The Pepperdogs

A Novel

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About The Book

The Serbs behind them were preparing to attack, and in front of them lay open ground, flat and white as a shroud. We've run a hundred miles, Lang thought, to come up a football field short.

When a fellow Marine is kidnapped, Captain Mark Lang and his recon team, the Pepperdogs, disobey orders and cross into snowbound Serbia to rescue him. A leader who can't quit, Lang is urged on by his team members. Five New York City reservists -- a trader, a fireman, an auto mechanic, a fitness trainer and a computer geek -- set out on an impossible odyssey. Superbly fit and equipped, they employ speed, ambush and the Internet to close in on their target.

After a team member sends back e-mails describing their firefights, the Pepperdogs become front-page news. Once Weekend Warriors, by the end of their mission they are the most feared unit in Europe, fighting anyone who stands in their way. The press calls them "The Wild Bunch on technological steroids." Lang, haunted by memories of his missing buddy's dying mother, knows the horrific costs they are inflicting but won't turn back. Their rescue mission, condemned by the military, slowly escalates into a standoff between the Oval Office and NATO Europe with the world watching.

A razor-sharp storyteller and Pentagon insider, Bing West unleashes a blistering techno thriller that probes the limits of physical and mental endurance. Drawing on firsthand knowledge of combat, West fuses the grit of Blackhawk Down with the behind-the-scenes intrigue of The West Wing, showing how in the near future a squad can become wired to the White House, to the dismay of the traditional chain of command. The Pepperdogs is a gripping story about American reserves, conflicting loyalties and devotion to comrade. What price will a nation pay to save one life?

Excerpt
Chapter One

If one falls down, the others will lift him up.

-- ECCLESIASTES 4:10

Mitrovica Valley, Kosovo-Serb border 11 A.M. Sunday, December 21

To the half-drunken Serb soldiers in the tan Toyota pickup, the farm looked inviting. Its orange slate roof, untouched by mortar blasts, glistened in the thin sunlight. No shells had burst against its whitewashed walls, and most windowpanes were intact, the few broken ones sealed neatly with white tape. A stocky woman in a blue mantilla was draping bright quilts over a rope strung to a nearby tree, taking advantage of the fickle winter sun to air out some bedding. The rich farm was war's joke, like a tornado that spares a single trailer home.

Holding their rifles carelessly, four soldiers hopped from the pickup, laughing back and forth like teenagers going to a party. Their leader had a full black beard and wore a shaggy black bear-fur coat with torn, floppy sleeves. His girth was so wide it looked like the bear was still inside. He didn't try the handle on the front door. Instead he raised back his foot and kicked, splintering the frame. Unhurried, he plodded up the stairs, trailed by his men.

The woman had scurried inside when the Toyota veered off the main road, but she found no place to hide. When they finished with her, she lurched out the kitchen door, stumbling through the mud toward the privy a stone's throw to the southeast, where the wind seldom blew the stench toward the house. Her skull had fractured at its base when they slammed her on the boards and threw her skirt over her head. The blood streaming from her nostrils was vivid red, and darker rivulets seeped from her ears. She lurched dizzily, everything whirling around and around her. Then she vomited and crumpled gracefully, settling down, folding her arms and hugging herself, as if she were very cold.

The soldiers paid no heed to the dying woman. They had wiped themselves, passing around a grayish towel, stiff as cardboard. Now they were wrestling onto the back of the pickup a Blutner piano with two broken ivories and several snapped strings. The woman knew several melodies that avoided the broken keys, including a little Liszt, but the men hadn't asked her to play.

Sergeant Saco Iliac, head bodyguard to the commanding general of the Tigriva division, picked up one end of the piano, smirking as his men struggled with the other end. He was thinking how he would arrive before the general's luncheon. The general would set the piano in the middle of the great room and pound Saco on the back of his thick fur coat.

Sometimes Saco intentionally lumbered like a bear to remind his men how he had won the coat. After they took Srebrenica, they had disposed of most of the vrags the first night, and blood caked their uniforms. No longer stupefied by drink, their heads splitting, the soldiers were anxious to get back home and wash up. There were fewer than a hundred to finish, but no one wanted to head back inside.

