Monday, January 25, 2010

L.E.O. -- Chapter Twenty

Coleman Barracks, Germany, 2005

Johnny did his best to keep his eyes open, stretching his neck muscles as far as they would go. The heat slowly being piped into the room didn't help his drowsy feeling any. He looked around -- the other soldiers were in the same boat.

The conference room was filled with NCOs, all dressed in there desert BDUs. Five members of Johnny's unit were there, among 20 others. An Army Captain stood at the front of the room. He wasn't too much older than Johnny -- he'd probably just gotten promoted days earlier. The Captain's nametape read "Howell." He was tall, thickly muscled, and red-faced, but he talked softly.

"Now, y'all know why you're here. Your tours are all up within the next few months. Now, my job is to get you to consider staying on for another hitch," Howell said, smiling. He tapped a few keys on the laptop next to him, and a PowerPoint flickered onto the large LCD at the front of the room.

"Now, look here. These are the latest unemployment numbers from back in the States. Don't look to good, do they?"

A few soldiers mumbled in the negative. Johnny stayed quiet.

"Now, how long you think Mom and Dad gonna let you crash back in your old room? Sure, they'll be happy to see you. At first," Howell said. "But eventually, you're gonna have to go out there and get a job. Don't get me wrong -- the Army's trained you well. And employers like to see Army experience. Still, it's tough out there, and I wanna see y'all land on your feet."

Howell scanned the room. His eyes fell on Johnny.

"Sergeant Teal," he said. Howell's cracker accent -- North Florida, Johnny thought -- dropped the g's and e's. The word came out more as "Sarnt" than "Sergeant."

"Yes, sir."

"How long you been in, Staff Sergeant?"

"Six years, sir," Johnny said.

"Six years in, E-6 grade, plus hazard. Living expenses paid. How long you figure it'll take you to find a job pays like that back home?"

Johnny wanted to say he'd already found a job that paid more. Part of him didn't want to fuck with an officer, but part didn't care. He was out in six weeks, anyway. What could they really do to him?

"Could take a while, sir," he said instead. Howell smiled and nodded.

"Exactly, Sergeant. You sound like a man who's already made his decision," Howell said.

"That's affirmative, sir," Johnny replied. Johnny sat through the rest of the meeting, bored to tears. At least this guy Howell wasn't as bad as the one two years ago, he reasoned. The last such meeting Johnny had been to was in Iraq -- the officer running that one had yelled and ranted like a Pentacostal preacher.

After what the clock said was an hour (it had felt like most of the day), Howell wrapped up his presentation. Johnny and the others stood. As the soldiers filed out, Johnny was near the end of the line.

"Staff Sergeant Teal -- hold up a sec," Howell called out.

"Yes, sir."

Johnny stopped and turned to face the Captain as the room emptied. Howell shut down his computer and walked over to Johnny, smiling.

"So, Sergeant, how long you re-upping for?" Howell asked.

"I'm not, sir. I'm out in a few weeks."

"Oh. I thought you said --"

"I did, sir. But I've been hired on by the Sheriff's Department back home. Didn't want to fuck up your flow, though."

He expected yelling. After all, he had just lied to a superior officer in front of a room full of soldiers. Instead, Howell just sighed and nodded his head.

"I appreciate that, Sergeant. Not easy doing these presentations, and that would've made it tougher."

Howell grabbed a file from the desk.

"Staff Sergeant John Teal," he read from the file. "Two tours with the 18th MP over in Iraq. Decorated four times in the line of duty. Says here you just completed your bachelor's through the extension program."

"That's correct, sir."

"OK, Sergeant. Gotta pitch you. You're the kind of soldier we want to keep. You stay in, go to OTS, and you could really make a career outta this. Go Special Ops, maybe."

"No officer aspirations, sir. Got things to take care of Stateside."

"I understand. Really, I do," Howell said, reading a bit more. "Looks like you got a couple months leave built up. You could leave now if you wanted -- be back home in a couple of days."

"Yes, sir. I have some things to wrap up here, as well."

"Copy that, Sergeant. Sure there's nothing the Army can do to keep you?" Howell asked.

"Nothing springs to mind, Captain."

"Well, we hate to lose you. But you gotta do what you gotta do, right?"

"Exactly, sir."

* * *

Johnny stopped his motorcycle and checked the pockets of his cargo pants for the tenth time. The gun was still in the right pocket. His knife was still sheathed under his jacket. He took off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars, then checked his watch: 1640 local. He still had a few minutes before the motherfucker got off work. He saw a cafe across the street from the office building -- that would do.

He sat at a table outside -- one with a clear view of the office building -- and a waiter appeared a moment later.

"Kaffee?" he asked.

"Ja. Klein, bitte," Johnny said.



"First time in Stuttgart, friend?"

"Nope. But probably the last."

The waiter shot him a confused look, shrugged, and went to fetch his coffee. He returned a moment later, now uninterested in conversation.

The coffee was bold and hyper-strong, just as Johnny liked it. He drank the first cup quickly, then ordered another -- 15 minutes to go.

He nursed the last coffee, paid the check, and went across the street. It was three minutes until five, and no one left the building yet.

"German work ethic," Johnny muttered, heading for the parking garage. He quickly found the car -- a pristine black 2005 Mercedes SLK. As employees started to filter into the garage, Johnny leaned back against a pillar and waited. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.

Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty. The garage emptied out as he waited and killed off a few more cigarettes. The black Mercedes remained.

At a quarter till six, the Mercedes was alone in the garage. Its lights flashed and its doors unlocked -- Johnny pushed off the pillar. He saw the man headed for the car, but thanks to the long winter shadows, the man couldn't see him. Johnny let him get into the car.

As the man started the engine, Johnny sprang from the shadows, drawing his knife and plunging it through the grille into the car's radiator. White steam hissed out from under the hood, and the car's engine instantly seized and stalled. Johnny was at the driver's door in a flash.

The man had locked the doors, but that didn't even slow Johnny down. He slammed his left elbow into the driver's window, shattering it. The man tried to scramble out the passenger door; Johnny was too fast for him. He dragged the man screaming through the shattered window.

"Wahlen Sie meine Auto! Mein Geld!" the man yelled as Johnny threw him to the concrete.

"Shut the fuck up," Johnny hissed, scowling. "I'm not here for your car or your money."

"You're American," the man gasped. His accentless English marked him as American, as well.

Of course, Johnny knew the man was American. He knew everything about him. His name was Darren Edwards -- 32, American liason for EoTech. He was also the man who was engaged to Johnny's now ex-wife.

Realization slowly dawned on Darren's face.

"Oh, shit," Darren breathed. "You're him, aren't you? John Teal."

Johnny said nothing. He instead took a step toward Darren, who scampered away a few paces.

