Tools of the Trade 16

Tools of the Trade Chapter Sixteen

Davis stood over the body and this time silently cursed out Leach again. He was supposed to bring at least one of them back alive and Leach had cut their chances in half without a second thought except for his long range shooting. Now they had no chance at all.

“Fuckin’ moron.” he had started off and it got much worse. When it came to invective Davis’s mastery was legendary.

From Leach’s point of view the only thing he had going was he didn’t have a stripe to pull and send him to a lower rank.

Davis knew one thing. It was a damn fine shot, and in other places and times he would have felt much better disposed towards the shooter. Well now for some payback.

“Start gathering stones Leach. I want a pile higher than I can see over both of the bodies by the time we get back from checking out the llamas and camels and the camp down in the wadi. And if you don’t finish before I get back you will personally carry, on your lonesome, the deceased, so that you are able to provide a proper grave down below. Do I make myself Clear Pvt. Leach!… Do I !!”

“Sir, Yes Sir!” Leach responded as if he were in boot again then proceeded to haul rocks with a will.

“Stupid bastard,” Davis thought to himself, “We’ll see how he likes it when we get back and he digs a grave down big enough for one of the dead camels as a memorial.”

Davis detailed Pvt. Kipps who had slightly twisted an ankle to watch the work but ordered him to give no assistance.

“Not a chance Sarge, I look like a fuckin’ mason?”

With that as the final word Davis took the rest of them back to their campsite of the night before to see what was left. From there he would head down into the wadi and check on the llama herders’ camp.

The squad Kronnin has sent for the two of Davis’s men who hadn’t made it out from the bivouac before the mortar shells started falling was still there when Davis and his men reached their former camp.

“Diddle’s bagged up Sarge but there’s nothing left of Stafford but bits and pieces.”

“I can see,” Davis replied looking sourly at the crater blasted wreckage. None of their own gear left behind had survived either, but he hadn’t expected it would.

He commed Kronnin then turned to the other squad leader and said. “Give me three of your men and Kronnin says to spend another hour getting what you can and then go back in.”

“Will do. Hanson, Avery, Ortega, go with Sergeant Davis.”

The herders camp looked pretty much like their own had, but worse. A flight of 155’s drooped into an open area a hundred meters on a side doesn’t leave any doubt about what one’s intentions were about. The noise had spooked the camel and they had broken down the barrier at the front of their pen. They were scattered to hell and gone by now. If it were important the recon drone could track them for recovery. The llamas due to their smaller size had had less luck and were still penned in.

“What we gonna do with these?” Ortega asked.

“Spoils of war. There ours now. And don’t roll your eyes at me. Those beasties are each worth a half year of a mans wages on this little planet.”

“Ok Sarge I can see that but we sure as hell don’t no nothin’ bout caring for them.”

“Right you are Ortega, this looks like a job for Ibrahim Saudi. I’ll get hold of Captain Kronnin and see if he agrees.”

A few hours later Loomis/Saudi and four of the other caravan drivers took charge of the animals. Davis led his men back over the ridge after picking up Leach and Pvt. Kipp, who had done a credible job with the bodies, and reached the beaten up caravan just before nightfall. And for the third time that day they got to see a destroyed campsite. At least here the bodies were either already bagged or in the ground.

It was bad, seven from the Seventh plus the two up on the ridge were dead. Five more were wounded to a degree they had taken a chance and done an air evac from Gabara. The Alties had it worse both in people and percentages. They had forty-seven dead and thirty-eight more needing medical care. The caravan itself though wasn’t targeted and had remained unscathed.

About twenty of the camels, those traveling with the Altie military, were dead, and all but one would be left to rot in the sun. The one that wouldn’t, Leach was going to take care of and prepare a proper burial pit. That could wait till morning. The only other good news beyond the survival of the caravan crew was that none of the cargo of refined ore was lost.

Because the Cards had gotten under cover so rapidly and whoever was calling the shots up on the hill had moved the aim point to so rapidly to follow them into the trenches, only about half of their equipment was destroyed but most of the rest would need a full inspection and not a little repair before being declared fully functional.

