Ash Wednesday, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico…
<p style="text-align: left;">
Major Louis Burns walked along the marina with his hands in his pockets. Moonlight cast shadows across his path. He looked over his shoulder. A splash in the water caused the major to jump. He jogged the rest of the way to the gate of Muelle D.
A pelican flew from the water. It landed on the quarterdeck of a fishing boat.
Major Burns shook his head.
He removed a card from his pocket and swiped the security pad on the gate. The gate opened. The major walked to the bottom of the gangplank. Sweat rolled down his face. It stained his armpits, soaking the Varga girl on the back of his Tommy Bahama shirt. He approached the end of the landing then stopped in front of a monster of a fishing boat. Across her back was written:
The River Styx
Newport Beach, CA
The major climbed aboard. He scanned the marina with his eyes. The pelican choked down the fish in its mouth.
“Where you hiding, hard charger?” said the major. “You ain’t that good.” He looked back across the dock, over the marina again. Nothing stirred. A cell phone rang. The major answered it. He descended into the cabin.
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do? I don't heve it yet.” said the major. He walked to the bar and poured himself a glass of Southern Comfort. The boat rocked with the tide.
The major placed his cell phone and cocktail on top of the bar. He turned around. Footsteps crossed the quarterdeck outside. The major swallowed.
Men entered the cabin of the boat.
“Well it’s about time, gentlemen,” said the major. “You sons of bitches have a lot to learn about noise discipline, though.” He smiled.
Across the marina, a sound like a firecracker caused a group of tourists to look towards the water. There was a second crack and a flash of light from inside one of the boats.
“Viva México!” said a tourist. They all laughed then staggered away, arm in arm.
Viernes Santo (Good Friday)…
A black Cadillac Fleetwood glided down the two-lane highway. Cactus stretched on for an eternity in all directions. Vultures circled overhead. The Pacific coastline appeared then disappeared again. The Cadillac rolled on, cresting another hill. The ocean came into view once more. Fausto looked at his gas gauge. He frowned. The sun darkened his aviator sunglasses. He tapped the gauge with his finger. The gaslight turned on.
“Great,” said Fausto. He lit a cigarette then wiped the sweat from his forehead. His hair was cut high and tight. Fausto tossed a Zippo cigarette lighter over his shoulder. It landed on a sea bag in the backseat. The letters USMC were embossed on its side.
A statue of the Virgin Mary gazed through wreaths and rosaries, out over the desert, from a roadside shrine. The Cadillac shrank on the horizon. Flowers and crosses decorated each curve in the highway. Fausto drove on.
Not a soul was to be found on the streets of Todos Santos. Fausto rolled down his window. The heat and dust forced him to squint. The Cadillac crept along the avenida principal of the pueblo. A woman appeared up ahead, limping across the road towards the mission. Fausto pulled over and parked across the street from a hotel with Moroccan decor. Fausto reached over the seat and fished a trifold brochure from the sea bag. It had a picture of the same hotel on its cover.
Meet with florist - 0930 hrs.
was scribbled beneath the picture in black ink. Fausto climbed from the vehicle and stretched. Dog tags jingled beneath his t-shirt. He looked up at the brass letters above the balconies.
Fausto crossed the street, through dust and wind. He entered the building.
“Welcome to the Hotel California,” said the girl at the front desk. She sounded French. Fausto pulled an envelope from his pocket. It was from the Red Cross. He looked at the handwriting on the back.
“Excuse me,” said Fausto. He removed his sunglasses. “I was wondering if you might know where I could find a woman named Persephone Mauvais?”
The girl smiled. She brushed the hair from her forehead. Daffodils adorned the desk beside her.
“You must be Fausto,” she said. She extended her hand. “I’m Persephone.” Fausto frowned. He shook her hand.
“You’re younger than I thought you’d be,” said Fausto.
“I’m twenty-three.” said Persephone.
“When was the last time you spoke to my father in person?” said Fausto.
“Wouldn’t you like to get cleaned up first?” said Persephone. “You’ve been driving a very long time.” She gathered up a towel, soap, and a room key. She walked from behind the check-in desk.
“Come,” said Persephone. She took Fausto by the arm. He followed. “What would you like to know?" she said, "Where all the people of Todos Santos have gone?” Persephone led Fausto through a courtyard with a fountain.
“No,” said Fausto, "That's not what I wanted." They climbed a flight of stairs. Fousto’s knee buckled. “Jesus, I guess I am a little-”
“Tired?” said Persephone, “Yes, you look very tired.” She led Fausto down a hallway and unlocked the door to room nine.
“So, where have all of the people gone?” said Fausto. Persephone smiled.
“Everyone's dead,” she said. “Didn’t you know?”
“You’re joking, right?” said Fausto. They entered the room.
“Yes,” said Persephone, “but you do look terrible, Fausto.” Fausto yawned. He rubbed his face. “Like someone about to collapse,” said Persephone.
He fell in slow motion. His cheek landed against the floor. The air smelled of sandalwood. Persephone’s feet crossed the black floorboards towards him. Fausto lost consciousness.
“Dehydration,” said a man. Sunlight silhouetted him against the skylight above Fausto. Persephone leaned into view. She placed a washcloth on Fausto’s forehead. Mirrors decorated the ceiling above her.
“What happened?” said Fausto.
“Looks like a little heat exhaustion,” said the man. He seemed to be in his forties. He smiled. “I’m Omar,” he said. He reached into a black duffle bag on the floor.
“Fausto,” said Fausto. He sat up on the bed. They shook hands.
“I’ve heard,” said Omar. He handed Fausto a business card. "Just get some rest. You're going to be fine. Maybe give him some pomegranate juice," he said.
"You a doctor?" said Fausto.
Omar laughed. He stood and walked to the door. Persephone accompanied him. Fausto couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other. It sounded French but different. Fausto looked down at the business card Omar had given him:
Red Tantric, White Tantric, Kundalini yoga / CPA
Todos Santos B.C.S Mexico
(52) (624) 142 0666
Fausto turned the card over.
“The road to enlightenment is paved with precious things left behind” - Midas
"You've got to be shitting me," said Fausto. He dug through his pants pockets and produced a pack of cigarettes and his lighter. Omar’s footsteps sounded on the stairwell outside the door. Persephone walked back into the room. Fausto lit his Zippo. Persephone took the cigarette from Fausto's lips.
“Please don’t,” she said.
Fausto caught her wrist. He noticed a gold chain and a locket around Persephone’s neck.
“Where did you get this?” he said.
Persephone pulled away. She held the locket to her chest.
“Louis gave it to me,” she said.
“What?!” said Fausto, “That’s my sister’s.”
“He gave it to me,” said Persephone. She backed towards the window.
“What for?” said Fausto.
“He was a nice man.”
“Is... He is a nice man, your father, he always brings me fresh flowers to-”
“Where's my father, Persephone?!” said Fausto. Persephone stared at him. Her back pressed against the wall. Fausto smacked his palm against the wall beside her head. She closed her eyes.
“Where is he?” said Fausto. His eyes searched her face. "What was he doing down here? With you..." His eye teared.
Perspiration rolled down Persephone’s neck, wetting her linen shirt.
“I don't know,” she said.
Persephone wiped the tear from Fausto’s cheek with her thumb. He was unshaven.
“I'am sorry,” she said, “I have no idea where he went.”
“Then help me,” said Fausto. He drew close to Persephone.
Persephone slipped away. She straightened out her shirtfront.
“Okay,” she said, “I did see Louis on Wednesday, in Cabo San Lucas. He was with Dionisio, the divemaster there.”
“Dionisio,” said Fausto.
“I was hitchhiking to Playa Médano and they gave me a ride into town,” she said.
“Can you take me to him?”
Persephone looked out the window. The old woman limped across the road, away from the mission. Dust and sand blew about her.
“Could you at least show me the way?” said Fausto.
Persephone looked into Fausto’s eyes. They were black.
She took the Zippo from his hand and lit the cigarette she had taken from him. She exhaled into the air with a cloud of smoke.
“You have your father’s eyes, you know that?” she said.
Fausto stared at her.
Persephone shook her head.
"I have no one else..." said Fausto.
They held each other's gaze.
“D'accord,” she said, “Okay, I’ll go with you.”
<span style="font-size: medium;">“Thanks,” said Fausto.
</span>“As long as you give me a ride back,” said Persephone, “I need to get some flowers in Cabo anyway.”
Persephone walked through the open doorway.
"Can I have my lighter back?" said Fausto.
She continued down the hall, to the stairs.