"Look. Listen, man. Just calm down. This thing between Andrea and me --" Darren stammered. He stopped talking when Johnny drew his Beretta M9.

"Oh, don't let me interrupt," Johnny growled. "You were saying?"

"Look, man. I can pay you --"

Johnny drove a kick into Darren's side. Darren sprawled on his side, coughing and gasping for breath. Johnny leveled the Beretta at Darren's skull and pulled back the hammer.

Darren went into a fetal position, covering his head with his hands.

"Hey," Johnny spat. "None of that, now. You did a man dirt, Chief. Least you can do is face your death like a man."

Darren looked up at Johnny.

"Please, man. Don't. Don't kill me."

Johnny shrugged.

"You should've known there would be consequences," he said, voice oddly calm. In that moment, his anger vanished from him completely. Strangely, the anger wasn't replaced by anything -- no fear, no sadness, nothing. A silent blankness washed over him. His mind turned off.

Johnny realized then that he could pull the trigger right now or walk away, and he didn't care which. Neither choice would affect him. Neither option would make him feel anything.

Down on the ground, Darren screwed his eyes shut and covered his head again. He sobbed. When he finally looked up several minutes later, he was alone in the garage, his Mercedes spewing engine coolant all over the concrete.

* * *

"Hey, Sergeant Teal. Thought you were outta here already," Corporal Thompkins said as Johnny walked into the Coleman Barracks gym.

"Almost out the door, Kenny," Johnny said, dropping his duffel next to the boxing ring. "Flight for home leaves tomorrow morning."

"So you came by to pick one last fight?" Thompkins asked, grinning.

"If you've got the inclination and the time, Corporal," Johnny said.

"Yeah, I figure I can take you to school, Sergeant," Thompkins grinned, unzipping his hooded sweatshirt and tossing it to the floor.

Thompkins was wearing a dark green wife-beater under his sweatshirt -- it was an XL, but the young Corporal's muscular frame almost tore it.

Johnny took off his own sweatshirt -- while extremely muscular himself, he looked about half Thompkins' size. He climbed into the ring.

"So, what's your poison, Sergeant? Boxing? MMA? Kung Fu?" Thompkins asked, joining him in the ring.

Johnny considered the options. Thompkins was an unarmed combat expert, and a former amateur MMA fighter. He and Johnny had fought several times, but Johnny had never won. It probably didn't matter which style he chose, Johnny guessed -- he'd probably get on the plane tomorrow nursing a black eye anyway.

"How about all of the above?" Johnny suggested, strapping on a pair of 8-ounce boxing gloves.

"Ooh. Interesting," Thompkins said. He strapped on his own pair of gloves. "I accept your challenge, Sergeant. Till knockout or tapout."

"Agreed," Johnny said, stretching.

"Ready when you are, Sergeant."

Johnny rolled his head from side to side and brought up his hands.

"Let's go," Johnny said.

Thompkins moved fast for a big man. His right hand caught Johnny in the chin before he even knew what was going on. His head snapped back.

Suddenly, all the rage that had vanished back in the parking garage came barreling back. Johnny was on the move, ducking the next punch. He came up quick and hard, slamming his fist upwards into Thompkins' chin, then taking his legs out from under him with a quick, low kick. The big man hit the canvas hard and struggled to get up, but Johnny knocked him cold with a quick jab to the face.

The rage vanished. As quickly as it had come, it was gone again, replaced by cool nothingness. Johnny jumped out of the ring and grabbed his duffel bag.

"Think we're counting that as a knockout," Johnny said to Thompkins, who was still out cold. He left the gym, went home, and went to sleep.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

L.E.O. -- Chapter Nineteen

"I swear, Sarge, I have no idea how that arm got there."

"You really don't want to say anything to me, Alex. Not to any cop. You want to stay quiet, get yourself a lawyer, and do exactly what he tells you," Johnny said.

"Sarge, I --"

"Really, Alex. Not a word."

Johnny slowly nudged his truck onto I-480. The snow was picking up, collecting on the roads faster than the plows could get to it. He was glad he'd taken his Ram rather than a Department cars -- when Rawlins arrived to secure Alex's place, he'd almost gotten stuck.

Rawlins had called Ellie and the overworked crime scene team -- once Johnny got Alex booked downtown, he'd drive back out and assist them. He supposed he should have had Rawlins ferry Alex to the station, but he felt it was something he should do himself -- like he owed Alex.

Alex did as he was told the rest of the way to the station -- he didn't say a word. Johnny escorted his prisoner to central booking. There were no other arrests waiting, so Johnny listened in as the clerk processed Alex.

"Name?" she asked.

"Kelley, Alexander S."

"Date of birth?"

"12 March 1983."

"Address on your license current, Mr. Kelley?"

"It is, ma'am."

"Where do you work?"

"Currently on Army disability."

"Any scars, marks, tattoos?"

"Bullet scars on right shoulder and hand, left lower torso, right leg. Knife scars on inside of right arm, right torso, left lower torso. Burn scars on upper and lower back. 75th Ranger tattoo on left shoulder. Staff Sergeant stripes tattooed on the upper sternum. Army SOCOM emblem tattooed on right shoulder. I think that's all of them, ma'am."

Johnny noticed the clerk's eyes had widened as she typed. She took his mug shot a few moments later, and Johnny signed off on the arrest. Two corrections officers appeared and moved to collect Alex. As he stood, Alex looked at Johnny.

"What's next, Sarge?" Alex asked.

"You'll be in holding for a little while. Use that time to call a lawyer. VA should be able to help with that. Then you'll be questioned."

"By you?"

"No. That'd be a conflict of interests. Just remember what I said -- say nothing without a lawyer present," Johnny told him. "When your lawyer does show up, say only what he tells you to say. We clear?"

"Clear, Sarge. I didn't do anything. I promise you that."

"See? There you go, talking to a cop without a lawyer," Johnny said, smirking a little.

"I know. I just wanted you to hear that now. From me."

Johnny nodded, and the two Corrections officers ushered Alex through the metal door at the end of the room.

"You know him?"

"Yeah," Johnny said to the clerk -- he didn't recognize her. She must have been new. "We were in the war together, in Iraq."

"Wow. What'd you have to arrest him for?" she asked.

"Suspicion of murder," Johnny said. He sighed as he headed for the door.

* * *

Johnny had stopped by the office for a moment to grab a battery for his BlackBerry. He was back in the elevator, watching the doors close. Just before they slid shut, someone jammed an arm between them.

"Ow! Fuck! Wrong hand!" Johnny heard Eric yell as the doors opened.

Eric walked into the elevator, rubbing his shoulder where he'd been shot.

"You all right?" Johnny asked, trying not to laugh.

"Yeah. I'll live. Glad I caught you, though. You heading to the crime scene?"

It bothered Johnny to hear Alex's place called "the crime scene." He tried not to show it, though. He nodded.

"Did what you asked. There isn't much out on Omega -- an FBI datasheet with your report."

"That's it?"

"That's all the official stuff. The Web site you had me check out last week -- the nutbag conspiracy one? He had some stuff."

"Anything that looked, you know, non-crazy?"

"He draws a link between Omega and The National Militia. Says they're working together. Of course, he also links them to the Illuminati, which he says is controlled by George Bush Sr., who is in turn run by aliens," Eric said.

"So, no on the non-crazy, then."

"Yeah, everyone knows the Illuminati are run by the ghost of Bon Scott," Eric grinned.


"Never mind. I'll have you know, though, that was fucking hilarious."

"If you say so. Find anything else?"

"Negative. Not a thing. Guess that's why they call it a covert operation."

"Good work. I'm heading to meet Ellie and Frank," Johnny said as the elevator stopped. "This'll probably be a pointless, but see what you can dig up on The National Militia. Enano seems to know a bunch about them," Johnny said.

"Will do. You think the conspiracy nut has something?"

"Just a feeling."

"I heard you might've got the guy, though," Eric said.

"I got a guy," Johnny said, "But I don't think it's the guy."

Eric walked him to his truck. Johnny held up his BlackBerry.

"Fully charged now, so shoot me an email with anything you find."

"Will do. I'll be in the office, so call if you need me."

"Copy that."

Johnny started up the Ram and pulled out of the garage into the street. The snow was falling faster now, covering the streets in white. He checked to ensure the truck was in four-wheel drive, then drove back to Alex's apartment. The street was now full of police vehicles. Johnny counted three cruisers -- Rawlins' and two OPD cars -- plus the forensics van and Ellie's unmarked. He parked his truck and got out. Frank met him in the narrow stairwell outside Alex's apartment.

"Hey, Johnny. Ellie's not too happy with you," he said, shaking his head.

"Yeah, I kinda expected that," Johnny said. "If I thought Alex Kelley was a lead, I would have shared it."

That was, of course, a lie. The whole reason he'd gone to Alex's was that the young man matched Vassily's profile perfectly. He wanted to get there before anyone else. If he'd been able to establish an alibi before Ellie or Frank found him, so much the better. Unfortunately, it hadn't worked out that way.

"So what have you found so far?" Johnny asked.

"Apart from the arm, a whole shitload of firepower. Beretta M9s, Glock 35s, a Sig Sauer. And, of course, the prize -- an HK-117 with plenty of NATO 7.62x51mm ammo."

Shit, Johnny thought. That doesn't look good for Alex.

"What about the arm? Have we gotten an ID back on it yet?"

"Nope. Guys have scanned and uploaded the prints, but we're still waiting. Computers are slow today."

"Call Eric, he's in the office," Johnny said. "He should be able to get an ID for you pretty quickly."

"Will do. You heading upstairs, then?"

Johnny nodded.

"Eggshells, man. And an apology and explanation wouldn't hurt your case, either."

"Roger that. Let me know if Eric comes up with anything."

Johnny headed up the narrow staircase to Alex's apartment. The door was open. Inside, he could see the blue-jumpsuited forensics team crawling around, taking the place apart. Ellie was in the bedroom, her back to him.

"Hey, Ellie. On a scale from one to Nuclear Holocaust, how pissed are you right now?" Johnny asked.

"Oh, I'm down to about four now. I figure you wouldn't go around me and Frank just to snatch a collar for yourself," she said, turning to face him. "Tell me I'm right."

"You're not wrong," Johnny lied. "Alex is an old Army buddy. He just moved here, and I was checking in on him. Promised a friend I would. He was Special Ops before he got out. I was going to ask him if Ronin Six had any significance."

"I kinda figured as much," Ellie said. "Especially once the boys found this."

Ellie handed him a 5x7 picture in a cheap frame -- one of Alex, Riley, and himself in the desert. They were all in uniform, and grinning like lemurs at the camera. Alex was shooting a cheesy double-thumbs-up. Johnny remembered the photo. Edison and Holt had been behind the camera -- it was in 2005, two weeks before Johnny's unit was rotated out of Iraq for the last time. A month and a half after that picture was taken, Johnny was a civilian.

"Nice haircut," Ellie said, trying and failing to hide a grin. "Regulations," Johnny muttered.

"Right. Which is why the two other guys have good haircuts?"

"They're Special Ops. More freedom. Listen, I owe you an apology," he said. "I should have let you or Frank know where I was going, specifically. Got one of you to go with me."

"Yeah, you should've," she said, sighing. "But indications are we've got our guy, so I guess it all works out, doesn't it?"

"I guess."

"You sound about as unsure of that as you did that White Liberty was responsible," Ellie said, frowning.

"No, Alex fits, I suppose. I think it's more a case of not wanting to believe it than it is not actually believing it."

Ellie's expression softened significantly. Johnny saw her anger level drop from the admitted four to almost nothing within a couple of seconds.

"Were you guys close?" Ellie asked.

"Close enough that I trusted him to watch my back in a firefight. So, yeah. I suppose we were."

Ellie put her hand on his shoulder. She opened her mouth to say something, but she didn't get the chance. Taub burst into the room, a rolled-up piece of paper in his hand.

"Detective, Deputy -- you're gonna want to see this," he said, handing Johnny a pair of latex gloves from the pocket of his blue jumpsuit. Ellie was already wearing a pair, Johnny noticed as he snapped on the gloves and Taub handed him the paper.

"Oh, fuck. This isn't good."

It was Ellie who had said the words out loud, but Johnny had the same thought at the same moment -- she'd just verbalized it quicker.

The paper was a blueprint, and the top read "The Midwest Center for Islam." Several points on the structure had been marked with red Xs.

"That look like someone was planning places to set bombs to you?" Taub asked.

"Yes. That's exactly what it looks like," Johnny said.

"The place hasn't blown up, so if he's already placed charges, they must be on a timer," Ellie said. She looked at the paper a moment. "My guess is he'd want to do it with as many people as possible there. Anyone know the Muslim day of worship?"

"Friday," Johnny said. "Between 12:30 and 2 p.m. That's when there'll be a huge gathering for prayer."

"Today's Friday," Ellie said. "And it's almost 9:00."

"We'd better take my truck," Johnny said. "Snow's coming down pretty bad now. Can you get some of your people to secure this place?"

"Yeah. I've got two uniforms out canvassing -- I'll pull them in," Ellie said, reaching for the radio on her belt.

"Good enough. Rawlins!" Johnny called, spotting the young deputy outside on the staircase. Rawlins walked over to him in five large strides.

"Yes, sir?"

"Secure your vehicle. You're riding with us."

