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Authors: J.B. Hadley

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The 122mm missiles left the tubes in a roar of flame and smoky exhaust, two dark pencils of death streaking across the sky
above the valley floor. The Afghans stuffed two new missiles into the launchers while the first pair were still in flight.
Baker and Winston hung back, waiting to see the point of impact of their first shot before deciding whether an aim adjustment
was needed. Winston’s missile hit the runway, lifting a yellow bulldozer up into the air and throwing it against the side
of the cinder-block building. The impact of the heavy machine caused the wall to collapse, which made the roof crumple and
collapse into the interior.

Baker’s missile landed among the parked choppers, its exploding warhead disintegrating the helicopters nearest the point of
impact. The force of the blast knocked over the choppers it did not destroy, snapping off their rotors as they keeled over.
The Afghans raised a great roar as they saw the Russians’ air capability destroyed with a single shot.

They did not adjust the aim, knowing that the kick from the first shots had slightly adjusted the angle of the tube on the
tripod mount, anyway. The third and fourth missiles landed among the buildings and raised debris in the air. The fifth, fired
by Winston, struck the middle of the longest cinder-block building. They saw the orange ball of its blast expand, shattering
and melting the structure, only to be dwarfed by a much larger orange ball of flame it had initiated, then another and another.

They could feel the shock waves on their cheeks, travel
ing through the air across the valley from the chain of huge explosions triggered by the DKZ-B missile.

“That had to be their ammo
fuel dump,” Turner murmured with reverence.

The seventh missile was a dud. It flew, its warhead did not explode, but the sixth and eighth projectiles carried safely their
load of death and destruction into the Soviet installation five miles away across the valley floor.

Gul Daoud raised his right hand above his head. At this signal sixty or seventy mounted tribal warriors galloped their horses
from behind the hills, waving their AK-47s and yelling like a Comanche war party in an old Western movie.

“What the fuck is this?” Turner snarled. “They going to ride in a circle around the commies like in Custard’s last stand?”

“Yes,” Baker answered. “Except this time we get to be the Indians.”

There was no way Turner could have prevented Baker and Winston from going, except by shooting them down, which even he had
to admit was not the best way to protect them from harm, although it had a lot to be said for it otherwise, in his opinion.
Turner was beginning to lose the team spirit that had united them for a while and was getting back to looking on himself as
the reluctant watchdog for two unruly half-wits who were geniuses with textbooks and instruction manuals but had the street
smarts of kindergarten graduates. He mumbled some obscenities as he put his foot in the stirrup and threw his other leg over
the back of a horse being held for him. Winston and Baker were already way ahead of him, galloping across the scrub-covered
valley floor toward the burning Soviet installation, whacking their horses and whooping and waving their AK-47s in a pretty
good imitation of the approved Afghan mountain style.

The crowd of horsemen raised a huge plume of dust behind them as they crossed the valley toward the even bigger column of
black smoke rising into the clear mountain air above the burning installation. The tribesmen raced one another to get there
first, and little more than halfway there—after about three miles—the fiercest young warriors
on the finest horses had left the main crowd of horsemen behind. Gul Daoud and two of his lieutenants hung back deliberately
to stay with the Americans, for whom breakneck riding over rock rubble and thorn scrub was a new experience. Baker and Winston
had quieted down their war cries by this time and were concentrating on staying in the saddle.

A small group of Russians pulled away from the wreckage in an open jeep-style vehicle. Some of the lead riders branched off
to give chase, their horses making slightly better time than the jeep over the rough terrain, so that they slowly gained on
the escaping Russians and would catch up with them if their horses did not tire or something else interfere. The other leading
riders galloped straight toward the destroyed installation, trying to best one another to see which of them would be first
man to ride into it. An explosion snapped the front legs and ripped open the belly of the lead horse. Its rider was thrown,
and he was unlucky enough to land headfirst on another mine, which severed his head from his shoulders and rolled it like
a wet ball in the dust. When it lay still, grime coated the open eyeballs and unmoving lips.

