I started writing a sequel to my first novel, Silhouettes. This book, which continues the rather gritty tale of a bunch of mercenaries turned good guys, is titled A Bullet in the Storm, and again features the schizophrenic scar-faced dog-of-war, Cale Black. As in the first book, it'll go into some sinister New World Order conspiracies, with a touch of sci-fi in the form of weather-modification technology employed for nefarious purposes. I plan for most of the action to take place in East African nations and explore the pros and cons of the emergence of socialist revolution in Africa. There'll also be explosions and some romance and personal vendettas and old enemies and stuff and junk...
For interest sake, and to prove I do write other stuff besides fanfic, here's the prologue, set a few years before the main events. It's still a bit unpolished...
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
June 12th 2002
Cale Black hated rassol’nik.
Rassol’nik is a putrid soup made from chopped pickles and chunks of kidney, and it had been the only meal served to him and the rest of the mercenary force for nearly two months. Their hosts seemed to thoroughly enjoy the dish, and in the beginning Black had politely pretended not to be revolted, but that pretence quickly crumbled.
The only thing worse than rassol’nik was the lodging – grimy concrete boxes in a gutted building, each no more than three metres in width, and occupied by six men a piece in flea-infested bunks.
Black had begun regretting his decision to sign with Magar’s crew; the mercenary contract offered by the Chechen rebels was rapidly turning into a squalid shitfight with no visible end. The town of Kamyshev that they were helping to defend against Russian incursion was mostly demolished by air strikes, and the civilian occupants had long ago fled to the south. Black didn’t see any reason why the rebels shouldn’t simply leave the bombed-out ruins to the Russians and withdraw themselves – there was certainly no strategic value in the place.
He had mentioned this in passing to Magar, and the legendary mercenary commander had chuckled and told him that ‘the customer is always right’. The wiry little Indian was the only one among them whose morale hadn’t slipped during the icy weeks and months the force had spent with the rebels, launching guerrilla attacks against Russian ground forces and hiding amid the shattered buildings. Magar (the name meant ‘alligator’ in Hindi) led the mercenaries with a charismatic sense of confidence and dry wit. Were it not for him, Black and the others would likely have abandoned the rebels to their fate long ago.
Instead they sat in the rubble-littered courtyard prodding the pale chunks that floated in their wooden bowls, awaiting the next action and hoping they’d capture some of the enemy’s rations.
Cale Black was a young nondescript blond-haired Australian, whose only distinguishing feature was a fresh and prominent scar that marked the left side of his face. The older man alongside him was a hulking South African named Peter Woolfe, whose skin was the colour of damp soil. They had met a year before in Panama on another mercenary action, and together with Magar they were the only mercenaries in the force who weren’t natives of Eastern European or Slavic countries.
“You want my kidney chunks?” Black asked Woolfe.
The other man shot him a sideways glance and didn’t respond. Black grunted and set his bowl aside on the low cinderblock wall, opting instead to take a swig from his flask of cheap sharp-edged vodka that brought on a spasm of coughing.
Woolfe snorted at him.
“Shut up,” Black muttered. “Damn this place; I need to get out of here – I’m losing too much weight.”
The South-African swallowed a mouthful of rassol’nik with a cringe. “There’s no payday unless the contract is fulfilled,” he rumbled. “Have patience, boy – Magar won’t contend with this nightmare much longer.”
The commander chose that moment to appear, striding briskly into the courtyard in his immaculate fatigues and trademark black beret and managing to look a lot larger than he really was. Black, Woolfe, and the rest of the fifty haphazardly-attired mercenaries shuffled to their feet in expectation. The Alligator stopped and surveyed his men, hands clasped behind his back and feet slightly apart. He didn’t say anything for a long moment, and the men remained silent, waiting for the legend to address them.
“I hope you are all well-rested,” Magar announced cheerfully in his prim Indian/British accent. “Those Russian bastards are on the move again.”
