This story is one of a continuing series of connected stories known as “Tales from the Shack.” In this case, the story stands well enough on its own, but it is very much a part of the series. I typically don’t write graphic sex into this story line and that remains true here.
The Girls of Hollywood
Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri
I was just bringing the micro van around the first set of barricades when one of the assistant instructors, Chrissie, jogged around the corner waving for me to stop, long blonde ponytail streaming through the back of her “Instructor” cap. I brought my vehicle to a stop.
“Mac told me to tell you they aren’t taking it seriously. They’ve aced everything, but they’re getting cocky. It’s an all-female squad of Reserve MPs, with an additional First Sergeant deploying as special protection detail for female VIPs.”
She grimaced. “They’re nearly all civilian police or deputies in ‘real life.’ They’ve outscored damn near everyone on everything from firing range to physical fitness tests, and they’ve gotten pretty arrogant about it. They aren’t taking this very seriously because they’re convinced they won’t be doing checkpoints and searches. Mac said to take them down a couple notches.”
I nodded. “I can do that.”
“You need a gun or a grenade?”
I shook my head. “That’d just screw things up. They’ll have everything I need.” Chrissie gave me a puzzled look, but she was new here. I watched her walk back up the road to the checkpoint. Not a bad view at all, but I don’t play where I work, and she was married anyway. I’d seen enough of that shit go wrong to stay the hell away from attached women. Even ones that aren’t acting like it. Maybe especially them.
I’d gotten a message from Kimmi in the morning asking if I was interested in a “six-to-seven-month change of venue” for a “special project.” If I was eyeing Chrissie, maybe it was a good idea to take a break for a little while.
I’d get to it later, right now, I had a job to do.
My vehicle was a crappy little right-hand drive micro van about the size of a box of crackers. In the very back was a ratty cardboard box with a plastic tarp, pliers, some wire, a screwdriver, a roll of duct tape and a couple of towels. I called it the “Acme Murder Kit.” Innocuous items on their own, but put together, it should give any searcher a little concern.
After I’d gotten out of the Army, I’d wandered a bit and signed on with an old friend’s security company. The pay was okay, but it wasn’t really my main source of income, anyway. It kept my hand in, and helped keep me sharp. The job changed all the time, but for now, I was a test subject for the vehicle search exercise for advanced personal protective detail training. I wasn’t supposed to be on the schedule for this today, but one of the crew was out sick, so I had to join in. The plan initially had me as a benign citizen, but that was always subject to change. Since this wasn’t a graded exercise, all variations were authorized at the discretion of Mac, the lead instructor. It was always better for the students to learn now, in training, than the hard way in theater.
I gave Chrissie enough time to get back, pushed the rattletrap into gear and rolled into the checkpoint, smiling at an ornate plywood sign that had the word “Heartbreakers,” flanked by two cracked hearts wrapped in roses. I could see the squad had an aggressive stance, muzzles were on me the minute I rounded the final bend. The only initial indication that the squad was all female was the relative shortness of the group. The body armor and sunglasses made them look more like cyborgs. Pity, really.
I stopped at the stop line and a figure approached the van.
“Sir, please exit the van with your identification papers. Move slowly and keep your hands visible at all times.” She was a Private First Class, a PFC, with a nametape that said, “Garcia,” maybe 20 or so. A slight Hispanic lilt to her voice. She sounded emotionless and a little bored. All in all, the approach was pretty good; she stayed out of muzzle line of her overwatch and had her weapon slung behind her. The overwatch was cautious enough; I could probably have gotten two of them, but the third would have been a dice-roll, and that would still have left nine untouched before I was gunned down.
Not good enough.
Patience. I could do patience; that has always been kind of my thing.
I allowed them to escort me to the individual search area a few paces away from my van. Not enough paces.
The PFC had me turn around and started to search. She stopped, patted along my torso again, then backed off, and I heard her key her radio.
“I think he’s wearing some kind of low profile body armor.”
The squad leader, whose nametape read “Frost,” motioned Garcia back.