The second and third horses were too close behind the first to avoid the mine field, and the two mines detonated by the first
horse and rider panicked their two horses beyond the control of their riders. One horse bolted and killed itself and its rider
within ten yards. The other threw its rider and was destroyed when it, too, tripped a mine. The thrown rider tiptoed out of
the mine field with fear-widened eyes and a prayer to Allah on his lips. He made it out safely, promptly forgot his prayers,
and went back to cursing the Russians.

The other horsemen had time to rein in and circle the installment, looking for a way in through what was probably a nearly
closed ring of protective mine fields. The hard, stony ground had tire tracks in several places that appeared to lead into
the camp, but the Afghans knew that these tracks would have been deliberately made before the mines were laid down and that
only one or two entrances would have been left clear for travel.

The other group of lead riders were closing in on the jeep. When one Russian tried to operate the machine gun mounted in the
rear of the vehicle, he was picked off by a sharpshooter and fell over on top of the weapon. Another Afghan rider drilled
the Russian driver in the back of the head, and the jeep slid sideways and its engine stalled. Before the other Russians could
pull the dead men off either the steering wheel or the machine gun, the Afghans had the vehicle surrounded and, from horseback,
looked down their rifle barrels at the four surviving Russians, three enlisted men, and an officer. The Russians raised their
hands and tried to look like decent friendly guys who were there by mistake.

By the time the advance horseman brought back their four captives and the vehicle, the main body of horsemen, including Gul
Daoud and the three Americans, had arrived outside the installation. They were taking sporadic rifle fire from inside, nothing
heavy, and were responding and keeping their horses moving to avoid presenting themselves as stationary targets.

“Officers are more cowardly than regular soldiers,” Daoud said with a sneer. “Sit this Russian captain on the hood of the
jeep, tie his ankles to the front fender, free his hands, and let him point out a safe route into their camp.”

Baker started to protest that this was against the international rules of warfare. Gul Daoud seemed genuinely suprised to
hear that any such rules were in existence and ignored Baker, of course. Gul lined the three Soviet enlisted men abreast behind
the jeep, in case its four tires missed any mines in its path. The captain did a good job directing the Afghan driver after
Gul promised him, in quite good Russian, that he and his men would be handed over to the International Red Cross for transporation
to Switzerland after being displayed first to Western reporters. The captain said he wanted to go to Canada.

“No problem,” Gul told him. “From Switzerland you can go to Paris if you want. Canada. Hollywood. Wherever you like.”

The captain led them safely inside where it soon became apparent that the Afghans had no intention of burdening
themselves with more prisoners. They did not waste bullets, either; they simply cut the throats of the uninjured or lightly
wounded and left the badly wounded to die where they lay. They circulated rapidly, stuffing undamaged weapons, ammo, and supplies
into large sacks, which they tied to their saddles. As time passed, they speeded their already feverish pace. In a little
more than twenty minutes Gul Daoud gave die signal to leave. By that time, in Baker’s estimate, at least one hundred and twenty
Russians were dead or mortally wounded, perhaps as many as a hundred and eighty, with only four survivors. While the Afghans
killed and looted, the three Americans worked to one side on the bulldozing equipment, placing charges of plastic explosive
at vulnerable points in the heavy structures. The detonations damaged the equipment beyond repair. They had time to divide
their remaining supply of
into the relatively small charges needed to explode the fuel tanks of the lightly damaged choppers. They set these off as
a farewell fireworks display.

Nearly all the horsemen made it across the valley floor into the protection of the hills before the first wave of MIG fighters
hit. The only riders caught in the open were those escorting the four Soviet servicemen in their jeep. One of the seven planes
in the second wave of fighters scored a direct hit on the jeep with a rocket, instantly frying all four of his fellow countrymen.
Then the first wave of fighters hit again, scattering the horsemen.

Not far away, behind the cover of big rocks, Gul Daoud shrugged at the three Americans. “You Yanks’d do anything to free American
hostages. Now you see for yourselves that these Russians would sacrifice four of their own to deprive us of a single jeep.”


The gun show was on the outskirts of Bakersfield, adding maybe sixty or seventy miles on his trip on Route 5 from Los Angeles
to San Francisco. As he drove, Lance Hardwick dialed in a temperature of sixty-eight degrees on the Automatic Climate Control
system of the Volvo 760-GLE and then fiddled with the graphic equilizer, which balanced the weaker set of front speakers With
the forty-watts-per-channel pair in the back. It was like he had Bruce Springsteen singing in the bucket seat beside him,
and the band in die backseat, except for the drums, which were halfway up the rear window. He was also doing ninety in the
fast lane, depending on his Whistler Spectrum to detect stationary, moving, trigger, even pulsed police radar from behind
hills, around curves, Qr wherever the highway patrol could squeeze into. The Spectrum was his own equipment and not part of
the rented Volvo. It flashed a red light when it smelled police radar and clucked like a Geiger counter next to an atomic

Lance smiled at the idea of a decent sound system on a mission with Mad Mike Campbell. Campbell would have
him in a Chevy or a Honda—something unobtrusive. But this was one of Lance's solo jobs, something he kept up in spite of becoming
one of Mike's regulars. Maybe it had something to do with him being an actor, or more accurately, an out-of-work actor. He
had been used to scuffling for a living. His only so-called acting jobs had been as a stuntman on TV series and low-budget
movies. Mostly he had worked as a bodyguard for L.A. rock musicians. It had not turned out as great as he had once hoped,
but at least it was sunshine and palm trees—and he was Lance Hardwick with an apartment in West Hollywood instead of being
Miroslav Svoboda from Minneapolis. True, when his mother had named him Miroslav, she had expected the family to return to
Czechoslovakia, and how was she to know, anyway, hardly talking any English herself at that time, that you couldn't make it
in America with a first name like Miroslav. Lance. That was more like it. The other part of his stage name, now his legal
name, was a stuntman's joke. And why not? His whole life in a way was a stuntman's joke. Yet his mother had never been able
to accept his new name. She still wrote him as Miroslav Svoboda c/o Lance Hardwick. Like Mr. Hyde c/o Dr. Jekyll. But imagine
calling a kid Miroslav…

Mike Campbell had been a consultant on a war movie in which Lance and others had filled in for the stars when things got rough.
He knew Mad Mike by his rep and bugged him for a chance to go on a real-life mere mission. Then, when Mike finally gave him
a chance months later, he had almost literally blown the opportunity with cocaine at the training camp before they left. That
wasn't so long ago, yet now he looked back on himself then as just a dumb kid.

This mission he had accepted dealt with what he guessed was an even dumber kid, only seventeen. The boy's father was a Los
Angeles studio musician Lance had known for years. As a backup and often lead guitarist, he sat in on recording dates with
name bands in order to help out on the musical end of things, which was not the strong point of quite a few famous rock bands,
and he took instant bucks instead of credit and royalties. Because studio musicians soon lost the drive and desperation to
strike out and make a
big name for themselves, the work was a treadmill in a way, but a comfortable high-income treadmill with all the perks.

This guitarist's son had dropped out of high school and then disappeared four months previously. He knew his son had at least
six thousand dollars and thought he was in Mexico. He heard nothing until five days previously when the phone rang late at
night. It was his son's voice, from an outdoor pay phone with trucks passing in the background. His son talked fast in a frightened
voice, then hung up the receiver when he saw someone coming—or so his father figured. The boy admitted he had come to grow
marijuana, that the plants were in the ground, that his partners wouldn't let him go till after the fall harvest. They had
already killed one kid who had stood up to them. He told his father not to come personally for him—reasonable advice since
the guitarist was six foot three and his body weighed no more than his long, bushy hair and beard. His son said to find someone
tough who knew how to use a gun and to tell him that he was at Noddy's near Alderpoint. His son interrupted himself after
a few more words with “I gotta go” and hung up.

The guitarist gave Lance $25,000 and asked if he wanted more. Lance said no. He found Alderpoint on the map off Route 101,
less than two hundred miles north of San Francisco. He would have flown to San Francisco and hired a car there were it not
for this gun show in Bakersfield, where he knew they would have what he was looking for.

BOOK: Cobra Strike
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