That was how it was. The force moved on Magar’s intelligence without question – none would doubt the word of the Alligator. A Russian army unit, he told them, was approaching the rebel’s concealed stronghold in the town’s centre. In order to avoid their own landmines, the Russians were likely to traverse a minor street known to the merc squad as ‘sniper alley’ – that was where they would set their ambush.
As the men filed out, Magar had unexpectedly called Black aside. The young Australian was surprised and a little honoured to be singled out.
“Cale, are you still using that old .45?” Magar asked him.
“Uh, yeah.” He took out the rusty Colt pistol and Magar took it off him with a grimace of distaste.
“I do not know what corpse you stole that from, but a poorly-maintenanced handgun can see you dead in a dozen different ways.” Magar took out a bulky black automatic and two spare clips, passing them to the younger man. “That is a Glock 20C,” the Indian said. “Ten millimetre – stop a charging bear in its tracks. Always carry protection.”
“Thank you sir,” Black said, inspecting the oversized pistol.
“I’m not a ‘sir’, Cale – I’m just a merc.”
Black adjusted his hip holster to accommodate the larger gun, and then slung his SVDS Dragunov Sniper Rifle over a shoulder before rejoining the others as they moved off through the ruined town.
Gutted warehouses lined the debris-littered street, their pockmarked brick walls looking down on sniper alley with empty windows and blackened shell-scars. The mercenary soldiers dispersed into the skeletal structures along one side, concealing themselves behind broken cement walls and piles of rubble.
The hunched-over crouching position was one they had all become painfully familiar with during the campaign – sneaking and hiding like rodents in holes.
The rats of Chechnya, Black thought to himself as he hunkered down beside Woolfe. He had a good line of sight through an empty windowsill, through which he could aim his Dragunov down the street where the enemy was expected to ingress. They would wait until the full force had moved into the open before hitting them hard from cover.
“Where’d Magar get his intel?” Woolfe asked suddenly.
“Dunno. The rebels?” Black shrugged. The Alligator himself had remained with the Chechens to organize them into an effective defence in case the Russians broke through.
Woolfe looked thoughtful for a moment, and then tilted his head suddenly.
“What?” Black stared at him.
Woolfe put a finger to his lips and the both listened; a soft thrumming could be heard in the distance.
“A Hind?” Black said.
“No,” Woolfe grunted. “Something smaller. Faster.”
“Bullshit, you can’t tell that.”
Their banter dissolved instantly – a gunshot cracked nearby, followed by a shout. They spun around with wide eyes and raised guns, nerves taut with the sudden adrenaline burst. More shots followed, coming from within the buildings where the mercs had hidden.
“We’ve been made!” Black snarled through clenched teeth, and as if to emphasise the point, a pair of Russian soldiers in dun-coloured fatigues rolled into view from behind a half-fallen brick wall with Kalashnikov rifles up and ready to fire.
Black pulled his trigger first, almost by reflex alone, and a high-powered round from his rifle slammed into the chest of the first soldier. For his part, Woolfe unleashed a half-wild burst from his RPK-74 light machinegun that pummelled the second soldier.
“Shitfuck,” Woolfe growled as they both lunged to their feet. All around them gunshots snapped and echoed through the brick and concrete ruins – bullets biting into the masonry with little explosions of dust. They couldn’t see any of the others, cut off as they were in an alcove, until one of the other mercenaries came sprinting around a corner with terror written across his face. The man was cut down in mid-stride, bullets punching into his back and knocking him headlong to the ground.
Woolfe bellowed and fired another loud rattling burst with his RPK through the opening as more Russian troops appeared. “Out the window!” he shouted while forcing the enemy back. “Move!”
Black complied, vaulting over the low wall and out onto the street. He turned and fired two shots from his Dragunov through the opening, forcing the Russians back momentarily so that Woolfe could dive out headfirst. They both stuck low and jogged crouched-over as a hail of bullets followed them through the window.
