One Minute Out – Mark Greaney

GORNJI CRNAČ, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA The grandfather of six stood on his front porch, a cup of tea in hand as he looked out across the valley at the green hills, thinking of the old days. They didn’t seem so long ago, but still he often wondered where they had gone. The warm afternoon tired him, and he considered a nap before dinner. It was something an old man would think to do, and this bothered him a little, because he didn’t really consider himself old. At seventy-five he was in robust health for his age, but back when he was young he had been truly strong and able physically, as well as a man of great power in his community. But those days were long past. These days he lived here on this farm, never ever ventured off it, and he questioned if his labors in life had amounted to much of anything at all. Money was no problem—he had more than he could ever spend—but he often pondered his purpose here on Earth. He’d most definitely had a purpose once, a cause he believed in, but now life amounted to little more than his easy work, his occasional pleasures, and the strict rules he’d adopted to live out his days in quiet and in peace. Another day here, he told himself, reflecting on both the years and the decisions he’d made in life. Good decisions all, of this he was certain. He was not a man to harbor doubts about his actions. But he was painfully aware that the decisions he’d made had come with a high cost. The wet heat hanging in the still air tired him even more. He drank down the dregs of his tea, looking out over the lush green hills, contemplating his existence, and he made the final and resolute decision to go back inside the farmhouse to bed.

The old man’s eyesight was not good, but even if he’d had the vision he’d enjoyed in his prime, he would not have been able to see the sniper across the valley, dressed in a green foliage ghillie suit and lying in thick brush 470 meters away, holding the illuminated reticle of his rifle’s optic steady on the old man’s chest. The grandfather turned away from the vista before him, oblivious to the danger, and started back for the door to his large farmhouse. He put his hand on the latch, opened it, and stepped inside. There was no gunshot; only the single crow of a rooster broke the quiet of the valley. • • • Dammit, Gentry, take the fucking shot already. My finger comes off the trigger. My eye blinks and retracts from the scope. I thumb the safety, then lower my forehead down into the warm grass next to my weapon’s buttstock. Dude, you suck. I get like this.

Negative self-talk echoes through my brain when I don’t do what I should do, what I’ve told myself I must do. The voice is annoying, but the voice is right. Why didn’t I shoot that asshole when I had the chance? I’ve been lying in this sweltering, bug-infested overwatch for two days, my neck and upper back are killing me, and my mouth tastes like something crawled in there and died—a possibility I can’t really rule out. I’ve had my target in my twelve-power scope six times so far, and I could have taken him the first time, which would put me in Zagreb or Ljubljana or even Budapest by now. Shaved and fed and showered and safe. Instead I am right here, caked in thick layers of grime and sweat, lying in the itchy grass, and bitching at myself. I should be gone, and he should be dead. Retired Serbian general Ratko Babic may look innocent enough now, living quietly on this farm in Bosnia and Herzegovina, just northwest of the town of Mostar. But I know who he is. And I know what he did.

The old goat may be up to nothing more nefarious these days than harassing his chickens to lay more eggs, but twenty-five years ago, Ratko Babic was a household name, known the world over as one of the worst human beings on planet Earth. And for the past quarter century he has paid exactly no price for his actions. I don’t like that shit. He’s a war criminal, the perpetrator of acts of genocide, and personally responsible for orchestrating the mass execution of eight thousand men and boys over three days in the summer of 1995. I don’t like that shit, either. The UN wants him, NATO wants him, the International Criminal Court wants him, the families of his victims want him—and he’s slipped by them all. But now I want him, and that pretty much means Ratko’s fucked. Or else I’m fucked, because I can’t make myself shoot him at standoff distance. No, my dumb ass has to do this the hard way. I’m not holding fire because of any second thoughts; no, this bastard richly needs to die—but if I pop him from here with a .