“Sir. Remove your shirt. Move slow or you will be shot.”
I unbuttoned, then peeled my dress shirt off slowly.
I could hear the PFC suck in her breath. I’m not in my 20s or even 30s anymore, but I’ve been blessed with a great metabolism, I eat right, and I work out every fucking day.
“Body armor? Jesus, Garcia.” Staff Sergeant Frost’s voice was dripping with amusement. She stared at me. “How many damn sit-ups do you do a day?”
I gave her my best smile. “It’s mostly crunches and planks. I have a home gym and way too much time on my hands.”
She shook her head, grinning. “I can see that.” She nodded to the PFC to go ahead.
PFC Garcia finished searching me with hands that lingered a little longer than searching a bare torso would actually necessitate, strictly speaking, then she backed off. I was instructed to sit while they searched my van with PFC Garcia watching over me.
I idly wondered where my shirt had gotten to; it was a rather expensive Armani dress shirt, since I hadn’t expected to be on the schedule for this, but it didn’t re-appear. I perched on the rear Jersey barrier and began the subtle art of getting my guard to mimic me. It took a while, but she was eventually half sitting and half-leaning against the barrier beside me. It was late in the day, I was probably the tenth subject to go through and they were getting bored, and a bit careless. I glanced over the barrier to make sure the straw bales were still in place and watched for my opportunity. Finally, when Garcia shifted to watch the rest of the squad as they searched the van, I saw the squad leader pulling a canteen and start to drink.
Slide to my feet, pretending to be off balance—swing left arm out, smack PFC Garcia in the chest—not as fun as it sounds with her body armor on. Hit the quick release on her M4 retaining strap and snatch it out of her hands while she falls back over the barrier onto the bales. Jam her foot into the gap between the jersey barriers, trapping her for a few moments.
Yank the charging handle back and let it slap forward. A round ejects from the M4; sucks to lose it, but couldn’t take the chance that there’d be a round there. Never depend on the enemy to be a good soldier. Thumb the safety off. Shoot the squad leader at 15 meters. There are closer targets, but she had never been entirely off-guard, so she is the primary threat. She’s also fast as hell, she’s already flipped the canteen away in an arcing spray of water and is swinging her M4 up when I fire.
Engage immediate targets at 5 to 10 meters. Since two of them have canteens in hand, prioritize by threat level. One shot per target. They are just starting to react now, but they are still not fully grasping that this has all gone sideways on them.
Engage remaining targets at van. It takes three steps to “slice the pie” around the corner of the van and take them down. Most of them have their carbines slung on their backs to make searching the van easier. The last one almost gets a shot off after scrambling for her carbine and “my” M4 locks open as the magazine goes empty, but all eleven of the Soldiers are down. The screams of the kill indicators on their gear is almost deafening, a horde of deranged electronic locusts.
I walked back and leaned over the barrier, yanked Garcia across it and dragged her by one foot to the back of the van as she struggled and cursed. My Spanish isn’t very good, but some of the curses sounded very creative. One of them appeared to involve my ancestry and a diseased burro of particularly low moral character.
She tried to fight, but I had her duct taped into a mummy in short order and thrown into the back of the van. I went around and dragged the two soldiers from in front of the van; they glared at me and refused to cooperate by just getting out of the way, so I heaped them into a pile off to the side.
I drove the 100 meters up to the village church where the observation tower was, threw my furious catch over my shoulder and went up the bell tower stairs.
Mac grinned at me from his chair and a seriously pissed off Valkyrie of a blue-eyed blonde First Sergeant stared at me unblinkingly after looking up from the monitors. I lowered the PFC to her feet.
“This one yours, First Sergeant?”
She almost growled; she was clearly going to have someone’s ass for this. Everyone’s ass. All in all, the MPs had been good sports, so I decided to try to give them a little bit of help.
“They weren’t bad. They didn’t realize how dangerous an unarmed man can be; they were a little cocky and if I’d been a little slower, they would have brought me down.”
