The scent of petrichor slowly permeated the air, until it was all CIA Special Operations Group (SOG) Paramilitary Operations Officer Woods could smell.
The spice that usually perfumed the Afghan marketplaces in Kabul slowly receded as rain began to hammer the streets, turning the ground into dark, muddy slush that stuck to boots and the hems of coarse hessian trousers.
Woods aimed his gaze upwards, staring up the street, that stretched towards the Hindu Kush mountains that dominated the landscape of the capital city.
In the distance, tiny dots littered the sky, kites being flown by children, as they weaved their creations in deadly dances, mock combat being practised by skilled hands.
Woods watched as a scarlet kite smashed into a green one, crumpling the frame, noting the strong gust of wind that discarded the corpse of the green kite further away than the children expected.
Looking down at the weathered crimson carpet, he picked up the small tea cup and tossed back the amber tea, savouring the slightly spicy, sweet taste of Afghan chai, before standing up and adjusting his colourful kufi cap.
Brushing down his Perahan tunban tunic, and buttoning up his sleeveless vest, Woods ambled slowly over to the reception desk and handed over a few afghani into the tin bowl.
The elderly shopkeeper smiled and nodded his head in thanks at Woods, who nodded back and wandered back onto the streets of Kabul, to resume his search for the missing hostage.
Making his way through the people of Kabul, Woods ducked and weaved past hundreds of small minivans and bicycles, the endless cacophony of traffic adding to the chaos of colours, smells and wares on display. The Market Sediq Omar was always busy, with hundreds of goods on display, piled together unceremoniously and without any true reason or logic behind them.
It was atypical of bazaar experiences, claustrophobic, dense, overwhelming and fun. Merchants would rapid-fire Pashto at anyone who would walk by, with a particularly bothersome salesman insisting that Woods examine his electronics.
Woods, politely extricating himself with a firm grasp on the hand that rested on his shoulder, demurred politely in quiet Pashto, before silently disappearing into the crowd.
Within the tall structure that housed multiple levels of residents, the marketplace itself dominated the courtyard of the apartment complex, a hotbed of activity, both illicit and legal.
Woods had been frequenting this market for the past month, his Taliban source, a certain “spice” merchant whose product had more white than any other colour, a regular at this bazaar. This was the cost of war, turning an blind eye to certain dealings on the streets to fight more effectively in the mountains.
However, today there were going to be no such appearance. The weather was only going to worsen, as the rain would intensify and turn to snow soon.
Gently pushing a tall man out of the way, Woods made his way into the only functioning lift and pressed a button to reach the 4th floor. Silence filled the empty chamber as the doors creaked shut, unconvincingly.
As the elevator groaned slowly upwards, Woods lifted up his vest and checked through a a slit in his tunban tunic, that he could still access his trusty Glock 19 in its appendix carry holster. Reassured by the weight of the cold steel, he counted down the seconds until the elevator would reach the 4th floor, the average time being around 40 seconds.
At 38 seconds, the doors rasped open, and Woods sidled out, and made his way around to room 417, looking down and admiring the view of the marketplace below, as noise and the smell of spice and nuts wafted upwards to the sky.
Taking out a cheap key, he slid it into the wooden door, and carefully scanned the spartan apartment, before locking the door behind him.
It was a bold decision to have a hideout, right atop the market where all sorts did business, but the risk had paid off for the past couple of months.
Actionable intel was genuinely rare to receive, and Woods had managed to score 3 crucial pieces of intel that led to boots on the grounds and bodies underneath the snow. 3 vital pieces of the puzzle in less than 6 months.
A high risk, high reward play. So, in spite of the danger, Woods chose to stay and maintain this hideout.
Looking up at the door, he slid a deadbolt into place and undid the hooks on his appendix holster and placed it on a table, where a dirty rag that smelled of oil and grease reminded him of his duties.
Walking over to his bed, he reached underneath and pulled out a military laptop, encased in ballistic padding and with a small secure aerial that allowed encrypted access to the internet.
Typing in a standard report, effectively stating that he saw nothing of note today, Woods spent a moment browsing area reports, and noted that this week was slow and quiet. Winter was like that.
Sighing quietly, he closed the laptop shut and placed it underneath his bed, before reaching into a large duffel bag and extracting his pistol calibre carbine (PCC), a venerable MP5A5 with a sling, a torch and Aimpoint Micro T-2 optic.
