Smitten Gate (Chapter 28)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
July 14, 2010
0538 — Local
Two candy-red clearing barrels squatted outside the Task Force Operations building like the pot-bellied cannons of the Civil War. Made from chopped 55-gallon drums with eight-inch holes in one end, and canted at forty-five degrees on angle-iron frames, the barrels were filled with sand and then surrounded by sandbags.
Each member of the team dropped his magazine, charged his weapon to eject the chambered round, poked the muzzle through the barrel hole, and dropped the hammer onto an empty chamber to ensure it was clear. Weapons cleared, they went inside to prepare for mission debriefing.
Thin clouds suffused a yellow sunrise, but Camp Virtue was still the color of lead. The team was spiritless, their movements perfunctory. They sensed this was going to be a real hotwash. Gene’s body had been intercepted by medics at the airfield, but Baby Doc was still carrying Gene’s rifle along with his own.
Major Dean, a plump, balding, humorless man with the face of an otter, was the Task Force G-3. He met them inside and directed them to the meeting room behind him. The room was small for a whole detachment plus the debriefing officers, most of the space taken up by a long, plain, tawny-surfaced table. The walls were unadorned panel-board, and the fluorescent lights threw a sickening blue hue over everything. A quiet window air conditioner slept high on the wall next to the door. The room smelled like furniture polish and strong coffee.
A fifty-cup percolator was set up on one end of the table, with a tube of polystyrene cups. No creamer; no sugar; no chairs. This was no “Welcome home, boys!” It was an interrogation, and the interrogators were unhappy.
There was barely room to stand, so Bobby, closest to the coffee pot, just started filling cups with black coffee and passing them down like doses of bad medicine. Major Dean, in a freshly pressed uniform and wearing a cloud of cheap aftershave, stood just inside the door, his face blank and unwelcoming. In the time it took for everyone to quit shuffling about. The room already stank of sour sweat and half-dry shit. Their faces were grimy with leftover camouflage paint. Most had dry brown blood on their hands and clothes. Captain Dunny had the long-stare of a man facing execution.
Colonel Thomas burst through the door shouting, “On your feet!” even though they were all standing, and they all snapped to some approximation of the position of attention, made difficult by all the gear still hanging off them. Thomas didn’t issue an “at ease,” and instead launched into a spitting tirade.
“Gentlemen, let me be the first to say I am sorry for the loss of Sergeant Pollard. That said, let me ask, where the fuck is your Team Sergeant, Detachment six-four-nine?”
No one answered, so he continued.
“It’s a rhetorical question, you cocksuckers, because no one seems to have an answer. I’m gonna to leave you to the Task Force G-2 in just a minute, oh ye saddened motherfuckers of six-four-nine, for your mission debrief. But let me say this right now. From everything I know, this so-called mission was a world class goat fuck! The only thing that prevents this being an unmitigated goat fuck is that you have — to my understanding — a photograph of Usman Jahangiri’s dead fucking head in your possession. And it fucking well better be unassailably and authentically that fucking hajji cunt’s head!”
He stopped and fixed each of them in turn with his shiny red eyes.
“You all, my staff, and I will eventually generate a 52-card pack of lies for the public about whatever the fuck happened out there, just because we can’t let them know that the elite, quiet professionals of Special Forces were about as organized and professional as a pack of sewer rats trying to gang-rape a cat. But I warn you now. Right fucking now. Do not fucking lie to my G-2, gentlemen. I want to know exactly what in the motherfucking hell happened out there. And I will find out, or J.C. never hung on a motherfuckin’ cross!” He paused again for a beat. “That is all.” He pivoted, stomped out, and slammed the door behind himself so hard that the whole room shook.
“At ease,” Major Dean said when Colonel Thomas was gone. “Stack your shit the best you can. I’m sorry about Dale and Pollard.”
July 14, 2010
0640 — Local
That morning, two dining room waiters were trying to keep up with orders at the Intercontinental Hotel. Virden and Peanut were shoveling in bread, fruit, and eggs near the pool. Connie was just joining George and Rosemarie at a table for four, all the reporters looking freshly showered, though last night’s martinis had burst half the vessels in Connie’s eyes. They all glanced over at Gaston. He was dunking a baguette in sweet coffee and talking to two men at his table, European by the looks of it. Gaston’s phone went off in his front trouser pocket with a rooster crow ringtone, and he broke off his conversation to answer it.
July 14, 2010
0645 — Local
Sergeant Barber leaned over Major Carroll’s shoulder. His office door was open. He alternated between scowling at his laptop monitor and typing furiously. The afternoon press briefing had injected a sense of urgency into the entire staff.
“Not ‘three Taliban,’” she suggested. “Sounds too minimal. Try ‘several Taliban’ . . . no, ‘the entire formation of Taliban was killed during the engagement.’”
“What if they ask how many?” he quizzed her.
“More than a dozen, our detachment was forced to break contact, so the exact number is still unclear. We’re still reviewing the mission.” His fingers danced over the keyboard.
“That’s good,” he said, risking a brief but affectionate glance, then resumed his typing.
“When did you realize he was gone?” Major Dean had released the rest of the team, but he was still interrogating Woof in the stuffy, little debriefing room. Dean had brought in two chairs, and they sat across the table from one another. Woof was ragged with exhaustion, his eyes hollow and sandy.
“I keep tellin’ you, sir, I’m not sure. I mean, he told me to cover our approach into the ORP. He went to twelve o’clock . . . or so I assumed. After a few minutes, it got really quiet.”
“How long? How long before you discovered he was missing?”
“I don’t know, sir. When I called Captain Bob . . . Captain Dunny. Maybe an hour, maybe less.”
“No other noises? No suspicious noises?”
“Sir, he was just fucking gone. I ain’t never seen no shit like this.”
“Do you think he was captured?”
“How the fuck . . . sorry, sir. I have no idea. I was with someone, then I was alone. Out there!” He pointed toward a low sky. “I was all alone in the middle of fucking Afghanistan. At night! Scariest three hours of my life, sir.”