She sighed and shook her head tiredly.
“Bullshit. They were a lot cocky, they were thinking with their...” She paused, grimacing. “You were never in any real danger once you made your move.” She shifted her stare to Mac. “This was a set-up.”
Mac just laughed, so I answered.
“Of course it was set-up. It’s always a set up. Here, in theater, wherever. This exercise wasn’t graded so they can learn from it.”
She stood up. “I’m going to go have ‘a talk’ with my team.” Without any further comment she headed down the stairs.
I caught up to her about 15 meters out of the church, with my Garcia-mummy over my shoulder.
“Hey, Top, you forgot something.”
She glanced at me and struggled to force down a smile.
“You can keep her. Besides, I think she’s probably enjoying the ride.” I could almost feel Garcia blushing.
I shook my head and sighed in a tragic tone. “I gotta throw her back. Too young. The game warden would take me in.”
The First Sergeant did smile at that, so I continued.
“Besides, it would violate the Creepy Old Guy formula.”
“And what is that?”
“A guy over thirty shouldn’t chase a woman any younger than one half his age plus seven.”
She smiled and I could tell I was getting under her armor a bit. “For someone like you, that eliminates an awful lot of the probably-willing, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but the ones that are left are of much higher quality. And far more experienced.”
She laughed out loud at that.
Chrissie had keyed off all the kill indicators by the time we got back, and the squad was already lined up for their ass chewing. I laid Garcia down in front of them and backed off while First Sergeant Taylor put the rest of them at attention and ripped into them.
It was truly epic. She certainly wasn’t taking any prisoners, and at the end of it, she gestured down to her feet. “Somebody get over here and unwrap Garcia!”
I watched Mac walk down to the group from the tower, and waited until the First Sergeant was completely done.
“Mind if I have them for a minute, Top?”
She tried to glower, but I noted a slight spark of humor in her eyes as she turned away gesturing flippantly. “All yours.”
I had them take a knee in a semi-circle after they had released Garcia from her cocoon, like a delicate pissed off butterfly.
“All right, where did it go wrong?”
A spate of accusations, mostly centered on the young PFC erupted, until SSG Frost, apparently known as “Frosty” held her hand up. “My fault. I should have put two guards on you. Maybe three.”
“That might have helped, but the others would have had to be out of a ten-foot radius and on alert. I’ve gotten old and slow, but I calculate every move. If you are within ten feet I can probably reach you and take you down without too much trouble.”
A lean, tough-looking Specialist, a redhead with freckles and a name tape that read “Carmichael” stood up.
“Sir, if you think just because we’re women...”
I raised my hand, cutting her off and called over to Mac.
“I’m not a sir, never have been. Mac, how many soldiers have I taken down in hand to hand, and how many have I tried and failed?”
He shook his head. “You’ve never failed, and you have to have taken about 25 or so by now. Total kills of about 120. In the last two months.”
I turned back to the squad. “This has nothing to do with gender; this is all about experience and training. I can close ten feet in half a second and disable most people in even less time than that. What you really need to understand is that I’m not as good as I used to be. I’m over forty years old and this isn’t even my specialty. I’m actually a sniper, I just cross-trained in this. There are plenty of guys out there who are a helluva lot better than I am.” Images of Kurt and Wolfe flashed through my head. “There are some real monsters out there, and they don’t all work for us. Russian Spetnatz, Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Chinese Special Ops, some South American groups. As for gender, there are women who could have taken you down the same way. Although most of them would have knifed Garcia rather than carry her up those stairs.”
I tried to locate my shirt, but it had apparently gone missing in the chaos after the initial massacre and nobody claimed to remember where it had gotten to.
We set up a sand table on the ground: Chrissie and I walked them through their mistakes and showed them others I hadn’t exploited. We spent the rest of the day doing walk-through exercises before shutting down. I took them through every possible type of attack using Chrissie as the test subject.
The First Sergeant watched intently. “Good decision to use Chrissie for the rabbit runs.”
