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Eli and Coker made their way back to the National Test Site, and Oscar Base. There, they parted ways to shower and don clean clothes. Then, they met up and walked to Mable’s Cafe, for dinner. Obviously, Coker had told Mable that the headcount would be down 60%, as there was only enough chow put out to feed a battalion, as opposed to a brigade. Just as they were about to start chowing, Eli heard the low thrum of a motorcycle pulling up in front of Mable’s. The sound from the pipes didn’t sound like annoyingly loud aftermarket pipes. Maybe, thought Eli, they’re there to increase backside compression ratios, for more speed and power.
Then the front door opened, and a giant stepped in. Well, thought Eli, maybe not a giant. As a giant, he was hardly huge, he was barely enormous. The guy stomped into the chow hall in dust covered leathers. He had longish hair, was bearded, and had braided his moustaches. Looks like that guy fell off the prow of a viking ship and landed on a Harley. Maybe all them black hole, time travel books Bobby was reading were on to something. The big guy took off his shortcut helmet and looked over at Coker.
“Hootch,” he said.
“At the two o’clock position, 30 meters, as you exit is the cadre hootch. Two bunk rooms. I’m on the left, you’re on the right.”
The mini-mammoth said, “15 minutes,” turned, and exited.
“What. The. Heck. Was. That?” asked Eli.
“That, little brother, is the guy we’re going to support. Good times are here. Make sure to eat a solid meal. We’ll do a group debrief tonight at the fire pit. There will undoubtedly be alcohol involved.”
“Roger that,” said Eli, heading back to the buffet line for a second plate.
Eli was halfway through round two when the big guy walked back in. His hair and beard still looked damp, the hair obviously only hand-pull brushed. He was now dressed in jeans and a loose fitting tee shirt and boots. He gave Coker a quick shoulder clasp as he walked by, then yelled into the back, “Ms. Mable, you here?”
Mable came through the swinging door to the back, wherein she kept the culinary esoterica that let her work her magic. “Oh, Leo, it is so good to see you again.” Leo bent down to receive a kiss on the cheek and a quick hug from Mable. “Coker said you were coming in today, so I’ve got some of your favorites out on the buffet line.”
“Thanks, Miz Mable,” the giant rumbled, sounding like an itty-bitty rockslide.
“Hey!” hollered Coker with mock indignation. “You’ve never told me you had all my favorites lined up when I come in from the cold!”
“That’s because, Coker,”responded Mable with mock severity, hands on her hips, “you’re just a—what’s the phrasing? Oh, yes—you’re just a ‘pig at the trough.’ Leo is a man of taste and distinction.”
“Taste and distinction? When I met him, I had to teach how to use a fork and a spoon. The guy had never used anything but a knife, before.”
Leo was on his way back to the table, with Mable following in loose trail behind him.
“If that’s true, Coker, and I doubt it because it’s coming from you, then it’s because he’s a fast learner. You should try it some time. Learning.” Mable bent down and planted a kiss squarely on the top of Coker’s head, then headed back to the kitchen. Coker grinned like a maniac.
Leo was getting his plates, cups, and silverware squared away.
“Well, Coker, if the lady’s right, she’s right.” Leo reached his right hand out to Eli. “You must be Eli, glad to meet you. I’ve heard good things about you. I’m Leo.”
Eli shook and, since feigning strong emotions seemed to be the order of the day, did his best to look gobsmacked and said, “Good things? From Coker?”
Leo grinned around a veal cutlet he’d cleared and stripped in one bite, holding the bone daintily in two fingers. “Hey, man, if Coker’s not sacrificing chickens to pour blood over a doll that looks vaguely like you so that he can start poking pins in it, that’s positive feedback.”
Coker and Eli looked at each other and said simultaneously “Heh.”
All three finished eating at the same time. Despite arriving late to the meal, apparently Leo could hoover up chow with the best of them.
As they left Mable’s, Coker announced he was going to spark up the fire pit and trotted out towards the back of the billets.
“You smoke cigars?” asked Leo.
“You drink whisky?”
“Tonight, you’re gonna do both.”
Eli stopped, to figure out how best to politely demure. Leo turned toward him.
