King of a Lesser Hill by Dale Amidei - Read Online
King of a Lesser Hill
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*This novel portrays acts of atrocity during the Bosnian Civil War of the 1990s. Though presented with sensitivity, some scenes might prove disturbing to survivors of conflict and/or violence against women.

In 1995’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, a USAF pilot, forced to eject over Serb-controlled territory, evades capture with the help of a young Bosnian woman and a sympathetic band of Croat militia. With a ruthless Serbian commander also on the hunt, it falls to Daniel Sean Ritter and his sergeants—now designated the Deep Recovery Team—to find the American first.

Stung by setbacks inflicted by an opposing coalition on multiple fronts, Serb paramilitary forces escalate operations as their window of opportunity narrows. Atrocities, reprisals, and response fuel a final conflagration in the embers of war. Its disposition will hinge on the courage found in those who have discovered the passions of Bosnia are ones from which they are unable to walk away.

Approx. 83,300 wds. / 290 pp. print length

Published: Single Candle Press on
ISBN: 9781536584004
List price: $3.99
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King of a Lesser Hill - Dale Amidei

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Chapter 1: Red Sky at Morning

Central Intelligence Agency

Directorate of Intelligence

Langley, Virginia

Monday, March 16, 1992

You must be Terry Bradley.

The observation came from senior analyst and former OSS asset Donovan Walker, who—as Bradley knew already—currently supervised the Bosnia Desk. The desk was a specialized subdivision of the Directorate of Intelligence. While not newly formed, the section was undergoing expansion due to recent events in the nations emerging from the former Yugoslavia. Collectively, the myriad of concerns thus arising were the reason Bradley stood there holding a covered box of office supplies, personal effects, and miscellaneous desktop paraphernalia.

Yes, sir, Bradley answered, wanting but unable to shake the man’s hand.

Come on back. You’ll be down here, Walker directed. With his oversized Navy mug of early morning brew in hand, he motioned the newcomer toward a corner of the still-assembling office.

The place, Bradley could see, had the look of a department in transition. Multiple individual workspaces yet sat empty, awaiting the remainder of the analysts and information managers. As now did he, soon others would also occupy slots on Walker’s team.

Your file says you came away from Princeton with an A.B. out of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a Master’s in Public Affairs. Some professors called you a standout, Walker commented.

No notes. Damn. Has he memorized the vitals on all his people already? Bradley would not have been surprised to learn this man had done such a thing. I had some great profs. Otherwise all correct, sir.

When he reached the workspace indicated, Walker set his mug down on the cellophane-covered desk calendar waiting there. Bradley did the same with his load, finally able to offer the living legend—who was now his boss—a hand.

Walker shook, seeming to size up Bradley’s frame as he did so. Well, your people at Princeton must have done their jobs, Mister Bradley. The white paper you put out on Tito’s hierarchy of political inheritors is the reason you’re here.

Though unsettling in a way, Bradley felt a moment of elation. He cleared his throat as Walker reclaimed his coffee. If I can ask, sir, will I be assigned any specific focus in the region as of yet?

Shaking his head, Walker then sipped and swallowed. "Not right off the bat, son. We’ll be busy for a while sorting out the implications of the regional political transitions. You will be cataloging players and profiling personalities, and we’ll all be doing our damnedest to determine the actors most likely to influence events. This whole thing is promising to develop into one hell of a conflict. Hopefully, it will be localized early."

Bradley raised his eyebrows in agreement. The First World War had started in Sarajevo with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the existing commitments to entangling alliances had drawn countries around the globe and their colonies into the conflict. The states making up NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as Bradley knew, did not intend ever to let the scenario recur.

To the north, the nations of the world now recognized Slovenia within its borders while Macedonia, in the south, continued to work through its naming dispute with Greece. In between, Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats in the fledgling state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the population center of Sarajevo at its core, still maneuvered for advantage over their neighbors. And ethnic rivalries, coupled to long memories inherent in the regional cultures, are what promise to make it such an interesting time, Bradley thought.

