Rogue Agents – Chapter One
Enjoy Chapter One of Rogue Agents, the newest spy thriller in the Justin Hall series, which came out on June 29. You can read the Prologue here and then follow with Chapter Two by downloading the free special preview from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And if you decide to buy Rogue Agents, here’s the link on Amazon and Kobo.
Al-Sukkari District, Southeast Aleppo, Syria
April 23, 10:15 a.m.
Justin Hall could hardly believe the gruesome spectacle unfolding in front of his eyes. Three blindfolded men in desert camouflage fatigues were being dragged through the reddish dirt road like lambs to the slaughter. The cheering crowd of armed men, a few women, and many children was welcoming the beheadings.
Justin had spent the last week in northern Syria with his Canadian Intelligence Service partners Carrie O’Connor and Nathan Smyth and three local operatives. Their initial mission was to intercept a large shipment of surface-to-air missiles intended for rebels of the Islamic Freedom Brigade fighting against the army troops loyal to the new transitional government. Peace talks about amnesty for the remaining extremist rebels had broken off two months ago and fierce fighting had erupted all over the country.
A powerful Turkish arms dealer had been funneling SA-7s and S-24s—powerful Russian-made missiles looted from Libya’s stockpile after the former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a violent uprising—to radical rebel groups similar in ideology to al-Qaeda, operating mostly in and around Aleppo. The city had been the scene of some of the most brutal battles over the last few days, and the missiles had been one of the major factors in turning the tide in favor of the rebels.
With the government preparing a large offensive, a new shipment of missiles could mean its humiliating defeat, which would throw the volatile country and the unstable region deeper into chaos. The jihadist fighters among the extremist rebels came from Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Yemen, and their ultimate goal was a Sharia state, based upon Islamic teachings, not just a new secular democratic government. The scenario of such rebels coming to power and exporting their influence beyond Syria’s borders was to be avoided at all costs.
So the CIS’s agents’ original mission was redrawn to include the gathering of intelligence on one of the rebel group’s strongholds and some of its most powerful leaders, while another team was dispatched to intercept and destroy the missiles. After confirming the current position of the rebel leaders and the absence of any potential for collateral damage, the agents were to call in a drone strike. A barrage of Hellfire missiles fired from a MQ-9 Reaper drone was going to take care of the rest.
And here they were, in southeast Aleppo, hot on the trail of two masterminds of the Islamic Freedom Brigade. Justin and Carrie had posed as foreign journalists from Egypt and Ireland, covering recent developments in the country. Justin spoke Arabic like a native and his Mediterranean complexion—dark olive skin, wavy raven hair, big black eyes, and a large, thick nose he had inherited from his Italian mother—allowed him to fit easily among the local population. He dressed in a kaftan, a long brown robe, and wore a white keffiyeh, a headdress, to protect his head and his neck from the scorching Syrian sun. Carrie’s black burka hid her white face, her shoulder-length auburn hair, and a SIG P228 pistol. Nathan and the local operatives pretended to be the journalists’ driver and security detail.
Earlier that morning, Justin had spotted one of their targets, Omar Ghani, an Afghani in his fifties who had fought with the Taliban insurgency against American forces during the Afghanistan War. Ghani was leaving a safe house and was about to get into a white Jeep, when a group of about twenty armed men arrived in a five-car convoy. They spread out around Ghani and his guards and brought three blindfolded men before him. A short exchange took place between Ghani and two men who seemed to be the leaders of the ragtag militia. Then joyful shouting broke out. Some gunmen fired their AKs in the air in celebration. Soon after, the entire neighborhood poured out onto the streets and headed toward a square with a perimeter of about four hundred yards, surrounded by houses and a small mosque—following Ghani and the gunmen who were dragging their captives—to enjoy the barbaric acts of beheadings.
Justin, Nathan, and one of the local agents stayed atop a low wall, near the back of the crowd, which was moving back and forth like a stormy sea. Some men were shouting slurs at the three blindfolded captives who had been forced down to their knees in front of the crowd. About four steps behind the captives, six gunmen were lined up, proudly displaying their AKs and bandoliers hanging across their chests.
