It was Hitu’s turn to be the ‘ready’ company when the first call came in. A party of some thirty or so traffickers had been discovered coming down one of the trails he had himself originally found and subsequently prepared.
The base was suddenly very busy, men moving around in every direction. There wasn’t actually much to do till the choppers that were already making their way arrived. This would be their first time out there though, and whilst everyone was convinced they had packed the right tools and equipment, they were checking again to be absolutely sure. Even the captain, usually relaxed almost to the point of slowness, had an eagerness in his stride that Andrew hadn’t seen him show before.
“Get your team ready too,” he ordered Andrew as he approached. “This is a big party, so I think both companies should go so that we’ve got superiority of numbers. We’ll leave one person from each of your teams back at base, but we’ll still have sixty or so men in the field – should be more than enough. I’ll be coming out myself this time, so you’d better leave one of your sergeants to oversee the men we’re leaving behind.”
Andrew realised that this would be the first time the captain had left the encampment to venture into the jungle. Still, his presence would save any discussion about who was in charge between himself and Hitu. They’d left the Academy at the same time and with similar marks, though he’d joined up a few days earlier than Hitu. The difference wasn’t much at all, but in the Werlder Force it was all that was needed. Technically, he outranked Hitu, albeit by such a little bit and on such flimsy grounds.
He saluted, and hurried off to relay these instructions. He’d leave Sergeant Johanssen behind. No doubt the sergeant would be disappointed but he couldn’t help that. It was a job someone had to do after all and for the time being he’d want to have the extra experience Sergeant Flynn would bring with him.
“Take one man out of each team, and the same for Lieutenant Kopapetu’s, to stay behind,” he instructed the sergeant once he’d found him. “Better make them mainly comms guys. We won’t be needing that particular skill this time.”
The sergeant saluted. The look of obvious disappointment on his face told Andrew he hadn’t been wrong, but the sergeant hurried off to carry out his instructions.
His own men, though planning to be the ‘relief’ team that day, were pretty much as ready as Hitu’s own team. He barked instructions to Sergeant Major Smith, and to Sergeant Flynn, as soon as he found them. They were pleasantly surprised to be going out, that much he could see, and soon joined in with the others to carry out their last minute orders.
There wasn’t enough room in the camp for all four helicopters to land at once. Two of them hung back a few hundred yards while Hitu’s team clambered on the first two.
The captain was at his shoulder and called over the noise of the choppers that he’d travel up with Andrew. That would make his own chopper quite full – there was only just enough room in each for eighteen men, half his company. Then he remembered he was leaving men behind. There’d be room enough after all. He noted that the flight lieutenants had co-pilots with them this time. They were, after all, going ‘into battle’, so had loaded their full complement before setting off. When the second pair of choppers had landed he climbed into the back, with his captain. He hadn’t seen Anne – she certainly wasn’t piloting the bird they were now in. Maybe this was happening on one of her rest days so she wasn’t on duty.
Once settled aboard the ‘copter took off. The others hadn’t waited, ferrying Hitu’s team straight to the LZ for unloading. This would mean it should be clear again by the time they arrived. Like at base, the LZs had only been constructed to accommodate two choppers, not four.
There was an unusual silence among the men. The noise of the chopper’s engines wasn’t conducive to conversation of course, especially without headsets, but usually the teams he’d been travelling with would try to have a little bit of chat at least. No doubt they were all deep in their own thoughts about the forthcoming conflict, even his own captain, who’d grabbed the offered headset and replaced his usual helmet with it as soon as he’d got aboard. Andrew felt no need to break the silence himself.
After a short flight they could see the LZ they were heading for below them. The LZs were pretty small but nonetheless not difficult to see from the air, contrasting so much as they did with the dense jungle that surrounded them.
The helicopters that had taken Hitu and his team were already lifting back off as they made their final approach, having unloaded their human cargo, so there was no delay in landing. He jumped out as soon as the chopper set down, and was followed by his men immediately afterwards, along with the captain. The other chopper, which had set down beside them, quickly emptied too, and they took straight off again to follow their colleagues back to base. They’d return when called for.
Hitu and his team were waiting for them at the edge of the LZ. They weren’t exactly ‘lined up’, but did stand around the edge of the small circle of the LZ almost as if waiting for inspection.
“The ambush site’s through here, sir,” he called over the sound of the departing helicopters. The original location plans were pretty accurate and he’d confirmed these were correct after his second visit to the site to prepare for this occasion, but still felt he should be leading the companies to their destination. He indicated to a couple of men to take point and followed them straight on, the captain immediately behind him. His company followed them in combat moving formation and Hitu’s company brought up the rear the same way.
He realised now that they had only prepared the site to accommodate a single company, not having expected such a large contingent of traffickers to be coming down towards them. Still, the site was certainly capable of being expanded and they would have time enough to do this before the approaching convoy got within earshot.