After Davis had dismissed his men, Kronnin called both Davis and Sgt. Wells over and explained in detail what was going on. He was keying the maps on his display to illustrate his points.

“The spine of rock separating us from Loomis and those with him sinks into the surrounding rock about a half a day’s march ahead. The wadi that Captain Morgan’s people from Jeddah are using joins another days march further down. The force that Captain Melbourne’s sent to meet us is still two days away. It’s going to take at least till midday tomorrow before the Alties are ready to move so if things go smoothly we will meet up with Loomis tomorrow at nightfall and the others later the next day.

“We’ve seen no movement whatsoever between us and either rendezvous so there can’t be a major force out there but we can’t rule out some isolated individuals or even small groups. We are going to move slowly, keep well separated, and hope for the best. Anything to add Sergeant?”

“I’ve got the picture, nothing more from me,” Wells said.

“Looks Ok to me Captain and it’ll give that asshole Leach a chance to do some digging.” And Bobby Davis explained what had happened up on the ridge.

By the time he finished he had one more suggestion to add. “Can’t say as how I’m looking to do it. But I should lead a squad out at first light to go over the march ahead at least to where we expect Loomis to join and then walk the spine backwards till we meet you coming in our direction.”

“Excellent suggestion Sergeant. Do it just that way.”
He was still tired and so were his men, but they set out long before the sun rose above the wadi’s walls. They set a pace the larger group couldn’t match and well before noon saw the spine of rock they had been paralleling sink into the adjoining escarpment.

“Thirty minutes for lunch and we walk back. Ortega you take point so get a move on and eat fast.”

True to his word in half an hour they were working back to the main group with Ortega a hundred meters ahead. This was far slower work than the stroll down the wadi and they had made only five kilometers progress by the time they saw a small group leading llamas on the spines off side. Two more kilometers and they were equal to the caravan which had started out only an hour latter than planned.

They knew the way now so stayed on the high ground and followed both groups back to an uneventful meeting. Right after dinner Davis went to bed and slept like a log for ten straight hours. His old bones weren’t getting any younger and he woke up the next morning far the better for it.

He led a squad out one more time but when they reached the point they would join up to those coming from the Jeddah mine, those people had already made it and had sent a party waking the ridge to cover the Abbas caravan’s path. That sat well enough with Davis so he gave all the men, Leach included a couple of hours of mend and repair and did the same for himself.

Even though Morgan had come himself he was letting Sgt Higgins take active charge of the normal operations of the group from the Jeddah mines. Kronnin’s situation with Davis as a loaner was unique. The two sergeants greeted each other like the old comrades they were and then Davis filled Higgins in on how things had really been.

Kronnin and the rest of his unit joined up and midway through the next day and by the time he had those sent by Melbourne were there as well. After another, blessedly uneventful week they all made Mt. Hebron. Loads were consolidated and the next day those continuing on to Gabara moved out for the last section of the journey. They were into an area now with more settlements with an ability to hide enemies but their numbers were so great due to all of the returning Altie soldiers that any kind of attack was unlikely.

Unlikely gave way to it didn’t happen. They reached Gabara saw to the delivery of the transuraniums to the port and paid a visit to the military warehouse where their supplies were stored under guard of a detachment of Cardoman Seventh personal, nominally part of Headquarters Company. Davis and his men were able to make up most of their material losses. Not sure of where else to turn and seeing as how it would make a good test. Kronnin got an estimate from the trade delegation of how much the llamas were worth.

Since Saudi/Loomis had been tending them for the last several weeks it was logical that he become the agent for their sale. Kronnin had another reason for making Saudi responsible. It would give an opportunity to see how well he could pass for a native born son. To Kronnin he looked and acted like the real thing. But to someone born and raised on Altoona it might not be so convincing.

Before they had reached town Kronnin had changed from robes back to his Cardoman uniform. It wasn’t part of his plans, now that they were getting more concrete, to arouse any unnecessary attention and get people thinking about a foreigner acting in such a strange manner.

