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."
"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."
"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.