"Sergeant Kent is in there, sir," Lieutenant Cole said as Major Reynolds reached for the flap that separated his inner office from the rest of the command tent.
He paused, one hand on the flap and looked at his Lieutenant, "Is he dressed?"
The Lieutenant grinned a moment before he could regain his composure, "Yes, sir. Someone found him a uniform."
"That's something," acknowledged the Major. "Your impression of him, Lieutenant?"
"He's..." Lieutenant Cole seemed momentarily at a loss for words, waving his hands as if he could shape a sentence with them, "I'm glad he's on our side, sir."
The Major frowned and nodded, "He seems to be all anyone is talking about all of a sudden. You'd think we didn't have sixty thousand Iraqis waiting right across the border for us." He pushed the flap aside, "All right, Lieutenant."
Inside, the space set aside for the Major was a chiaroscuro, light and shadow breaking up the room into irregular patches as the day neared sunset. At first, there didn't seem to be anyone else in the room. Then, a patch of shadow detached itself from a corner in a swift motion, which had the Major reaching for his sidearm.
The shadow resolved itself into a young man of average height and military build dressed in an unadorned army uniform. The motion had been a drill-perfect salute, "Sergeant Arthur Kent, reporting sir."
"Christ Almighty, Kent," growled the Major, hand dropping from his pistol. "I could have shot you just then. Don't sneak up on a man like that."
"Sir?" Kent looked puzzled, then glanced back over his shoulder at the shadow, "Oh. Sorry, sir. I didn't mean to startle you."
Major Reynolds finally returned his salute, noticing that Kent did not seem at all concerned by the possibility of being shot. With a chill, the Major realized how unlikely it was that his gun would have cleared its holster if Kent had meant him harm, "Have a seat, Sergeant."
The Sergeant stalked over to the chair. There was no other word for how the man moved. Each step contained a coiled energy that made it seem as if he could launch himself into violence at any second. Dealing with men like Arthur Kent always reminded Major Reynolds that he'd never planned to be a solder. Not that long ago, he'd been an engineering student on a ROTC scholarship.
Kent tilted his head and slitted his eyes at the folding chair he'd been offered as if it were some sort of unfamiliar artifact before sitting on it. Seated, he seemed no less dangerous.
The Major sat across from him, "Sergeant, at 0440 this morning, you approached Checkpoint Echo without your uniform. Could you address specifically what happened to it?"
"Yes, sir," said the Sergeant. "I left the enemy position under heavy fire. There wasn't time to retrieve it."
The Major frowned and opened the folder his Lieutenant had handed him. The answer begged more questions than it answered. He resisted the urge to dig deeper, "Why don't you give me your report, Sergeant. You're part of Task Force Shepherd. Right?"
"Yes, sir." Kent nodded, "My company was stationed at Observation Point Four. At approximately twenty hundred hours, we were engaged by Iraqi armored forces. While the bulk of our force withdrew, members of Force Recon were ordered to move with the opposing force and engage in green operations. After several hours, CENTCOM sent word that we were to detach what forces we could afford and attempt to disrupt Iraqi command and control. Sergeant Cromwell and I were sent."
"Just two of you?" The Major raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, sir," answered Kent evenly.
"Why only two?"
"I don't know, sir," answered Sergeant Kent evenly. "I wasn't privy to the reasoning behind the command decision."
Major Reynolds stared at the Sergeant thoughtfully. He thought he understood the decision. In Kent's commander's position, he might have done exactly the same thing, ordering the men to not get themselves killed. It would then be understood that they were to take no extraordinary risks trying to fulfill Central Command's bone-headed idea. Among the notes in front of him was Sergeant Cromwell's report on the night's action. It was painfully sketchy on the details, but clearly the two snipers had gone above and beyond what was expected of them, "Continue."
"We observed Iraqi movements until we were able to confirm that they had set up their initial command and control position at al-Zabr. It was a good position, close to where we'd set up to observe them." The Sergeant paused, seeming to consider his next words carefully, "There's a clear, nearly scrub-free plain to the horizon in two directions and a town south of the position. The only possible approach required cover of darkness and use of a few unevenly-placed trees."
"And you took that approach?"
"No, sir." Kent shook his head, "We determined that there was too much moonlight for an approach without cloud cover. Once we had done a full recon of the area, we discussed returning to this position, but decided to wait for full dark or false dawn and re-evaluate. Some time before either of those events could occur, I determined there was an opportunity to eliminate the target through non-standard operations."
The Major sighed, "Can you explain what that means to someone who doesn't speak the language of Force Recon?"
"Yes, sir. Some time around midnight, I realized that there were trucks traveling from the main force to the command-and-control team at fairly regular intervals. They traveled in isolation through points in the Al-Wafrah forest where there was plenty of cover. Sergeant Cromwell and I determined that we could achieve our objective if I were able to commandeer a truck going into al-Zabr while Sergeant Cromwell approached under best cover."
"So, you commandeered a supply truck?"
"A troop transport actually, sir."
The Major raised an eyebrow. Now, they were getting to the heart of the problem. If he were to believe all the stories he'd been told, he was sitting across from a mercilessly efficient killing machine that would have made the fictional John Rambo look like a wimp. The plain-spoken, unassuming young man across from him might well be a very talented sniper, but the actions attributed to him were just impossible, "So, you single-handedly overcame a truck full of Iraqi soldiers. Is that correct, Sergeant?"
The Sergeant's eyes widened, "Oh, no sir. I waited until the truck was stopped and the driver got out to ... uh, relieve himself, sir. Then, I climbed into the cabin and took the truck into al-Zabr."
