Smitten Gate (Chapter 9)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
July 10, 2010
Camp Virtue, Afghanistan
Camp Virtue began as a massive airfield. It called for 8,300 feet by the book for a C-5 Galaxy to land with a full belly, so NATO — or rather, Kellogg, Brown & Root — gave it 11,000 for good measure at about fifty-million bucks a foot. Camp Virtue’s virtue was being a printing press for money. With 500-foot buffers on each end and a six-plus mile security wall, the base was more than two miles long and over a mile wide. In Afghanistan size wasn’t just security; it was a flash flood of cash. In addition to other supplies, planes landing there imported 25,000 gallons of water a day in half-liter plastic bottles and 500-gallon tanks. The latter was ambush bait for overland truckers, justifying the payouts for contract mercenaries to accompany the convoys. Troops running PT (physical training) had a three-mile jogging trail, beginning and ending with the Morale Support Activities gym on the southeast corner. Seen from above, the outer wall was a great rectangle, 11,500 feet by 6,000, wired with motion sensors. There were 200-meter setbacks between the sensor-walls and buildings, putting the buildings beyond the effective range of rocket-propelled grenades. Along three sides of the base, outside the wall, ran a 50-meter ribbon of sand, raked every day by contractors so the guards could spot footprints that might appear during the night. The north wall vaulted above a drop-off, portions of it almost vertical, the bluff itself laced with antipersonnel mines that troops sensibly hated to check.
Seven in the morning, a hint of a fog nestled along the feet of the mountains, the sky a cloudless washed-out blue, the sun still just an orange line against the horizon. Hardly a breeze stirred. One C-5 was parked in the middle of the airfield like a great winged carp. Off the runway were two tricked-out Sea Stallions, three MH-47 Chinooks, a half dozen Blackhawks with FLIR bumps on the noses, and four “killer eggs” — the ovoid AH-6 Little Bird gunships, two armed with mini-guns and two armed with two-point-five-inch rockets. The choppers were spread equidistant and alternated up and down the field. The occasional mortar round found the airfield, seldom accurate. Nonetheless, separating the birds curtailed the occasional damage and the additional hours spent on post-attack repairs.
People in flight coveralls ambled in and out of four long, arched maintenance hangars surrounded by earthen berms adjacent to the black airfield apron. Three hummers were parked near the hangars.
Throughout the post, KBR’s buildings were strong, angular frame construction, everything one-story, with 12/4 pitched roofs supporting two layers of sandbags that smelled like rotten plastic and clay. The pale green buff of the pressure-treated wood was unintentionally color-coordinated with the surrounding terrain.
Towering over the base, the wrinkled skyline of the snow-capped Hindu Kush showcased wild contrasts with illuminated ridges and dark shadows in the vertical crevasses, the rising sun turning the mountains labial, like a Georgia O’Keeffe print.
Two motor pools had been built, one at either end, paralleling the airfield, the great open spaces delineated by yet more earthen berms laying like giant slugs lined up on the landscape. Twenty-two up-armored hummers, three Strykers, two HEMMTs, some deuce-and-a-halfs and five-ton trucks, assorted trailers and a dozen “water buffaloes” — 400-gallon cisterns mounted on wheels — were sorted and aligned inside both motor pools like the playthings of an obsessive boy. Each motor pool had a maintenance shed, linear arched structures like the hangars, but only half as high.
Headquarters, staff offices, operations, ten-point showers and two DFACs (dining facilities) arrayed in 90-degree patterns, a Tetris-looking patchwork from on high. Alleys ran between the rows, all connecting to one main road running the length of the built-up area. The troops called that main road Main Street.
Up and down Main Street, troops walked in tan fatigues and green body armor, their heads covered with Nazi-looking MICH helmets, weapons slung, headed to chow, or to take a post-prandial shit. Mess hours were from six to nine for breakfast. One side of Main Street was guarded by straight rows of squat olive Conex containers, fronted with twelve short chains of ten portable toilets (cost: $15,000 each), their plastic doors making hollow bangs over the hum of dozens of generators.
