Midnight in Kyzylorda came with deathly silence, like the spirits of war watched from overhead, waiting to see whose soul they could claim. The town and the airport had continued to hum with their dull regularity and we had primed ourselves for the task ahead. L2, Murphy, Toddy and Al were lined up and ready to roll out to the airport. Longshot, Big Brin, Kegs and Glynn were cleaning their rifles for the third and final time with meditative purity of mind. My lookouts were in each corner of the roof and ready to run at a second’s notice – their eyes were bulging with eagerness. I swear if a pigeon ruffled its feathers within two miles of that hospital it was going in one of my men’s notebooks.
Over the coming hour I watched as the last few homes between us and the airport turned out their lights and then tapped L2 on the shoulder. He rose from kneeling to a crouch and his men did the same behind him, then they all filed down off the roof without a word. Next, Longshot moved up with his men, and repeated the procedure. I always knew my men took their jobs to heart, but I was in awe that night. They all had the look. They knew their business and they would die before they let us down.
Pretty Boy and I sat together and watched L2 and Murphy wind their way through the mile or so of low lying buildings and deposit Toddy and Al at the respective cover posts before moving on to the airport. As they did Tony & Co. jogged from sight. Slinking over a perimeter fence and skulking their way out to the fuel truck house L2 and Murphy had been gone a little over an hour and a half. Murphy took watch and L2 entered the building alone to set the fuse. By the time he came out running I knew Tony, Brin, Kegs and Glynn would be in position. I trusted them to get the job done, come hell or high water.
Keeping our eyes on our watches, Pretty Boy and I counted down to two o’clock in five minute increments and at the stroke of two bells the fuel truck building went up. Silhouetted by the plume of white and orange, we spotted L2 and Murphy running like mad men along their preselected route.
“No shots fired yet, Sir.”
“Let’s wait and see.”
“Sir. They’re coming up on Al now, Sir.”
“Good. No signs of Tony & Co. yet?”
“Sir, they’ll be at Toddy’s post in a few seconds.”
“EVERYONE ON ME!” I roared.
The men at the four corners of the roof upped, turned and ran back to Pretty Boy and I. With eight men spread out in the field and the eleven of us on the roof about to head down to the clearing by the river we were at our most vulnerable. But we didn’t see it like that, to us, we were at our most dangerous. In proper order, the looks on our faces would have scared the stripes off a tiger.
“Sir,” said Pretty Boy, still glued to his binoculars “the airport police are on the runway headed for fuel truck building now and L2, Murphy and Al will be at Toddy’s post in five, four…”
I took one more glance at my men and they all nodded without prompting.
“Gentlemen, after you.”
And with that the nine of them filed past us and down to the ground as Pretty Boy stayed on his binoculars watching the river for Longshot and his men.
And on we went, Pretty Boy up first and on his way, then me last. As we ran Pretty Boy confirmed no sign of Tony but we ran like death itself was chasing us, packs and all. As we got onto the open ground I watched to the south to see L2 and his men come into sight and link back up with us. Jesus I was glad none of them had been tagged. And still we ran, our legs pumping like crazy. Two hundred yards. Still no sign of the boats. We heaved air into our lungs. One hundred yards. No sign. Our muscles burned like acid. Fifty, nothing. Twenty. Zero. Nothing.
“Everyone down!” I hollered breathlessly and we all dropped to the deck. “Wait for it, gentlemen. Wait for it!”
“Wait for it!” I thought to myself. “Any second…”
“We’re up!” called L2, lying closest to the water.
The engines of two twenty footers, that looked for all the world like narrow fishing trawlers, chugged up to us as we ran into the water and clambered on board in the dark, hands grabbing collars and heaving bodies up and over the rail. A rough and rugged group effort of less than a minute had us all spread out on the two decks just as both vessels roared into life like two rabid lions. The surge of their power jolted us all as we moved away and rolled me from my stomach onto my back. They weren’t speedy boat but they moved well. Once I got to my feet I walked up to the tiny wheelhouse and opened the door. There stood Glynn, blood all over his face and a look that spoke volumes about something he clearly didn’t want to be asked about.
“Sir. No, Sir” he drawled.
“Good,” I replied knowing to saying nothing more. I put my hand on his shoulder as he drove and looked down and around him at the controls he was manning – a simple setup; throttle, steering and gauges for pressure and fluids. They had done well to get the two boats out of there and there seemed to be no damage done to the boats, but the blood had bad news written all over it.
“Let me know when you want to be relieved, Glynn. Fucking TOP job, Soldier!”
“Sir,” again drawled out in an unnerving monotone absence.
Closing the wheelhouse door and stepping back out on deck I looked down at my men. Ten souls in all and the second vessel keeping pace – not thirty feet behind us.
“Great Job, gentlemen. You all looked like drunk babies when you run, but Christ almighty did you cover that ground in a flash! I want men fore, aft, port and starboard. We’re not stopping for love nor money, so be ready for unwanted attention. You should all be proud of yourselves, Gents. You did right by each other! Have at it.”
“L2. A Word.”
“Get up there and tell Glynn you’re his relief for when he’s ready, but don’t say another word. Just stay with him.”
And off he went. Meanwhile I watched as my men fanned out around the lip of the boat and took up positions to cover us in all directions. The sound of the engine mixing with the water slushing out from under us was hypnotic and almost soothing. I’d always hated boats, but this one time I made a grateful exception. The air blustered around us as we gained speed and wove our way past Kyzylorda’s centre and then beyond its limits, the cradling motions endearing me further. I was happy to see the back of it, but happier still that all my men were in one piece.
“Where’s Tony, Glynn” I asked as he finally came out of the wheelhouse.
“Back there, Sir” he said as he point back behind the aft of deck.
“Get your head down, Soldier. Three hours to sunup.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey