Previous – Part 1: Packing Up
Jim picked up his M9, loaded a round in the chamber, dropped the hammer, pulled the magazine, and added an extra round from a few loose ones he kept in one of the pouches on his vest. There were three more magazines in various locations across his gear, all of them full, none of them ever used. The handgun was a backup, and he’d never needed it. Without having to even look, he quickly secured the pistol in the holster attached to mollie straps on the left side of his chest.
He next picked up his rifle, verified that the chamber was empty, sent the bolt forward, rotated the safety selector to burst, inserted one of his seven magazines with a slap, and gave it a tug to ensure it was locked in securely. All it would take was a quick pull on the charging handle and he’d be in business. It was a motion he had become very comfortable with over the last year. He clipped the rifle to the single-point sling hanging across his chest starting at his left shoulder, then turned to walk through that door for the last time.
He paused briefly and looked up again at the familiar lettering, including the rough blot of paint covering over the first two words. The red of the original was starting to bleed through the white patch, and it was legible to anyone who looked at it more than casually. Maybe that was a good thing.
Jim sat, pouring over the four-foot wide by six foot long printout he had spread across the table in the ready room. He’d been feeding all the information they’d collected into an algorithm he’d developed during his time in graduate school. The result was supposed to be a neat breakdown of known linkages and interdependencies. It was also supposed to identify the most likely points of intersection that had yet to be positively identified. Find an unknown intersection, and the odds were very good that it contained a high-level facilitator or leader. That was the theory at least, and it had worked excellently on the test data he had culled from the Al Qaida of 2001 and 2002. In fact, he could claim credit – at least in classified settings – for several very high-level take-downs in Afghanistan.
It was one of those take-downs, he was sure, that was responsible for him being here now. Damn that briefing. He should have kept his mouth shut.
Things were different here. In theory he was supposed to do real-time analysis and use that to identify and roll-up the next target before the enemy could react. The fundamental goal, he’d been told, was to use his analysis to map out the local leadership hierarchy and figure out where the head of the beast was so the Army or Air Force could decapitate it. The idea was simple. Someone was behind the persistent insurgency, and all he had to do was to work his way through the data to map out the clans, tribes, and other social structures that determined so much in this sixth-century culture. He was to use that data to find the head and cut it off (or at least a relatively small handful of heads). Do that, and the beast would die. That was the theory.
The reality was a little different. In fact, the more data he gathered the more fragmented and fractured the results became. As they rolled up one warlord or cell after another, the map began to disintegrate into small clusters of genuinely unimportant thugs. Had that disintegration come with a similar destabilization of the insurgency he would have called it a success, but it didn’t. Something was eluding him. There was a missing connection somewhere. There had to be.
His eyes swept back and forth, but kept coming back to a cluster of people the team had taken a few nights back. They all seemed to have some connection in common, but he hadn’t been able to get that information out of them. The people they’d found were mostly just shopkeepers and craftsmen who had been coerced by brutal threats. If he could convince them they had nothing to fear, if his team could take out their controllers, they might be more willing to talk.
“Warlock,” Jim said when he saw him enter the room, “I think we need to take a flight to Mercury. I want to talk to the guys we rolled up last week.”
“I’ll call in and see what we can work out,” Warlock promised and then left the room.
Jim continued pouring over his diagram for several more minutes until Warlock came back in.
“Chopper’ll be here in an hour. But it’s headed to Bucca. Your guys got transferred there last night.”
“Fine,” Jim answered, “if that’s what it takes. I’ll probably be gone a few days.”
Warlock nodded, then turned and left him alone with his thoughts. He spent the next hour formulating a strategy for convincing the four men that he already knew what it was he was after. He scanned the chart again, and again, making sure he understood the connections well enough that he could catch enough of their lies to corner them.
The helicopter arrived as expected, lifting off and banking away from the outpost before Jim had a chance to strap in. Once above the range of RPG and small-arms fire, the pilot leveled off and delivered as smooth a ride as can be expected in a Blackhawk. By the time they had landed Warwick had called ahead and explained the purpose of the visit, so a small team had gathered to meet him as he stepped away from the aircraft.
