Word Count 8,380
7th in the Modern Lancers (series story order)
cott gritted his teeth to avoid biting his tongue as the vehicle bumped its merry way on this so-called driveway of Bell’s. Having learned from his previous trip, Scott had taken a Jeep. Given the rattling his body was undergoing now, he figured the drugs Bell had given him had been much better than he realized.
It was with a good deal of relief that he pulled into the secluded clearing and parked with a mental note to check the undercarriage before he left.
The door to the cabin opened to reveal Bell himself, a cup in his hand and a mild look of curiosity on his face.
“Good afternoon, Scott.” The smile, while a bit cautious, appeared to be genuine. “You’re looking well.”
“Only hurts when I laugh now.” Bell chuckled as Scott crossed the yard. “I wanted to come and thank you. I appreciate what you did for me.”
Bell leaned against the doorjamb. “You’re welcome, but that isn’t the only reason you came.”
Scott stopped midway. Shit. He would have liked to work up to it.
“Would this go easier with a beer?”
Scott let his shoulders drop. “Hell, yes.”
“Come on in then.” Bell straightened and pushed the door open wider. “Beer, I’ve got.”
Bell also had pair of comfortable chairs near the fireplace. Scott dropped into one with a soft sigh and enjoyed the quiet. His host joined him with a bottle in each hand. Scott took the offered one and waited for Bell to seat himself before taking a swallow.
The silence was companionable, but it only made it more difficult for Scott to say what he needed to.
“Too hard to get the genie back in the bottle?”
Scott’s free hand came up to wipe across his face. “Something like that.”
“You sleeping at all?”
“No more than a few hours at a time.”
“You know that’s not good.”
“I do.” The anger swept over him. “I dealt with this. Then Dan Cassidy shows up with his ideas of revenge and it all gets stirred up again.”
Bell snorted. “You didn’t deal with it. You just stuffed it into a handy little box and taped it shut.”
“Voice of experience?” Scott forced most of the anger from his voice, but couldn’t tamp down the resentment.
Bell was unfazed.
“Quite a bit.” He took a deep swallow of his beer and set it aside. “You need to talk to someone and I don’t mean a professional listener.”
“You don’t count?”
“Not really. Not yet anyway. I’ve been where you are, you know that. So yeah, I’ll understand and maybe it’ll even help somewhat.” His eyes met Scott’s. “But I’ll tell you what someone told me. Talk to your family or those closest to you because they’re the ones that you need to understand you.”
Scott winced at the very idea of it. Tell his grandfather? Wouldn’t happen. Johnny and or Murdoch? Family, but not close yet. Not for this.
“That’s not so easy.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what I told your father when he gave me that advice. It turned out all right. Think it will for you too.”
Scott’s respect for Murdoch Lancer was growing in a steady, easy way, and it was that newfound regard for his father that made this so much harder.
Bell let out a soft chuckle and leaned forward in his chair rolling his beer bottle between his palms. “Your father is a good man. I think you know that, but what you might not know is that he’s an understanding, forgiving one.”
Scott, about to take a swallow of his beer stopped midway. “Again the voice of experience?”
Bell grinned. “A story for another time and with something stronger than beer.”
Scott couldn’t help laughing and it felt strange with the heaviness of the past weighing down on him. “That is a story I’ll be interested in hearing.”
“We’ll get to it someday.” Bell rose and fetched two more beers from the fridge. Scott finished off the one he had and settled back with the cold bottle. He was content to sit for awhile and enjoy the silence. He could understand why Bell chose the place. Lancer quieted down around twilight. Most of the time.
“I’ve told Johnny some of it.” The words were out without Scott having put any real thought behind them.
“Didn’t run screaming now, did he?”
The mere idea of Johnny reacting in such a way had Scott fighting not to snort up his beer. He swallowed hard and avoided the embarrassment.
“No, he just told me it must have been hard to find out I wasn’t perfect.”
“Well, that is a bitch, but we all discover it at some point.”
Scott wiped the condensation built up in his palm down his thigh. “He doesn’t know the worst of it.”
“You think as a civilian he won’t understand that you had to kill?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Johnny’s been places that I’m glad I’ve never had to set foot in.” The chair didn’t feel comfortable anymore. The confined sensation grew and he stood up to pace around the room.
“You already know what you’re going to do, so just do it. Murdoch has some Scotch that goes down like Kool-aid.” Bell kicked his feet up on the small table that was situated between the two chairs. “You need to go home.”
Yes, he did and putting it off was making it worse.
“Thanks for the beer.”
Scott didn’t notice the bone-rattling return trip down the driveway until its absence when he turned onto the tarmac and headed for Lancer.
Johnny noted Scott’s return but didn’t think anything of it until five minutes later when he realized his brother hadn’t gotten out of the vehicle. Concerned now, he abandoned his plans to hike up the trail that led to the overlook of the wetlands. Photos could wait. One thing about California there was a surplus of pleasant days.
Johnny left his camera bag on the wicker chair and walked the length of the veranda to where Scott had pulled the Jeep up by the garage. There was a positive sign of movement as Scott opened the door and slid out.
“Thought you were camping out.” Johnny kept his expression easy, but felt his gut tighten when Scott startled. Under normal circumstances Johnny would have given him grief about catching him unawares, but this didn’t feel like ‘normal’.