The pair moved along the wall with Black in the lead, keeping down out of the line of fire. There were more shots and screams from within the warehouses, and in front of them one of their allies toppled limply from a doorway with a bloody hole in his forehead.
“Jesus Christ – they’re killing us,” Black muttered, slinging the rifle behind his back. “How the hell did they know where we were?” He drew the Glock pistol and held it in front of him with a two-handed grip.
The element of surprise that their entire strategy always hinged upon had suddenly been snatched away and turned against them. The mercenary force was being slaughtered as the Russian troops, outnumbering them two to one, poured into the structures from behind.
Black scuttled forward and pressed himself against the wall alongside the doorway. Sneaking a half-second glance through the opening he moved back into cover, briefly visualizing the positions of the three soldiers he had seen. Then he lunged out, swinging the pistol into the opening and snapping off three shots.
He took a second to reflect on the impressive performance of the 10mm as the three Russians crumpled to the ground; the ported barrel had dramatically cut the muzzle jump when firing, though the large-calibre rounds still packed stopping power to match a small rifle.
He fell back behind the wall as a phalanx of troops moved into view.
“What’s the plan?” he asked Woolfe.
“Retreat,” the South-African replied simply.
“I’m just gettin’ warmed up.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy,” the older man muttered. “The battle is over. Listen.”
Black listened – the gunfire had stopped. As quickly as it had begun, the slaughter was finished. They stared at each other for a moment before Black spoke in a lowered voice: “Do you think we’re the only ones left?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Woolfe said, motioning for Black to follow him. They broke from the wall and began sprinting across the open street, zigzagging as rounds began to hiss past them and strike chips from the cracked asphalt. The Russian soldiers spilled from the warehouses and fired at the two fleeing figures, but Black and Woolfe disappeared into an alley and were lost from sight.
“So I guess we’re finished here then,” Black said breathlessly as he ran behind Woolfe. “We just lost pretty much the entire force.”
Woolfe didn’t respond; the buzzing sound they had heard earlier had grown more intense. As the pair emerged onto the next battle-ravaged street they immediately saw the source of the noise hovering above the buildings predatorily – an Mi-28 ‘Havoc’ attack helicopter, dressed in a green/grey camouflage scheme and bristling with air-to-surface weaponry.
The chin-mounted machinegun turret on the Havoc swung in their direction, prompting the two of them to break and run, narrowly avoiding a stream of 30mm rounds that punched into the brick wall next to them. The helicopter banked and dropped down toward the street to get a better shot at the mercenaries, kicking up great swirling clouds of dust in the downdraft. Black and Woolfe ran hard, heading for the carcass of a burnt-out Lada that sat dejectedly on the road ahead. As another blast of cannon-fire from the Havoc spattered the asphalt around them they leapt together across the bonnet of the little car and flattened themselves behind it.
“Wotta revoltin’ development!” Black quipped through gritted teeth. Several rounds punched straight through the rusted body of the car, and then they both heard a distinct hair-raising whoosh audible above the roar of the rotors.
“Move it!” Woolfe yelled, launching up and away from the car. Black went in the other direction, leaping to the side moments before a 9M17 Falanga anti-tank missile slammed into the Lada and engulfed it in a fireball.
The concussive force of the blast sent Black sprawling with the sting of hot metal against his lower back. He found himself on his hands and knees with his face mere inches away from the flat pressure pad of a PMN landmine, its 200 grams of TNT nestling snugly in a pothole partially covered by dirt.
Climbing to his feet, he turned to see the Havoc pivoting to track him. He stepped carefully over the landmine and backed towards the cement wall behind him. The helicopter descended until Black could see the visor-covered head of the weapons-operator in the forward canopy. The machinegun turret fixed on him.
Black aimed his pistol and fired. The shot was good, striking the top of the landmine and causing the pressure pad to depress.