That was when the adjutant thought of the contest. Three officers held watches, and five finalists entered the barn where the last Muslims milled around like cattle. A Croat who had been a wrestler before the war did two more males than Saco. But so what? The small ones Saco went after wriggled like eels. His trick was to grab the ankles and swing their heads against the roof poles. Whack! and it was done. One girl bit his thumb, costing him several seconds. Still, the Croat did fifteen, while he, Saco, snapped eighteen necks to win the coat.

Saco sat next to the driver in the Toyota. The legs of the piano hung over the sides, and the soldiers sat at odd angles, their rifles swinging wildly as the pickup bounced down the hill toward the paved road at the far end of the pasture. The tarp thrown over the piano flapped and billowed, as though waving at the American Cobra gunships buzzing over the main road.

The Toyota was the muscle kind advertised in glossy car magazines, with high axles and four rear wheels, ideal for heavy farmwork or driving around a small town with the radio blasting. The left front tire soon caught in a pothole. They were five minutes in front of the general's convoy; it wouldn't do to arrive late at the castle. Four sets of shoulders set to rocking the overloaded pickup back and forth to push it loose.

Captain Tyler Cosgrove, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve -- very reserved, he would say, laughing -- handled the motorcycle with easy skill. It was his turn to be scout, and Sergeant Neff and the two corporals a quarter mile behind in the humvee would have to wait their turn. This was the first morning in a week without rain or sleet, but Hey! I didn't make out the duty roster. Cosgrove had the medium build and sharply handsome, slightly vulnerable face seen in advertisements for Prada and other upscale stores. Upbeat by nature, he felt his spirits lift to be on a fast bike on a Sunday morning. He tried not to think of his mother in the hospital. He would see her soon enough, his tour eight hours from ending. He would be at the airport by five. He swung the bike in short half-loops, enjoying the pull of gravity as his body leaned first one way and then the other. One final hour of playing Marine before coming to grips with his mother's mortality.

He had studied the overhead photos, the radio intercepts, the reports from locals. The route was secure. This close to Christmas, Cosgrove considered Fifth Avenue more dangerous. Wall Street commandos, flush with bonus money and guilt about missing their kids' soccer matches, would trample you on their way to FAO Schwarz. Here in Kosovo, NATO soldiers had pulled guard duty year after year. Nothing ever happened. That was why reserve units like Cosgrove's were sent over for three-month stints. The shooting war was in Afghanistan. Nobody worried about the reserves in the Balkans, an afterthought among the Pentagon planners.

So what if the confab with the Serb general was overprotected? For Cosgrove, riding a motorcycle was better than sitting around waiting for the evening flight to the States. This was the last U.S. sweep, and he was nearing his turnaround point, with the Serb convoy only a few miles to the north.

He glanced casually at the farm to his left. Smoke from a farm...that Toyota? "Arrow Five, this is Six," he said into the mike projecting from his helmet. "I have eyes on one pickup with a piano in back. It's Tesh on tour, the cows twitching their tails to the beat."

"Six, this is Five. Can you get us tickets?"

"SRO. First pasture around the bend. I'll save you a space near the stage."

"Roger. Three mikes behind you."

The bike was fast. One moment an open road. And now the bike was coming right at the Serbs in the truck. They barely had time to grab their weapons before the American stopped in front of them. He pushed back his goggles and said, "Arrow, this is definitely weird."

"Hey!" Saco smiled. "Is nothing. We help move."

Cosgrove was sitting back, his hands on the bike's crossbars, the 9mm pistol secured in his shoulder holster. Saco moved closer, eyes on the pistol. Cosgrove looked past him at the house, his gaze wandering until it came to rest on the fallen woman. He stiffened abruptly and reached for the pistol.

Saco didn't think. He rushed forward and knocked Cosgrove from the bike. He hit him once and then again, in the neck, on the side of the helmet, on the cheek. The great blows stunned Cosgrove, and he offered no resistance. Saco lifted the Marine's head, helmet and all, and slammed him against the ground. Cosgrove saw dazzling light, then black.

"Quick!" yelled Saco. "Throw him in back. And the bike. Move!"