They crossed the lobby. Persephone took her purse from the chair at the check-in desk. She brushed some hair behind an ear and wrote a note. They walked out of the hotel. Across the street, Omar’s face reflected in the backseat window of the Cadillac.
He tried the door handle.
“What the fuck there, Omar?” said Fausto.
Omar stiffened. He smiled. “Just admiring your Brougham, Fausto, it’s beautiful,” he said.
Persephone opened the passenger’s door. She climbed inside.
“That’s my dad’s Bro-ham you’re admiring there, Omar.” Fausto climbed behind the wheel. “Never lets anyone drive it though, especially not me.” Fausto put on his shades and fired up the engine. He rolled down his window.
Omar leaned in.
“You shouldn’t rush into things without meditation,” said Omar, “Seriously, you need some rest, Fausto.”
“Good looking out, Omar,”
Fausto stepped on the gas pedal. The Cadillac drove away.
“Namaste,” said Omar. He looked back at the hotel.
The Cadillac glided down the road past the mission. The sun sank on the horizon. Fausto drove through a grove of palm trees. A cloud of mosquitos dissipated then reformed again. Water trickled. A vein of sawgrass and cattail split the desert near the oasis, beneath the town of Todos Santos.
The Cadillac turned onto highway 1.
Persephone placed a foot on the dashboard in front of her. Her skirt opened. A pale thigh. A friendship bracelet adorned her ankle. Fausto looked back at the road. The Pacific appeared then disappeared again. The Cadillac crested a hill. Cactus stretched to the horizon, to the coast and the blood red sea approaching sunset. They drove south, towards Land’s End. The Cadillac passed shrine after roadside shrine. Each cross marked the place of someone’s death on the highway. The majority were at the curves in the road. Some crosses had flowers beneath them.
“So, what exactly do you do down here?” said Fausto.
“Im a florist.”
“in the desert?”
“You’d be surprised how much people will pay to have a little beauty,” said Persephone, “especially in the desert.”
“What about my father?” said Fausto, “Did he ever pay?”
Persephone fished through her purse.
“For the beauty,” said Fausto, “Did he ever have to pay for this beauty you’re talking about?”
Persephone laughed. She took out a bag of weed and rolling papers. She rolled herself a joint. “So, what do you do in the army?” she said.
“In the marines, then.”
Persephone lit her joint.
“Drug counterinsurgency,” said Fausto.
“Intelligence to stop drugs and drug-lords.”
“Well, you’re not stopping me,” said Persephone. She smoked her joint and squinted. “This is México, Fausto. You’re a gringo down here. Never forget.”
“And what are you, invincible?”
“I’m better than invincible,” said Persephone, “I’m Canadian.”
They crested a hill. The coastline appeared. They descended into the next canyon.
“I have three days, Persephone.”
“Me too,” she said, “I leave Easter Sunday.”
“Why so soon?”
Four skeletal cows crossed the road at the bottom of the arroyo. Fausto pumped the brakes. The Cadillac stopped just short of the crossing cattle. Ribs moved beneath their grey hides. Their heads hung. Fausto drove around them. The Cadillac accelerated to the top of a curve.
“I’m only here for the winter,” said Persephone, “After high season I go back to Montréal.”
“Why did my father give you the necklace, Persephone?”
Persephone pointed. “Your gas lamp,” she said.
“Shit,” said Fausto.
The black Cadillac coasted down the hill, towards Cabo San Lucas, on nothing but gravity and gas fumes. El Arco, the great stone arch at Land’s End, marked the outer edge of the bay. Cruise ships, yachts, and fishing boats drifted off the coast of Médano Beach. The sky and sea purpled with the approaching night. The lights of the resorts sparkled in the twilight.
He blinked and shook his head. “I need coffee anyway,” he said. He put the transmission into neutral then raised his arms above his head. “Woooooooo! burn the boats, baby, we’re coming in hot!” he said. He looked to Persephone. She raised her arms and smiled. She shrieked. The Cadillac coasted down the hill into the PEMEX service station at the edge of town with a bounce.<p style="text-align: center;">
****<p style="text-align: left;">
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - 20:30 hrs.
The Cadillac climbed an unpaved street. It labored up the backside of a hilltop colonia. Persephone looked out over the city and bay. The Cadillac’s undercarriage scraped a rock. It sparked.
“Damnit, Persephone!” said Fausto, “this is horseshit.” The dirt road steepened. At the top of the incline, sat a white minimalist residence. “There?” said Fausto. Tires spat gravel and lost traction on the hill. The Cadillac slipped backwards.
“That’s where he lives, Fausto. Do you want to go or not?”
Fausto put the tranny into first gear and floored the gas. The Cadillac lurched forward.
“I like your attitude, Fausto,” said Persephone, “you are man of action.”
The Cadillac climbed and fishtailed and fought its way to the gates at the top of the hill.
“That’s how we get her done,” said Fausto. He set the parking brake with his foot.
“Yes,” said Persephone. She looked Fausto up and down then climbed out of the vehicle. They walked to a stainless steel intercom beside an iron Door. The walls were over ten feet high. The view of the bay behind them was spectacular.
“Wow,” said Fausto.
“I know,” said Persephone. “Don’t let it get to you, Fausto.” She dialed a sequence of numbers on the key pad. “It happens to everyone.” A telephone rang somewhere inside the compound. The ringing continued.
“He’s not here,” she said. “Want me to text him?”
Fausto stared at the bay. “Huh? Yeah, do that,” he said.
Persephone turned away from Fausto. She leaned over her mobile device. Light from its screen illuminated her face. She laughed and typed with her thumbs.
“Get the fuck out of here, Dionisio. You’re such a cabrón,” Persephone laughed. “He’s over at... Oh, god-”
“Oh, god what?”
“It’s just pictures... He’s at Passions, and Nikki Beach at the ME,” she said.
“The Meliá,” she said. “He’s texting me again. He wants us to meet him there.”
“Nikki Beach,” said Persephone, “It’s spring break, Fausto. There’s no way Dionisio will abandon the party tonight. No way in hell.”
“What’s wrong with you people?” said Fausto. “Bunch of goddamned hedonists.”
“It’s getting late.”
“Alright, damnit, we’ll go to spring break.” said Fausto.
Persephone’s eyes flashed. “I’ll get my scarf.”
They climbed back into the car. Persephone removed her shirt. Her breasts were pale like her thigh. She pulled a long silk scarf from her purse. She tied it around her neck, then wrapped it around her body into a dress. Persephone shook her hair out then looked at herself in the rearview mirror.
“It’s Hermès,” she said, “You can drive, you know,”
“I will if you let me.”
Fausto twisted the rearview mirror back to where he could see again. He started the engine. Persephone laughed.
“You can’t counterinsurgency everything, Fausto.”
“Just trying to find my father, that’s all.”
“Let’s go find him then.”
Fausto nodded.<p style="text-align: center;">
****<p style="text-align: left;">
The black Cadillac bounced along a dirt road between the Casa Dorada Beach Resort and the Meliá Cabo San Lucas. Shirtless and bikini-clad people roamed the streets in flip-flops and straw sombreros. Humvees and limousines inched through the crowd to the main entrance of Nikki Beach. Arclights crossed the sky above the red glow and smoke rising from the oceanfront nightclub. Fausto parked. The stream of tourists engulfed the vehicle. Fausto reached into the seabag in the backseat. He removed a navy sport coat with brass buttons.
Maj. L. Burnes USMC
was embroidered beneath the inside pocket in gold. Fausto put the jacket on over his t-shirt and jeans.
“Fancy,” said Persephone.
Fausto locked the seabag in the trunk of the Cadillac. They crossed the street, hand in hand. They walked to the entrance of the the nightclub.
“Persephone!” said Ricardo at the velvet rope, “Canada’s in the house, baby.”
“It is now,” said Persephone.
“Clearly Canadian,” said Ricardo, “Mmmm, grade A maple syrup right there. Y’all seeing this?” He closed the rope in front of Fausto.
“He’s with me, Ricardo,” said Persephone.
“My bad,” said Ricardo, “Welcome to paradise, soldier.”
Persephone pulled Fausto behind her. They merged into the crowd entering the courtyard. Bass thundered through the open air. Moonlight shimmered on the beach and bay beyond the resort grounds. The crowd was dense but far better than the chaos being caused by college students on the public side of Playa Médano. At Nikki Beach, everyone wore white. Fausto and Persephone wore black. A DJ in white denim spun dance music from his tower above the swimming pool. Persephone pointed. A shirtless man in linen pants danced onstage. Black curly hair shook with beads of sweat. Go-Go Girls in white plumage samba-danced around the man. Hips gyrated.
The man’s shoulders shimmied in a blur, like a Turkish dancer.
