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."
"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.
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?"
* * *
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."
"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.