Chapter no 10

Forgotten Ruin

The sergeant major led me off through the woods to a little place out among the trees he’d set up for himself. Sort of his unofficial command post where the NCOs and none of the junior officers knew to find him. There was a tiny smoking fire and a blue camp percolator of coffee still sitting among the ashy orange coals.

This place was the opposite of the whole island. “Coffee?” rumbled the senior-most NCO.

I gladly got out my canteen cup in giddy anticipation. You’ll never need to ask me twice regarding the sacred brew. I’m an avowed coffee addict, though I tell people I’m merely just an enthusiast and pretend to accidentally “find” craft coffeehouses doing the latest pour-overs or whatever. That’s all an act. Like an alcoholic who pretends they know something about wine. Truth is, I’ll even hit a government vending machine like break room doughnuts left out three days too long if I’m desperate enough. I don’t judge. Coffee is a dark mistress that must be served, and I’m not too proud about where I have to find it. I’d been ignoring a creeping terror that told me there was no more coffee in this world, and my thirty-six packets of instant and whatever else we’d brought along in the MREs was all that was left. Forever. That’s real terror. Like waking up and realizing you didn’t survive the plane crash and you’re all in hell now.

So what I’m saying is, I’m not particular about where I find it.

Especially not now.

We sat down on some rocks around the fire.

I watched as the command sergeant major listened to the sounds across the island. To his Rangers cutting down more trees for defenses. Chainsaws growling and screaming so as much work got done as possible before nightfall. Then silence after the thin leafless giants collapsed with loud rustles and a final whumph into the dead grass.

“They’ll be back tonight,” observed the sergeant major as he blew on his coffee and held the tin cup close to his gray eyes, watching the silent woods and seeing the battle we’d find again there tonight.

He wasn’t inviting my opinion on the matter. He was telling me what was going to happen. To be honest I’m not even sure I was part of the

conversation. More than likely he was talking to himself. Steeling himself what was coming next. So I didn’t say anything. Either because I didn’t know whether what he was saying was true, or… and this is what I really suspected… I didn’t want it to be true.

“All right, son,” said the sergeant major, looking at me after scanning the work and positions he could see from his little campsite observation post. “Let’s see the intel you pulled last night.”

I produced the wizard’s messenger bag. The spell book. The gruesome “ingredients,” for lack of better words. The documents, and by documents I mean sheets of brittle parchment covered in strange scrawlings. The staff I’d been carrying around with me ever since we’d crossed through the forest and back over to our side of the river. Through the entire debrief with the SEAL McCluskey. I’d held on to it like I’d been ordered. When I told the sergeant major it was heavy, heavier than my rifle, he said I should put it down, but he didn’t make any move to touch it himself. Instead he got out a Benchmade folding knife and began to probe the spell book. Opening the cover carefully with the blade. I laid the documents out too. We sat there for a long moment just looking at everything. Or rather, the command sergeant major looking at everything. Me just sitting there and trying to think up something meaningful to contribute. It was all pretty… crazy. Truth was, none of anything made sense. The writing inside the spell book wasn’t recognizable. It looked to me more like a code based on strange symbols and what had to be numbers, though they defied my ability to give them values. Occasionally characters in Chinese would pop up, and these I knew. Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. And then a fifth one that I didn’t know, but which seemed to stand as a unifier, a combination of all of these essence characters. A quintessence, if you will.

None of this was of use, militarily, regarding our current situation. Situation Ranger Alamo as I’d taken to calling it in my head when I allowed myself a moment to think about just how deep we were into this. Given time—and a nice warm room with a fire like the library at any ivory tower university would have on a winter’s day of research—I could probably unlock this stuff and translate. No. Not probably. I could. Definitely. I was just being modest. But I didn’t have those things right now. No fire. No unlimited coffee. No ivory tower. No time.

We had something trying to kill us all from every quarter, and the

ticking clock of nightfall hanging over us. That’s all any of us had.

There were no plans, orders, command, and signal… nothing. Even the wizard’s map was just a rough sketch, geographically speaking, of what the enemy had been sent to attack.

One of the loose pieces of parchment might have been a letter to someone. Just a guess. But there was definitely an official-looking seal at the bottom of that one. Black wax. A pitchfork and the letter T. Not like official as in government, but clearly someone with some kind of authority in this crazy messed-up world. But the body of the enigmatic letter was in code and there was no easy way to crack the text with daylight burning and another battle coming with the night.

Eventually, after a long quiet pause, the sergeant major told me to bag it all up and hold on to it.

“Oh,” I said, remembering one last thing I’d forgotten to show him. “Guy had this ring… on… his finger…”

I dug around in my cargo pockets for it. Then I found it.

And without thinking I slipped it on as I pulled it out, past some Carmex I carried in that pocket that had made everything waxy and slick.

“Uh… Talker,” drawled the sergeant major slowly. In Texan. He stood. “Where’d you just go, son?”

“Uh… right here, Sergeant Major,” I answered brightly. Y’know, like the guy trying to have a positive attitude before the doctor tells him the very bad test results he knows are coming.

I took the ring off my finger and held it out to the sergeant major for inspection.