They were being as quiet as possible, though this many men couldn’t move through a jungle without making some noise at least. Consequently, it took them several minutes to reach the trail which would take them up to the ambush point. Once at the trail however their progress became much quicker and they soon reached the point where they’d planned to ambush the column of traffickers.
He stopped, indicating to the two men ahead of him to do likewise.
“This is it, sir,” he said to the captain, who was now stood next to him. He realised he was whispering, rather than talking. He didn’t really need to do this. The approaching ‘bad guys’ would be a long way off yet, but the situation seemed to call for it somehow.
“OK,” came the whispered reply. “Send three of your men forward about fifteen minutes so they can find somewhere suitable to watch the trail from to let us know when the train is arriving, then we’ll split up. Lieutenant Kopapetu’s company can take one side of the assault and your own the other.”
There was no ‘suggestion’ this time. It was clearly an order. He saluted and relayed these instructions to Sergeant Major Smith who’d now made his way past the men in single file behind and was waiting, expectantly, for orders a short but respectful distance away.
They were quickly passed by the three chosen men, one of whom carried the radio that would bring them the message of their enemy’s approach. The captain was already moving back down to Hitu, planning to send some of his team back down the trail, both to watch for anyone approaching from that direction and to ensure no survivors of the initial assault got past. Andrew led his company of men back into the undergrowth along the west side of the trail. They followed as quietly as they could.
He realised that this was the alternative site he’d chosen himself, the trail leading down a kind of gully overlooked by small banks on either side. They’d be able to fire down into the gully without risk to the troops on the opposite side. The bank he now stood on stretched in both directions – probably best to put the extra men on both sides. Still, he’d wait for the captain’s approval before starting any work that might be needed. He crept back to the sergeant major.
“Take two of the teams and get them settled in here. Make sure the heavier machine guns are at either end. Once the captain’s agreed I’ll get the other two teams settled at either end.”
He wouldn’t need to use the additional manpower the teams he was taking out could provide and this way they’d at least be ready if the traffickers came down the trail sooner than expected.
It was several minutes before the captain joined him. He’d gone up the opposite bank with Hitu and his team to see the site from that side first. Andrew quickly explained his thinking to Captain Kergoat.
“Lieutenant Kopapetu and I agree,” the captain replied. “We’ve just been debating it on the other side of the trail and came to the same conclusion. You take one team down to where they’ll be headed. I’ll get the other team started up where we’ll first see them. Andrew knew that ‘they’ meant the approaching traffickers.
He passed down the line of men to lead them from the other end. They’d maintained their single file marching formation whilst stopped and waiting for orders. As he passed each man he quietly gave him instructions – leave about four or five yards between each of them then find somewhere they could overlook the trail without being seen. If this meant digging down a bit to get better cover sobeit. The jungle floor here was quite light, being mainly composed of vegetation that had fallen from the trees above. Digging it out wouldn’t be much of a problem.
He sited the one heavy machine gun in this team last to make sure no-one got past this point. The lighter machine gun he placed in the middle of this team, where it would have better coverage. He left the men to find suitable locations and made his way back up to the first team, to see how his sergeant major was fairing. It seemed he’d made the same decisions as Andrew. The same sort of distance between each of the men, the heavier machine gun first this time, or at the other end of the line anyway. It depended which way you thought of it. The lighter gun was in the middle of the team. Whether they’d picked precise positions for themselves, or had them pointed out by Sergeant Major Smith, Andrew wasn’t sure, but they seemed good and he had no better suggestions to add himself, so left them to finally settle in.
He found Captain Kergoat already on his way to him for a SitRep. He reported his teams were now sited and preparing their positions.
“OK,” said the captain. “I’m going to go back to Lieutenant Kopapetu’s team and lead the attack from the middle of that opposite side. You stay here and get the team you’ve just settled in overseen by one of your sergeants.”
The captain left before Andrew could remind him he’d left one of his sergeants back at base. The captain being on the opposite bank would leave him a bit light on people to command the men. Still, it would also mean that he’d be in charge on this side of the gully, so he wasn’t going to complain. He made his way back to where the first of his riflemen now lay in waiting. As he’d thought, there’d been little more work to be done, and this team had settled in quickly.
He made his way along the line, giving each of the riflemen a number. This would be the number of the man they’d fire at first on their side of the trail. The traffickers were probably travelling in single file, the mules interspersed amongst them. But if they were using the full width of the trail they might be two abreast, or they might be obscured from this side of the gully by the mules. If that was the case they’d be targets for Hitu’s men instead. Giving everyone a target to start with would mean they weren’t all shooting at the same person. He didn’t include the machine gunners in this exercise. Their guns weren’t as precise. Also, they’d been instructed not to fire unless they felt they had to. They wanted to take out all of the traffickers without hitting any of the mules or unwilling drovers. The machine guns were too imprecise for this task. They’d be used if needed – better one or two mules got hit than losing one of their own men.