“Look, Eli, consider this another training event. Someday, faster than you can even imagine, you’re going to be attending a social event with an Ambassador, or his Deputy Chief of Mission, or a Chief of Station, and a day or two after that social event, that cat’s going to be making the call whether your mission is a go, or a no-go. If you show up, and just ask for a beer, that cat is going to think you need to be sitting at the kiddie table, and you just screwed your team. If you show up and don’t know what right looks like and overdo, and slur a word or show that your judgement is in any way impaired, that cat is going to think that you belong at the losers’ table, and you just screwed your team. And if you try to fake that you know about good booze and good cigars, that cat will sniff it out almost immediately, and think you belong at the poseurs’ table, and you just screwed your team. Tell you what, this one time I worked with an ambassador who kept two decanters of hootch in the set-up in the office. One was top shelf, the other was two steps down from Military Special. If the Ambo didn’t know you, you’d get the swill. If you accepted it and managed to gut it down, you were filed under ‘loser.’ If you took one sip and just set the glass down and ignored during it during the rest of the conversation, you were filed under ’neutral, let’s wait and see.’ If you took one sip and asked what’n heck kind of poison is that?’ you were filed under ‘winner, this cat knows what’s what.’”
“Sounds like a personal experience, so what did you say to him, Leo?”
“I set the glass down and asked her if she had any fine, five-year old turpentine available, instead.”
“Heh. So, you and Coker are going to smoke cigars and drink whisky with me all night, just for my professional development?”
“I think that covers it, yeah.”
“Well, gosh Leo, I appreciate your sacrifice.”
Leo clapped Eli on the shoulder as they moved toward the billets, “That’s me, brother, I’m a giver.”
Around the now stoked fire pit, Leo pointed at Coker, and said, “You first.”
Coker gave a succinct run-down of the past couple of weeks. Apparently, although he’d individually evaluated each gunner at different times, he had run all of them through what amounted to the same gauntlet. He listed the pros and cons of each gunner, and why Eli had finally been selected.
Leo took a pull off his cigar, and asked, “Eli?”
“Look, I didn’t even know what was going on. I still don’t. I just jumped through whatever hoops Coker set up, had fun shooting, and always overcame the urge to shoot Odell. That’s it.”
Coker laughed. “Not shooting Odell was a pretty good test for all the guys. Good man, though. He’s on the rolodex.”
“Rolodex?” asked Eli.
“What,” said Coker, “you think we’re going to spend all that money and not keep a rolodex of capabilities for future ops?”
“That’s not creepy at all,” muttered Eli.
“Eh, even Odell might be useful, some day, some way.”
“Okay,” said Leo, “the whole thing was set up so that we could have the best fires from a single gunner available to us to accomplish the mission. Now, the difference between any of ya’ll may well have been a gnat’s whisker, but a gnat’s whisker to the good is something I’m willing to invest in.”
Next Leo gave a summary of his activities while the others had been ensconced at NTS. Eli listened to the accounts of brawls with bikers, of the types of terrain and law enforcement coverage of the nation’s borderlands, and then the multiple interdictions of Sinaloa cargo Leo had committed down in Pima Lamona county. Eli sat and listened. One guy did all that? The fact that Leo simply stated the events in chronological order, without bravado or braggadocio lent credence to his tale. Every now and again, Coker interjected with a question, always concise and precise.
Leo was sitting on the ground, his back up against a log, feet kinda/sorta towards the fire, but offset so that his soles didn’t melt. When he was done reviewing recent events, he looked at Eli and asked, “So, what shape is the cigar your holding?”
Eli pulled from his mason jar, then said, “Uh, bellicoso.”
“And what kind of leaf is the wrapper?”
“Nuthin’ but net, Eli. Now, how do you know that that is a fine, Cuban-seed, Dominican-grown stick instead of a piece of crap Nicaraguan knock-off?”
Eli pulled from the stick and held it up, with about 1 & 1/4 inch ash on the end. He exhaled and said, “Because the ash is pure white, not some kind of deformed gray.”
“See,” said Coker, “kid’s trainable. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta see a man about a horse.” Given the sheer volume of alcohol they’d put down, Eli was mildly surprised when Coker, instead of shambling to his feet, rolled up and glided off, as if he’d just finished his morning yoga session.
