0800 Hours21 August, 1993
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
Anger beat a familiar cadence in Sandy Caine's head.
Sprinting off the training ground, he headed into the dry riverbed that ran alongside police headquarters. Some moat. You could drive a herd of goats across it. Or a truck filled with plastique.
Dumb, dumb, dumb . . .
Running harder now, the heels of his worn-out soccer shoes kicking up little puffs of dust in the wadi.
What was it that made General Rushman such a jerk? If they gave out oak leaf clusters for stupidity, the guy's ribbons would be sagging down there right next to his double-digit IQ.
It was only 0800 hours, but already the August sun hanging in the cloudless blue sky over Mogadishu was bringing the city to its morning boil. With each stride he felt the hot desert air tearing at his lungs.
Dumb, dumb . . .
Chest pounding, sweat coursing down his back, he no longer felt much like a Special Forces officer. He damn sure knew he didn't look like one. For the day's mission he was wearing a pair of chinos cut off at the knees and a faded blue soccer jersey in the colors of the Honduran World Cup team. As he scrambled up the far bank of the wadi, he could smell the pepper gas oozing from the jersey. It clung to his short, dirty-blond hair like bad perfume.
Dumb . . .
And suddenly it came to him.
That had to be it. Evolution rolled the dice and out came these corporate types who could care less if they got you killed.
Until the summons from Rushman, the morning's mission had been relatively simple. All he had to do was convince Major Mustafa Kalil that even in times of national crisis it wasn't necessary to grease every enemy of state in sight. Not always. Sometimes you could tear gas them.
The major and the green recruits for the new Somali National Police were just starting to get it when Sandy heard Sergeant Santana's voice come crackling over the walkie-talkie.
"Hawk 6, this is East LA. You need to get back here. Over."
Sandy punched the button and identified himself. "Come on, Sarge. Give me a break."
"I'd move it, sir. Excelsior is pissing in his boot."
Excelsior was the radio handle of Colonel Willard Jenkins, General Rushman's executive officer and brown-nose-in-chief. Which figured. Cursing softly, Sandy punted his gas mask ten yards down the training field.
SOS--Same Old Shit. One minute you were doing your job, the next you had your heels locked in the commanding general's headquarters, taking crap from a perfumed prince who could ruin your life if he didn't like your attitude.
Damn right, he had an attitude.
That's what it all came down to, he reflected, slowing to a trot. Attitude protected his mind the way a sheath protects a fine knife. It was essential to his survival, like wound dressings in a medic's kit. He was pushing thirty. A brooder. On the days when he thought he should bag the Army, it occurred to him that he knew a dozen ways to kill a man for every way of being one.
He was a captain with a golden name and a platinum future. Five years out of West Point and he spent half his time wondering why he didn't quit and get a life. He came from a tradition--eight generations of Caine warriors, six from the Point. But he was no traditionalist. He broke things, rules, icons, not just gas masks. Before the voice of authority, what he felt was a trickle of contempt, not the terror that made lifers grovel.
For a moment he stood there, waiting for the anger to cool. On the far side of the wadi, he saw Summar the mop man coming out of the command post. Summar was wearing the same faded cotton shirt and torn trousers he put on every day. Most of the time he went around barefoot. This morning he had on a new pair of Air Jordans.
The sun and wind had mummified his face. When he saw Sandy, he gathered his skinny body into a travesty of attention and saluted. Nice old guy. Mopped the floors every morning with muddy water from an old bucket, swirling fresh arabesques of filth over the patterns he had laid down the day before. After work he went over to the Bakar Market and reported the day's intelligence from police headquarters to the Somali National Liberation Front. The Nikes had to come from somewhere.
Summar's treachery was transparent, perhaps even useful. Sandy used him to spread disinformation. From across the wadi, he returned the mop man's salute. Soaked in sweat, he double-timed it to the rear of the four-story building that housed his command post. The rest of the Bakar Market district consisted of colonial villas faded to soft brown, mud houses with earthen roofs, and thousands of wooden shanties. Towering above them, the walls of police headquarters reminded him of a castle looking over a medieval slum.
The concrete walls were scarred from old battles. On the second floor, the dark smudge left by an exploding RPG round looked like the bruise circling a black eye. Sandy pushed open a steel door and went down a splintered flight of stairs to the cellar. When he came into the command bunker, he found Santana bent over a Sabre MX. The radio was lying on a crate covered by a frayed prayer rug. Talking quickly and softly into the hand mike, the A-Team's commo expert sounded like a man trying to calm a barking terrier.
"Yes, sir. I know, sir. Hawk 6 knows you're looking for him. He's on the way, sir."
Santana was a tall Latino from East Los Angeles. Cool, a little eccentric, even for Special Forces--sometimes the meditation and tai chi got to be too much for the other men. They read war stories and thrillers. Santana read American Anthropologist. In his footlocker, he kept a travel-tattered copy of his master's thesis--"The Guayaquil Tribe and the Shining Path"--along with the wooden flute the tribe's ghost talker had given him at the end of his field work. He spoke Japanese and Italian as well as Spanish and English. The CIA was always trying to steal him. For his mind, and for his other assets. He could do twenty-five one-armed push-ups and kill silently with either hand.
Right now, he was just trying to buy Sandy some time.