Rawlins nodded and headed outside to park his cruiser. Ellie replaced her radio.

"My guys are on the way back," she said.

"Good. How's your department's bomb squad?"

"Not bad, I guess. Yours?"

"Ours is one guy. And he's missing several fingers," Johnny told her.

"I'll call our guys and have them meet us there."

One of the OPD uniforms arrived. Ellie quickly explained the situation to him, and told him to secure the scene while the forensics team finished their work. He nodded.

"All right. Let's load up," Johnny said, heading for his truck. He, Frank, Ellie and Rawlins all piled in as Johnny started the vehicle. The Ram was an extended cab, so they all fit, though there wasn't a lot of room to spare.

"Let's hope we get there in time," Frank said. "Otherwise, we'll look pretty damn silly screaming up on a leveled building with full lights and sirens."

Friday, January 15, 2010

L.E.O. -- Chapter Eighteen

Johnny drove through the falling snow as the sun started to rise slowly behind him. Ellie sat shotgun, smoking a cigarette.

"Drive faster, man," she said, smirking. "Ellie needs her coffee."

"No doubt. Frank meeting us there?" Johnny asked.

"Mmmyep," she said. He just texted me. He finished handing over the rest of Vassily's guys to the FBI about twenty minutes ago."

"Outstanding. Here we are."

Johnny parked his truck outside Leo's Diner, which was actually a bit busy. Gary waved them to a table as soon as they cleared the door. He already had two cups of coffee waiting for them.

"Franky called ahead," Gary explained. "Get you something started on the grill, guys?" "God, yes," Ellie said. "Two eggs, toast, hash browns. You're an angel, Gare. A creepy, overweight angel."

Gary laughed and winked at her.

"What about you, Deputy?"

"The same, but with bacon," Johnny said. "Thanks."

"No bother, folks. Frank should be here soon."

In fact, Frank arrived before they'd gotten halfway through the first cup of coffee -- and he wasn't alone.

"Eric!" Johnny greeted.

"G'morning, folks," Eric said. He looked pale, but he was steady on his feet.

"I thought they wanted to keep you overnight?" Ellie said.

"They did. And technically, I let them. Then when 6 am rolled around, I called Frank to spring me. Tried you first," he nodded at Johnny. "But your cell's off."

Johnny checked his BlackBerry. It was, indeed, powered down, and wouldn't turn on again.

"Dead battery," he said. "Didn't notice."

"So how'd it go with Vassily? He still chilling in a holding cell, refusing to talk and acting insufferable?" Eric asked.

"Nope. Your boy shipped him off with some FBI agents," Ellie said, grinning.

"Nice play, Johnny. I'm impressed. He give you anything?"

"Yeah. Gave us the guy who bought all the hardware -- and what he bought matches up with the rounds we found at the Hassan scene."

"We get a name on the guy?" Frank asked.

"A fake one," Ellie said. "Ronan Six."

"I don't think it's Ronan, Ellie," Johnny told her. "I think it's Ronin."

"Like, the Japanese word? 'Masterless Samurai?'" Ellie asked.

"Yeah. And Six isn't a last name," Johnny said. "In Army radio code, the number six refers to a Command Element -- leader of the pack, so to speak. It's not a real name. It's a callsign."

"Think it's those Omega guys again?" Eric asked. Johnny shook his head.

"Nah. Doesn't fit their M.O., near as I can tell," Johnny said.

"Slow it up for the new people at the table," Frank said as Gary dropped off coffee for him and Eric. "What the hell is Omega?"

"Sorry. They're a group we tangled with and busted last summer. They were ex-military types, out hunting and killing Russian Mafia members in town."

"So, not them?" Eric said, stirring sugar into his coffee.

"I don't think so, but I could be wrong," Johnny said. He sipped his coffee. "In case I'm wrong, though, I want you to dig up anything you can find on Omega -- current operations, rumors, Internet chatter – anything."

Eric nodded.

"In-office day for me, then. Right on."

"I'm planning to head to the lab, see what they've got for us," Ellie said.

"I'm with you," Frank told her.

"And I'm going to check in with some old Army contacts, see if this Ronin Six thing rings any bells. My boss tells me the newspapers are already starting to sniff this one out, so the faster we move, the better," Johnny said.

"Papers? Which ones?" Ellie asked.

"World Herald, at least. Maybe the Weekly," Johnny said.

"Marisa Brighton the one who's calling?" Ellie said.

"That's the one."

"I'll talk to her -- we went to college together. See if I can buy us a day or two."

"That'd be a big help."

Gary came by the table with four plates -- he set them down, then pulled up a chair and sat.

"Heard from my old buddies at the station. Sounds like y'all have a real mess on your hands," he said.

"And then some," Frank said, nodding.

"Anything I can put on the network?"

"What network?" Johnny asked.

"Bunch of us retired guys. We can keep an eye out if you've got a description. Call if we see anything. And we can keep it closed-circuit and quiet -- one of us sees something, it goes right to you."

"They're all over the city," Frank said. "Might not be a bad idea."

"Agreed," Johnny said. He gave Gary a quick rundown of the details Vassily had given them on the suspect. He also let Gary know about the black Ford Edge with fake plates. He wrote his cell number on a napkin and handed it to the big man.

"Got it," Gary said, pulling out his iPhone and tapping away. "I'll email the boys. We'll let you know what we can find out."

"Thanks. I have a feeling we'll need all the help we can get," Johnny said.

After finishing their breakfast and more coffee, the group split up. Johnny dropped Eric at the Doubletree to pick up his BMW -- then he headed for South Omaha.

* * *

"Yep. Still shitty," Johnny mumbled.

Alex Kelley's neighborhood didn't look any better in daylight -- if anything, it looked exponentially worse. The street was filthy. Even the two-inch blanket of still-falling snow didn't hide the paper bags and discarded, broken 40-ounce bottles lying just off the road.

The fresh blanket of snow hadn't even been enough to make the neighborhood white, as it tended to in every other place Johnny had seen. Thanks to the large amount of garbage on the ground, the snow had turned gray as soon as it settled.

Alex's truck was parked out back. He checked all around the vehicle -- no tire tracks, fresh, tiny snow drifts around the wheelbase, and no footprints near any of the doors. The truck hadn't moved since the snow had started collecting more than four hours ago.

Johnny walked around the house to the side door. The two larger apartments in the building were accessible from the front door, but the only way to Alex's was a narrow, unheated staircase. Johnny paused for a moment before climbing the stairs, running though his suspicions in his mind.

The HK-117 was the first red flag. He remembered how adamant Alex had been about using that weapon in Iraq -- much like Vassily's mystery customer. The age didn't fit, though.

Vassily had pegged his customer in his mid-30s, and Alex was 28. Still, with his lack of sleep and weight loss, Alex could pass for 35. In fact, if Johnny hadn't known Alex was in his late 20s, he too might have guessed mid-30s.