Scott flat out oozed wired up tension and had all the appearance of a man about to do something he wouldn’t enjoy. Nor would anyone else.
“Hey, you all right?” Stupid question. Scott hadn’t been himself since that nut-case Cassidy had showed up with Curly and Moe.
Johnny got a nod and a very careful closing of the Jeep’s door. Killing time now, but there was deep breath and Scott looked straight at him.
“Is Teresa home?”
“Nah, she’s off with her girl posse until tomorrow.” There was relief and Johnny was glad Teresa was gone. She was too smart by half and he didn’t think Scott could take that kind of scrutiny right now.
Hell, Johnny wasn’t comfortable with it.
“Murdoch, is he around?”
Johnny laughed. “Oh yeah, heard him cussing out the computer about five minutes ago.”
Scott smiled. “Is he figuring out the database?”
“Not sure if figuring it out is the right words, but he’s doing something.”
There was genuine amusement, but it died just as fast as it appeared. “I need to talk to you both if you’re available.”
Sounded like they were setting up one of those god-awful board meetings, and Johnny got the same sinking feeling.
“My calendar is free.”
Murdoch knew that his way of running the personal aspects of the ranching part of the preserve was archaic. Many times others assured him that they would be happy to take over for him. But, there was a part of Murdoch that held onto this portion of Lancer as the beginning of all he achieved and he didn’t want to give it up. Teresa called it his favorite child. She wasn’t so far from wrong.
It reminded Murdoch where he came from and where he was now. Reminded him to be grateful, and not take anything for granted. This part of Lancer was what he held on for himself and his sons: A part as far from the corporate world as he could make it.
So, when Scott brought up the database for Lancer, he didn’t have to think twice. This is what he hoped for; his sons to take an interest in the smaller parts of Lancer. Perhaps he let sentiment make his decision, but that wouldn’t be the first time. In theory, Murdoch understood that this Access database would save them time and allow for quicker retrieval of the information needed.
Reality was this Access database would send him to an earlier grave out a sheer frustration. Anytime Murdoch thought he had it figured out, it went and did something else on him. So, he tried backtracking and would only become so entangled that the only recourse open to him would be to start over.
Five times he had started over. Five times was four too many.
Johnny entered the great room, with Scott trailing behind. Gathering what dignity he had left, he stood up and decided to ask for help.
Johnny’s uneasy expression stopped him cold. Scott’s closed off demeanor kicked out any remaining concern over his own ineptitude and he shut the program down.
Johnny glanced over at Scott and gave the barest of shrugs to Murdoch. At least he now knew it was Scott that he needed to be concerned about.
“Scott’s calling a meeting.” Johnny perched himself on the arm of the couch and waited.
Scott seemed to give himself a little shake and met Murdoch’s eyes. “Bell says you have Scotch that goes down like Kool-aid.”
That kind of meeting.
“That I do. Care to try it?” Wasn’t even two in the afternoon yet, but this didn’t promise to be an easy conversation.
Johnny made for the liquor cabinet and pulled out three tumblers. Murdoch pulled out the bottle of Glenmorangie with the memory of the little shop located near London’s theater district. If he recalled, the shop had moved on to a different location, but if his sons proved to show their interest in fine whiskey, he would love to take them there. And since they were there, go north to Inverness and explore their roots a bit.
And he needed to get back to the task at hand. Pouring a generous amount in the three glasses, he handed them over to his sons. Scott nodded as he took his and moved to the sofa, while Johnny dropped onto the oversized ottoman by the fireplace. Murdoch settled into his favorite leather chair near them both, and waited.
Scott stared down at his glass, then looked up, expressionless.
“I need to tell you what happened back in Honduras. Why Dan blamed me.”
Murdoch was so relieved to not hear the words ‘I’m leaving’ that he covered it by taking a healthy swallow of his whiskey.
“You know, that Cassidy was kind of an ass.” Johnny’s voice was mild, but there was no doubting his dislike for the man.
“Yeah, he kind of always was.”
Honduras, 26 Jun 2006
“Hey asshole!” Dan grinned at him over the hood of the ‘copter. “Have a late night at Knob Creek? You missed breakfast.” The grin only widened when Scott rendered him a one-finger salute.
Knob Creek–even the name made him shudder. It was bad enough the dilapidated refrigerator hummed then rattled to a stop in an irritating rhythm. But deep within its moldy confines was a chilled bottle of Knob Creek. Someone had brought it out and filled a shot glass for every person in the debriefing lounge then proposed a toast to the end of a successful mission. At the conclusion of the toast, they all downed the liquor in a single gulp. Like kerosene, the hundred-proof had burned all the way down to his toes. He’d had a violent reaction the first time he’d tasted it, ralphing over his boots, much to the delight of his crew. But one had to contend with tradition. At least this time his stomach hadn’t betrayed him, and after two cups of the chief’s vile morning coffee his vision had returned to normal.
“When are you gonna grow a pair and take it like a man, Scotty?”
