Edge of Honorby Richard Herman
Madeline Turner, the first female U.S. President, has already weathered global crises during the first months of her administration. But the balance of power has suddenly shifted dangerously and dramatically in Europe—the Russian government has fallen into the hands of a criminal—and a fearsome, re-emergent bear is on a rampage. Locked into a war of
Madeline Turner, the first female U.S. President, has already weathered global crises during the first months of her administration. But the balance of power has suddenly shifted dangerously and dramatically in Europe—the Russian government has fallen into the hands of a criminal—and a fearsome, re-emergent bear is on a rampage. Locked into a war of wits and weaponry with the deadly cabal of drug runners and murderers who now rule a one-time empire, Maddy Turner will need capable allies beside her—like Air Force legend Matt Pontowski, who will become the beleaguered Commander-in-Chief's confidant, friend, and more. An explosive confrontation is coming that could reshape the face of the world—and the fate of President Turner herself.
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The phone call came just after four in the morning. At first, Matt Pontowski ignored it and buried his head deeper in the pillow. Most likely, it was for Sam and she would answer it. But Samantha Darnell wasn't there. The phone rang a fourth time and he rolled over, reaching for the offending instrument. "Pontowski," he muttered. He never used his rank, brigadier general, when answering the phone.
"General Pontowski, would you please hold for the superintendent of NMMI." It was a male voice he did not recognize and suddenly, he was fully awake. The empty feeling left in Sam's wake was engulfed by a rogue wave of panic.
He clenched the telephone as he waited and the grisly images that haunt parents when their children are away from home came out of the shadowy recesses of his subconscious. Little Matt is just sick, he told himself. But would the superintendent of New Mexico Military Institute personally call for that? Probably not. It had to be bad news, very bad. Get a grip! he raged to himself. You're obsessing.
The male voice was back. "I apologize for the delay, but the general is still on the other line. He'll be with you in a moment."
Pontowski grunted an answer. Years of flying and commanding the 442nd Fighter Wing, an Air Force Reserve outfit of A-10 Warthogs, had conditioned him to be calm and in control at all times, regardless of the circumstances. He fought the urge to shout "Is my son okay?" Instead, he waited. Why did he ever let his only son,his living link to Shoshana, go off to the military academy known simply as the Hill?
"General Pontowski," the superintendent finally said, his voice carefully modulated and carrying weight, "John McMasters here. Sorry to keep you waiting, but I was talking to the White House. Your son was in a fight with Brian Turner. No one was really hurt." The superintendent paused to let his words sink in. Like every parent with a son or daughter at NMMI, Pontowski knew that Brian Turner, the son of the forty-fourth president of the United States, had enrolled in NMMI in the same ninth-grade class as Little Matt.
Pontowski shook his head in disbelief. Then it hit him. Brian Turner was a strapping fourteen-year-old with at least six inches and forty pounds on Little Matt. It was with good reason his son carried his nickname and rumor had it that Brian Turner was a spoiled bully.
"Little Matt in a fight?" Pontowski finally replied. "That's hard to believe. How badly was he hurt?" A vision of Little Matt with a bloody nose and his face streaked with tears flashed in front of him. The poor kid was probably terrified.
McMasters didn't answer for a moment and Pontowski's fears started to rise, only to be submerged by a deep anger. Had Brian Turner mauled his son? Or had the Secret Service gotten involved and done something stupid? "For the record," McMasters said, "Mr. Pontowski beat the living hell out of Mr. Turner who is now in the infirmary."
The White House
Maura O'Keith entered her daughter's bedroom just after seven o'clock in the morning. Madeline O'Keith Turner was sitting at the small table drinking coffee and reading a newspaper, still wrapped in an oversized white terry-cloth robe, her brown eyes bright and clear. "You're up early," Maddy Turner said, a gentle smile on her face. Maura was not at her best in the morning, while it was Maddy's favorite part of the day.