Ghani and one of his men—a trusted guard who was always by his side—stepped forward, followed by one of the militia’s leaders. The crowd roared with thundering shouts, mostly thanking Allah for this day of victory. Ghani raised his hands, but the cries continued for a few seconds, until the crowd settled for muted whispers.
Ghani gave a short, emotional speech, full of religious tones. He explained to the crowd why they fought the government, and glorified fellow fighters who had become martyrs for their cause. Then he pointed at the captives and identified them as members of a rival fighting faction, who had been accused of massacring women and children and collaborating with the government. Ghani said they had been tried and found guilty in a religious court. He concluded that now the time had come for them to die for their crimes.
The crowd erupted in another wave of jeers and shouts.
Justin looked to his right. His eyes found Carrie, who stood about twenty steps away, at the other side of the crowd. The other two local operatives were flanking her.
“It’s really happening,” he said in a low voice into his throat mike covered by his headdress.
“Yes, what a disgrace,” Carrie replied into her mike and turned her head in his direction.
Her voice came clearly through his earpiece. “At least we’ve confirmed Ghani’s location.”
“Yes, it’s the only good thing about this horror show. I’ve seen enough. Let’s keep an eye on Ghani from a distance.”
Justin peered as a tall, well-built man came from the left side and stood right behind the captives. He was dressed in a black robe, and a red-and-white checkered headdress was wrapped around his face. Only his eyes were visible. He held a long machete in his left hand and a curved-bladed sword in his right hand. The executioner.
“Wait,” Justin said. “His eyes.”
“I don’t have the stomach for this, Justin,” Carrie said in a stern voice.
“Neither do I, but I think . . . he might be our man.”
“Who? Our other target, al-Nouaymi?”
Justin swung his camera from his shoulder, rearranged his rucksack on his back, and stepped forward.
“Where are you going?” Nathan asked via his throat mike. His voice was full of concern.
“To confirm his identity. Stay back.”
Justin elbowed his way through the bellowing crowd, then stopped when he was near the front. He raised his camera and began to take photos. The scorching sun was behind Justin and was lighting up the surreal scene quite well.
The executioner’s eyes were dark but calm. He gazed at the faces in the crowd, but his look was distant and devoid of emotion.
Justin slid back behind a large man to his right. No one in this area was supposed to know his identity, but he was not absolutely sure. And he did not want to be singled out by the executioner or one of the rebels’ leaders. He needed to keep a low profile.
The executioner turned toward the first blindfolded captive. The man was on his knees with his hands tied behind his back. He was completely resigned to his doomed fate. The executioner lined up his sword’s blade with the captive’s neck, practicing his macabre move.
The captive must have felt the razor-sharp metal resting against his bloodied skin, because he shook his head and shrugged, trying to move away from the instrument of death. He muttered a few inaudible words, which quickly turned to shouts for mercy.
The executioner remained stone-faced, untouched by the pleas. He raised his sword and hacked down in a swift, powerful slash.
Time slowed down as the crowd turned silent.
The head rolled on the sandy ground. Blood gushed out of it and from the butchered body.
The executioner dropped his machete to the ground, picked up the head by its hair, and lifted it up. Blood spurted out of the head, spraying the executioner’s face and chest. He showed the head to the howling mob, let out a loud shout of triumph, and dumped it next to the body.
Justin had seen people die: dear friends shot and killed by enemies, and many enemy combatants he had sent to the afterlife. But it had never been like this. The beheading. The calmness of the executioner. The approval of the bloodthirsty mob. There was a true devaluation of human life in such a grisly public display.
The executioner waved his sword in the air while he shouted praises to Allah. The crowd cheered him on. His eyes had lost their initial calmness. They were now full of rage and hate, dripping with the lust for more blood and revenge.
He took a few slow, heavy steps toward the second captive. The executioner grabbed the captive brutally by the scruff of his neck and began to drag him forward. The captive let out a short, high-pitched squeak, which made Justin’s flesh creep. The captive was a young boy, tall and muscular, but still no more than eleven or twelve years old.
