Quest for Vengeance - Prologue

June 1999

    Major Mark Hayes barely had enough time to attach the new oak-leaf tabs to his battle

dress uniform before heading out into the field again. He knew he should’ve passed on

the mission, delegated it to his new second-in-command, but because he’d soon be

sitting behind a desk somewhere back in the States, he couldn’t resist.
   The new XO was a young second lieutenant, just a year out of West Point. Mark had

been just like him once, a green and eager 2LT fresh from the Academy and anxious to

prove himself. The kid had just arrived in Kosovo and seemed to have the right attitude

about these things, which wasn’t always the case. When his newly-promoted company

commander told him he’d be sitting this one out, the rookie didn’t pout, didn’t bitch,

he just nodded his head and said “Yes, sir.”
    The kid’s turn would come soon enough. Mark’s turn was now; he’d been in country

for nearly a month as part of the American contribution to NATO’s Kosovo Force, trying

to enforce the shaky peace that NATO bombing had brought about between the Yugoslavs

and the ethnic Albanians in the rebellious province. The deployment was supposed to last

no more than six months, and Mark had been on enough of them since he’d been a rookie

himself, thirteen years before, to understand that when your chance came, you took it.
    But the hot summer day in northeastern Kosovo had gone to shit almost as soon as Mark and his men dismounted from their Humvees and began their patrol. The village should’ve been quiet, the Serbs should have been on their side of the border about ten klicks away. But they were here, opening up on the Americans from well-placed ambush positions. The only thing that saved the new major’s men from immediate disaster was Mark’s instinct, a carryover from his Desert Storm combat tour eight years earlier. You didn’t see empty streets at eight in the morning, whether the village was in Kosovo or Kuwait, unless the people had been warned to stay inside. By the time the first shots rang out Mark already had his men scrambling for cover.
    The gunners had stayed aboard the two lead Humvees, Mustang-1 and Mustang-2, and they began returning fire with their .50-caliber machine guns, raking the second stories of the two buildings where the initial Serb fire appeared to have come from. Two more concealed positions opened up in response. One of the gunners was hit in the arm by what might’ve been a ricochet, yelling in pain and dropping down inside the vehicle. His buddy in the next Humvee swiveled his weapon to one of the new targets and hammered away, but the incoming Serb fire didn’t seem to slacken. The gunner in the rearmost Humvee, Mustang-3, had his weapon trained on their six o’clock and couldn’t bring it to bear on the enemy without endangering the other gunners.
    From his position beside a parked car, Mark couldn’t see much, but a flicker of movement on the roof of a building a block away caught his eye. There were men up there. He pulled his binoculars from their case, eased his way up enough to give him a clear field of view over the hood of the car, and sighted on the rooftop. Two seconds later he scrambled back down and clicked on his radio. “All Mustangs!” he shouted. “Antitank position at your eleven o’clock, two hundred meters! Get out of there!”
    Mustang-3 responded immediately, leaping forward as the driver engaged the clutch, heading back down the road out of the village. 1 and 2 had to back up; the street was too narrow for them to turn around at the same time. Mark ordered the soldiers on the other side of the street to train their fire on the rooftop, well within range of their M16A4 rifles. Through the binocs Mark saw one of the three men on the rooftop take a round in the chest and fall back, arms splayed, but his two buddies kept working. They had guts, Mark had to give them that, but they also had what he recognized from his briefings as a Russian-made wire-guided antitank weapon, an AT-3 Sagger, and his Humvees were ducks on a pond at this range.
    Across the street, a soldier ran forward from his cover and leaped up onto a small cement porch, then began climbing a circular staircase leading to a balcony on the second floor. Mark knew instantly that the soldier was trying to get to a better firing position to take out the remaining Serbs in the Sagger crew. The Serbs on the ground knew that, too, and began peppering the staircase and balcony. Sparks flew off the iron stairs and the stucco façade of the balcony began chipping away.
    Behind Mark, his comm sergeant, Landers, shouted in his ear, the only way to make himself heard over the deafening roar of the .50s and the chattering of the Serbs’ AK-47s and the Americans’ M4s. “Hemple’s going for that balcony, Major! He’s the best shot in the company!”
    “I see that, dammit! Get on the horn to Brigade and report our position. Request tac air and QRF.”
    “Roger that, sir.” Mark knew Landers would quickly carry out the order, but whether the brass back at Camp Bondsteel would approve air support and deployment of the Quick Reaction Force was the question. The QRF was at the base, forty kilometers away, and even if they got their helicopters in the air, by the time they got here it might be all over for Mark’s unit. If they could get some NATO jets in here, that would be a lot quicker. It would depend on what was available on station over this part of Kosovo and how soon they could be designated for the mission. Mark knew from experience that wouldn’t be a sure thing.
