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Don Pendleton

Appointment In Kabul

To the true victims of war — the children.

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Incoming! One moment Mack Bolan was quietly leading a column of gaunt-faced, turbaned men across the folds and creases of rock-strewn, sloping terrain under a star-filled, moonless night sky. Then came the piercing whistle of a shrieking missile, rocketing in at them from the gloom. The Executioner and the unit of Afghan freedom fighters responded automatically in the heartbeat before the hit, and in that instant Bolan could discern the first sounds of approaching choppers thundering in from the periphery.

Soviet Mi-24 Hind gunships! They would be armed with missiles and rockets. The explosion of the impacting missile thunderclapped with deafening intensity, and the force was enough to lift Bolan off his feet, then hurl him to the ground. Abrupt shrieks of the dying punctuated the roar amid the fiery heat of the blast, and flying shrapnel splattered victims. For a moment red droplets rained over everything as the explosion rumbled away. Then the Soviet gunships zoomed in from the northeast. Bolan landed in a smooth, loose-limbed roll to crouch in the darkness near a granite boulder, tracking his M-16 into firing position.

He heard others scrambling for cover and harsh shouts in Pashto, silenced by the sharper, commanding tones of Alja Malikyar. Bolan knew too little of the language to make out the words. The surviving Afghan guerrilla fighters bolted in every direction as the Hind choppers sailed in low and fast, machine-gun pods winking, spewing rapid-fire ricochets from rock and geysering the earth. Bolan heard projectiles pop open living flesh from nearby and saw dead bodies toppling to the ground.

The attack gunships passed overhead, arcing out into the night sky for more strafing runs at the small group of men. Alja Malikyar's surviving mujahedeen sought whatever cover they could amid the crinkled folds of barren rock and sparse wild apricot trees growing nearby.

Automatic rifle fire suddenly opened up on their position from low ground to the left. More mujahedeen crumpled. Bolan and the guerrilla band returned fire. The night blazed with staccato hellfire. Bolan was togged in standard Afghan male attire: lajus, the dark cotton robe of the Muslim hillmen, and turban. His high cheekbones, firm, squarish jaw and stoic, piercing eyes made the Executioner appear at first and even second glance to be one of these tribal freedom fighters.

He required no facial makeup for his role as a mujahedeen. Beneath the lajus, within easy access, rode the hip-holstered stainless steel .44 AutoMag, Big Thunder. Bolan also toted a silenced Ingram MAC10 submachine gun, slung over his left shoulder, while he pumped off fast auto bursts from his M-16 assault rifle at the winking weapons two hundred yards off.

The mujahedeen kept up their fierce fire with everything from World War I vintage Lee-Enfield rifles to Chinese Type 56 SMG'S and captured Soviet AK-47'S.

Bolan heard death grunts from a few more men near him in the darkness. Incoming rounds razored in dangerously close to his position, one projectile whining off into the night, ricocheted from the granite rock. Then Bolan heard the Hinds returning for another strafing swoop, spewing more machine-gun fire and rockets that gulped up the terrain with ground-shuddering explosions.

Bolan twisted onto his back to fire at the choppers as they thundered by overhead, but in the moment before he could trigger a burst he saw two Afghan fighters stand boldly from their scant cover, each man hurriedly setting up an SA-7 Strella surface-to-air missile launcher.

Machine-gun fire from one Hind gunship spewed twin lines of geysering slugs that took one of the men across his chest, almost splitting the guy in two. The other fighter triggered his missile launcher. The heat-seeking rocket stabbed through the night sky like a red fingertip, homing in on one of the Soviet aircraft. On contact the Hind disintegrated into flaming pieces of junk that hurtled toward the earth like a storm of meteorites. Bolan leaped the short distance to the other SA-7 and bellied across the ground between the missile launcher and the dead Afghan who'd been about to fire it. Bolan triggered the launcher before another row of slugs from above could pulverize him.

The second Hind blossomed into fiery destruction and plummeted to the ground in a huge fireball.

Bolan started back toward his position. The mujahedeen supplied him covering fire, but incoming rounds from the ambushers who had waited so silently out there in the night continued pouring in too close for comfort. Bolan felt the heat of one bullet sizzle past his left earlobe, then he regained the granite boulder.

He slammed a fresh clip into the M-16, knelt above the boulder and rode the recoil of a threeshot blast at the enemy across the sloping terrain. Alja Malikyar dashed over to gain cover of the boulder.

Bolan stood, giving the mujahedeen leader protective fire. When the mountain warrior reached the rock, both men crouched for a hurried conference.

The shooting continued from both sides.

'Our thanks to you, kuvii Bolan, for bringingdown that aircraft,' the mujahedeen grunted. Alja fed a fresh clip into his AK-47, the Russian counterpart of Bolan's American rifle. 'Allah blesses you with tureh.'

Bolan knew this to be the mujahedeen's code of bravery. A supreme compliment.

'The scouts should have heard them,' Bolan grunted, nodding toward the ambushers. 'I should have heard them.'

'You would have heard the Russians. We are being attacked by badmash. This valley is their home. They know it well enough to surprise anybody.'

'With a little help from their friends,' Bolan added, 'and I don't just mean those Hinds.'

The two men paused to stand and aim their rifles over the boulder to return bursts of automatic fire.

Bolan knew the Soviets had great success in bankrolling gangs of badmash, the bandits and drug smugglers along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, who had lately stepped up brutal attacks not only on Afghan guerrillas but also on the Pakistani government and its agents.

Bolan and Alja Malikyar crouched back down behind the rock. 'You mean their aim is too good?' the guerrilla chieftain asked. Bolan nodded. He had grown to like this feisty team leader during their short time together. Alja was relatively slight of physical stature but a damn tall walker through valleys of death like this one that had erupted around them so suddenly.

'I'd say the Russians have supplied these badmash with night vision devices.' Alja's grim expression got new worry lines. 'That is why they have us pinned down so easily. This is very bad. They already kill too many of my men. And Tarik Khan waits for us outside Kabul.'

Bolan chuckled grimly.

'You sound more worried about Tarik Khan than about those badmash.'

'Tarik Khan calls you a combat specialist, kuvii Bolan. What shall we do now? Alja will listen.'

'Pray to Allah for luck and give me strong cover fire,' Bolan growled, 'not necessarily in that order.'

Bolan tugged off the robe, beneath which he wore his combat blacksuit. The slit pockets of the garment carried all manner of garrotes, small knives and other silent killing devices. Designed to Bolan's specifications, the suit was skintight, with nothing to get snagged or impede movement.

Bolan checked the ride of the AutoMag in its fast-draw leather low on his right hip.

He slung the Ingram MAC-10 back over his shoulder, then applied a black camou cosmetic.

The cosmetic, applied evenly across all of Bolan's exposed flesh, combined with the blacksuit to make the Executioner almost invisible in the darkness even to Alja who had watched the transformation in awe from inches away. Alja could discern only a vague, inky shadow in the dark and the whites of Bolan's eyes. The mountain warrior chuckled appreciatively when Bolan produced a pair of night vision goggles. When those went over Bolan's eyes, the Executioner became but a specterlike quaver before Alja's eyes. The transformation took less than a minute.

'You are indeed a 'combat specialist,' kuvii Bolan.

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