“Dionisio,” said Fausto.
A girl grabbed ahold of Dionisio’s waist onstage. Her eyes widened. Dinisio’s ass shook in a flurry between henna-painted hands. A conga line formed. It coiled around the DJ booth. Dionisio danced at the head of the serpent. The conga line snaked onto the dance floor below. People cheered.
Dionisio raised his arms to the night sky.
“Hurry!” said Persephone. She took Fausto’s hand.
Fausto followed Persephone into the sea of dancing bodies. She placed Fausto’s hands on her hips. They merged into the conga line dancing behind Dionisio. Fausto shook his ass and tried to mimic Persephone’s movements.
“I can’t believe this shit.” said Fausto. They sambaed their way poolside, around a palapa, a fountain, then to a private corner on the sand. A row of giant beds were elevated on stilts beside them. Sheets of white fabric blew in the night breeze. Dionisio placed his forehead to Persephone’s and grinned. He lifted her off the ground. A diver’s mask was tattooed to his shoulder.
“Have a drink with me, “ he said.
“Nice moves there,” said Fausto. He adjusted his jacket, “Hard to keep up with.”
“Who is this sexy man?” said Dionisio. He smiled.
“Fausto,” said Persephone, “Fausto Burns.” Dionisio’s expression faded. “He’s looking for Louis, Dionisio, have you seen him?” Dionisio seemed sober now. He looked towards the entrance of the club.
“He never showed,” said Dionisio, “I’ll radio him tonight.”
“Show up for what?” said Fausto. Dionisio looked around.
“I’m meeting a friend here,” said Dionisio, “After that I can take you to use ship-to-shore radio at my place, yes?” People danced all over the beach. Beyond the white ropes of the club the crowd swelled into a fish farm of dancing bodies. Fireworks exploded overhead in molten red.
“How long?” said Fausto.
“Thirty minutes,” said Dionisio, “maybe less, or the anchovies are free.” He put on a linen shirt and buttoned it. “You like anchovies?”
“Does my father?”
Dionisio smiled. “Yes... Yes he does like anchovies.”
“Alright,” said Fausto, “where should we wait for you?”
“Smart and sexy... Are you Greek, Fausto?”
“Shame.” Dionisio looked at Persephone. “Meet me in the beach bar at midnight.”
“No time for quickies, Dionisio,” said Persephone.
“always time for quickie, my darling, this is Dionisio!” He backed away from them smiling, his tongue between his teeth.
“What the hell’s with you people?” said Fausto, “Thirty minutes there, Dionisio! No bullshit. you hear me?” Dionisio danced into the crowd. Fausto ran a hand over his scalp. The music thundered. He squeezed his temples between his thumb and forefinger. Persephone touched Fausto’s cheek. Fireworks painted their faces with color.
“I like you,” she said. Fausto Smiled.
“Buy you a drink?”
“I don’t think we should, Fausto.”
“I’ll watch your back, Seph.”
Fausto pointed to his eyes. “Better than waiting here for Dionysus with our dicks in our hands.”
Persephone laughed. “Don’t let Dionisio hear you say that.” She shook her head.
“It’s true,” said Fausto.
Persephone wrapped Fausto’s arm around her shoulder and clasped his fingers. They walked down to the beach bar on the sand. They kicked off their shoes. Fausto rolled up his jeans. They sat on barstools beneath a moonlight sky.
“Tequila, porfis,” said Persephone.
“Dos,” said Fausto. The bartender obliged. Fausto looked into Persephone’s eyes. She smiled. He looked at the locket around her neck. “Persephone?”
Fausto watched the colored lights play over her face. Boats floated on the bay over her shoulder.
“Salúd,” said Fausto. He raised his glass.
They drank for thirty minutes.
Dionisio returned, covered in sweat. He searched the beach bar but Persephone and Fausto were nowhere to be found. He tapped his PDA.
Persephone rolled into Fausto’s arms atop one of the giant beds on stilts above the beach. They kissed. Persephone reached inside Fausto’s jeans. The screen lit up on her PDA. Dionisio peeked his head over the mattress with a cell phone to his ear. Persephone howled. She rolled off the bed and hit the sand with a thump. Fausto laughed.
“I need to leave, like now, people,” said Dionisio. He put away his device. “We can do this at my place, yes, we can, we will, my friends. But we must go now, okay? right now.”
“We’re the black Cadillac at the top of the hill,” said Fausto. He tossed Dionisio the car keys. “Go on ahead. I’ll get Persephone and catch up with you.”
Dionisio nodded. He walked through the crowd. Fausto tried to help Persephone to her feet.
She slapped his face.
“Fuck you, Fausto, why’d you throw me off there?!”
“I didn’t throw you off anything!”
“Then why’d you laugh?!”
A firework burst with a flash of blue.
“Come on, Seph, give me your hand.” said Fausto.
Persephone jumped into Fausto’s arms. He caught her.
“Carry me... I’m dizzy. I’m tired, and you did this to me, Fausto,” she said. “I told you I didn’t want to drink.”
Fausto shuffled through the dancing bodies with Persephone in his arms. Her face pressed against his chest. Her arms clung to his neck. Fausto walked out of the club. Sweat rolled down his face. They reached the top of the dirt road. Fausto set persephone down. Three men in boots and black cowboy hats looked through the Cadillac’s open trunk, across the street.
“Wait,” said Persephone.
Fausto walked towards the men.
“What you doing there, hard-chargers?” Fausto closed the distance between them. A Cadillac Escalade idled in the shadows of an alley, in the background.
“Que quiere este güey?” said the man with the seabag.
Fausto gripped the man’s hand.
“That’s my father’s.”
It happened in a blur. Persephone screamed. The first man ran off, his arm bent grotesquely backwards. The second man crawled away from Fausto. Blood poured from a hole on the side of the man’s head. He scrambled to his feet and ran into the night.
Cowboy hats littered the ground.
Fausto crouched in the street behind the Cadillac. His knee pressed into the remaining cowboy’s throat, beneath the bumper of the vehicle.
“Fausto, stop!” said Persephone. She ran.
Fausto pressed his thumbs against the man’s eyelids. His nostrils flared.
A human ear lay in the dirt beside Fausto’s knee. Fausto blinked at the sight of it.
Persephone threw her arms around him. She pulled. Fausto sprang to his feet.
“Goddamnit!” he said. “What’s wrong with you people?” His eyes widened. Fausto looked around. He breathed through his teeth.
The remaining cowboy ran down the hill towards Nikki Beach. “Motherfuckers. What the fuck’s wrong with you?!” said Fausto.
“Fausto!” said Persephone. She rolled the seabag into the Cadillac’s trunk and slammed the door shut. “Get in the car.”
Fausto climbed into the passenger’s seat. Persephone drove. The Cadillac fishtailed around the corner in a cloud of dust. The moon shone overhead. Headlights illuminated Persephone’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Faust looked back. Dionisio was passed out cold in the backseat. His linen shirt was rolled up, exposing his stomach. A syringe hung from a swollen injection site beneath his navel.
Fausto’s lips puckered up, like a fish, but he couldn’t find the words.
“Ay, Dionisio,” said Persephone, “you could have at least helped us, cabrón.”
Dionisio smiled. He moaned. “Their black hats, they were freaking me out, so I stayed here.” His accent was even thicker.
“Want to secure that syringe there, hard-charger?” said Fausto. He pointed to his arm.
“Oh, god. How embarrassing is this?” said Dionisio. “It’s not what it looks like, Fausto, not really.”
“Really?” said Fausto.
“Nothing in the Baja is, Fausto, never.” He removed the syringe from his skin and rolled his shirt down.
“How do you know my name?”
“I’m psychic,” said Dionisio.
“I introduced you two at Nikki Beach,” said Persephone.
Fausto nodded. Persephone turned onto the same dirt road from before. Dionisio’s house sat at the top of the incline. “Easy there, Seph.” Fausto reached for the steering wheel. “Maybe I should just-” Persephone rolled her eyes.
She floored the gas.
Dionisio laughed.<p style="text-align: center;">
† Mercutio †
“This is she! This is she!”
“Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk'st of nothing.”
“What’s the matter with you, Marine?!” said the man from Naval Investigative Service. Dust blew
all around us. He snatched the goggles from my face. My left side went numb. I opened my mouth
to speak but no sound came out. There was only a sucking noise.
I fell to the street, just 500 meters from the gate of our compound at the edge of Mogadishu city. I
watched the sky roll by while men carried me. I heard the rotors of a CH-53 Sea Stallion. Someone
placed an oxygen mask over my face. Gunny had finally done it, he’d killed me.