A space the size of a football field on the eastern side of the base was designated for trash. A hulking heap of garbage mixed with fractured pallets, it stank like hell when the wind changed and seemed to smolder perpetually even when no one was there. This morning there were already four fat vultures picking through the toxic miasma of rotting food and burnt plastic.
Troops stayed in GP Large tents because someone had argued successfully against the CHUs — Containerized Housing Units — the aluminum box dorms used on the other big bases. The tents employed forklift pallets as floors for the rare occasions when it rained and to keep the dust down. Most tent sides remained rolled up in the day, part way on some, all the way on others, leaving just mosquito netting for walls. As per standing operating procedures, sandbags were stacked forty inches high around each tent to protect sleepers in their cots from incoming shrapnel.
The women’s tents, all four of them, were conspicuous because the walls were always down. Shields against the greedy gazes of men. Women were allowed to run air conditioners in the heat with five-kilowatt generators to maintain their privacy, another source of resentment among the same peeping toms.
At night some of the women walked to the crappers and showers with a female buddy or a boot knife, or both. There had been more than one assault in the nineteen months since the troops moved in, none investigated very aggressively, and the women who made accusations generally found themselves reassigned. A Navajo woman, though, an E-4, had stabbed a masher PFC in his scrotum one night last year. Fortunately for him, both testicles survived, and in that particular case, he was the one reassigned, with a Purple Heart for “wounds received in action.” The Navajo woman’s name was Maria Haskie, and a lot of men called her a lesbian after that — which happened to be true — but no one fucked with her anymore.
Contractors lived in town and commuted back and forth from the Intercontinental Hotel in MRAPs — bulky desert-tan armored vehicles, a cross between a truck and a tank. The contractors’ salaries and perqs — rooms and vehicles — were another chronic source of discontent among troops, male and female. The troops traveled in little, up-armored Humvees. A few of the contractors were actual high-technicians of sorts — avionics people, computer geeks, and other brainiacs — but most were former Special Ops guys, overpaid and alcoholic mercenaries in adolescent cosplay get-ups.
The North DFAC, military-speak for dining facility (or mess hall), where Special Forces A-Detachment 649 ate was around 150 meters from the team’s tent. Only aviators and their support troops ate at the smaller South DFAC. Inside, the North DFAC was divided into a large main dining room and a smaller dining room for the Afghan Militia Forces who had their own cooks and dietary restrictions. The entrance to the North DFAC had a broad awning that supported a professionally printed sign ($9,333) announcing “North DFAC, Camp Virtue, Task Force Bird” with a great eagle claw reaching from clouds inside a red circle. Every other window was fitted with a 6,000 BTU Frigidaire AC unit powered by a trailer-mounted, 1,500 kilowatt generator.
Seven members of A-Detachment 649 approached the dining facility in a gaggle, wearing chest rigs and slung M-4s, all variously bearded in accordance with the relaxed grooming standards designed to allow them to better fit in with their Afghan counterparts. What a fucking joke, they all said, but a lot of the boys enjoyed growing their beards out to look like ferocious Marvel characters or gaming avatars.
Bobby — Sergeant First Class Robert Milano — was the acting team sergeant and the team’s strange attractor, an affable guy who cut up for laughs to maintain the general morale. Bobby played dumber than he really was, an act reinforced by the absence of a cop in his head to direct traffic from his mind to his mouth. He’d say the first damn thing that popped into his head. He was chatting up the detachment, most of them laughing, while they queued at the door of the chow hall, MICH helmets hanging off their battle rattle instead of on their heads — a minor rebellion in the tradition of Special Forces nonconformity.
Each breakfast cost American taxpayers $41.97. Lunch and supper were $48.53. There was a rumor afoot lunch would soon be cancelled, replaced by an MRE ($6.66 each, no apocalyptic numerology intended).