With a bone-jarring crunch, the anti-personnel explosive detonated, lifting a large chunk of road surface into the air and spewing a geyser of dust and smoke that temporarily hid Black from the helicopter’s line of sight.
Taking the opportunity, he dashed along the wall a few metres to where an empty window frame beckoned. Black clambered through into a roofless fire-gutted structure and looked around. To his left there was an old wrought-iron staircase leading up the wall to a landing that had an arched window overlooking the street outside.
Black ran up the dangerously unstable stairs two at a time, holstering the Glock as he went and unslinging the Dragunov from his shoulder. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but whatever it was, he knew it would have to be an impressive performance.
Across the street, Woolfe was pinned-down. After losing sight of Black, the Havoc had turned to hunt the South-African. A previously-used heaping of sandbags served as cover, with the helicopter unable to manoeuvre between the buildings for a better firing position. Large-calibre rounds were flung against the crude barricade, sending plumes of sand into the air to be blasted against Woolfe’s skin by the rotors’ downdraft.
During a break in the barrage he risked a quick look around the sandbags to locate his young companion. For a moment he could see nothing save for swirling dust beneath the helicopter’s fuselage, but then a movement from above caught his attention and he looked up to see Cale propped up in a second-floor window gesturing frantically with his arm for Woolfe to come over to his position.
Woolfe grunted and ducked back down behind the sandbags as the Havoc fired another burst.
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” he muttered to himself. He gripped the RPK-74, wishing for one chance – one straight barrage at the canopy of the attack helicopter. Then his eyes widened as he realized Black’s intent.
Cursing, he dropped the machinegun to lighten himself and breathed out slowly. With a final grimace he launched up and over the barricade, landing on the tarmac and running hard. The helicopter was above him, the tremendous winds from its rotors pressing down on his head and shoulders, roaring in his ears, and blowing grit into his eyes.
The Havoc pilot began to pivot the aircraft to follow him, taking care not to clip the nearby structures with the tail boom or rotor tips. Black sighted through the scope of his Dragunov, waiting for the chopper to turn fully in his direction. The scar on his cheek itched.
Woolfe was ten metres from the opposite building when the Helicopter’s cannon drew bead on him again. Bullets bit into the ground around him, sending chips of tarmac lancing into his skin. He raced headlong, teeth bared and head down, toward the empty window frame set in the wall ahead.
Black trained the crosshairs of the rifle’s scope on the upper bubble canopy, his line of sight cutting just beneath the blurred line of the main rotor. Through the glass of the cockpit he could see the helmet of the pilot, distracted by his pursuit of Woolfe below. At the last moment, Black saw the man’s head lift slightly. In that instant he knew that the pilot had seen him and realized… but it was too late.
Black pulled the trigger and the sniper rifle bucked into his shoulder, spitting a high-powered, armour-piercing round. A spiderweb appeared on the canopy’s forward pane, and the pilot’s helmet visor shattered. Slowly at first, the aircraft began to tilt backwards, wobbling at an alarming angle; and then the tail rotor struck the ground and tore apart with a shriek. The Havoc began spinning on its axis, and Woolfe barely avoided being struck by the mangled tail section as it spun past him. He climbed in through the window as the helicopter’s main rotor bit into the wall and the whole aircraft was flung violently to the ground, its fuselage splitting open and flame erupting where fuel began leaking onto hot engine parts.
Woolfe picked himself up as Black bounded down the stairs to meet him.
“Did you see that?” the Australian exclaimed. “I hit that guy, right through the…” His boasting was suddenly cut off as the helicopter exploded, blasting flame and debris through the windows from outside. Black leapt aside as a section of wall fell nearby, and he ended up on his butt.
“Jesus,” he grunted. The Glock pistol had fallen from his unsecured holster when he fell, and he reached to pick it up, but paused with his hand hovering over the pistol. The base cap had somehow separated from the end of the clip, though he could see it had only been held on by glue; it was a substitute, a plastic moulded cover that had concealed…
“Pete… get a look at this,” Black said darkly, picking up the transmitter chip that had been hidden in his gun.