300 Winchester Magnum round at 477 meters, then he’s going to drop like a sack of wet sand and die quickly and unaware, and the thought of that has been driving me crazy since the moment I first saw him. Eight thousand lives, plus. Torture. Rape. All because of that asshole on the other side of the valley. Me simply flipping his lights off, sight unseen, from a quarter mile away . that’s too good for him. So instead I’m going in. I’ll penetrate his property after nightfall, breach his wires, and sneak past those protecting him. I’ll make my way to wherever he sleeps, and then I’ll appear out of the darkness and let him feel my hot breath on his face while I end him.

Up close, personal, and so slow he will lose his head before I stop his heart. That’s the plan, anyway. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that sometimes plans go sideways, and it’s given me a healthy fear. But not enough, clearly. There’s still the voice in me that says, You’ve got this, Gentry. Don’t do what’s easy. Do what’s right. What’s righteous. And that voice is in charge today, not the one that keeps telling me I’m an idiot. I’ve been studying the sentries.

They’re pros, which actually surprises me. Six static, six mobile, with a second team that lives somewhere off property and rotates in every twenty-four hours. It’s a lot more guns than I thought he’d have. Most other Balkan war criminals busted over the years were found to be lying low, with no more than two or three guys watching their backs, so I had figured on a lower profile for Babic, as well. But Ratko’s out here in the sticks with two dozen gun monkeys, and that seems strange to me. They seem to be well trained, but my time in this overwatch has uncovered a serious compromise. The mobile guys are the toughest to anticipate, but at dinner they go static, same as the rest. A couple of sentries stay down on the road that leads into the property, another hangs out in the main house with the protectee, but the rest sit at tables in front of the bunkhouse a hundred meters away from Babic’s farmhouse while three women bring dinner out to them. Babic himself doesn’t eat with the detail. He takes his meals inside the house.

So that’s where I’m headed. Tonight’s going to be a bitch, if experience is any guide. Whatever, I tell myself. I’ll adapt and overcome. Hopefully. My principal trainer in the CIA’s singleton operator school, the Autonomous Asset Development Program, was an old Agency shooter and Vietnam vet named Maurice. And Maurice had a saying that has stuck with me over the years, possibly because he screamed it into my ear something like half a million times. “Hope is not a strategy.” Nearly two decades living downrange has me convinced that Maurice was right, yet still I plan on scooting down this hillside, climbing up the opposite hillside, and hoping like hell I can get in my target’s face. One last time that angry voice in my head implores me to stand down.

C’mon, Gentry. Just lie here and wait for Babic to walk his fat ass back in front of your optic again. Then you can smoke him and be gone: quick, clean, and safe. But no. I’m going in, and I know it. I look up at the sky, see the sun lowering over the hills on the other side of the valley, and begin slowly stretching my tight and sore muscles, getting ready for the action to come. I’ve got to load up the Jeep and position it for a fast getaway, and then I have to change into black, pull on a ski mask, and head out through the foliage towards my target. This is a bad idea and I know it, but that bent and broken moral compass of mine is in the driver’s seat, it’s more powerful than the angry voice of reason, and it’s telling me that a quick and painless end for Ratko Babic would be no justice at all. TWO The general woke in time for dinner, made his way down to the dining room in his large but simple farmhouse, and sat at the table alone. Often old friends dropped in, fellow officers from the war, men who had served their sentences and then returned to the area or who had somehow avoided being charged with crimes in the first place.

Only once had he met with another Serbian wanted by the authorities for his actions, but this man had soon after been killed in a shootout in Sarajevo. This evening Babic had no guests; it was just him, the hollow ticking of the grandfather clock in the main entryway, and the clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen as the cook and her two assistants prepared dinner. One hundred meters away, most of his security boys from Belgrade would themselves be sitting down to dinner in front of the bunkhouse. Ratko ate the same food as the men, a habit he’d picked up as a young officer in the Yugoslav army. The Hungarian wine he drank was better than the Žilavka, a Bosnian wine provided to the security team, but that was a small personal allowance to his wealth and his seniority, and none of the boys from Belgrade who watched over him judged him for saving the good stuff for himself. He’d earned some perks for his lifelong dedication to the cause, and the men from Belgrade all knew it. Babic put a napkin in his shirt as his chief protection agent leaned into the dining room. “You okay, boss?” “Fine, Milanko. When I’m finished, I want to go spend time with the boys.” “Sounds good, sir.

