flavor, his least favorite, but let it sit there anyway, as this time it was as delicious as any steak dinner.

The food helped him get his bearings. Okay, the situation was dire, but not hopeless; he would not allow himself to go there. Until you are dead, there is always a chance, even if a slim one.

He spent many moments assessing: Two days of rations left, four if stretched. That wasn’t good; no matter what kind of ex-filtration plan they might come up with, it would likely involve more days than that.

The Barrett was gone, but its cumbersome four-foot length and heavy thirty-pound weight would have been more a hindrance than a help anyway. His strategy now had to be stealth and evasion, avoiding any confrontation with hostile forces if possible. He did have a Berretta nine-millimeter if shooting was inescapable.

He decided to remain in the hide; it had probably saved his life so far. Maybe the mountain was bringing a bit of good luck after all.

In the morning, if there didn’t seem to be any danger waiting, he would break cover, assess the surroundings and use the sat phone to call in for an evac plan.

He fell asleep fantasizing about a cup of hot chocolate; it – along with peanut butter – had always been his comfort food of choice as a kid, only nowadays he preferred the hot chocolate “fortified” with a shot of bourbon.

Next: You’re on your own now

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 7

7

Escape

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Beginning to think seriously about cutting and running, the east wind blowing down the Pamir Valley “talked” to him with a faint thrumming sound. He knew immediately it was a helicopter, probably an MI-24, what the Americans called a Hind, one of the world’s deadliest aircraft, likely from the Russian border base at the far end of Lake Zorkul.

So that’s why they wanted to keep me pinned down!

If there was any chance of prevailing against the remaining shooters – there was now no doubt these were Russian troops, maybe special forces – he had zero option against a Hind’s twin Gatling guns and racks of deadly rockets.

Jesus Christ, these bastards really do want me. A frightening thought, yet one offering at least a brief sense of satisfaction at being such a thorn in their side.

But it meant it was time to get the hell out, something a sniper finds hard to do. He put into motion his last resort exit gambit.

Pushing the gun further out from between the rocks – which is, of course, a big no-no for snipers; you never expose your weapon! – he squeezed off the last few rounds in the magazine in quick succession, hoping to give the enemy the impression he’d become desperate, panicked. A hail of return fire pinged off the rocks all around, the multiple echoes against the valley walls making it sound like a fierce firefight.

A couple seconds later he pushed the Barrett over the edge, followed by his Kevlar helmet, both clattering on the rocks as they bounced down into the gulch. Then he squeezed six-ounces of fake blood from a miniature version of a ketchup bottle along the edge of the gulch, leaving a visible stain.

The hope was the shooters might hesitate, wonder, be confused: Did we get him?

In the thirty seconds it took to execute the deception, the thwap-thwap of the helicopters – helicopters? Yes, it was now clear there were two – drew closer. He had at best three, or if lucky four minutes before they were on him.

Rolling to the back of the ledge, he retrieved his backpack and in a crouched position sprinted north, toward the head of the gulch, away from the river and the helicopters.

This is where the opponent’s up-angle position was an advantage; he was counting on them not being able to see him behind the lip of the ledge. His hopes were lifted when shots continued to ping off the rocks near where he had been hiding only a moment ago. He ran as fast as he could being careful not to stumble – a twisted ankle now would be almost as bad as his head being taken off by one of the shooters.

The hide had been at the south end of the ledge, the Pamir River gorge immediately to the left. The ledge, roughly thirty feet wide, ran for several hundred yards away from the river, narrowing at the north end until it dead ended against the mountainside. But it was the only available avenue to easily and quickly put as much distance as possible between himself and his former position without being exposed.

The seconds slipped into a couple of minutes; he knew he was eating up space; there was a glimmer of hope. As he ran, he kept an eye out for possible cover to dive into or hunker down behind; he would need it soon.

The distance grew; close to four-hundred yards now…

But sooner than expected the first giant helicopter emerged into the open, he could tell by the sudden roar of the copter’s big engine.

He didn’t pause to look back, though, hoping they would still be fixated on his former hide rather than checking several hundred yards up the ledge; maybe it would be enough.

At first, he was confused when the sound of the helicopter seemed to pass behind, moving further down the Pamir River valley. But when the engine pitch whined-up, it was clear they were just swinging around to fire on his presumed position from the front, rather than the side.

He was pretty sure they wouldn’t bother with the Gatling guns, why waste the ammunition? Instead, they would obliterate him by sending a couple of rockets screaming into the mountainside.

It turned out they’d done him a big favor, although they didn’t know it, with those extra few seconds to sprint another fifty yards.

But knowing time had run out, he dove into the only cover available, a shallow swale a dozen feet long and a couple of feet deep up against the mountainside.

He rolled onto his stomach and pushed the backpack above his head, between himself and the old hide, hoping it might be a protective substitute for the now missing Kevlar helmet.

He did not need to peek up to know what was happening. He heard four whooshing sounds followed almost immediately by four thunderous explosions so close together it was like one huge blast.