Justin took a step forward. His hand instinctively hovered over the SIG P228 pistol in his waistband holster. His brown kaftan hid it well at his right thigh.
“Nathan, diversion,” Justin whispered into his mike.
“What? Justin, you’re going in?” Nathan replied in an incredulous tone.
“This is suicide, Justin.” Carrie’s voice rang in his ear. “Don’t do it.”
“Can’t let this happen in front of my eyes,” Justin said, taking another step forward.
He sidestepped around a woman holding a toddler in her arms, who was playing with a toy gun. Justin was now right behind two old men, in the third line, at the right-side edge of the crowd. He put his camera away in his rucksack without making too much noise or drawing too much attention.
The executioner lined up his sword with the boy’s neck amid jubilant shouts from the ecstatic people. The boy’s small body, kneeling underneath the blood-dripping blade, began to tremble as he sensed he was at death’s door.
“Now, Nathan,” Justin said, a bit louder than he intended.
His voice went unheard by the people around him, but Justin was sure Nathan had heard his order.
A long moment followed, then the executioner raised his sword.
A loud explosion stopped his arm in midair.
The blast came from one of the trucks at the right side of the square, near the mosque. It was about forty feet behind the line of the gunmen surrounding Ghani. Shrapnel from the smoldering truck rained over the gunmen, who turned their attention in that direction. Nathan had opted to fire a rocket-propelled grenade as a distraction.
Before they had a chance to rush toward the truck or fire their weapons, a long barrage of gunfire erupted from the left side. Justin recognized the rattle of the Steyr AUG assault rifle. One of his men—most likely Nizar, who was always fast on the trigger.
The stampeding crowd had already broken into small groups, and people were scampering in all directions. Two gunmen covered Ghani and began to withdraw toward their vehicles by the burning truck. The rest turned their weapons toward the source of the gunshots.
Justin moved out of the way of a couple of young men and pulled his pistol. He fired a quick round that hit the executioner in the head. He was dead before he hit the ground, next to the headless captive.
The gunmen were caught by surprise. One of them raised his AK, but Justin planted a bullet in the man’s chest, then shot a second gunman who pointed a rifle at him. As the gunman fell to his death, his fingers twitched and squeezed the AK’s trigger, sending a volley of bullets through the crowd.
Justin rolled on the ground, hiding behind the bodies of two men who had just been cut down by the dead man’s barrage. He fired two more rounds, which hit another gunman in his chest and head.
The Steyr rumbled again, followed by the familiar staccato of AKs. Bullets kicked sand near his arms and struck the dead bodies. Their blood sprayed Justin’s face, and he cocked his head to his right, away from the spatter.
A short pause followed and Justin seized the moment. He peeked over one of the bodies and fired a hurried shot at a gunman reloading his AK. Then Justin’s eyes took in the entire square.
The crowd had all but vanished. The bodies of five dead gunmen were strewn about on the ground. A sixth wounded gunman let out a groan and tried to reach for a pistol next to his right hand. Justin fired a round and the gunman’s hand lay still.
“Left side’s clear,” Justin said in his throat mike.
“Right side too.” Carrie’s voice came in his earpiece.
Justin heard distant gunfire and the rattle of car engines. A white Jeep disappeared in a cloud of dust, followed by another black truck.
“Nathan, don’t let them go,” Justin said.
“Got it, chief,” Nathan replied. “Khaled and I are on their heels.”
“Hareeb, cover us,” Justin ordered one of his local operatives. “Carrie, let’s mop up the place.”
“I have your back, man,” Hareeb said in a low voice with a thick accent.
Justin got to his feet and stepped cautiously around the bodies. He picked up an AK from one of the dead gunmen, cocked it, and fired off a round in the air. The gun worked well, and the previous owner had duct-taped two extra clips to the one latched to the rifle. This made it easier and faster to change the clips, by just pulling and flipping the magazines joined together.
The two captives were lying on the ground, tied up, but they were still breathing. Justin sidestepped the pools of blood that had caked the ground and knelt next to the boy. He whimpered like a frightened puppy.