With five years of service in the agency, Bradley understood CIA to be the custodian of his nation’s strategic perspective. Attention to detail and implication were paramount here. Bradley’s own talents in those areas, he knew, had been on continual display since his recruitment in 1987. He was glad to have a future in The Company, doing the most fulfilling work the twenty-seven-year-old could imagine.

Welcome aboard, son, and good morning, his new boss wished him.

Bradley was but one of many who would show up today. Thank you, sir … you do the same. He had already formed an instinctive loyalty toward his supervisor and watched the man disappear into his own office at the end of the row. The Bosnia Desk's newest team member lifted the lid on his first box to begin settling in. I’m going to like it here, he decided.

Offices of the Assembly Designates

Banja Luka, Republika Srpska

Midday, March 16, 1992

"I tell you the funding will appear. The man will be President soon, and I have his inviolate word." Goran Kos leaned over a broad conference table in his suite of offices. The Romanesque governmental complex soon would be, as he knew very well, the center of power in an emergent state. And I will be one of those powers. It will begin today, with these preparations for war.

Minister Designate Kos, is this planning of yours not premature? Of the attendees, the one whom rumors placed as a strong candidate for the Ministry of Finance was the first to question him. The international bodies have not yet even determined the states they will recognize! Those gathered in the room, military officers and other soon-to-be officials, quieted to listen.

They decide on whom among us they will support. Kos straightened. "All the more important, then, if the Serb Republic begins to act like one. He paused, drawing his small stature up to a full statesmanlike pose. I will share with all of you what I know. He let their anticipation build for a dramatic moment. Within one week, I am told by those who have been to Geneva, the internationals will recognize a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which we Serbs are meant to play our part."

"What? another, wearing yet his Yugoslavian officer’s uniform, exclaimed. Then it is over, before it begins?"

"Nothing is over, Kos insisted. The presumptive declaration of foreigners is merely a marker in the road our Republic is set to follow. Scanning the eyes of the men in the room, he found them attentive without exception. We will have a national assembly of our own, and a government of our own, and borders of our own. As Serbs, it is our time to stand together. It is the hour to assert our independence from the Bosniak and the Croat, and win a homeland for our people. Our President will seek a severance with Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Assembly. They will surely vote him his wish."

In a solemn voice the finance man said, It will mean war without a doubt.

And this is why my proposal is just as sure to be adopted. Kos let the idea sink in. You see? It is not for nothing I called this meeting, gentlemen. Very soon, we will begin to push the undesirables out of Serb territory, and lay siege to the places where they gather for refuge. Sarajevo itself is not immune from prosecution. Our efforts will have the total commitment of the Serbian people.

And bear the weight of condemnation from the international bodies, another voice objected. They do not brook aggression in this day and age!

Regardless, we will not be denied our destiny, Kos countered. He indicated his proposed air-defense system as depicted on the large map before them. We must be ready for any eventuality on this front.

Now seeing the significance of Kos’s plan, another of the officers stood to lean over the high-resolution, topographic printout spread between the attendees. "If such is to be the case, control of our airspace will be our primary challenge. The internationals are sure to pursue intervention. We do not have a force of pilots and planes significant enough to challenge a United Nations coalition."

Precisely, Kos agreed. He looked into their eyes again. "We will be the underdogs in the fight to come. We have only our determination. Our best strategy will be to make those who would interfere pay the highest price possible. This is our path to victory."

He could see the acceptance on their faces. The man who would be the Minister of Defense began to close in on his goal. This, gentlemen, Kos said, reaching out to tap one of the orange dots adhering to the map, is what will make the price they pay unacceptable.

Waving his hand up from the Adriatic, he envisioned how it would begin. They will come in with their planes, and the coastal installations will detect them first. He traced a line from dot to dot on the map. These towers—thirteen of them—will link together with arrays of microwave dishes, and be able to align independently with many client nodes each. Together they will form a network of radar displays consolidated at one hidden central station, and fed back to each client as a territorial map.

Smiling, he observed the light of realization in the eyes of the officers first. "Our air defense will know everywhere if there is an incursion anywhere." They see now. All it requires to connect is for the local commander to raise a mast and have line of sight to the nearest tower. Once it is completed, wherever the internationals go, our guns and missiles will be there waiting for them.