Automatically, Maura pulled a hairbrush from her ever-present handbag and stood behind her daughter. She started to stroke Maddy's dark brown hair, evaluating the stylist's work from the day before. Maura had been a hairdresser most of her adult life and liked the way the stylist was highlighting her daughter's hair with an auburn tint and covering up the gray hair that was beginning to streak back from her forehead. "The superintendent at NMMI telephoned early this morning. I took the call. It was nothing serious so I didn't wake you."
"What's Brian been up to now?" Maddy asked, recalling her meeting with General McMasters. "I was hoping he'd stay out of trouble a little longer." NMMI did not tolerate problem students.
"He was in a fight with another cadet. He got roughed up a bit and he's in the infirmary. The doctor says he's fine."
"What the hell was the Secret Service doing? It's their job to protect him. Was it hazing? General McMasters assured me there is no hazing at NMMI."
Maura recognized the signs. Like most mothers, Maddy was overprotective of her son. She brushed her daughter's hair harder. "There was no hazing and Brian started the fight."
"With who? Was some upperclassman harassing him because he's my son?"
Maura brushed a little harder, trying to get Maddy's attention. "It was another freshman like him."
"Some hulking Cro-Magnon recruited to play football?"
"No. The other cadet was much smaller. They call him Little Matt." She could tell from the way Maddy's shoulders slumped that she would listen now. The older woman dropped into the chair beside her daughter. She eyed the flaky croissants on the table. "I've got to go on a diet," she moaned.
Maddy laughed at the way her mother changed subjects, putting her at ease. "If you can't be happy with your weight at sixty-nine, when can you?"
"It's easy for you to say. You haven't gained a pound in ten years."
It was true, Maddy Turner still had a trim figure. But in private moments in front of her bathroom mirror, she hated the middle-age sag that was assaulting parts of her body. Madeline O'Keith Turner sighed and faced the truth. "Brian's a bully, isn't he?" No answer from Maura. "Should we leave him at NMMI?"
"If we can."
Maddy shook her head. "I can't break away every time he gets into trouble." She looked at her mother. "Can you fly to New Mexico and sort it out?"
Maura nodded. "I'll take Sarah with me." Sarah was Maddy's eleven-year-old daughter, a happy, uncomplicated little girl who hadn't discovered boysyet.
"You knew I'd ask, didn't you?"
Again, Maura nodded. "I asked Richard to arrange it." Richard Parrish was Maddy's efficient chief of staff. "We're leaving this morning."
Maddy stood up. Her day had started. "Thanks, Mother."
At exactly eight o'clock, Turner left the second-floor residence of the White House and made her way down the hall, heading for the West Wing. Because it was summer, she was wearing an off-white linen business suit with a simple light-blue blouse. As always, her hemline ended six inches above the floor. Turner had made it the accepted style and certain fashion mavens had predicted that if she ever raised her hemline, the world would turn upside down at the sight of presidential legs. Her makeup was undetectable and perfect, highlighting her high cheekbones. She wore little jewelry, only small earrings and the delicate and intricate gold chain that had become her trademark necklace. Her husband had bought it for her on their honeymoon in Greece and she was never seen without it.
Her daily commute to work was a well-rehearsed drill as Richard Parrish and her personal assistant, a quiet, handsome young man named Dennis flanked her. Dennis slouched along, never taking notes or consulting a calendar. He had a photographic, computer-like mind that never failed him. But each evening, after escorting Turner back to the residence, he would update the computer on his deskjust in case. Besides being discreet and totally dedicated to Turner, hidden underneath his bland surface was the personality of a pit bull.
Parrish was talking. "The attorney general is very worried and wants to act now."
"Frank is always worried," Turner replied. "He sees a crisis around every corner and a conspirator behind every tree."