The Marine hummer had started into the turn and taken the first path, twisting and bouncing toward the farm two pastures above. It took several minutes to reach the front step, where a farmer and his wife and a few children greeted them curiously. It was a few more minutes before Sergeant Neff realized he had turned off at the wrong farm. With slightly growing anxiety, he turned the vehicle around, bounced and lurched back to the highway and looked for the next cutoff. He soon found it and once again bobbed across rocks worn smooth by decades of wagon wheels.

When the hummer came around the curved face of the next tilled field, Neff saw the piano tilted forward in the rutted track, kneeling in cow dung as though awaiting execution, its keyboard legs broken and splintered. Another two minutes passed before the frustrated sergeant could bring himself to report that Captain Cosgrove was missing -- plain missing, nowhere to be seen, no bike either, and farther upslope there was a dead woman and a farm on fire.

By then Saco's pickup was two kilometers south down the main road, with the Serb convoy coming into sight behind it.

Mitrovica Valley, Kosovo

Serbian Lieutenant General Ilian Kostica gave no particular heed to the tan Toyota pickup as it recklessly cut in front of his lead escort vehicle. That was Saco, showing off. Childish. The general's mind was on the meeting ahead, determined to impress the American, who also played childish games like arriving early for negotiations. Only today, Mr. Ambassador, Kostica thought, I am the early one.

The small castle was the town's strong sentinel, blocking entrance to the valley from the north. For centuries it had shielded the farmers from whatever raiding bands made their way south along the only road, which twisted for dozens of kilometers among the hillocks, narrow ravines and steep slopes of the mountain ranges on either side. Built in the seventeenth century, the castle was part fortress, part manor. Typical of the old Middle Europe style, it closely abutted the road, its massive stone facade indifferent to the occasional sideswipes of drunken farmers' tractors.

Tanks were another matter. When Kostica's armor -- Soviet junk from World War II, shoddily reconditioned in the factory that manufactured the tinny Yugo auto -- first clattered toward the town, the castle looked like a massive bunker, its minarets and cut-glass windows only minimally softening the thickness of stone walls that had withstood a half-dozen sieges over the last six hundred years. Kostica considered smashing it. Why take a chance?

The trembling proprietor persuaded him otherwise, running into the road in his hostler clothes, aware the tanks were taking aim, shaking but determined, offering the general an aperitif, a petit déjeuner for his staff. The meal was excellent, and Kostica had returned often. A good location for negotiations too, right in the middle of the neutral zone between Kosovo and Serbia.

When Kostica pulled up now, the security details of the two sides had already dismounted, the Americans robotlike in their oversize armored vests and helmets. He had told his guards to wear three sweaters under their jackets and not to shave for four days, so they, too, looked bulky and menacing. Saco had parked the Toyota around a corner. The other bodyguards grinned and nodded to him, then stepped aside to let him approach the general.

"I had a piano for you," Saco said, "only an American came along, so I took him instead."

It had to be a stupid joke. The general heard the words, and his body reacted before his brain. For a moment he knew he was suffering a stroke. His heart stopped for a beat. He could feel his blood pressure drop to his toes, as if falling suddenly in an elevator. He said nothing, aware of those around him.

Images were clear in his mind -- a cannibal offering to share his meal, a dog mouthing a putrid fox and expecting to be patted. And this, this dancing bear shitting in the village square and expecting a pail of berries. General Kostica was half convinced that Saco would raise his paws in the air and pant with his tongue hanging out, waiting to be scratched on his swollen stomach.

"Where is this American?"

"Right here." Saco grinned. "In the back of the Toyota. He's out. I hit him good."

Good? Good? The general pictured American helicopters taking off, tanks blocking road crossings, satellite cameras zooming in -- all because of this glummats, this idiot.

"Get him out of here. Now. He's not to know you're part of this command. Get across the border and release him. Go away. Get out." The general turned away. He had weathered the Tito years, outlasted that lunatic Milosevic, outfoxed the Americans at Dayton. He was the first of his family to have a villa along the Amalfi, an apartment in Prague. He wasn't going to be brought down by this brute's stupidity. Was he responsible for the angry bull or for the weather in December? This wasn't his business.