“So,” asked Leo, “how you doing, Eli.”
“I’m good, but maybe a little shell shocked, at all this.”
“Yeah,” said Leo, “it’s a lot. Take your time getting acclimated to the operational environment, and don’t hesitate to ask me or Coker if you’ve got a problem.”
Eli nodded, but was in the conundrum of not even knowing what questions to ask.
Leo floored him with his next question, “How’s your old man doing?”
Eli had been puffing on his cigar when Leo spoke, and the question jostled enough to both jerk a little and to draw a little more than intended off the cigar. The decent ash he’d built up promptly dropped—right into his whisky filled mason jar.
“You know my dad?” coughed Eli.
“Yeah. Know him a little bit. He taught me some good lessons. He doing okay?”
“He’s doing great. Thriving in a post-Army world.”
Leo stood, with the same grace Coker had, and threw some more logs into the fire pit.
“You can hit the rack, if’n you want to. I’ll be out here thinking some stuff through before we start planning.
“Uh-huh. Your thinking going to involve snoring? ‘Cause I hear most late night deep thinking sessions around a fire pit involve snoring.”
Leo grinned. “Eh, more likely than not. PT is at zero-five-thirty, yeah?”
Affirmative,” said Eli. “That’s Coker’s schedule.”
“Well, heaven forfend we get Coker off his schedule. See you at 0530, Eli.”
“See you then, Leo.”
When they assembled in the morning, Eli and Coker both wanted to get a light run in, then knock out some kettlebell training in the box that Coker had set up. Leo declined.
“I been able to run almost every day, distance or sprints. What I really want is some time on the weight pile.” Coker gave Leo a thumb’s up, and he and Eli loped on down the road.
When Eli and Coker got back from knocking out a four-miler at a nice 7:30 pace, Leo was working on the bench. He was benching a 45-pound bar with four 45 pound plates on each side, and solid, one-pound collars on the outside of the plates on each side of the bar. Eli wanted to whistle, but didn’t because that would be uncool. With apparent ease and perfect form, Leo was smoothly pumping out reps of 407 pounds. Without a spotter. Eli counted ten repetitions before Leo gently racked the bar.
“So at some point,” asked Coker, “are you going to put some real weight on that?”
“Gotta warm up first, brah.”
Eli pulled an industrial rubber floor mat outside the roll up doors, then a 70-kg kettlebell, and began doing ladders of the KB clean and press. As Eli worked, he heard the sound of plates being banged around. When he heard Leo quietly say, “Coker, can I get a spot?” Eli carefully grounded his kettlebell, stepped back, and turned to look in the box.
“You want a lift-off?” asked Coker.
“Nah. I’m good.”
Leo picked what, by Eli’s quick calculation, was 497 pounds off the rack, executed three solid, steady reps, and then re-racked the bar.
“Looks like you could’ve pushed more’n 500 easy,” noted Coker.
“Yeh, but that would’ve just been ego. That was the right weight for the work I wanted to do.”
The three operators stripped all the bars of weights, replacing them appropriately, quickly swept out the box, then Coker rolled down the metal access door. They made their way back to the to separate buildings they were billeted in. Eli’s workout clothes were soaked with sweat and had probably picked up a little dusty grime on his run. He didn’t want to leave his stuff stinky, but at the same time he didn’t want to run a whole washer dryer cycle just for a pair of shorts and a tee shirt. He skinned down to just the Soffe running shorts—affectionately known in Special Operatons as ranger panties—he wore as PT underware, slipped on his flip flops and headed out the back door. He’d run the hand pump out back, give his PT clothing a fresh water rinse, and just hang it up on the clothesline.
Eli saw Leo had had the exact same idea, and had beat him to the pump and clothesline. He was standing in ranger panties, one arm slung over the metal “T” pipe anchoring one side of the clothesline, leaning slightly up against it while he checked his phone.
Eli pulled up short. Leo took “intimidating” to a whole new level. Tiny was a big, muscular guy. Leo was the same, but his muscles had a…density that reeked of physical power. Holy crap, thought Eli.