“Jones, S3,” said a tall, lankly looking Major who seemed to be the head of delegation, “but I go by Lurch most of the time. Warlock tells me you go by Shepherd.”
Jim grimaced. He’d been trying to avoid a call sign, but the team had recently branded him after asking what kind of rat-dog was next to the unicorn on the picture Sammie had sent. Immediately, a universal cry of Sheppard went up, and when he tried to protest they offered only one alternative… rainbow unicorn. Shepherd would have to do.
“Warlock and I go way back,” Lurch said by way of explanation. “Anyway,” he continued, “Grammar here will set you up with an interrogation room and will keep you company while you’re in the compound. He’s pretty new to the interrogation game, but from what I hear, you’ll end up doing all the talking anyway.”
Jim handed Sergeant Grammar a folder with info on the prisoners he wanted to talk to. “I’d like to see if we can talk to these guys today, then let them stew on what I tell them overnight and hit them again early in the morning.”
“Yes sir,” Grammar answered, handing the folder back to Jim. “Mister Warwick sent over the info electronically. Paper copies can be dangerous around here. Anyway, I’ll round ’em up as they leave chow. You’ll only get a few minutes each this round or else the other detainees will figure out that you’re talking to them. We’ll have to arrange medical appointments or the like tomorrow if you want more time.”
“That’ll have to do, I guess.”
“In the mean time,” Grammar continued, “I’ll show you to a rack you can use tonight, then I’ll take you to the chow hall for some hot food. It’s about the only advantage to working here.”
The thought of hot food brightened Jim’s mood significantly, and within a few minutes he was sitting at a table eating hot beef stew, fresh local flatbread, and cold ice cream with real utensils. He’d forgotten how much he liked food given that all he’d eaten for quite a while now was MREs. He stood and walked over to the ice cream machine to refill, then sat back down and ate it as slowly as he could without it completely melting.
Just when he was finishing up, Sergeant Grammar walked up and informed him that the detainees were prepped and ready. He stood and followed him to a nearby room built from concrete block and plywood containing nothing but a small table and three chairs. Jim took one of the chairs, and the interpreter (who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere) took another. Grammar turned and went out to collect the first detainee for questioning. Less than a minute later, he returned with a handcuffed figure who was unceremoniously dumped into the third chair. Apparently, Grammar would be standing.
“Remember,” Grammar cautioned, “anybody finds out who you are talking to, they might as well be dead. We can’t keep these guys out of the block for more than a few minutes today or their `mates’ will assume they’ve been talking.”
These pleasantries over, the interrogation started and continued for roughly fifteen minutes before the detainee was returned to their cell. This processes continued three more times in rapid succession. It wasn’t much time, but it was enough for Jim to make his case and plant the seeds of doubt he hoped would germinate overnight.
“Shephard,” Lurch said, lightly shaking Jim by the shoulder, “wake up.”
“We’ve had an incident.”
“Your boys are all dead. Targeted in their sleep.”
Jim sat up with a start, briefly believing the discussion had to do with his team back at the COP. “What happened?”
“Don’t know for sure, but at least a dozen other detainees used bed sheets to hold them down and beat them to death. Best guess is someone figured they’d been talking.”
Jim felt sick to his stomach. Still disoriented he asked, “What time is it?”
“0330. I know it’s early, but I thought you ought to know.”
“Damn. What next?”
“For now? Go back to sleep I guess. We’ll figure out logistics tomorrow.”
Lurch turned and quietly left the room. Jim rolled over and fell back into his customary restless sleep.
“What a waste,” Jim said to himself as he stuffed the few things he had with him in is ruck. “All I have to show for it is a few half-decent meals and a few more bodies in my count.”
As he moved to zip the bag shut, the contents of the folder that had contained dossiers were briefly exposed. The dossiers had been replaced. Almost hesitatingly, he pulled the folder from his bag and opened the cover. The pages that had been a picture and detailed description of low-level insurgent nobodies were indeed gone, replaced with copies of a flier advertising movies that played in the evenings when the chow hall doubled as a theater for off-duty staff. Someone must have switched them when he briefly left the table to refill his ice cream. Those men died because he decided to indulge in an extra helping of ice cream and had been careless with a piece of paper.
Warlock was waiting for him as he walked through the door into the ready room. He wanted to talk, but Jim was in no mood. He waved Warlock off, went through the room to a small maintenance area, retreived a can of paint he’d noticed a few weeks ago, and returned to the ready room. Pulling a chair over, he used a folded up wad of paper towels as a brush and painted over the first two words above the door.
“Plan to kill everyone you meet” was all it said now. Nothing about being polite, nothing about being professional, and now… nothing about having a plan. Each truncation of the original quote had brought the sentiment closer to the reality of this God-forsaken place.
“What’s your callsign?” Jim asked the driver.
“Capstone, slider,” Jim called over the radio mounted just to his left.
“Go ahead slider,” came the answer.
“Loaded up and headed out.”
“See you in a few hours. Safe travels.”
Jim put the microphone back and turned to the driver, “Lets hit the road.”
“I’m so lonely here,” Leslie sobbed uncontrollably. It was the first video chat in over a month, and it didn’t take long to confirm what he had suspected for a while. After the first admission, a string of confessions came out, each one piercing him. Making him feel like he had abandoned his family. It wasn’t what she had intended, but that didn’t really matter. Her herculean efforts to hide her pain, depression, and worry from him had collapsed.
“I’m so sorry,” was all Jim could say. He didn’t know what to say. There was literally nothing he could do.
“Everyone just assumes you’ve left us.”
It was too true, and it hurt to hear her say it. He had left, but not of his own free will.
“Let them assume what they want. You know they’re wrong.”
“I’m so tired too. Sammie cries herself to sleep almost every night, and she wakes me up over and over again having nightmares.”
“I’ve been worried about you.”
“And when I do manage to fall asleep, I have nightmares about what you’re going through over there.”
“Don’t worry about me, I’m in the best hands possible.”
“I need you. So does Sammie.”
“I need you too.”
The conversation continued like this for most of the next half an hour, during which time Jim felt more and more miserable and powerless every minute. Finally Leslie calmed down a bit, giving Jim a chance to think.
“Load the car up and go to your mom’s for a while. You need some help, and I can’t give it from here.”
“I can’t just leave the house empty,” she protested emptily.
The convoy had come to the outpost to deliver supplies, so neither the trucks nor the drivers were his guys. The only people he knew were K9, Killroy, and Cooter who were each in a different vehicle. That was a mixed blessing, he decided. If something happened to one of them, it would only happen to one of them. On the other hand, he didn’t know the crew of his truck, and so didn’t trust them particularly.
They drove onward without a word among the crew for several miles before the driver broke the quiet.
“I heard you rolled up a bunch of the Sadr organization.”
“Not so much Sadr, they seem to have stayed in their sandbox.”
“But you got a lot of bad dudes, right?”
“Ba’athists, old-fashioned Al Qaida, Iranians, Yemenis, Saudis, Palestinians, Chechens, Americans, Brits, Canadians, Pakistanis, Turks, Uygurs…” he trailed off as if to say there were plenty more.
“Roads have been pretty quiet. We should be in Ramadi in about 40, and have you in the Green Zone within another two hours after that. Maybe an hour and a half.”
Jim just nodded in acknowledgment.
“You rotating home?”
“Gotta be nice. The rotator leaves tomorrow, so you won’t even have to stay in Baghdad longer than overnight.”
“I’m not on the rotator,” Jim admitted. “My flight leaves as soon as I make the plane.”
“Sir,” Warlock said as he approached from behind.
“Don’t tell me,” Jim said acidly, “another hot tip like the last one.”
“About sums it up.”
“When was the last time we had a hot tip from someone that actually panned out to be more than a small-scale IED factory? About the only good tips we’ve ever gotten we’ve developed on our own.”