I nodded. “This way I can point out the mistakes as they make them without breaking the flow.”
She chuckled. “I was actually thinking that all you have on are your pants and shoes. The way Garcia and Carmichael are looking at you, another search might get a little personal.”
“The folly of youth.”
“Speaking of folly of youth...” She walked over to a pile of backpacks and triumphantly pulled my dress shirt out of one. “Carmichael!”
I reached over to take it, touched her hand and time stopped dead. I was staring into her eyes, just a couple feet away, desperately wanting to close that small gap. She stared back wide-eyed, as fixated as I was.
She blinked twice, shook her head and pulled back. I felt myself start breathing and wondering what the hell had happened.
The rest of the afternoon was a bit awkward, with both of us trying not to stare at each other. I caught SSG Frost watching us both in amusement.
I pondered the whole experience as I dropped by Rick’s Place for my ritualized drink before heading home to my condo.
I was just getting ready to leave when the bartender, Kendra, put another drink in front of me and gestured at the other end of the bar.
“From the ladies.” Except that when I looked, there was nobody there.
A moment later I felt a hand touch my side and a soft Hispanic voice purred, “Body armor.”
Without looking back I responded. “PFC Garcia, what are you doing out without a chaperone?”
“She has a battle buddy, we’re good.”
I recognized the aggressive redhead’s voice. “Let me guess ... Carmichael?”
“Got it in one.”
I turned and tried to look stern. “Does your Mom know you’re hanging out in bars?”
“Top knows. It’s the last weekend before Departure Day, so she’s letting us get it all out of our system.”
Carmichael and Garcia slid to seats on either side of me, asking about local places to visit. I could see Kendra frowning at me, with a disapproving “cradle robber” look on her face. There wasn’t much I could do without being rude, though.
I knew the game had changed when Kendra’s disapproving glances suddenly stopped, and she looked approvingly just past me.
With no warning, Carmichael and Garcia were gone and I could feel someone standing behind me. From Kendra’s grin, I knew she realized the same thing I had. A very military operation, pin the attention of the opposing force, then assault the main objective.
“First Sergeant Keats.”
“Just Anne.” She let go and slid into the suddenly vacant chair on my right.
I looked into her eyes, feeling a hint of that same jolt from earlier, and smiled. “Tony.”
“Frosty dragged me here. Told me it was an emergency.” She gave an eye roll and a half grimace.
I laughed. “Meddling kids, huh?”
She smiled, but it seemed slightly sad and slightly lopsided. “They mean well.”
“I guess we could at least humor them. Are you available for dinner? There is a very nice steak house near here.”
She shot a glance over at the next table where her self-satisfied minions lurked; all of them grinning from ear to ear. “That sounds pretty nice.”
I held her hand and guided her out to my Corvette. Garcia, Carmichael, and Frosty applauded loudly as we left.
As soon as we were alone I shook my head. “No expectations, it’s just dinner.”
She gave a helpless gesture. “Thanks. They’re just worried about me.”
“And they deal with this by sending you off with me?”
“It is sort of throwing me to the wolf, isn’t it?”
I gave a hapless half-shrug. No point in denying the obvious. “So, why are they worried about you?”
She paused, a little oddly shy, then she squared her shoulders. “I lost my husband three years ago.” Just from the loss in her tone, I knew what she meant.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
That earned me the terse not-quite-smile of someone who had heard that phrase all too often. “It’s been three years. It was a heart attack, out of the blue. Bob was in great shape, never smoked, never drank too much. Stepped outside to mow the lawn one day and that was it.”
I was still trying to figure out how to respond, but she kept on going. “I haven’t exactly had an active social life. I’ve been busy raising my daughter and working for the Attorney General’s office in the Law Enforcement Division, but now ‘my girls’ seem to think it’s time I got back out there.”
“That’s kind of up to you, not them.”
She gave me appreciative smile. “They mean well.”
I shrugged. “We can at least go to dinner, if you want. You have to eat, anyway, and this might get them to lighten up, right?”
