Veil of the Goddess, page 1
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Copyright ©2006 by Rob Preece
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Veil of the Goddess
By Rob Preece
Copyright 2006 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved. No portion of this book may be duplicated, resold, or electronically transmitted without permission from the publisher.
Veil of the Goddess is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, people (whether living or dead) or geographic locations is coincidental.
Veil of the Goddess is published by www.BooksForABuck.com.
"Sergeant Newland. Take your squad and give us room to operate. We'll take it from here."
The civilians were arrogant enough to be CIA, but Ivy Newland didn't think they were. She also couldn't follow their orders. She couldn't see any enemy combatants, but in Iraq, that didn't mean a thing—the only time you saw them was after they started shooting.
"Sorry, sir. This is not a secured area."
Not secured was putting it mildly. The ruins of the mosque still smoldered from last night's bombing raid. The Air Force had done a great job transforming it from a city block of downtown Mosul from a beautiful medieval building to a haven for snipers. A haze of dust and smoke from where wood continued to smolder hours after the mosque had burned out reduced visibility and made the always hot, dry air stick in her throat.
Infrared was useless in Mosul's hundred-and-twenty-degree heat, so Ivy used her telescopic sights, continually sweeping the area for any movement.
They'd already rooted one sniper out of the remains of the bombed mosque and Ivy would be real surprised if he was the only insurgent handy. They tended to run in packs.
The civilian gave her an impatient snarl, his pale face flushing an angry red. “Sergeant, we're undertaking a sensitive mission. You and your men are not need-to-know, and you have been ordered to support us, not baby-sit us."
She ducked reflexively as a clatter of automatic rifle fire sounded off to her right. The sound no longer panicked her, but she still felt as if a fist tightened in her gut every time she heard it—what if they got another of the kids in her National Guard unit?
Mosul was supposed to have been pacified months before, firmly in government hands. Like so much else in this war, if anyone had bothered telling the locals, the message had gotten lost in translation. Of course, no matter how pacified the place might be, a bunch of Americans digging in the newly bombed ruins of one of the city's biggest and oldest mosques were pure chum.
Ivy squeezed off a quick burst in response to the insurgent's AK-47, made sure her boys were safe, then she joined the rest of the team in taking cover. The civilians weren't as quick, though. Maybe they thought their black business suits provided more protection than infantry armor.
Her burst didn't have the desired effect of making the insurgents keep their heads down. A rifle shot banged from behind her. Its bullet spun one of the civilians around, dropping him to the ground. Hellfire. She hadn't liked the guy but he was an American.
She swiped sweat from her face. “Williams,” her voice sounded hoarse, even to her. “Take five men and root out that sniper. Anderson, take James, Lennox, and Slocum and secure the area. Move."
She tossed her radio to ‘Mr. Smith,’ the civilian in charge of their operation, and dragged the injured ‘Mr. Jones’ out of the fire zone.
"Is he badly injured?” Smith didn't look like he cared much. His voice was about as cold as a snake and his gray eyes showed nothing but contempt for his partner.
She gestured for him to take cover behind the low mound that was all that remained of one of the mosque's once fabled mosaic-works. “It's bad. Call in a Medevac."
"It's imperative that we continue this search, regardless of the risk. Jones can take care of himself."
Ivy didn't know whom she'd pissed off to be given this assignment, but she swore she'd find out. And when she did, payback was going to be sweet.
"Mr. Jones isn't going to be doing any more searching today.” She kept pressure on his wound but Jones bled in gushes. That couldn't be good news.
Keeping one hand on his wound, she sliced through Jones's impractical black suit and the starched white shirt underneath it and discovered about what she'd suspected. The bullet had ripped a hole out of his arm big enough to swallow her entire fist. Jones might live, but she doubted even the best surgeon would save that arm.
Every American soldier in Iraq carries emergency first aid equipment. Like many others, Ivy had been given practical experience. Luckily for Jones, blood no longer bothered her—much. Ivy yanked her largest sterile bandage out of its wrapping and pressed it hard against Jones's upper arm, then gave him a shot of morphine.
The civilian moaned and thrashed but he wasn't strong enough to get away.
"Take it easy, Jones. Helicopter should be on its way."
"I'll pray for him,” Smith offered.
"Oh, yeah. That'll help."
"Of course.” Smith missed her sarcasm.
"While you're praying, how about pouring some water on a bandage and swabbing off his forehead,” she suggested. “We've got to keep his temperature regulated. If he doesn't bleed out and shock doesn't kill him, he might make it."
In Iraq, keeping body temperatures from skyrocketing was a constant challenge. She couldn't remember the last time the outside temperature had dropped below a hundred degrees.
She had found Jones a bit of shade: better yet, shade that was protected from the sniper who had shot him. That meant he was lying on a mix of stone, mortar, and huge shards of timber.