Warlock shook his head silently. Truth be told, almost all the hot tips turned out to be nothing at all except an excuse to survive another ride into the hostile unknown.
“Never mind. I don’t suppose it really matters,” Jim said, cutting himself off. “This one might be the final straw that breaks the insurgency, right?”
Warlock twisted the corners of his mouth into a doubtful lopsided grin. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
Both of them had become jaded over the last several months. The hope they had of making a real difference had been trampled by hard experience. It was a sure sign that it was time to find someone else for the job, but unfortunately, that didn’t agree with CENTCOM’s calendar masters.
“Well, let’s go fishin’ I guess.”
The team spent several minutes doing what by now was completely routine planning. Ingress and egress routes, locations for security pickets, identifying who would be on the entry team. It was all so familiar any of them could have done it in their sleep, and this particular neighborhood had become so frequent an objective that they really didn’t need the map.
“Cookie cutter,” Monkey observed.
“Wrap and pack,” K9 agreed.
“Careful,” Warlock warned, “don’t get lazy. That’s a good way to get killed.”
They all silently agreed, and went back about their business. Within an hour, the entire team had assembled their gear, loaded the trucks, and were ready for departure. Now it was just a matter of waiting until the witching hour. Everyone except warlock and Jim found a semi-comfortable position in the ready room and tried to sleep. There really wasn’t any better way to pass the time, and they had all mastered the fine art of sleeping on command. They planned to be on-scene an hour before sunrise.
“You should try and get some sleep,” Jim cautioned.
“And you shouldn’t?”
“I snuck in a nap earlier today,” Jim lied.
“Yeah, me too. While we were standing with our eyes open.” Warlock was starting to look tired. Not sleepy, but tired in a much deeper sense of the word. Jim was pretty sure he looked even worse himself.
“What do you have to go back to?” Jim asked. They’d never talked about home before, but somehow it just seemed like the time to ask.
“Nothing. Wife left me two deployments ago after selling off everything I owned. Blew all the cash on drugs before I got home, so there wasn’t anything to argue over in the divorce. We never had kids. Parent’s died a few years back while I was in Afghanistan. This is all I have left. I’ll probably start angling for another deployment as soon as I get back.”
“What about you?”
“Wife and kid.”
“I know that much,” Warwick admitted. “They surviving okay?”
“Not really. Timing was really bad for my family.”
“So I see the Air Force cares about as much about that kind of thing as the Army.”
“We’re just numbers,” Jim said flatly. “The bean-counters don’t see you. All they see is an MOS, rank, and date of last deployment.”
“What you goin’ to do after this?”
“Dunno. I’m kinda worried about being around normal people again.”
“It takes a while,” Warwick admitted before turning a crooked smile toward Jim. “Most people on the outside frown on caressing an M4 in public places.”
Jim stopped, realizing he had been doing exactly that. Warwick just laughed quietly and gave his own rifle a pat. Those inanimate pieces of black aluminum, steel, and plastic were some of the closest friends anyone on the compound had. If given the choice between a supermodel and their rifle to take to bed, most would pick the rifle at this particular point in time.
“Why do you always take point when going into a building?” Jim asked. He’d noticed the unusual behavior quite a while ago, but had never asked.
“If anyone’s going to take it in the face on my team, I don’t want to live to see it. They’ve all got something to go home to or at least look forward to. Me… all I have to look forward to is an aluminum box, a flag, and a last salute at Dover.”
Jim just nodded with a sense of finality and understanding, then changed the subject to ask about Warwick’s pre-army life. The two talked for another hour before Warwick started nodding off like the rest of the team. It was the first time Jim had talked of home with anyone, and it was something of a relief. Being the only officer on the outpost could be extremely lonely. Everyone was respectful, but there was a barrier there. He’d never have the kind of brotherhood that existed between the other team members. Now with Warwick asleep he was alone again with his thoughts. He had come to hate that condition.