Ibrahim Saudi was not alone, several of those who had helped tend for the llamas were with him wondering what, or even if, they were going to be paid for the work in bringing the llamas in. It was possible the Cardoman troops would consider their halting the attack on the caravan and protecting it the rest of the way into Gabara as total the compensation owed. They were speculating about approaches to use in an attempt for a more substantial reward when the tall Cardoman officer approached and walking over to Ibrahim addressed him politely. “My men and I thank you for taking care of the llamas. It was something none of us had the knowledge of even if we could have spared the time from our other duties.”

“It was nothing, less than nothing, a privilege to be of service to the Capitain and his courageous soldiers.”

“I feel we owe you a little something above and beyond your normal wage, and those who helped a little something extra also. But If I turn the animals over to our trade delegation for a brokered sale I fear I will have nothing with which to pay.” Kronnin said in a pained tone of voice and trying to look morose. “Perhaps then, and this is the only way I have seen out of my dilemma, we could sell them ourselves. But this is again something for which we have no experience. I wonder then if I could ask one more small service of you?”

Ibrahim knew and the others had no doubt of where this was going and they were pleased with how smoothly Ibrahim responded. “For one such as you my Capitain, a request would be more than a command but rather a duty second only to that owed Allah in both word and deed.”

Kronnin brightening up said. “If you could act as a broker for the sale I am certain all of our obligations might be met.”

“Scoundrels, one and all, are those in the camel trade and it is said those dealing in llamas are worse,” Ibrahim said with mock outrage. “Twenty even Thirty percent as a commission is often demanded.”– (Five to seven was more like the norm.)– “It is criminal yet they get away with it. I would be honored to represent you so that you would not need to sully yourself with such villainy.”

Kronnin, momentarily let his face take on a look of shrewd connivance before lapsing again into one of utter trust. “I of course have other obligations, those that I owe to the men I command are second only to those which I owe my own God. If you would take say. Fifteen percent I am sure we would find that agreeable.”

And the deal was done with evident satisfaction on both sides. Word of the shrewd business sense of a certain Ibrahim Saudi made it’s way to the all of the livestock dealers in and around Gabara and he was able to graciously charge then only three percent more than the normal wholesale rate and was out of the llama business after turning down several offers of employment.
A two days leave was granted Davis and the rest, not much for a month and a half in the field, and they were soldering again the day following. This time without Kronnin or Loomis who remained in the capital with other business to attend to.
They were leading again a camel contingent. Actually one small group to each of the mines carrying supplies but mainly to be ready to carry ore back out again. Major Calvert did the route selection which was a relief to all concerned.

Total time would have been less, except for those going to Mt. Hebron if they separated and took the most direct routes. Calvert went with safety in numbers and had them retrace the path they had already taken. Past Mt. Hebron they would be supported by at least as many as had met them on the way in and accompanied them even now. How far beyond that point support would continue was yet to be determined.

With over a quarter of the force at each mine doing escort duty there was no one left that Wesley was willing to risk sending out further than a half day’s travel from the mines. That met with the with the hearty concurrence of both Melbourne and Morgan who didn’t want any small force with a fairly predictable path left out overnight when an ambush could be set for their return. Due to that manpower constraint they were all relying on the recon drones with help from the pre-planted sensors.

“You’re sure about that?” Wes asked one more time over the com link to Vulcan.

“Absolutely Sir,” Sgt. Audie Madry said, her normally enthusiastic voice even more animated, “The book calls for 16 hours up and 4 down. But we can cut the maintenance time in half and the flight time can go another two hours easy. That’ll mean we can always have one drone in the air and 80% of the time both. We keep one high all the time and one low. Heck I couldn’t even find the one flying high if I didn’t know where to look. We need the extra surveillance two in the air can give us and the risk is never greater than when we fly one low anyway.”

“I’m convinced Sgt. How are the sensors placed on the caravan route holding up?”

“Good Captain, one went intermittent on us and one died. Bout what I’d expect. If the guys returning take the same route they can replace those and any others that fail between now and then. It wouldn’t hurt us a bit to get a few more placed higher up, better vision and all.”

“It’s the plan I’m leaning towards Sergeant. You can start flying both drones as of now.”
“Got it Sir.”