Opie was first in the chow line. It started with his initials for Orrin Pibbles, O.P., which became Opie, sometimes just Ope. Staff Sergeant Pibbles gabbed with Bobby, interrupting himself to tell the civilian server he wanted an omelet “all-the-way,” sausage on the side. Opie was six-three and bony. His enormous head appeared to stoop his shoulders, a slouching habit acquired when he was young and taller than all his companions. The junior weapons man on the team and the team’s primary sniper, Opie had a hawkish face, a thick mop of auburn hair and a little goat-like beard that made him appear even younger than his 26 years. He’d married his high school girlfriend, Mary Sheets, eight years ago and joined the army a week later. Originally from Modesto, California, Opie and Mary lived in Fayetteville off Raeford Road in a beige tract-house they’d bought last year. They had a three-year-old daughter named Rhonda after her paternal grandmother. Opie hated Afghanistan, even though he admitted that sometimes it looked like places near Modesto. The problem with Afghanistan, said Opie more than once, was Afghans. Bobby constantly and paternally humored Opie because, if allowed to fester, Opie’s chronic discontent could infect the team and disrupt the general morale. They’d only been here for seven months and were scheduled for twelve.
Opie struggled to accept his situation, murdering an occasional “suspicious” farmer with his sniper gun to make things more interesting, but the effort at acceptance cost him. He was a beehive of bizarre facial tics — one-eyed blinking, pursing his lips, flaring his nostrils, and unaccountably opening his eyes as wide as he could, giving the impression he’d gone all Charlie Manson on you. He appeared to have no idea about the tics, which disconcerted those who didn’t know him. No one poked fun at Opie, though, because he had a reputation. He’d beaten a man nearly to death two years ago over a minor insult outside a Fayetteville restaurant after a memorial service for a former team member. Three other Special Forces buddies dragged him away before the cops came, but the story circulated through “the community,” including the detail that Pibbles hadn’t had so much as a single drink.
The mess hall was framed wood, spacious at 100 by 200 feet. The salad bar in the center was big as a canoe, outfitted with a half-dozen four-slot toasters and trays of white, wheat, and rye bread, sliced fruit, cottage cheese, pastries, pancakes, French toast, and three kinds of hot syrup on Sterno warmers.
The hot serving line was to the right as troops entered, a green plywood partition marking the boundary between the dining hall and the stainless-steel service docks where the serving line, the pots, pans, stoves, and grills were manned by five well-paid American contract cooks ($91,000 a year, plus room and board, medical, and an additional $40 a day per diem).
Padded blue stack-chairs sat along rows of 5-by-12 foot folding tables covered in plastic tablecloths with tacky flower prints. The rows of tables formed walkways throughout the dining area, allowing the whole detachment, as was their custom, to sit together at one row, separating themselves from most of the other diners.
Detachment 649 had long ago claimed its spot in the corner farthest from the front door and adjacent to the passageway between the American and the Afghan dining areas. Troops respected these self-organizing territorial claims. The exception was when Air Force aviators occasionally dropped in who didn’t know any better, but they mostly hot-footed it over to Kabul to lounge and dine in hotels.
Even though this was strictly an American/Afghan Militia Forces camp, the walls were decorated with flags from every member of the NATO alliance. Over the passageway between the AMF and U.S. mess hung framed, unsmiling portrait photos of the entire chain of command, beginning with President Obama and ending with Colonel Boyd Thomas, the Task Force Commander.
Bobby ordered a cheese omelet with bacon. The server was Phillip Maro, like Bobby, a young Italian guy from New York.
“Phil, my man. We’re playin’ Seattle today, well . . . tonight here.”
“Fuckin’ home game for the Mariners, Bobby. Hope Vasquez can hold ’em for the whole nine.”
“His fast ball’s off this year, paisano, but the boy still has a curveball breaks like an A-10.”
“Got that right. Have a good one, Bobby.”
“Back atcha, man.”
Bobby was an ex-weapons specialist who’d only recently attended the Operations and Intelligence Course at the Special Warfare Center, and he was — at the departure of the previous Team Sergeant, and prior to the impending arrival of a Master Sergeant Dale — the detachment’s senior noncommissioned officer. Married twice without kids, his current wife was Carolina, the half-Japanese daughter of a retired Air Force First Sergeant. The oldest of six siblings, Bobby had learned the art of leadership through comedic diplomacy. He was the detachment’s funny man, but he also had a fair knack for organization. His efficacy, however, like that of his commanding officer, Captain Robert Dunny, had been compromised long ago by fraternization with the detachment: drinking with the men in violation of a General Order, and their regular collective patronage of a bordello in Kabul that specialized in very young girls. Bobby was a pretty boy, accustomed to the attention of women on the prowl, and it gave him the reputation of some kind of stud among the team.
