Today I am going to kill a man in cold blood.
The thought felt wrong in Jason Kromer’s mind, like a rock in his boot.
He watched the thick Indonesian jungle glide by the side of the Mark V Special Operations Craft as it purred upstream toward the insertion zone. Gasoline and engine exhaust mixed with the stink of the river mud churned up beneath them. Jason’s fingers slid down the smooth barrel of the sniper rifle in his lap. It had a camouflage polymer stock. Perfect for killing from a distance and from hiding.
Jason could see Lieutenant Stemper forward, in the boat’s cabin, talking on the satellite radio. He paused from penciling coordinates and glanced back at Jason, his sun-bleached eyebrows bunched. Then he turned away and signed off. Stemper called Doug “Chimp” Bigelow, Jason’s spotter in the sniper team, and Tom Sikes, First Squad’s radio man, over to him, and the three of them walked aft to Jason.
Jason felt like standing and saluting, despite all his years of SEAL conditioning against the trappings of traditional military protocol. He managed to restrain himself.
“Well, it’s confirmed, you lucky dogs,” Stemper said. “Looks like we’re going to get ourselves some real action today, after all.”
Bigelow’s wide face and prominent ears turned to Jason and Sikes and then back to Stemper. “Hoo-yah, baby.” He shook Jason’s shoulder until they were both grinning like idiots. “Gonna party today!”
The other four members of First Squad, Foxtrot Platoon, SEAL Team Three scooted into earshot. The boat’s crewmen were close, too, but managed to at least appear not to be eavesdropping.
“What’s the op, sir?” Jason asked.
“Target of opportunity,” Stemper said. “Intel boys have been flying one of them remote model airplane drones right around here, and they think they got themselves a real bad boy. Back in—” He noticed the others crowding around and gestured to Jason, Bigelow, and Sikes. “You boys mind if they listen in?”
“No problem, sir,” Sikes said.
“All right, then, gather ’round, children, and I’ll tell you a bedtime story.”
The SEALs came forward, along with members of the boat’s crew. A few of the SEALs grinned enviously at Jason and Bigelow and Sikes.
“As you boys remember,” Stemper said, “back in the early nineties there was some really bad action over in East Timor, just a few hundred miles that way.” He pointed southeast. “Massacres, soldiers firing on peaceful demonstrators, lots of rapes. All that. Things have pretty much died down thanks to us being here, among other things. But there’s still bad blood. Lots of the military thugs behind those crimes were never caught.
“Well, the intel boys think they’ve located one of the worst. Muslim extremist militiaman named Amien Dewantoro. One of the leading triggermen behind the Dili massacre. As I was telling our lucky fire team here, one of those radio control recon drones has pinpointed Dewantoro right here in our backyard. Local informants tipped intel off that he was coming out of hiding to see the family. The locals don’t think the target will stay put for more than a few hours, so it’s up to us four to go in and take him out.”
Jason, Bigelow, and Sikes accepted the hand slaps and mock punches from the team.
“Now you see why I always make you two lug that Remington and spotter scope wherever we go, don’t you, boys?” Stemper said to Jason and Bigelow.
“You never know when you’re going to get asked to the dance.” Stemper turned to the group. “Kromer and Chimp Bigelow will be the sniper pair; Sikes will be handler for the guide; and I’ll go to be sure everybody keeps their heads down.”
He handed a color printout to Jason. It was a blurry photo of a brown-skinned militiaman holding his Russian-made assault rifle over his head in victory. “Here’s our guy. You boys take a good look at that face because we’ll have to ID him in the field. Kromer, I want you to hang on to that for the op. All right, the rest of you apes clear outta here. Everything else is just for my sweethearts.”
The group dispersed.
Jason stared at the photo of the man he was going to kill. How many times he’d longed for an op like this. But now…?
Stemper brought his team of three close. “Here’s the deal, boys: This ain’t just your usual assassination.”
Jason leaned forward with the others. Stemper was barely whispering.
“See, we’re not supposed to be conducting any combat activities,” Stemper. “Just little recon patrols like we did today. But…”
He looked over his shoulder, as if one of the river crocodiles might’ve slithered onto the deck.