I opened my eyes, gasping, punching with my fists. The Humvee was empty. I opened the door and
stepped out into the pre-dawn. I rubbed my hands over my face. It was zero dark-thirty. The beach
and the city behind me were quiet now.
A shot was fired near the fence-line, by 7th motor T. The air smelled of salt.
On the other side of the compound sat a beach-front country club. The USS Carl Vincent aircraft
carrier dropped anchor 1000 meters offshore. Colonel Reap and the admiral crested a hill of sand.
They walked to the first tee of the 9 hole golf course. Their silhouettes moved across the rising sun.
I straightened out my cammies.
I reached back into the Hummer for a clipboard, initialed a box at the bottom of one of the new duty
forms, and slung my M-16 over my shoulder. I walked onto the green.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I said, saluting.
“Outstanding morning, devil dog,” said colonel Reap. “Excuse me admiral. Sergeant, our interpreter
is down there with the zodiac. Help him stow his gear then get him to the morning brief.”
“Aye, sir,” I said.
I saluted then walked down a decline of sand. A sport fishing yacht flying an American flag floated
offshore. Men in uniform moved about her deck. A dingy rested on the beach up ahead. A dark
green marine in desert cammies threw his seabag ashore.
“Welcome to Somalia, corporal,” I said.
“I was born here, sergeant,” he said. We shook hands. His were soft.
“Welcome home then, corporal,” I said. I looked at his name tag then grabbed his pack. I tossed him
the keys to the Hummer. “You drive,” I said, “I’ve been on duty all night. I’ll probably kill us.”
A cluster of gunfire erupted in the distance. Corporal Fahrad and I crossed the green to the dirt road
that led back to the compound and to reality. We put on flack jackets and kevlar helmets then
climbed into the Humvee, I checked the safety on my M-16
“Take the dirt road all the way to the beginning of the razorwire,” I said, “When it becomes paved,
take that road all the way to camp. There’s a command det. with colors flying out front. Park behind
any of the vehicles, then wake me.”
“Okay, sergeant,” said corporal Fahrad, “How long will it take to get there?”
“About two minutes,” I said.
“That’s all you’ll ever get around this place,” I said, “5 to 10 minute power-naps at various intervals
throughout the day and night. No one sleeps for any consecutive periods of time.”
“Are you serious?”
“Ask me that three nights from now,” I said.
We drove. I watched the Indian Ocean through Fahrad’s window. I didn’t want to look at the city
just yet. I nodded.
“Wake up Wagner!”
I opened my eyes. Gunnery sergeant Higgle thrust his head through my open side window. Corporal
Fahrad stood behind him at parade rest.
“And just like that you’re a dead man,” said Gunny Higgle. He opened my door. “Come on,
sergeant. Lock it on a bit for the corporal here. Don’t teach him how to get killed his first day in this
“He’s from here,” I said. I climbed from the vehicle then elevated the muzzle of my M-16.
“Well twist my balls in a bow,” said Gunny, “Ain’t that kind of a conflict of interest there,
“I don’t understand,” said Fahrad.
“He’s the interpreter,” I said.
“Fair enough,” said Gunny, “Not trying to offend, just situation awareness, devil dogs. Gotta keep
her tight before the money-shot. Follow me, boys, you’re late.”
We followed Gunny. It was 05:40 hrs. March 28th, 1994. We entered a tent full of officers and
enlisted men. Thousands of Marines from the 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit. Part of the Marine Air Ground Task Force from Camp Pendleton, California) hit the beaches back in December. Gunny and I’d been here since August. We’d lost 18 men and two Blackhawk helicopters in October. A
thirty thousand-man media circus called Operation Restore Hope didn’t do much to help matters. President Clinton ordered all U.S. Forces to withdraw from Somalia by the 31st of the month. Everyone was going home. Everyone except for us.
“Alright, listen up!” said a Major in desert cammies. “Eyeballs!” The tent fell silent. “Let’s just talk security for a moment,” said the major, “Since General Aidiz continues to defy the United Nations, even though we are pulling out, we will still utilize all necessary means-”
“Ooh-rah!” said a sergeant in sunglasses.
“Easy, hard-charger,” said the major, “all necessary means to ensure the protection of the relief
efforts. That includes this compound.” His eyes searched the faces of the men standing in the tent.
“Gunnery sergeant Higgle?”
“Sir,” said Gunny.
“I want security det. to commence building to building sweeps and disarm the local population
around the perimeter of the-”
“Country club?” said someone.
“Supply Det,” said the major, “And do not take this lightly, devil dogs. Just because you’re short
and ready to go home does not necessarily mean you will make it there. Plenty of marines in this
room have seen what kind of price there is to pay for those who fuck around.
We have snipers in the buildings behind 7th motor’s fence-line again. I want that shit suppressed
before the final convoys arrive.”
“Aye sir,” said Gunny.
We all looked to one another.
“That’s right, gentlemen,” said the major, “We’re meeting our final relief flights at the airport for
one last tango in Paris. We’ll run six 5-ton trucks loaded with supplies then a Humvee with a 50cal.
on its roof in escort. Another six trucks then a Hummer and so on. The convoy will travel past the
Bermuda Triangle and down the green line. That means crossing the territories of two warlords, four militant sub-factions, and the generally pissed-off local population. The route ends right here at
the Supply depot."
(Bermuda Triangle: A triangular area inhabited by General Aidiz's Abgaal rivals, in the middle of south Mogadishu. Vehicles go
in but seldom come out.)
(The Green Line: The demarcation line between north and south Mogadishu, between Aidiz's forces and Ali Mahli's.)
“Rules of engagement sir?” said a captain in the front.
“We come in peace, if you fuck us we will kill you,” said the major, “That’s pretty much the policy
for the moment. But remember, gentlemen, you will still be under the all seeing eye of the
Associated press, CNN, the BBC, and fucking Telemundo. The media is everywhere, Marines. Do not make me have to grab my ankles in front of the old man because you did something stupid on TV. Cause if I’m grabbing mine then you’re definitely grabbing yours, understand me?”
“Yes sir!” we all said.
“Situation awareness, gentlemen,” said the major, “This general Aidiz is a real piece of shit,”
Corporal Fahrad swallowed.
“Anticipate and stay focused on the task at hand. If you get killed on my watch, marines, you will
be in a world of shit.” The major stood at attention.
“Atten-tion!” Said a first sergeant. We all complied. He saluted the Major.
“Carry out the plan of the day,” said the major. He saluted then left. We filed out of the tent behind
him, putting our helmets back on.
“You’ll need a weapon,” I told corporal Fahrad.
“Slow down, devil dog,” said Gunny. “He doesn’t need anything yet. Gather the troops behind the
command post. I’m gonna take a dump in the new porta-johns then meet you in five minutes.” He
“Is he always like that?” said corporal Fahrad.
“Only if he’s had plenty of rest,” I said, “So you’re the only marine in the entire corps who speaks
“Yes,” said Fahrad, “I never realized, I’m, well I’m a reservist.”
“And I just do this stuff on the weekends, man.” His chest heaved. He looked around our perimeter.
“I was in my engineering class at Long Beach State,” said Fahrad, “Two marines showed up and
told me to follow them. We, no one told me I was going to be...” Fahrad’s eyes glistened.
“Come on, devil dog,” I said. “ Pull it together.”
Maybe I should have stayed in school after all, I thought. I envied corporal Fahrad for a moment,
then I didn’t envy him at all. “Could always be worse,” I said. “Let’s go, we’ve got about two
minutes to get squared away.”
“Two minutes?” said corporal Fahrad.
“Like I told you,” I said. My thumb clicked the safety on my M-16 to the fire position. “Ready...
Move!” We jogged down a row of cargo pallets stacked in columns. I watched the buildings on the
other side of the fence-line as we ran. Empty windows flashed in between the rows. I looked back at
corporal Fahrad. His eyes were wild, staring straight ahead.
I looked back at corporal Fahrad. His eyes were wild, staring straight ahead.
Rounds impacted into a column of boxes. Wood splintered.
“Double-time, go!” I said. We passed through the gauntlet of the staging area then trotted to the safety of the sand bags. They surrounded three rows of tents on the beach. A guideon bearing a flag with the island of Okinawa, the Tori Gate, and the eagle globe and anchor, waved in the breeze.
“Japan,” said Fahrad. He placed his palms on his knees and breathed.
“Hei, so desu,” I said, “Okinawa kara kimashita.”
“You speak Japanese.”
“Yes,” I said.