Peter Townhall, aka “Pete” aka “Chief,” was 649’s Warrant Officer, or “tech,” the assistant to the team commander, Captain Dunny. Pete had attended Warrant Officer Candidate School as a Staff Sergeant not long out of the Special Forces Qualification Course, with little to no operational experience. He’d joined the army late, after his divorce in 2004, and was thirty-two. It was an open question whether the team distrusted him because he was shifty or whether he was shifty because the team distrusted him, but he lived up to it both ways out of stubborn embitterment over his exclusion. From Bear, Delaware, he was a man with a small frame — he’d passed Assessment and Selection as well as the Q-Course by the skin of his teeth — and his general nervousness was never a good fit with the buccaneer spirit that enlivened most A-Detachments. He had a luxurious black beard that came off as incompatible with his narrow shoulders and slender hands. His shiftiness was accentuated by horn-framed glasses with photochromic lenses that gave him a sketchy look like a jazz musician or a bookie. He compensated for his inability to make friends by taking refuge in rules, policies and regulations, which he could quote chapter and verse.
He nodded at Maro and requested two eggs over-medium with (emphasis) “well-done” bacon.
“Fall” was next in the queue and ordered an all-the-way omelet, meaning everything: two cheeses, onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes. “Fall” was diminutive for Faulhaber, his surname; first name James. A Staff Sergeant from Terre Haute, he was, after Bobby’s rise to team sergeant, the senior weapons man; they’d had three assigned against the table of organization which required two. His hair and beard were ash-blonde, though his mustache, pushed forward by an overbite, was almost black. Squat as a fireplug, and a bit soft around the middle, with blue eyes and thick stubby hands, he was inexplicably attractive to certain women in bars, which is where he’d met his girlfriend, June Buczek, a buck-sergeant in Civil Affairs who was back at Bragg now.
Fall shot the shit with “Sis,” Royal Sisson, the senior communications man trailing Fall through the chow line. Sis was whining about his junior communications man, Pedro Correa, not yet returned from all-night guard duty on North Observation Post 1. Fall had started hanging out with a contractor lately, and everyone knew he had a money-itch for the hundred-K-plus those guys were banking every year for doing miles less than active-duty guys. Most men in “Group” (shorthand for Special Forces) suspected the gravy train wouldn’t last forever and contracting wasn’t as smart as hanging in there for the pension; but Fall was full of schemes, investment ideas and whatnot. Fall held Sis up long enough to get scrambled eggs with cheese alongside bacon and sausage. Meat lover.
“That’s a lazy motherfucker, man,” Sis complained. “Lifts weights for two hours at a time but won’t lift a fuckin’ finger to pick up after hisself.”
“You’re his senior, bubba,” said Fall. “Put his fuckin’ ass to work.”
“Fucker’s got more excuses than a fat baby got farts. You end up workin’ harder to make him do his shit than doin’ it yourself.”
Sis had a baby face with a wispy beard that looked far worse than no beard at all, and the little sophomore’s beard somehow made his complaints seem even more whiney to Fall. Black hair sticking up in a cluster of cowlicks, Sis was wiry and slender, further contributing to his childish aspect, though he was twenty-nine-years-old and a Sergeant First Class. Sis was from St. Charles, Missouri. Like Opie, he bitterly hated being in Afghanistan. His reason was different, though. He was engaged and cockeyed in love with an elementary school teacher back in North Carolina named Diane Painter. They Skyped every chance they got, and she sent him scented letters every day that he read ten times apiece, provoking some of the guys to heckle him about being pussy-whipped. Sis ordered an all-the-way omelet.
Next in line was 649’s tall, pudgy senior medic, Sergeant First Class William Hillman, called “Woof,” because he raised dogs, read about dogs, and talked incessantly about dogs, and found a way to turn almost any conversation into one about dogs — his dogs. He had a wife and two young boys, and no one on the team could tell you the name of any of them. They knew about his dogs, though. They knew when a Jack Russell named Peewee, or an Alsatian named Molly, or a Pointer called Shotglass received their last distemper shots or had their anal glands expressed. Woof ordered over-easies and bacon.