    They were in a world of shit here, no doubt about it. Mark tried to peek over the car again but a Serb round slammed into the hood not a foot away, and another buzzed just over his head, forcing him to duck. “God dammit!” he muttered.
    “No fast-movers in the area, sir!” Landers said. “Brigade is ordering you to withdraw!”
    “Son of a…” Mark cursed his luck. His last patrol was going to be a failure, but the most important thing was to get his men out of there, now. “Everybody pull back,” he said to Landers. “Tell the Mustangs to­–”
    “Incoming!” Landers yelled.
    A projectile rocketed down from the Serbs on the rooftop. Mark could see it making course corrections, the commands racing down the wire from the Serb controller. The lead Humvee driver saw it, too, and he cranked his wheel around as he hit the gas. It was just enough; the Sagger round clipped the right front of the vehicle without detonating and caromed into a building. The explosion blasted stone fragments into the street, one suitcase-sized chunk taking out the machine gun of Mustang 2 as if it were made of balsa wood. Mark thanked God the soldier manning the gun had dropped down inside as the Humvee began its retreat.
    His soldiers were making a fighting retreat from their positions, moving quickly but with good discipline. Mark ordered Landers to get going and was about to follow him when he saw the balcony take another series of hits. Hemple went down, his rifle flying out of his hands and down to the street.
    Without hesitation Mark dashed from behind the car and raced across the street. In five long steps he was there, Serb rounds whizzing past him all the way. He took the steps three at a time. Hemple was lying on the balcony floor, blood seeping from wounds in his left arm and side. His helmet was pulled back from the impact with the floor, and the young soldier’s eyes were wide with fear. The stucco railing of the balcony gave them some cover, so Mark didn’t have to move him immediately.
    Mark pulled his med kit out of his thigh pocket and began first aid. The wound in Hemple’s side had to be tended first. “Hemple! Can you hear me?” Mark had to shout it over the roar of gunfire.
    “Yeah–yes, sir.”
    His breathing was rapid but that was from fear, maybe the first phase of shock. Or was it? Mark had to pause and take a deep breath, remembering his training from a refresher course in tactical combat casualty care a few weeks before. “Okay, hang in there with me, soldier. We’re gonna get out of here.” He unfastened Hemple’s body armor and saw the dark spot on the lower right of the soldier’s blouse. The round had entered just below the armor. When Mark pulled the blouse away, he saw that it was likely just a flesh wound, but flesh wounds could still cause a man to bleed out. He applied pressure bandages from the med kit to the entry and exit wounds.
    He kept talking to Hemple, keeping him focused. The Serbs were still firing, but the chatter of their AKs and the Americans’ return fire was diminishing. Mark heard the roar of the Humvees’ engines as they pulled back. From the street directly below, a Serb AK loosed a short burst, but no rounds impacted the balcony. Mark allowed himself to think that maybe they hadn’t seen them. He could get Hemple stabilized and then figure out a way to–
    The door of the apartment burst open and three men rushed toward the balcony, their weapons pointed at the two Americans on the balcony. “Rukama! Rukama!” one of them shouted.
    Mark knew just enough Serbo-Croatian to understand, but he couldn’t put his hands up now, he had to finish dressing the soldier’s wound. “I have a wounded man here!” he yelled.
    The man in the lead advanced to within three feet. “Hand up!” he barked in English.
    Mark still had to secure the bandage with the tape. “For crissakes, I have to help­–” He turned his head just enough to see the butt end of the rifle.
    The truck was coming to a stop. He knew that much, and also knew he had a roaring headache. Was he blind, too? Everything was dark. No, it was something else. What–Christ, it hurt to just think. Blindfold. Now he could sense some light leaking in underneath it. How long had he been out? No way to tell. Rope bound his hands in front of him. Slowly, he tried turning one hand so he could touch his wrist…no, damn it, the watch was gone. Shit, his favorite, a Seiko he had bought when he graduated the Academy.
    He forced himself to think of more important things. He heard men talking, the rear gate of the truck squeaking down, and then two pairs of hands grabbed him and pulled him over the gate. His feet hit the ground and he was able to stand, barely. He heard someone yell in pain. Who? The soldier? Yes, what was his name? Hemple. “Hemple, hang in there, buddy!” he shouted. Pain seared through his head from an impact. He staggered but the hands held him up, moved him forward.