I took Fahrad to meet the troops of 3rd Recon, or what was left of us. I passed on Gunny’s orders
then ran off to find Gunny myself. He wasn’t in the porta-johns. I knew that much. I jogged to a tent
with a red cross on its front then walked inside. Gunny turned around with a start.
“Fuck, Wagner,” said Gunny. He held a 12 ounce bottle of grape Robotussin in his hand. It
trembled. Corpsman Jackson stood behind Gunny. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Action Jackson,” I said.
“If you want action,” said the corpsman. “come see Jackson.”
“Ooh-rah,” said Gunny. He opened the bottle and drank its entire contents in three swallows. He
kissed Jackson on the forehead then threw the empty container in the trash.
“We have to go,” I said.
“Out-standing,” said Gunny. He inhaled through his nose and closed his eyes. He slapped himself across the face three times then rubbed his palms together. Gunny opened his eyes. He took a swing at me. I blocked the punch with my forearm. “Good shit, devil dog,” said Gunny, “Let’s do this.” He marched out of the tent. I followed him.
“Semper fly,” said Action Jackson.
“Good looking out, Jackson,” I said, over my shoulder.
“Always looking out,” said Action Jackson.
“You’re not going to believe this,” said lance corporal Bermúdez. Corporal Fahrad stared straight ahead. “I heard the brass talking behind the tent before the morning brief.” The troops sat with their backs against a wall made out of tractor tires. 7th Motor Transport had become the hottest spot on the depot. A city block of bullet-riddled buildings, with countless windows for snipers, loomed over the far corner of the fence-line. 7th Motor-T sat beneath the buildings on our side of the fence. Rounds impacted into the tires above our heads. Rounds impacted into the dirt beyond us. A round ricocheted off of a forklift loaded with relief supplies.
“How’s that for gratitude?” I said.
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Bermúdez. “A marine was sodomized last night.”
“That was just me,” I said, “when Gunny told me we were staying on as part of the security
“No,” said Bermúdez, “physically. Someone crept into corporal Richardson’s tent, knocked him out
with a rag full of ether, then ass-fucked him something awful.”
“Oh come on,” I said.
“For reals, sergeant,” said Bermúdez, “I even heard an officer laugh about the guy calling him the
“Shut your sucks!” said Gunny. He ran across the expanse of dirt between Motor-T and the tire
maze. Rounds peppered the earth behind him. He slid into our position with a cloud of dust. “You
want to give up your position?” said Gunny, crouching, “Do it when I’m not around. Okay, I’ve got
us a vehicle.”
“Vehicle?” I said.
“You heard me, Sergeant,” said Gunny. He reached into a duffle bag. “Here you go, Somalia. I
brought your weapon.” Gunny tossed corporal Fahrad a bullhorn.
“We come in peace. If you turn in your weapons we will give you food and medicine.”
The voice of Corporal Fahrad echoed down the street, speaking Somali. A lone Humvee cruised in front of the buildings, outside the fence-line. A woman Marine drove. Gunny and I peered over the rooftop of the third building, watching them, then pulled our heads back. Bermúdez placed the bipod of his M-249 SAW on the brick ledge. PFC Thompson opened a second can of ammo, stretching the bandoleer of rounds within easy reach of their weapon.
“Building two has hall exits and a fire escape down its port side,” whispered Gunny, “That is your
only responsibility, Bermúdez. Do not fuck it up. Kill anyone who crosses this sector of fire,
Bermúdez nodded. Gunny winked at me. I tightened my harness. Gunny counted with his fingers:
Gunny and I stepped onto the ledge that surrounded the roof of the building. We dove, headfirst.
Rope trailed out behind me. I kept my M-16 trained on the ground with my left hand. I brought my
right in to my chest to initiate friction. We ran down the wall of the building in an Auzzie rappel. I
hit the pavement and took cover behind a barrel of trash, in the alleyway between the two buildings.
Gunny smiled at me. I nodded.
We ran, without making a sound, from hard cover to soft cover, leapfrogging each other’s positions without need for words nor hand signals. From the dumpster - to an abandoned car - to a rock pile - through a broken first floor window - down a hall - into the stairwell - 2nd floor - 3rd floor - 5th floor - we stopped with our backs against each side of the 5th floor doorframe. I nodded. Gunny opened it. I walked into the hall with my M-16 at the ready.
The second fire team, led by Corporal Donovan, trained their rifles on my head and torso. They recognized me then elevated their muzzles. Gunny walked into the hall. He pointed to various doors. We each took a position in front of one. Gunny looked at his watch.
“We come in peace. If you turn in your weapons we will give you food and medicine.”
The Humvee was right outside the building now. Gunny walked to the end of the hallway and put
on his earpiece.
“Do not move unless we hear gunfire,” said Gunny’s voice in my earpiece, “Lance Corporal
Hargett, tell Somolia to step out of the vehicle please.” Gunny took aim on the door in front of him.
We all did the same.
“We come in peace. If you turn in your weapons we will give you food and medicine.”
Shots were fired.
We kicked in the doors. I shot a teenage boy in the back. An antique M-1 rifle hit the floor. Blood pooled around the twitching body. I turned around. Gunny had been watching me. He crouched down and touched the blood on the floor with his fingertips. He stood.
“Blood make the grass grow,” said Gunny. He ran his fingers over my nose, lips, and chin, leaving a
“Kill, kill, kill,” I replied. Gunny turned and left. I stood there, trembling.
“Bullshit, marine,” said the man from Naval Investigative Service, “You really expected us to believe that?”
“Sir, we heard shots,” I said, “Gunny instructed us to investigate then we did what we had to do.”
Everyone was sweating, each for his own reasons. N.I.S. had interviewed all the members of our
group except for Gunny, Corporal Fahrad and Lance Corporal Hargett - the driver. Now it was my
turn. It felt strange being back in the same tent we had started in that morning. The three N.I.S.
officers wore suits. They seemed disappointed that there weren’t any lights to shine on me. The
youngest one kept trying to open the tent flap wide enough to let the sunlight hit my face. The
senior officer made him stop. The third officer shook his head.
“Look, marine,” said the senior. He straddled a chair in front of me. “I could really give a shit what
happened out there. But this place is still swarming with the news media. That means if someone in
Washington has to stand in front the camera and explain anything, anything at all, then my director
will be grabbing his ankles in front of that very same someone. That means I’m grabbing my ankles
in front of the director and you, my friend, will be grabbing yours in front of me.”
“We want to talk to you about Gunnery Sergeant Higgle,” said the junior officer.
“I have nothing to say,” I said.
“Then why don’t we talk about Kinville, in Japan.” said the senior.
I walked out of the tent. It was nearly sunset. Gunny made eye contact with me from a bench. I
nodded. Gunny stood. The junior officer called Gunny’s name. He walked past me into the tent. I
sat down on the bench next to corporal Fahrad.
“Why don’t you grab some sleep for a couple minutes,” I said, “Believe it or not it’ll do you some
good. I can wake you when they call.”
“Two minutes,” said Fahrad. He looked like hell.
“I need to talk to you,” said lance corporal Billy Joe Hargett. She sat down on the bench beside me.
She wore a t-shirt and cammies. Her hair was shaved tight.
“Why the hell were you driving today?” I whispered.
“Gunny said he wanted to keep an eye on me,” said Billy Joe. She looked me in the eye. Hers were
green. She looked to the porta-johns then back at me. I nodded. She stood then walked to them. I
waited until she went inside one, then stood and walked over myself.
“This is horrific, Gene,” said Billy Joe. Billy Joe is from Georgia.
“Considering they only installed these yesterday,” I said. I looked down the hole. Billy Joe slapped
me across the face.
“Wake up, Gene!” said Billy Joe, “Don’t you see what’s going on? That’s why we’re in this mess in
the first place. I need you serious for a second here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m just tired. What happened?”
“I need to get my life back,” said Billy Joe, “that’s what happened. I want to get back to my
husband in Japan, Gene, you understand me?!” She grabbed my shirtfront.
“What the hell’s going on here!” said Gunny Higgle. The door to the porta-john flew open. Billy
Joe and I blinked. Corporal Fahrad stood at parade rest behind Gunny, smiling. The three N.I.S.
agents stood beside him. The junior one looked at his clipboard.
“Lance Corporal Hargett?” he said.
“Right here, sir,” said Billy Joe. She walked to the agents and followed them to the tent. Gunny’s
eyes burned into mine.
“Meet me at bivouac,” said Gunny. He turned and walked away. I stepped down from the porta-
john. Corporal Fahrad was laughing now.
“Well, you sure seem to be in better spirits there, hard-charger,” I said.
“You only get two minutes, marine,” said Fahrad, “Next time make it count.”
“I’ll do that,” I said.