"Sometimes he's right," Parrish told her. "I asked Mazie to join us." Mazana Kamigami Hazelton was Turner's national security advisor. Better known as Mazie to her friends, the petite and beautiful Japanese-American from Hawaii was commonly referred to as "the Dragon Lady" in the halls and offices of Congress.
"Mazie will keep him honest," Turner said.
"Keep the attorney general honest," Dennis intoned, entering it in his mental computer.
"Delete that," Turner ordered. Dennis did. He opened the door to the Oval Office and President Madeline Turner entered the arena.
Until she retreated to the residence in fourteen hours, she would seldom be alone. Every minute was scheduled. Before lunch, she would hold a policy review meeting, a staff meeting, and a cabinet meeting. In between, a succession of two groups and three individuals would troop through the Oval Office for a brief introduction to the president. The morning would climax with a press conference which always took longer than scheduled. After lunching with three federal judges and six members of Congress, she would spend thirty minutes in the Rose Garden for photo opportunities with various visiting dignitaries, swim forty laps in the pool, meet with her National Security Advisory Group, meet eight more people in the Oval Office, and spend time with her chief of staff and his assistants planning future trips and events. Then she would change into formal attire to speak at a "Save the Children" banquet. She would finally return to the White House at 10:00 P.M. But her day was not finished. She always read for another two hours before retiring. And sometime in between, she would have to call Maura and her son.
All told, an easy day.
The three men who made up Turner's Policy Review Committee and Mazie Hazelton were waiting for her. Since the attorney general had asked for the meeting, he sat on the end of the couch closest to Turner's rocking chair. He nervously fingered his notes as she sat down. Madeline Turner was famous, or infamous, depending on the point of view, for galloping through meetings.
The attorney general cleared his throat and began. "Special Services claims Yaponets is a bigger problem in prison than on the outside," he said. Special Services was the Department of Justice's spy system inside the federal prison system and Yaponets, Russian for Japanese, was a senior godfather from eastern Russia and the leading member of the Russian Mafiya currently in an American jail. He was a burly, sixty-four-year-old man and anything but Japanese.
"What's the problem?" Turner asked.
"He's organizing crime on the outside from the inside," the attorney general answered. "He's using our prisons as a command center, a recruiting ground, and as a graduate school for criminals."
"Isolate him," Turner said. "Take his telephone away. Throw him in solitary."
"We would if we could," the attorney general said. "But the ACLU and prisoners-rights organizations would be on our case in a flash. Not to mention some of the highest-priced legal assassins in the country." Silence. A fact of life in the United States was that ROC, or Russian organized crime, had bought access into every aspect of American life through large charitable donations, political campaign contributions, and astronomical retainer fees paid to some of the craftiest lawyers in the United States.
"What happened to deportation?" the president asked.
"That's what I was going to recommend," the attorney general replied.
Now it was Richard Parrish's turn. As Turner's chief of staff and primary political advisor, he was always looking for hazards. "That's political suicide. Senator Leland will beat us silly claiming we're soft on crime and that we caved in to ROC."
"So by being tough on crime and throwing the bastards in jail," the attorney general added, "we actually help ROC achieve its ends."
"It makes you long for the Cosa Nostra, doesn't it?" Sam Kennett, the vice president, said. "At least the `men of honor' were American."
"And not too bright," the attorney general said.
"Don't sell them short," Mazie Kamigami Hazelton said. She sat motionless in her chair, a petite beauty whose dainty feet didn't quite reach the floor. Her words were so soft and low that it was hard to hear her. But they all fell silent when she spoke. "I agree with DOJ." The attorney general beamed. Too often, the national security advisor was on the other side of the fence from the Department of Justice and time had a perverse way of proving her right. "We need to export our problems, not warehouse them. Exchange him."
"For who?" This from the attorney general.
"Not for a who," Mazie said. "For a what."
"What do you have in mind?" Turner asked.
"Exchange him for a nuke," Mazie answered.