The Major frowned and read more of the file in front of him, "You drove a truck full of Iraqi soldiers into al-Zabr? What would you have done if they'd noticed you weren't the real driver?"
Sergeant Kent sat even a little more upright, looking like nothing so much as a schoolboy who'd been asked a question he knew the answer to by heart, "Fought, fled, or died ... whichever was possible in the situation, sir."
"That was a ... very hazardous situation to put yourself in, soldier. Some would call it suicidal."
Sergeant Cole frowned. All the eagerness and innocence went out of him as he considered the point, replaced by an eerie calm, "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"For God's sake, yes," answered the Major. "You're not in any trouble, son. I just want to know what the hell actually happened out there and what your thinking was when you assumed so much risk."
"My understanding of the Iraqi army, based on the publications of the War College regarding the Iran-Iraq was that they are highly dependent on command and control. Commanders in the field are afraid to act when they can't receive orders. Succeed or fail, they can draw unwelcome attention from Saddam Hussein for an excess of initiative. Sergeant Cromwell and I thought we could make a substantial difference in the war if we could take out Iraqi C and C. So, we elected to make every effort to complete the mission, even though we could probably have returned to base without reprimand."
"That's ... admirable, Sergeant."
"Thank you, sir." The sniper looked straight forward, as if the speech had worn him out, a faintly unnerving smile on his lips.
Finally, the major said, "Please continue. How did you deal with the driver?"
The sniper snapped out of his reverie, "I incapacitated him, sir."
"Yes, sir. I snapped his neck."
"You killed him?"
"Yes, sir ... after which he showed a distinct lack of capacity."
In the wrong tone of voice, the words could be considered insubordinate. But, they didn't sound that way. They didn't even sound cocky, just matter-of-fact, "Please, continue your report, Sergeant."
"Yes, sir." Kent nodded. "I took the truck into al-Zabr, slipped out in the general chaos of the camp and reconnoitered the situation. The communication equipment was set up inside a perimeter with a seven-man patrol, guarded by two men and manned by four soldiers I presumed to be communication specialists. Once I determined those four men and their equipment were my primary targets, I eliminated them and left the town."
The Major blinked, waiting for more. He'd been so caught up in the narrative, the abrupt ending had caught him by surprise. He cleared his throat, "Sergeant, I'm going to need more details than that. You're leaving a lot out."
Kent looked thoughtful, then added, "Oh, yes sir. Once the camp was aware of my presence, Sergeant Cromwell was able to approach and provide cover for my escape. I believe he detailed his own involvement to you already, sir."
"He did," said the Major evenly, trying not to let his exasperation show. "I'm talking about your own involvement, Sergeant. How did you get past the perimeter guards?"
"I ... neutralized them, sir."
"By incapacitating them," the Sergeant offered.
"How did you incapacitate them?" The Major's voice was rising. He couldn't help it, "Did you kill them?"
The sergeant looked perturbed, "I ... inflicted wounds on them that are generally considered to be fatal."
"Sergeant!" The Major shouted. He took a deep breath and continued in a more even tone, "What specific wounds did you inflict on those men?"
"I slit their throats, sir." Kent looked distinctly agitated.
"You killed them?"
The Sergeant nodded, "I believe so, sir. There wasn't time to confirm, sir. But, they stopped moving and failed to raise an alarm."
"In all, Sergeant, how many men do you believe you killed in al-Zabr during the course of last night's operation?"
"It's hard to say, sir. On my way out, I was using grenades to..."
"Your best guess, Sergeant. What's the minimum number of men you killed in al-Zabr?"
Kent's eyebrows furrowed. After a moment, the Major realized he was counting on his fingers, and muttering to himself.
" ... the driver ... the guards ... radio operators ... Cromwell probably killed that one, actually..." Finally, he looked up and spoke clearly, "Twenty-one, sir."
"Twenty-one men?" The Major took a deep breath, "Sergeant, if you accomplished such a remarkable feat, why are you so reluctant to talk about it? Do you have some qualms about killing the enemies of the United States that your commanders should know about?"
Kent shook his head slowly, eyes wide again, "Oh, no sir. But, Sergeant Cromwell says I make people uncomfortable when I talk about killing too much and that I should use other words to describe it ... like 'eliminate' and 'incapacitate' and 'neutralize.' I'm proud to kill for my country, sir. I just want my country to be proud of me, too."
The two snipers had been traveling through the intermittent scrub and occasional copses of trees that made up the al-Wafrah forest south of al-Zabr for several hours without speaking when Sergeant Cromwell broke the silence, "Something on your mind, Puss?"
Only a handful of people knew Arthur Kent well enough to even consider calling him "Puss." As far as the young sniper knew, only Bobby Cromwell ever did. It was one of Bobby's many eccentricities and nowhere near the strangest. That award went to his habit of speaking like an working-class Englishman pretty much all the time, even though he was from Detroit, Michigan.
On the other hand, if Cromwell weren't so odd, it was doubtful that he and Kent could be partners. Regular soldiers expected and tolerated a lot of eccentricities from snipers. What was different about Arthur Kent might be broadly considered a "condition," but not an eccentricity.
"He made me talk about killing," said Kent evenly. "I thought I was supposed to use those other words you taught me because 'kill' would freak him out."
"Yeah..." Cromwell scratched his shaved scalp, "I was going to explain that bit to you before we got back to camp, but you rabbited off."
"Yeah," Kent sniffed the air, looking distracted. "Sorry about that."
"No need to apologize," said Cromwell. "I just want to know what happened."
"I ... smelled something," offered Kent. "I had to chase it."
"Smelled what?" asked Cromwell. "A mouse? A delicious sparrow? Maybe a bowl of heavy cream?"