She was fascinating, just enough cynicism to find humor in the same things I did. She’d been Regular Army for fourteen years, right up until her husband died, but moved to the Reserves to stabilize their then eleven-year-old daughter’s life. We spent almost two hours laughing at each other’s misadventures.
When we finished dinner we headed out to the Corvette. “Where to?”
There was a glint in her blue eyes to go with a tentative smile. “I was thinking maybe ... if you’re okay with it, we could have breakfast together?”
It was my turn to smile. “I have a pretty full refrigerator and I make great omelets. Or you could try the house specialty, spicy breakfast noodles.”
More certain, she finished buckling herself in, reached over and touched my leg. “I have to try the noodles.”
I had to ask, “Why me?” I shifted to look into her eyes. I would be perfectly happy doing that all day. In fact, waking up with her had felt natural.
She shrugged, blue eyes sparkling. “Why not? I know you’ve looked in a mirror a few times. You could have had just about any woman in the squad. I bet Garcia and Carmichael would have come here together. A guy that looks like you do has probably done that a few times.”
I shrugged. “Guilty as charged. But that turns into work faster than you think.” Even three girls a couple of times, though I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that.
She shook her head grinning ruefully. “I knew it. So instead you choose a fat middle-age woman, with stretch marks and bad skin.”
I reached over and squeezed her bare hip gently. “You’re not fat and you’re more beautiful than you think.” I traced the curve of her hip with the tip of my fingers watching goose bumps rise in their wake. “I read somewhere that the most primal attractive thing about a woman is the waist-hip ratio. It’s supposedly about 70%.” I cocked my head, examining her hip. “And I think you are just about exactly perfect on that.”
She gave a throaty chuckle, letting her head fall back onto the pillow. “Damn, you really are good. You almost have me convinced you’d rather have me here than a twenty-year-old.”
“I really do. Besides, what the hell would I talk about with a twenty-year-old anyway?”
Anne shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I. Probably some movie I’ve never seen, or a singer I don’t even want to hear. But you never answered my question. Why me? If you are going to start going out again, why start with me?”
She let a long slow breath out. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but ... you’re safe.”
“You’re casting aspersions on my reputation as a wolf. I’ve never been called safe before.”
Her smile broadened. “I guess not. But that ‘Bad Boy’ stuff is why you’re safe. That whole lean muscle and dark Italian thing you’ve got going on. You look like you just stepped off the cover of a very steamy romance novel. You’re so smooth you make oiled glass look like sandpaper and you just ooze sex.” She gave a very self-satisfied smirk. “And you live up to truth in advertising there.”
I know I looked as confused as I felt. “I’m Greek, not Italian. But how does any of that translate to ‘safe’?”
“I’m not explaining this really well and I don’t want to be...” She sighed. “Look, every woman wants to try that Bad Boy fantasy, and God knows you do it just right. You probably even have a motorcycle, don’t you?”
It was my turn to laugh. “Two, a Harley Davidson Softail Heritage and a Yamaha, for off-road.”
“Like I said, perfect. But ... I don’t feel like there’s an emotional risk here. You might as well carry a sign that says ‘Warning: Commitment Issues.’ I don’t have to worry about introducing you to my daughter, or worry about if our schedules will work, or whether or not you would freak out if I decided to have another child.”
That left me a little unsettled, maybe just a little unhappy. Even though it was pretty much true and I knew it. Though it felt a bit like she might not even be convinced. Before I could decide how I felt, she hooked one long leg over my hip and used it to pull herself up against me. “I was thinking of a late breakfast today.”
It had become very obvious that when she’d said, “I haven’t exactly had an active social life,” she’d really meant she hadn’t had sex in three years. She seemed intent on making up for lost time.
When we finally did get around to breakfast, it was actually closer to lunch time.
I spent the rest of the day taking her on a tour of the wineries in the area. She insisted we take the Harley, borrowed one of my black T-shirts, and left her bra on my dresser.
I was just finishing fixing breakfast noodles at her request, late Sunday morning, when Anne came down from fixing her hair. The only thing she was wearing, other than a slightly smug look, was the dress shirt she’d rescued from Carmichael. Unbuttoned of course.
We sat eating the noodles for a while, strangely comfortable, even in silence.
Anne finally finished the last bite and pushed her plate away. “Even better than yesterday, I can see why that’s the house specialty. I could get used to these.”
“A tradition from a unit I was in.”
“I knew it. One of ‘those guys,’ huh?”
“Those guys?” I really knew what she meant, of course.
“Normally a guy would say ‘the 82nd’ or ‘2nd Armored.’ Maybe ‘The Regiment,’ if they were a Ranger. ‘5th Group’ or “my team” if they were SF.”
“I was a sniper with the Regiment for a while.” I was actually in the Regiment for five years before I found a white-haired wicked jester of man sitting on the hood of my car when I came in from my run one day.
She smiled. “But you went all the way over to the dark side, didn’t you? Bob and I had some friends we came up with who went in that direction. They were Delta and you don’t feel like them, but you sure as hell were something. I knew it when you took the squad down Friday.”
I held my hand up helplessly, but she just smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I’m not asking for answers. I’m just working through my Bad Boy fantasy.”
I shook my head. “So, what do we need to do to complete your fantasy anyway?”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Let’s see. Expensive steak dinner. Check. Ridiculous sexy car. Check. Days and nights of sex. Check. Romantic motorcycle tour of the wineries. Check. More sex. Check. Exotic meals fixed by you. Check.” She acted like she was ticking a tally sheet. “We still have ‘one last round of sex.’ And my Walk of Shame in front of my whole unit.”
“I can get you back in the hotel without anyone knowing...”
“Nuh uh.” She cut me off. “That’s part of the fantasy. The girls have a barbeque set up for five o’clock in the hotel courtyard, and you get to drop me off five minutes late, right the hell in front of all of them. They invested some effort in this and they expect results. I have to have witnesses that I’ve been bad.”
I laughed. “Do you need an affidavit?”
“Noooo...” She grinned wickedly, toying with the buttons on the dress shirt. “But would you be willing to sacrifice a shirt to the cause?”
We took one long last ride on the Harley, picking up a couple of bottles of wine for her to take to the barbeque. When I finally and regretfully dropped her off with a last very warm kiss, she was wearing my shirt, untucked, over her jeans. It looked decidedly more like a strut than a walk of shame to me. The hoots and catcalls from her team didn’t seem to embarrass her at all. She turned and shot me a victorious smile and a wink as I pulled out of the parking lot.
It was pretty much everything we both expected, but for some reason, it just didn’t seem like it was what I wanted at all.
She’d very deliberately left her bra hanging on the headboard of my bed.
Empty. I realized I wasn’t looking forward to an empty dinner table and empty bed. More specifically, I realized I was picturing a specific person in both those places. One I barely knew. One who was getting on a plane to Iraq in two days.
Maybe I needed a distraction. I decided to go see Kimmi and find out what the offer was.
The redhead eyed me as I walked into her office, then smiled, a little crookedly as if she was laughing at a joke only she understood. “Uncle Tony!”
“Hey, Kimmi. How’s everything going?”
She rolled her eyes at the “Kimmi,” but she knew better than to waste her breath arguing with me over it. I’d babysat her so Kurt and Katie could have nights out together, and she’d always be “Kimmi” to me. “Busy. No rest for the wicked.”
“You’ll never rest then.” That was more or less certain. Not only was Kimmi a full-fledged lawyer now, she ran part of K2 Executive Services, her parents’ security firm. Specializing in small discreet high-end contracts.
She nodded. “Mom and Dad are doing fine. I saw Pogo a few weeks ago and he says everyone is doing great.” She paused. “I talked to Danni and I think she and Derek are planning on another kid. It’s a wonder Danni can even walk. She told me Derek is ‘in proportion,’ if you know what I mean, and he’s like...”