“Right after you, Pony Boy, right after you.” He chuckled seeing Dan’s face darken, the joker smile gone. Pony Boy was a not-so-subtle reference to Dan’s recent ardent admirer – one who didn’t care if he was married or not. To say the girl had a long face would be kind. He left Dan and proceeded to the Blackhawk, finding the logbook under the seat and starting his pre-flight. It was still early morning but the sweat was already sluicing down his back by the time he finished, the humidity making his flight suit fit like a second skin. He snapped the book closed and looked around. This part of Honduras was lush—the wild vines and low vegetation was greener than anything they had back in Boston, but he was ready to go home. These last three weeks spent on the humanitarian mission had presented some unique flying challenges but it was settling into a routine now.
He tapped his thigh where an envelope peeped out of the pocket. It was a letter from his grandfather; the heavy, to-the-point scrawl informing Scott that he’d been under the recent care of a physician. As usual, the old man had let him know after the fact, not wanting “to bother him”. It didn’t bode well, this letter. To have his grandfather admit something was wrong, sent up a red flare. He needed to take leave as soon as they hit U.S. airspace because in two short months the 83rd Airborne Cavalry would be casing the colors and heading off to Iraq again. Grandfather would not be pleased.
But this mission came first. The toast had been a bit premature. He and Dan were tasked to fly to Yoro, the Tolupan Indian village devastated by the earthquake. Despite the severity of the quake the surrounding countryside, it was considered a milk run—dropping off a much-needed medical supply pallet and ferrying more villagers out of the rubble to a nearby base camp set up by the NGO. The only problem Scott could see was the villagers oftentimes didn’t want to leave, especially via air. Superstitious to a fault, they would rather eke out a living on the hard scrabble of what was left of their village before accepting any aid offered by either the military or the NGO network. He’d leave the small details of how they actually got into his ‘copter to the politicians and intermediaries, for this trip he was just a taxi driver.
Thoughts were interrupted by his crew chief’s adamant curse. With a thick body and no visible neck, Jack Lewis resembled a human fireplug. In a twist of fate, Hardy’s younger brother, Jed, shared the ride with Cassidy. Despite Jack’s rough edges, he knew he had gotten the better brother. “Tough night, Chief?”
“Huh.” The chief nodded towards a pimply-faced corporal making his way to the bird. “Bad day more like it. I got better things to do than baby-sit some pissant kid. He turned towards Scott. “Can you tell me why we always end up with the newbies, Lieutenant? I’m startin’ to think someone put the bad mojo on us. And why does junior always have to man the guns? Jesus, I bet he talks a mile a minute. I got sixteen more days, Lieutenant, just sixteen more days and I drop papers.”
Scott shrugged and turned to hide his smile. Lewis’ bark was worse than his bite. No one who met Jack Lewis would ever accuse him of being a softie, but underneath that thick shell of crankiness he was certifiable. He’d heap verbal abuse upon the poor kid’s head, all the while keeping an eye out for him. And if Lewis was going to drop his retirement papers in sixteen days, well, Scott would eat his Stetson for lunch.
He looked over to Cassidy’s helicopter. The crew was rigging the hoist to the right side of the cargo door. Dan had lost the coin toss and would be carrying the pallet this time.
Scott had just enough time to round up his co-pilot then they’d be off.
He and Dan played follow-the-leader to the drop. A cloud of gas marking the zone was like a harbor fog blowing into the target area. Within minutes, the open expanse of the village was full of whirling rotor blades and green fuselages. Scott surveyed the village below, making slow swaths around the lingering smoke. He could see Dan already jockeying his bird into position. “Seven-niner-zero, drop looks clear. Over.”
“Roger, zero-six-zero. Beginning drop.”
Scott continued to make paths around the zone. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off-kilter. He nudged the intercom. “Chief, do you see anything?”
There was silence from the back of the helicopter then a loud squawk. “We got a problem, Lieutenant. I don’t see nothing out there.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Scott yelled, not bothering to use the intercom. He punched the radio. “Seven-niner-zero, abort drop. Repeat, abort drop. Something’s wrong.”
“This is seven-niner-zero. Is this some kind of a joke? We’re dropping the pallet.”
“Negative, seven-niner-zero. Do not drop. Something’s wrong with the target, Dan.”
“Bullshit, Scott. You did the recon didn’t you? We’re dropping the package.”
Scott pulled on the collective and picked up speed, heading straight for the heart of the village.
The intercom chirped with the Chief’s voice, urgency replacing his usual drawl. “There to starboard. By the tree line.”
Scott’s low hover sprayed dirt and debris across the windshield and sent clouds of dust billowing out. The co-pilot pointed downwards and Scott looked to the trees. There they were—several straw hats with brown faces peering out.
Brilliant white muzzle flashes arced across the nose of his ‘copter. Where were those intermediaries now when they were getting their asses shot out from underneath them?
Nine-zero had realized the trouble and was backing off the target. More bullets traveled Cassidy’s way and the heavy pallet shifted as Dan tried to pull up. The steady hum of the rotors changed to a distinct whump, whump as the blades slowed. Scott could almost see each individual blade and knew they weren’t going to make the climb.
“Dan, punch the load! Punch the load! You’re starting to oscillate!”
Air clogged in Scott’s chest. He lowered the collective and the bottom dropped out, the ground rushing upwards. The aircraft shimmied then settled under his hand. He skimmed the tree line and banked a hard left, drawing more fire away from Dan’s bird.