Those final instructions given, Sergeant Flynn sent down to oversee the troops that would be the last to see the convoy approach, and so would also be attacking it’s ‘front’, and having checked everything with the sergeant major, there was nothing else to do now except await the arrival of the traffickers.
He positioned himself behind the first team, or perhaps the last – they’d be the first team to see the column’s arrival, but would be attacking it’s rear. He toyed with his pistol, the first time he’d taken it out of its holster ‘in anger’. He probably wouldn’t use it. He certainly wasn’t expecting to have to, but its presence was comforting.
He was hungry while he waited. The call to action had come just before lunchtime so he hadn’t eaten since he’d breakfasted several hours before. He could open one of the tins in his kit of course, but it was now more than a couple of hours since they’d first got the call to react. The traffickers would be coming down the trail in an hour or so, and it might be even quicker than that. He dug through his pockets and found a packet of chocolate drops he’d been carrying to give to any kids he might meet. He ate these hungrily, and washed them down with a few sips from his canteen of water. He had P. Mendez, with his usual radio, not far from him and offered one of the sweets to him. The private declined, indicating without speaking that he had his own supply of food if it was needed.
The waiting seemed to be taking an inordinately long time. Eventually the radio crackled into life. It buzzed first to get their attention. Then two long breaks followed by eight shorter ones told him the column comprised twenty eight people. No words were necessary. It would have been good to know how the column was travelling – single file or abreast – but there wasn’t really time to change his men’s positions whatever the answer to this, so the information would have been pretty academic anyway. The observation team would probably be far enough from the trail for their voices not to be heard, but the simple non-verbal method of communicating would ensure this wasn’t left to chance.
He indicated to the men in front of him to turn on their ear pieces. The order to fire would be heard by all of them at once, so there’d be no delay in their responses. The silencers each had screwed on to the end of his rifle would also help lengthen, albeit by only a few moments, the surprise of their attack. With luck, all of the traffickers would be dead or badly wounded before they even realised they were being fired on. That was the plan anyway.
If Andrew could have held his breath for the fifteen or so more minutes it took for the first of the traffickers to come into view, he would have done. He couldn’t of course instead drawing in shallow, almost hesitant, breaths while he waited.
It seemed to take forever for the column to pass by his vantage point once they’d come far enough down the trail to be seen.
The order to fire, preceded by a ‘3-2-1’ so everyone would be ready at the same time, was whispered but clear enough through the earpiece. Instantly there were thwacks as the silenced rifles shot at their targets. There was a second muffled burst of gunfire, as the men who hadn’t been successful fired again and some of those who had sighted new targets. Below them, most of the men lay dead – those carrying weapons at least. The bewildered drovers still holding on to the reins of the mules they were leading, were looking at these bodies, obviously wondering what had happened. One or two quickly put their hands up in the air, to show they were unarmed and surrendering. Such a gesture was an international signal. They were quickly joined by their comrades.
That was it, really. No big battle, no fire fights to take out hardened killers, just a few splats followed by silence. The attack had actually gone exactly as planned, though Andrew couldn’t help feeling a little ‘cheated’.
At the instruction of Captain Kergoat he led half his men down to the trail, leaving the other half to watch the fallen ‘bad guys’ to make sure none of them started to shoot at the emerging troops. The ambush site had proved good, and they didn’t want to disturb the cover it offered. They might need to use it again. They also didn’t want the traffickers to find out their modus operandi too soon. The element of surprise such attacks gave them was too good a weapon to give up too easily.
The convoy had been a big one. There had been a dozen mules, each laden with around 40lb of cocaine in 2lb bags so nearly 500lb in all. They checked that the men offering their surrender didn’t have any concealed weapons, and that there were none on the mules either. Once they had been thoroughly searched they were sent, with their mules, down the trail. They were escorted by Hitu and half of his company. The other half of the company followed. They’d unload the cocaine once they got as close to the LZ as the trail allowed, then transport it by hand to the helicopters that would take it back to base. The captain went with them.
Andrew, meanwhile, had been tasked with clearing away the bodies and making sure – or trying to at least – that any evidence of the attack was removed from the trail.
He’d already decided on a suitable burial spot for the bodies. On his last visit he’d scouted around to find one whilst his men had been clearing the LZ. He took one team with him, to start digging the holes that would become these unfortunates – he could think of them that way now that they were no longer a threat to him or his team – final resting place. He left the rest of the troops, under Sergeant Major Smith, to put their bodies into body bags after first removing and cataloguing wallets, money, jewellery and anything else that might identify them. Probably this would be returned to their families eventually, though for the time being their task was ‘secret’, or at least the exact nature of it was. Once the bodies were in bags, the sergeant major’s men would carry them down to the burial site and help finish preparing it, while a few men would go back to erase any last traces of their afternoon’s deeds. Moving the bodies shouldn’t take very long. It wasn’t far to the site he’d chosen, but it meant carrying them through the jungle and undergrowth which would slow down the process considerably.
