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Thursday, October 18, 2007
"Clear your weapon, sir."
Robert McKelvey shook loose from his heat-dulled thoughts and looked up. He saw a young staff sergeant in desert camo, his Kevlar helmet cocked at an angle in an effort to impart some style to the baggy uniform. The eye contact, even shielded as it was behind dark sunglasses, made it clear that McKelvey had missed something. "What's that, Sergeant?" McKelvey asked. His voice broke from dry heat and disuse.
The staff sergeant nodded at the nine-millimeter holstered on
McKelvey's hip. "Check your weapon, sir." McKelvey was following the sergeant's look to his own hip when someone slapped him on the back of his head, knocking his ball cap over his eyes. "C'mon, Doc. You been out in the desert too long." It was Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Perkins, head of one of the ISG's mobile task forces. "This ain't Dodge City. You're back in civilization now, son if you get my meaning. Check your weapon, and let's get us some chow. I've been eating goddamn MREs for the last two months." Perkins stepped in front of McKelvey, worked the bolt on his M-16, and dry-fired into a fifty-five-gallon drum half-filled with sand.
"Hey, bubba," McKelvey recovered from his surprise and replied as he pushed his cap up and began fumbling with his holster flap. "Heard you were up north somewhere." The two men had first met six months earlier when McKelvey was searching for a helicopter crash near the Kuwaiti border and the Iraq Support Group had been tapped for support. Perkins and his Mobil Task Force Sixteen had been pulled off their search for WMDs to augment the recovery team.
"Was. Gotback this morning. How 'bout you? Word was that you were out west. Any success?" He watched McKelvey struggle with his holster as long as he could before reaching out and jerking the restraining flap up. "Let me help you there, Sergeant Rock."
"Thanks. Velcro can be tricky."
"Not to a trained professional. C'mon, I hear little Styrofoam bowls of Jell-O calling my name."
"Shit," McKelvey said as he removed the pistol from his holster. As the guard watched, he cocked and dry-fired it into the sand barrel, verifying that it was unloaded. It was always unloaded. They nodded in mutual affirmation, and McKelvey secured his weapon before returning his attention to Perkins. "They got Jell-O here?"
"You bet. Cool little squares of quivering paradise. I'm partial to the ones with banana slices in 'em. I like to suck 'em down in one gulp kinda like oysters." He was holding several long strips of plastic that hung in front of the door aside with his forearm, suggesting that McKelvey should go first. The cool of the air-conditioned interior filtered past the plastic strips that hung over the mess trailer's doorway. "Unfortunately, they're the first to go as in you need to get there early if you get my meaning."
"In that case, you best leave me behind. Every man for himself under the circumstances."
"Negative. Ranger rules. I will not leave a comrade behind even when the Jell-O is in sight. Nothing in the book that says I can't kick you in the ass, though, if you don't hurry up."
McKelvey smiled and ducked through the doorway. Actually, they were early and the dinner crowd was light. They worked their way through the food line quickly, filling their trays with slabs of grilled steak and dollops of mashed potatoes and colorful mixed vegetables, all served by somber-browed local hires that McKelvey felt sure had been asked to leave their vials of ricin at home.
Perkins detoured past the dessert bar and arrived at the seat next to McKelvey with a tray overloaded with bowls of Jell-O. As McKelvey watched, he slurped down four lime-colored squares as if he were a finalist in a gelatin-eating contest. With a loud satisfied sigh, he looked up. "Man oh man, if that doesn't clean out the dust. I gotta buy stock in Jell-O. Gotta."
"You and me both. And to think they bothered flavoring it."
"They flavor it?"
McKelvey laughed and shifted gears. "So tell me, still lookin' for WMDs?"
Perkins smiled broadly and bobbed his head at McKelvey's waist. "Doc Kel with a sidearm. Shit if that isn't the closest thing to a weapon of mass destruction that I can think of."
"That's why they don't give me bullets. But, hey, if y'all aren't still lookin' for WMDs, then what's the Iraq Support Group up to nowadays, anyhow? In case you haven't heard, Saddam's history."
"Other duties as assigned." Perkins shrugged as he stacked his Jell-O bowls. "Nothing I can talk about if you get my meaning." He said that a great deal, whether you got his meaning or not.
"Hmmm," McKelvey acknowledged. He said that a great deal, especially when he didn't get the meaning. "Hmmm," he repeated as he forked some peas and carrots into his mouth.
"How about you?" Perkins asked as he began organizing the remaining food on his tray. "You involved in that war crimes shit?"
"I believe I'm innocent until proven guilty."
"Too bad. I was going to ask for your autograph. No, what I meant was that shit up north. Isn't someone digging up some of those mass graves north of here? I'd heard it was some guys from the Park Service or the Forest Service."
"Try Ringling Brothers. Nope, not us. Our folks are giving a wide berth to that tar baby." McKelvey took another bite of peas and carrots.
Perkins readjusted the empty Styrofoam bowls on his tray and squinted at McKelvey. "So what then? Secret squirrel type shit?"
"Not really. Three guys in a Humvee. No radio contact. No visual. Just disappeared."
"Shit to be them if you know what I mean. Any luck?"
"Let's just say we found the Humvee. More than that, I can't talk about."
"Roger that," Perkins said. "Understood. But tell me, Doc, why the hell you here? You did your time here six months ago. I don't know the details about this case you're working, but if it's not that sensitive, couldn't you have sent someone else? Things can't possibly be so bad at work that you'd volunteer for another trip to this shit show."
McKelvey took a bite of steak and chewed. "You have no idea."
Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Holland