After finishing with Madry Connie and Wes talked it over on a secure circuit and between them agreed the safest course would be for Connie’s soldiers, or what an equal number from Mt. Hebron as replacements continue for the full march to the other mine locations. It would bring security up by half and give enough manpower to get some of the sensors put up at the top of the wadies as Madry had requested. It would also leave Mt. Hebron well under strength but it was the best of a bad bargain.

* * *
Ibn al-Ghazzali and Abdul-Karim Khalaf had wished for more but were satisfied with the success of Hassam Tariq’s mission. They had hoped for more but it was by far the most devastating attack yet on the government forces even it had not stopped the metals from reaching the spaceport. It had also shown that the IR gear they had been supplied with was sufficient to fool the current generation of recon drone being used by the Cardomans.

Both of the agents they had placed in the caravan confirmed that none of their men had been taken alive, and all were now to be considered martyrs in the faith and the families of the deceased would notified of that fact. It was time to discuss further operations in light of the proven capabilities. They were meeting in the house of a private citizen allied with the cause some sixty kilometers outside of the capital.

“The political situation in Gabara is almost ripe for change. The harm done to the government was substantial. One more such setback on the military side and I think a vote would force the present leaders from office we would come out on top in the resulting realignment,” Khalaf said with satisfaction.

Ghazzali nodded with understanding, “I have given much thought to what our next military objective might be. The last action by Hassam Tariq was almost perfect and would have been a total triumph were it not for the artillery sent down from the location that the Cardoman’s call Firebase Vulcan. We must find a way to neutralize it, but that is not an easy task. Nevertheless plans are in motion.

“It would be best if the political changes we desire come about without needing to deal with the Cardoman firebase as under the best scenarios its elimination will be costly.”

Khalaf stating he would continue to work to that end finished his last thimbleful of the thick sweet coffee they were drinking, and making his apologies to their host who had been waiting outside of the building while he talked to his leader, returned to Gabara. There was a road from the settlement and he made the trip using a ground car in a couple of hours. It would take Ghazzali the better part of three days to return to the main Caliphate stronghold.
Kronnin was back in mufti again, this time the robes were far simpler, not the near priestly vestments he had worn as a symbol of rank when with his troops. He had taken on the name of Omar Mohamed but left most of the dealings in town with Ibrahim. As good as he was, his apprentice had surpassed him in many ways. Especially those required for the job at hand, setting up a spy ring that even the official authorities knew nothing about.

He had taken the precaution of asking that Harmon Cowan have a private word with Jawad Ayyub al-Masari and clue him in on what he was planning. Cowan had told him that al-Masari was none to happy but considering the leaks in his own intelligence service he gave provisional approval. That might be a fig leaf’s worth of cover it things go south.”

Ibrahim had turned down Kronnin’s original idea of trying to hire some of his former mates from the caravan. He wanted to get far away from anyone who would remember he was an off-worlder. It could be found out but he didn’t want to make it obvious. He hired a couple of locals to work in the warehouse, they were going to go through all of the proper motions, and began stocking it with items that he could sell at a minor profit. The Cardoman military would be a major source of income but Kronnin made sure it would not be the only one.

His movement through the city, negotiating, buying and selling, was a perfect cover for his real task of gathering information. Omar Mohamed stayed mostly in his office on the top floor of the warehouse and devoted his time to reviewing the information that Cowan or one of the other members of the Cardoman trade mission would bring him under the guise of dealing for supplies for the Trade Mission or Cardoman forces.

Omar made certain the contacts were infrequent and short in duration. He also made certain that the men in the warehouse below were set to work preparing loads for shipment after almost each such visit. He made it a point to never visit the Cardoman offices in person.

Right away Ibrahim had hit upon the perfect entry to the criminal class. Liquor sale. Wine was permitted the faithful but anything harder was allowed only to those from off planet. There was naturally a thriving underground market for the forbidden fruit and with his in with the Cardomans, it was reasonable that Omar could acquire the goods and Ibrahim do the distribution.

First though he had to make contact with the local powers in the market. He wanted to stay clear of the retail trade. That was a sure way of making enemies and maybe ending up dead. On the other hand, being a new wholesale source would bring in friends, money, and more profit to all.