The immaculately restored blue-and-white T-34 Mentor approached from the north. It was flying at exactly 500 feet above the ground and 140 knots indicated airspeed as it crossed the green fairways of New Mexico Military Institute's golf course. Pontowski rocked the wings of the old Air Force trainer he and Little Matt had lovingly rebuilt as he pulled up and headed for the airport to the south of town. The few golfers, all alumni and their guests, looked up. "Jet jockeys," one of the golfers muttered, ignoring the fact the T-34 had a propeller.
In his office on the second floor of Lusk Hall, Lt. Gen. (USAF ret) John McMasters sat at his desk and shook his head. "That will be Matt Pontowski," he told the commandant who stood at the big windows overlooking the NMMI's campus. "He likes to make an entrance."
"Nice airplane," the commandant replied. "But he looked kind of low. Do you want to report him for buzzing?"
"Matt Pontowski knows the limits," McMasters replied. "He was at the minimums."
"Still," the commandant persisted, "it might be setting a bad example for the cadets. And what will the Secret Service say?" With Brian Turner on campus, the concerns of the Secret Service were a fact of life.
McMasters sat back in his chair. He needed to make a point to both the cadets and the Secret Service. "Get the word out that Pontowski did it by the rules and was at the legal minimum altitude. If the minimums weren't good enough, they wouldn't be the minimums." The commandant nodded and headed for the door. McMasters waited until he had left before calling his residence. His wife answered on the second ring. "That was Matt's plane," he told her. "I told the driver picking him up to drop him off at the quarters. He'll probably want to change and you can soften him up before sending him over."
Lenora McMasters knew exactly what to do.
Forty minutes later, a female cadet saluted Pontowski when he emerged from the car depositing him at the superintendent's quarters. "Mrs. McMasters is waiting for you," the cadet said as Pontowski returned the salute. Pontowski was impressed with the girl's presence and appearance. She was neatly turned out in a Class-E BDU, battle dress uniform, with rolled-up sleeves and brightly shined boots. She was five feet six inches tall, on the husky side, and her blond hair was pulled into a tight French braid. "She's baking cookies for the Rats," the cadet said, a pretty smile playing with the corners of her mouth.
Pontowski glanced at her name tag. "Thank you Miss Trogger." She held the door for him and pointed him toward the kitchen. "Now that smells good," he said. The cadet led the way, moving with the coordination of a well-trained athlete.
Sarah Turner saw him first. "I hope you know how to bake cookies," she said, taking the newcomer in. She examined him with a wisdom far beyond the average eleven-year-old and knew the single star on each shoulder meant he was a general. She put his age at about the same as her mother's, forty-six. He was tall, a little over six feet, and his gray-green flight suit hung on his lanky frame. His hair was brown, the cowlick at the back barely controllable, and his blue eyes were set close together. She didn't like his prominent, hawklike nose and didn't know it was a Pontowski trademark his grandfather had made famous.
"Sarah," Maura O'Keith said, "be polite." She held up her hands in resignation. They were covered in cookie dough. "Maura O'Keith. Glad to meet you."
Pontowski gave a low laugh and rather than attempt to shake hands, gave her a light kiss on the cheek. "I never baked a cookie in my life, but I'm willing to learn."
Lenora McMasters came across the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. They embraced. "Welcome back to NMMI, Matt."
"Doing the cookie-lady routine," he said, holding her at arm's length.
She laughed. "I have no secrets from you, do I?"
Pontowski smiled but said nothing. Lenora McMasters was a beautiful fifty-eight-year-old who was equal parts empress dowager and mother hen. Today she was being the latter, softening the shock of military life for the new sixth class. But she was not a lady to trifle with. She and her husband made a perfect team.
"I'm Sarah Turner," the little girl announced.
Pontowski turned to her and they shook hands formally. "Matt Pontowski," he replied. "I'm pleased to meet you."
"Is your son a big bully?" Sarah asked.
"Sarah!" Maura said.