The command sergeant major jumped back and swore. “What the hell’d you just do, son?”

“I’m… not sure what you mean, Sergeant Major. I didn’t do anything.” I looked around. Everything seemed normal. The thin sunlight was getting down in the trees. The Rangers had started on another clump of spindly spruces over by the water with their chainsaw. It ripped and roared and began to cut down another tree.

“You just disappeared and reappeared, Talker. Either that or it’s my old head injury from Kandahar.”

“What?” I shrieked, my heart suddenly jumping off a cliff. I’m not sure

if I actually did shriek like a frightened child. But I probably did. This was exactly the thing I was afraid of happening here. Disappearing. I hadn’t visualized that particular fate, but I’d been sure something completely unexpected, and having to do with the unexplainable, supernatural stuff, bad, terrible, would happen to me despite my best efforts at self- preservation.

Then I remembered I hadn’t addressed the senior NCO by his rank. “I mean… uh… Sergeant Major. I… what happened? Sergeant Major.”

I stammered for a while until he stopped me.

“Talker. When you went fishing for that ring you just held out… you disappeared. I could hear you, and if I tried real hard, I could see you move a little. Or maybe it was just the light shifting. But it wasn’t you. It was like that Schwarzenegger movie about the team down in South America. Predator. The alien that hunts ’em.”

I hadn’t seen that particular masterpiece. But I wasn’t stupid. A cold sweat had broken out across my body despite the chill in the afternoon air. And… I knew what I had to do next. I took the ring in one hand and slipped it back on the finger I had unconsciously slipped it onto while trying to get it out of my cargo pocket in the first place.

The sergeant major gave a low whistle.

“You just did it again, Talker. You just disappeared, son. Well… I’ll be a…”

“I’m still here, Sergeant Major.” Then, oh crud… What if this was like the ring in the Frodo movies? I looked around. I didn’t see a netherworld of spirits and wraith riders coming for me. Or a burning giant eye in the sky. Everything looked exactly the same as when I hadn’t had the ring on.

I took it off and realized I’d been holding my breath. And that my heart was racing like a freight train.

The sergeant major held out his hand. I handed the ring over and he looked at the metal circle. Turning it over and over again as he studied it.

“So…” he began slowly. “This thing kinda acts like a cloaking device. But on a personal level.” He spoke almost to himself like he was thinking about something. “I don’t suppose it matters much now, but we had something similar to this in Delta. Not this simple. Not that good. But… given time… DARPA mighta cooked something like this up. I could see that.”

He was still staring at it when he asked me, “Did you feel okay, using it, Talker?”

I didn’t respond. I was still trying to differentiate between fear and well-being. My heart was racing, but I was pretty sure that was just fear.

“Did it mess with your head or anything, son?” he continued.

“Nah,” I said, trying on Ranger Tough for a second and then remembering I was talking to the sergeant major. The command sergeant major of a Ranger batt. Yeah, I’d gained some kind of special inside confidence role, but best not to take that for granted. “Negative, Sergeant Major. Good to go.”

He stared at the ring a moment longer, his weather-beaten face frozen like some statue as his eyes searched its surfaces and he studied the dull silver of its composition, musing to himself about something. He pushed the thing back to me.

“You hang on to this for now, son.”

And that was that. I had a ring that made me invisible. Like Frodo, or one of the hobbits. The other one first. Frodo later. I hadn’t read the books or seen the movies in a long time, but I knew colleagues in the Language Arts who spoke and communicated to one another in one of the made-up languages Tolkien had created. I knew a few words. I’d always meant to play their little game but…

“Boys over in the weapon section caught one last night,” said the sergeant major, shifting to a new topic. He drained the last of the coffee in his canteen cup. “Need you to go over there and talk to it. See if you can understand it and find out what it knows about the enemy’s disposition of forces.”

He scanned the forest once more like it was full of invisible enemies just waiting for him to go kill them. Just looking at the sergeant major looking for enemies made me nervous.

“Uh… Sergeant Major,” I began.

The sergeant major said nothing. I was used to, after the last year of introductory military training, waiting for permission from NCOs to speak to NCOs. I guess we were beyond all that now.

“I’m not really an interrogator, Sergeant Major,” I said.

The old NCO put his empty tin cup down on a rock near the blue camp percolator and leaned in close.

“I know that, Talker. But… John. He taught you the basics. Gave you the course, right?”

How did he know that? I’d looked at my records jacket, and the two- week stay in a cheap Vegas motel had been designated by only an alphanumeric string of numbers and letters. Meaningless and indecipherable even to someone in personnel and admin. Somewhere in some government computer it meant something to someone who could read that particular language. Knew what it meant. But me, I had no clue. I knew what it stood for only because I knew what had happened during those two weeks in Vegas at a hotel no one would ever think twice about. Most military schools noted in records jackets on the appropriate line said something like Basic Training. Eight Weeks Completed. Or Airborne Training. Three Weeks. Fort Benning. Completed. The sergeant major had looked at my records jacket and had been able to determine what that mysterious string of numbers and letters had meant? And he knew…

“He still call himself John?” asked the sergeant major. I nodded that he did.