“But, you see, the East Timor honchos want this guy bad. And it seems that Washington wants to do them a favor.” He looked intently at each one of them. “So, no mistakes.”
Jason tried to read Stemper’s expression. “Are you telling us what I think you’re telling us?”
Bigelow looked at Jason. “You ever been on a black op before, Jase?”
“No, I haven’t, Chimp. Have you, Sikes?”
“Not unless you’re referring to my date last month with Miss Ophelia Johnson.”
They traded high-fives. Jason and Bigelow did the hand jive handshake they’d worked out in BUD/S training.
“Yeah, yeah,” Stemper said, “you think it’s a good thing. But I’m here to tell you it ain’t all that great. We’ll never be able to tell anyone about it. We’ll never win a medal for it. And…and…if we get into trouble out there, we’re pretty much on our own. The Navy’s not going to scramble an F-18 to save our necks, and I guarantee the Army’s not going to flush an Apache to give close cover, not for a mission that isn’t supposed to be happening. You understand me?”
“Gosh, sir,” Bigelow said, “when you talk like that I get all excited.”
“Well, stow it, mister. I want you sharper than my ex-wife’s tongue when we get off this boat.” Stemper waved a mosquito from his ear and took a notepad out of his chest pocket. “Here’s our GPS coordinates. Get out your maps. We’re putting in where the local guide is. That’s about fifteen minutes away, so listen up.”
Five minutes later the briefing was over and Stemper moved forward in the boat.
Sikes followed him. “I’m not too sure about your sniper team, Lieutenant,” he said in a faux whisper that was loud enough for the long-legged waterbird wading near the shoreline to hear.
“What are you talking about, Sikes?”
“Well, just look at them. Neither one’s in his ghillie suit. They don’t have a really long-range rifle between them. And Bigelow’s got those big ol’ flappy ears. I’m just afraid they’re not up to the job.”
“Well, what would you suggest, Sikes?” Stemper said.
“I don’t know, sir. I was thinking we’d have a better chance of operational success if we gave the sniper rifle to those orangutans we saw this morning.”
That brought a chorus of simian sound effects from the peanut gallery.
“Plus,” Sikes said, all humor gone from his voice, “I just don’t think Kromer has the chutzpa to pull the trigger. Not with his WWJD bracelet on and all.”
Instantly the appraising look returned to Stemper’s eyes as he looked at Jason.
Jason felt his face flushing.
Finally Stemper slapped Sikes on the back of the head. “You just worry about getting yourself ready, Sikes.”
“All right, partner,” Bigelow said to Jason. “I’m gonna go prep. See you in ten.”
Jason nodded and turned his attention to the .308 Remington Model 700 rifle. His murder weapon. He could feel someone watching him. He looked up and caught the lieutenant’s gaze. Stemper motioned Jason over to him.
They leaned over the railing to look at the brown water moving by. “What about it, Kromer?”
“What about what, sir?”
“About what Sikes said. I’d be lying if I said that same thought hadn’t come to me. You’re a fantastic operator, Jason, one of my best. But when you got religion…I don’t know. I don’t have a problem with religion; don’t get me wrong. But if religion gets in—no, if anything gets in the way of a SEAL doing his job, I have to be concerned.” There was something like pleading in his eyes when he looked at Jason. “Do you know what I’m saying?”
Jason sighed then smiled. He watched as they passed some locals in a long, narrow canoe. “I do, sir. I’ve asked myself the same question a million times. When I was…you know—before—I never had a problem with any part of this job. I mean, ‘I’m sorry, pal, but you chose to work for the wrong government,.’ But now…I don’t know.
“It’s not just that I’m a Christian, though. That’s not it. I know tons of Christian guys who serve in combat roles and have reconciled their faith with their job. Captain Miller, who leads the military fellowship I go to back in San Diego, for one. I don’t mean to say that all Christians ought to get out of the military. No way. King David was a warrior and a godly man, for crying out loud. But I’m just wondering if it’s okay for me.”