Ibrahim let the workers on the lower floor of the warehouse know that he was a consumer of the harder stuff and casually mentioned his ready supply of the same was one of the bonuses Omar was receiving for his dealing with the Cardomans. Ibrahim needed to do no searching but was contacted in a matter of days by one of the local black market distributors.

He had finished his meal and getting ready to pay, taking coins out of a leather purse, not overly plump— that would have been a bad mistake in this particular neighborhood, and was just about to leave the eatery he had been frequenting for his midday work break, when approached.

“Let me,” said the man who came to the table when he began to select the proper coins, by way of starting out the conversation. “You of course do not know me, but my master, and his associates have been watching with interest and admiration the way you, and your master, have been setting up operations and would like to meet with him and perhaps, explore possibilities of a mutually profitable nature.”

“I cannot speak for Omar Mohamed,” Ibrahim said with a smile and then continued, “but when it comes to paying for a meal I only regret that you were not here to enjoy it as much as I did. Go right ahead,” he said stuffing coins back into his purse.

“Come with me,” the man said, placing a single coin of a much larger denomination than the meal had cost on the table, “We shall meet my masters and I think all will work out.”

“As Allah wills,” replied Ibrahim, “I follow as certainly as if I were a disciple.”
Ibrahim was led to a smoke filled basement below a rather none descript coffee shop only a few blocks away. As he entered in front of his guide the noise level dropped by 20 decibels until the man who had brought him there entered the room and was seen. At that point all was fine again and the sound level went back up. The smoke wasn’t tobacco and the drink wasn’t wine. Ibrahim had seen his share of such places back home before he had become a Merc. He had never met the real owners before and wondered if this might be a first.

Indeed it was. He was led to a backroom where he was treated cordially but not as an equal by any stretch of the imagination. An envelope was delivered and he was told the reason he had been brought hither was to show an example of the kind of establishments controlled by those interested in talking to Omar Mohamed. He was ever so politely informed that it would be much to Mr. Mohameds advantage to reply to the information contained within the envelope and then sent Ibrahim was politely sent on his way. His guide gave him a shot of a rather good whiskey on the way out and then ushered through the door.

Nothing surprising in the envelope. A request for a time to set up a formal meeting. The answer to be delivered by Ibrahim to the bartender of the drinking room he had been shown. The reply was taken back by Ibrahim a couple of hours later in another sealed envelope and it said that the earlier the better and that tomorrow would be fine with Omar Mohamed.

The note was delivered while Ibrahim sat drinking and mixing with the customers. He waited until another message was slipped to him which turned out to give directions to a home in a relatively affluent residential neighborhood at the suggested time. Omar was asked to keep the location secret and to come alone.

“I don’t like it Sir,” Loomis said breaking cover for the first time in days. “It ought to be safe but without backup you will really be hanging out there.”

“It’s got to be done. No risk, no reward. If I’m not back within two hours, or haven’t notified you in some fashion, call in the government intelligence service. Other than that it looks like an acceptable and necessary risk. Will do it their way. You just stick in the warehouse tomorrow in case I call.”

“Yes Sir,” Loomis said with a measure of respect that Captain Philip Kronnin had from time to time in the past felt might be lacking. Not so now as Loomis was unable to hide his worried expression and genuine concern that things could work out badly or worse.

As it turned out everything went off without a hitch. The deal was done and new agreements made. Omar had no problem with the demand to stay out of the retail end as he never intended to do otherwise. In order to try and control the pace and be able to limit contact if it seemed desirable he claimed to only be able to deliver a small amount, less than a three cases a week at the start, but the could tell that seemed like a gift from above to the singular individual he dealt with. Omar promised to do what he was able in order to increase the supply but mentioned his sources would be the ultimate controlling factor.
When all was said and done it got them into the criminal underside of Altoona but it was still to be seen if it had got them anywhere politically.

Finding out the political end would likely be a very gradual process but indications were favorable. Any opposition to the current government would look for allies and where better to find opponents of the current regime than those flouting its laws already.

Not to bad for only being up and running for a couple of weeks. Now they needed to carry on with what they had started and not get caught.