“It’s all right,” Justin whispered in his ear in Arabic in a soft voice. “They’re all dead. I will remove your blindfold and untie your hands now. Nod if you understand.”
The boy’s body went limp for a moment, then his bruised, bloodied head moved ever so slightly. “I understand you,” he said in a low voice. “Thank you.”
Justin lifted the blindfold and used the executioner’s machete to cut the ropes tying the boy’s hands. Then he helped the boy to his feet.
A long barrage came from Carrie’s position, about ten yards to Justin’s left. Two gunmen fell from atop a roof on the other side of the square.
“We have to go,” Justin said and began to usher the boy away, toward Carrie. “I’ll untie the other man.”
The boy remained silent. His eyes had found the body of the beheaded captive. The boy fell to his knees and let out a sharp shriek as he picked up the head. Tears began to flow down the boy’s face and he began to shake, while his hollering grew louder.
Justin stood silent. He had no words to comfort the boy for his loss.
The boy wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands and got to his feet. He marched toward the executioner and picked up the sword that had fallen on the ground. The boy raised the sword and lurched forward at the executioner. He began to hack at the dead body, slashing and ripping through it. Then he moved on to the other dead gunmen, swinging his blood-dripping sword with his small hands.
“That’s enough,” Justin shouted at him. “They’re already dead, and nothing will bring back your father.”
Rapid gunfire came from the left and the right. A couple of bullets whizzed past Justin’s head and he dropped to the ground. Hareeb’s Steyr assault rifle cracked in a long, loud volley and the other gunfire ceased.
“Go, go, go,” Justin said to the boy and pointed at Carrie, who had taken position next to the wall of a house further away to his left, about fifty yards away.
The boy listened this time. He grabbed one of the AKs on the ground and ran toward Carrie while keeping his head low. He made it to the wall and stood next to Carrie, with his gun ready for fire.
Justin moved to the next captive, removed his blindfold, and untied him. A couple of shots came from the right, but they were off target, kicking up dirt yards away from Justin. Hareeb and Nizar—who was covering Carrie’s advance—fired short, calculated two- and three-round bursts against the shooters in that direction.
“Can you walk?” Justin asked the freed man, who was thin, with scruffy hair and a small beard. He looked weak and his left arm was dangling from his shoulder like a broken branch from a tree.
“Yes, yes, I can . . . walk.” The man got to his knees with a wince and a sigh, then looked around. “Which way are we going?”
“This way.” Justin pointed to the right, behind them. “We get to the house, then slide along to those vehicles.” He moved his hand to indicate the objective, two gray trucks and a blue Jeep.
“All right,” the man said.
Justin took a moment to lift the red-and-white checkered headdress of the dead executioner’s face. He was right. It was their target, Mohammed al-Nouaymi.
“Follow me,” Justin said.
He broke into a rush, keeping his head low but his eyes wide open, taking in every detail of the scene in front of him. A gunman appeared out of a second-story window and fired an AK at them. Bullets hit in front of Justin’s feet, and he dove into the ground and rolled to his left, out of the volley.
The man Justin had freed was one second too late to move out of the barrage. Bullets caught him in the chest and legs. He fell face first on the ground and lay there motionless.
Justin tried to figure out if the man was still alive, but more bullets followed, boring holes in the sand all around him. Two rounds exploded very close to his feet, but he was able to crawl his way to the nearest house, and fell behind a corner.
A slug chipped away concrete chunks from the wall, but Justin was out of immediate danger, at least from the gunfire pouring forth from that direction. He looked at Carrie across the square.
“You okay?” Justin heard her voice in his earpiece.
“Yeah, but we lost the man I just released.”
He nodded. “Advancing to the vehicles to pursue Ghani.”
“Roger that,” said Carrie.
“Hareeb? Nizar?” Justin said.
Both men confirmed they had received the order loud and clear.
Justin slithered near the wall, paying particular attention to the windows, the doors, and the roofs of the houses. The entire neighborhood was hostile, and by now the rebels and their supporters in the area would have recovered from the initial shock of the ambush. Justin expected a counterattack from pretty much anyone who was old enough to point and shoot a weapon. The volatile situation pressed the urgency of their escape from the hot zone.