The ground shook under him. A hot pressure wave washed over him, nearly dislodging the heavy backpack. There was a deep grumble as a big chunk of the ledge slid down into the gorge.

He felt a hail of rocks raining down, like baseballs someone was throwing as hard as they could. He waited, expecting any moment for a watermelon-size chunk to crack his skull or smash a leg. If it was going to happen, the quickness of the first option was preferred.

Next: Stealth and Evasion

© 2019 Dave Lager

Why do we even need to defend civility?

“…(I)nstances where I don’t immediately agree that a word is harmful are the true test of my conviction (as a writer): It’s not up to me to ‘agree,’ but to listen.”

– Lilly Dancyger, from “The writer’s argument for political correctness,” June 2019 issue of The Writer magazine

Dancyger’s article talks about how writers need to be sensitive to a word’s meaning, not only in the context of their writing – for example, we want to share with our reader just the right nuance of description of a key scene – but how a word might have a certain negative connotation that, while we don’t necessarily see or agree with it, the reader or listener might.

While I found myself nodding and agreeing with what Dancyger was saying, at the same time, I found myself thinking, “Wait a minute: When did it become necessary to defend common decency and everyday civility from being sneered at as ‘political correctness,’ as if that had somehow become a dirty word?”

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 6

6

Ambush

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

He frowned, asking himself, What the hell are Russian soldiers disguised as ordinary Afghani smugglers doing out here?

Meese knew Tajikistan, once part of the Soviet Union, was now an independent nation. He also knew the Tajiks had “contracted” with the Russians – probably at Russian insistence – to still patrol their common border with Afghanistan.

The answer, of course, was obvious: Shit, they’re after me.

At first, he wanted to dismiss the idea. Why would the Russians commit a squad of men to aid the Afghanis, as there was little love lost between the two former enemies? Ah, but when a typical convoy carrying opium was worth tens of millions of dollars on the world market, and a bribe that might equal half-a-year’s pay for a Russian soldier was offered to let a caravan pass unmolested, or, in this case, eliminate a meddling American annoyance who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place… Well, it was an easy bargain to make.

The whole operation had been a trap, the realization prompting grudging respect for how effectively they’d pulled it off, had suckered the Americans with the prize of nearly three dozen donkeys loaded down with hundreds of pounds of drugs. While they may not have known exactly where the sniper would be, they had been sure he would be stalking them somewhere along the trail and were ready. And, yes, there was a bit of pride in they had decided he was such of a pain in the ass.

The few seconds of hesitation while he had worked this out had given the… They were no longer targets, but now serious adversaries… Time to retrieve their rifles and start firing. While the Druganov didn’t have quite have the range of a Barrett, in this situation it was certainly more effective than an AK. While their first few shots hit the cliff well below his position, they had clearly figured out roughly where he was and were much closer than they should have been.

But he was back in the hide, well-hidden, no barrel sticking out for them to spot, covered by a tarp with the dark brown, pale green and beige of the desert MARPAT (Marine Pattern) camouflage – what soldiers had nicknamed “coffee stain camo” – that blended almost perfectly with the mottled flanks of the mountain. Contrary to most people’s offhand impression, mountainsides are anything but a monotone gray, they have dark grays and light grays, blotches of tan and brown, smears of burnt orange and darkish green.

Meese was not at all rattled by the turn of events; quite the contrary. While he’d not had a problem taking down targets before, targets never considered as equals, this was exciting; a challenge; these were more worthy opponents.

He returned fire, but needed to be take more careful aim, as the enemy was now hunkered down, partially hidden behind the donkeys. While the poor animals were no match for the Barrett’s powerful slugs, it meant he had to use up more time between shots.

And, of course, their return fire was now zeroing in, hitting the rocks to his right and left and even above his head.

They traded shots, the reports echoing back and forth in the river gorge.

In the first few moments he took out three more of the eleven, but the remaining six proved harder to hit. For one, they would take a shot, briefly exposing themselves, but then roll to the right or left unpredictably, still hiding behind a donkey, so his aim had to be on the fly, reducing accuracy.

A sniper of Meese’s caliber is deadly accurate at stationary targets even at distances approaching a mile; but hitting a moving target at anything close to that distance is ten times more difficult because you need to anticipate where they will be several seconds after pulling the trigger.

The shooters who were left soon revealed their strategy: The two in the center alternately fired to keep him pinned down while the other four broke for cover – two each in opposite directions. He may have hit one on the fly, but wasn’t even sure of that, and knew he’d missed three shots at the others.

But now they had secure positions for themselves and were more sure of his, and so started methodically zeroing in. Slugs gouged chunks off the ledge only a few inches below and to the right or left. Still relatively secure from a direct hit, the bigger danger was being struck by a rock shard, even a slight wound could be serious, to say nothing of possibly losing an eye.

He’d already expended half of a second ten-round magazine. For a sniper, who’s whole ethos revolved around one-shot-one-kill, swapping out the first magazine and being half-way through a second was not a good thing. Needing to get into a third was unthinkable, since he only carried five ten-shot magazines in the first place.