His co-pilot searched for the mic box and flipped the switches. “Base Alpha, this is zero-six-zero Nighthawk…the zone’s turned hot, repeat the zone is hot, we’re taking fire northeast to north…” Sharp pings puncturing aluminum crowded out the rest of his sentence.
To Scott’s right, he could see the medical pallet being released from its sling, heading in a straight trajectory to the earth below.
An acrid smell reached his nose as a voice from Nine-Zero yelled in his earphones, “Hey, Six-Zero, you’re burning.” Scott looked to the back but couldn’t see Lewis or the gunner, only smoke.
“Chief! Can you hear me? Gunner? What’s going on back there?” Silence greeted him. Then over the intercom came words so faint he almost missed them.
“Hit…he’s hit. Help…” A racking cough sputtered through the last of the communication and the intercom went quiet again.
The co-pilot twisted around to peer into the back. He looked at Scott through saucer-like grey eyes and made a slicing gesture across his throat.
Strong rotor vibration fed into the cockpit, and the ‘copter jumped and twitched under his hands like a bucking bronco. Scott countered the downward motion by pulling on the collective. Instead of changing the pitch and slowing the bird down, the craft settled even faster.
He glanced to Dan’s hawk and could see its gunner through the open cargo doors, a horrified expression on the man’s face. Nine-zero’s fifty-caliber guns opened up, their booms immediately upping the level of chaos in the air.
His co-pilot screamed out the altitude and speed. “Four hundred…eighty-five percent.”
They needed airspeed and they needed it now.
“Three hundred, eighty-two percent…”
His heart thumping in his ears, Scott pulled the cyclic and the helicopter jerked into a sideways yaw. It was an attempt to gain precious speed but if it didn’t work… Smoke started to crowd into the cockpit.
“One hundred, thirty percent.”
He tapped the airspeed indicator. They weren’t flying anymore, they were sinking.
“Damn it…brace for impact!” His voice was lost over the whir and whine of the engines. Without warning, the sky dropped and the sun was blotted out.
Johnny drew in a breath once he realized he had stopped. Scott’s story was vivid in the details and he swore he could smell the jungle, hear the guns and whump, whump of the Blackhawk’s blades. Most of all he could feel their fear.
Murdoch leaned forward in his chair and filled Johnny’s glass at least three fingers full. He wasn’t sure when he had finished the first one, but he wasn’t going to refuse a second.
Scott had taken maybe a swallow of his drink, but Murdoch moved closer anyway. Parked himself on the coffee table, and laid a hand on Scott’s knee. But Scott wasn’t with them and when he continued his narrative, he slipped further into the past.
Scott opened his eyes trying to remember where he was. As far as he could tell he was in the helicopter and crashed against the side of a mountain. He tried to straighten up. Something was wrong with his side. He took a deep breath and fire bloomed in his chest with most of the pain located in the left side of his rib cage. His back stung, but didn’t feel broken. His knee, trapped under the console, was complaining. He lifted his head from the side window and took his helmet off with a shaky hand, his nose twitching with leftover smoke and the smell of blood.
The co-pilot was splayed at an awkward angle across his seat, bubbles of red froth coming out of his mouth. The man’s eyes were open and unseeing; staring right at him.
He swung his eyes away from the dead pilot—not seeing him made it better somehow. “Chief!” he shouted, surprised when his voice came out too thin. A low moan responded from the back of the bird.
“Jack, can you hear me?”
Familiar voices crowded around him from outside the helicopter. He managed to check his watch. Only eight minutes since landing. It seemed like all day.
He wasn’t prepared for the door being yanked open and was flung halfway out. Dan and Jed grabbed him and pulled him from the wreckage.
Dan looked over him with wide eyes. “You all right, Scott?”
“I’ve been better. Get Jack out…and the gunner, they’re still in the back. The co-pilot is dead.”
Scott heard Jed cry out for his brother then the sound of metal wrenching against metal. He pushed himself up to one knee and watched Dan and Jed half-drag, half-carry Jack over to him. The Chief’s broad face was contorted in pain. Blood swathing the upper portion of his flight suit changed its color from green to almost black.
“The gunner?” Scott croaked.
Dan shook his head. They lowered the injured man to the ground beside him. Jack looked up at him, his eyes shadowed with pain.
“Damn, Lieutenant. Looks like we screwed the pooch.” He craned his neck to look at the aircraft and gave a low whistle. “Goddamn bastards shot my ‘copter.”
Scott gestured to the man’s chest. “And you it looks like.” Jed brushed past him and knelt beside his brother.
Jack turned a grin Scott’s way. “Oh this? Purely a scratch. Find me a pretty nurse and I’ll be right as rain.” He turned his attention to the man unzipping his flight suit. “And Jed you aren’t her, so quit fussing.”
Jack pushed Jed’s hand away from his chest and came up to an elbow. “I don’t see the kid…did he make it?”
Scott held his eyes for a moment then looked down. “No.”
“Well, hell. He was too young, Lieutenant, just way…too young.” With a groan the man slumped into his brother’s arms.