"Actually," Pontowski said, "he's about your size. I don't think he's a bully."
Lenora McMasters took charge. "Matt, you probably want to shower and change. Why don't you do that while we finish up here. Then, Zeth"she shot a look at the cadet"can take you all over to John's office."
"Thanks," Pontowski replied. "Save a cookie for me."
"The guest suite is up the stairs and straight ahead," Lenora said. They all watched as he disappeared out the door. "We first knew Matt when he was a lieutenant," Lenora explained.
"What was he like then?" Maura asked.
"A typical fighter pilot. All macho and full of himself. He cut quite a swath among the young ladies. Then he got married, thank goodness."
"Why, thank goodness?" Sarah asked.
"Well," Lenora explained, shooting another glance at the cadet, Zeth Trogger, "sometimes young women act very foolish when they get around handsome young men. Especially fighter pilots." The McMasters were always teaching.
"Isn't he the grandson of President Pontowski?" Sarah asked.
Lenora confirmed it. "Yes, he is." Her eyes grew thoughtful. "President Matthew Zachary Pontowski. What a wonderful man. That was twenty years ago. Where does time go? I can remember the day he died in 1995 as clearly as yesterday."
"I remember my mother crying," Zeth said. "We were watching the funeral on TV and General Pontowski was giving the eulogy at the National Cathedral. But that was before he was a brigadier general. His wife was there in the front row. She was beautiful."
"Yes, she was," Lenora said. "Matt was devastated when she was killed."
"What happened?" Sarah asked, her interest now totally aroused. Lenora hesitated, not sure what to tell the young girl.
"You might as well tell her," Maura said. "She won't quit pestering people until she finds out."
"Well," Lenora said, "Shoshana was murdered by assassins at Tokyo's Narita airport. But she was very brave and killed four of them before they shot her." She felt an explanation was in order. "Matt met Shoshana in Spain. He was there on leave. She was a Mossad agent, that's the Israeli CIA, and on an assignment. Later, she and Matt met again in Israel. Unfortunately, war broke out between the Arabs and the Israelis again. It was touch-and-go for the Israelis for awhile. Shoshana served as a medic in the war and was wounded. She suffered some severe burns. But she recovered nicely. They married a year later."
Zeth Trogger's eyes opened wide in amazement and respect. "When was she killed?"
Lenora thought for a moment. "Matt was in southern China with the American Volunteer Group at the time, so it would be six years ago, 1996."
"They call my mom a widow," Sarah said. "What's a man called?"
"A man is called a widower," Lenora replied.
"He is very attractive," Maura added, her voice soft and thoughtful.
The White House
About the time Matt Pontowski stepped out of the shower at NMMI, Madeline Turner sat down with her security advisory group. Unlike her famous Kitchen Cabinet, the friends she gathered around her for political advice, the four members of this group were chosen solely for their analytical minds and keen insights into international threats to the security of the United States. As Turner's national security advisor, Mazie Hazelwood was the group's nominal leader. But the three men, Sam Kennett, the vice president, Stephan Serick, the secretary of state, and the DCI, or director of central intelligence, all carried equal weight. However, in the end, it was Madeline Turner who dictated the security policy of the United States.
"Madame President," Mazie began, "we're getting some strange signals out of Eastern Europe. I'm certain we're seeing a major shift in Russia's foreign policy."
"We have seen no shift in policy," Stephan Serick, the irritable secretary of state, announced in obvious disagreement. "Only the usual fumbling. Viktor Kraiko is lucky he's still president and is holding on by his fingertips. Kraiko hasn't had a new thought rise above his belt buckle in two years. Maybe after the Russians replace him something different will emerge. But not now." Serick's Latvian accent always became stronger when he talked about his old enemy, Russia. For him it made no difference the Soviet Union had fallen apart. The hatred was still there.
Mazie let the cranky Serick spew a little more venom before answering. "Russia's economy is stabilizing," she said.