” Milanko stepped back into the living room to return to the TV he’d been watching. Tanja served the old man a steaming bowl of podvarak: sauerkraut casserole filled with bacon and bits of beef. “Hvala,” he said. Thank you. Tanja bowed a little and left the dining room. She didn’t like him; it was obvious to the general that she didn’t approve of what he had done or what he did now, but she’d been sent from Belgrade along with the others and she did what she was told, and that was all an old officer like Babic expected out of anyone. Petra came in next with a basket of bread and a plate of butter and put it next to him with a nod and a little smile, and Babic reached out and grabbed the nineteen-year-old girl’s ass as she walked away. She didn’t turn back or even adjust her stride. This was a nightly occurrence for her; she was past the point of caring. “Cold little bitch,” he said under his breath.

Tanja and Milena were plain and middle- aged. Petra, on the other hand, was young and beautiful. But Babic didn’t push it with Petra, because, like all the others here on the farm around him, she came from Belgrade, and Ratko knew he could do just about whatever the fuck he wanted till the day he died, as long as he didn’t leave the farm, and as long as he didn’t piss off the Branjevo Partizans—the Belgrade mob. He watched her ass wiggle out of the room and then returned his attention to his food. Behind him the window displayed only darkness, but if he’d bothered to turn his head and peer out, if he’d retained the vision of his younger days, and if he’d concentrated hard in just the right portion of the property, he might have been able to detect a brief flash of movement—fast, from right to left, from the fence line towards the back of the house. But instead, he dug into his podvarak and sipped his wine, and his mind shifted again to the glorious past. • • • After dinner Babic and his protection agent Milanko headed over to the bunkhouse to chat and smoke with the crew still eating there. He enjoyed his evening visits with the boys; they made him feel respected, important, vital. Long ago it was a sensation he’d known so fully and so well, but now it was a feeling that only came in passing. As he and Milanko walked through the night, behind them the dogs began barking.

The general sighed. They never shut up. • • • Damn dogs. I mean . I love dogs, who doesn’t, but not when they’re compromising my op. I knew about the two massive black Belgian Malinois, but their kennels are behind the farmhouse, and I ingressed from the west side and was careful to stay out of the dogs’ line of sight. But clearly they smell me here on the southern side of the building, because they’re going fucking bonkers back there now. As I squat here picking the lock on the door to a utility room in the darkness, I will myself to go faster and for the two big furry assholes around the corner of the house to shut the hell up. I’ve used silver-lined body suits to hide my smell from dogs in the past, and they function as advertised, but it’s July and hot as hell here, so if I had put a scent guard on under my ghillie suit I would have dropped dead in my overwatch from heat exhaustion. With the way I reek right now, the dogs are probably barking out of disgust and not to alert their handlers, but no matter the reason, I have to get this door open, pronto.

I’ve been defeating locks for twenty years, and I’m pretty good at it, but this isn’t the movies. It takes time and concentration. I hear footsteps approaching on the gravel drive at the front of the house, moving in my direction. Just one person; it must be a cook or a guard coming over to check on the Malinois in their kennels. Either way, I have a silenced Glock, a couple of knives, and a B&T ultracompact submachine gun. I can kill anyone in my way, but doing so while Ratko is on the other side of the property surrounded by seven or eight bodyguards would most definitely be the wrong move for me. So . open the fucking door already, Gentry. As the footsteps grow louder I rake the last tumbler into place and I hear the click as the latch gives—and I slip inside with only a few seconds to spare. Outside the footsteps continue past the door towards the kennels, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief.