Cassidy had taken charge, using some system of his own to determine what to take, what to leave. The helicopter was a loss; it would be left here until a recovery unit could dismantle it part by part, destroying it in place. The two bodies were laid out on the ground. An under-smell of fresh blood mixed with metal and hot oil, turning Scott’s stomach. He met Dan’s eyes and struggled to his feet.
“We need to get out of here. Whoever shot at us will come soon enough.”
Dan nodded. “We left Pete and Tracey in our ‘copter, engines still hot. We’ll get you two loaded then come back for the bodies.”
The small party limped its way across a nearby stream and started into the dense underbrush. Scott pulled up and placed a hand on Dan’s sleeve.
“Dan, hear that?”
“Hear what? It’s quiet except for the ‘copter.”
“That’s what I mean, there aren’t any other sounds.” He pulled out his nine-millimeter.
“Detener o disparo!” a voice from the jungle in front of them commanded.
The group froze in their tracks.
“Parar!” another voice called from their right.
“Caída de su arma!” came the order from their left.
Surrounded. “Shit,” Scott hissed. He dropped his gun and raised his hands over his head.
Now there were sounds of other people coming from the jungle around them. A soldier wearing a tattered uniform stepped out from behind a tree and held an M-16 on him. Scott was surprised. The soldier who approached him was young, just a boy with bright brown eyes and black hair.
A burst of gunfire sounded in the distance and the noise from the ‘copter was silenced. Dan started forward, his quick movement earning a rifle butt to the ribs that dropped him to his knees. Another soldier stepped in front of Cassidy and yelled.
“Levántate! levántate!” He backed up his words by stepping closer and pointing his rifle at Dan’s head.
Jack was leaning on his brother, barely conscious, while Jed’s face was a picture of frustration and anguish.
Scott shifted his weight from his injured knee. They were prisoners and the Code of Conduct was no good in Honduras, especially for what was supposed to be a humanitarian mission. With a curse he called up habits learned from exacting training over the last two years. Use your eyes and ears like your life depends on them. Because it does.
Scott limped to the far end of the small compound they’d been pushed into. He pressed his fingers between the slats of the fence and tried to yank apart the wooden pieces. He heard voices then felt a sudden pain when his fingers were rapped hard. As he shook his hand to get rid of the needling sting, the voices—now laughing—faded away.
He was worried. They’d taken Dan away almost the instant they were pushed past the fence gate. Scott looked behind him, taking a shallow breath. His chest wasn’t getting any better and the forced march to their new home hadn’t helped his knee any. But his injuries were paltry in comparison to what Jack was suffering. At least the Chief could rest, even if it was on a dirt floor.
He moved away from the fence and caught Jed’s eyes. “How’s he doing?” he asked.
Jed got up from the crouch at his brother’s side. “Not any good…thanks to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just how it sounds, Lieutenant.” Jed drove a finger against his chest. “It’s your fault we’re in this mess. If you hadn’t of given the all-clear, we would’ve never tried that pallet drop. You did a shitty reconnaissance and now we’re paying for it—Jack’s paying for it.”
“Now’s not the time to be insubordinate, Sergeant.”
“Hell, Cassidy always said you were a…”
A rustle from the ground grabbed their attention. “Jed! Just shut up. You been ridin’ with Cassidy for too long. And you know Lieutenant Lancer is right. Now’s not the time.” He turned to wink at Scott. “Besides, I got the better pilot, we all know that.”
Feeling like a doddering old man, Scott knelt at the Chief’s side. “I could always count on you for loyalty, among other things.”
“I call’ em like I see’ em.” He tipped his head towards Jed’s back and lowered his voice. “He’s just scared.”
“I am too. Did you see the weapon that young soldier was carrying? An M-16, American-made.”
“I think so. Either that or drug runners. We’ll find out when Cassidy returns.”
Jack hitched a breath. “He’s been gone a long time, Lieutenant.”
“I know, I know.” Scott helped to sit the man up against the wooden fence. “Listen Jack, I’m sorry for getting you into this mess.”
“Don’t be. We all take an oath and know what could happen. I wouldn’t want to fly with anyone else and that’s the honest-to-God’s truth. Don’t be pussying out on me now. Remember what we said after that trouble the last tour in Iraq? We check…”
“…each other’s six.”
“Damn straight, L-T.”
The gate to their makeshift prison was flung inwards and Dan was thrown to the ground, a black hood over his head. He rolled once and struggled to his elbow. Scott bent down to pluck the hood off. Cassidy’s face was marked by a livid bruise across one cheek and a bloodied, swollen lip.
“What happened?” asked Scott.
Dan started to laugh. “They need us, Scotty-boy. They need us to fly.”
Someone from behind slipped a bag over his head and tied his hands behind his back with a rope. The barrel of a gun pushed him forward.
“Jack was a good man.” Scott’s noticeable break in his narrative was a welcome relief and Murdoch let up on his grip on the scotch bottle. For the moment Scott was present, and he welcomed his son back. Didn’t matter that his older son was seated safe and sound right here. That he survived the experience at all was a testament to that implacable strength that Murdoch had gotten hints of in both his sons.
How could he not wish that Scott had never gone through the experience in the first place?
