To Carter, it just looked like an old deserted filling station out in the middle of the desert. Colonel Orlando was driving the battered Jeep, which was the latest in a bunch of strange things to happen ever since he’d been “tested” back in the ’Stan.
Since then, Orlando hadn’t said two words, ignoring every question Carter had thrown at him, and using the defense of that silver oak leaf indicating his rank to treat Carter like the staff sergeant he was.
Except after landing at some incredibly long runway in the middle of Nevada, the colonel had gotten in the driver’s seat of this old beat-up Jeep that had been waiting for them. A colonel driving for a staff sergeant wasn’t normal, even for the elite army. They’d been bumping along for over an hour now, leaving the runway and the hangers, and the guards and all that far behind.
Two minutes ago, Orlando had turned off the hardtop road onto a dirt road, passing a plywood sign spray-painted none too steadily with the warning No Trespass: We Will Shoot Your Ass along with a skull and crossbones also crudely sprayed onto the wood next to the words. Now the old gas station was ahead on the right and Carter could see three guys shooting a beat-up basketball at a metal rim set about eight feet off the ground on a leaning light pole. He knew right away they were Special Ops, even though two had long hair. It was the same way at Bragg, where you could always tell the difference between guys in the 82nd Airborne, not exactly slouches, and someone in Special Forces. They looked different because they were different.
The three didn’t even look over as Orlando screeched the protesting brakes of the Jeep, bringing them to a halt a hundred yards short of the station. Carter saw the reason. Two men had materialized from spider holes, weapons at the ready. Carter blinked as a red laser designator wavered over his face, settling in between his eyes. Shifting his glance to the left, he saw Orlando also wore a red dot.
A third man, who must have been in a hole, too, came up from behind. He held some weird device and flashed it in Orlando’s eyes. It beeped, and since the colonel wasn’t shot, Carter assumed that was a positive beep. All three wore ghillie suits with black fatigues underneath and no sign of rank or unit, so Carter figured they were contractors. He’d seen a ton of them in the ’Stan and Iraq. The guard started to go around the rear of the Jeep—not crossing the line of fire of the others—when Orlando spoke up.
“He’s the new one.”
The guard nodded, looking vaguely disappointed for some reason, as if Carter were stealing his role in the school play. “Proceed, Colonel.”
Orlando put the Jeep into gear, the clutch protesting loudly.
One of the three, a tall black man whose left side of the face was terribly scarred, took a long shot and it flew past rim and pole into a pile of old tires, sending them tumbling. A rattler came buzzing out, trying to see who’d interrupted its late-day nap.
“Yo!” one of the others, a big hulking guy with what Carter initially would have called an honest, happy face, yelled. “Eagle got a snake.”
“I hate fucking snakes,” Eagle said.
“Tell Doc about snakes,” the third guy said with a Texas drawl. He was a young Tom Cruise look-alike, handsome in a way that initially irritated almost every man who met him.
“Fuck you, Mac,” Eagle said to him as he drew a Mark-23 from under his T-shirt and fired, hitting the snake in the head, and firing again, hitting the stump.
“No one would think you were any army of one,” Mac said. “Afraid of snakes.” He stepped over the body and retrieved the ball. “We used to eat rattler back home in Texas. Tastes like chicken.”
“Bet you had to eat rattler,” the big guy said, with all seriousness. “My mom used to make us pine bark soup flavored with pine needles.”
“You had one fucked-up childhood, Roland,” Mac said. “We ate it ’cause we liked it.”
Carter got out of the Jeep as Orlando did. Now that he was closer to the big man, he could see that thing deep in Roland’s eyes that belied his genial face. The man was a killer.
The three finally decided to notice the newcomers.
Eagle nodded at Orlando. “Colonel.”
“Eagle. Roland. Mac.” Orlando nodded three times, like he was blessing them or asking permission to pass, it was hard for Carter to tell. “Been a while.”
“It has indeed, sir,” Eagle said. He looked at Carter. “Must be an officer. He isn’t covered in shit.”
Orlando was the only one who got it and he laughed as he got back in the driver’s seat. “You gentleman have a fine rest of the day. Until next time.”
Carter hastily grabbed his duffel out of the back of the Jeep. And then the colonel was gone in a cloud of dust. Carter stood there, uncomfortable in the late-day sun, duffel bag weighing on his shoulder, his camos drenched with sweat. He knew they were reading the cues on his fatigues: Ranger Tab, left shoulder; Ranger Regiment scroll, right shoulder, meaning combat service with the unit; Combat Infantry Badge; Master Parachute Badge; Freefall Parachute Badge; Scuba Badge.
Most people were impressed.
These were clearly not most people.
“Where do I report?” Carter asked.
“Get a grape soda,” Mac said as the other two turned back to the basketball and their game.
“I don’t want a grape soda.” Carter regretted the words as he spoke them.
Mac laughed. “Buddy, no one wants a grape soda, but one time me and this hot little cheerleader, all we had was some Jack and some grape soda, and it worked then. It’ll work now,” he added, nodding toward the rusting soda machine leaning against the side of the station.
Carter went over. The peeling labels indicated he could get Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Orange, or Grape. Twenty-five cents. He reached for his pocket, then realized he didn’t have any change. Before he could turn, Eagle called out.
“Just push the button. And make sure it’s grape. You don’t want the orange, trust me.”
Carter hit the grape button.
With a hiss of escaping air, the soda machine slid to the side and a stairway beckoned, cool air blasting out.
“You got eight seconds,” Eagle added as he took a shot. “Or it will shut on you.”
Monty Pythons Annoying Peasant: