“So. Just what am I supposed to do with you, Sergeant?”
I stood rigidly at attention and didn’t even really consider responding. It was clearly a rhetorical question. Nobody had actually wanted to hear what I had to say anyway. I was pretty certain some Colonel who I’d never even seen before didn’t want to hear it. I was also almost convinced I’d been sent over to him because every other Field Grade officer in the Division had worn themselves out berating me.
The grim, bald Colonel looked up at the tall, lanky, white-haired Sergeant Major half-standing and half leaning against the peeling office wall. “What do you think Sergeant Major?”
The Sergeant Major looked down at the papers in his hands. “Let’s see ... Article 118, Attempted Murder, two counts ... Article 128, Assault, multiple counts ... Article 120, attempted Sexual Assault, two counts ... Article 89, Disrespect ... at least eight counts.” He flipped the paper over. “The list goes on, it’s pretty impressive. We can pretty much state that you have effectively ended your career progression permanently at three and a half years in service.”
The Colonel closed his eyes for a second. Probably hoping I’d simply fall dead before he opened his eyes back up. I’d been getting a lot of that lately.
“Do you feel any remorse for this at all?”
That was a real question, but I had to be honest. “Sir. No, Sir.”
“Major General Faulkner just wants all of this to go away. More specifically, he wants you to go away. So he’s asked me to be your zookeeper for the rest of your time in the Army. You work for me, do what I tell you to do. You will never set one foot on main Post again and will adhere to the...” He paused, looking down at the papers in front of him. “ ... no less than nine protective orders levied against you. A couple more are pending, so let’s just assume they will be in effect as well. You will then leave the Army at your scheduled ETS date. The charges go away. Other than a particularly nasty General Letter of Reprimand, you escape the consequences of your actions. Do you understand, Sergeant?”
It was a far better outcome than I’d been expecting. “Sir. Yes, Sir.”
The Colonel suddenly smiled – a tiny smile, but weirdly out of character. “At ease, Sergeant.”
I shifted my position and relaxed a hair. Just a hair. I caught a glimpse of the Sergeant Major struggling not to laugh.
He just had to ask. “You hospitalized your husband and your Company Commander with a fish? How the hell do you give concussions, break arms and fracture ribs with a fish?”
“It was a frozen fish, Sergeant Major, I’d just come home from the Commissary when I caught them.”
“And the attempted forceful-Sodomy-with-a-foreign-object charges?”
“Same fish, Sergeant Major.”
“Maybe it was a good thing the MPs arrived when they did.”
“I needed just a couple more minutes, Sergeant Major.”
The Colonel was trying not to laugh now. “Were you not aware that your Company Commander was Senator Shirling’s daughter?”
“I was aware, Sir. She very much made a point of mentioning that to everyone. But that fact was not my main concern. The fact that she was screwing my husband in my own bed, was.”
“A point you made to nearly every officer in your chain of command, the Chaplain and a couple of MPs. Apparently violently at times.” He flipped a page over. “Which accounts for most of the protective orders.”
“Sir, they kept asking me to be reasonable about this. My response seems perfectly reasonable to me, given the provocation.”
“Ironically, that fact that she is the Senator’s daughter is saving you a great deal of heartache. While the Senator would actually like to have you keelhauled, he is in the middle of an election campaign and his daughter’s proclivities towards this kind of thing have caused him some problems before.”
The Sergeant Major’s jester-like grin widened further. “Keelhauling is much more of a Navy tradition anyway.”
The Colonel nodded sagely. “Damn straight. The official story on your husband and the Good Senator’s daughter’s injuries will be that they are the result of hand to hand combat training.”
I tried to swallow my temper. “Rob is my soon to be ex-husband. And that was not just her hand. Sir.”
“And you, Sergeant, are not a proctologist. Be glad that they haven’t charged you with practicing medicine without a license.”
“Sir. Yes, Sir.”
I did my best to snap to attention and salute properly. This was pretty much the first discussion I’d had with an officer in the last month that didn’t involve words like “confinement” and “dishonorable discharge.”
I started to turn and froze. “Sir? Dismissed to where?”