Woolfe looked and shook his head. “Magar…” he growled. “That was what gave the Russians our position.”
“He sold us out,” Black said, his eyes blazing. “That fucking pig!”
“Let it go boy,” Woolfe muttered. “We’re done here. The game was played, we lost, and it’s finished. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”
A snarl contorted the young Australian’s face as he bared his teeth and hissed in fury. “No.”
“No!” he said again, crushing the transmitter in his fist and slamming the Glock back in his holster. “I’m gonna settle up with that fucker right now.”
“He’s probably long gone,” Woolfe said again, cocking his head at the sound of approaching boots. “As we should be.”
“Right.” Black started off through the ruins, heading to the west.
“Cale,” Woolfe called, “you’re heading back to the stronghold.” Black didn’t reply, and with an inward groan Woolfe reluctantly followed after him.
Bullet-riddled bodies, like red-dappled rag dolls, were strewn across the courtyard. The macabre scene of slaughter greeted the two mercenaries when they returned to the rebel stronghold.
“This is fucking brutal,” Woolfe growled as he surveyed the mass of murdered Chechen resistance fighters. “I hope Magar got a good deal for this.”
Black narrowed his eyes and shrugged the Dragunov from his shoulder, passing the rifle to Woolfe and drawing the Glock.
“How could he do it?” the Australian said. “After we’ve been fighting alongside these people for all this time, how could he throw it all aside like this?”
“Probably had it planned from the start,” the South African replied. “Form an entrenched resistance cell that harries the Russians long enough to become a real problem and push up the value of his defection.”
Black grunted and looked up. Voices came to them from outside the compound and he shot Woolfe a glance.
“Kid, you’re not going to walk away from this,” the older man said, trying to reason with his friend.
“Pete, I might be young, but I’ve walked away from some pretty hairy shit before we met, and after.” Black checked his gun. “But I understand if you don’t wanna follow me into this.”
Woolfe sighed. “I’ll help you,” he said at last. “I owe you for Panama.”
Black didn’t argue, and the two of them moved off toward the gates.
Magar stood with five unknown soldiers in grey fatigues beside two jeeps. They were met by a small detachment of Russian troops in a covered truck, led by a tall Major who stepped down cautiously to greet the mercenaries. A few words were exchanged, and the Russian troops set about unloading three large steel crates from the back of the truck; heavy boxes marked with the faded red star of the Soviet Union.
Cale didn’t care. His eyes fixed on Magar – the diminutive Indian mercenary commander stood aloof and apparently unconcerned by the slaughter he had orchestrated. Black’s eyes blazed. He glanced at Woolfe; the two of them were crouched behind an abandoned car, watching.
“You open up from here,” he whispered. “I’ll circle ‘round and hit ’em from the side.”
“Sounds like about a quarter of a plan,” Woolfe muttered.
Black spat and lurched off silently, keeping his head down.
It was one of Magar’s men who spotted the Australian first, noticing the running figure. He gave a shout of warning and raised his gun to fire on Black. But before he had a chance to shoot, a high-powered round buried itself into his forehead, accompanied by the crack of the Dragunov rifle. Black moved behind the Russians’ truck as Woolfe fired again from cover, taking another soldier.
The Russians, Magar, and his men, scattered toward the sides of the street while firing at Woolfe’s position. Black emerged from cover to surprise two of the Russians, snapping off two rapid shots from the Glock that sent them down with gouts of blood. One of Woolfe’s shots whistled past his head and bit into the chest of another of Magar’s mercenaries who had loomed up behind him. Black crouched to pick up one of the dead men’s rifles but was forced back by a spattering of gunfire from across the way.
“Damn it!” he snarled, pressing himself against a brick wall. He scanned the street and located Magar, crouched near a wall with an MP5 in his hands. He looked up at the same time as Black spotted him, and for a moment their eyes met, mutual contempt jumping back and fourth between them. Both men moved simultaneously swinging their weapons to bear.