Coker walked up beside Eli and said, “Yeh. Now you know the brother wasn’t selling wolf tickets, talking about all his fights during his recon. Dude fights as hard and is as strong as he looks. Greeks would’ve made sculptures of him, back in the day, instead of them little bitty fellas like David.”
“No,” said Eli, “I’m taking art history. Mandatory course for my night classes. There’s one statue that nails it.” Eli thought for a moment, running down the memory. “The Farnese Hercules.”
“Stand by,” said Coker. He lifted his phone and twaddled about with his phone for a minute. “Holy crap. You believe in time travel? This could be Leo.”
“Yeah, makes me think that all that science fiction Bobby was reading—”
“—isn’t all that silly. Got it.”
Leo looked up from his phone, “Hey, do what you got to do. Chow in fifteen minutes, then we start planning.”
There’s no breakfast like an Army breakfast, thought Eli. Mable announced she was making made-to-order eggs, so all three operators requested loaded omelets. Once Mable shoveled the omelets off the fry pan and onto plates, Eli walked to the buffet line, smothered his omelet in SOS, loaded up on bacon and sausage, and then dropped a dollop of hash browns onto his plate. He got a separate bowl of grits, into which he liberally sprinkled jalapeño slices. Then he hit the contents of the plate and the bowl with a combination of Tabasco (for heat) and Cholula (for flavor). He unloaded his meal from his tray onto the table, returned the tray to the dish window, and sat for some chow.
Coker and Leo joined him at the table. Coker with a plate about as loaded as Eli’s, Leo with two plates, each piled high.
As they got down to the serious business of morning, post-PT chow, Leo asked Coker, “So, you get those grid coordinates I pushed to you?”
“Yeah, there are a couple places on-site that are almost perfectly matching pieces of terrain. Rehearsals won’t be a problem.”
Leo looked over at Eli, “You ever done a baited attack?”
“No, but that’s pretty much like an ambush, right?”
Leo held up one hand, palm to the floor, and waggled it. “Eh, sort of. You ever seen one of them classic westerns where the cowboys, or the cavalry, chase some Indians into a box canyon, and then oops! about 174 Indians stand up along the rim of the canyon, and the cowboys know they are well and truly hosed?”
“That’s a baited attack. That’s what we’re going to do to the cartel.”
“Awesome,” said Eli. “Only thing is, during Coker’s whole selection, I haven’t exactly seen 174 Apache braves hanging out, refining their skills at baited attacks.”
“Nope,” said Leo. “We’re it. Us three. I’ll brief you guys the concept when we’re done eating, and we’ll turn that in into a plan.”
“What numbers are we looking at on the other side?” asked Eli.
“Pick your favorite term. Company minus. Reinforced platoon. Whatever.”
Eli did some quick, internal I-think-it-might-be-time-to-throw-up-now math. “So we’re talking at or about 20-to-1 odds? Maybe 30-to-1? Why do I feel like it’s insane even just saying it, let alone doing it?”
Coker looked at Eli soberly and intoned, “We take ‘um heap big many scalps.”
Leo said, “Look, listen to the concept, help us thresh out a decent plan, check out what capabilities available to us, and you make the call. I don’t want you on the mission if you don’t want to be there.”
Coker grinned at Eli, “Yeah, if you back out, I’ll call up Odell. He’s dumb enough to do anything.”
Eli snorted a laugh, even though he immediately saw what Coker was doing. Invoking Odell—or any of the guys—would get the spirit of fierce competition they’d built up stoked, making him more likely to assent to participating just because he didn’t want to be seen as losing out to Odell.
The two older operators let Eli think things over. Eli’s reverie was interrupted when Mable backed out of the kitchen, carrying a little octagonal coffee pot in one hand, and some cups in the other. She placed in front of Coker and Eli little shot glass sized expresso cups, with a full sized coffee mug going in front of Leo.
“Just let me know if you need anything else, boys.”
Coker and Eli made their pours, then Leo grabbed the pot and filled his regular sized mug with expresso.
As Eli watched Leo stir in some sugar, he asked, “So, dude, tachycardia much?” Leo just shot him a grin and took a big slurp.
Leo set his mug down and said, “All right, 20 minutes personal time, then we all meet in the break room.”Published in