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By Mark Aitken
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Mark Aitken
All rights reserved.
Gallen switched to whisky when the band started its second set. The drink burned down behind the beer, warming him against the cold seeping through the concrete floor. From his corner of the ballroom he watched soldiers trying to boogie around Tyler Richards, who was moving his wheelchair to a version of 'Start Me Up'.
'Still say he gotta get his self a better lawyer,' said Bren Dale, pushing himself back with a big cowboy boot on the edge of the table. 'Shit, Washington always sends a rejection first up. Daddy knew that from back in the Nam.'
Looking around at the streamers and balloons, Gallen shrugged. Brendan Dale had been a first-rate sergeant when they served together in Afghanistan but the booze made him repeat himself. What no one at this shindig wanted to say was that former specialist first-class Tyler Richards had finished his tour and was on leave when he polished off two quarts of rye and drove his '68 Impala off a bridge out of Torrington, near the Nebraska state line.
'He'd be happy for the benefits and the pension,' said Gallen, sipping the whisky and nodding at Richards. 'Wasn't like he was in line for a disability, 'less you count that bridge on eighty-five as an enemy position.'
'Shit, cap'n,' said Dale, feet thumping on concrete as he sat upright. 'The man got a new wife and a little baby. He weren't dis-charged, still with the Corps.'
'So was Nyles,' said Gallen, throwing back the drink and standing. 'And most of his leg's still in Marjah.'
'Still, it's no use being such a hard-ass to Richards. Not now.'
'I wrote to the appeals board,' said Gallen, irritated that his field image had followed him into civvie life. 'But there wasn't much to say.'
'What about that he served his country? That he went the extra yard for his crew? That he saved our asses on that highway ambush in oh-seven? That worth saying?'
'I wrote that, Bren,' said Gallen, trying to avoid Dale's eyes. Bren Dale was strictly loyal to Gallen in front of the men but, like most sergeants in the Marines, he reserved the right to speak his mind in private.
'You write that we all drunks now, after that shit?' Dale threw a thumb over his shoulder. 'That it takes a quart just to get through the day?'
'No,' said Gallen, moving away. 'I didn't write that.'
Feeling Dale's eyes on his back as he crossed the dark dance floor, Gallen saw the women bunched around a table. Flabby middle-aged Mae Richards, telling the story of her son to anyone who would listen, and Phoebe Richards, holding a baby across her lap, staring at her husband who was now trying to make his wheelchair wiggle to 'Band on the Run'.
'Early start tomorrow.' Gallen leaned over Phoebe. 'I'm cuttin' out.'
The woman didn't take her eyes off the dance floor, just nodded at the seat beside her.
Gallen pulled an envelope from the inside pocket of his windbreaker and handed it over, wondering if the IRS staked out events like this. The envelope disappeared without a thank you.
'You spoken with him lately, Captain Gallen?' said the woman, a skinny redneck girl with a piercing in her lip and an Aries glyph tattooed on her neck.
'Please, call me Gerry.'
'Well, have you?' She turned to him. 'Gerry?'
'Seen him a couple times at Elkhorn,' said Gallen, meaning the rehab hospital in Casper. 'Not lately though.'
Phoebe sucked on her cigarette too hard. Gallen looked at his watch — 11.06 pm. He wanted to time his exit before Richards' mom started in on him. For many people in rural America, a former captain in the US Marines was as close to Washington DC's officialdom as they'd ever get, and Gallen could sense a sermon in Mae Richards.
'Well,' he said, rising to go.
'I want you to talk to him, Gerry.'
'He looks happy to me,' said Gallen.
'Oh, really,' she said. 'So why'd he try killing hisself?'
The cold came up through Gallen's boots as he crossed the tarmac of the East Side Motel, a salesmen's stopover on the outskirts of Red Butte, south of Casper.
Walking past his truck he was reminded of tomorrow morning's drive north, where he was picking up two horses and taking them back to the ranch to condition them for a season of showjumping. His father hated jumpers but no one paid quite like the showjumping crowd.