It wasn't much for comfort, but it was better than getting shot at, which was what was happening to her squad. Sending them into danger without going herself increased the nagging sense of unease that pushed her toward panic. But she didn't trust Smith to keep Jones under control without her staying. Smith didn't look much interested in what happened to his partner. Despite the repeated chatter of automatic weaponry, he was champing at the bit to search the bombed-out mosque complex.
She sighed. Once again, the civilians had found a way to stick their noses into a beehive and expected the military to bail them out.
Ivy crouched low, made sure Smith kept his head down, and hoped her guys would survive this latest civilian cluster.
It only took minutes, but it felt like an hour before she heard the whomp-whomp of the Medevac helicopter. Jones had lapsed into a semi-conscious state, intermixing shallow breathing with occasional heartfelt murmurs requesting that Jesus take a personal interest in his welfare.
A pair of fighter-bombers jetted over as the Medevac landed, blasting randomly at the neighborhood around the mosque complex. Under that dubious cover, the Medevac stretcher team dashed through the dust and rubble to collect their casualty.
Smith watched in complete disgust as his partner was flown away. “So much for the armor of his faith. I had thought better of him."
"Civilians aren't trained to go for cover as fast as soldiers,” Ivy said.
Smith looked at her, then used a handkerchief to wipe Jones's blood from his hands. “I'm going to need your help after all, Sergeant."
"Yes sir?” Of course it was too much to expect him to be rational and shit-can the mission.
"We have reliable inte
Ivy risked lifting her head above the shattered wall and looked around the ruined mosque complex.
Once, the complex had been centered by a huge building rising hundreds of feet above the city. The building and grounds sprawled over a couple of acres near downtown Mosul. It had been built in the fourteenth century, on the grounds of an earlier mosque destroyed by the Mongols.
Now, only a single minaret remained intact. Around that spike toward the sky, the bones of the mosque baked under Iraq's summer sun.
It was likely as anything that weapons had been hidden inside the Sunni mosque. Hell, there were weapons hidden everywhere in Iraq. Letting the old Iraqi army go home without disarming them had made sure that every home had a machine gun and every block had its own artillery. That didn't explain why some D.C. civilian cared about this particular mosque and these particular weapons.
"I called for more troops to secure the position,” Smith announced as he handed back her radio. “We should get half a dozen Bradleys and a couple of M1s. Once the armor arrives, we shouldn't have to worry about the pagans any more."
If he had the clout to call in that level of support, Ivy wished he'd done it before he'd gotten Jones shot and put her own men in danger.
She took a deep breath. Tempting though it was, losing her temper wouldn't help.
"Are you allowed to tell me what we're looking for?"
Smith studied her. “Are you a Christian, Sergeant?"
From the two-inch-long cross on his lapel, his super-short blond hair, and the fish-theme on his tie, she'd already figured Smith to be one of the fundamentalist types.
Ivy knew the right answer to that question. She'd been raised Catholic. While she'd dabbled with New Age since, she hadn't totally rejected her upbringing. Besides, admitting her own doubts would weaken her position with her team. “Sure."
"Right. Let's just say we're looking for artifacts of deep religious and historical importance."
"Artifacts?” Only a few seconds ago he'd been talking about weapons. “You're risking soldiers lives to find some old relics?"
Smith frowned. “These ‘old relics,’ as you call them, just may be the most important objects in the history of the world."
All civilians were crazy, but this was over the top. “Like the Ark of the Covenant?"
"You've been watching too many Indiana Jones movies. The Resurrection replaced the old Covenant with the new. The Ark is now a meaningless symbol of an as-yet unredeemed people."
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Smith might have a few screws loose, but he delivered on his promises. The Bradleys and Abrams arrived an hour after Jones and been shot. The insurgents sent a couple of mortar shells their way, but faded into the city rather than face them directly. The rebels might not be brilliant, but the ones dumb enough to face ten inches of armor and machine guns that could chew through six inches of solid rock every second had been killed long before.
Smith spent most of that hour thumbing through a pocket Bible. Ivy took one glance over his shoulder and saw that he was reading a Hebrew version of the Old Testament. Impressive—or maybe nutty. Since she'd arrived in Iraq three months ago, she'd tried to learn a bit of Arabic, and she'd studied Latin in school years before, so she had a lot of respect for people who could pick up languages. Still, reading a Jewish book in Iraq was asking for trouble. Smith didn't seem to care.
The armor deployed, blocking access to the mosque complex and shooting a few more holes in the ruins. Smith placed one of his bookmarks, closed his Bible, and slid it back into his pocket.
"I hope you're satisfied. It's way past time to move.” He took a wipe from his pocket and daintily washed his hands as if he was getting up from a picnic or something.
"I still don't know what we're looking for,” she said. “What sort of artifacts do you expect?"
"The artifacts are my job. I'll tell you what you need to do and you follow my lead. Just trust me."
Trust him? As if. Still, she didn't have much choice. Her orders were to support this civilian and that was what she intended to do, even if he insisted on making her job as difficult as possible.