The Watergate Condominiums, Washington, D.C. Early Sunday morning

The secure phone to the White House rang with a discreet purr, a courtesy to the spouses of high-level officials who relished being summoned at any hour. Political power was more a narcotic than an aphrodisiac. The White House Chief of Staff, a large, balding man, glanced at the Caller ID and lifted the receiver while his wife fluffed her pillow and went back to sleep.

"Plane crash or terrorists?" He prided himself on his crisp manner, his voice abrupt even this early.

"Good morning to you, too," the Secretary of Defense said. "Don't be so grumpy."

"Okay, so how many did we lose?"

"Less serious. A Marine missing in Kosovo. May be kidnapped."

"We still have people there? And that's it -- one missing?"

"Want me to add Armageddon?" the Secretary of Defense said. "I'm called when this stuff happens, and I call the White House. Now that you're awake, you can go to church. My good deed, like spotting you a couple of points."

"Don't let one lucky squash game go to your head," the Chief of Staff said. "Okay, at least it's not something with a press angle. I'll tell the President after he's up. When he was governor, I didn't wake him every time a cop had a bad day, and I'm not going to start unloading small stuff now. What's the next step?"

"We're searching. We don't know who has him."

"Damn, this is bad timing. We have to keep the decks clear for the health bill."

"Right, it's an HMO plot to shift votes," the SecDef said.

"All I'm saying is we have to stick to our game plan. It took a year to get back on track after the Twin Towers," the Chief of Staff said. "Every military incident can't end up at the Oval Office. We've agreed the domestic agenda is the focus for the next Congress. You'll keep this across the river?"

"It'll be managed from Brussels or Kosovo."

"Good. The farther away, the better. It's a distraction," the Chief of Staff said, "and we can't do anything to help from here."

25th Marine Regiment, Mitrovica Valley Noon Sunday

The security patrols for the meeting were to the north, inside the two-kilometer red zone marking the Kosovo-Serb border. To the south the highway followed the river toward the open valley and the railhead at Pristina. There was a downward pitch to the road, as it paralleled the river rushing through ravines and gullies carved out of the limestone hills by centuries of spring snow thaws and heavy fall rains. Returning to the brigade compound, the road was deceptively steep, and most trucks shifted into a lower gear. So did the three Marines running uphill with rifles slung over their right shoulders. They ran along the shoulder of the road, taking short, choppy strides, faces down, concentrating on a steady, grinding pace, no wasted motion, their boots barely clearing the surface of the thin snow.

They wore soft covers, not the German-style helmets the U.S. adapted years ago, and none had on the flak jackets required of all U.S. troops outside base. The three ran as if connected by a giant elastic band, sometimes stretching apart, then snapping back into a tight triangle. On his back each wore a rucksack and a canvas water sack with a long strawlike tube. They were running, not jogging, up the grade, the strain showing on their faces and in their quick stutter-steps.

They had left the base after full light, not wanting to be hit in the early-morning gloom by some bleary-eyed truck driver hauling in CDs or Gucci knockoffs or BMW parts from some chop shop in Albania. NATO forbade training in the mountains -- it was too politically dangerous to train like soldiers -- so the recon team had to stay on the main highway to Pristina, racing down out of the foothills to a turnaround point at twenty kilometers, then facing the last ten uphill kilometers back to the base. A full twenty-six-mile marathon carrying thirty-pound packs, four hours the target time. Not likely they could achieve that, but hey, what else to do on a Sunday?

For three hours the captain -- the twin bars prominent on the lapels of his camouflage jacket -- had been running with the single-minded lope of the alpha wolf, sometimes allowing one of the others to slip into the lead for a mile or so. As long as the lead shifted, all three stayed energized, a pack confident that together they could not be stopped.

Mark Lang forced the pace even when he wasn't in the lead, pushing so that the pain in his lungs blocked out his thoughts, shut out the world. He'd first learned to do that in boarding school at thirteen, when he would sneak into the gym after study hours and lift weights until he couldn't feel his arms, then press his face against the cold metal of his locker and cry.

How did the son of the captain of an oil tanker, with a divorced mother who never wrote, fit in at a New England boarding school? Work was Lang's escape. A few classmates had snickered about his fanaticism. That subsided when, at fourteen, Lang was named starting linebacker and Cos decided to be his roommate. Mrs. Cosgrove swept him into her orbit as another son, and amid sports, studies and school breaks spent at her house, Lang learned how to smother loneliness. Even then, he punished his body to distract his mind. And now he didn't want to think.