Marijuana smoke drifted in the stillness as Gallen hit the stairs to his room on the upper deck. In the cast of the motel neon he could see a man partying with a woman in the back of a red Cutlass; it was former corporal Donny McCann, a man the rest of Gallen's Force Recon team once relied on in the hills and mountain passes of northern Afghanistan. In their typical vehicle patrols — two Humvees, eight men — McCann operated a .50-cal turret gun on the second Humvee, the vehicle that was usually targeted by sniper fire and rocket attacks. Under the incoming, McCann would lay down enough fire to allow Gallen's men to take cover and counter the attack. He was a hound with the ladies but totally stand-up in a fight.
Easing into his room, Gallen went to the bathroom and washed his face with cold water. He wasn't drunk but his hands were shaking slightly. Wiping off with the towel, he looked himself in the eye: a full freaking six months out of the Corps and these people still called him Captain, still sought his leadership. The fundraiser for Tyler Richards followed the one he'd attended in February down in Mobile for Joe Nyles: Joe had the full disability and compensation package because of his combat injuries but his wife said there was only one way the two kids could get to college and that was to bank twenty grand in a fund and let it mature. Gallen had driven down, stayed in a motel slightly better than the East Side, and got hammered with his old crew before passing the wife his envelope and wandering out of their lives. Military service was like that — it gave you a family you knew better than the one you grew up with. And once you knew what a scared, cold man said in his sleep, you knew him too well to ever turn your back.
Wandering back into the living area, Gallen turned off the bedside lamp and edged to the side of the window. Finding a chink where the curtain didn't quite meet the window frame, he positioned himself and looked down on the car park.
The red Cutlass emitted wafts of smoke from the slightly cracked front passenger window. Gallen couldn't see the cars directly beneath his room — they were blocked by the balcony — but he could see the car that had caught his attention on the far side of the parking lot. It wasn't just that it faced Gallen's room while the rest of the line were nose-in. It was also the make and model: a dark Crown Vic with car-pool tyres and a lack of detail. Gallen didn't like it.
Grabbing a set of binoculars from his overnight bag Gallen let the auto focus clarify the interior of the vehicle. It wasn't the best picture because the glasses wanted to focus on the curtains, but he could see two men sitting in the front of the car; no cigarettes, no movement. Nondescript white guys, perhaps middle-aged, looking straight at him.
Gallen focused on the Colorado plate and made a note of the numbers.
Were they really looking at him? Reaching sideways as he kept his binoculars on the car, he turned the handle on the door and pulled it open slightly. Before the door was more than four inches ajar, the passenger in the Crown Vic slapped the driver's chest and the driver's posture changed.
Pulling a pack of Marlboros from his pocket, Gallen threw the field-glasses on the bed and stepped onto the balcony. Lighting the smoke, he avoided looking straight at the car. If the surveillance was innocent, someone could step out of the car, call out Hey, Gerry or Excuse me, are you Gerry Gallen?
By the time he was halfway through the smoke, Gallen's pulse beat at his temples. The approach was clandestine, the men in the car were shrinking further into the shadows. Plunging his smoke into the sand box beside the door, he returned to the room, just a motel guest having a cigarette before bed.
Turning on the TV and the bedside lamp, Gallen got to his knees and crawled to his overnight bag on the bed, found his farrier's penknife complete with hoof picks and a Phillips screwdriver.
Crawling to the bathroom, he stood and set to work on the screws that held the security screen in place over the lavatory. Standing on the toilet seat, he removed the security screen, slid back the six frosted-glass slats and placed them on the security screen now sitting on the basin's counter top.
It was a twenty-foot drop to the concrete path below. Making sure he had his room key, Gallen shimmied through the narrow space, grabbed at the plumbing sticking out of the wall, and twisted himself upright as he emerged into the night. Panting from the exertion as the pipes took his weight, he pulled his legs out, scraping his new Wranglers across the cinder blocks, and let himself drop to the concrete path. Pausing, he could hear Tyler Richards' fundraiser hitting another gear as the band covered 'Friends in Low Places', the singalong drowning out the band's vocalist.