They will see it as preparation for war, a voice, weaker than his own or those of the officers, tried again.

"Not if we designate it as an outlay of communications infrastructure, which is how it will be announced." Kos looked them over one last time. He knew then he had won even before the senior officer’s pronouncement.

Going forward you have my support in this, Goran, the general decided.

And mine, another in uniform concurred.

Around the room, Goran saw heads nodding, including those who had been the most recalcitrant. He felt a surge of satisfied ambition race through him. Today I have virtually assured I shall be Defense Minister. This is only the beginning.

Queens, New York

Tuesday, May 9, 1995

Twenty-six months later

"Oh, Danny Sean, you’re home!"

Uncle Ralph was right behind Aunt Em, as the woman grasped their nephew's cheeks in her hands and gave him a matronly kiss. Staff Sergeant Daniel Sean Ritter felt taken aback at seeing the aging visible on the faces of the last of his family. They are in their seventies now. I should make it back more often than I have.

Contrary to his aunt’s proclamation, the United States Air Force was his home now. Eight years after he had left the big city on a bus to Texas, the Manhattan native could hardly envision a life entailing anything other than Special Operations. Of the few who could tolerate the screening and training process to wear the maroon beret of a Pararescue Jumper, he was a standout. Attesting to that fact were the ribbons and accoutrements on his blue dress uniform, and they did not escape the eye of his uncle, a veteran himself.

There’s the Silver Star, Em, Ralph said, pointing with pride and then spying the bronze oak leaf cluster on the ribbon. "Damn, that’s two of ‘em! What did they have you doing over there in the desert, son?"

Ritter felt himself flush, surprised at his own embarrassment. I was just doing my job, sir. Like you did.

Uncle Ralph looked dubious. I’m thinking you did more, kid, bein’ you’re twice as big as I ever was. His eyes went to Sean's ribbons again. All I got out of my war was the Ruptured Duck and a Purple Heart from catching some Kraut shrapnel in my ass.

Well, whatever it was, Danny, you’ve made us proud, Em told him. Come in, come in!

Following the pair inside the Queens tract house, their nephew set his heavy duffel bag down inside the foyer. He removed his headgear and folded the cover flat before placing it carefully on the table beside the entrance. His gray eyes cataloged the differences in the place … one he had last viewed all those years ago. No, I haven’t been back often enough.

What brings ya home, Danny? his uncle wanted to know, beckoning him to a spot on the worn, paisley sofa across from his own favorite chair.

Leave accumulation, sir. The Air Force is making me burn some again—use it or lose it. His thoughts drifted back to the previous year’s adventure in the desert of Iraq, the results of which—if not the specifics of his involvement—had made the news nationwide. His team’s recovery of a downed and illegally detained pilot, Major Archie Edison Ravenswood, had earned him another Silver Star and a less public commendation from the commander of USSOCOM. The Pararescueman suspected his performance there was also what had gotten him a front-row seat in Operation Uphold Democracy. The venture was now winding down in the Caribbean nation of Haiti prior to the United Nations takeover of peacekeeping. So I get another attaboy from Admiral Fletcher and three weeks on the beach whether I want them or not.

Whatcha gonna be doin'? Ralph wanted to know.

A few days here, then I’m heading for Paulden, Arizona for some training, his nephew answered cautiously.

Air Force training?

Just training. I have the time, plus, I just got a piece of gear back from some work I had done on it.

Seeming to sense Sean's hesitance, Ralph lowered his voice while glancing across the house to where his wife readied dinner in the galley kitchen. Aw, c’mon kid. You can tell me.

With a careful look his aunt's way himself, Ritter sighed. His hand drifted over to his duffel, unzipping the bag and then the padded butterfly case just inside. He handed the piece to Ralph, who looked impressed.

Hoo, kiddo! These things are illegal as hell here, yanno.

Yeah, man, I know. It’s not loaded or anything, and I’m just passing through.

His appreciation evident, Ralph hefted the Browning pistol. It had come back with his nephew from Iraq courtesy of the good graces of an accommodating U.S. Army Intelligence two-star. The older man handed the now customized and hard-chromed handgun back to Sean before Em could spy the weapon. I guess this’s why you decided to drive up all the way from Florida.

