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"MAJOR TRAYHERN, YOUR orders to Afghanistan are either going to be a career killer or a career maker." Colonel Ronald Waskul laid down the olive-green file folder and stared across his desk at the twenty-nine-year-old Marine Corps officer. Waskul liked how the major's gunmetal-gray eyes focused like a laser as he absorbed every word. As it should be.
Tapping the report, the colonel added gruffly, "This construction project is important. You will be there for two years, laying the groundwork and facilitating the building of a historic building of a small coal-fired power plant in that country. Afghanistan has very little electricity and has no power plants inland because there are no lakes and rivers. The U.S. government at the highest levels of the State Department are working with an international consortium of construction companies to provide more energy to this region."
Pete Trayhern was sweating heavily in his dark green wool uniform. He could see it was snowing outside the window behind Colonel Waskul's gray head. A late and unexpected April storm had dumped two feet of the white stuff on Washington, D.C. Pete had just arrived off a transport that had flown him in from Germany. Despite the crazy weather, perspiration beaded his upper lip, and he had the wild desire to wipe it off with the back of his hand. But he didn't dare. According to his father, Morgan Trayhern, the colonel was a king maker in his own right. They had worked on many covert projects together over the last decade, and Pete knew his father idolized the rough-hewn Marine officer.
"Yes, sir, I got a briefing on it before I left my old construction job. I'm sure it shows in my personnel file. I served as an assitant company commander in Kandahar for a year, so I'm not unfamiliar with the country. I'm gung ho on these new orders, Colonel Waskul, and I'm the right man for the job." With his background as a mechanical engineer, graduating from Annapolis four years earlier, Pete had since made a name for himself as an assistant site-construction superintendent. And yet he wondered if his highly influential father, who ran a CIA covert group, had anything to do with this latest development. Pete had known that his two years at the German construction site were up and that he would be transferred, but he hadn't known where. Until now.
Waskul grunted and opened another folder. His thick gray brows turned down. "Yes, your assignment to Kandahar as an assistant company commander is part of the reason you're here. I've carefully gone over your construction record, Major Trayhern. We ran the requirements through the Pentagon computers and came up with five finalists. You were first on that list." Tapping the folder, he added, "You've got a background in bringing electrical substations online, and your last job was building a power plant in its start-up phase near Berlin. You kept that job on schedule and on budget. In today's environment, the U.S. government is very concerned about meeting all these goals."
He stared at Pete. "Colonel James Flint, your past supervisor, has glowing remarks about how effective you were in liaising with civilian construction companies and getting their work completed within the contract requirements."
"Yes, sir, the old carrot-and-stick routine." Pete started to smile, but quickly wiped it off his face when Colonel Waskul frowned even more. Pete hated these
"official" meetings with superiors. Truth be known, he'd rather be out clomping around in the field with D9 Caterpillars, growling earthmovers and noisy backhoes than sitting in the stifling, stuffy confines of a Pentagon office. He yearned to be out in the cold, crisp air, drawing it deeply into his lungs. Fighting jet lag and no sleep in the last forty-eight hours, Pete felt rummy. As he held the colonel's icy blue stare, he did his best to remain alert and appear interested.
"Well, you're going to need every carrot, stick and donkey you've got up your sleeve to coordinate this mission, Major Trayhern," Waskul growled, handing Pete the folder. "This time, you are going to head up the project. You're no longer the assistant. And this isn't Italy or Germany. Afghanistan is a third world country. You speak fluent German and Italian. But where you're going, Farsi and Pashto are the languages spoken, along with a multitude of tribal and regional dialects. Your workers are going to be Afghans, as well as other hard hats from around the world." His brows rose and he sat back. "You've got your work cut out for you."
Looking down at the overflowing file on the power plant project, Pete murmured, "Yes, sir. I understand this is a very different and difficult project." As he looked back up, he smiled just a little at Colonel Waskul's bulldog features. "I'm confident that I can handle it, sir. And I appreciate the confidence the Navy has in me to do just that."
Now the Marine Corps was a sub-branch of the U.S. Navy, although no Marine liked to admit it. Still the Navy construction branch was well known as a "can-do." Pete was sure this was partly responsible for him receiving this assignment. Pete was one of many officers from various military branches that were sent interservice, to projects around the world. Although he was a Marine, he had worked for the Air Force at his first job, in Italy, and for the U.S. Army in Germany on his second tour. Specialties such as his were shared among the branches. "That's youth talking," Waskul muttered, giving him a cutting, one-cornered smile. "You have seven days of leave, Major. I suggest you get a good night's sleep and show up here tomorrow morning at the Pentagon. Fill your Blackberry and laptop with information you're going to need and then your father is expecting you home."