Padding along the path, Gallen watched the plumes of steam shooting from his mouth as the still Wyoming night plunged to freezing. Feeling the frost crystals crunch under his feet as he passed through the maids' passageway, he paused where the dark tunnel opened to the neon- flooded car park. To the left sat his truck, a white F-350, where Gallen knew a Ruger .38 handgun was taped beneath the driver's seat. Opposite the truck, the Crown Vic sat in silence.
Moving under cover of the shadows that surrounded the court- yard, Gallen stealthed around the motel until he found a hide — the service alley on the other side of the courtyard, which was positioned almost behind the Crown Vic.
In the darkness, Gallen squinted into the car, looking for two shapes. Beside him was a sand box, and he had an idea. A door opened on the upstairs balcony where a drunk yelled into a cell phone. Using the distraction, Gallen grabbed the sand box off its wooden legs and moved through the dark blind spot behind the Crown Vic. Closing on it quickly, he threw the sand box over the car and watched it land on the hood of the vehicle. As the driver emerged to investigate, Gallen leapt from the shadows, punching the tallish man in the side of the throat with a fast right hand. Throwing a forearm around the man's neck as his legs gave way, Gallen reached for the exposed shoulder holster as he slammed the man's head into the doorframe.
The holster was empty.
'Shit,' he said, seeing a black Beretta 9mm lying in the front seat console.
Dropping the driver, Gallen reached for the firearm in the car. As his fingers closed on the gun, another hand slapped down on it and Gallen, kneeling on the driver's seat, froze as he stared into the eyes of the passenger.
'Hello, Gerry,' said the dark-haired man, who was dressed like an accountant but held a handgun steady at Gallen's heart.
'Paul,' said Gallen, his eyes fixed on a face he hadn't seen for two years.
'Long time —' started the man, then there was a blur of movement and a thudding sound, and Paul Mulligan's eyes rolled back before his head lolled sideways into Gallen's chest.
Grabbing the Beretta off the unconscious man, Gallen looked up and saw a dark face peering in the passenger side of the Crown Vic.
'You okay, boss?' said the man, tyre iron held down by his Lakers boxer shorts.
'Am now,' said Gallen, pushing Paul Mulligan off his chest. 'Thanks, Donny — I owe you, man.'CHAPTER 2
The eggs weren't to Gallen's liking but the coffee and biscuit at the motel restaurant worked fine. Raising a finger for a refill he took note of the clock, which showed 7.08 am. Around him sales people and businessmen were reading their comped Star-Tribs, hair wet, tiny nicks betraying rushed shaving. Outside, the interstate rigs roared by on Highway 220, heading south for Rawlins and Colorado.
'No milk, right?' said the waitress, a brown-eyed thirty-year-old with biker rings.
'You got it,' said Gallen, scrolling through the contacts on his cell phone and double-tapping the listing that said Kenny.
The phone rang twice as drizzle descended on 220.
'Yep,' said the croaky voice.
'Kenny — Gerry.'
'How those horses?' said Gallen, as a Crown Vic pulled up in a parking space outside.
'Easy,' said Kenny. 'That limp on the sorrel weren't nothing but an abscess.'
'Can we do anything with 'em?'
'Sure. Had that mare over some rails yesterday, after you left.'
Gallen watched Paul Mulligan stalk to the restaurant door, white plaster fastened behind his ear.
'These people want the nags ready for the No More Snow, come May,' said Gallen into the phone. 'Can we do this in five weeks?'
'Sure,' said Kenny. 'They're good ponies.'
'I'll see you for lunch.' Gallen disconnected as Mulligan threw his Star-Trib on the table and eased sideways onto the vinyl.
'Ace. How's the eggs?' said the former spook, his dark hair having receded further since Gallen knew him in Kandahar and Marjah.