He came to a brown metal gate and peered through it. There was no one in the backyard. Justin quickened his pace, lowering his head as he came to a couple of windows. He listened for noises coming from the other side of the wall. Then an outburst of gunfire rang out from the door of the adjacent house.
Justin threw his body against the wall. Thankfully the gunman was a poor marksman, and his volley raised sand four feet away from Justin. He fired back and dropped the gunman with a double tap to his chest.
Justin secured another position away from the windows and near the door of the house, just underneath the place from which the gunman had taken his shots. His entire attention was focused upwards, expecting more gunmen to appear on the rooftop.
A quick burst came from above, but it was not directed at him. Justin stole a peek, but did not see the shooters. He threw his gaze to the other side of the square, but his eyes did not find Carrie. Hareeb was on his feet between two houses, firing his rifle toward the house behind Justin.
“Carrie, where are you?” Justin said in his throat mike.
“Behind the white sedan, at your two o’clock,” she replied. “I’m okay.”
“Good,” Justin said.
He looked at the white car—a battered model that looked like a Nissan—then his eyes returned to Hareeb’s position. The man was gone, and Justin’s gaze caught a shooter on the roof of the house. He was holding a large weapon on his shoulders, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, pointed at Justin.
Before Justin even had the time to think, the shooter fired his RPG. Justin dove to the ground, his only option. A second later, the screeching warhead cut through the air but there was no explosion behind him—or on any side, for that matter.
He looked up and saw a thick cloud of gray smoke over the position of the RPG shooter. It must have misfired, Justin thought, and let out a sigh of relief. Syrian rebels sometimes turned to homemade bombs to make up for a shortage in heavy weapons.
A moment later, an explosion came from his right. The stray RPG warhead had hit a house or another building. Justin broke into a fast sprint, taking advantage of a break in the gunfire. He covered about fifty yards before bullets stitched up the sand to his left, a couple of feet away from him.
Justin fired toward the gunmen who were shooting from a first-story window straight ahead. He emptied his entire magazine, then flipped the clip with a swift move and latched it back to his AK. He fired a few more rounds into the window, then resumed his dash toward the vehicles.
Carrie had already climbed aboard the blue Jeep. Hareeb was by the Jeep’s rear wheels, laying a heavy curtain of suppressive fire to help Justin’s advance. On the other side of the Jeep, Nizar was firing off his Steyr in the other direction, clearing up a path for them. Next to him, the boy Justin had saved from execution was also squeezing round after round from his AK, which looked way too big for his small hands.
Justin redoubled his efforts and rushed through the last few yards. He got to the Jeep and climbed in through the front passenger door.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Carrie said and revved the engine.
Hareeb fired a few more rounds, then slid into the Jeep as a couple of bullets thudded against the back door. Nizar blasted a parting shot, then he got inside one of the gray trucks. The boy followed closely behind him.
“Everyone’s okay?” Justin asked as Carrie hit the gas.
“I’m good,” Hareeb replied.
The Jeep jerked forward and slid on the sand. Carrie turned the steering wheel and they rounded a sharp curve, barely missing the wall of a house to their right.
“We’re doing good,” Nizar’s strong voice boomed over the airwaves.
“And the boy?” asked Justin.
A moment of pause, then Nizar said, “He’s good too. Not wounded—well, other than what we all saw earlier.”
Justin nodded and was glad the boy had been blindfolded during the execution of his father. It had spared him at least some of the horrors, but Justin was sure those horrors were going to haunt the boy for the rest of his life.
Justin said into his mike. “Nathan, come in.”
There was some static, then Nathan’s distant voice came in with interruptions. “Justin . . . we’re . . . next . . . east from the square.”
“Nathan, repeat your last,” Justin said. “What’s your position?”
Loud static was the only reply.
“Nathan, come in. Where are you?”
No answer, just the sharp static tone stabbing Justin’s ear. Then complete silence.
“They have turned east, east,” Justin said to Carrie.