“Whoa. Too much information, Kimmi. Remember, I used to bounce you and Danni on my knee when you were little.”
“I don’t think it’s his knee Danni is bouncing on, but it’s probably almost as big...”
“Kimmi. Stop it.”
She grinned wickedly, delighted at getting under my skin. “So how’s your love life there, ‘Hollywood’?”
“If it was doing great, would I be here?”
“Hard to imagine you not getting any.”
“It’s not all about ‘getting some,’ you know.” I immediately regretted saying that.
Kimmi’s eyes widened in mock terror and she leaned over and looked out the window. “No blood running in the streets, no fire raining from the sky. It sure doesn’t look like the apocalypse ... maybe I misheard you.”
“Very funny, smart ass.”
She studied me for a minute. “Somebody got to you, didn’t she?”
I shrugged. Kimmi’d known me too long to get anything past her. “Don’t look too thrilled, after all, how’s your love life going?
“A guy started flirting with me in the grocery store the other day.”
“He was old, creepy, and I tried to stab him with a carrot peeler.”
“I couldn’t get the packaging off quick enough. He was faster than he looked.”
“Sounds like a very romantic time.”
She grimaced and pulled a packet out of her desk. “Dad has a contract for police sniper refresher training in Afghanistan. Ten months, maybe twelve at the outside. Standard pay scale.” She paused. “Plus.”
“Plus? How many plusses??”
“One special. Your friend has to take care of the special.”
So they wanted the Russian. That was never a good sign. “Who’s the customer?”
“You know a Colonel named Victor Duquesne?”
“I knew a First Lieutenant by that name, a helluva long time ago. He was in Ranger Regiment, he’s a good guy.”
“He’s in command of the 12th Readiness Assessment Group.”
“That’s the new name of the old unit.” The unit we all knew as “The Shack,” changed names all the time.
She nodded. “He’s acting for an OGA, not sure who, maybe CIA. He’s undermanned so he’s reaching out for support.”
“That’s bad. I’ve never heard of the Shack having a manning shortage, Howard would have never let that happen.”
“Dad said it’s from burnout, the operational tempo is too high in the Middle East, all the special mission units are being overtasked. A lot of them have expanded, but they’re competing for overlapping skill sets from the same pool. It’s getting hard to find enough talent.”
“So they’re contracting out? Sounds risky.”
“Only to ‘trusted agents’ like you, who were in the Shack and are still connected. They also said to pass the word if you find any likely prospects.”
“Not sure I’d do that to anyone I liked, but I’ll keep an eye out. Anyways, do you have the details on the special?”
“Not yet, but if you are a ‘go,’ I can get them. Let me guess, you want William as spotter?”
“If he’s available.”
“I’ll check, but he’ll probably go for it. When can you leave?”
“A week if you need me there to start the training.”
“Make it four weeks and I’ll have William’s answer. You need shipping?”
“I’ll call Brooks and have Wendy take it in. Easier than that diplomatic pouch bullshit or having some Customs jackwad steal my stuff because it looks cool. I need transport to the target and out, anyway.”
She shrugged. “Got it. We’ll front you an extra ten grand for the shipping. That’s in and out. Wendy is practically doing bulk rate for us over there; just let her know it’s for one of our contracts.”
“Cheaper than a family discount?”
“I think she’s only billing us for handling and nicking DoD for the actual carrying charge.”
“You know Wendy; happiness is getting paid twice for the same freight.”
“Either way, DoD pays the freight for this.” She suddenly turned grim. “You got another letter from your mother.”
“You know the drill.”
“Already sent it back unopened. You know this might be easier if you just talked to her.”
“I can’t imagine any circumstances where that will ever happen, Kimmi.”
“Yeah, I know.” She frowned. “I’ll just keep bouncing them back to her.”
“Do that. Maybe she’ll get the hint.”
“Does she do this to your brother?”
“Yes, but Nicco does the same thing I do, and she doesn’t have the guts to write Dad.”