"Six miles to go," Lang said, glancing at the GPS receiver held outside his breast pocket by a strip of velcro. "Eight mikes for the last split."

The other two said nothing, conserving oxygen. Eight minutes for a mile was excellent this late in the run, but could they hold that pace for six more miles?

Lang glanced at the sergeant clipping along feverishly at his side. Herbert Caulder was a head shorter than Lang and looked a bit cartoonish, with a face too small for a neck and shoulders absurdly thick from years of workouts with heavy weights. He had the coiled energy of a downed power line. For Caulder, patience was torment. In half the allotted time during the sniper championships at LeJeune, he put ten rounds into the black from the thousand-yard line, capturing first place and promotion below zone to Sergeant E-5. A most unlikely sniper, he always wanted to get on with it, whatever it was. Now he was pumping his legs furiously, trying to sprint past the others, get out in front, gain the lead, get inside Lang's mind and slow down the pace.

The upgrade worked against his strategy. He couldn't suck enough oxygen to open a lead. Each time he struggled ahead, Lang's long legs would pull even. It wasn't fair. God should give everyone the same size legs. Caulder's pulse was at max. After the third fruitless sprint, he eased off, gasping. I'm a sniper, he thought, not an antelope.

"I have a life after this death," Caulder said. "I'm reining it in."

His face was pasty gray, slick with sweat. Lang slowed, trotting beside Caulder for several seconds. "What do you think, Blade?" Lang asked the tall sergeant at his side. Like Caulder, he wore the three black chevrons of a sergeant on his lapels. Blade reached out and pulled Caulder to a halt.

"That's it. You're done," he said. "Two pitchers last night, dummy. Drinking's not your thing."

Caulder didn't reply. He leaned over and vomited as his companions jumped back.

"That's good. Solid test. I hope the monitors caught that," Blade said. "You should have seen him at Tun Tavern last night, sir. Standing on his head with a shot glass in his teeth, ass in the air. The troops were barking. The colonel was laughing. Totally embarrassing."

Caulder breathed deeply and stood erect. "Don't listen to him, sir. Last night was a glorious moment. We're the dogs. No one can run with the big dogs."

"Drinking upside down?" Lang said.

"My old man owned a bar," Caulder said. "Learned that trick when I was ten. Some Saturday nights I'd get twenty bucks in tips."

"Now you've learned not to drink and run," Lang said. "Sure you're old enough to drink?"

He flagged down a passing hummer, gesturing as though hailing a cab in New York City. After eleven weeks in Kosovo everyone in the regiment knew all the officers. The humvee driver agreed to drive Caulder back to base.

Lang and Blade resumed the run, matching each other stride for stride, agreeing to deduct a minute from their elapsed time for being so solicitous of Caulder.

"Caulder's crazy enough to take off after us, sir," Blade said. "He doesn't know he's nuts."

"Right," Lang said. "Let's pick it up. That way Caulder can't catch up and totally dehydrate."

In New York City the reserves trained on the Combat Decision Range -- a computer program that played combat missions. Sergeant Paul Enders made the right decisions so fast that throughout the regiment, he was called Blade. His honed body and relaxed manner -- and family connections -- had earned him an expanding clientele as a personal trainer to New Yorkers rich enough to be encouraged to sweat. Five hours a day of aerobics and weights gave Blade an advantage over the other recon reservists. And that was what he lived for -- the weekend missions, the four-hundred-mile adventure races, the team against the elements.

His father, a banker, was forever urging him to stop wasting a first-class mind, chiding that five years ago he had wanted to be a ski instructor and now it was this "Marine Corps business" -- another passing fad. Blade knew he was the classic spoiled only child from East Side wealth, everything coming too easily. Except this. Making the team hadn't been easy. Still, it wouldn't last. Doc Evans said the experiment would be over after the deployment. If the team broke up, maybe he'd apply in January -- Williams, Columbia, possibly Lewis & Clark, the flower-child college. He smiled, thinking of his dad's face going red. But now he had a race to run.