Alex fit the rest of the profile, as well. He definitely had the attitude -- the "don't-fuck-with-me" vibe Vassily spoke of. Johnny had seen it the first night he'd tracked Alex down. He acted and appeared the way the Ukrainian had described. The only thing Johnny couldn't figure out was why Alex would murder these people.

He'd seen hatred towards Muslims in returning soldiers before, but it was relatively rare -- he'd seen it more in the general population. After September 11th, Johnny had been on leave in Nebraska, visiting his father and uncle. He'd been shocked at the level of hate he'd seen. Otherwise normal, rational people had suddenly gone nuts, muttering and yelling about "those fucking ragheads." He'd heard anger then, rage. It was unlike anything he'd seen in his life, and it sickened him.

The soldiers who came back from the war usually had more perspective. In Iraq, Johnny had met more normal, working-class folks than he had insurgents or extremists. He now knew the difference between the two. Most soldiers seemed to get it, as he did.

Alex was angry, sure. Unstable, perhaps. But deep down, Johnny didn't believe he'd done this. At least, he didn't want to believe Alex was responsible for the bodies of ten innocent people.

Johnny sighed and climbed the stairs. Alex's door was on the left side of a dirty little landing, one lit by a single, bare bulb. Johnny could see that the door was open a crack.

This is wrong, he thought, drawing his Glock. Alex was too paranoid to just leave his door hanging open. Johnny opened the door slowly. He kept his gun up as he scanned the living room. It was a mess, but Johnny couldn't tell if it'd been tossed or if it was always that way. He heard light snoring from the tiny bedroom just off the trashed, dirty living room -- weapon still ready, he headed towards the sound.

The bedroom didn't even have a door -- it looked like it once did, as there was a doorframe and holes where the hinges would have been. If Johnny was to guess, he figured that the landlord (though "slumlord" was probably more accurate) had cannibalized the door years ago. It might even be the same door he'd pushed open to enter the apartment.

As Johnny cleared the doorframe, he saw Alex crashed out in bed. The bedroom was in much the same shape as the living room -- wrecked. Several empty bottles littered the bedroom's ugly green shag carpet. Johnny checked the only other room in the house -- the bathroom, which also didn't have a door. A heavy sheet hung over the empty frame. Either Alex or a previous resident had nailed it there to at least give the illusion of privacy. Johnny swept the sheet aside and looked in. The bathroom was empty, and strangely clean.

Johnny holstered his weapon and sighed. Alex had passed out on his cheap bed fully clothed. Johnny grabbed the toe of Alex's freshly-polished combat boot and shook it.

"Get up, Alex. It's the po-lice," Johnny said, his voice loud.

Alex sprang into consciousness immediately, his right hand quickly going under his pillow. When he saw Johnny, he froze for a second. Then, slowly, he removed his hand from under the pillow, fingers spread wide to show he wasn't holding anything.

"Gun under the pillow? Really, bro?" Johnny asked.

"Saw it in a movie. Seemed like a good idea," Alex coughed, blinking several times. "What time is it, Sarge?"

"A little after seven in the morning. Your front door was wide open, Alex."

Alex shot up in bed, his eyes now wide open.

"No way. I put extra fucking locks on that cheap thing," he said, running to the bedroom's empty doorframe.

"Locks only work when you lock them. How much did you have to drink last night, Alex?"

"A lot. A fucking lot, but I locked myself in before I started drinking," Alex said. "Don't gimme that look, Sarge. I'm well aware that's weird, dangerous loner behavior."

"It is. At least you were sleeping," Johnny said. "That's kind of like progress, I suppose."

"Baby steps, Sarge. Baby steps."

Alex moved to inspect the front door.

"You know cop stuff. This door look forced to you?" he asked.

Johnny had already seen the locks -- all of them looked fine. He told Alex so.

"Huh. No idea. Sure I locked 'em, though."

"Listen, Alex. . . I came by for a reason. I need to ask -- Jesus. What the fuck is that smell?" Johnny said.

Alex took a deep breath -- from the look on his face, Johnny could tell he smelled it too. It was a thick odor of decay -- flesh rotting.

"Don't know, Sarge. Wasn't there yesterday. Maybe a racoon got under the house and died?"

"It's below freezing outside," Johnny said. "Has been for days. That smell's coming from inside the apartment."

"Probably the fridge busted again," Alex grumbled, crossing the room. At the far side of the living room, an old green fridge, an antique gas range, a sink, and two counters were masquerading as a kitchen. Alex threw open the fridge, and both he and Johnny saw what was inside at the same instant -- a decaying human arm, severed at the elbow.

Severed exactly where Tariq al Waziri's arm had been cut off.

Monday, January 11, 2010

L.E.O. -- Chapter Seventeen

"Deputy Teal, I need a favor," Nathaniel sighed, yawning as he stepped off the elevator into the Criminal Investigations office.

"Of course, boss," Johnny said.

"Not that I mind being called into the office at two a.m. to help process an arrest," Nathaniel said. "But I can't help but notice you seem to be solving every crime in the city except for the one I originally tasked you with."

"Copy that. But I believe this Vassily Tarkova will be the key to solving both the Hassan and Waziri homicides," Johnny said.

"I certainly hope so. You don't want to know the pressure we're getting from the mayor's office. I'm not sure how long we can keep this quiet," Nathaniel said.

"We're getting there, boss."

"Get there faster. I've already had to start dodging calls from a reporter at the World Herald."

"Shit. Marisa? The police beat reporter?"


"How long can you stall her?"

"Maybe another day or two. As I said -- work fast."

"Detective Jarvis and I were just about to question Tarkova," Johnny said.

"Don't let me keep you. I'll get a jump on your paperwork. Any news on Eric?"

"Patched up and staying overnight at the hospital for observation. He's expected to make a full recovery," Johnny said.

"Well, some good news, anyway. Get to it, Deputy."

Johnny nodded and headed for the interview room as his boss went to his office. Ellie was waiting outside the interview room with a cup of coffee in each hand.

"Coffee in your station's better than in mine," she said.

"Really? That's fucking frightening. The only place I've had worse coffee than this was the Army," Johnny said, shaking his head.

He took one of the cups from Ellie and took a sip as he opened the door to the Interview room. Vassily was inside, handcuffed to the table. The young Ukranian was still smiling, the bright fluorescent lights in the room making his gold teeth shine.

"Finally," Vassily said. "You are here. I was beginning to think you had forgotten me. Your coffee is terrible, by the way."

"See? Told you," Johnny muttered.

"I think you've got a lot more to worry about than the quality of the coffee you're drinking," Ellie said. "We've got you on some nasty shit. Probably time to start talking."