“Jed was always a hot head. Wouldn’t listen when he should and that led to trouble more than once.” Scott revealed a strained smile. “Jack appeared to be all mouth, but when things went south, I could always count on him.”
“I would have liked to have met him.” Murdoch meant it. There was no mistaking the deep down respect Scott had for his crew chief, and that made him a man worth knowing.
“That would’ve been interesting.” Scott took a long swallow of Scotch and peered down at his glass. “This does go down like Kool-aid. Do I want to know how much it cost?”
“No.” That was mere details. “Scott, you don’t have to continue this.”
“You haven’t heard the worst of it.”
Worse. Murdoch knew there had to be, but he didn’t like the implication that Scott felt it would change their view of him.
“Doesn’t matter to us.” Johnny’s voice was low and smooth. “You did what you had to. Doubt either of us will judge you on that. Glass houses and all.”
Scott didn’t look like he believed them. Yet.
Scott calculated they had been moving for ten minutes or so before someone sat him down on the ground. This was no ordinary military camp. He heard women’s voices and the sounds of children playing nearby. The air was redolent with the aroma of food cooking.
Footsteps stopped in front of him. “Levantarse, Americano.” He rose and the hood was yanked off. Scott looked around at his surroundings, trying to find a way out. Seeing none, he focused in on his captor. The small man leered and motioned to two others who jostled him through a doorway. Plunged into the darkness of the small room, Scott had enough time to make out a table and chair before being forced to kneel. His ribs burned from being shoved nose to ground, a heavy boot on the back of his neck keeping him in the awkward position.
Bracing himself for the blow that was sure to come, his mind ran over the elements of resistance training he learned at Ft. Rucker. Only this wasn’t training. Scott gritted his teeth and waited.
No strikes came.
The foot lifted away from his neck and the door slammed shut. A flashing knife skimmed close and cut away the ropes around his wrists.
“Get up, Lieutenant.”
The voice was American with a nasal twang. Scott labored to his feet. The chair was pushed to him and a light bulb above his head was flipped on.
“Where am I?”
The bearded man laughed. “In Honduras.”
“No, what is this place?”
“It’s just a simple village, in a simple part of the world, stuck between a rock and a hard place.” The man’s words were tight with cynicism.
“Then who are you?”
“I think I should be the one asking questions, Lieutenant.”
Scott clamped his lips shut.
“Call me Ramirez. The NGO’s have moved off, you were supposed to be gone yesterday. Just what the hell is the Army still doing out here?”
His eyebrows lifted at the man’s words.
“Yeah, that’s right. I know the Army’s every move. It’s not hard for the CIA to get the information we need.” He frowned. “But it was wrong in this case. You were to finish the medical transport then be out of this area before Zelaya moved back in.”
“The big dog around here. He’s been planning a coup in these hills for the last few months then the earthquake hit. Slowed him down a little, but he’s gaining speed again. The CIA has been tasked—I’ve been tasked—to keep an eye on him. But that mission is screwed since you and your buddies showed up. You weren’t supposed to be here.”
“Some of my crew is dead, one wounded and one beaten. How am I supposed to trust you and what you’re saying?”
Ramirez’s head dropped. “I’m sorry about those men who were in the helicopter. I was too late to save them, and the beating Cassidy received. Arellano, Zelaya’s second, is one mean son-of-a-bitch. But he made a mistake by killing those men. Zelaya didn’t want any interference from the outside world, let alone the United States Army. And now Arellano is running scared. He knows they have to act fast or soon this whole place will be crawling with American soldiers looking for their downed crew.”
Ramirez stared at him. “Arellano is focused on the one thing he knows Zelaya would want out of this whole debacle.”
“I can’t give you the helicopter.”
“He’s forcing what’s left of the village to protect him and his men. Did you see those women and children out there? They’ll be nothing to Arellano if he wants them dead. Or if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, how about the lives of the men behind the locked fence?”
Scott’s eyes narrowed.
Ramirez leaned on the table. “Arellano wouldn’t have any compunction about killing them. He needs a pilot and he’ll kill the other two then play you against Cassidy. It’s your choice.”
“What do I get?”
Ramirez studied him for a moment. “Now you are a puzzle. I didn’t take you for the type, Lieutenant.” He strolled to the back of the room and leaned against the wall. “Okay, how much is your life worth to you?”
Scott shook his head and smiled. He pulled the chair to him and sat down, rubbing his chest. “Here’s my deal. I’ll fly the ‘copter if Cassidy and the rest go free.”
Ramirez shook his head. “Arellano won’t go for it.”
“Make him.” Scott emphasized his words with a sharp jab of his finger on the table top.
“You’re a pushy bastard, aren’t you?”
“Do you want to fly out of here or not?”
“There’s only one problem. Zelaya can’t get the helicopter. It’ll be the tipping point in an already unstable situation.”
“Tell me something I don’t know, the Army wouldn’t exactly care for it, either.” Scott studied the metal table. “There might be a way, if you’re willing to take a chance.”
“My life is currently full of chances, Lieutenant. And I want out of here just as much as you.”
“Then you sell Arellano on letting my people leave—intact, with weapons—and I’ll give you a helicopter ride you’ll never forget. And I want to see them leave.”
“You don’t trust me?”“My Grandfather didn’t raise a fool, Mr. Ramirez.”