Even for Blade the pace was harsh, and he looked sideways at Lang, trying to read his expression. The captain was a big man, larger than Blade, with a body shaped by decades of weights, runs and solitary weekends. His face was long, with the marathoner's anemic lack of flesh, cheekbones pulled taut like a bird of prey. His tight haircut exposed the back of his head, flat as the bottom of an iron, a gift from a mother who had never picked him up or shifted him in his crib.

Around another bend they went, giving each other room, neither hogging the spots where the footing was firmer. Blade was determined not to let Lang gain a step; if he fell back, the captain would pick up the pace, sap his confidence, break his will to win.

Worked the other way, too. Hell, the skipper was an old man, over thirty, and ten pounds heavier. That Lang won at long distance, as Blade saw it, was due to mental harassment. Lang distracted you, made some weird comment about a hot new actress or the Jets, took your head out of the game. Only not today. Sooner or later he could beat Lang, he was sure of it.

Blade knew he couldn't think too much about Lang, who had been acting strange all morning. He had to run his own race, force the captain to worry about him, not the other way around. He wondered when Lang would try to unnerve him. Uh-oh, he was doing it to himself, letting his mind drift. Concentrate.

"Let's do seven-thirties," Lang said.

"Let's not," Blade said. They were training, for God's sake, not trying to break their bodies. Seven and a half minutes for a mile, with a pack on? After twenty miles? Forget it. His lungs felt like a blast furnace. "We can't hold that pace. It'll take us a week to bounce back." He looked at Lang, who sped up without replying or turning his head. He's in his own world, Blade thought, I don't exist. He looked back to where the hummer was trailing them, three hundred meters behind. Caulder, plodding next to the vehicle, fluttered his hand, palm down, signaling Blade to fall back. Blade shook his head.

Lang unslung his heavy rifle and held it at port arms. It was an experimental design, ugly, with too much weight in the barrels. This is it, Blade thought, Lang's latest psych trick. Blade reached for his M16A3 with its bulky telescopic sight and imitated Lang, left hand under the barrel, right hand over the black stock aft of the trigger housing. Now they were even.

Lang didn't challenge Blade to exhaust himself, just lengthened his own stride, looked at the dull gray rock slabs bordering the road and set off to punish his body. Wherever his mind was, it wasn't on the road.

"Caulder's on the road, Skipper," Blade said. "I'm dropping back with him. I can't hold this. You got it today, but you're going to be whipped for a week."

Lang nodded without breaking stride or looking to the side. The run was a tunnel, and the light at the end was the base gate. Four miles. For thirty more minutes of fire in the lungs, he could run away from what was hurting him.

Blade dropped to a slow jog, letting Caulder catch up. They were professionals out for a workout. They could go the distance when they had to, and they knew when to back off.

Lang hit the main gate in under four hours and slowed to a jog, then a walk, circling near the guard gate, waiting for the others. The base looked like a high-rise complex set inside a maximum-security prison, with its perimeter of guard towers, berms and chain-link fences topped with curled rolls of razor wire.

"Did you do it?" Blade asked when he trotted up several minutes later.

"Yes." There was no enthusiasm in Lang's voice. The other two wanted to tell him they were impressed, but the captain held himself at a distance.

"Doc will want your time," Blade said, looking at his watch. "I'll send it to her."

"Three fifty-seven," Lang said, sounding flat. "See you in the mess hall."

Lang walked the few blocks to his brick-and-mortar BOQ room, opened the portable fridge and guzzled down a quart of Gatorade. There were two narrow beds in the room, one with a footlocker shoved at the end for Lang to rest his heels, and two scratched metal bureaus with too many books and pictures piled on top. One was a black-and-white photo of a striking woman in her mid-fifties, with long hair, high cheekbones, a bright smile and light eyes that shone with warmth and intelligence, leopard eyes. A gentle leopard.

Lang looked at the photo, at a stuffed duffel bag lying askew on the bed next to his, at the whitewashed cinder-block walls and back at the photo. For a moment his shoulders slumped. He didn't know why it was hitting him so hard. Seventeen years, that's why. He'd been going to the Cosgrove home for seventeen years. So maybe he should go home now with Cos. And leave the team behind? That was bright. Cos would keep him informed. She'd already fought it for a year; he'd see her next month. He didn't want to think about it.