It didn’t last though. The next he knew, he was being nudged awake. Dreamless sleep. A rare luxury. Dreams lately were either nightmares or just made him long for home and things that couldn’t be. If he could have found a way to satisfy the physical need for sleep without ever having another dream he would have instantly traded away the best dreams he’d ever had for a few nights of quiet rest. None of that really mattered at the moment, though. It was time to load up. Everyone silently geared up, mechanically checking and re-checking weapons, ammunition, armor, and anything else they relied on. Then they shuffled to the waiting trucks.
“QRF’s on standby,” K9 reported.
“Let’s get this over with,” Jim directed. On-command, the trucks all started and began rolling towards the gate without headlights or anything else that might give away their position and intent. A few minutes later they arrived at the objective and the full team rolled out of the truck in a single motion. The pickets set up a perimeter while the breaching team blew the lock with a 12 gauge shotgun and a swift kick. The clearing team entered the house and began sweeping from room to room. Jim and the remaining team members followed a few meters behind, carrying what had become their standard forensic equipment – essentially just a computer and cameras – in addition to their battle rattle.
As the clearing team entered a small room, Jim heard a deafening explosion and chunks of concrete pelted him in the face. He hurried to the source of the explosion, scanning carefully as he entered the room to ensure there weren’t any tripwires or pressure plates.
Warwick was down. So were Monkey and Mutt. In the middle of the room was a mangled upper torso and head of a young child. He couldn’t have been more than six. Some sick son of a bitch had rigged the kid with a suicide belt.
“Wolfpack three, wolfpack one,” Jim said into his radio.
“Go for three.”
“We’ve got three down. Call for immediate medivac, and get the QRF en-route.”
“The building hasn’t been cleared yet. We’re going to hole up where we are until help arrives.”
While Jim made the radio calls, K9 and Killroy were already down and working on the two younger soldiers. Jim moved over to Warwick and started assessing him. There was a blood-tinged clear liquid dripping from his nose. He was totally unresponsive.
“Don’t quit on me Warlock,” Jim shouted angrily.
“Monkey’s gone,” Killroy announced.
“What about Mutt?”
“Not dead sir, but pretty roughed up,” K9 responded. Mutt hadn’t been fully in the room when the blast went off, and had been partially shielded by the wall. He was bleeding from his ear, and had several deep cuts on his face and arm from shrapnel. He would be going home, assuming he survived. K9 had just finished tightening up the windlass on a tourniquet, and was working to bandage the more severe wounds on his arms.
Killroy came over and took over Warlock’s care. “He’s in a bad way sir. But if he can make it to Balad, I think he’ll have a chance.”
Gomer, who had stepped into the room to help with the injured, looked at the scene and growled angrily, “he’s lookin’ at a full-on comedy tonight. Just roaring with laughter.”
Jim turned and looked around the room. No bomb making equipment. No computers. Nothing but the fragmented remains of a little boy. The only addition to the room that he hadn’t seen on his initial entry was another body, a woman wrapped completely in a black shawl except for her hand. In that hand was an improvised switch with frayed and burnt wires laying on the floor. Jim was certain there would be propaganda claims on the streets before they got back to the compound that his guys had killed the both of them.
“Been uncommonly quiet on this corridor lately,” the driver said over the drone of the engine and other road noise.
“Sorry, what?” Jim hadn’t been listening.
“I said it’s been pretty quiet in this sector for a while now,” he almost shouted.
“We’ve spent months trying to shut down that kind of thing. Both Bucca and Abu Ghraib are full of guys who have a vendetta against my team.”
He couldn’t bring himself to share the fact that the end result of all that work hadn’t really been a reduction in the number of roadside bombs. If you actually looked at the numbers, the current lull was nothing more than a statistical anomally. In fact, he’d been able to show pretty conclusively that all his work had done was to break up the larger and more organized cells into smaller and more independent units. It was like the mythical hydra – for every head they had cut off at least two new ones had grown back in. Not only that, but with every dead leader or shut-down cell the newcomers got wiser and wiser about staying out of sight. The hunting had been difficult lately. Worse, they had been hunted.