Murdoch couldn’t move. The realization of what Scott had planned froze him in his place.
Scott hadn’t intended to make it out of Honduras alive.
A hand gripped his shoulder, and he looked up to meet Johnny’s eyes and whose shrug conveyed it all.
He’s here. Anything else is just ‘what ifs’.
Since Murdoch liked to sleep at night, he decided that was a good philosophy to follow.
Scott struggled to understand the situation. He’d been left in the cramped, humid room, sitting at the table with his head in his hands. Simple conversation with Ramirez hurt, every breath nipping at his ribs. He raked a hand through his hair and sat back in his chair.
Loud voices, arguing in Spanish came from beyond the door. The same two men who escorted him into the room jerked him to his feet and strong-armed him outside. Ramirez was standing beside a tall man dressed head to toe in all white. It was dazzling in the sunshine. He was brought to within five feet of the men and jerked to a stop.
Ramirez was talking in rapid fire Spanish to the man he could only assume was Arellano and gesturing in the direction where Cassidy and the Lewis brothers were being held. Arellano held up a hand and the conversation ceased.
Arellano stomped over to him. “You will fly this helicóptero if we let your men leave?”
“What stops me from…matando y obligando a que el otro?” Arellano turned to Ramirez.
Ramirez’s speech was heavily-accented now. “He wants to know, Americano, what will stop him from killing you and forcing the other to fly?”
“You kill me and you’ll never get Cassidy to fly. He’s too…patriotic. I have other motivations.”
“Ah.” Arellano nodded and looked him up and down. “I will think on this.”
“I wouldn’t take too long. You need me.”
There was a short gasp from Ramirez and his two guards started forward. One of them thrust the muzzle of his gun into Scott’s side. Shards of white danced through his vision and he fought for breath.
Arellano flicked his wrist and the guards backed off. He stared at Scott for a few long moments. “I will make this…deal. But I will also make it desagradable for you if things do not go well. Besides, la selva se matan ellos de todos modos.”
He turned on his heel and walked off.
Ramirez translated. “…the jungle will kill them anyway.” He shook his head as they watched Arellano’s back. “You’re either one smart son-of-a-bitch or crazy. I haven’t figured out which yet.”
The scene at the fenced-in prison was somber. He bore the accusing looks from Cassidy and Jed, but Jack’s pallid face tore at him.
Dan sneered, “What’s the matter, Scott? They got a little rough for you and you caved?”
“Don’t what? The truth hurts, doesn’t it? You’re just a damned coward after all, delivering the ‘Hawk right into their hands.”
Jack was hoisted between Cassidy and Jed. Dark shadows underlined the Chief’s eyes as he looked at Scott in puzzlement. “What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked. The Chief’s color turned grey, the effort of talking was costing him dearly.
“Checking six, Jack,” he said, keeping his voice low.
Realization dawned and the injured man struggled for a bit in his brother’s grip. “You don’t have to do this.”
Scott nodded. “Tell my grandfather I may be late.”
Cassidy swiveled to look at him. “The only thing we’re telling your grandfather is what a damn traitor his precious grandson turned out to be.”
Scott watched them escorted down the rutted pathway until they were out of sight.
Scott shot to his feet, the anger that he kept in check sweeping to the surface. He wanted to yell to the heavens, hit someone – Dan or Jed would do, and instead stopped mid-pace and struggled to rein it all back in; his own sense of betrayal, and his losses in that fucking jungle.
“Hey, Brother, you ever box?”
Scott blinked, made sense of Johnny’s question and nodded. “Some.”
“I got just the thing for you. Now finish this and we’ll talk about that later.”
Scott looked down at the ground beside the Blackhawk’s wheel. Blood marred the brown dirt, while a smear of red covered the glass window. The bodies of the two soldiers had been taken away and in deference to Arellano, the inside of the helicopter had been cleaned. Someone must have forgotten about the outside. He hobbled around the bird, doing a pre-flight then stopped. For what he had in mind, a pre-flight wouldn’t matter.
A strong grip on his collar, snapped him out of his thoughts. The force twisted him around and something popped within his chest. Scott staggered to the side of the helicopter biting back a howl of pain. From his bent view, Arellano and Ramirez were approaching. He struggled to stand upright.
Arellano looked at the aircraft and smiled. “Yes, Zelaya will be pleased with what I brought him.”
Ramirez looked at him with eyebrows raised in a question. Scott shook his head and turned away to the door.
They were all situated in the ‘copter. Arellano in the co-pilot seat while Ramirez and the guard sat in the back. Scott pulled switches and the engines roared to life. His hand strayed to the radio toggle but was stopped by a pistol laid across the controls. Arellano shook his head.
He managed a slight grin. “Force of habit.”
The blades spun, sending dirt and debris into the few onlookers at the edge of the jungle floor. Scott eased the collective upwards and the craft lifted. All they needed to do was to get to altitude where he would put the ‘copter into a planned autorotation. As a pilot, it was something they all practiced ad nauseum hoping the emergency procedure would never be needed. And it was the only way of damaging the aircraft without killing them all. At least that was the plan.
The pain in his side was white hot. His vision blurred and the craft tipped sideways.