He stripped off his sopping clothes, walked into the tiny bathroom and vomited. He felt his insides rush, voided himself, flushed, left the bathroom for a second bottle of Gatorade, returned and vomited a second time. Too weak to stand, he lay facedown on the cold tiles, weight on his chest and forehead, his overheated body glad for the cold.

When his body had cooled down, he showered, gulped a third quart of Gatorade and cleaned his ugly rifle. Then he walked slowly to the mess hall.

It was after eleven, and the cavernous room with its shatterproof glass windows and tables bolted to the floor was nearly empty. Caulder, Blade and Lang sat at a long table, a dozen glasses with different liquids spread out, trays heaped with sausages and eggs. Caulder had bounced back and was wolfing down the eggs. Blade and Lang were too exhausted to eat much.

"Staff Sergeant Roberts sleeping in again?" Lang asked. The Sunday runs were optional. Still, the absence of a team member two Sundays in a row was unusual.

"Maybe he sensed you were going to go wild, sir," Blade said.

The excuse was lame, but Lang didn't pursue it. They were enlisted, and he was the commanding officer, but that wasn't why they were holding back. You couldn't choose your parents or where you lived. And if you didn't go to college, forget about becoming an officer. But who chose to become a Marine, who went recon, who liked going thirty hours with no sleep on two canteens to reach a checkpoint eighty miles away while the wind cut like a whip -- who became one of the dogs -- that you decided for yourself.

They were a team. If the staff sergeant was off somewhere, that was like your older brother not showing up for dinner. When your father asked where he was, who'd ever answer that question?

Caulder changed the subject. "Me and Blade are hitting the souk, sir. Wrap up our Christmas shopping. You and Captain Cosgrove want to come along?"

"Meaning will our intelligence officer get a hummer for you?"

"That would help."

"Cosgrove's on security patrol," Lang said. "Then he's leaving on tonight's flight to Dover. His mother's been readmitted. So the souk's out."

The sergeants said nothing. The team, together for two years, had talked with Mrs. Cosgrove a dozen times, at parties, marathons, training exercises. They considered her good people, always interested in what they were doing. She never said it, but they sensed she gave them high marks. Especially nice from a professor, finely dressed, with a striking face and a direct gaze. She stared into their eyes when she asked questions in a clipped accent that made each word stand up straight. She really wanted to hear their answers, and as each man replied, he stood a little taller, like her words, his muscles swelling a bit under his trim uniform.

"Thought she was in remission," Blade said.

"Happened out of the blue," Lang said.

"We just sent her our pic," Caulder said, pursing his lips. Mrs. Cosgrove had always asked about his latest score on the range and congratulated him on concentrating so single-mindedly. Not many people appreciated the thousands of hours that went into the split second of squeezing the trigger. He thought of her wasting away, and his features puckered up like a little boy's, almost comical against the bulk of his shoulders.

"You going home, too, sir?" Blade asked Lang. "Knowing her and all."

"I'm not family."

"You almost are. The regs allow it."

"Captain Cosgrove will keep me up to speed."

"Well, you'll catch up with her after Christmas," Caulder said.

Lang kept his eyes on his tray.

"You will," Caulder repeated, holding a glass of orange juice close to his chest, as though he was cold.

"Who's filling in for Captain Cosgrove?" Blade asked. "They're not putting us under some squid, are they?"

Lang shrugged, and they resumed eating. The silence lasted until a corporal from Operations noticed them. He hesitated before slowly approaching their table. What if they already knew? Sergeant Caulder would chew on him. No, they wouldn't be just sitting there. Not the dogs. They'd be moving, doing something.

Blade looked up. "What's going on, Corporal?"

"I, I wasn't sure whether you all had heard -- about Captain Cosgrove."

They looked up, and the corporal knew he had made the right choice.

"He's missing on patrol."

They were out the door in ten seconds, running toward the Operations Center.

Copyright © 2003 by Francis J. West, Jr.
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Francis J. "Bing" West served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, and later as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Dean of Research at the Naval War College, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, and a lead CNN commentator during Desert Storm. A frequent contributor to defense journals, West is also the author nine books.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 2007)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416577928

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