As far as I could tell, there was no unit here; the Brigade driver had dropped me off at an old hanger on an out-of-use runway, with an office that the Colonel had obviously co-opted for the discussion. It was in a remote part of the training ranges, far from main base.
He glanced over at the Sergeant Major. “I was wondering when you were going to ask that. Actually, this is your new office right here. Welcome to the 16th Training and Readiness Group. The Sergeant Major will give you the tour. She’s all yours, Pogo.”
I watched, stunned, as he got up and walked out past me.
I looked back over at the Sergeant Major. “What am I doing here, Sergeant Major?”
“Your job, Sergeant. You’re a Cargo Handler, you load and unload planes. You’ll be doing that and a bit of Transportation Management Coordinator stuff.” He walked out of the office into the main hanger as I trailed behind him. “Computer and phone lines should be in already, the geeks will be bringing a couple computers by tomorrow and get them set up in your office. Phone in the office is already hooked up, contact list is on it. The guys will be bringing the forklifts, pallets, dollies and all that crap over on Friday morning.”
A horn sounded outside the hanger. “That will be your stuff from your barracks room. I had your room mate pack it all up.”
I’d been rather hastily kicked out of my own house after “the incident,” and stuck in a temporary barracks room.
He gestured towards the back of the hanger. “Your new quarters are back there. Bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom. Sometimes we need lift on short notice in the middle of the night, so it’s best to have you here.”
“Is this some kind of solitary confinement thing?”
“You have a problem with it?” His easy demeanor dropped and his focus sharpened rather suddenly. His affable nature suddenly seemed to be a mask for something much more dangerous, a cold predator of some kind. A tiny, rather terrified, voice in the back of my head warned me that a dishonorable discharge and confinement might just be the least of my worries if I crossed him.
“No, Sergeant Major. My roommate snored. Loudly. I just want to know where I stand.”
He relaxed a bit. “You’re not a prisoner. Follow the rules Colonel Howard laid out and everything will be fine. We’re busy as hell, that’s why we’re bringing this airfield on line. You’ll be busting your ass here, probably do three times the work of anyone else in your specialty. But you’ll be treated fairly and get anything you need to do your job. You take care of the unit, we’ll take care of you.”
The horn honked again and he nodded toward the hanger door. “You might want to go ahead and let them in.”
I walked over and threw the switch to open the door. It made an odd grinding noise, but slowly opened to let in a grey crew cab F150. When it stopped, mountains of testosterone and muscle poured out. Actually it was three guys in khaki cargo pants, desert boots and an array of somewhat suggestive bar t-shirts, but it was pretty much the same thing.
A big blonde guy with a close cropped beard slid out of the driver’s seat, an even bigger redheaded guy with a full brush of a beard and huge slabs of muscle, slid out on the passenger side, while a slender dark-haired clean shaven guy came out of the back.
The big blonde guy nodded toward the Sergeant Major, then looked over at me.
“Alright Sergeant, where do you want it?”
I pointed towards the back room. “I’ll be living in there.”
The guy with the dark hair slid towards me. Damn, he was good looking, in that sort of tall, dark and smoldering, Italian way. His voice sounded like liquid sex. “Hello, I’m...”
“Hollywood.” The Sergeant Major glared at him. “What part of ‘NO’ do you not understand?” Even though he didn’t raise his voice one bit, I could suddenly hear cold sharp steel in it.
The appropriately-named Hollywood stiffened. “Got it, Sergeant Major.”
The blonde guy rolled his eyes. “Get the bags out of the back seat. Dumbass.”
Hollywood gave a brilliant apologetic smile, then winked and turned back to the truck.
The blonde guy walked over. “I’m Kurt. You already met Hollywood. The big guy over there is Amos.”
The red haired guy grumbled something. Hollywood grinned. “Don’t mind old Amos here, raised in a swamp, speaks more alligator than English.”
Amos shook his head and lifted a chair one-handed out of the back of the truck like it was a scrap of paper.
I looked at them and a light dawned. “I’m guessing I’m the lowest ranking person here, aren’t I?”