"And if I do, you'll reduce the charges against me?" Vassily said, laughing. "Don't bother, Officer. I know there's no way I won't spend at least the next 50 years in prison. You have nothing to offer me."

"In fact, I might," Johnny said. "You answer all our questions, I can guarantee you'll face no charges from either of our offices."

Ellie and Vassily both looked shocked. "You're willing to put this in writing? In the presence of a lawyer?" Vassily asked.

"Fuck yes, I will," Johnny said. "I'll call one now."

"Deputy Teal, can I speak to you for a moment?" Ellie said, her eyes wide.

"Not now. Dialing," Johnny said, pulling out his BlackBerry.

The first lawyer Johnny tried -- a criminal attorney named Pete Dunwick -- answered on the second ring.

"Johnny Teal," Pete said.

"Hey, Pete. Sorry to bother you this late," Johnny said, idly wondering what the guy was doing up at 2:15 am.

"No worries, bro. What can I do for you?"

"Well, this is kind of an odd request. . ."

Pete lived in a loft downtown, so he was at the station in minutes. He was dressed in jeans and a sweater, and was shaking snowflakes off his shoulders when Johnny met him at the elevator.

"Hey, Pete. Thanks for coming down. When did it start snowing out there?" Johnny asked.

"Just a minute ago. They say we'll be getting six inches. Not too bad yet, though. So, where's my guy?"

Johnny led Pete into the Interview Room, where Ellie was keeping an eye on the Ukrainian. Pete walked over to Vassily and stuck out his hand.

"Pete Dunwick, Attorney at Law," he said.

Vassily shook his hand as best he could. His hands were still cuffed to the table.

"And you are lawyer, Pete Dunwick? Not cop?"

"That's correct, sir. My card," Pete said. He placed one of his business cards in Vassily's hand -- the young Ukranian squinted as he read it.

"I assure you, sir, I'm a lawyer. I'm in private practice, which means I don't work for the Sheriff's Department, OPD, or the State of Nebraska."

Vassily set down the card.

"Then I suppose you will do," Vassily said, sighing.

Ten minutes later, Pete had drafted up an agreement. Johnny was true to his word. In clear, simple language, the agreement stated that Vassily would not face charges from the Sheriff's Department or OPD if he cooperated. Ellie shook her head as first Johnny, then Vassily signed the agreement. Pete notarized the paper and went off to make a few copies.

"Right, then. Time to talk," Ellie said, shooting a glare at Johnny. "Who bought the military hardware? The guy who said he was going to –"

" -- to go kill Muslims. Yes, I know what you're getting at. I do not have a name for him, of course," Vassily said, grinning widely. "Not a real one, anyway."

"Fine. Then what can you give us?" Johnny asked.

"About five foot eight, five foot nine. Dark hair, eyes. Beginnings of a beard."

"White guy?" Ellie asked.

"Da. About 35, 36 years old. American -- from the South, I think. Ex-military."

"How the fuck do you know that?" Ellie spat.

"In the same way as I know your partner is ex-military, lovely girl. Little things. The way he stands, how he moves. His boots, the way he wears his clothes. I have much experience with Army types, my dear. Much experience. Russian Army officers are some of my best suppliers," Vassily said.

"Anything else?" Johnny asked.

"He's not been out of Army for long. Two, three months tops. Not like you, Deputy. Five years?"


"Lucky guess," Ellie scoffed.

"Indeed it was not, my dear. My client's boots were still mirror-shined, his hair still short, his posture rigid."

"That sounds just like Johnny," Ellie countered.

"No, he's right. There are subtle signs," Johnny said.

"Your man probably did a tour in some sort of special unit, too," Vassily said. "Go ahead," Ellie sighed after a moment's silence. "I know you're dying to tell me how you figured that one out."

Vassily laughed loud.

"I like you, Detective. You're spunky," he said. "The HK-117s. He was adamant about getting his hands on two."

"So?" Ellie said.

"Those aren't weapons the Army regularly issues," Johnny explained. "The M4s, sure. That's the Army's standard rifle -- but not the HK-117s. Guys in Special Ops outfits love 'em, though."

"That is correct," Vassily said. "It's like you hardly need my help at all, officers."

"Don't get too confident, pal. We're not done asking questions yet," Ellie warned.

"Of course, my dear. Ask away."

Ellie glared at him.

"Cutting out the 'my dear' crap would greatly benefit your health, Chief," Johnny said, fighting back a smirk.

"Indeed," Vassily said. "I'm starting to think of breakfast, anyway, so let's finish this up, yes?"

"You said you don't have a real name for the guy," Ellie said.

"That is what I said."

"But he gave you a name, didn't he?"

"Yes. It was an odd one. First name is Irish, I think. Ronan."

"And the last name?" Johnny asked.

"It wasn't a name. It was a number. Six."

"How were you supposed to contact him?" Johnny said. "A number. Cell phone. My people were running it down, but then. . ."

Vassily sighed and spread his hands as wide as the cuffs let him.

"You have the number somewhere?" Ellie asked.

"Yes, Detective. Right here in my magnificent skull."

Ellie pulled out her notepad.

"Go," she said.

"402-555-9433. He doesn't answer -- it's a message number."

"Eric came in with muscle. What about this guy?" Ellie said.

"Heh. No, Detective. This man clearly didn't need it. He's not as big as the Deputy, here. . . but he has a definite vibe. Very much a don't-fuck-with-me feeling about the man. Even my men were wary around him," Vassily said. He shuddered almost imperceptibly. Johnny could see that this man had bothered Vassily, too -- and the Ukrainian had to be used to dealing with intense, dangerous people.

Ellie turned as she heard a knock on the door. She opened it, and Pete came in.

"Three copies for you, three for me," Pete said, smiling. He handed copies to Vassily. "Three for the files of each department. We're all set here."

"And you, Deputy? Anything else to ask?" Vassily said.

"Yep. I know you had him followed. Where's he staying?"

"Ah, you're clever. I did indeed -- but he lost the man I sent. He was driving a black Ford Edge, but the plates came back as counterfeit."

Johnny nodded.

"Ellie? You got anything more?" Johnny asked.

Ellie just sighed, put her hands out to the sides, and shrugged. Johnny rose and shook Pete's hand.

"Thanks again, Pete," he said.

"No problem, Johnny. I owed you one anyway," Pete said, smirking.

"Like hell you did," Johnny said, smiling as Pete left the room. "Sit tight, Chief. I'll have your paperwork processed in just a minute."

Vassily nodded and pulled at his cuffs attached to the table. "Not like I'm going anywhere," he said.

Johnny reached over and undid Vassily's handcuffs. The Ukrainian smiled and rubbed his wrists.

"Two minutes," Johnny told him, heading for the door. Ellie followed him, and as the door closed behind them, she grabbed his shoulder.