The dark pupils of Arellano’s eyes dilated, his mouth was open and working for words. By the time Scott got the ‘copter righted, a gun was pressed against his neck.
“Nunca hagas eso otra vez!”
Ramirez shouted from the back. “He says to never do that again.”
“I figured that out. Tell him to put the gun away. It makes me nervous.”
Scott checked the altimeter…just a few more feet. He cut the engines and they started to free fall, the blades catching in the downdraft. Arellano panicked and clawed at his shoulder harness, slapping at Scott and the controls. Anything he could reach.
Suddenly, everything around Scott began to spin. His ribs dug deeper into his lungs. He couldn’t breathe anymore. Not now…not now. He pulled at the cyclic forcing the ‘copter into a roll.
He felt his body floating. The pain was gone. So this is what it feels like to die. Soothing grey flitted across his vision then a soft white. High above Arellano’s screams to his God, he felt sorry for Ramirez…this landing wasn’t going to be soft.
“Scott, how did you get out of there?” Johnny asked the question since he was pretty sure Murdoch wasn’t in the place to do it. The old man’s face had lost some color when Scott was describing the crash and it appeared he needed a bit more reminding that this was all in the past.
Scott took a healthy swallow of his drink. “Search and rescue. The only thing the Army hates to lose more than a helicopter is its crew. I woke up at the Palmerola Air Base and was told that Dan and the Lewis brothers were missing. Scott looked down at the amber liquid. “I was the only one to survive the crash.”
Ah, hell. Johnny made a mental note not to bring up any of his escape by the skin of his teeth moments until their father recovered from his brother’s. He figured a year or two might be long enough. Maybe.
“I was evac’ed to Walter Reed Hospital. During the LOD…”
Murdoch paused in raising his glass. “LOD?”
With his drink in his left hand, Scott rubbed the left side of his chest with his right. “Line of Duty investigation. It was determined that my injuries were in the line of duty- not due to my own misconduct even if I managed to crash two Blackhawks in a matter of days.”
Johnny watched as Scott’s hand continued to move over his ribs, an action Johnny was certain he wasn’t aware of.
“How bad were you messed up?”
Scott’s hand stilled and he shot a look Johnny’s way. “I was out about three months. Two of those were PT.”
Johnny figured that was one thing they all had in common as of late. That pain in the ass physical therapy. He’d be quite happy to never see that perky militant therapist of his again. He knew Murdoch shared the sentiment.
“When did you find out about Cassidy and the rest of the men?” Murdoch leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. Johnny was glad to see he had some color in his face.
“While I was at Walter Reed. My unit let me know they were found a day later. They told me Jack didn’t make it. I didn’t ask much beyond that.”
“I returned to active duty. I heard Dan and Jed were honorably discharged, but didn’t see them until they showed up here.”
And look how that ended. Johnny swallowed down the rest of his Scotch to keep his own anger in check. Let Murdoch be the one to say what needed to be said, because what Johnny had in mind wouldn’t help anyone. His brother didn’t need to hear his opinion on Cassidy and Lewis beyond what he had already heard.
“I’m not so certain I would be so forgiving in your place.” Murdoch sighed. Scott looked startled. “But I’m glad to know the entire story. Thank you.”
“Wasn’t a pretty one.”
“As Johnny said, glass houses and all, and I have no intentions on judging a situation when I wasn’t there. However, I was for this situation and let’s just say I am grateful that Cassidy and Lewis are not free to roam.”
Amen to that.
Scott followed Johnny, at his insistence, out to the largest barn. Beyond the initial tour of the place, Scott hadn’t been inside the building since. It was quiet as most of the horses were out in the pasture and the employees elsewhere.
Johnny swung open a door and walked through, Scott trailing behind into a dark room. A flip of a switch and the lights revealed a fair sized space with a punching bag strung up near the center. A pair of gloves struck his torso and he caught them on reflex.
“One of these days we’ll face off and see what each of us knows.” Johnny strolled over to the bag. “But right now you’re pissed off with every right to be.” He patted the bag. “You can hit this until the mad is worked out and then we’ll see what you’ve got.”
Scott didn’t hold back the first punch and he felt the shock of it all the way through his body. The shoulder wound made its presence known, but strike after strike and the tension melted away with the sweat that poured out of him.
On the other side of the bag, Johnny grinned.
It felt good.
Joe Bell glanced at the clock at the sound of the car and raised an eyebrow at the lateness of the hour. Old habits had him checking the window, but he recognized the Jeep and stepped out unto the porch.
With some amusement he watched as Murdoch Lancer unfolded the whole, long length of himself from the vehicle. It never failed to entertain.
Murdoch nodded. “Sorry about the late call, but I wanted to thank you.” He held out a brown paper bag wrapped bottle. Joe took it and in the porch light pulled out a twenty-five year old Glenmorangie. Leave it to Murdoch Lancer to show up with fancy whisky in a brown paper baggie.
“Scott talked to you.”
“This isn’t necessary.”
“Shut up and take it.”
“Well, if you’re gonna get all pissy about it-”
“Bell, I owe you.”
“Nah, you don’t, but I won’t argue this.” He gave a nod. “You have good boys.”
“Yeah.” Murdoch grinned. “Yeah, I do.”
~ end ~
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