“Good,” drawled the sergeant major. “So… you know what to do. How to interrogate for intel.”

I nodded again.

There was a lot of nodding going on. We’d entered that world. A world I’d been told about by John. He’d told me about that world one time in a conversation I thought was just a break between lessons. But later I realized it had been just another lesson. Sometimes, he’d told me, when you were talking about stuff that didn’t openly get talked about, you ended up just nodding a lot. Using words that didn’t seem to mean what they were supposed to mean, to stand in for the meanings of the dark words you needed to use to communicate valuable intel.

I’d had no idea, at the time, what I was being trained for, but apparently this kind of behavior was part of it. Intel stuff. I’d read a couple of spy novels, and I was pretty sure I was being groomed to either “run joes”—a John le Carré term—or be one. Very low-level spy stuff, I was sure of that. Observe and Report. Not James Bond, if that’s what you’re thinking.

I remember John and I were eating eggs at a diner one evening. South side of Vegas. No one else there in that cheap diner. I kept looking for the waitress to have some horrible scar around her throat where it had been

slashed once, long ago. But she didn’t.

John said, low in the quiet while some jazz instrumental version of the song “Goin’ Out of My Head” played over the bad speakers, he said, “It’s like this…” He put down his fork. “If the mob asks if you kill people, professionally, the way they ask you is, they say, Do you paint houses? Like that. That’s how they ask you. And sometimes, if you ever do get asked to do some work, I’m not saying assassination, I’m just saying… to employ some of the skills I’ve taught you, then it will be requested indirectly using a code phrase, some of which I’ll teach you. Because these are things that can’t be reported. Can’t be official. Can’t be known. Understand? This is what you signed up for.”

I sure, kinda, did. At the time. I thought I did.

I mean c’mon. I was in Vegas, in a diner, on the absolutely wrong side of town, getting an off-books intel course before being told to go who knew where and do who knew what. It was all very not real and very exciting at the same time. Probably because it wasn’t real. And if you thought I had Area 51 and then ten thousand years in the future on my dance card then you’re giving me way more credit than I deserve. I just thought I was headed off to some embassy in Germany where I was gonna pick locks on government file cabinets, which is what we’d spent most of our time on during the two weeks in Vegas in the cheap motel. The other stuff had been along the lines of Oh-by-the-way-if-you-do-happen-to-need-to-interrogate- someone-here’s-how-you-do-it. Y’know… like that. Like I’d probably never need to actually do it.

Or maybe that’s just what I told myself the whole time throughout those two weeks because there were some things being taught that… let’s just say… required one to be morally flexible.

I nodded across the wisps of campfire smoke, and the sergeant major folded his large weathered hands together as we just sat there. Hands that had probably murdered people and left them out in deserted forests similar to my current surroundings. He stared into the fire and I couldn’t tell if he was thinking or just watching the dying orange coals turn to gray as the afternoon moved into its decline.

I decided to change the subject. “Hey, that State Department guy…”

The sergeant major’s gray eyes came up fast. But nothing else in his

tall and powerful body moved.

“He asked me how we were doing,” I finished.

I waited for the sergeant major to react. He didn’t. So I clarified.

“Used the word… men. As in How are the men doing. Know what I mean, Sergeant Major? Seemed… odd. Like he’s up to something.”

The sergeant major thought about that for a moment. His eyes seemed to see, and not see, the drifting smoke in the coals.

I drained the last of my coffee, indicating I wouldn’t mind more if there was any.

“Lemme see your sidearm, Talker,” rumbled the sergeant major abruptly.

Okay, I said to myself, wondering if I’d just committed some error that was about to get me buried in a shallow grave close by. I put my empty canteen cup down and drew my weapon, ejected the magazine, cleared the chamber, and then handed it over.

The sergeant major put my weapon aside on a rock and drew his own sidearm. It was the same as mine. M18. We’d all been issued M18s as our secondaries at the Fifty-One armories. He handed his over, and that was when I saw the difference between his and mine. His barrel was threaded. Mine wasn’t.

John had covered a little bit of this. One day when we took a long drive out into the desert east of Vegas.

The sergeant major reached into his ruck and took out a wrapped bundle. Green cloth and then bubble wrap. He handed it across the fire to me.

“Clean him,” muttered the senior NCO as he sat back. “Can’t have that going forward.”

I unwrapped the cloth knowing what I’d find. Knowing the sergeant major had understood exactly what I was saying about Volman. Even though I hadn’t. Or I had. Maybe I’d just expected a different solution. A talking-to. Even a punch in the face.

Instead I was looking at a silencer.

“Back in the old days, Talker, we called it R&R. John probably used ’clean’ like they do in the Agency. We’d say take a guy out to R&R. Some thought it meant Rest and Relax.”

I’d really been waiting to pick some locks on file cabinets. I’d gotten

really good at that. But I also knew the code word the sergeant major had just used and what it meant. I just never thought anyone would use it.

“R&R don’t mean that, son. It meant Roughly Retire. Just so we’re clear. Know what I mean?”

Clean him. That’s code for assassinate. In Russian it’s ubiystvo. In Korean it’s amsal. In American it means kill him. R&R.

Silly me.

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