"All right, Teal. What the fuck was that about? Signing a legal document saying neither department could bring any charges?" she hissed. "Without even talking to me first? What the fuck were you thinking?"

Johnny motioned for her to follow him into the office, and she did. Three men in suits were standing next to Johnny's desk, their backs to Ellie and Johnny as they approached.

"Agent Enano," Johnny greeted. "Hope I didn't drag you out of bed."

"Not at all, Deputy," Enano said, turning to face them. He wore a huge smile.

"He's all yours. Wrapped up, waiting in the Interview room," Johnny said.

"Boys, you want to grab our Ukrainian friend and put him in the car?" Enano said.

The two agents next to Enano wordlessly headed for the Interview Room, one of them pulling a pair of handcuffs from his coat as he went. As they rounded the corner, Enano pulled a chair from another deputy's desk and sat down.

"Appreciate the present, Deputy," he said.

"Not a problem, Agent. Figured you and the ATF probably had a few questions you'd like to ask him," Johnny said.

"Oh, sure," Enano said. "We've got a file on him that's longer than. . . well, it's pretty damn long. Guy has connections to a number of terrorist organizations. Al Queda and The National Militia, just to name a few."

"I've never heard of that second one," Ellie said.

"Your pal Johnny sure has. He took out a couple of 'em on his last vacation," Enano told her.

"Huh. Is that who they were?" Johnny said, shrugging.

"Indeed. How'd you manage to track him down? We've been looking for him for years. Guy's a ghost."

"Well. . ." Ellie said. "We didn't, exactly."

"Our boy Eric?" Enano asked.

Johnny just nodded.

"Keep that guy around, officers. He'll make your careers for you," Enano grinned.

Enano got up from his chair, waved slightly with his right hand, and headed for the Interview Room. Johnny heard swearing in Russian. A few seconds later, the swearing receded down the hall, then cut off altogether. Vassily was gone, now in the Federal Government's hands.

"You know, Deputy. . . you're a lot smarter than you let on," Ellie said. "I owe you an apology, it seems."

"No, you certainly don't. I should've let you in on what I was doing, but we got pressed for time. I'm the one who owes you an apology."

"Call it even?" she said. "You think anything Vassily said will help us?"

"I'm pretty sure his customer is the guy we're looking for," Johnny said.

"Oh, yeah? What makes you say that?"

"Remember that weird NATO 7.62x51mm slug the lab guys found?"


"The HK-117 uses that same ammo."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

L.E.O. -- Chapter Sixteen

Fallujah, Iraq, 2005

Johnny was riding shotgun in the Ford Expedition, and Alex was driving. Riley was in the back seat. They hadn't told him yet where they were taking him, but he didn't really care -- he was just glad to be out of his boring hospital bed.

The way Riley and Alex had gotten him released from medical care had been astounding. If he hadn't seen it, he'd never have believed it. Riley, a lowly Sergeant First Class had ordered the doctor, a Captain, to release Johnny to their care. The Captain had refused, at first. Then Riley had pulled him aside and spoken to him quietly in the corner of the room. While they were talking, Alex shot Johnny a thumbs-up. When Captain Phillips came back, he was smiling and nodding enthusiastically. He agreed to release Johnny on the spot to Riley and Alex.

He also smiled and nodded when Riley told him, "Now, remember, if anyone asks, you didn't release him until tomorrow afternoon, right?"

So Johnny was free of his hospital room and not expected back at Liberty for 24 hours -- he was fine with anywhere Riley and Alex took him. They'd provided him with civilian clothes -- jeans, black boots, a black T-shirt, and a brown field jacket, along with a Haji head scarf. He was dressed much the same as he dressed back home.

"You ever handle a LAW?" Riley asked from the back seat.

"Yeah. Once. Years ago." "Boot?"

"Special Weapons School. Thought about going Ranger for a while."

"No shit. I was a Ranger, back in the day," Riley chuckled.

"Me, too," Alex said. "Why'd you go MP instead?"

"Don't know, exactly. Gut feeling -- MP just felt like the right choice."

"Oh. For a minute there, I thought you were gonna bust out the old 'my daddy was a cop, and his daddy was a cop,' routine," Riley drawled.

"What about you, Riley? Why'd you go SF?" Johnny asked.

"Simple. My daddy was a cop," Riley said, grinning. "Your jacket's biggest. You'll be able to conceal the LAW better than either of us, so that means it's yours."

Riley handed the light, plastic tube up to Johnny. Johnny put the lightweight rocket launcher inside his jacket -- he had no trouble hiding it.

"Just be careful not to get that thing shot. Those rockets got a real bad habit of blowing up when a bullet hits 'em," Riley said.

"Yeah, let's not do that," Johnny said, smiling.

"What d'ya like for guns, Johnny? We got M4s, a P90, couple of MP5s. HK-117's mine, though," Alex said.

"M4 is good by me."

"Damn. Boy, you are forming an unhealthy attachment to that 117," Riley laughed, shaking his head.

"Fuck you, Riley," Alex shot back playfully. "You show me a more efficient straight-up killing tool, and I'll use that instead. Until then, me and the 117 are fucking married, baby."

"All right, all right. Fair enough," Riley said. "But do you have to sleep with the goddamn thing? 'Cause that's getting pretty disturbing."

"Don't tell me how to live," Alex said, laughing. He stopped the Expedition on a residential street lined with low-rent, shitty houses. The sun was just going down, so Johnny figured they'd been driving for a couple of hours, at least.

"So, where are we?" he finally asked. He hadn't felt the need to ask before, and he wasn't interested even now -- it just felt like the thing to say.

"Fallujah," Riley said. "Number one hideout spot for Hajis of all flavors. You got Iraqis, Chechens, Syrians, Somalis. . . you name it, they're hiding out here."

"And our mission?" Johnny prompted.

"We got a report a couple days ago about a local using his house to funnel RPGs through," Alex said. "That's his place across the street. If it's true, we expect resistance when we go in to blow the fuck out of the place. You wanted fire? Chances are pretty fucking decent you'll get it tonight."

Johnny nodded.

"When do we move?" he asked.

"In T-minus. . . right now."

As soon as he said the words, Riley hopped out of the back of the truck, his P90 held in front of him. Alex and Johnny followed behind. Riley cut a straight path to the house's front door, and Alex fell back and to his left. Johnny covered the right.

Riley didn't knock. When Johnny and his team did a house-to-house, they kept it all very civil and polite -- be nice, knock on the door, talk to the residents. Riley kicked the cheap door off its hinges, then tossed in a flashbang grenade. Two seconds after the explosion, he barreled into the house. Alex swept in after him, and Johnny went in third, sweeping behind them as he went into the house.