I turned to follow Gunny. Shots rang out in the distance, small arms, rifles, then automatic weapons.
An alert siren went off. We all ran for the gate, weapons at the ready. There was a roar, like the
crowd in a soccer stadium. The convoy appeared up the road in the distance. A multitude of starving
people, thugs and militants ran alongside them, throwing rocks and bottles. There was a single shot.
The convoy stopped. There were screams then automatic weapons fire erupted from lead vehicle in
the convoy. The crowd scattered. The convoy peeled out, racing towards us. We cleared the center
and held the gates open for the vehicles to enter the compound. Marines were wounded. Action
Jackson preformed CPR. People screamed. Cameras flashed. The boys from N.I.S. ran towards me.
I turned around, towards the setting sun, and held my breath. They ran past me, into the fray.
I walked away.
For most of these marines, it was their last day in country. I figured I’d leave them to settle their
affairs. I had bigger fish to fry and a problem to deal with. If I didn’t do something about it I’d be
screwed. If I did anything though, I’d be screwed. What should one do when they’re about to be
screwed? I just wished there was something in between the two extremes. I worked my way through
the pallets of the staging area, back to the sandbags on the beach. I looked at our flag, on the
guideon, stabbed into the sand at my feet.
“Okinawa,” I said.
The last rays of sunlight vanished behind the city and Africa grew dark again. Bats flew. I stared at
the largest tent at the end of the first row for almost a minute. My heart pounded in my chest. I
tucked my 9mm. into the front of my trousers and covered it with my t-shirt. I reached into my
cargo pocket. It was there, a full bottle of grape Robotussin. Not the Chinese shit either, the German
shit. Gunny would be pleased. I swallowed hard then walked towards the tent.
“Bring your ass in here, Wagner,” said Gunny.
“Holy shit I think it’s Robo-Gunny...” I said. I poked my head through the opening of the tent.
Gunny’s expression brightened.
“And his sidekick, Sergeant Fury!” said Gunny, “bring that ass, devil dog.” He threw his arms
around me locking me into a bear-hug.
“Alright, devil dog that’s enough,” I said. I could barely breathe. Gunny squeezed harder. He leaned
back, lifting me off the ground.
“Robo and Fury!” said Gunny, “back in the saddle!”
“Gunny!” I said.
He released me. I handed him the bottle of Robotussin. “Nice work out there, killer,” I said, regaining my breath.
“A lovely work it was, devil dog,” said Gunny. He examined the label on the bottle. He smiled then
punched me in the arm. “Big spender. I should’ve wore my fuck-me pumps. He roared with
laughter then stopped. “So what did you tell them?”
“Nothing, Gunny,” I said.
“Then that’s the longest forty-five minutes of nothing I never heard of,” said Gunny. He winked at
me, giggling. He got that way sometimes, Gunny Giggles, Robo-Gunny, those are some of the
names he’s been called over the years that I’d served with him. Gunny peeled the plastic from the
top of the bottle. They just never understood Gunny, that’s all. Gunny’s log book was open on top of
an ammo box. A black and white photograph of Gunny at Khe Sanh was taped to the inside cover.
“They asked me about Kinville,” I said.
Gunny’s expression darkened. His neck muscles flexed with anticipation. I should’ve caught that
but I didn’t. Gunny pinned me against the wall with a knife to my throat. It cut me. My hand went
to my trousers.
“Excuse me,” said Corporal Fahrad. He stepped into the tent. “Oh my, I’m sorry,” said Fahrad.
Gunny and I stepped away from each other. I walked to the exit.
“Hey!” said Gunny. I looked back. He pointed to his eyeballs then pointed at me. “What the hell do
you want now, Somalia, a foot massage?” I walked away. “Apparently you’ve forgotten some of
your basic Marine Corps practical knowledge haven’t you, son?”
I had to find Billy Joe.
I crossed the compound with caution. There was still plenty of activity around the convoy. I touched
my neck then looked at my fingertips. It wasn’t bad. I crept through Supply Company, past the
armory, behind headquarters, towards the main tent of the chow hall.
A shadowed figure slipped out of the tent then entered the maze of cargo boxes stacked behind it.
“What the hell?” I said. I walked back and peered into the tent. Moonlight cast my shadow onto the
floor boards. Lying on the floor, was an unconscious Marine. His trousers were around his knees.
“filthy Ether Bunny,” I said.
I looked at the marine. I looked around the tent then off in the direction the shadowed figure had
fled. I looked at my watch.
“Sorry, devil dog,” I said.
Motor-T was quiet. I low-crawled up to a bullet-riddled porta-john. Gravel crunched beneath my
chest. Firelight emanated from the maze of tractor tires. I looked up at the apartment buildings.
I crept to the entrance of the maze then walked inside. Someone was playing Billy Holiday. I heard
laughter. I walked faster. I smiled. Where was it coming from?
The maze opened up to a center courtyard. Marines sat on pallets of food. They ate Twinkies,
caviar, olives stuffed with various things, SPAM, smoked oysters and corned beef hash. Someone
passed a bottle of Jack Daniels around. Some marines had beers. A small campfire burned in the
middle of the secret campsite and marines were actually making smores. The radio played, just loud
enough to be heard but not enough to get busted. Rome was burning and the boys were going home.
Billy Joe sat on a pallet of Tapatillo Hot Sauce. She took a sip from a bottle of Crown Royal
whiskey. She drew her knees to her chest and stared into the fire.
“Komban wa?,” I said, bowing.
“Nothing has been good about this evening, Gene,” Said Billy Joe. I climbed up next to her, on top
of all that hot sauce.
“I need to talk to you,” I said, “but I’m so tired I can’t even remember what it was anymore.” I took
a sip of her Crown Royal then closed my eyes.
“Why don’t you sleep for a couple of minutes,” said Billy Joe.
“Why don’t you sleep for a couple of minutes,” I said.
“I should,” said Billy Joe. She laid her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “we’ll figure it all out.” I blinked, trying to stay awake.
“Gene?” said Billy Joe.
“nan’ desu ka?”
“Do you think we’re being punished?”
“For what we did or what we didn’t do?” I said.
Billy Joe sat up. She looked into my eyes. “Both,” she said.
“It’s normal to have regrets,” I said, “but I don’t feel responsible, not for everything. We just need
to get out of here.”
“I’m working on it. You know how delicate it is.”
“Promise me,” said Billy Joe, “I’m serious, I can’t take much more of this. Promise me we’ll make
it back to Japan. I have to believe it again, cause’ if I don’t...”
I looked up at the apartment buildings. I looked at my fellow marines, the faces around the
“I promise,” I said.
Billy Joe rested her head on my shoulder again. My eyes kept closing. My head kept nodding. Billy Holiday kept singing.
I opened my eyes.
“Sargent, Wagner, get him!” said corporal Fahrad.
Gunny hurdled the campfire. He danced, shirtless in dog-tags, skivvies and boots. Corporal
Donovan grabbed ahold of gunny’s wrist.
“Come on now, Gunny,” he said. Gunny reversed the hold and twisted corporal Donovan’s wrist over, flipping him onto the ground.
“No no no, papasan, I don’t think so,” said Gunny. He stepped away, giggling. He continued to
dance. Someone turned off the radio. Gunny’s eyes locked on the marine who had done it.
“Radio!” said Gunny. “Turn on the fucking radio, marine!!!”
A round impacted near the fire. We all looked back up at the apartment buildings.
“Cocksucker,” said Gunny, “would you look at that?” He turned around and scrutinized us. He
smiled. “Verry well,” he said. Gunny sprinted towards the fence-line.
“Wait” I said. I ran after him.
He was fast, almost three times my senior. Maybe the weight of my clothing prevented me from
catching him. Maybe I was afraid to catch him. Gunny rolled into a trench, slipped under the fence
then vanished into the darkness between buildings.
“Oh no,” whispered corporal Fahrad. Billy Joe ran up behind him.
“Oh, this is just stupid,” whispered Billy Joe, “If he wants to get killed we should let him then.”
“He’s a marine,” whispered Fahrad, “That part I still remember.”
“You know nothing,” I said. I peered into the darkness where Gunny had vanished. I pulled the
9mm from the front of my trousers and tucked it into the small of my back.
“Gene, don’t,” said Billy Joe, “Fahrad, where are you going with that bullhorn?”
“Gunny told me to guard it with both my shriveled balls.”
I low-crawled on my stomach, slipped under the fence, then headed after Gunny. My heart pounded
in my ears. I approached the dumpster I had taken cover behind earlier. I crouched down with my
back to the wall and breathed. I closed my shooting eye to develop some quick and dirty night
vision. I counted to ten.