“Got it,” she replied and turned the steering wheel as a back alley came into her view up ahead.
The Jeep skidded on the sand and almost hit the corner of one of the houses. Carrie eased up on the gas pedal, hit the brakes, and regained control of the vehicle. She straightened the wheels and the Jeep picked up speed as they drove into the narrow alley. Nizar’s gray truck followed about twenty yards behind them.
Gunshots rang from behind and a few bullets clanged against the back of the Jeep. One shattered the back window glass.
“Do something about it,” Justin said in an edgy tone.
Hareeb cleared the remaining pieces from the window with the barrel of his Steyr assault rifle, then began to fire at will. He let off a long barrage, then switched to two-round bursts, to save his ammunition.
Two gunmen appeared atop the roof of one of the houses in the distance. The first gunman opened up with a burst of automatic fire. The rifle bounced in his hands and no bullets hit the Jeep.
The second gunman raised his RPG over the roof’s parapet and pointed it in their direction.
Justin leaned out the window and began to fire his AK. His bullets struck the second gunman, but not before he fired off his RPG. The projectile ripped through the sky and flew over the left side of the Jeep, missing the hood by a few feet. It smashed into the wall behind, sprayed the Jeep with shrapnel and debris, and lifted a thin curtain of dust.
Hareeb moaned, then cursed the shooter. Some shrapnel had torn through his arms and he was bleeding from the right side of his face.
“Hareeb, can you see?” Justin asked.
Hareeb let out an annoyed grunt. “Yes, I’m good. Scratches. But I can’t use the rifle.”
“Let us take care of it,” Nizar said from the second vehicle behind them.
“Take this.” Justin tossed Hareeb a small first aid kit he had fished out of his rucksack by his feet.
Carrie hit the gas and the Jeep flew over dips and holes on the dusty road. Rapid, loud gunshots rang out from all directions. Two RPGs erupted up ahead, but too far away to cause any damage to the truck.
Justin aimed at three gunmen shooting from the rooftops of the next two houses, and laid a heavy barrage. One of the gunmen fell over the edge and came crashing down on the middle of the road. Carrie had no time to brake or swerve so she just drove over the gunman’s body.
Justin reloaded his AK with the last clip. “I’m almost out,” he said and began to fire two-round bursts.
“Here you go.” Hareeb passed his Steyr to Justin. “The mag’s full.”
Carrie eased up on the brakes and the Jeep rounded another corner. The road grew wider and the houses were further apart. They were now almost out of the rebels’ neighborhood but still not out of danger.
“Trucks up ahead,” Carrie said.
Justin looked in that direction just as a powerful explosion tore through the two-story house to their left, about fifty yards in front of the Jeep. Another blast razed to the ground the entire house across the road.
“Mortar fire,” Justin said. “The pricks want to kill us even if they blow up the whole area.”
He shot the last of his AK rounds, then switched to the Steyr. He fired a quick burst at two men who appeared to his right, but not before they sprayed the Jeep with their bullets. A couple of rounds struck the door. Another one skipped across the hood, and two others pierced holes in the windshield.
Carrie swore and flinched. A couple of glass fragments hit her face.
Justin squeezed his trigger. The gunmen fell backwards, their bodies hit by several bullets.
Two mortar rounds exploded in the distance behind them.
“How’re they doing?” Justin asked without looking back as he reloaded his Steyr.
Hareeb took a long moment to reply. Justin turned his head. The gray truck appeared through a cloud of dust and smoke.
“They’re still behind us,” said Hareeb.
“And you? How are you doing?” asked Carrie.
“Eh, what will happen to me? They can’t kill me.”
A couple of rounds slammed the back of the Jeep as if to prove him wrong.
Carrie pressed harder on the gas, as the road ahead of them had less debris and potholes. They were now about two hundred yards from a cluster of vehicles parked to the side of the road, near a large three-story house. Half of the house was destroyed and the whitewashed walls of the other half were covered in black graffiti with anti-government slurs.
