Excerpt: Breakpoint

Book 4 : High Risk Series

Breakpoint (High Risk Series) by JoAnn Ross

Somewhere in Afghanistan

The Afghan mountains had never been Tech Sergeant Dallas O’Halloran’s favorite part of the world, even before he’d had the bad luck to be on a Chinook shot down by an insurgent RPG not far from here.

But he’d survived that experience and it wasn’t like he got to choose the missions. Nor did he have any control over the torrential rain that was pounding down like bullets, causing rivers to overflow their banks, creating mudslides, and turning the ground he was slogging through into a quagmire.

An Air Force Combat Controller, he was accustomed to operating at the sharpest point of the spear.  The CCT motto was “first in, last out,” and since Hollywood didn’t make movies about them, like they did those showboat SEAL frogboys or Delta Force hotshots, very few civilians knew they existed.

Which was just the way Dallas liked it.

A self-professed adrenaline junky, he’d cleared minefields to allow copters to land, and had even kicked a boat out of a helo over the ocean in the dead of night, freefallen into the water, inflated the boat, then continued on his mission, occasionally pulling out his A-4 to help clear the area of bad guys, while still managing to juggle aircraft overhead to keep them from flying into each other.

More than one of his commanders had sworn he could think in four dimensions, and although he never boasted about his exploits, neither did Dallas argue the fact.  Not wanting fellow SEAL and Delta Force team members, who could break spines with their bare hands—thinking of him as some geeky brainiac, he also never volunteered that he liked to relax by play three-dimensional chess.

 While programming his laptop opponent, he’d added codes for a few illogical, off-the-wall moves—the kinds Captain Kirk or Doctor McCoy might’ve use to occasionally defeat Spock on the Enterprise—in order to present more of a challenge.  Still, over the past six years, he’d acquired a winning record of 96.753 percent.

 Tonight his mission was to scope out a village where a downed pilot and Aussie photojournalist were reportedly being held captive by members of the Taliban.
As soon as he and the two SEALs accompanying him ensured that the intel from a captured terrorist—in whose home the pilot’s dog tags were found—was correct, he’d radio in the coordinates and set up his ISLiD, which was military-speak for image stabilization and light distribution unit.

Finally, with the sight lit, he’d use the roll of detonator cord he carried in his rucksack to blow the grove of trees at the edge of the village so that one of the three hovering copters, configured for medical evacuation, could land.

Normally, the SEALs and D-boys carrying out the door-busting part of the operation would fast-rope down to the ground then, after liberating the captives, would carry them back up to the hovering bird.

But both the journalist’s legs were reported to have been broken in the crash, so HQ had tossed in some Rangers and Marines to help pull the mission off. They weren’t planning to take the village; the purpose of extreme force was to provide distraction (actually scare the freaking daylights out of anyone who might be foolish enough to try to get in the way) and security while the SEALs did their search and rescue thing. Meanwhile, an Air Force Predator would monitor the area, providing a real-time sensor feed.

It had been slow-going as they plodded, stumbled, and crawled across mountains once traveled by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Marco Polo.

The SEALS’ faces were not just covered in their usual camouflage, but also streaked with mud.  Covered from head to toe in the stuff himself, Dallas figured he probably looked just as bad.

The good thing about the lousy weather was that the clouds had blocked out the moon and lacking military night vision goggles, it was unlikely any of the townspeople, driven inside by the storm, could spot them.

Also in their favor was that the enemy wouldn’t expect anyone to be out in such a duck-strangler of a rain.
Anyone other than a freaking madman.

Or a Spec-Ops guy.

“It should work,” Lucas Chaffee, a SEAL medic who’d been on that copter with Dallas when it had crashed, said.

 “We’ll make it work,” Dallas said.

Although a decade as a CCT had taught him that the best laid plans tended to collapse upon the first encounter with the enemy, failure was never an option.

The town consisted of maybe fifty mud-brick houses which climbed the hillside, house nearly on top of house.  Smoke from woodstoves rose through vents in the roofs and even through the rain Dallas could smell the odor of dung from the goats baa-ing in the distance.

They were met at the perimeter of the town by a barefoot, toothless scarecrow of a man sporting the traditional long beard who claimed that the prisoners were no longer where the intel had placed them. They’d been moved just this morning.

Dallas and the SEALs exchanged an “it figures” look.

After more conversation with Chaffee, whose Farsi was as good as Dallas had ever heard (even better than his own, and he’d always considered himself fluent), the old guy took a stick and drew a rough map in the mud of where they could supposedly find the prisoners.

