“You ready, Jack?” Ian asked, his voice staticky over the earpiece.
“Intel’s solid?” Jack asked, leaning out of the alley to see if there was a guard posted outside.
“Apartment rented to a known insurgent under the name ‘Mohammad Attah,’ so one, these guys aren’t playing at subtle, and they’re not rocket scientists.”
“Good,” Jack said, “I could really use punching someone who deserves it.”
“Rules of engagement?”
“Shoot to wound where possible, and only then when you have to. I can pull a punch, you can’t pull a bullet. We may need them for questioning.”
“Works for me,” Ian said. “This rifle kicks like a mule, even firing prone, and my shoulder isn’t what it once was.”
“How’s your visibility?”
“Awful. Curtains all drawn. I can see silhouettes of movement, but once you’re in you’ll only be a slightly bigger blob than the rest.”
“You sure you don’t want to come in with me?”
“Yes, because I remember why we’re here- because I went in with you last time- and I’m only still here because the man in that building stopped me from bleeding out on a filthy street in Najaf.”
“Then I’ll get the curtains down, first thing.”
“It’s either that or I start blind-firing into the building.”
“Funny,” Jack said, and slid along the wall, halving the distance between minimizing his exposure and being inconspicuous, until he reached the door. “Ready?”
“My grand-nieces are ready, you’re moving so slowly.”
Jack leaned across the door and knocked, before shrinking back, careful to avoid either the door or the window. He heard the muffled sounds of conversation form within, then several shots shattered through the door and frame.
“They don’t seem to be playing nicely, do they?” Ian asked.
“I was hoping for an excuse to take off the gloves tonight,” Jack said, and kicked the door in. He unclipped a grenade from his belt and tossed it inside, before rolling away as another volley of fire pierced the open doorway. “Watch the door.”
Smoke billowed from the grenade, filling the room. An insurgent emerged from it, filling the doorway, raising a .357 revolver. A shot rang out, knocking the gun from his fingers with a loud crack. “Smith & Wesson,” Ian said. “Shame to ruin such a beautiful piece of kit- for an American weapon.”
“You prefer a Walther?”
“I prefer something less ostentatious and more practical… but I suppose we Brits don’t have nearly as much to overcompensate for. And Walther’s a German firearm.”
“Bit below the belt.”
“That is where you Americans tend to keep your insecurities,” Ian said, his smile apparent from his voice.
“You’re in a mood tonight,” Jack said, rolling a flashbang inside. “Everything okay?”
“Never,” he replied, the response mostly lost in the sound of the grenade.
“Anything you want to talk about?”
“You can ply me with liquor, later, to see.”
“I’m not sure I can afford your bar tab.”
“Hugh showed me the balance sheet for the investments he made on your behalf. You can afford me and then some.”
“Can your liver?”
“Means you’ll have to leave one of these alive enough for a transplant.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Jack said. He thumbed the button off his holster, then switched off the safety. He was hoping he wouldn’t need to kill anyone, but he’d never been skittish about taking lives to save them.
Jack rolled inside, snatching the curtain nearest to the door and tearing the rod from the wall, sending it flying in the direction of two standing, coughing men. He landed in a crouch, pausing to listen for signs of others.
There was a dense hole in the wall of sound around him, about the size of a man in a chair. Jack bolted for the next window pulling the curtains down. This time he caught the rod, a heavy, hollow metal six feet long. Movement, stumbling, behind him, about 7 o’clock. Jack spun, swinging the rod around him, catching a man in the face, and through the smoke Jack saw flecks of blood and spittle fly from him.
Jack could hear movement towards the dead sound; the insurgents he hit with the first rod were still moving.
“How’s your visibility?” Jack asked.
“Smoke’s just thin enough to catch glimpses. The one you just hit’s getting up.”
“Would you mind suppressing him?”
A bullet smashed through the window, raining shards of glass down on the man behind Jack.
“He’s staying down,” Ian said.
“Perfect.” Jack advanced towards the dead spot in the room, swinging the curtain rod high. He hit one man, and his arm brushed a second. Jack delivered a short, sharp strike from his elbow, and felt both men hit the floor in quick succession.
The dead spot at the center of the room was still there, but closer now. Jack could hear breathing, and the slight shift of clothes beneath rope. Jack reached out, and found a head of curly hair, which he traced to the back of a head, where he found a knot holding a gag in place. He untied the knot. “How many here?”
“Four, here,” Jalal said. “A fifth went for food.”
“Got movement, at the door,” Ian said over the radio.
Jack spun, and flung the curtain rod like a spear at the door, hitting him square in the chest and knocking him onto the ground. “Gun?” Jack asked.
“Doesn’t look like it. Though I think he has burgers.”
“Fries?” Jack asked.
“It’s a brown paper sack with a cartoon burger on it. And you’re the one who could have been holding the bag by now, instead of asking me questions about it.”
“You wouldn’t mind freeing me first, before you stop for a bite…” Jalaln said.
“Of course not,” Jack said, and pulled a knife out of its scabbard. He slipped the blade between Jalal’s wrists, and carefully sawed away until the rope broke.
“Yes,” Jalal said.
“They took your family?”
“Yes. They were afraid the army might try something, or that I might. Keeping us apart meant I couldn’t do anything to tell the police, or leave you clues.”
“But of course, they still had to demand a ransom,” Ian said from the doorway. “That was how I found out. “He was digging through the brown paper bag. “No fries,” he said. “And apparently I was wrong, these are ‘lamburgers.’”
“I could eat,” Jack said, and Ian tossed him a paper-wrapped burger.
Jalal cursed loudly, kicking one of the insurgents on the floor. “Damnable idiots,” he said. “They expected the Army to pay a million dollars each for me and my family. The US government abandoned me to this. Why would they pay a ransom?”
“Lamburger?” Ian asked, holding one out.
“I don’t want food, I want my family.”
“Ugh,” Jack said through a bite, “think he made the right choice. The lamb may have turned.”
“You ever had a lamburger before?” Ian asked. Jack shook his head. “I don’t know if you’d be able to tell the difference.”