Andrew led the way carefully over the vines and leaves which covered the dappled but mainly dark ground to a patch where the foliage was a bit lighter, and he marked four holes each about 6′ by 6′. They had twenty eight bodies to conceal. Really, each one probably deserved a separate grave but this would take too long. There wouldn’t be room for that many without moving to ground which would probably be far harder to dig through. The four wider holes would have to suffice. The remains were in body bags so each would be kept separate for many years to come, should ‘the powers that be’ ever want to recover them for proper burial elsewhere. He left the small team starting to dig, having first carefully removed and set aside the top layer of foliage to put back when they’d finished. Digging was fast at first, their small spades cutting easily through the rotting vegetation which predominantly laid there. It wasn’t long before they hit earth proper and the task became much slower and harder. The small shovels they had were designed as much for carrying as using, and made hard work of such a big job.
He returned to the ambush site, passing the men who were starting to move the now encapsulated bodies into the jungle. When he got there, most of the corpses had been packed away, the trinkets they’d had on them catalogued and secured in small bags, which the sergeant major was looking after. There was a pile of guns and ammunition too, quite a large one. The ammo was of no use to them. Most wouldn’t fit their own rifles. There were several 9mm rounds, which would have fit his own revolver, but he didn’t need to restock. He hadn’t, after all, needed to fire his weapon even once in the short skirmish that they’d just had. The guns would be taken back to base to evidence the lawfulness of their actions in case this was needed at some later point, then decommissioned and disposed of. That would take them out of future use and help start making a dent in the drugs lords’ arsenal.
Once the last of the bodies had been removed, and the equipment moved down the track, there wasn’t much left to tell the story of the event that had so recently taken place there. The blood stains were carefully erased. Most of the tell-tale patches were on fallen vegetation, so getting rid of them was easy. The few that lay on a more solid bed were removed using tweezers and small pipettes to carefully vacuum up small areas without affecting the earth around them. Anything that ended up not looking natural was covered over with rotting vegetation from nearby.
Most of the men were now at the burial site helping to dig the graves, and he led his small team back to join them. They’d been instructed to only go about 6′ or so down. Even stacked two or three deep, once covered over the bodies should be far enough down for the local wildlife not to be able to detect them once the immediate smell had dissipated somewhat.
He watched as his men started to lower the body bags into the holes they had prepared, unwillingly reminded of scenes he’d watched of people doing the same thing at concentration camps during WWII. Once all of the corpses were in the holes, the soil was replaced and the top layer carefully put back over them. The remaining earth, not needed for the burial, was spread around the jungle floor a few metres away. This spot couldn’t be seen from the trail so it was extremely unlikely that anyone would ever stumble upon it by accident and even if deliberately searching for it, a few days for the elements to erase any lingering clues should make it very difficult to find.
By the time they left to make their way back to the LZ, Andrew’s glance back up the trail to the site of the shoot-out told him that recent events would be very hard indeed to read by any but the most expert of trackers.
Everyone had sat in silence, waiting the choppers to return for them once they’d been called. A few of the men were munching hungrily on rations they’d brought with them from base. He was pleased to see that they were being careful not to leave evidence of their stay here. As the LZ was still quite new, its very existence if found would tell the discoverer that it was man-made. It wouldn’t be long before foliage and small shrubs started to reclaim the clearing they’d created and might give it a more natural look but the occurrence of such clearings naturally was of course very rare, and from the air it would undoubtedly still look man-made.
When the ‘copters arrived the men climbed wearily on board after loading the guns and drugs on the ‘spare’ helicopter, not needed for any other purpose now that Hitu and half his crew were returning to the camp on foot to escort their prisoners and the mules. These could go straight back to the main base. Their journey back to camp was, again, made mostly in silence, this time the knowledge of what they’d just done filling the heads of the men. Killing twenty eight people had been so easy, so quick. Surely it shouldn’t have been as simple as that? Or accomplished so speedily? Andrew was grateful of course that none of their own troops had been hurt or killed, but couldn’t help wondering if what they were doing was really right. The traffickers were breaking the law, and the drugs they were trying to get through would cause an awful lot of damage if they did so. On the other hand these men were really only trying to get by and probably couldn’t really be ‘blamed’ for what they were doing any more than a cat could for ‘stealing’ chicken left unattended on a table. Once again, his mind told him that it wasn’t something for him to be deciding. Politicians had already done that – he was just the hand exercising the mind’s thoughts.