The Sergeant Major grinned like a jackal. “Lowest ranking person in the unit, actually. Glad you picked up on that. Still, this hanger is yours; you’re the only one with loadmaster certification, so your word here is law.” As he said that, he made sure the three guys were listening.
All three locked eyes with him and each gave a single curt nod. For all the bullshit and quasi-civilian clothes, they were obviously disciplined as hell.
It took them about ten minutes to unload the truck and carry everything into the back room. Some time in that ten minutes the Sergeant Major disappeared.
As soon as they finished, Kurt looked at me. “Interested in lunch?”
“Yes ... what the hell do I call you?”
“Just call me Kurt. Outside the Compound, the ready room, this hanger and a couple other places, we go by first name or nicknames for security reasons. Same reason we usually dress like civilian range maintenance crews out here. If they’re in civilian clothes, the Colonel goes by ‘Howard’, the Sergeant Major goes by ‘Pogo’, just remember who they really are. You’ll want to go get into civilian clothes to go eat.”
I got the feeling making them wait was a bad idea, so I jumped into jeans and a t-shirt and ran back out to the truck. Amos and Hollywood were sitting in the back, leaving the “shotgun” seat for me.
Lunch was at a local barbeque joint and I got to watch in horror as Amos consumed what looked like an entire hog on a bun while the rest of us ate normal meals.
After Kurt finished, he pushed his plate away and leaned back. “You’re probably starting to realize that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.”
“Yeah, I’m under that impression.”
“We conduct special, short notice training events for units all over the world.”
I furiously rubbed my forehead and all three stared at me. “Sorry. I’m just trying to scrub the word ‘STUPID’ off my forehead.”
Amos gave a low rumbling chuckle and Hollywood smirked.
Kurt shrugged, but smiled a little. “Okay, but you don’t need to know the details.”
“I get it. I don’t have the ‘need-to-know,’ but I’m not an idiot.”
“Sergeant Major wanted me to make sure you know the rules. Mission first. All the feel-good shit stops at the door.”
“I kind of picked up on that.”
“No slacking on PT, and you’ll start working on weapons training and qualification as soon as I can set up a schedule.”
“I just qualified two months ago.”
“Yeah. That doesn’t wash here. Hollywood will train you on rifles, I’ll train you on handguns and shotguns. You’ll burn more ammo in a month here than you’ve burned in your whole life.”
“You know, I’m just a Cargo Handler.”
“Doesn’t matter. Unit rules. Speaking of which, there are six operational teams; standard red, amber, green rotation. Right now, Team One, that’s mine, and Team Two are on Amber, so that’s why we’re helping you out.”
He watched Amos finish the last of his plate. “You have a car?”
“I used to. My ‘husband’ took our car. I can’t go get it, it’s on main post.”
“Is your name on the title?”
“Both our names are on it.”
“You got keys to it?”
I fumbled in my purse and handed them to him. He had me write down the make, model and license plate for it. He handed my note and keys to Amos without a word. Then we loaded up and headed back. Kurt stopped at a grocery store so I could pick up some food to eat at the hangar.
When we got back to the hangar, Kurt got out of the truck with me.
“A couple more things. The Colonel doesn’t tolerate any bullshit drama inside the unit. You’re off limits to the guys, they are off limits to you. Even after your divorce is final.”
“Not exactly my priority.”
“I’m sure it isn’t right now. Things change. But you are on permanent ‘little sister’ status.” A smile ticked at the corner of his mouth. “But it’d be funny as hell to see Hollywood get a frozen trout shoved up his ass.”
“It was a black sea bass.”
“Ouch.” He winced. “Lots more spines and fins.”
“They’re a lot bigger, too.” I couldn’t help smile a little at that.
After they left, I went back in to my new room and began to set it up, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
I got up early the next morning to go running along the tarmac and runway; Kurt had been pretty straightforward about the PT thing and I was under the impression that the Colonel and the Sergeant Major were pretty serious bastards.
As I finished and came up to the hangar, I found my car was parked outside, windows down and keys on the seat. Rob’s keys were there too. I smirked, picturing Rob coming face to face, or rather face to over-muscled chest with Amos. Served the asshole right.