'They're edible. The biscuit's good,' said Gallen.
Mulligan ordered the Red Butte Special Breakfast. 'Steve's feeling okay. Thanks for asking.'
'Steve got out of the car,' said Gallen, sipping the coffee. 'Never get out of the vehicle, right, Paul?'
'Yeah, well,' said Mulligan. 'I stayed in the vehicle and got a headache the size of Montana for my trouble.'
Mulligan's coffee arrived and they sat in silence, Mulligan checking emails on his BlackBerry. When his basket of biscuit was slapped on the table, he pushed it across to Gallen. For people like Paul Mulligan, biscuit was redneck food.
'So?' said Mulligan.
'So, what?' said Gallen, wanting to stand out in the drizzle and smoke a cigarette.
'So,' said Mulligan. 'Told me to meet you at seven for breakfast. Here I am, Ace.'
'No, Paul,' said Gallen. 'I told you I'd be in the restaurant first thing, should you want to talk like a normal human being.'
'Normal's a relative term with us, don't ya think?'
'By normal I mean talk to me, don't stalk me.'
Mulligan leaned back, rubbed his eyes. He was four or five years older than Gallen, a DIA operative who'd worked in the Special Intelligence Unit. The SIU had done the homework on so-called High-Value Targets in Afghanistan, and sent teams of SEALs, Green Berets and Force Recon soldiers to either find out more or snatch an HVT. The relationship between the intel guys and special forces soldiers was, at best, coldly professional and at worst, totally dysfunctional. From the perspective of the operational leaders in Afghanistan — the special forces captains — the problems started with incomplete briefings, continued with amended orders mid-mission and was capped by a constant sense of hidden motivations in just about every word uttered by an SIU spook.
Gallen had history with Paul Mulligan, a mission in north-east Afghanistan in 2006. It had started with a need for detailed surveillance of a Taliban HVT — a trucking operator named Al Meni — with apparent ties to Pakistani intelligence. The spooks had wanted photographic evidence of Al Meni and his secret associates to clarify what they'd intercepted in the cell phone traffic. But as Gallen's team had prepared to wind up, the recon gig had suddenly been amended to a snatch of Al Meni and his family. It was a disaster: a newbie fresh in from Camp Pendleton had been killed by Taliban sniper fire and Joe Nyles had lost his leg from a lobbed IED. The ambush had been located on a route Gallen had never intended to use and had therefore not recce'd.
The snafu was written up as an unforeseen combat accident, but Gallen heard another story. Apparently, once the digital photographs had started arriving at the Pentagon, certain levels of brass were embarrassed by who was secretly associating with whom and they'd panicked, tried to protect Al Meni.
'You been out, what, a year?' said Mulligan, leaning back as his plate of eggs and sausage arrived.
'Six months,' said Gallen.
'Back working on the farm with old Roy, huh?'
'You know where I am,' said Gallen. 'That's your job.'
'How's the cattle business?' Mulligan smirked slightly.
'You know how cattle's going in northern Wyoming, or you wouldn't be here.'
'Hey,' said Mulligan, raising his hands.
'The fuck you want, Paul?'
Mulligan recoiled slightly and then made a slow scan of the restaurant before bringing his eyes back to the eggs over-easy. 'I want to hire you, Gerry.'
Reaching inside his windbreaker, Mulligan removed a small leather clasp and gave Gallen a business card from it. The card announced Paul Mulligan MBA — Vice-President, Security under a coloured banner for Oasis Energy, a massive oil and gas company based in Calgary.
'MBA?' said Gallen, having to smile. 'Annapolis boys think wearing their ring is enough to run the world.'
'Just staying current.'
'I know nothing 'bout gas, except how to pump it into a truck,' said Gallen, thinking about making it north to a town called Shell, hopefully with the transmission healthy enough to tow a horse trailer.
Excerpted from Arctic Floor by Mark Aitken. Copyright © 2011 Mark Aitken. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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