"So?" Serick snapped. "And Russia's military continues to shrink and the old KGB is in shambles since Gromov, that old bastard, died last April."
"We now believe," the director of central intelligence said, "that Gromov was executed."
"Utter nonsense," Serick grumbled. He stood up and limped around the room, his basset-hound jowls quivering as he spoke. "My God! The man was seventy-eight years old. He died of old age."
The DCI glanced at his notes. "Then why did his head show up in Poland along with Boris Bakatina's?"
"Boris Bakatina?" Turner asked.
"The chief godfather of the Russian vor," the DCI answered. "The vor are the old-guard criminals, Honorable Thieves. They're different from the Mafiya who are the new kids on the block. Mix them all together and you've got ROC, Russian organized crime."
"We think they lost their heads in a power struggle," Mazie added.
"That's an awful pun," Turner said. "This is bizarre. So why are we spending time here?"
It was a question for Mazie to answer and given the way Turner worked, she didn't have long to do so. "We're getting reports of increasing interaction between high-ranking Russian politicians and ROC. We're not exactly sure of the contours of this new relationship but Poland seems to be a frequent subject of discussion. Then we received three separate reports that these two heads were sent to the Polish Mafia in mid-April."
"Old news," Serick scoffed. "More than four-months old. Criminals sending each other presents does not constitute a change in foreign policy. We're wasting our time."
"We think it was a message," Mazie said. "Their mouths were stuffed with gold coins, mostly Krugerrands."
"So what was the message?" Turner asked.
Mazie spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. This discussion wasn't going to last much longer. "Gromov and Bakatina were the highest ranking survivors of the old guard, one political and one criminal. They were dinosaurs left over from the Soviet system that raped both Russia and Poland. The message was very clear. The heads were a peace offering. The gold indicates there is money to be made from the death of the old system. It was an invitation from Russian organized crime to do business."
"Rubbish," Serick grumbled. "This is all too bizarre. I'm more worried about what's going on in Germany."
For the first time the vice president spoke. "Bizarre, yes. But it makes a kind of weird sense. The Poles, including the Polish Mafia, carry a lot of hatred for the Russians. It would take a powerful gesture on the part of the Russians for the Poles to trust them."
"Do we have anything concrete," Turner asked, "that suggests such an alliance is taking place?"
The DCI answered. "We have monitored a huge increase in telephone calls and personal contacts between some very strange parties."
"Such as?" Turner asked.
The DCI consulted his notes. "Viktor Kraiko engaged in long conversations with Mikhail Vashin. After the removal of Boris Bakatina, Vashin appears to be the new leader of Russian organized crime. He's even got the Circle of Brothers, that's the senior godfathers of the vor, under his thumb."
Turner's fingers beat a tattoo on her desk in a well-known signal. They were about finished with the subject. "If I understand what you're telling me, we're seeing some new mix of the political and criminal leaders of Russia. What exactly is the threat stemming from all this? Are there any domestic implications for us?"
"I'm not exactly sure," Mazie replied.
"At best," Serick said, "it means a legitimization of criminal activity." He snorted. "Nothing changes in Russia."
Turner recalled that morning's discussion about Russian organized crime and Yaponets. "Mazie, keep on top of this and talk to the attorney general." She paused. Mazie was one of her most trusted advisors and was obviously concerned about the situation. As president, did she need to do more? She turned to the vice president. "Sam, next week" Her voice trailed off.
Sam Kennett laughed. "I'll add Poland to my European vacation."
"No one," Serick grumbled, "goes to Poland for a vacation."
Zeth Trogger led Maura, Pontowski, and Sarah from Quarters One to Lusk Hall, the administration building. She set a slow pace for Maura O'Keith and patiently answered Sarah Turner's endless questions about NMMI. Zeth's answers were right out of the Parents' Handbook and Pontowski smiled. "What class are you in?" he asked.