They were down three. Three in a single mission that hadn’t even resulted in any useful outcome. The three most experienced men. Two were gone forever. Why? What purpose had their deaths served? He didn’t have an answer.
He’d just gotten off of a phone call with Leslie. Sammie had refused to even talk to him, and only screamed when Leslie put the phone to her ear. He knew at some level that it was just the nature of a seven year old, but it still hurt. Hurt more than he dared let on. Thankfully, Leslie had told him she’d started sleeping better, and had quit talking so much about the possibility of her dad dying. He hoped it wasn’t because she was forgetting him… but he had his doubts. It had been almost a year since he’d spent more than a few days at a time with her.
The conversation with Leslie hadn’t gone particularly well either. He couldn’t say anything about the failed mission the week before. Couldn’t tell her about the image of the little boy haunting him around every corner. He couldn’t tell her about how close he was to being in the room when the blast occurred. In short, he couldn’t tell her anything. It stayed bottled up inside of him. On the other hand, she had broken down completely. In fact, most of the conversation had been nothing more than the sound of her crying. He felt like a miserable failure.
He’d failed at finding the mythical center of mass for this elusive enemy. He’d failed to protect his team. He’d failed to see the pattern of testing their responses that had resulted in a series of tips that went nowhere but revealed their operational techniques. He’d failed his family by leaving them. He’d failed himself, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly how. He’d failed to find any meaning in this war that was progressively sucking the life out of him and everyone around him. Failure all around. What was the point?
He looked at the holstered M9 on the shelf. Every time he’d picked that weapon up lately he had flashes of fear – usually accompanied by images of him using it on himself. Sometimes those images would invade his sleep. Sometimes they persisted well after he’d put it out of sight. Always, at least so far, he’d managed to write it off as irrational. Lately, those images came accompanied by little visual snippets like the rolling eyes of the girl killed on his first raid. Were humans worth saving? Nobody else around here seemed to feel any need to value human life… why should he?
He’d seen the lights go out in people’s eyes enough times now to know how death progressed. Put the bullet in the right place, and all it would take is a single trigger pull. He’d never even hear the blast. Wouldn’t feel anything. It’d just be over. What would that be worth?
His memory told him he once believed it actually wouldn’t be over, that there was more after this life, but none of that made sense in the context surrounding him. How could it? He couldn’t remember at the moment why he’d ever believed. Couldn’t remember what it had felt like to believe. Couldn’t believe. If there was a God, how could he let people become this depraved. If there was a God, why would he take so much away from him. If there was a God, why would God abandon him and leave him on his own. That sense of abandonment, the sense of being cut off, the knowledge that it didn’t used to be that way. Those things hurt deeply.
He thought about how it would hurt Leslie, but that didn’t make sense either. Every raid the odds of him coming home in a box increased, and that was apparently acceptable. He could roll out tomorrow night and never come home. Everyone accepted that. However, if he did die on-duty she’d never know exactly how or why. Too much of what he did was classified. If he died here, on his own terms, he could leave a note at least so she would understand. But then, there was no way he could write down what he felt… he didn’t even understand it all, little lone know how to communicate it.
Then there was the reality of going home. It terrified him. Assuming he survived, he wasn’t the man she had married. He was broken. He was very broken. Wouldn’t it be easier for her to deal with the death of her husband in a war zone far far away than deal with the dead, but still ambulatory, one the Air Force would return to her?
And Sammie… wouldn’t she be better off if Leslie got remarried to someone who could be there for her? She was young enough that she wouldn’t even really remember him in the long-run.
He slowly and deliberately reached for the pistol and unholstered it, turning it over and over in his hands, looking at it, feeling its weight in his hands. The metal felt cold and smooth against his skin. It’d be easy, he told himself. Everyone would be better off this way, he told himself. It was the only way to fix things, he told himself.