Pretty much. And all the way out west. Two days, I figure, Ritter confirmed, resecuring the Browning pistol inside his luggage.

The house and the neighborhood, Sean finally decided, looked much the same. The people had changed the most. Ralph looked older and more settled into his retirement than Ritter remembered from dropping off the keys to his apartment in 1987. Em—though still spry—was slower and beginning to stoop. And Ritter himself was nothing like the long-haired punk who had left Little Germany on a bus with nary an intention of ever returning. Now, their nephew was what his incessant regimen of Pararescue training had made him. In the interim his neck size had increased four inches, and his chest six. He could run all day and swim half the night. And it’s what saved my soaked ass between the time I went into Lake Qadisiya and McAllen’s AFSOC Pave Hawk showed up.

Without any physical indication, Ritter shook off the emotion lingering from his recent memories. He was home now with no duties other than to pay his respects to these people who meant so much to him. Their nephew had resolved already to not burden them with stories of the danger inherent to his occupation. He was a noncom in the United States Air Force. The quiet, peaceful life enjoyed by Ralph and Em, and hundreds of millions of other civilians like them, was his reason to serve. It’s a gift from us to them, and they don’t have to know the cost.

He was content to let Ralph do the talking as they sat in the living room, and the man filled him in on the many events since he had last been in this house. Ritter had three days before he needed to start the drive to Arizona and the Gunsite training ranch, where he would add advanced firearms skills to his repertoire. On his own time now, he willingly maintained the expertise the Air Force had initiated. Experience taught him the necessity of being as fast and accurate with the tools of his trade as was possible. Ralph and Em, living in contentment here in Queens, would never need to know why.

Outside Sarajevo

Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Early Wednesday, May 17, 1995

Drifting up to her from the terrain below were the sound signatures of aggressive tire treads on the asphalt of the highway, along with the hum of running motors. She heard them long before she could see the headlights. The noise of distant traffic was audible even over the enthusiastic singing of birds, which had started with the lightening of the eastern sky. Squatting behind cover, the young woman kept as low as possible, knowing any movement in this environment was far more likely to give her away than the garb she had donned for her journey.

She could tell the convoy was Serbian by the camouflage patterns on the vehicles. Their colors and splotches were not very different from those of the hooded smock she wore for her cross-country hike in the Bosnian twilight. The increase in activity signaled something to the young woman:  her time to clear the tertiary ring around the city was running short. Dawn was coming, and after it, the climb of the sun into the eastern sky would reinvigorate the drowsy soldiers whose overnight watch had ended.

This, for those young and strong enough to attempt it, was the only way in or out. Still crouching behind concealing underbrush, Lucia Dorotea Crnjak waited for the roadway to clear before continuing on her trek. Sarajevo, the city she had left during the night, would soon be waking to more shelling and more sniper fire. The plague of ethnic violence had ravaged the capital of the newly formed Federation for nearly three years now.

Luci was twenty-one years of age and attractive, her fifty-seven kilos packaged in a small, fit frame. She had tied her long and wavy brown hair in a practical ponytail and concealed it under her smock, just as she did the backpack from her years at the University of Sarajevo. Luci earned three-fourths of her bachelor’s degree in journalism under fire. She was but one of the students served by a campus of professors and staff who were game enough through a siege to maintain their commitment to the future. By her attendance, she as well had defied the determination of the Serbians surrounding the city to harry its citizens into surrender.

The remnants of the Yugoslav People’s Army initially surrounded Sarajevo after the declaration of Bosnian independence. Forces of the Republika Srpska, or Serb Republic—contesting the boundaries of Federation territory—now maintained the bloody effort. The result was a standoff; Serbs held the roads leading into and out of the city. Their many weapons of war extracted a daily toll on the community of more than 400,000 inhabitants who had refused to surrender since April 1992.

Though the convoy seemed to have passed, Luci waited cautiously in case more vehicles were following the vanguard. Once satisfied, she brought out her compass and double-checked her bearings to the surrounding topography. She had watched her father do the same many times when hunting in the Dinaric Alps. Her heading established, she rose and advanced across the road, careful to avoid crushing with her boots any betraying branch fallen from the forest here. The young Croatian had no illusions as to her fate should she be captured on this journey. Rapes and executions were common features of the ethnic conflict now scarring this land. Only her desire to return to the home she had last seen three years ago was stronger than her fear of venturing through the Serbian blockade. Luci intended to live, regardless of those who intended otherwise. We did not surrender in the city. I will not surrender now.

Having slipped across the roadway and into the cover of the tree line beyond, she picked the best paths leading north and west. From this point, kilometer by kilometer, the trip promised to allow her better progress. The sun would be low in the west by the time she approached Podvinjak, but she was confident of concluding her hike before nightfall. She felt a building rush as the likelihood of success seemed more evident with every step. Luci was certain she would beat them just as one day would the inhabitants of the city she had left behind. This is the definition of freedom … the defiance of subjugation. The lesson burned into her young soul as Luci realized she, too, was fighting—to the extent possible and in her own fashion, at least—rather than running away. No one wins a war in any other fashion.

Ministry of Defense

Banja Luka, Republika Srpska

Wednesday, May 17, 1995

Colonel Berislav Borojevic—as if he did not have any other duties to attend this spring morning—had parked himself in an uncomfortable nesting chair at the behest of the male secretary who led him up to this floor. The officer waited now outside the office of Goran Kos, chief military advisor for the President of the self-declared Serbian Republic. While his current units yet had nothing but field gear, Borojevic himself made do with his former Yugoslav Army dress uniform, resting his cap on his knee. Twenty minutes passed before the door opened without warning.

Ah, Beri! Come in, come inside! a voice said.

The man addressing his army’s colonel was Goran Dubravko Kos, architect of his Republic’s military strategy in these times of transition. Times in which we all do what we must for our people, Borojevic thought.

I’m sorry for keeping you waiting … the President had some urgent concerns. Though Kos apologized as he led his visitor inside, the politico did so without deference. Superiors, particularly in Banja Luka, had no need.

This city, Borojevic knew, was now a full-fledged capital in a region struggling to determine outcomes, which would one day define the boundaries of power. We all serve, he commented in a wry voice.

Waving the officer to a visitor chair, Kos returned to his own behind a worn, wooden desk. The smaller man settled in, moving aside the stacks of file folders occupying his attention during Borojevic’s wait.

The Serbian commander saw the President’s man smile in agreement. In acknowledgment, not humor. He knows the things I have been doing on his behalf. It is why I am here today. Based on the other’s expression, Borojevic sensed Kos thinking along the same lines.

Indeed, we all serve, Kos concurred, waving a finger at his visitor. And you, my friend, have served us very well these past months. His hand extracted another folder from an organizer on his desk. The Republic grows more homogenous week by week. He glanced at the reports inside. The Bosniaks are retreating from our homelands. The Croats, likewise, are on their paths back to where they belong. Your efforts have advanced our goals well thus far. Closing the folder, the Defense Minister moved it aside. Due to the nature of your duties, and the necessary discretion under the gaze of the international community’s interference, your commendations cannot, of course, as yet be made public … but they are kept in mind nonetheless.

Raising his chin, Borojevic nodded in understanding. It is just as well. I have done what I must for the Republic, not for the attention. Notoriety, Borojevic knew, would only place him on a growing wish list assembled by judicial interlopers who fretted over Bosnia's ideologies in lands far removed from his native soil. The world of men does not fall into place by accident. The President and Kos know it as I know. It is the reason they retain me. I am the right man for this bloody job.

Folding his hands in front of him, Kos leaned forward. I do not have to tell you these days are critical, the President’s man intoned, his expression growing grave. He motioned toward the south. Our brothers in Knin will soon be overrun by the Croats. The same could happen elsewhere if the internationals have their way. We Serbs need to stand shoulder to shoulder in the breach until this struggle is done. His hazel eyes bore down on his commander. In lieu of the proper recognition, we can at least reward you with a command worthy of your talents.

Borojevic's interest heightened. Such as?

Smiling, Kos leaned back. Skorpioni, he gritted.

The tip of our spear. Excellent. Borojevic’s jaw jutted forward in pride. "The President does me an