"Third Class, sir," Zeth answered. She was a senior in high school.
"Why did you pick NMMI?" Sarah asked.
"My dad's an alumnus and I always wanted to come here." She gave the little girl a serious look. "It's a tough school. My Rat year was the hardest thing I've ever done."
Pontowski studied the cadet. Zeth Trogger had beautiful green eyes that flashed with intelligence and spirit. An eighteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, she was definitely feminine and curvy. But she wore no makeup and her only concession to femininity was her long hair. She walked with the confidence of an athlete. "Sports?" he asked.
"I'm on the soccer team," Zeth answered.
"I didn't know you had a women's soccer team at NMMI."
"We don't," she answered. She led them to the superintendent's office on the second floor. She held the door for them to enter and then waited outside.
General McMasters ushered Maura to a seat at the large conference table while Pontowski held a chair for Sarah. The little girl beamed at him, reveling in the courtesy. Nelson Day, the commandant of cadets and a retired Army colonel, joined them and sat next to Maura. "Well," McMasters began, "we do have a problem here." He turned the meeting over to Colonel Day who was responsible for cadet discipline.
Day quickly reviewed the basics. The two Rats in question were in the same squad and had taken an instant dislike to each other, mostly because Mr. Pontowski was not as well coordinated and as strong as the others and slowed the squad down. Animosity had flared and the two boys finally decided to settle their differences in a more direct fashion. The other cadets had cooperated and helped them sneak out of their rooms in Hagerman Barracks late at night. Somehow, they had gotten into the Tunnels of NMMI, which were really little more than a series of interconnected basements between the barracks and adjoining buildings.
"How did they get past the Secret Service?" Maura asked.
McMasters shifted into a bureaucratic mode. It was the way he covered his impulse to smile at what the cadets had done when he had to be the disciplinarian. "Well, the Secret Service is embarrassed." He described the security arrangements in detail. "They were geared for intruders, not for cadets going into the Tunnels from the inside. We've already fixed that."
Maura kept shifting her gaze to Pontowski. "General McMasters," she said, reading the discussion right, "I know you're worried about losing your most famous student, but this sounds to me like a minor ruckus between two boys who don't know how to settle their differences peacefully. I only have one question. Can you fix it?"
"I think we can," McMasters answered.
"They're going to walk off at least ten demerits," Day said. "That's ten tours in the Box." The Box was the quadrangle in the center of Hagerman Barracks and a tour was fifty minutes of marching back and forth.
"Shouldn't we hear their side of the story?" Sarah asked. She gave Maura a questioning look. "That's only fair, isn't it?"
Maura and Pontowski nodded in agreement and the two miscreants were brought in. Brian Turner was a tall, strapping, good-looking boy who, physically, was going on eighteen. Little Matt was a frail, skinny kid who looked all of eleven. Yet both were within six months in age. Brian had a bruised eye and swollen lip. Little Matt only had a Band-Aid over his right knuckles. The commandant asked each for his side of the story and Brian went to some length justifying his actions and why he had lost the fight. He had slipped on the wet concrete floor and Little Matt had unfairly hit him in the face four or five times before he could regain his balance. Little Matt only said that he did it and the facts were correct.
"How did you get into the Tunnels?" Day asked.
"I don't know, sir," Little Matt answered. "The door was open."
They had a problem. Picking a lock was a serious offense but finding the guilty party would be very hard, and did they really want to pursue it and kick some cadet out of NMMI? "General McMasters," Pontowski said. "May I suggest you give the cadets some wiggle room on this so they can learn from their mistakes? Issue a blanket warning on how serious it is to pick a lock and fix the door."
"I agree," Maura said.
"It appears we're in agreement," McMasters said. "Colonel Day, it's in your court."
Day fixed the two cadets with a hard look and called in Zeth Trogger. "Mr. Turner, Mr. Pontowski, meet your new squad leader. As of now, you are roommates and are welded hip and thigh. You will do everything as a pair and you will learn to get along. Any questions?"
