Here’s a sample of an edgy thriller by award-winning comics legend Mike Baron, just released in print and eBook by WordFire Press. I’ve published Mike’s stories in two of my BLOOD LITE anthologies, and I love his visceral style. I think he reads like Quentin Tarantino on paper.
When world leaders burst into flame like a string of firecrackers, the President calls on a renegade former agent with a history of mental problems. Otto “Aardvark” White possesses a unique quality. He’s lucky. What Otto discovers in the mountains of Colorado will blow your mind and change the way you look at the world.
“Mike Baron’s Whack Job is pretty freaking brilliant.”—James A. Owen
“Mike Baron writes like the bastard offspring of James Crumley and Rex Miller, in prose so hardboiled you’ll break a tooth.”—Jeff Marriote
“Mike Baron brings his limitless imagination to prose with a fast-moving tale that feels like an action movie captured in type.”—Paul Levitz
The mission was FUBAR from jump street. Two SEALS, two Rangers and three spooks so that Ghaddafi’s assassination would reflect well on at least three branches of service. Otto White looked around the cramped interior of the SH 60 Seahawk. It was crammed with men and equipment. Sound and vibration served as a constant reminder that they were carried aloft by a crazy machine that grappled with the laws of physics. The constant vibration felt like a passing freight train.
They’d been working on the intel for months. Ghaddafi was hiding out in one of his sixteen presidential palaces, the one at the Sarir Oasis one hundred miles from the Egyptian border. The seven heavily outfitted men hunkered in the belly of the stealth-equipped chopper, its McDonnell Douglas turbine muffled so that from a hundred meters it sounded no louder than a stiff wind.
Inside the helo was as loud as a boiler factory. There was nothing to see through the heavily tinted windows save the endless Sahara. The pilots saw a vast green ocean with frozen waves through their infrared. They flew beneath an overcast sky into the teeth of a 30 kph wind kicking up sand, the helo bucking and groaning like a ghost of the deep. Ghaddafi’s Russian-trained pilots weren’t good enough to fly in this weather.
The Inuit spook Ray Benson sat butt cheek to butt cheek on Otto’s left, an Old Testament under his arm. He squeezed Otto’s knee, turned his freaky blue eyes on him and carefully enunciated, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.” He grinned like a motherfucker.
Otto thought he was crazy. Everyone called the Inuit spook Quinn.
The satellite photo showed Ghaddafi’s “palace,” a concrete monstrosity covering 8,500 square meters, ten-foot walls enclosing what had once been the only available water for fifty klicks. The photo indicated the sad collection of stone and concrete buildings that comprised the village, the makeshift landing strip on which sat an Ilyushin Il-96, a gift from Vladimir Putin.
SEAL Master Sergeant O’Hern bopped Otto on the knee. They were over the drop-off. Otto gave a final screw to each earplug with his index fingers. He touched the crucifix tattoo above his heart and said a silent prayer. Quinn did likewise.
Otto was the bomb guy. It was his job to clear their infiltration by dismantling any booby-traps that lay in their way and use explosives to effect an entry, if necessary. Once inside Otto would plant the homing device the Navy would use to launch its tomahawk. Lt. O’Hern was the Ranger in charge. The other Ranger was Sgt. Tyrell Hathaway who clenched a Costa Rican cigar in his mouth. The SEALS were Lieutenants Osima and Al Dweeb and the other ops were a young spook named Hornbuckle and chisel-faced spook Ray Benson. Otto had met all six for the first time 48 hours ago. Three white guys, a black guy, an Eskimo, a Japanese-American and an Arab-American. All they needed was a lesbian dwarf.
Hornbuckle was after intel. Benson was a cypher.
At O’Hern’s signal they formed up. Al Dweeb pulled the door open and deployed the ropes. As the helo hovered ten meters above the sand tossing dunes into the air the six operators fast roped down to the desert floor. As soon as the last man touched down the helo rose, the co-pilot hauling in the lines. The entire insertion took less than thirty seconds. The sound of the helo disappeared quickly in the blowing wind.
The land was not as flat as it appeared from the air but consisted of a series of gentle undulations stretching into the distance, cutting off the horizon, and providing cover for their infiltration. O’Hern shinnied to the top of a shallow dune and turned on the SOFLAM AN/PEQ 1 laser range-finding device. Putting on goggles to keep the sand out of his eyes Otto shinnied up next to him. Ghaddafi’s palace gleamed dully through the blowing sand three klicks to the southwest.
They could have used a drone but the CIC insisted on eyeball recognition. No more aspirin factories. Hornbuckle was after intel. The men followed O’Hern in silence over the dune and up the next. It was 0330 Zulu time. The shallow dunes stopped a half klick from the palace. They would have to cross that space with no ground cover save a handful of malnourished fig trees. The wind picked up whipping pinpricks into every square centimeter of exposed flesh. Only Otto’s chin remained uncovered.
They grouped along the last sand ridge each man deploying his night vision scope. Ghaddafi’s so-called palace looked like a concrete warehouse from the outside. The walls canted in toward the top at a ten-degree angle. The only concession to architecture was a lone minaret poking up from inside the near wall. A massive double steel door, closed, offered the only break in the featureless slab. Along the top Otto picked out one sentry hunkered down against the wind trying to light a cigarette in his cupped hands. After a few failures, he disappeared below the rim seeking a pocket of still air.
O’Hern signaled and they broke into two groups, O’Hern, Hathaway, Osima and Benson, and Al Dweeb, Hornbuckle and Otto. Otto’s group circled the palace counter-clockwise, bringing them through a series of ruins, mostly abandoned cinder block shops and homes but also the remains of a Coptic Church. Those who chose to remain in the forlorn village had been forced to relocate 500 meters from the palace. Ghaddafi had had a single water outlet installed in the village center connected by pipe to the palace. He could turn it off at any time.
Otto took point fifty meters from the nearest ruin, his camo causing him to blend in. A minute glow lit the ruler-straight eastern horizon, but was cut short by the low-hanging blanket of sand. He crawled on his belly cradling his carbine in his elbows. The nearest ruin was a gutted shell with scorch marks. It could have been ten years old or two hundred. Peering through a gap in the wall with his night vision Otto saw shifting green sands.
He made a circular motion and within seconds Al Dweeb and Hornbuckle had joined him. Spread out, they circled the palace, climbing over blasted sills or shifting rubble, the wind a constant presence whipping up little sand devils in the corners and peppering the skin.
The sentry on the south wall was more diligent but he didn’t look down. Otto, Al Dweeb and Hornbuckle converged at the south gate. While Hornbuckle and Al Dweeb hugged the wall, Otto got down on his knees and inspected the steel door, slightly inset due to the sloping walls. He pulled out a tiny battery-powered sniffer and waved it around the rim. He used a pen light to examine the gap between the door and the frame.
Satisfied, Otto removed a can of WD-40 from his pack and squirted the door’s hinges. With a gloved hand, he pushed it open. It was unlocked, as their mole had promised. There was a minute squeak instantly lost in the wind. They slunk inside. Otto closed the door. Tinny Egyptian pop played from a tabletop radio next to a soldier in military drabs dozing in a tilt-back chair, feet up on a gunmetal desk.
The three ops entered a large dim cavern, the motor pool. The Agency had paid a million dollars for the intel and the open door. No one knew who the mole was. The room smelled of petrol, cleaning solvents and some exotic spice. Save for the dozing soldier they had the room to themselves. The room contained a Mercedes limousine, an ancient Cherokee, a Russian Tiger with a roof-mounted .50, and an old olive drab bus. Intel estimated two dozen soldiers in the palace plus Ghaddafi plus “wife” and maybe one of his sons, all of whom the ops had learned to identify on sight.
Hornbuckle signaled them to cross the floor and form up by the door leading into the interior. As Al Dweeb was halfway across the floor, a dull thump resounded causing the earth to shift and dust to rain down.
A Team had detonated their distraction.
With a shout, the sleeping soldier came awake, slammed his feet to the ground and ratcheted his AK-47.
Otto gripped his Sig and set. Without sighting, he envisioned a triangle between gun, eyes and target and squeezed the trigger. His first four shots ripped through the sentry’s tunic and sent him sprawling. Hornbuckle was already through the door, gas mask on as he rolled a smoke bomb down the corridor. Their intel put Ghaddafi on the top floor in his “presidential suite.”
Otto pulled on his mask and followed Hornbuckle through a steel door into a cinder block corridor with vinyl floor and acoustic ceiling. Hornbuckle stood sentry as Otto planted the homing device at the juncture of floor and concrete pillar. On their signal, USN Corregidor would launch a Tomahawk missile from the Mediterranean. The Corregidor remained submerged waiting for their sixty-second window of opportunity.
Hornbuckle and Otto ran past an open door glimpsing hallucinatory marble floors and a big indoor swimming pool glowing cerulean from underwater lights. A wave of obscene moisture struck them as they passed. They heard muffled shots and men shouting in Arabic. Hornbuckle paused at the next door to roll a smoke grenade into the big room. He and Otto followed splitting left and right. Through smoke Otto saw a Libyan soldier, pistol drawn, leaping down the broad marble steps three at a time. Hornbuckle drilled him with a head shot. The stairs ascended around the polished bronze doors of an elevator. The elevator doors were open revealing a space that would not have been out of place in a Las Vegas hotel. Gilt-tinted mirrors above a brass rail. Parquet floor. Hornbuckle tossed an illumination grenade through the open doors and bolted. The grenade exploded with a dull whump, belching smoke and fire into the room.
Hornbuckle and Otto took the steps two at a time, Otto’s carbine banging against his side. The O’Hern-led ruse had succeeded in drawing the defenders to the north side of the building but Ghaddafi was never without his personal guard. They’d heard rumors that the Strong Man of Libya had hired lethal blond Belarus beauties whom he dressed in black leather outfits of his own design.
A hand grenade bounced merrily down the marble stairs and stopped at Otto’s feet. Without thinking, he scooped it up and hurled it as far as he could across the marble lobby, falling to the steps beneath the fluted balustrade. The grenade detonated with an ear-puncturing report, metal shards pinging off the walls onto the floor for several seconds. Otto’s earplugs protected him. He was up and following Hornbuckle as the staircase corkscrewed clockwise around the elevator shaft. Smoke rose with them, not all of it from the grenades.
They reached the fourth floor without resistance. Either they’d caught the guard napping or their intel was wrong and this was a skeleton crew. The intel could not be wrong. COC never would have signed off on the mission if he hadn’t known for a fact Ghaddafi was in the building. A broad marble corridor led the way to the Presidential suite, double red leather doors with gold buttons set in a bronze frame.
A soldier in desert khakis lay on the floor outside the door, crimson pool the size of a garbage can lid beneath his head. His black beret and been knocked off and he clutched a Makarov MP-71 in one hand. He’d blown off the top of his head through the roof of his mouth.
Hornbuckle paused five meters from the door, hand up to pause. It was not supposed to be this easy. Hornbuckle motioned Otto to the other side of the door. Otto examined the door and frame, got down on his hands and knees and peered under. The door was cracked open a quarter inch. From beneath the door he saw Persian rugs extending to a massive marble desk, a pair of black boots planted on the floor behind the desk. Otto could not see any higher. The feet repositioned themselves.
Otto signaled Hornbuckle that someone was in the room. His heart raced in anticipation.
Don’t anticipate, he told himself. Be the mission.
Hornbuckle stood on the other side of the door with his pistol in both hands. He stepped back and kicked the door, spiraling out of the way as soon as he made impact. The door swung back and smacked into its stopper. Hornbuckle rushed the room at an angle cutting away from the door. As soon as it was clear, Otto did the same going to the other side. They took position behind furniture and drew down on the figure behind the desk.
The dark, thin, elegantly groomed young man smiled at them. It was Ghaddafi’s son Malik. Every member of the team knew the entire Ghaddafi family on sight. The room was decorated like the office of a successful but eccentric CEO. A copy of the Venus de Milo rested on a plinth. A gilt-framed poster of Anna Nicole Smith hung over a credenza topped with action figures including Conan the Barbarian. There were signed photographs of Michael Jackson and Snoop Dogg on the wall.
A big-screen TV, several generations old with a massive picture tube sat on a media stand. The east-facing windows showed the rising sun peeking over the horizon. A curving concave metal sheet mounted in native rock displayed an elegant Qalicheh. The room smelled of hashish and patchouli. There was a large brass hookah mounted on a delicately carved cedar table inlaid with mother of pearl. An open laptop faced Malik on the desk.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Malik said. Like all the dictator’s children, Malik spoke perfect English.
“Where’s the colonel,” Hornbuckle snapped.
Malik spread his hands. “As you can see he’s not here. If you plan to shoot me, don’t delay. I embrace martyrdom as my destiny.”
A muffled explosion shook the floor. Shouts and gunfire grew louder. Hornbuckle stepped up to the desk, gun trained on Malik, and seized the laptop.
“Watch him. I’ll be right back.”
“Where you going?” Otto said.
“I need to check something with O’Hern.”
Hornbuckle left shutting the door behind him. The guard’s body was still there.
Otto had a moment of misgiving. Why hadn’t Hornbuckle used the radios? Did he fear they would be overheard? It was against protocol to leave a high-level figure like Malik with only one guard.
Otto walked counter-clockwise around the desk so that Malik came into full view.
“What do they pay you?” Malik said in a conversational voice.
“More than enough,” Otto said.
“I will pay for my freedom. If you’ll permit me to open this desk drawer.” Malik’s hand extended to the center drawer of the massive desk.
Otto motioned furiously with his gun for Malik to move back. “Don’t touch it! Stay in the chair. Push yourself into the corner.”
With Otto tracking his every move, the dictator’s son had no choice but to obey. He scooted backwards on the chair’s wheeled legs. Otto backed up to the desk drawer keeping a bead on Malik. He dare not turn away. Damn Hornbuckle for leaving!
Without looking, there was no way to tell if the drawer was booby-trapped.
Outside the wind howled and the sun turned bright orange, top lopped flat by the low-hanging clouds. He whipped his eyes back to Malik. The dictator’s son sat in the corner grinning like a fool. His eyes glowed orange—or maybe it was a trick of the light.
Otto took a step toward Malik.
Streams of vapor poured from Malik’s nostrils. He stood, smoke issuing from a corner of his mouth.
“Sit down!” Otto said.
Malik burst into flame.
Otto was momentarily frozen, awash in heat and the stink of burning flesh.
A flaming man?
Malik blossomed into a ball of white-hot phosphorus. A skillet of heat pressed down on every square centimeter of Otto’s exposed skin. Wallpaper curled from the corners and ignited. The chair on which Malik sat exploded. Otto backtracked and tried the door. Jammed shut. He put his shoulder to it and shoved with all his might. Did not budge.
He had to get out of there. The heat was setting his clothes on fire.
He raced to the window and that’s when he saw the Tomahawk.