Behind him, and lagging back a bit, were his junior medic, Staff Sergeant Hector Fermin, and the junior engineer, Staff Sergeant Eduardo “Eddy” Cuellar, both Mexican-American. Eddy was from San Antonio and a taproot Chicano while Hector, called “Baby Doc” by the team, was from a little town in Michigan called Tecumseh, third generation. They hung together not because they were Latinos, but because neither of them was quite as boisterous as the other members of the team, and attempts to include them in the general noise made them both a little nervous. Baby Doc spoke halting Spanish, while Eddy could’ve supervised a Veracruz construction crew drunk. Eddy and Baby Doc also shared a genuine practical interest in their respective specialties — engineer and medic. Baby Doc was the distinguished honor grad during his Phase Two training and Eddy could compute explosive charges or building materials in his head. Baby Doc was single while two years earlier Eddy had married a convention center banquet cook named Inga Nisly, who he affectionately called “Inga la gringa.”
The team meandered past the salad bar further loading their plates, then settled one by one around 649’s table.
Baby Doc and Eddy sat together at one end of the table while the rest clustered at the other. Baby Doc was the last one to the table. As he pulled out his chair with a squawk on the wood floor, a recently assigned black female Staff Sergeant entered the DFAC, last name Howe according to her name tag. Dark, with prominent eyes, her hair wound tightly across her skull and pinned back securely, she had symmetrical, full features and a high forehead. Tall for a woman, around five-ten, with hints of muscularity under her uniform. Detachment 649’s table went silent as all of them watched her pick up her tray and disappear behind the green partition to collect her breakfast.
Bobby broke the silence with a smirk.
“What’s your name, little girl?” he asked in a theatrical granny-voice.
Replying to himself now in the affected voice of a child, he said, “Chlamydia.”
Woof barked with laughter, others grinned, Eddy and Doc remained silent. Even Chief gave a suppressed snicker in spite of himself.
“That’s a pretty name,” Bobby continued his little vignette as the inquiring adult.
Again, in the childlike reply, “Mah mama gimme dat name.”
Suppressing their laughter, the boys kept a watchful eye out for Sergeant Howe. No reason to give direct offense, after all. Just humor, man. Sis leaned across to Bobby with a lascivious grin.
“Bobby, you ever do that?” He nodded toward the serving line, where Staff Sergeant Howe had disappeared. “You ever do a black chick?”
Woof groaned, knowing he was, at least in part, the target of Sis’s inquiry. Woof’s aversion to black people was legendary and his antipathy to interracial sex was a familiar button for the rest of the boys to push. Woof chewed slowly as he stared down at his runny eggs.
Fall piped in, “Bobby used to be a stripper, didn’t you, Bobby?”
“For a while, when I was stationed in Lewis.”
“More pussy than Brian Pumper,” Fall went on. “Didn’tcha, Bobby? Got used like a fuckin’ cheap sex toy.” All eyes were on Bobby now, Baby Doc excepted, and Bobby didn’t pretend he didn’t like it. He grinned in anticipation of what he was about to say.
“Just before we left Bragg,” Bobby began his story, leaning in, “I met this redbone over at Bennigans . . .”
“Aww, fuck,” interjected Woof. “You mean a nigger chick.”
“Light-skinned nigger chick,” Bobby corrected, leaning further in to say it quietly.
Sergeant Howe emerged from behind the partition and carried her tray to the salad bar, walking within ten feet of their table. The table went silent, and the boys returned in earnest to their food, smirks aimed at their plates. When she’d settled safely on the other side of the room, next to Sergeant Baines, a PAO flunky, Bobby beetled back in to resume his tale, his audience likewise slanting in to catch it, Doc quietly eating now and pretending to ignore them.
“She was fuckin’ hot,” Bobby continued. “Ass you could set a cup on, and she comes up and says, like, you know, you look like some actor, and I’m like, yeah?” Bobby forked a load of omelet into his mouth, chewed for a moment, swallowed half of it, then talked around the rest. “Hussy was totally DTF, word. I took ’er home and rode her like a Brahma bull ’til three in the morning.”
Fall giggled “Rock ’n roll, man.”
“Dude,” asked Fall, “Where was your wife?”
“Oh, the Jap was visitin’ her mom up in New York. Next morning,” he continued . . . there was obviously more, “I found this chick’s gold bracelet and shit on the nightstand. I was, like, fuck son, what if I hadn’t seen that? Carolina comin’ home that afternoon.”
“Oohhhh!” was the collective response.
“Seriously, Boo?” put in Opie.
“Serious as dick cancer, yo! Breezy’s active duty, man. Some leg outfit over by COSCOM. I dropped her gold shit over at the CQ desk before work.”
“How do you know she won’t come back to your house like a dumped dog?” Opie interjected again, punctuating his question with an involuntary procession of winks and eye rolls.
“Oh, when I took her back home, I drove the bitch all over North Fayetteville first,” he answered, provoking a hoot of laughter from most of the table.
“Fuck you jungle fever cocksuckers,” muttered Woof, dropping his fork onto his plate and shaking his head.
Chief spoke unexpectedly, and all eyes turned his way.
“How do you know you didn’t get AIDS, Bobby?” It was like the whole table was hit with cold water. Bobby waited a beat, then smiled and ignored him. Fall broke the silence.
“Hey, is anybody gonna pick up plates for Gene and Pedro? They been on guard.”
“I got ’em,” Opie said, then turned back to Woof, wanting to resume the thread.
“Hey, Woof, you don’t approve of splittin’ the black oak?” This time, his face twisted up like he was about to sneeze.
Pete wasn’t going to let it go.
“You know, Bobby, that black women have AIDS at a far higher rate than white women.”
Woof answered Opie: “Hey, you don’t breed a fuckin’ Pointer with a German Shepherd, okay?”
Bobby replied to Chief: “Chief, I’ll tell it to you like my daddy told me. ‘It’s my dick and it’s my soap, and I’ll wash it as fast as I want.’”
Another clap of laughter went up. Chief colored crimson.
Opie went for Woof again. “So, Woof . . . you never, ever fucked a black chick? What I hear, somma you southern boys don’t know white girls got pussies ’til they’re eighteen years old.”
“You’re risking your life, Bobby,” Chief said. “Your wife’s life, too.”
“Cut me some fuckin’ slack, Ope. Goddamn,” Woof said, scowling at his eggs.
“How about an Oriental or Mexican chick?” Opie pressed. Eddy and Baby Doc looked up at Opie. They weren’t smiling.
“Chief,” Bobby said, not smiling either now. “Why don’t you lemme worry about my wife and my dick? Okay?”
“Not the same,” Woof said to Opie. “Fuckin’ boofs are a human sub-species, man.”
Bobby saw the tension beginning to generalize, so he went back into his routine.
“What’s your name, little girl?” Answering himself again in his little black girl voice, “Dry-humpa.” The laughter returned, minus Chief and Baby Doc.
Bobby reverted to the first voice: “That’s a pretty name, baby.”
Across the DFAC, Captain Bob draped his battle-rattle over the back of a chair at an empty table. Robert Dunny, Captain, source of commission ROTC at the University of Ohio. Captain Bob was from a town in the same state called Sylvania, around an hour from Baby Doc’s home town in Southern Michigan. Dunny was married, with a two-year-old boy.
The boys had started the “Captain Bob” thing, and it stuck.
He was twenty-eight, good-looking in a bland way, blue-eyed with thinning blonde hair cut very short, athletic, with a thick mustache over a well-groomed beard. Captain Bob passed the boys’ table en route to the salad bar and greeted them.
“Morning, six-four-nine,” he said, eliciting a flurry of “Mornings” and “Hey, Captain Bobs.” Dunny loaded his plate at the salad bar then carried it to his own table.
The dining facility door swung open, and in walked Dale. The boys went quiet again at a strange face in an SF uniform, older guy, maybe forty years old. Recent haircut with a mere stubble of a beard. Not very big. Black hair, some gray on the sides. Strangely blue-green eyes. Dale gave the food line a pass, picking up only a white porcelain coffee cup. He drew a cup of black coffee from the stainless-steel machine and headed straight to Dunny’s table.
He saw 649’s table, and surmised from the suppressed chatter and the eyes that followed him that this was his new team. Dale did a second take when the Ichabod Crane-looking dude made faces at him, or was he? The guy had a goat’s beard and opened his eyes as far as he could three times in succession, like he was signaling an ‘O’ in Morse Code.
Hovering with his cup at Captain Bob’s table, he said, “Captain Dunny. I’m Dale. Believe I’m your new Operations Sergeant. May I sit?”
Dunny wiped his chin with a napkin and swallowed his food, standing with his hand extended.
“Omigod, yes. Hi.” He gave Dale a firm shake, looking him in the eyes. “Wow, it’s good to meet you. You’re not eating?”
“Time table’s off, sir. From the flights over. Not hungry really.” His accent pure North Carolina, Dunny noted; eastern North Carolina with the ghost of Scotland-past.
Sitting down, “Bob, please. Or Captain Bob. S’what the boys call me. Mind if I call you Top?”
“Not at all. Team sergeant’s moniker since the elder days.”
With an ear-splitting groan, a C-130 resupply bird approached the runway. Dale took a cautious sip from his steaming mug. The plane passed by and the engines screamed into reverse on touchdown, the sound pulling steadily away until it was background noise again.
“Really glad you’re here,” said Dunny. “You’re very well spoken of.”
Dale looked into Dunny’s eyes for longer than was comfortable until Dunny blinked, knitted his brows, and waited for a reply. Dale appeared to have gone into a trance, looking through Dunny by way of his eyes. Then, as if there had been no pause, “By whom?”
“Huh?” said Dunny.
“You just said I was spoken well of. By whom?”
“Oh,” Dunny tried to get back on track. “Well, just people.”
That sounded stupid. Dunny sighed. “Colonel Thomas talks you up. Talks up your background, your time across the fence. With the Rangers, too.” Dunny inflected up, like he was asking a question. Something about Dale was wrong-footing him, like a kid caught breaking a rule. “And Group. He thinks your background might bring in stronger missions. You’ve got a hell of a lot of experience in operations. Didn’t you just come from CAG?”
“No, sir . . . Bob. Left in June last year. Studied Farsi at Monterrey. Spanish linguist before.”
“Farsi, huh? You test?”
“Three-three, sir . . . Bob. Aptitude for language, I guess. I suck at math though.” He smiled but the strange unblinking gaze took the warmth out of it. Bob whistled.
“Three-three. Pretty impressive.” The conversation ran into an impasse. Bob wolfed two big spoons full of cottage cheese and chased it with a bite from a glazed doughnut.
“Master Sergeant Bernays,” he began again, chewing doughnut. “The last team sergeant, he was a ROAD soldier, retired on active duty. I just got the team three months ago. I could use a strong hand. Bernie left the detachment pretty rudderless. Nice guy, but a fuckin’ slug.”
Dale paused again, a second too long, staring through Bob’s eyes like he was sleepwalking, creating in Dunny a creeping sense of dismay. This guy is fucking weirding me out here. What the hell did we get? Must be some Delta Force psyops shit. Dale dropped his doll-eyed gaze and took a swallow of the black coffee. Looking up again, he was re-engaged.
“I’d like to have each of ’em sometime after chow,” Dale said, “for initial interviews, if that’s workable. Can I use the Ops hooch?”
“No problem,” said Dunny. “Can you take Correa and Pollard first? They were on O.P. all night. They’re gonna need some rack.”
“That’s . . .”
The explosion just outside the DFAC vibrated their internal organs. Dishes smashed on the floor, tables rocked and dust blew in through shattered windows and cracks in the fractured door. There was a long scream, then some shouting. People crawled around on the floor like bugs, trying to put on their helmets and combat vests. More dust streamed in, as if pushed by a second gust of wind. Somewhere in the distance a fifty-caliber machine gun chopped out six-round bursts.