“Yeah, I’d guess not.” Kimmi knew the whole pathetic story. My Dad, Pappas Hatzidakis, had met Daphne when he went to college in America. After a whirlwind courtship, they’d married and had me. They’d decided to chase Dad’s dream of commercial fishing in Croatia, and everything seemed fine. After thirteen years, with no warning at all, she’d left me, my brother and my dad, leaving only a terse three line note and her wedding ring on the kitchen table.
We’d figured it all out later. She’d been watching the expensive super-yachts cruise in and out of the harbor while Dad struggled to make ends meet running a fishing boat. She worked in a tourist gift shop, seeing the money roll through every day. The right guy with the right words came into her shop at the right time, and that was it. It was just the three of us after that.
We hadn’t heard from her again until three years ago when letters started arriving at my mailbox. I saw her name on the first one, realized that she had nothing to say that I cared to hear, and returned it unopened. In short order that became a twice a month ritual for me, then for Nicco as she started sending letters to him.
Katie, Kimmi’s mom, had convinced her that my “obvious commitment issues” sprung from the abandonment. But then, so did my official psych eval. Pogo had tossed it down in front of me grumbling about guys with giant brains and doctorates, working very hard to tell people what was already obvious.
Kimmi decided to change the subject. “I’ll make sure William has the data on the ‘plus.’ Do you need contact information for Brooks?”
“That I have.”
She looked over a sheaf of papers. “Everything is on the contract; the plus is listed as ‘optional subject matter expert’ consultation fee.”
“That will work. You stay safe, okay?”
She grinned. “I have a carrot peeler in my purse, I’m good.”
Brooks looked at the open cases. “You’re taking all of these? You know this isn’t golf, right? You don’t have to take a full set.” His Boston accent was mostly decipherable.
I nodded. “I’m training Afghan police snipers, so I need to use the same rifles they use.”
“So off the top of my head as I go through this ... You have a Romanian PSL?”
“Two of them, there’s another in the case below it. I’ve got an extender on the butt stock of that one.”
“They’re designed for a cold climate with bulky winter clothing, fits better for me if I put an extension on it.”
He shrugged and looked in the next case over. “An M16A2?”
“We could end up training some regular Afghan Army types and some of them use the A2s for their designated marksmen.”
“Let’s see, two M9 pistols, one M4, two AK-74s.”
“The M4 is for William.”
“And...” He opened the last case. “The Russian?” He glanced sideways at me, suppressing a flash of concern.
The Russian was a Dragunov SVD 63 rifle. Or least it had started out as one. I’d taken the original off of a Spetnatz sniper who had turned out to be not quite good enough to take me out first, never mind where.
Most of the upgrades to the weapon weren’t visible to the naked eye, parts carefully machined and fitted, although it had been fitted with a very different scope. Along with custom ammunition, the changes had extended the effective range of the weapon, normally about 800 meters, to nearly 1500 meters. Not exactly a TAC or an M24A3, but that was what made it important.
The Russian was a legend. Across much of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, rumors of a former Russian Spetnatz sniper-turned-mercenary made the rounds regularly. A stone killer who occasionally killed for personal reasons.
Several officials were rumored to have been killed by “The Russian”; usually targets who had opposed Russian government programs or policies.
The fact that they’d usually been involved in other issues was typically ignored once it became clear that they’d been killed by the Russian. The reality was that The Russian was doing the same work, for the same people, that I always had.
Brooks frowned. “You’ll need the Russian cards then?”
“The whole nine yards. Driver’s license, old military service card, a Russian passport.” The only things I carried when operating as the Russian. Insurance for the “customer”; if I was killed, all the enemy would have would apparently be the body of a dead Russian mercenary. “The Russian” was a “premium service” only available to very specific customers. To maintain the fiction of a Russian mercenary, there was no safety net; no Army helicopter extraction, no military quick reaction force, no US intervention at all. I’d need Wendy’s network to get in and out.
The premium service, the extra risk, meant a premium payment. Kurt had set it up that way, once I became an independent contractor. The Russian was responsible for a ridiculously healthy bank account.