"Down! On the floor!" Riley shouted. Alex swept in after him, and Johnny went in third, sweeping behind them as he went into the house.

"Down! On the floor!" Riley shouted. "Right now, fuckers!"

Johnny turned to see who Riley was yelling at -- a middle-aged man, a woman, two teenage boys, and a guy in his 20s. They were all slinking towards the floor, hands on their heads.

"Johnny, keep eyes on these fucks," Riley ordered. "Alex, with me, bro."

Johnny barely had time to process the order before Riley and Alex vanished into the house. He aimed his M4 at the people in front of him. They hardly looked like Muslim extremists to him. They just looked like any normal family would when held at gunpoint -- scared to death.

"Is OK, buddy. No Al Queda here," the guy in his 20s said, his voice shaky. He raised his hands in the air and started to stand up.

"Do not move," Johnny snapped, his voice booming. He trained the M4 on the young guy's forehead. The man froze, but only for a second.

"No, buddy. Is OK. We America friends," the guy smiled. He took a tentative step towards Johnny, who instantly made him wish he hadn't.

The butt of Johnny's M4 flashed out in a blur, smashing into the young man's jaw, sending him sprawling to the cheap, thinning carpet.

"Anyone else wanna start running around? How about you, Chief?" Johnny growled, pointing his weapon at the middle-aged man on the floor. The middle-aged man shook his head and cowered, covering his balding scalp with both hands and looking intently at the floor.

"Yo, Johnny! It's RPG city back here, man!" Alex yelled from deep inside the house. "Wrap up the young guy and the old guy!"

"You. On your feet. Right now," Johnny growled at the middle-aged man, motioning with his hands for the man to stand. The older man nodded his understanding. Right now," Johnny growled at the middle-aged man, motioning with his hands for the man to stand. The older man nodded his understanding. He stood slowly, both hands still on his head. Johnny spun the man by his shoulder, pinning him against the wall, and flex-cuffed his hands.

"You move, you get shot," Johnny told the man, slamming him down in a nearby chair. He quickly flex-cuffed the unconscious younger man. One of the teenagers on the floor mumbled something, and Johnny had his M4 in the kid's face in an instant.

"Something to say, Chief?" Johnny spat.

The kid glared at him, but said nothing. Alex and Riley came bursting into the room a few seconds later, both all smiles.

"Looks like one of 'em got assy with you, eh, Sarge?" Alex smirked, nodding at the young man out cold on the floor.

"Yep," Johnny said. "Had to put him down for a little nap."

"You and you," Riley said, pointing at the two teenage boys. "Might want to carry your buddy out. Before, you know, boom."

Riley mimed an explosion with his hands. One of the teen's eyes went wide, and he spoke to the other quickly. The two teens immediately grabbed their fallen comrade and started dragging him to the door. Riley and Alex ushered out the man and woman. As soon as they got outside, Riley and Alex shoved the older and young man into the Expedition, securing their cuffs to a bar on the floor. The woman and two teens stood on the side of the road, looking on helplessly as Alex turned to Johnny.

"OK, Sarge. Light it up," he said. "Aim for the right side of the house -- that's where the weapons are stashed."

Johnny pulled the LAW from his coat and opened it up. He drew a bead on the right side of the house and fired -- with a tiny kick, the rocket flew out of the tube and crashed through a window. A few seconds later, the entire house exploded, the blast briefly sucking the oxygen out of the air Johnny breathed.

"Yee-haw," Alex said. His voice was flat, but his face wore a satisfied grin. "Hell of a shot, Sergeant."

"Come on. Time for us to get moving," Riley told them. "I got a couple Agency buddies who want to talk to these guys."

"We're right behind you, Riley. Shit! Look out!" Alex yelled suddenly.

Johnny saw it a split-second after Alex -- one of the teenagers had pulled an AK-47 from under a parked car and was bringing it to bear. Johnny was still holding the spent LAW, which was now just a useless, flimsy plastic tube. He scrambled for his M4 as he heard the gunfire.

The kid's head jerked to the right, showering blood and brain all over the car next to him before Johnny could even get a hand on his M4. Johnny's head whipped around -- he saw Alex standing behind the Expedition's hood, HK-117 in hand. The rifle's barrel was still smoking.

"Go ahead. Pick it up. See what happens," Alex yelled at the surviving teenager. The kid put his hands behind his head and got to his knees.

"That's what I thought," Alex said, keeping his weapon trained on the kid. "Come on, Sergeant. Get in the car. Time for us to roll."

* * *

They dropped their prisoners at a CIA outpost about fifteen minutes away -- another nondistinct house in a residential neighborhood. A young guy in black fatigue pants and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt met them outside the house.

"Fernando," Riley greeted, offering his hand.

"Riles. What've you got here, brother?" Fernando said, shaking Riley's hand.

"Oh, these two guys were hording RPGs in their house. Huge stash. We demoed it, but I figured you'd want to chat with 'em," Riley said as Johnny and Alex hustled the prisoners out of the car.

"Yeah, I can think of a few things I should ask 'em. Boys?"

Two more young guys appeared out of the darkness and grabbed the prisoners. They hustled the men into the house, and the door slammed shut behind them.

"So who's Sergeant Regular Army, here?" Fernando asked. He nodded in Johnny's general direction.

"Just a pal of ours. Hitching a ride. Hey, you get any more of those Dunhills from the Brits? We're running low," Riley said.

"Yeah," Fernando said, yawning. "One of their MI guys lost twenty cartons to me at poker last week. You still out at Liberty?"

"Danger right now, but back at Liberty tomorrow."

"I'll send a few out your way."

"Much appreciated."

"Sure, man. Any time. Look, I hate to cut social hour short, but I got shit to do. You need anything before you roll?" Fernando asked.

"Nah, man. We're good. Take care, and get at me if you need my team for anything," Riley said.

"Will do, Riles. Be careful out there."

Riley and Fernando shook hands again, and Riley got back in the Expedition as Fernando went into the house.

"Hey, Riley?" Johnny said. "What's your CIA buddy going to do with those guys?"

"Don't really know," Riley said as Alex started the truck. "Never asked before. Don't plan on asking now. Come on, man. Let's track down some food, then we'll drop you back at Liberty."

Johnny climbed into the truck. Alex drove out of the neighborhood, switching on the Expedition's radio. Primer 55's "Loose" came on.

The song was one of his favorites. Still, Johnny wished it was quiet in the truck. His anger and hurt from the news that morning -- his wife, his dad -- was all but gone now. It had been replaced by a sick, headachy feeling. And, try as he might, he couldn't get the image of the teenager out of his head. He kept seeing the kid's head explode. Alex had shrugged it off, saying "Kid probably would have grown up to be a terrorist anyway."

Still, the image of the kid dying gnawed at Johnny -- he couldn't have been a day over fifteen.