"Yes, sir, I'll be here at 0800 tomorrow morning to pick up the details of the project."
"Give my best to your dad. He's one hell of a Marine, and it's always a pleasure to work with him and his companies." Standing, Waskul watched as the major sprang to his feet at attention. "At ease," he said, thrusting his hand across the desk to Trayhern. "I can't stress enough how critical this project is, Major. If you do this right, you'll be in one helluva position for early lieutenant-colonel's leaves. The Afghan government is hinging a lot on this power plant and it's political as hell. If people start getting electricity inland, the government feels the regional tribal sheiks will be more cooperative, rather than fomenting uprisings to tear that country apart again. Got it?"
Pete relaxed and shook the tough Marine's callused hand. "Yes, sir, I got it. I'll make you proud of me, sir. That's a promise."
Nodding, Waskul released his grip. "In my late twenties I thought I could conquer the world, too, Major. Just remember, you're going to be working with an international mix of construction companies. Everyone speaks different languages and does things their own way. You have to weave them into one machine, with one heart, one mind and one focus on the goals you set for them. Your father says you have what it takes. I'm counting on you...."
"PETE! WELCOME HOME!" Laura Trayhern's voice sang through the hall as her son stepped in the doorway.
"Hi, Mom." Pete grinned and opened his arms as she dashed toward him.
"Welcome home, sweetheart! We've missed you so much!" After hugging her second son fiercely, she planted several kisses on his clean-shaven cheek.
"Sorry I couldn't get home sooner," Pete said, pulling back so that he could get a good look at her. Simple and elegant in black slacks and a white blouse, Laura Tray-hern was in her fifties, but to Pete, she seemed so much younger.
He hung up his coat and lifted his nose in the air. "What's that I smell? My favorite meal cooking? Am I in time for lunch?" He grinned widely, his heart expanding as his mother took his arm and drew him down the polished, golden-red cedar hall and into the bright, airy kitchen.
"Yes, your favorite. Beef stroganoff. Your father will be here any minute. I decided to make it for lunch instead of dinner."
Pete felt the tension he'd been carrying in his shoulders dissolve. He'd hitched a ride on a commercial flight from D.C. to Anaconda, Montana. From there, he'd rented a car and driven to Phillipsburg, a very small town nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains. The weather had cooperated; it was spring here, with patches of snow left, but greenery and wildflowers popping up after a long, severe winter.
"Where's Kammie?" Pete asked, looking around. She was the youngest of his sisters. The table was set to perfection with sparkling glassware, colorful china plates and glistening flatware. His mother was one hell of a cook, and Pete always appreciated the homey nest she'd made for all of them growing up.
"She's in school. Normally, she doesn't come home at noon." Laura smiled as she pulled the casserole out of the oven and placed it on a trivet in the center of the table. "You'll see her tonight."
"I've missed her. She's really grown up in the last two years." Kamaria Trayhern was the fifth child in their family. Pete recalled the infant girl being brought back from Los Angeles after a deadly earthquake had devastated southern California years earlier. Kamaria had been found beneath the body of her dead mother. Pete's own mom had suffered a broken ankle and been trapped in the rubble of a hotel for days.
After being rescued, Kamaria had been flown to the Camp Reed Marine Base to recover. Many children without parents had been cared for at the huge medical facility. Laura, who had been bedridden, had volunteered to help out by bottle-feeding little Kamaria. And had fallen in love with the little black-haired tyke.
Pete had been a teen then, and he recalled the phone call from his parents to him and his fraternal twin, Kelly, about bringing the baby home and adopting her. He'd thought it was a great idea. And through the years, as Kammie grew up, she'd been a continuous blessing to the family. Pete and Kelly had been especially close to their adopted little sister. He always appreciated the e-mails and pictures she sent from her computer. Kammie was a photo bug of the first order. Two years ago, Pete had given her a cheap digital camera for her birthday, and a photographer had been born. Ever since, Kammie took pictures of the family and routinely sent them to him so he wouldn't feel homesick. She wanted to grow up and be a professional photographer who worked for a major international news organization, wanting to follow in Kelly's footsteps and lead an adventurous life. Kammie idolized her big sister. Kelly had left the Marine Corps aviation as a helicopter pilot and had been flying the Sirkorsky Sky Crane for Shaheen Aviation. Kelly fought wildfires across the globe with her helo that could fly in 3000 gallons of water on a raging forest fire. Kammie doted on red-haired Kelly's brave acts and dreamed of an adventurous life when she graduated from college someday.