Black fired the pistol again and again, stepping forward as he did, ignoring the stream of rounds Magar’s SMG spat in his direction. One of the Indian’s bullets struck his left bicep, but he only grunted and kept firing. Another scored a deep graze along his thigh, but he barely noticed.
Black’s fifth shot hit Magar’s right hand, the 10mm round tearing off the index and middle finger in an explosion of blood and bone chips. Magar roared in agony as the MP5 was knocked from his limp bloodied grasp, and he clutched at the bleeding stumps of his two fingers. Black fired again from across the street, hitting the mercenary commander in the stomach and sending him sprawling.
It was then that the enemy troops regrouped. Black ran for cover but there was none; a spray of gunfire followed him as he moved, and would have cut him down if the Russians’ truck hadn’t trundled noisily into the line of fire in between Black and the soldiers. Cale looked up to see Woolfe hunched down in the driver’s seat to avoid the volleys of gunfire that punched into the side of the lumbering vehicle.
Gratefully, Black reached up with his uninjured arm and caught hold of the mirror, hauling himself up onto the side-runner and climbing into the cab. Woolfe gunned the engine and drove away from the troops.
“Ta,” Black grunted, pressing a hand over the wound in his arm.
“You get Magar?” Woolfe asked as he shook glass shards off his bald head.
“Think so.” Black looked in the mirror. “They’re following,” he said. The remaining Russians and mercenaries had started up Magar’s two jeeps and started off in pursuit.
“They’re faster than us,” Woolfe noted unnecessarily.
Black looked ahead through the shattered glass, getting his bearings.
“Hang a right up here and floor it,” he said.
“A right?” Woolfe asked. “But that’s Death Valley.”
The South-African grinned and inclined his head. “I like your thinking boy.” He took the corner without braking and shifted the truck into third, pushing the accelerator to the floor.
Ahead, almost invisible to the untrained eye, an intricate crisscross mesh of fine tripwires was stretched across the road about a foot from the tarmac and continuing some hundred metres down the road. The wires were attached to the omni-directional trigger prongs of a few hundred ‘Valmara’ 69 bounding fragmentation mines that lined the street on both sides. An anti-personnel mine, the Valmara bounces 80 centimetres off the ground before exploding and firing up to 2000 metal fragments 360 degrees all around.
As the pursuing jeeps rounded the corner and closed on the truck, Woolfe drove the big vehicle into the tripwires.
Dozens of trigger prongs were pulled roughly to the side as the truck barrelled through the mined street. The sand-coloured cylinders along either side sprang up from their mountings and hung in the air for a few moments before detonating. Two walls of fire and smoke erupted behind the truck, sending out scything clouds of razor-sharp shrapnel that tore into the back of the vehicle as it went, puncturing the rear tyres and shredding the canvas tarpaulin covers.
The two jeeps drove straight into the hail of fire and deadly fragments, their bodies and windows being torn asunder and the occupants shredded by the devastating onslaught. One of the vehicles’ fuel tanks exploded, adding to the wave of flaming destruction that followed the fleeing truck up the street.
When they finally cleared ‘Death Valley’, Woolfe brought the tattered, smoking truck to a grinding stop and they both craned their necks to look back. Nothing could be seen of the two jeeps within the billowing black cloud of smoke that enveloped the street. Flame licked at the demolished building fronts and small chunks of rubble projected by the explosions still fell from the air.
“That worked,” Woolfe said, pulling a fresh stogie out of his breast pocket and clamping it between his teeth.
Black grunted and settled back in the seat. “Let’s piss off before more heat comes down on this place.”
As Woolfe coaxed the damaged vehicle forward, Black absently inspected the Glock 20C that Magar had given him. He chewed his lip thoughtfully and replaced the pistol in his holster.
“What a nightmare,” he muttered.