She'd fingered Smith to be a holy-roller, the big cross on his jacket and fish symbols on his tie being just the start of the giveaway. But she was still surprised when he opened a briefcase and took out a fifteen-inch long wooden cross.
The Bible here was bad enough, but at least Moslems saw it as a holy book. Was he trying to get them killed?
"Sir. If the indig learn that you've brought a Crucifix into a mosque, there'll be more problems. Big problems. Too many of them already think this war is an extension of the Crusades, another attempt to convert them."
"The time for conversion grows short and most of these people are have chosen damnation. But fear not. If we find what we're looking for, there won't be any more problems from the camel jockeys."
Ivy didn't find that attitude helpful. But Smith didn't ask her opinion and she kept it to herself.
Grasping his Crucifix by the crossbeam, Smith began a slow search of the grounds, holding the long end toward the ground, exactly as if the cross were a divining rod.
She might not be the best Christian in the world, but this use seemed close to blasphemous to her. Ivy was also pretty sure Father O'Brien back home would not have approved. She was also pretty sure Smith didn't care about her opinion, or Father O'Brien's.
It was mid-afternoon, and the temperature was at its highest, but Smith didn't even bother taking off his tie. Ivy trailed along wishing she dared strip off some of the armor that protected her but also left her steaming like a potato in aluminum foil. Even though she was drinking as much water as her stomach could hold, fingers of dehydration crept through her body.
Smith hadn't touched a drop of water since their Humvees had arrived at the bombed-out mosque. He'd seemed completely cool and collected—until he started his bizarre dousing.
The cross vibrated in his hands as Smith walked. Although the air was so dry and dusty it sucked the moisture from Ivy's skin faster than she could sweat, oily glistening beads popped out on Smith's forehead—and stayed there.
"So much power around here. It's amazing,” he muttered.
He reached the very center of the ruined complex, kicked away the beautifully carved calligraphy on a surviving section of stone and stopped, the bottom of his crucifix pointing straight to the ground.
Beneath his black suit, muscles she hadn't guessed he possessed strained against the pull of the cross.
"It's here.” He barely breathed the words. “It's here. After all this time I've found it."
It was possible Smith was crazy. On the other hand, Ivy had grown up in rural Pennsylvania where dousing was still used to locate wells. Using a cross to douse seemed blasphemous to her, but apparently it wasn't to Smith. And it certainly looked like the cross was reacting to something.
Although the Tigris River wasn't too far away, she doubted he'd found water. He hadn't come all this way to help the locals by digging a well.
"Widen the defensive perimeter,” he snapped. “Give me your radio again. I need more equipment."
She glanced up at the swollen ball of the sun, desert dust painting it a dull red. “It's getting late, sir. Perhaps we should come back tomorrow."
"And let the pagans come in and steal it when we're so close? I don't think so. We're working here until we recover it."
She suspected that ‘stealing’ wasn't the right word. After all, most of the insurgents were locals. If anything, Smith was the thief, trying to steal something that had been sealed inside their mosque.
Still, she had her orders. And the Army, even the National Guard, has nasty ways of dealing with people who don't follow orders. “Right, sir."
She handed over the radio and got together with Captain Zack Herrera, the man in charge of the armor company Smith had calle
She'd seen the Captain on base when he'd first arrived from the states, newly promoted and looking like a kid. Three months later, Herrera had aged ten years. Baking in the desert sun had given his face character, wrung out any baby-fat from his body. Some forgotten firefight had given him a scar that cut across his face barely missing his left eye.
He looked good. Not that Ivy would consider dating a soldier. She intended to serve out her stint, go home, and hope the Guard let her out when her term expired.
From what she'd heard, though, Herrera wasn't bad for an officer. He hadn't lost a single soldier since he'd taken over his company. Easier for armor than for infantry, she guessed. Her own Captain was good, but her Company had lost two dead and more wounded that she could count in the three months since they'd been rotated back to Iraq for their third tour.
"Who is this Smith guy, anyway?” Herrera asked.
She shrugged. “Hotshot from somewhere in the government."
"You know he's asking for trouble digging around at a mosque site. It's Sunni. Even so the Iraqi government will object. If it turns out the civilians called in the airstrike just so Smith could dig around, we're in worse trouble."
Ivy sighed. “Tell me about it. Smith says he's getting some equipment but he didn't mention any extra firepower. Can you call in reinforcements?” A Captain could do that a lot more easily than a Sergeant.
Herrera shook his head. “I tried. HQ says this is Smith's operation. He decides resource callup. You might suggest it to him, though. He listens to you."
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The man known as Smith pulled a handkerchief from his suit jacket and wiped his forehead. He'd imagined this day starting way back when he'd been a kid in Sunday School staring at pictures of the Lord Jesus on the Cross. Unlike so many others, he'd never given up, never lost the dream. Now, thanks to decades of hard work by himself and plenty of others, he was on the verge of success.