I retraced our steps - from the dumpster - to the abandoned car - to a rock pile - through a broken
first floor window- down a hall - into the stairwell - 2nd floor - 3rd floor - 5th floor - I stopped with
my back against the side of the 5th floor doorframe.
I entered the hallway.
The doors were still kicked open. I don’t know why I expected them to be otherwise. A giggling
sound emanated from a room at the end of the hall. I cross-stepped towards the room, pistol at the
ready. Inside, Gunny knelt on the floor cradling a young man’s head in his lap. It rested against Gunny’s
forearm, in a headlock. A mardouf of *khat and a rifle lay beside the young man’s arm on the floor.
Gunny rocked him back and forth. (*The leaves of an Arabian shrub, which are chewed (or drunk as an infusion) as a stimulant.)
“Had to be a cocksucker,” said Gunny. He was sobbing, “Had to make me kill him, Gene, had to
fuck it all up. Couldn’t just let us have a couple of minutes to relax, fucking people, man.” He
punched the deceased Somali in the face.
“Easy, hard-charger,” I whispered. I placed my hand on Gunny’s shoulder, “easy.”
“Gunny?” said corporal Fahrad. Gunny looked at Fahrad’s bullhorn then smiled. Gunny’s face
hardened. He snatched the pistol from my hand then pointed it at Fahrad.
A man with a rifle fell backwards in the hall behind Fahrad. Gunny had saved his life.
“Let’s get out of here, devil dogs,” said Gunny. He sniffled, “shirt, please.” He looked to Fahrad.
“Aye, Gunny,” said Fahrad. He removed his t-shirt and threw it to Gunny. Gunny smiled. Fahrad
looked down at the dead men. His expression faded. He looked back at Gunny.
“Let’s go,” I said. We crept down the hall, pistol, rifles, and bullhorn at the ready.
I opened my eyes.
“Hey, Action Jackson,” I said, “What are you doing here?”
“Wagner, reveille reveille let’s go,” said Gunny. Jackson vanished. Gunny peeked his head into my
tent. “Eight minutes there, sleeping beauty. That’s more than generous. I need you now, devil dog,
I followed him. The sky turned shades of purple.
A row of Humvees with roof-mounted 50 caliber machine guns idled in front of the command post.
Billy Joe stood beside one of them at parade rest. My stomach sank. She was standing at parade rest
beside the taxicab in Kinville that night. It was monsoon season.
“Wagner!” said Gunny, “Get to your vehicle, sergeant. Let’s go!” He climbed into the passenger’s
seat of Billy Joe’s Humvee. I walked over to mine. Corporal Fahrad was driving. He had a properly
fitting helmet, sunglasses and a shotgun beside him.
“Where’d you get all that?” I said.
“Gunny gave it to me,” said corporal Fahrad.
“Move out!” said Gunny. Vehicles roared to life. We sped through the gates and into the streets of
Mogadishu. I put my earpiece on.
Gunny led us down side streets and alleyways, keeping to the outskirts of the city. The dirt roads
kept us away from the danger of the Bermuda Triangle and the warring clans. We traveled off-road
most of the way to the airport. I looked at the city through our dust trail. The sun rose. Two C-130
aircraft banked over the Indian Ocean. A helicopter prepared to land up ahead. A group UN
peacekeepers opened the gates.
“Gene, what did you tell N.I.S.?” said Gunny.
We walked along a column of Trucks and Humvees idling on the flight deck of the Mogadishu
airport. The islamic call to prayer echoed over the city.
“Gunny, I would never betray you,” I said, “You know that.”
“That’s not an answer, devil dog,” said Gunny.
“I told them I had nothing to say.”
“Gene, do not fuck with me!” said Gunny in a whisper, “You know the truth, damnit. I swear I will
kill every last one of-”
“Aten-tion,” I said. Gunny and I stopped. We saluted Colonel Reap.
“Freddy, walk with me for a moment,” said the colonel. He led Gunny away by the shoulder. The
helocopter idled on the tarmak behind them. Billy Joe and Fahrad walked towards me.
“What’s going on?” said Fahrad.
“It doesn’t concern us,” I said. I looked into Billy Joe’s eyes. They questioned me. “We better just
focus on making it back to the compound, devil dogs.”
“Gene,” said Billy Joe, “he’s acting strange.”
“Just focus,” I said, “we’ve gotta keep-”
“You’re gonna have to,” I said.
“I can’t do this anymore!” said Billy Joe. I looked towards Gunny and the colonel.
“I’ll ride with you,” said Fahrad, “It’ll be better if Gunny has a translator in the vehicle anyway,”
“Thank you, Fahrad” I said.
“Mohammed,” said corporal Fahrad. Billy Joe and I looked at him.
“Thank you, Mohammed,” I said.
“Alright, ladies, let’s do this!” said Gunny. The colonel’s helocopter took off. “All bullshit aside,
hard-chargers, we now have only one mission in this life - to get everyone safely back to the depot.”
“Ooh-rah,” said Billy Joe.
“Let’s move out,” said Gunny.
Gunny marched to Billy Joe’s Vehicle then climbed into the passenger’s seat. I adjusted my goggles. Fahrad checked the safetey on his weapon. I patted him on the helmet. We walked towards the convoy.
“Be careful,” I said near Billy Joe’s ear.
We passed behind her Humvee. I grabbed her hand. She looked back. Her hand slipped through my fingertips. Billy Joe climbed into the driver’s seat of the
Hummer. I slapped the body of her vehicle twice then walked over to mine. Lcpl. Bermúdez sat
behind the wheel. Pfc. Thompson stood in the Gun turret.
“Stay on Gunny,” I said.
The column of trucks pulled out of the airport, heading into the city. It was nearly noon. Groups of
people gathered in front ruined buildings, chewing khat. Khat contains an alkaloid called cathinone,
an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria - the perfect
high for a starving nation.
“We’re gonna have a whole city-full of gunnies on our hands,” said Lcpl. Bermúdez.
We rounded a corner. People’s cheeks bulged, exaggerated by the wads of khat leaves. Almost
everyone on the street had glazed over eyes. Bermúdez stepped on the gas.
“I doubt anyone sleeps in this country anymore,” I said. I watched the zombies blur by
outside,“Who would want to anyway?”
“I do,” said Bermúdez.
We passed a Roman Triumphal Arch with latin engravings. It must have been such a beautiful city
once. The road narrowed, funneling into a smaller street. Buildings walled each side of the convoy.
“Why are people so self-destructive?” I said.
“Human nature, Baby,” said Bermúdez.
We slowed. A crowd formed, growing all around us. A brick hit the body of our vehicle.
“Son of a bitch!” said Thompson. Urine dripped from his helmet and cammies. It poured into the
vehicle. “They’re dumping piss on us from the roof of the buildings!”
“We’re getting out of here!” said Gunny’s voice in my earpiece, “Make a hole!”
“Shit, follow them!” I said. Gunny’s vehicle lurched forward. They hit a woman then drove up onto
the sidewalk. The crowd roared. The Humvee ploughed its way to the intersection then peeled-out
up the next street. We followed.
We hit a pedestrian at the corner then fishtailed. Bermúdez corrected. We turned onto the same road
as Gunny. We raced up an adjacent street two blocks over, pushing to get in front of the convoy.
Glimpses of the trucks flashed between the intersections. The crowd on the street had doubled in
size around them. Shots rang out.
“Gunny!” I said. There was a bright light.
“Do not move,”
I opened my eyes.
My whole body hurt.
Billy Joe’s hand was clapped over my mouth. It was night. A fire burned somewhere. I smelled
smoke. We were in the city still. Billy Joe laid on top of me beneath a pile of trash. A spotlight
moved over our position. The wheels of an armoured vehicle passed by. The plastic trash bags that
were covering our heads blew off. Billy Joe’s heart pounded against my chest. Over her shoulder, I
saw a group of armed men cross the trash pile, right next to us. They followed the armoured vehicle
down the street. I exhaled.
“What happened?” I whispered. My vision blurred.
“Thompson’s dead,” whispered Billy Joe, “Bermúdez, lost some fingers. You were only scratched-
up and unconscious. You may have a concussion.”
“Where’s Gunny?” I said.
“Come on,” said Billy Joe. She slid off of my chest then low-crawled over the trash and rubble. I bit
down on my molars and followed her to the corner of a bullet-riddled building. Moonlight cast
shadows against the wall. Billy Joe low-crawled to the skeleton of a Fiat automobile. She returned
with an Alice pack, an M-16 A2, a radio, and a 9mm. pistol. I took the 9mm, put on an earpiece, then followed her into the bushes - over a ruined brick wall - along a fence - to a hillside with a view of a wrecking yard below. At the base of the hill sat a building with no roof. Moonlight shone
directly into the building’s interior.