Stemper rubbed the blond stubble on his chin. “I should send Lemke in your place. I’ll make Bigelow sniper.”
“No, sir, please don’t do that. I’m still a SEAL and I’m still the best you’ve got.”
“Kromer, you’ve just told me you’ve basically become a conscientious objector. How can I make you the sniper?”
“Please, sir, I want to be in on this,” Jason said. “I wouldn’t be in the Teams if I didn’t want to be where the action is.”
Stemper shook his head and smiled. “I know what you can do, Kromer, or I wouldn’t have picked you for my platoon. I want you on this mission, and if you want to go, then that settles it. But let me be clear that I’ve got you under evaluation. If I have the slightest doubt that this Jesus thing is interfering with the performance of your duties or endangering my men, you will be out of here so fast your luggage won’t catch up with you for a week. Understand?”
“All right, then,” he said, thumping Jason on the back. “Now get with your partner and come up with our e-and-e.”
“Aw, no, no, no,” Bigelow said, approaching. “Us four ain’t going to need no escape and evasion plan. We’re going to sneak in there like little rats, tap the bad guy, and be back here in time for tea. Aren’t we, shooter?”
“You got that right, spotter,” Jason said.
They banged forearms and pounded their chests. “Hoo-yah!”
“No way,” Stemper said. “I want an e-and-e and I want it now. Sikes, get over here for this. You, too, Lemke. You’re going to be in charge while I’m away.”
The boat’s skipper called back to Stemper. “We’re there in two, Lieutenant.”
“Affirmative, skipper, thank you.” He turned back to his sniper team. “Well?”
Jason pulled out his map. “Extraction point is here. If this point is compromised, we’ll head downstream and come to the beach in hundred yard increments at half hour intervals, on the hour and half hour. If it’s daylight, we’ll signal with our flashlights or mirrors. If it’s night, we’ll use red lenses.”
“Good,” Stemper said. “And the signal will be…?”
“Morse for ‘tea time,’ of course,” Bigelow said.
“Right. Got that, Lemke?”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
The boat decelerated. “We’ve spotted the local,” the skipper said. “Moving in now, sir.”
“Very good, skipper. Okay, little rats, checklist.” Stemper lifted his G3AR rifle. “Primary weapon?”
Jason showed his Remington. “Check.”
Bigelow showed his MP-5 submachine gun. “Check.”
Sikes showed his M16. “Check.”
They all displayed their 9mm SIG Sauer P226s. “Check.”
Bigelow held up the big lens. “Check.”
“Mirror, light, and lens?”
“Check, check, check.”
“Horse sense, SEAL pride, and dumb luck?”
“Very well,” Stemper said, “we are good to go. Now let’s get out there and make the Navy proud.”
“Lemke, hang around here for when we get hungry for tea and crumpets.”
“You got it,” Lemke said.
The young man waiting for them on shore wore black sneakers, rolled up gray pants, and a brown Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. He watched from beneath a brown corduroy hat, turned up in the front, as the boat approached. He looked nervous. His tongue appeared and disappeared between his lips like a pink cuckoo clock. He wore a purple fanny pack across his chest as if it were a belt of ammunition. His dark brown eyes peered into Jason’s with intensity. When the boat’s prow edged into the tall grass, he broke into a bright smile.
“Welcome, American navy! Come, come, quick.” He extended his hands to the SEALs.
All four men ignored his offer and vaulted onto the spongy turf.
Lemke tapped his radio headset. “Same protocol, Lieutenant? Wrestling?”
“That’s right,” Stemper said. “You’re Body and we’re Undertaker.”
“Aw, sir,” Bigelow said. “I wanted to us to be Stone Cold Austin this time.”
Stemper shook his head. “Very well. Lemke, you are Body and we are Stone Cold.”
The SEALs pushed the special operations craft back into the current and watched their only support float away.
“Come, come,” the guide said, smiling and nodding.
Bigelow followed him along the trail. Stemper and Sikes fell in behind. Jason brought up the rear, his sniper rifle in his hands.
Oh, Lord Jesus, today I am going to kill a man in cold blood.
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