Despite its Cold War status and age in comparison to better and more advanced weaponry, Woods still enjoyed using the MP5. Its’ legendary status, sealed with his original unit, the 22nd SAS, had been proven time and time again, with its remarkable reliability, accuracy and recoil impulse.
It also helped that the ammunition that serviced the weapon was the same for his Glock 19, thus ensuring lower cost and more ammunition carried if there was ever a firefight.
Picking up the dirty rag, Woods stripped the MP5, carefully putting aside the T-2 optic, the Surefire torch and the sling in neat corners, before taking a screw driver and undoing the weapon. With a tiny plastic bottle of oil, he cleaned the weapon methodically, and caressed each part with care.
Once every part was well greased, he swiftly reassembled the weapon and leaving the magazine out, flicked the ambidextrous safety to semi and aimed the tiny red dot at a circle on the wall.
Hearing the satisfying click, he flicked down the safety, pulled back the charging handle and inserted a skinny magazine, before slapping the handle forward, allowing it to chamber a round.
Putting the MP5 aside, Woods examined his Glock 19 and had just tucked his weapons away, when he heard a knock on the door and his mobile phone buzz.
Staring at the screen, he frowned and moved to the door, where he saw a man dressed similarly to him, nervously scanning the area, his hands falling back his side, as he finished knocking.
Woods opened the door, his right hand concealing the Glock behind his leg and felt his eyes widen in surprise.
Khalid. This is urgent. You’ve been reassigned. We need to go now.
Samir, Wood’s local runner in Afghanistan stepped inside the room and handed him a burner phone. A heavyset man, with an impressive beard and dark enigmatic eyes, Samir was one of the many locals that helped Officers like Woods gather extra intelligence, in exchange for money or extradition to the States.
Samir, was one of the very first that had signed up to the CIA program, and was extraordinarily good at his job, despite the dangers and lack of training. For him to break cover and contact Woods in this manner, meant that this was serious.
Woods flipped the phone case open and keyed in the number his handler had reserved for emergencies. After a brief pause, a female voice came over the teeny speaker.
Woods. This is full priority situation. We’re pulling you out and reassigning you to Europe. More details to follow. Samir will organise extract and sanitation. This is a FSA (Foreign Security Assessment) priority level 5.
Understood. said Woods as he heard the phone click and watched as the screen self-destructed into darkness.
Give me five Samir.
Samir nodded and waited by the door, nervous. He looked out the tiny keyhole and noted that the weather had begun to worsen. Snow was now drifting lazily across the sky and the temperature was dropping further and further. Samir shivered involuntarily.
Taking out a large carry bag, Woods efficiently shoved the laptop, his MP5, and spare surveillance equipment in, before zipping it tight. A well-rehearsed move, all traces of espionage equipment was gone in 2 minutes. Woods spent the last 3 minutes checking over his bed, desk for anything he might have dropped or any incriminating evidence.
Pleased, he shouldered the heavy bag and walked over to Samir. The two left in silence, threading their way through the market that was closing up, before hopping into a decrepit white Toyota Corolla. As Samir pulled away into the traffic, Woods took a look back at the place that had served as home for a while.
As he did so, he noted a large Toyota HiLux Ute also start up and begin to follow in the direction they were headed.
Scowling, Woods said quietly. We got company.
Samir looked in the mirror and felt the blood drain from his face.
I’m sorry Khalid. They must have followed me.
It’s alright Samir. Punch it. We can make it to airport. Go, go.
Samir nodded grimly and put his foot down, the Corolla jerking forward instantly and nearly hitting a donkey as it barrelled down the tight roads of Kabul. Despite its’ appearance, the car was actually well-maintained and had significant upgrades for emergencies such as the one Woods and Samir found themselves in.
Snow continued to pound the windshield. Their breathing fogged the glass and Woods began a breathing exercise, designed to expel stress.
With a mixture of tight winding roads and super-highways, Kabul’s landscape was surprisingly modern, with many colourful buildings that were undergoing restoration and dozens upon dozens of stalls and vendors lining the streets, beside colourful flags and umbrellas.