An RPG whooshed to the left side of the Jeep, smashing into a house wall a few yards away. Cinderblocks and other debris rolled onto the road. Carrie hit the brakes, then turned the steering wheel. She slowed even further, and Justin noticed Nathan and Khaled lying behind a couple of light machine guns set up among the vehicles.
Carrie parked their Jeep on the far end near a bullet-ridden black truck. The bodies of three gunmen were strewn about on the ground around it. Another white Jeep was further away, turned on its right side.
“How is everyone?” Justin asked Nathan and Khaled.
“We’re okay. Flesh wounds and bruises. Nothing a little R and R will not fix,” Nathan replied.
“What he said.” Khaled flashed Justin his big, bright teeth.
“Ghani’s back there in the Jeep,” said Nathan. “Got a bullet in his head and two in his chest.”
“There was no other way, man.” Nathan noticed the frown even though he was mostly gazing through the iron sight of his RPK machine gun. “We wanted him alive, but they fought back.”
Nizar pulled up his truck next to the Jeep, a thin cloud of dust trailing behind him.
“Ready?” Khaled asked Nathan.
“Give them a second,” Nathan replied.
A truck appeared through the cloud and a man fired his rifle from the front passenger window.
Nathan and Khaled began to thunder their machine guns, their volleys aimed at the moving target. Their rounds began to riddle the hood and the windshield of the truck. A moment later, the driver—by now probably dead or gravely wounded—lost control of the truck, veered off the road, and crashed into the metal gate of a house. Nathan kept firing at the truck, while Khaled waited to see if more targets were going to appear in his sights.
Nathan eased his finger on the machine gun trigger. A tense silence reigned for a few moments, then a mortar shell exploded up ahead right in the middle of the road, perhaps fifty yards away from them.
“Their mortar fire’s getting more accurate,” Nathan said.
“It’s time to say goodbye to Aleppo and Syria,” Justin said.
Nathan and Khaled picked up their machine guns and put them in the back of their truck, a rusty, bullet-ridden Nissan.
Justin walked over to Nizar, who was having a hard time controlling the boy. “What’s the matter?” Justin asked.
“He wants to go back and avenge his father.”
“Yes, they all must die, those cowards, die like dogs,” the boy cried in a high-pitched voice.
His small hand held up his AK and he gestured toward the neighborhood.
Justin crouched to be at eye level with the boy, whose eyes were dark with anger. “What’s your name?” he asked the boy.
“Ayoub,” the boy replied in a quick voice. “What are we waiting for? We should go back and fight. Kill them all like lambs.”
“We will fight them another day. Another time, when we have more people, more guns, when you and others like—”
Ayoub tried to run back but Justin grabbed him. “No, no, you can’t.”
“But I . . . my father . . . I should.”
Justin held Ayoub against his chest in a tight embrace. “You will avenge your father and everyone you’ve lost. It’s only the right thing to do.”
Ayoub nodded and began to cry silently. Justin felt the boy’s warm tears and held Ayoub even tighter.
Two mortar rounds landed very near, splitting the air with their thunderous blasts.
“We have to go, right now,” he whispered to Ayoub.
“Where are we going?” Ayoub asked as he followed Justin to the blue Jeep.
“Away. Far from here. Somewhere safe,” Justin replied.
He climbed into the front passenger seat as another mortar shell exploded about a hundred yards ahead among the houses, lifting a plume of gray dust. Ayoub sat next to Hareeb, who gave the boy a warm smile.
Carrie stepped slowly on the gas and began to head their three-vehicle convoy. Nizar followed behind in his gray truck, and Nathan and Khaled brought up the rear.
“Down near the highway, then up north?” Carrie asked.
Justin nodded. “Let’s pass Sheikh Saeed District, then make our way through the outskirts.”
“Got it,” Carrie said.
Justin nodded. He took a deep breath, then heaved a sigh of relief. His hand still held the Steyr assault rifle. He knew they would not be safe until they had crossed the border with Turkey, about thirty miles north. Most of the area was controlled by the government, with the occasional pockets of resistance in rebels’ hands. He laid his head back against the seat’s headrest, closed his eyes for a moment, and offered a silent prayer for safety of travel and victory in their next battle.