When Kurt brought the rest of his team to deliver the equipment, they were staggeringly efficient – and it was also very obvious that the Colonel’s warning had gone out to everyone. I may not be Miss America, but I usually get a least a few glances from guys, and Kurt’s team was basically a tidal wave of male hormones. The forklift got more eye contact than I did.
The next few weeks were chaos as I settled into my new job. I didn’t have much time to worry about anything but the job. We started operations almost immediately. Flights in and out were managed by three Air Force Combat Controllers, who invariably showed up on jet black dirt bikes in time to set up, and made a point of not asking questions. I just handled the cargo and passengers, most of which went in and out of the Pacific region. I got the impression that there were other, equally secretive units that handled Europe and Africa, although nobody ever really explained it to me.
Most of my smaller shipments included “contact on receipt” instructions to carriers, receiving cargo handlers and warehouse managers. Except the contact information wasn’t me and I didn’t give them their final instructions.
It did seem like asking questions was a bad idea, especially when Kurt’s team suddenly flew out and I noticed that none of the names on the manifest matched the real names, and none of the passports were American.
It just got weirder from there. I tried not to think about it a whole lot, and spent my free time either exercising or watching old movies. I really started to get into the old black and white movies. I must have watched “Double Indemnity” a hundred times. Barbara Stanwyk was epic.
One morning, Hollywood was waiting, sitting on the hood of a blue SUV, when I finished my run.
“Morning, Wendy, today’s a good day. It’s a range day, and range days are always good days.” He was acting like a completely different person – he’d completely turned off the “ladies man” vibe. The mere idea of getting out on the firing range had him totally focused.
I learned quickly that it wasn’t an act for my benefit. He was totally different out on a range. The idea of going to the range with him had made me a little nervous – Hollywood was a walking, talking sexual harassment complaint waiting to happen – if he hadn’t been so damn good looking, anyway. And it was just the two of us on an empty range, every morning for weeks.
I didn’t know it, but I didn’t need to worry.
For all his obviously wolfish tendencies, if a Playboy Playmate walked up to him holding an M40 or M82, he probably wouldn’t even notice if she was naked. I’d been taught the basics of how to use rifles, but Hollywood taught me to be part of one. It was an obsession for him. He re-taught me everything about rifles over the next several weeks. Breath control, cheek weld, fingertip placement, grip – or, as he put it, the grip of no-grip. The fact that muscles will tire and shake, but bones never do. And on and on.
The Sergeant Major just showed up one day, about the time I was beginning to think the smell of gunpowder was going to be permanently burned into my nose. We’d finished shooting and were packing up. We’d given the rifles a rough cleaning, but Hollywood preferred to do the thorough cleaning himself.
He walked over, looking at Hollywood.
“She’s okay. Doesn’t have the knack to be great, but if she added another thirty pounds or so to stabilize her skinny ass, she’d be pretty decent with another year of practice.”
The Sergeant Major glanced over at me. “I knew a female counter-sniper in Sarajevo; not bad, but when she was pregnant with her second kid, maybe seven months in and later, she got really, really good. She said it was that built-in sandbag. She was the terror of Sniper Alley for a while, the Serbs hated her, called her ‘Mother Death.’” He stared off into space for a second. “I think she and her husband own a couple restaurants now. They have three or four kids.” He blinked. “Anyway, I don’t need you to be a sniper. Just don’t want you to be helpless. On Monday, you start learning about Monsters.”
He turned and walked off without another word. Hollywood continued packing up.
“What did he mean by ‘monsters?’”
“Close combat specialists. Handguns, submachine guns, shotguns. That’ll be Kurt, mostly.”
Hollywood gave me directions to a battered old structure that turned out to be a combination indoor range and shoot house. When I walked in, I realized the range was in far better shape than it looked from the outside.
Kurt was standing next to a table with handguns lined up on it. “We’re going to cover shotgun and handgun basics. The Sergeant Major wants me to make sure you can defend yourself.”