"Yes, Colonel. He knows who's looking for him. Sergeant Caldwell went over to the training field himself to get him."
Panting as if he'd just run the Boston Marathon, Sandy leaned against the wall of the bunker and let Santana play the spluttering colonel. On the wall behind the radio, two lizards were hunting flies. Sandy watched them until his breathing returned to normal. When Santana gave him the hand mike, he hefted it gingerly, as if it were a live grenade. Then he pressed the push-to-talk button.
"This is Hawk 6," he said. "Is Thundering Eagle having a nice day?"
Colonel Jenkins registered the jab at Rushman's handle but saved it for later. "Cut the crap, Captain. Where the hell have you been?"
"Across the wadi, sir. Training. East LA told me you called."
"You're damn right I did. Twenty minutes ago."
Over the hand mike, Jenkins sounded like an air horn in an end zone--pompous and a long way from any danger on the field. Sandy drummed the top of the Sabre. Gray dust covered his slender fingers. "I'm here now, sir. What's this all about?"
"What it's about, Captain, is Abu Bakar." Jenkins paused for effect. "We've got twenty-four dead Pakis and four Americans KIA over the last ten days. You are aware of that, I assume, Captain Caine?"
"That I am, sir."
"Well, the little bastard's right out there laughing at us. Thundering Eagle wants to talk to you. And the word he used was now. I suggest you get here ten minutes ago." He clicked off.
Sandy passed the dead handset back to Santana and sat down. Absently, he ran two fingers over his chin. A three-day beard stubbled his jaw, a pale blond mustache was advancing above his lip. Stubble chic wasn't Thundering Eagle's thing.
Screw Thundering Eagle.
Sandy's eyes moved to the short stack of mail sitting on the crate next to the radio: a letter from Lieutenant Atkinson's wife--you could tell by the green ink--and a purple envelope from Sergeant Mayemura's girlfriend. The two soldiers competed over the number of letters they got from home. After four months, Atkinson was ahead by two letters, but the purple tide from Waikiki was still running strong.
Sandy also saw the May issue of Bon Appétit magazine. Three months late, but that never bothered its most loyal reader. Eddie Mayemura, master of good chow and bad vibrations. Blow up that bridge, Eddie, but don't let that soufflé fall. Mayemura could do it all.
At the bottom of the stack, Sandy found a note from Melba, the envelope square, feminine, the address in bold script. Shoving it into his pocket, he tossed the rest of the letters to Santana. "Mail call, Professor. Better get these out."
He stood up and stretched. Santana was already halfway out the bunker. "Ask Sergeant Caldwell to meet me out front in five minutes," Sandy called after him. "And tell him to fire up the Blue Deuce."
Up one floor in the squad room, Master Sergeant Nathan Preston Caldwell, the A-Team's senior NCO, was taking Friday off. Caldwell had it all worked out. The Muslims got Fridays for prayers, and that meant the A-Team had to work Sundays. So it was only right for him to take Friday off, too. But not for praying. When Santana found him, he was pressing the only cold beer in downtown Mogadishu to his cheek.
No one ever wrote Sergeant Caldwell letters. The married NCOs on the A-Team carried pictures of their wives and kids in their wallets. In the cobra-skin billfold Caldwell had taken off a dead Cuban in Angola, he kept pictures of his favorite guns.
At forty-four, Nate Caldwell left the impression on weaker men that he could crush them with one hand. That perception was accurate. He had learned the art during four combat tours in Vietnam--what he had to show for it were a trio of Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts. By his reckoning, that put him ahead of the game.
He was sitting in the squad room next to the minibar Mayemura had scrounged, nursing a Bud. Breakfast time in the 'Dish. Outside, the temperature was nosing toward 100 degrees.
"Hawk wants you and the Blue Deuce out front in five," Santana said. "Something about Abu Bakar."
"No shit?" So much for the day off.
A six XXXL-size tee shirt, red, black, and green with the call letters of a Harlem radio station embroidered on the back, lay crumpled on Caldwell's cot. He looked at the gold Rolex on his wrist. He had won it staying with a five-high straight against a sergeant major in Panama who made the mistake of trying to bluff him with a busted full house. Bad idea. You didn't play poker with Nate Caldwell unless you wanted to contribute to his retirement fund.
In the morning heat, his dog tags, dangling from an 18-carat gold chain around his neck, stuck to his heavily muscled chest. The tags were solid gold. One side said, "Nathan Preston Caldwell, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, DOB 8/16/49, Blood Type O." On the other side, it said, "If you find these take 'em and have a blast, motherfucker. I sure did."
For a few seconds, Caldwell pressed the beer to his other cheek.
Santana knew better than to tell him to hustle.
Caldwell drained the beer, crushed the can and tossed it aside. Grabbing the tee shirt from the cot, he tugged it over his head and came up through the neck hole looking like a grumpy sea lion. From the holster attached to his webbing, he took out a 9-millimeter pistol. Chambering a round, he flipped the pistol off safe and slipped it in the space between his jeans and the small of his back.
"Okay, Professor," he said. "Out of my face. Got bizness."
Santana watched him go, moving out as relaxed as a man setting off for church. Caldwell's eyes had gone dead. The way they always did when he went into combat.
Excerpted from The Price of Honor by David Hackworth. Copyright © 1999 by David Hackworth. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.