I’m in. • • • Ratko Babic sat smoking and drinking with the off-duty men from the Belgrade detail till after eleven, and then he made his way back over to the farmhouse with his bodyguard at his side. This night was like any other on the farm. The rest of the protection team patrolled the grounds or sat in static positions. One was on the front porch, night vision goggles on his forehead, ready to pull down at the first sound of trouble. Two other men covered the driveway from a concrete pillbox mostly hidden in tall grass, and another from the roof of the bunkhouse, while another pair patrolled the fence line. This security plan had kept Babic safe for the past several years, but the truth was, these men were not here to protect Ratko Babic himself. They were here to protect the farm and, more specifically, what secrets the farm hid. • • • The seventy-five-year-old climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor with Milanko behind him. Babic would go to his room for a quick shower, take a pill .

perhaps two, drink some more wine, and then he would enjoy a little recreation before bed. His nap had rested him, prepared him for what was to come, and if Milanko was aware of his boss’s plans, he had the good manners to give no indication of it. The old man felt the first little surge of excitement in his chest of the day, and this depressed him some. There wasn’t much left to live for, he told himself. His service to his people was long ago; now he served other masters, and this work did not fill him with one one-hundredth of the same pride. • • • Once Milanko saw the general to his bedroom, he turned and walked back up the hall for the large wooden circular staircase. There was a chair at the top, and he’d sit here for a couple of hours, facing the lighted stairwell, to provide protection to the man behind him. He wasn’t worried about Babic. The bastard had lived invisibly since the 1990s. First moving around Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, and then settling here some ten years back.

Now the general was nothing more than a caretaker and, Milanko had to admit, he was good at his job. He was efficient and organized and he led the people under him like the military officer he had once been. And, more importantly than anything, he had impressed his employers with his discretion and his willingness to do that which must be done. So Milanko sat up here and kept him alive. He glanced down at his watch and realized it was time for the radio check. Normally he initiated it, because he was leader of the detail, although sometimes he’d be otherwise occupied so one of his subordinates would make the initial call. He grabbed the radio clipped to his belt and pressed the talk button. A wireless earpiece also contained a microphone so he didn’t have to bring his handset to his mouth. “Station One, reporting in.” Instantly he heard Luka at the front gate guard station, where two men sat.

“Station Two, reporting.” Then Pyotr on the second-floor window of the bunkhouse. “Station Three.” “Station Four,” said Karlo on the front porch. The patrolling men checked in next, and the radio fell silent again. As soon as the radio checks were complete, Milanko heard a door open in the hall behind him. He didn’t turn around because he was a professional, and he was discreet. It was the old man, heading off towards the rear spiral staircase. Normally a principal protection agent would put himself on the shoulder of his protectee, but Milanko knew where Babic was headed now, and he also knew the old man didn’t want a bodyguard with him. And Milanko was sure he would not want to witness what Babic was about to do.

So he just sat there on the chair, began playing a game on his phone, and protected the empty hallway behind him, waiting for the general’s return from the basement. • • • Put your war face on, I tell myself as I slowly push the latch down and crack open the door of the closet, just ten feet or so behind the chair positioned at the top of the stairs. The guard’s back is to me, and I’d just gotten lucky; I’d only had to wait a couple of minutes for him to make his commo check with his team. Now, I have some time. I don’t know how much, because I don’t know their check-in schedule, but I’ll make it work. My confidence is increasing as I hit my waypoints, one by one. The hallway is well lit. I reach to the black vest on my chest and pull a knife with a six-inch blade from its sheath, and I close for a silent kill. • • • Milanko had spent his entire adult life in the military, and then in various security postings, in both the Serbian government and the Serbian underworld. He had a sixth sense for his job; he could sense trouble, perceive danger before those around him.

And he’d learned to rely on these instincts, so when a sudden feeling of threat registered in his brain, he looked up from his game of Scrabble, then cocked his head to listen for a noise. Hearing nothing did not assuage his concern, so he rose quickly from his chair and turned to check back over his shoulder. A man stood two paces away, head to toe in black, a balaclava covering the lower half of his face. Before he could even shout in surprise, Milanko saw a black blade coming for him, and then he felt it buried in his throat. The man holding the knife embraced him, pulled him over the chair, and then pushed him up against the wall. Milanko felt no pain, just a sense of shock and confusion, and then, shortly before his world went black, he felt one more thing. He felt like he’d failed.

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