He ejected the magazine, checking to make sure it was full. It was. He reinserted it. He checked the chamber. There was a round in the pipe. The safety was off and the hammer down. It would be a long trigger pull. He cocked the hammer to make it lighter. He put the muzzle in his mouth, pointed slightly upward. The metallic taste made him gag, and he set the pistol back down. “You insignificant, weak, stupid man,” he told himself, throwing himself backwards in the chair in disgust. He was a failure at even this.
He reached for the pistol one last time, determined not to let anything stop him. Just as he got a firm grip, and was lifting it from where he’d set it, a booming voice rang out.
“Sir, put the gun down!”
K9 was standing just to his right. Lost in his mental abstraction, he hadn’t heard the giant approaching. Before Jim could do anything, K9 had put one enormous hand on his shoulder, and the other on his wrist, pinning it against the table until Jim let go of the gun.
Jim collapsed into the big man’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
The convoy had entered the outskirts of Ramadi. It was a ways from where their outpost had been, but he knew the streets here very well. How many times had the come down here to roll someone up. As he surveyed the destroyed buildings on either side of the road, he tried to remember just how many his team had been responsible for. It couldn’t be that many… Maybe two or three dozen? Fifty at most. Either way, it was a drop in the bucket.
Seeing the place in the daylight was different. Almost every time he’d been here it had been between one and four in the morning. Black. Most the rest of the times he’d flown overhead in a helicopter. It looked bad from the air, and bad in the dark, but the sun shone light into corners that were otherwise invisible. Corners that looked much better unseen. You couldn’t see the kids playing in the rubble from a helicopter. At least not well enough for it to really sink in.
He wondered why anybody had stayed here when things got hot. Why would you stay somewhere that was killing you (slowly or otherwise) when everything you had or cared about was being taken away? Why not pack up what you could carry and leave?
Sitting at his desk, he opened the ruggedized laptop and logged in. The process generally took several minutes, and once the login was complete, it took several more minutes for email to update over the sketchy internet connection here. He stood and stepped to the door of the hooch, squinted against the intense sun. Nothing had changed. At least not visibly. Everything was sandy brown and outright ugly. He had two months left here, but going home was just as scary as staying here. He felt stuck in between. Between what, he couldn’t have told anyone, but one thing he could say with certainty was that there were few places in the world he hated more than this small outpost in a destroyed city in the desert. But it wouldn’t do to think those thoughts now. He still had to survive two more months.
Returning to his computer, he found that email had updated, and that there was one from Leslie. He opened it fearfully, but hoping for good news. She had been so low the last time they talked. The way she talked she wasn’t doing any better than he was. He wondered if he would ever be able to tell her about his own struggles, but decided they would remain his own for now at least. Sharing that burden with her wouldn’t lighten his own load and would only make things harder for her.
As he read a small burden lifted. She’d been thinking about what he’d told her and had decided to take Sammie and make the road-trip to her mom’s house in Idaho. It was a solid two-day drive from San Antonio, but she had made arrangements to stay a few days with friends from a previous assignment who were currently living in Albuquerque. Her plan was to stay at her mom’s house until he got home.
“Good,” he thought, “I need her to have the help.”
As the convoy left Ramadi, Jim thought to himself how quickly the relative green of irrigated fields evaporated into barren desert. He was so tired of the brown. Especially the empty, wasted, barren brown of a God forsaken desert. Why would anyone fight over this place. What drove men to do that?
“Gomer,” Jim said angrily, “what do you mean?”
“What gives you the right to talk about laughing when we’re in the middle of shit storms. Every time something goes really wrong, you start talking about laughing.”
“That’s Satan’s laugh, sir.”
“If you listen, you can hear Satan laughing at the awful things men do to each other. Sometimes it sounds like gunfire, but usually I don’t so much hear it as feel it.”
Satan’s laugh. He could hear it now. Gomer had been the first in the team to recognize it, but now everyone else understood and recognized it. For months now, they had started every mission with a silent prayer of “Lord, no laughing tonight please.” He had uttered those same words under his breath as he had been climbing into the truck he was now in.