To get to safety, Samir merely had to reach a super-highway and begin high-tailing down the long stretch of road for 5 kilometres, before they could be in the safe haven of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
A simple task, but then the devil was in the details regarding execution.
Samir yanked on the handbrake, as he drifted the small car around a corner, nearly clipping an old woman, who ignored the reckless driving and continued her way down the alleyway. Even when the HiLux’s side mirror nearly hit her arm as it blasted after the Corolla, the Afghan native merely gave a fatalistic shrug and adjusted the basket of laundry she carried on her hip.
Woods kept his right arm outstretched on the dashboard, securing himself as the Corolla harshly jumped a small hump, and kept an eye on the Ute, who he now noted had 2 individuals inside, with one man gripping an Uzi submachine gun and the other manically concentrating on the chase.
Hold on Khalid! yelled Samir, as he ignored the stop sign at the exit of the road and cut in front of a truck, whose horn blasted angrily.
The Corolla skidded across the highway, smoke shooting from the tyres and brakes squealing in a high pitched whine.
Woods and Samir yelled in unison, as the car came sliding towards a minivan, and they collided with a sickening crunch. Both cars reeled in the impact, shattering the window and causing Samir’s head to lurch into the side of the minivan, effectively knocking him out.
Woods, groaned and looked out his window and saw the HiLux coming out of the alleyway. His eyes narrowing in clinical concentration, Woods felt his hands yank out the Glock 19 and he aimed the pistol at the large front right tyre and pulled the trigger rapidly.
The gunfire immediately sent the experienced people of Afghanistan scrambling for cover, those who had gotten out of their cars to help, running back and taking cover immediately, their hands over their heads.
The HiLux drove on, intent on ramming the Corolla. However the driver felt pressure immediately slacken on his front tyre and to his shock, the car lurched to the right and narrowly missed the stricken Corollla. Realising his mistake, the driver tried to brake, but the concrete barrier that separated the two sides of the highway was now too close.
The HiLux smashed into the barrier and both men felt their bodies lurch forward and brought to an immediate stop, the pressure of their seat-belts smashing into their chest, and their heads experiencing extreme whiplash.
Both men vainly attempted to get out, but couldn’t, their hands unable to depress the button for the seatbelt. The driver opened his eyes blearily, and saw the damaged Corolla drive away, before blacking out.
Woods kept his foot down, the Corolla’s engine ticking over angrily, as he sped down the highway and towards the airport. He looked at Samir, whose head had ceased bleeding, after Woods had dug out his first aid kit and applied battlefield superglue to the gash on his head. It had taken him considerable strength to move Samir from the driver seat and to the back, his eyes wandering over the HiLux constantly but manage it he did.
Minutes later, Woods pulled up to the NATO RSM (Resolute Support Mission, the successor the ISAF in Afghanistan) Base at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, digging out his ID card and allowing the U.S. Marine on guard to call for a medic for Samir.
Squeezing Samir’s shoulder, he allowed the paramedics take him away. As they wheeled Samir away on a gurney, a young Lieutenant came running up to him, and saluted, her hot breath misting the cold air.
Sir! If you would follow me to the command hub.
Woods nodded and shouldered his bag, following the Lieutenant through the maze of temporary buildings and barracks, refamiliarising himself with the layout of the base. It had been over 4 months since he had last set foot here, his usual stop being Bagram Airfield.
Walking past the mess hall and a platoon of Marines going about their daily exercises, Woods could hear snippets of German, Italian and English accents mesh together, through the door, as men and women filed in and out of the hall. There was even a small hint of Australian, his native tongue, rising above the usual chatter.
The Lieutenant knocked on the door of the command hub and in entered Woods, placing his large duffel bag near the entrance of the door. As his eyes adjusted to the perpetual darkness of the room, Woods noted the 3 men in uniform and a singular woman in civilian garb standing around, talking to each other animatedly.
His CIA handler, an attractive redhead by the name of Jessica, stared at him, initially unsure who the bearded, rough looking Afghan man standing before her was, before walking over and giving him a friendly hug.
Gabriel. I didn’t recognise you for a second there.
Woods gave an ironic smile.
Means the Khalid disguise worked. Good to see you too Jess. Why was my extraction hot?
It wasn’t meant to be that way. But somehow Samir was compromised. I’m not sure how. We’re looking into it though. They were following him, and it was poor timing that we asked him to get you out as well.