The armored vehicle drove into the yard, followed by the same men who had just walked past Billy
Joe and I a few moments ago. Jeeps, Humvees, and civilian vehicles formed a semicircle. Their
headlights illuminated the building below us. Men with rifles took cover behind the vehicles.
Muzzle flashes erupted from the building.
I saw the people clearly now, crouching inside.
“Gunny,” I said. I held down my transmitter. Billy Joe flipped the rear sight over on her M-16 and
“Glad you could make it, devil dog,” Gunny’s voice crackled in my earpiece, “We’re out of rounds
“We could leave him, Gene,” said Billy Joe. She aimed at the vehicles then at the men taking cover
in the background. The side hatch of the armored vehicle opened. A man in uniform stepped out in
front of the headlights. He lifted a bullhorn to his lips.
“Wait,” I said.
The officer spoke into the bullhorn in Somali. Muhammed answered back in Somali. His bullhorn
squealed with feedback. The officer laughed.
“This I have to see with my own eyes,” said the officer in english.
He marched to the entrance of the building. His men followed him. Faces glowed with sweat
beneath the moon and headlights.
“I’m on the hill behind you,” I said. Gunny didn’t answer me. He left his transmitter on.
“I guess you really are a marine then,” said the officer. His men filled the room, surrounding Gunny,
Bermúdez, and Mohammed.
“Prepare to shoot the officer,” I whispered. Billy Joe sat back onto the heel of her boot and exhaled.
Her muzzle moved in tiny figure eights.
“Watch out,” said Bermúdez, “careful with my hand, man, my fingers are missing!”
“Why do you have the face of my enemy, marine?” said the officer. He shined a flashlight on
Muhammed’s face, “just a younger face...” He stepped closer.
One of his men placed the muzzle of his rifle to the side of Bermúdez’s head. He pulled the trigger.
Bermúdez’s body fell to the floor.
Gunny drew his K-bar. He stepped to the assailant and sliced his stomach open. Entrails spilled.
“Cut, cut, stab!!!” said Gunny. He slit the Somali’s throat twice, then buried the knife under the
man’s chin, nailing him to the floor. He stood. Everyone was silent. They all took aim at Gunny
then started yelling.
“Wait!” said the officer, “Everyone stop. Take it easy.” He laughed and patted Gunny on the
shoulders, “You crazy Rambo-man!” He kept laughing and patting Gunny on the back.
“What?!” said Gunny. Muhammed looked away. “You want to kill me?!”
“Come,” said the officer, “this way.”
They marched Gunny and Muhammed out of the building at gunpoint.
“I have a shot,” said Billy Joe.
“Wait,” I said. I turned up the volume on my radio.
The officer barked orders to his men behind the vehicles. They opened the rear hatch of the armored
troop transport. They dragged a group of eight or ten prisoners out in front of the headlights. They
were all blindfolded. Gunny and Muhammed stood beside the officer.
“Rambo-man,” said the officer, “Show me how you did that with the knife. I want you to show me
again, on this man right here.” He pointed to the first blindfolded prisoner.
Gunny said nothing.
“Just this one man here,” said the officer, “Then I’ll try on that man.”
“It’s not happening,” said Gunny.
“Come, please,” said the officer, “show me. If you show, then I’ll let the rest of them go free.
“No,” said Gunny.
“Gene...” said Billy Joe.
“Wait,” I said. I dug through the Alice pack and removed three M-1 fragmentation grenades. I
pulled one of the pins.
“I’ll let you go,” said the officer, “Here, show me. I let your friend go too, Rambo-man. Yes! Just
show me.” He handed Gunny his knife back. Gunny looked at the officer. The officer nodded and
Sweat stung my eyes.
“You don’t show me, I’ll kill them all, Rambo-man,” said the officer, “I was going to kill these men
tonight anyway. What is two more lives compared to the eight? Plus I’ll let you and your friend
leave this place alive.” Gunny and Muhammed looked at each other. “So what do you say, Rambo-
Gunny looked down at the K-bar in his hand.
“Ready...” I said.
Gunny looked back at the officer.
“I have the shot,” said Billy Joe.
“Kill him!!! Kill,” said some of the prisoners, “Let us live!”
I let the spoon of the grenade fall to the earth. I prepared to throw.
Gunny smiled. He giggled.
“No,” said Gunny.
By Stephen Richter | 2:02 a.m.
The birth of a Story: (naked verse: dialogue only)
Begin with only dialogue then move on to giving a sense of time and place in the world.
Part 1 – The voice
A: “I’m sorry, man. My battery’s dead. You wouldn’t know the score, would ya’?”
B: “Seven – three, Patriots.”
B: “Yeah, I know. I don’t think New York’s gonna’ cover.”
A: “You get down on the Jets, too?”
A: “I feel you. We all unloaded on New York and the over.”
B: “Who you working with?”
A: “Vegas pipeline.”
B: “No shit? Hank Russo still over there?”
A: “Of course. It was his pick.”
B: “I should have known. Where’s he getting his steam from?”
A: “Stan Pastorini, he picks the games.”
B: “Picks the games? Pastorini can’t even pick his ass.”
A: “Well he did call last week’s Notre Dame lock-burial and-”
B: “Hey, no offense, I’m just saying. I don’t think he puts that much thought into the process, that’s all.”
A: “Well he sure had us all put enough dough into the process this weekend.”
B: “Had you all unload, huh?”
A: “Yeah, huge. He called it his burning bush play.”
B: “Burning bush?”
A: “Says it’s beyond inside information. It’s a divine pick.”
B: “Real inside steam, huh?”
B: “Didn’t Dr Vegas work over there with you guys?”
A: “Yeah, until Sam Sharp shot him after the Super Bowl.”
B: “I heard about that. Except I heard it was Tommy the Monster.”
A: “No no, he was still with Billy the Hun and those guys at Black Book Sports back then.”
B: “Well, it is a tough business.”
A: “Fucking A. Yes!!! Yes!!!”
B: “Yeah, baby! Get some!!!”
A: “Ten – seven, baby!”
B: “Burning bush… Maybe Stan can pick his ass after all!”
A: “Whew, okay. Okay. We just need three more.”
B: “Famous last words.”
A: “Gotta’ love it though. Want one?”
B: “Sure, why not. It’s better than drinking it out of the bottle.”
A: “Yeah, plus Tums have calcium in them. So it’s harder for people to break your legs.”
B: “You’re a funny guy. You’ll do good in this business.”
A: “I try.”
B: “That’s all a man can do.”
A: “How long you been in sports?”
B: “Since the Flintstones.”
A: “No shit?”
B: “1974, before your boss even played for the Oilers”
B: “Big wow.”
A: “So how do you deal with it? I mean, when they lose.”
B: “I would’ve thought Hank taught you better, rookie.”
A: “I know, I know. They’re all pieces of shit, degenerate gamblers that lie to everyone in their miserable lives…”
B: “Come on, rookie, say it like you mean it.”
Part 2 – Place in the world
The guitar in front of the Hard Rock hotel casino flashed its neon strings. Limousines, taxis, and pedestrians gravitated toward the rotunda of the main entrance. Valets ran back and forth with a sense of intensity. Pockets bulged with tips and slips of paper for the patrons to reclaim their vehicles. A Country western singer wearing a cowboy hat gave the parking lot a “thumbs-up,” from the mammoth screens above Paradise road.
“Are you ready for some football?!!!” the flashing words read overhead.
Inside, Harley Davidson motorcycles lined the perimeter of slot machines that encircled the casino. Pit bosses counted chips at the craps tables. Patrons postured and flexed their financial feathers. Men tried to impress women with cash and coolness. Women sized up the men with caution, looking for signs of falsehood or feigned luxury. Football games played on every screen above every section of the casino.
At the center of the activity stood the World Bar.
Ice cubes jingled. People mingled and played. They smiled. The air smelled of liquor and AC. Here and there, among the happy, sat the serious ones. Their faces, set like stone, stared up at the screens. Some perspired, despite the air conditioning. Some chain-smoked. Some trembled when they lifted their glasses to their lips. Two men sat at the World Bar, pinned between the pushing and shoving customers who wanted to order drinks. One man was older. The other man was young. Both men drank bottled water. Both men held pocket notepads and pencils. Neither man spoke. The young man pulled a pager from his hip and looked at it. His expression darkened. He hit the pager against the palm of his other hand. He slammed it down on the bartop in front of him.