    Someone ahead of him said, “Uzeti sa blindfold.” The rag was pulled off roughly. Mark had to blink several times, but then his eyes focused. The man before him was young, maybe mid-twenties, short but powerfully built. He wore a camouflage uniform, topped by an olive-green beret. From the patches and shoulder tabs, Mark knew he was facing a sergeant in the Yugoslav People’s Army. Behind him, Mark could see a small single-storied house. A farm house, with a barn. So this was Serbia.  
    The sergeant looked at Mark and smiled. “American,” he said, his English heavily accented, “you bomb our women and children, now we see how tough you are, here.”
    “Mark Hayes, major, United States Army, serial num–” The man slapped him with the back of his hand.
    “Ordžati ga, ja ću je kapetan.” The men beside Mark pulled him up straighter. The sergeant turned and began walking toward the farmhouse, ten meters away. The door opened and a man wearing a red beret stepped out. He resembled the sergeant, only older, and Mark sensed he was the captain.
    “Aca, mi imamo Amerikanaca. Jedan oficir, jedan–” The sergeant’s words were cut off as his head exploded in red mist. A split-second later Mark heard the snapping sound of the supersonic bullet.
    He reacted instinctively, throwing an elbow into the gut of the Serb next to him, pulling away from the man on the right. The first man had been holding his AK and Mark tore it from him, brought it to bear on the second man only to see him rock backward as two bullets tore into his chest. The sounds of gunfire filled the air.
    Mark dropped to the ground and rolled away from the path leading to the farmhouse. He was facing back toward two vehicles, a truck and an armored personnel carrier. Mark got a brief glimpse of two Serb soldiers dropping a stretcher to the ground and bringing their weapons to bear. The man on the stretcher bounced up from the impact and then back down with a moan.
    The Serb Mark had elbowed fell on top of him, grabbing for the rifle. The men rolled over as rounds cracked overhead. Mark’s training took hold instinctively. Fight the man, not the weapon. He ignored the shouts and screams coming from the farmhouse, focusing completely on the Serb who was doing his best to rip the rifle away. Releasing his own grip, Mark blasted the heels of his bound hands into the Serb’s nose, which exploded in a cloud of blood and snot that splattered into Mark’s eyes. With a roar of rage, the Serb pushed Mark away and rolled onto his side, reaching for the rifle. Mark reached instinctively for his combat knife, registering a moment of surprise as he slid it out of the scabbard. The idiots hadn’t taken it from him. Now they would pay for that mistake. The Serb got one hand on the rifle before seizing up as Mark’s blade plunged into his side.
    The firefight had intensified. Mark pushed the dying Serb soldier away from him, pulling the knife free and slipping it back into the scabbard. He grabbed the AK off the ground and looked back toward the vehicles. One man lay still on the ground near the front of the APC, another took a round in the head and fell back. Three more Serbs were using the truck for cover. From beyond, Mark heard orders shouted in English with a British accent. To his right he saw four soldiers coming out of a hedgerow into the farmyard, firing at the house. One of the men waved toward the barn, and Mark heard an engine start up. The four Brits were trying to flank the farmhouse, but the Serbs inside must’ve gotten out through a back door and made it to a vehicle in the barn.
    The rest of the British platoon had to be advancing on the Serb vehicles in front of Mark. Hemple lay on the stretcher, and he tried raising his good arm. Still alive, but maybe not for long. Mark scrambled to his feet and stayed in a crouch, running toward the wounded man. The nearest Serb saw him coming and turned to engage, taking three rounds in the chest from Mark’s rifle for his trouble. Mark crawled forward to cover Hemple with his own body and brought the rifle around to the backs of the two remaining Serbs. He squeezed the trigger but the rifle jammed. Before he could clear it the Serbs were dropping their own weapons and raising their hands.
    Soldiers appeared, some of the toughest-looking men Mark had ever seen, and right now they looked beautiful. Four of them manhandled the two surviving Serbs to the ground and began applying zip ties to their wrists. Another one, his hair streaked with gray beneath the beige beret, strode up to Mark and knelt down. “22 SAS,” the officer said. “Are you injured, Major?”
    “No, but my man here needs help.”
    The Brit waved to one of his men. “We have a wounded man here! Get Sergeant Dooley over here on the double!” Behind the farmhouse, the sound of the vehicle engine diminished. “Bugger,” the officer said, “I think the rest of the lot got loose from us.”
    Mark had moved to a sitting position, his back against the side of the truck. Suddenly he was very tired and his headache was back with a vengeance. “Where are we?”
    “Five kilometers inside Serbia,” the Brit said. “We’d best hustle you gentlemen back into Kosovo and get you to hospital.”
    “I’m okay,” Mark said, just as he started to tip over.
    The last thing he heard was, “Bloody hell you are, Yank.”