I’d thought the rifle range had been a lot of shooting, but Kurt seemed determined to have me fire every handgun and shotgun known to man until my head was ringing despite the “Mickey Mouse ears.” After a couple weeks, I started to feel naked if I wasn’t holding a handgun. Every single handgun run started with a draw, and Kurt made me draw over and over until it was smooth and clean. I used back and belly draws for every gun, and ankle draws if the gun was even remotely small enough to work that way.
Then the real fun began. Kurt set up the shoot house and I had to walk through it, over and over, until I took down every target fast enough for him.
He even had me use the “team-standard” weapon until it was second nature. The strange metallic cough of the MP5SD echoed in my dreams for weeks.
I’d probably have gotten pretty cocky about my skills, but Kurt gave me a demonstration that cut that short. Even using a revolver, his shots sounded like a machine gun. He never hesitated, never seemed to have to aim, and never missed. I couldn’t even say I’d really seen him draw, despite watching him every second.
I just stared at him after he called “clear.”
He gave a self-deprecating smile. “Sorry. Look, you’re doing pretty good for someone just picking it up, and you’ll get better with more practice. But some of us are wired differently, our nerves fire faster, our situational awareness is a lot better. It’s just the way we are.”
I shrugged, trying to hide my disappointment. “So when are you going to put good guys in the shoot house?”
He shook his head. “If you get sucked into something, there are no good guys, just shoot anything remotely threatening until you run out of targets or ammo.”
He pulled a locked case out of his truck and opened it.
“This is the gun Pogo wants you to use.”
I stared at an odd little revolver with almost no barrel. “Where’s the hammer?”
“Inside the shroud, this a Smith & Wesson Model 38 Airweight Bodyguard. It’s made for concealed carry, the hammer is shrouded so it won’t catch on clothes or anything else. It’s tough and reliable. Not much good for shooting at any distance, but the Sergeant Major and Colonel are concerned with close in self-defense for you.”
“Kind of small.”
“It won’t feel like it. Snub guns like this make a lot of noise, a lot of flame and they kick like hell. And you’re going to use some special ammo that will make it worse. Opens up like a flower and does massive damage. You’ll keep drawing from belly, back and ankle holster.”
He was right, the damn thing kicked like a mule and roared like a dragon, even though he started me with low powered loads and worked me up slowly. My hands hurt, my wrists hurt, and my shoulders ached. I spent weeks and weeks listening to Kurt bark, “Draw, Fire,” over and over until I was hearing it in my sleep. I swear I woke up trying to draw the pistol whenever there was a loud noise outside the hanger. At some point, I stopped really noticing the wrenching kick and the deafening blast, and the aches and pains disappeared. It wasn’t long after that Kurt somewhat grudgingly declared me “trained.”
After that, I settled into a dull existence for a while, with one very uncomfortable extra duty. I was appointed the “Spouse Liaison.” I was supposed to work with the wives; give them support when they needed it, help them with other issues. Unfortunately, they hated me. At least it felt like it. The unit was stressful enough for wives; I never had the answers they wanted. I couldn’t even help with normal administrative stuff, since I couldn’t go on Main post. Neither the Colonel nor Sergeant Major were married, so Kurt’s wife, Katie, was kind of in the lead of all the wives. I was always convinced she was just about half a heartbeat from just slapping me whenever I couldn’t answer a question. I got the impression she wasn’t really a bad person, just tired of bullshit, and I couldn’t really give her anything but bullshit.
I hated going to the Spouse Support Group meetings, trying to help when I rarely could, and pretending I couldn’t hear them refer to me as “The Wendy” in that condescending and disgusted tone.
The only one that gave me any slack was Amos’ wife, Veronica – “Ronni.” She was a pear-shaped blonde with dark brown roots and enough loud, obnoxious “Southern Redneck Girl” attitude for a hundred hours of beer commercials. She didn’t give a “hot holy damn” what anybody thought of her except Amos. They flat out adored each other. I saw them out in town once at the mall; they were holding hands and watching their four kids pick out ice cream. If she wasn’t holding his hand, his hand was on her ass – and if it wasn’t she reached over and put it there. Unfortunately, she rarely bothered to put in an appearance at the Spouse Support Group so I usually only saw her at the monthly unit barbeques where everybody but her pretty much ignored me. I always felt like a tag-along little sister with the guys and the wives always managed to make it clear I wasn’t welcome in their little circle. Except Ronni.