The worst thing for Jim was that he now he heard it all the time. It didn’t matter where he was or what he was doing, he could hear and feel that cackling hateful laugh. He could sense the devil’s glee in the destruction, moral breakdown, and general despair all around him. It helped him understand why Gomer was so quiet all the time. It also made him feel empty and angry, and it was his most constant companion.
“Sir,” K9 said, sticking his head inside the hooch.
“We’ve got an unscheduled chopper coming in about half an hour.”
“Didn’t say, other than to make sure you were here when it arrived.”
Jim couldn’t help but wonder if word had gotten out about his near suicide. Maybe he was being relieved. Had he failed that badly?
Maybe it was an investigation of the raid that had killed Mutt and Warlock. Would they be here to accuse him of failing to take care of his team? Would they try and pin the blame on him for not recognizing the pattern of testing and response that had preceded the deaths?
His mind raced from one scenario to another, and back again. How could he know anything based on the description K9 had given him? That ignorance did nothing to stop his mind from attempting to fill in the blanks with anything and everything… just so long as the end result was bad and pinned on him.
Jim turned to his work and tried to distract himself the way he generally did when thoughts took on a life of their own. It wouldn’t work. His ability to shut out the unwanted was failing again. He stood, walked outside, and began pacing the yard – weaving in and out of the trucks and barriers. Movement helped, but it wasn’t enough. He continued to pace nervously until he heard the thumping of a helicopter in the distance. He turned and scanned the sky, searching for whatever was coming.
Almost without warning the helicopter appeared just beyond the outer wall of the compound and swept past in a wide arc, climbed a bit, then slowed to a hover directly overhead and gradually came down. As the gear came down to about head-height everything disappeared in a cloud of dust. It always happened this way, but that didn’t make him feel any better about it. Anything that blocked his visibility was becoming a problem for him, and this particular scenario was particularly bothersome. As the dust settled, three men stepped off the helicopter. Two of them approached him, and the third moved towards Lowry.
“Major Harwood,” the Colonel said, extending his hand with the greeting.
“Sir,” Jim answered, shaking his boss’s hand.
“Do you have a place we can talk for a minute?”
Standing next to the Colonel was a chaplain he’d never met before. A Colonel with a chaplain in tow was a bad thing that had only occurred once before when Warlock and Monkey died. Immediately Jim began to steel himself for news that Mutt had succumbed to his injuries as well. The team didn’t need this right now.
“We can send everyone out of the ready room if we need to, but there isn’t really anywhere that will be private,” Jim said. “Even if there were, there aren’t any secrets with much of a lifespan around here.”
Apparently the Boss didn’t plan on staying long, otherwise the pilot would have started shutting down by now. As they turned to walk that direction and escape the noise of the still idling helicopter, the third man said something to Lowry who then directed several of the men to unload a few bags.
“I can’t stay. A major dust storm is only a few clicks away and inbound. Once it hits, we’ll be grounded for a while.”
Jim nodded acknowledgment and glanced over to where the third passenger was talking with his team.
“Specialist Maples’ replacement,” the Colonel said, answering the slient question. “Most of your team already know him from Bragg. He’ll fit right in.”
“Mutt will be hard to replace,” Jim said. He was waiting for the bad news, and decided to push the point rather than wait for the boss to get around to it. “Have you heard how he’s doing?”
“He made it alive to Landstuhl,” the Colonel said sadly, “but I don’t know any more than that.”
So this wasn’t about mutt… and it left Jim wondering what else this could be about. The Colonel didn’t wait long to relieve him of his curiosity. As soon as the door to the ready room closed behind them, hushing the worst of the noise, the Colonel half sat, half leaned against a table and asked Jim to sit down.
“Jim, we got word a little over an hour ago through the Red Cross. Leslie and Sammie were killed by a drunk driver last night outside Shiprock New Mexico.”
An explosion a few yards in front of the truck blew a large crater in the road and threw an enormous amount of dirt into the air. The driver, unsure how to get past the hole, slowed to a halt.
“Don’t stop now!” Jim shouted, but the driver never heard him.
Next – Part 3: First Steps Home