Who is ‘they’?
Our old friends. The Haqqani.
Jess noted his gesture and tried to reassure him. Samir will be on the first flight State-side. We own him that much. Anyway, I got to talk to your about your reassignment. Don’t worry about those boys over there.
Jess gestured to the 3 men in uniform who were looking over at them, talking quietly to each other. I’ll handle the Colonel. He’s just upset about losing you, due to the quality of intel you’ve provided for RSM this rotation. However, I’ve already stressed to him about the FSA.
Jess walked over to her station, and bought up a PDF file.
I’ll be uploading this onto a tablet soon. It’ll explain why you’re being reassigned. A C-17 Globemaster is about to finish loading up its supply run. That’s your flight out of this shithole.
You’ll be flying to Germany, where you’ll be provided gear and coordinates for a safehouse in London. We want you in as deep cover, thus no direct flight to London, I’m afraid. It’ll be a road-trip for you.
From there, you’ll have to do some detective work straight away to find Hassan Malik, code-named SPHINX. A local contact from SIS will link up and you’ll get more info then.
You can read more about Sphinx in the brief. For now, Langley just want close surveillance. Good luck Gabriel. I’m staying here to monitor more movement, so I won’t be joining you.
Woods nodded and took the military tablet from her station before shaking her hand warmly. Jess hugged him in return and whispered “Good luck.” Ignoring the military men in uniform, Gabriel grabbed his bag and went in search of the nearest bathroom and a razor. It was time to remove the beard, and look human again.
10 minutes later, Woods stared at his reflection in the mirror.
At a rugged 31 years of age, Woods’ face was unconventionally attractive, with piercing green eyes and dark hair. His skin was well-tanned, and creased, an unfortunate side effect of his job, a feature that would make him stand out in a much paler Europe. His facial hair was shadowy, despite his best efforts with a razor to grant him a clean-shaven look. He had even given himself a rudimentary haircut, lopping long locks of his obsidian black hair off, to resemble that of a crew cut.
His flawless ability to navigate the many dialects of Afghanistan had made him a natural choice for the region, his features almost indistinguishable from a local, once a thick beard was developed. To pull him out, and compromise his cover, meant that this wasn’t an ordinary operation.
Shrugging to himself, he slipped into clean civilian clothes that Jess had provided him; a white henley shirt, a thick navy woollen jumper, a grey waterproof jacket and black sturdy jeans to match the combat boots. Shouldering his bag again, Woods looked at the giant hulking military plane that was to take him to Germany.
At a monstrous 53 metres in length, with a wingspan of 51 metres, the dark matte grey plane was as long as it was wide, capable of accommodating a 69 ton M1 Abrams tank, and nearly 85 tons of weight. A true behemoth of the sky, the C-17 Globemaster earned every inch of its name.
This particular airplane housed a pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, IED damage evident on their exterior, no doubt being shipped back State-side for extensive repairs. Dozens upon dozens of palleted cargo covered in camouflage netting lined the hull of the Globemaster and an U.S. Air Force loadmaster waved him onboard, handing him a pair of headphones.
Nodding gratefully, Woods made a motion about eating and the loadmaster nodded and shouted:
Over there! Grab yourself some MREs! I’ve already placed a hammock for ya by the mess!
Giving him the thumbs up, Woods secured his bag in the webbing of the plane’s wall and walked over to the mess, ripping open an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) bag. He microwaved the contents, before tucking in to a hot meal of Sausage Peppers and Onions, chasing the main course with a trail mix recovery pack.
Looking over at the mess table, Woods felt the plane begin to move and threw away the packing of the MRE into a nearby bin, before keeping the unopened food nearby. Strapping himself in the hammock, he closed his eyes and waited for the ride to end.
I know, I am taking a break from my Sci-Fi Sol series, but I was clamouring to write something in this current reality and universe.
This will hopefully be a series I’ll smash through quickly before picking up where I left Raikkonen and Kournikova in Sol.
I have a much better feeling and sense of the ending for this story, than I did for Sol so I am hopeful it’ll be a nice quick story I can polish off.
I am attempting to be a bit more descriptive about my world building, akin to Ian Fleming‘s style, but it is taking a bit more work than I anticipated!
Until the next one!