This is turning into a class-A shit show, he thought.

And it wasn’t a fight he could win. They still had at least five good shooters to his one, and while confident he might get a couple more, it still left him in a hopeless situation.

Meese and his enemies exchanged fire, but with long pauses in between, as if they were waiting…for what?

Next: Escape

© 2019 Dave Lager

On taking advice

“Beware of advice – even this.”

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) – Poet, biographer

Another way of saying ultimately we have to follow our own counsel.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 5

5

Targets (Part One)

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

The first of the smugglers emerged around the mountain’s shoulder opposite his position a little past ten in the morning, about when expected, as a sat phone update yesterday morning placed them only seven miles to the west. The situation for him was ideal. The sun was still at his back; they would be looking into it. A brisk wind from the east had come up, which meant it could help rather than hinder his shot, and the converse for theirs.

The lead smuggler was wearing a short gray Russian military parka that had seen better days, the bottom of his loose-fitting perahan overshirt poking out below, and a decorated, flat-top pakol cap favored by leaders. His face was swathed in a scarf against the chilly east wind. It struck Meese he seemed a little tall for an Afghani.

Meese watched as three donkeys he was leading emerged into view, then counted as the rest of the caravan followed. There were others with Russian parkas, a couple with what looked like their coat’s heritage was with the American military, and at least one that might have once belonged to a mountain soldier from India; their heads were covered either with turbans or trapper-style cold weather caps. Like the leader, their faces were mostly hidden by scarfs.

It took nearly half an hour for all eleven men and their thirty-four donkeys to round the shoulder. But they were still mostly moving toward him in a straight line, having yet to turn the corner skirting the edge of the gulch. He figured it would take another half-hour to forty-five minutes.

He studied them. A few with faces swathed in scarves was not unusual; but all of them being so masked was curious. He also had the impression looking at their eyes they were all young, also a bit odd, as there were usually at least a couple of grizzled older men, the leaders.

Meese had been in Afghanistan for a hundred and nineteen weeks, the equivalent of three tours for most other soldiers. He had lost count of his kills, but knew it had to be somewhere above eighty, unconfirmed, of course, because he had no spotter or other friendly to witness for him.

When the slow-moving caravan had moved up the trail and was now stretched out across his field of vision something else suddenly struck him as off; no one had an AK-47 hooked over his shoulder or cradled in his arms. But he could see what appeared to be rifle barrels sticking up from the donkey’s loads; maybe this crew was too lazy to carry the nearly eight-pound weapon, preferring to let the donkey’s do the work.

He should have paid more attention to the little anomalies piling up with this group.

He waited. He was good at waiting. On one level he waited for them to move slightly past his position on the other side of the gulch so when they turned to see where the fire raining down on them was coming from, they would be looking directly into the sun. But he also waited to savor the…What? Not the adrenalin surge you might expect before going into battle, in fact, quite the opposite, he was looking for the calm, the peace that always settled on him from a complete confidence he was in total command of his target’s fate.

Which is how he thought of them: not as human beings, but simply as nameless, soulless targets. He was not shooting at people; it wasn’t a question of not allowing himself to think of them as people, the thought never even occurred to him. His job, his purpose, his mission, his reason for being here was to eliminate targets. In a way, the tiny figures reminded him of ducks crawling across the back of a shooting gallery booth at a carnival.

When the lead man reached ten yards short of a cover opportunity, and the last man had passed the rear cover spot, for some odd reason Meese reversed his planned procedure and sighted in on and squeezed his first shot off at the last man. The rifle made a deep, thud-like report and the built-in recoil absorption system meant all he felt was the kick equivalent of a twelve-gauge shotgun, even though the Barrett had many times more power.

Meese didn’t wait to see the man go down – there was no doubt in his mind he did – and instead swung the rifle a short arc to the right to bring it to bear on the lead man. He took the shot in less than three seconds but did linger long enough to see the man thrown forward, then stumble and pitch over the edge of the trail into the gulch.

Bringing the rifle back to his left, Meese expected to see the remaining men frozen in place, staring in his direction with expressions of surprise and fear, trying to figure out where the deadly slugs and following loud booms had come from.

But what he saw were not frightened smugglers, but men who had quickly moved around behind their donkeys and seemed to be working on something… Working to disengage their rifles from the side of the donkey pack where they had been hidden from view. Because as each man brought the weapon up, Meese recognized they were not AKs, but Russian Druganov sniper rifles, a weapon with fire power much closer to his own.

While it was possible one or two could acquire a Druganov on the black market, that all of them had the more powerful weapon said these were no ordinary smuggler types, these were trained men, probably Russian soldiers.

Next: Ambushed

© 2019 Dave Lager

Our path

“Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

Natalie Goldberg (1948- ) – Author, artist, Zen practitioner

The idea that we have paths to follow in life – we can, of course, choose to take them or, on the other hand, can ignore them and even refuse them – is a recurring theme in my Ro Delahanty books; perhaps that’s why this Goldberg quote struck me.

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