"Please, sir," Brian begged, "not a girl."
"Why?" Day asked.
Brian stammered an answer. "Ah ... ah ... girls can't hack it."
Colonel Day grew very serious and put weight in his voice. "How long have you been at NMMI, Mr. Turner?"
"Almost three weeks," came the answer.
"Then you have a lot to learn," Day said. "They're all yours, Miss Trogger."
"Outside," Zeth ordered. Pontowski smiled. There was iron in her order. The two Rats double-timed out the door with Zeth right behind them.
McMasters stood and walked to the big windows overlooking the campus. "I think you need to see this," he said. They all joined him at the windows. Below them, the two cadets were standing at attention while Zeth leaned into them, her face a mask as she spoke. "I imagine," McMasters said, "that she is explaining a few facts of life to them."
Zeth's face was exactly thirty inches away from Brian's nose. "We seem to have a basic difference of opinion here," she told them, her voice low-pitched yet hard as nails. "If you're right and girls can't hack it, then ... "
Brian interrupted her. "Get out of my face, Trogger. You've got to stay thirty inches away." Then, not so sure of himself, "That's what the regulations say."
Her laugh was not reassuring to either of the boys. She knew she was at the exact distance allowed by the Blue Book. She leaned in another inch, challenging him. "That's twenty-nine inches." She pulled back. "This is thirty, dirtbag. If you've got a tape measure, use it. Otherwise, stifle yourself or you'll be walkin' tours."
"You think I'm gonna march any freak'n tours?" Brian retorted. "Look, I'm gettin' out of here and there's nothing you can do to me." He motioned to the two men standing in the doorway to Lusk Hall. "See them? They're Secret Service. You touch me and they'll be all over you like stink on shit."
Zeth cast a look at the two men. They were standing rockstill, faces impassive, well within earshot. For a moment, she was confused, off-balance. Then she recovered. "You mean like when Pontowski reached out and touched you?"
Brian blinked, worry now written on his face. She pressed her advantage. "I don't have to touch you, dirtbag. I'll heap so much shame and ridicule on you that you'll be on the World Wide Web under `www dot Buttjoke dot com.'" She motioned at the agents. "And they won't do a thing about it. Mr. Pontowski, a knowledge question. What do you get when you cross Brian Turner with an ape?"
"I do not know, ma'am."
"A retarded ape." She leaned into Brian. "Hey, dirtbag, I did that one without trying. Wait until I go high-speed on the Internet. You'll love it. Check your good buddies who are supposed to guard your worthless butt. Are they laughing?"
Brian chanced a glance. One of the agents was smiling and he heard Little Matt laugh.
Zeth was on a roll. "Stifle yourself, Pontowski. Only one thing is gonna save your two worthless butts."
"What's that?" Brian asked, defiance still in his voice. But it was all false bravado and Zeth knew it.
"You two becoming the best Rat buddies who ever marched a tour in the Box. You two will be showdogs for the Corps or the butt of every joke for a year. Your choice. Drop and give me fifty."
Brian sneered. "Right after you, Miss Trogger." The challenge was obvious.
Zeth dropped to the ground and rapped out fifty fast push-ups, the maximum allowable as punishment. She bounced to her feet. "Now, drop," she commanded. The two boys fell to the ground and struggled to repeat her performance.
"How many?" Brian asked through gritted teeth.
"Until I get tired," she shot back. She intended to let them go the full fifty but both were running out of steam. "Save me from wussies," she moaned.
Meet the Author
A former weapons system operator, Richard Herman was a member of the United States Air Force for twenty-one years, until he retired in 1983 with the rank of major. He is the author of ten previous novels, including The Warbirds, Power Curve, Against All Enemies, Edge of Honor, and The Trojan Sea, all published by Avon Books. Herman currently lives and works in Gold River, a suburb of Sacramento, California.
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