She always sat and talked to me for at least a few minutes; it was pretty much the only part of the barbeques I liked.
One time she saw me looking at the wives. “Don’t worry about them none, Wendy. They don’ mean anything by it.” She stared at them for a moment, with a touch of sadness. “They’re just all in the same lifeboat, clinging to each other ‘cause they don’t know what else to do.”
She cocked her head a bit, studying them, then went on. “The guys ... our guys ... we know what’s going on, probably a lot more than anyone wants us to know. Especially us. They’re the best of the best, but that doesn’t mean they’re bulletproof. Sometimes there are ‘training accidents’ and they get hurt, end up in the hospital. Sometimes they don’t come home at all. It happens. We pretend we don’t know, they pretend we can’t read their medal racks and count the purple hearts.” She paused. “But the other wives, they got it wrong. They let their fear take over and steal their time with their man.”
She suddenly focused on me. “You can’t let that happen. You gotta hold on tight, take every moment. You gotta do whatever you can. Be what you should be.” A sudden smile lit her face. Her voice shifted oddly, from the crackle of redneck bonfires and beer, to the sound of money, magnolias, and cotillions. “Maybe you change. Maybe you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and raised a debutante, but the only man for you is a swamp-born Cajun who’d never fit in your world. Maybe you change to fit in his.”
She lifted her glass of beer in a toast to me, as refined as any Duchess ever could, took a gentle sip, winked at me and walked off with practiced grace and elegance.
I was still sitting open-mouth staring after her when she walked up behind Amos, gave him a brutal slap across his butt, took a slug of her beer and then offered the rest to him.
I’d probably have continued that way until I got out except for Senator Shirling. My divorce was proceeding as planned and I’d pretty much pushed Captain Brandi Shirling’s husband-poaching ass into a dark corner of my memory. I’d seen her over and over on the television during the campaign. She wasn’t allowed to be in uniform in her Daddy’s campaign ads, but it was amazing how often Daddy’s Little Angel with her giant silicone tits and collagen-filled lips ended up doing television interviews about patriotism, honor and integrity. Her arm spent the entire campaign season in a sling. That was total bullshit. I’d done it; I knew it wasn’t that bad. Her arm had only been fractured, not shattered. I could feel steam coming out of my ears every time she gave her little self-deprecating smile and explained that her arm had been broken in training and that “The harder you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war.”
She made me want to hurl. Disgusting bitch. It did make me smile to see her wince when she sat her fat ass down on a chair during one interview. She’d remember me for a long time.
Still, I decided to put it all behind me. She stayed on main Post, I stayed at my hanger. After meeting Amos, Rob mostly kept his head down and signed papers whenever they were sent to him. But the one person who didn’t play along was Daddy Shirling. I’d stopped worrying about him because he’d made it clear he didn’t want trouble. He had a campaign to win, after all.
I’d just finished reviewing cargo manifests on a Saturday afternoon, when Pogo, in civilian clothes, pulled up with Team Three.
“Pack up Wendy! Time to go.”
The team brushed past me and began throwing my stuff into pelican cases with abandon. “Go where?”
Pogo flipped the contents of a drawer from my nightstand, including my battery-operated-boyfriend into a container without so much as blinking. “Anywhere you can oversee the cargo. Outside the United States. Where can you do that from?”
“Thailand. The majority of our stuff goes through there.”
He nodded. “That will work. We have a safe house near U-Tapao” He suddenly glanced back at the container where he’d thrown my vibrator, then obviously decided not to say anything. “We need to get you out of here. You’re going into exile on the next thing burning.”
That didn’t sound good at all. “Exile? What did I do?”
“Nothing new. Senator Shirling appears to have suddenly remembered you exist now that the campaign is over. He isn’t a ‘forgive and forget’ kind of guy. The Senator informed General Faulkner that he wants to see you brought up on Courts Martial charges as quickly as possible.”
“Oh shit.” The words “dishonorable discharge” and “sentenced to confinement” suddenly loomed very large in my mind. I started helping stuff things into the cases as fast as I could.
“‘Oh shit’ is right. That asshole is talking 20 years, and he’s on the damned Armed Services Committee. Colonel Howard told General Faulkner that you’re on covert assignment and are currently out of contact, mission end date undetermined.” He tossed me a passport. “Had the Documents guys make that up for you along with a dozen other ones. We’ll get you the rest in Thailand.”
I felt a wave of hopelessness. “I have to come back sooner or later.”
“You’ve still got eighteen months, we can pretty much keep you out of his hands for that whole time. A lot can happen in eighteen months, the Senator could get distracted.”
Less than forty hours later, I was sitting in a go-go bar in the red light district of Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, overly conscious of the weight of my .38 in the belly holster.
I was getting a drink before heading back to the hotel, with a schedule to head south to Pattaya the next day. Most of our cargo into Asia was initially in and out through U-Tapao, a civil-military airport near there. It usually got trucked up to Bangkok or other airports and cross loaded to smaller, civilian carriers. Pogo had told me the bar was popular with the pilots and owners of the small cargo carriers we usually used, and thought it was a good idea for me to get an idea of what kind of people we dealt with. I figured he was testing me to see if I could handle myself. Go-go bars aren’t usually places single women hang out.
It was kind of a rush though. It was so unreal; I could feel the little revolver against my stomach every time I moved. I was going to have to get used to that. Pogo had made that clear when he’d given me an official Thai military license to carry it.
A scruffy looking guy wearing a loud-red-and-white tourist-style aloha shirt, with two buttons missing, over his slightly faded blue T-shirt sat on the next stool over. A crunched, used-to-be-white straw trilby hat with a frayed brim sat on the bar next to him. He’d probably shaved couple days ago and looked a little soft, like the Bangkok heat had melted him around the edges just a bit. I got a vague impression of a well-worn teddy bear.
He glanced me over, but it was pretty benign. “New here?” I’m sure someone with more experience would have some idea where he was from in Australia, but I couldn’t. His accent had obviously been softened by years living outside Australia.
“First time. My boss thought it’d be a good idea for me to drop by here.”
“Strange fella, your boss. This is the pilot’s bar. Tourist bars are down that way...” he pointed up the street, “ ... and the military bars are down that way.” He gestured the other way.
“I manage cargo, so I’m probably in the right place. Had to come out here to manage things a bit more directly.”
He nodded slowly. “Makes sense then. I’m ‘Chip’ Woodley. My real name is Mel, but nobody calls me that. Except my mum.”
He reached across and shook my hand somberly, then called for a couple more drinks, and I was a bit surprised that his was just a Coca-Cola.
“I’m flying tomorrow. Woodley Air. I usually carry, uh, pharmaceuticals, I have a crate of my own, an old AN-24.”
I smiled, but it was totally plastic. Less than six hours in country and I was drinking with a drug runner. I reflected that I’d actually, somehow, someway, gotten worse at picking guys.
He took my silence as a queue to keep talking. “At least it’s interesting here. Jack over there...” he nodded towards a tall, good looking guy down the bar. “ ... flies a Squirrel helicopter for Lao Green Mountain Development. Good guy, but a bit of a root rat, so watch your knickers.”
He glanced around, then nodded towards a central table where two tall slender Asian men in stylish suits sat with a half dozen mostly undressed women. “The Chopsticks over there who have decided to grace us with their presence are David and Jonathan Huang. They’re not really regulars, they just show up here about every six months or so and throw a lot of money around. Both of them are right bastards. Hong Kong Chinese twins, illegitimate sons of a British Duke or Earl or something. Stay clear of them, they’re an evil pair of budgies.”
“They’re smugglers. We’ve got a few of them around here. Jack and I call them budgies -- it’s a bit of an in-joke. Down in Oz we call men’s Speedos swim trunks ‘budgie smugglers’ because it looks like...” he trailed off weakly and looked embarrassed.
“I got it.” I fought to keep from smiling too wide. Maybe it was my rum and coke, but his embarrassment was kind of cute.
He fumbled on for a second before getting his rhythm back. “Bad characters, the both of them. They’re pretty much royalty in the ‘discreet transportation’ business.” He smiled. “They don’t think anyone can tell them apart, but David has a scar under his left eye where he got cut a couple years ago in a car accident in Malaysia. The women are there for Jonathan, David has a taste for the kathoey.”
“kathoey. Lady boys. They’re the prettier ones.”
I stared. Seriously, I couldn’t tell. “Wow.”
He laughed. “It’s kind of a thing here. The word kathoey is a little rude, they usually call themselves phuying, but everyone else uses kathoey. The surgeons do a pretty good job with the ti ... boobs, breasts, I mean.” He flushed red again; it really was awkwardly cute.
I eyed the brothers cautiously. We moved a number of shipments all over Asia through a company named Huang Brothers at fairly high prices.
He shrugged. “Yes. They have an air freight business, but they also have contacts in every custom house in Asia. I heard them say they pay their ‘cousins’ about 2500 Hong Kong dollars per shipment to clear them through customs, then they charge the customers about four times that.”
That certainly explained some surcharges I’d been seeing.
He moved on to other bar patrons; pilots, company owners, and some shiftless types. We talked for almost two more hours, eating skewers of grilled chicken with really tasty peanut sauce. At least I hoped it was chicken. It was good anyway. Even if it hadn’t been, I learned more about what was actually going on with my cargo than I’d ever dreamed.
My “contact on receipt” shipments were nearly all being carried by shadowy people at best. Mercenaries, smugglers and worse. Their delivery points were a list of every unstable place in the region. Not that I hadn’t expected something of the sort, but I’d been doing my job blindfolded.
He finally asked where I was going to be working.
“My ... company maintains a suite in a hotel here because we have people pass through all the time, but apparently, I have an office between Pattaya and U-Tapao, so I head down to Pattaya tomorrow.”
He looked a little puzzled, but shrugged. “Pattaya is a bit of zoo.” He glanced around. “Kind of like this. But if you’re in town for a few hours, hit Wee Andy’s, at bottom of Soi 2, on the beach road end. His Missus makes great food.”
I ended up heading back to my hotel a little later than I’d planned, and I really shocked myself when I told Chip it was nice meeting him and I’d had a good time. Shocked because I meant it. If he’d have been in a different line of work, I’d have tried to stay in touch with him somehow. A girl has to have some standards and not dating drug smugglers was probably a good start. He did tell the truth about Wee Andy’s Missus and her cooking, though.
It was three weeks before Pogo and Howard passed through the safe house. Until they got there, I was the only one staying in the safe house, although a couple of local guards and a driver were permanently on call. I managed some shipments, using the equipment at the house. I also learned a lot. I traveled to the U-Tapao airfield and watched our shipments get re-palleted and relabeled. None of it stayed in Thailand.
I spent some evenings in Pattaya to get out of the safe house. I managed to learn a few words in Thai, mostly names of food. Much to my eternal regret, I learned that the insanity of the go-go clubs on the ground floor isn’t even close to the insanity on the upper floors. After wandering upstairs at the Marilynn A-Go-Go, I mostly stuck to restaurants and the occasional beer bar. I also spent a considerable amount of time re-thinking how anatomy and physics worked and trying to figure out how to clean my brain with bleach and steel wool.
I was also pondering the meaning of what I’d learned from Chip, so when Howard and Pogo arrived, I simply sat down and brought it up.
“When am I going to be allowed to really do my job?”
Neither man looked particularly surprised by that. Howard fixed me with his ice-chip eyes. “Explain.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. “I’ve been doing the simple stuff. Moving the shipments to where they really start going places. We’re moving a helluva lot more than just small team stuff, and I knew that. Somebody else is managing the final leg of the shipments. It’s damn slow and not being managed right. We’re losing time and money, and probably shipments. I can fix that.”
Pogo glanced over at Howard. “Told you she’d figure it out. Just a little quicker than I expected.” Then back to me. “You sure you want involved in this?”