“Could be a trap,” the other SEAL, who hadn’t said a word for the past hour, warned.
Apparently sensing their distrust, the man assured them, in broken English, that he was “Not Taliban!”

Which could be true.

Or not.

He could also be one of about a gazillion other militia groups pledged to one of the more radical Mujahidin—local warlords who believed the only good American was a dead American.

“Any guy who’d turn traitor against his own people wouldn’t have any compunction about lying to U.S. forces,” Dallas said.

“If we go in there and meet armed resistance, civilians are going to die,” Chaffee pointed out.

“In which case our collective asses would be grass,” the second SEAL warned.

And couldn’t Dallas identify with that? After dodging an Air Force military court martial of his own, he’d been required to testify against Chaffee and two other SEALs, who’d made the decision to break the rules of engagement by crossing the border into Pakistan to save a helo pilot’s life.

Although the prosecuting Navy JAG officer had been a hard-ass black-and-white thinking attorney, Dallas couldn’t helped noticing that beneath those tailored white uniform trousers, Lt. Julianne Decatur had, hands down, the best ass he’d ever seen on any female, in or out of the military. Since he’d always considered himself a connoisseur of the opposite sex, that was really saying something.

In fact, if she hadn’t been like a damn pit bull while trying her damndest to put his best friends behind bars, he might have enjoyed the challenge of melting some of that ice the blond lieutenant had encased herself in.

Bygones, he reminded himself, dragging his uncharacteristically wandering mind back to the mission at hand: how to exfil the hostages without any collateral damage.
The reason they’d brought in the superior force of Rangers and Marines tonight was to ensure that this would remain an NEO, a noncombatant evacuation operation.

 “Not Taliban,” their informant insisted yet again, hitting his chest with a hand that was missing all five fingers, which, unfortunately, wasn’t all that uncommon here in these mountains where there were probably more land mines than people.
He then rattled off another string of Farsi.

“He says his grandson lives in the States,” Chaffee translated.  “He’s going to school to become a doctor, then bring the rest of the family over once he gets a practice established.”

Maybe all the years in black ops had made him cynical, but Dallas asked what school this so-called grandson was supposedly attending.

“Vanderbilt.”  The old guy puffed out a bony chest, his family pride obvious.
Given that the Tennessee university did, indeed, have a medical school, the claim could be true.

Since the SEALs were technically in charge of the rescue mission, Dallas, who had his own ideas, held his tongue and waited.

“We’re going to risk it,” Chaffee decided.

“Hooyah,” the second agreed.

“Roger that.”  Knowing they were all thinking of the imprisoned pilot and the Spec-Ops Leave No Man Behind creed, Dallas had been hoping for that decision. 
Reporters might be expendable, but there was no way they’d come this close to evacuating one of their own only to walk away because things might get a little dicey.

Unlike his last debacle of a mission in these mountains, the raid went off like clockwork.  The armed-to-the-teeth Rangers and Marines, looking intimidating as hell, as if they’d just leaped out of a Rambo flick, didn’t end up firing a shot.

With a lot of shouting, the SEALs kicked open the door of the house, handcuffed the occupants, then went down stairs into a mud-floored cellar and found the journalist tied to a support post.

After Chaffee declared both legs indeed broken, they strapped him onto the evacuation board while another contingent located and untied the pilot, who, other than some really ugly bruising, two missing front teeth, a cut over his right eye, and a flight suit that stank as if it had been dragged through goat dung, appeared to be in pretty good shape for someone who’d been held prisoner for three long weeks that must have seemed like years.

“What kept you?” he asked mildly.

The raiding force was on the ground less than twenty minutes. 
Intent on getting the former hostages to safety, Dallas lowered the imaginary cone of silence that helped keep him in the zone, effectively shutting out the shouts, wails from the townspeople’s women, curses from their men, along with the ear-blasting rotor noise from the helo he’d called in.

Which was why he never heard the rapid fire click-click-click of a camera shutter.
Two days later Dallas’s rain and mud-streaked face ended up plastered on websites and the front pages of newspapers from Seattle to Singapore.  And everywhere in-between, along with the damn rescued journalist’s over-the-top “first-hand” account of the event.

Belatedly realizing that Mr. “Not-Taliban!” had probably been paid to take those shots, Dallas wished to hell they’d just left that bastard reporter in the damn mountains.

With his cover effectively burned, it didn’t take a brainiac to realize that Dallas O’Halloran’s illustrious ultra-secret Spec-Ops career had just turned to toast.