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“Sarah has been working for four years to get this show.” Though Biggs was his lieutenant, James Schweitzer didn’t call him “sir.” They didn’t stand on formality in his corner of the navy. “I thought we were stood down. This will kill her.”
He glanced over his shoulder at his wife. Sarah had noticed the call but was doing her best to keep the irritation from her face.
“That was before I got word that our ship might be coming in.” Lieutenant Biggs sounded grim. “Now, suit up. We’re mustering.”
“Might be coming in, or is coming in? Damn it, she’s already on her last nerve with the pace of operations. Do you know how hard it is to get an art showing in Norfolk? There are critics here from every paper in the Tidewater. She needs me. I can’t leave unless it’s going to count.”
Biggs was silent a moment. “Still waiting on the intel watchstander. If this is the right one, we’re going.”
“Then call me when you’re sure it’s the right one.”
“God fucking damn it, Jim, I am not—”
“I’m a fifteen-minute drive from Station. I can be there before you finish boat checks. Call me when you know.” Schweitzer killed the call and stuffed the phone in his pocket before Biggs could say anything else.
Schweitzer took a deep breath, willing the knot in his stomach to settle. This was Sarah’s first show in Norfolk, and she was nervous as hell. Hopefully, the watchstander would be slow in confirming the target, or Biggs was wrong altogether. Schweitzer turned, putting on a smile, shaking his head as he walked to where his wife leaned against the art-gallery door.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Biggs dug himself another hole. This is the thing about junior officers, they need us to keep them from walking off a cliff. It’s fine.”
She frowned at him, her dark eyes narrowing beneath her bright pink bangs, the two purple streaks framing her face, so beautiful she still made his breath catch after all these years. “If he needed help, why didn’t he go to Chief?” she asked.
Schweitzer winced internally, struggled to find words.
“Jim.” She spoke as if to a little boy. “Do you know where liars go?”
“To the movies?”
“To the couch for the night. Without getting any.”
“You are a coldhearted woman.”
“I am a beautiful angel who can see through your bullshit like it’s clean glass.”
Schweitzer sighed. Lying to her was a necessity of his job, but he knew better than to think it would ever work. “You need to focus on your opening. We can talk about it when we get home.”
She drew her lips into a hard line and breathed out through her nose. “So, that means we’re going home together. As in, you’re staying for the whole event.”
“We’ve only got the babysitter until eleven. You know Patrick isn’t really going to sleep until you come in and kiss him good night.”
She grimaced. “Oh, right. Let me call before we go in.”
He touched her elbow. “Babe, you called her ten minutes ago.”
She looked up at him. “I did? I did.”
He pressed his forehead to hers, inhaled her rosewater perfume. “You know what you’re doing?”
“You’re trying to get your mind off this opening by worrying about something else. That’s fear talking. Mission first. Focus.”
“Mission first.” She was smiling now.
“Mission first,” he said, “and people always. You are a fantastic mother and a better wife than I could ever hope for. I love you so much it hurts. Now, get in there and show them what I see every day.”
“Love you, too,” she answered. Her face composed, the smile smoothed.
They turned together and stepped into the gallery.
The crowd inside applauded as Sarah entered. Her paintings lined the walls, hanging from clear line, looking as if they were floating amid tastefully arranged sprays of white orchids. Schweitzer caught himself scanning the crowd for threats, noting the exits and blind corners. Stop it. You’re not at work. This is for Sarah. Be present.
“Sarah!” squealed a tall woman wearing diamond earrings likely worth more than their car. She stretched her arms to embrace his wife, and Sarah returned the hug with precisely the correct blend of affection and forbearance, turning to Schweitzer as they parted. “Jim, this is Bethany Charles. This is her gallery.”
Schweitzer smiled, extending a hand. “Thanks so much for hosting us.”
Bethany dragged the proffered hand until Schweitzer was wrapped in a tight hug. Her pale neck smelled like oranges and alcohol. He met Sarah’s eyes over Bethany’s shoulder and made a face. Sarah rolled her eyes and grinned.
“Sarah’s told me all about you,” Bethany said when she finally released him. “She says you’re in the navy, but absolutely will not talk about what you do! I’ve been in Norfolk long enough to know how it is with you intel folks.”
Schweitzer let her error pass as she put the back of her hand to her mouth and spoke in a stage whisper. “Your secret’s safe with me!”
A man approached out of the crowd. He wore too-thick glasses and a beard that rivaled Schweitzer’s own. “Ms. Schweitzer,” he began.
Sarah took a step toward him and shook his hand. His smile froze at the close contact. Schweitzer winced internally. Guy was the shy type, liked more personal space. Sarah immediately released his hand and took a step back, smiling as if that was her intended approach all along. “Sarah Schweitzer, nice to meet you.”
The man’s face relaxed, and his smile turned genuine. “Leo Volk, I write for the Virginian Pilot.”
“Oooh,” Bethany whispered to Schweitzer as Sarah and Leo spoke. “That was a good save. He’s not one you want to disappoint.”
Schweitzer shrugged. “She’s a natural. She should have joined the navy. We could have used her in intel.” He smirked internally. No harm in perpetuating Bethany’s assumption.
“Well, one sailor per family is plenty.” Bethany gestured to Schweitzer’s chin. “Don’t they give you grief about letting your beard grow?”
Schweitzer smiled. “I’m on leave,” he lied. “I’ll shave it when I get back to base.”
Bethany followed Schweitzer’s gaze to his wife. “She really is quite socially adroit.”
“She’s had a lot of practice.” It was a gross understatement. The practice was born of years of dedication to her craft and the networking that surrounded it, until it had become as natural as breathing.
Sarah wrapped up her conversation with Leo and headed into the crowd. She looked over her shoulder at Schweitzer, cocked an eyebrow.
You’re good, he mouthed.
I know, she mouthed back, gave an exaggerated wink.
He missed Bethany’s next question, intent on Sarah, circling and smiling and engaging with such ease that you’d never know this was her first big show, her “coming-out” in the Mid-Atlantic arts scene. The stakes were high.
But that was when Sarah Schweitzer locked on. When it mattered. She was a professional.
“I’m sorry?” he asked Bethany.
“I was asking if you like art?”
“Depends on what you mean by ‘art.’ I like her paintings,” he answered. And I love the painter.
Sarah was speaking to another man now, Schweitzer recognized him as an art critic from one of Sarah’s magazines. She was matching his style effortlessly, leaning in at the same angle, nodding recognition at a point he was making. He laughed like an old friend, put unconsciously at ease by her smooth reading of his signals. Sarah looked lit from within, like she was having the time of her life.
But Schweitzer caught a glance out of the corner of her eye, then another. She was looking to see if he was still there.
He could stare down a gun barrel. He could run until his lungs burst. He could always find a way. But to give Sarah what she needed, he’d have to stay, really stay. And that would mean giving up the one thing that made him as powerful as she was.
Sarah was approaching him now, her hand on the elbow of a man in his midthirties, a mop of Dylanesque curly hair hanging in his face. He wore a corduroy jacket and an expression of cool boredom. “Honey, do you remember the sculptor I was telling you about?”
Schweitzer did, the man made scale replicas of major monuments entirely out of gun parts. His work was amazing. What was his name . . .
Sarah was smiling as the man’s hand came up to shake Schweitzer’s. “This is my husband, Jim.”
The pride in Sarah’s eyes sounded in her voice. She wasn’t just showing off for her husband, she was showing her husband off. Schweitzer blinked.
“I’ve heard great things about you. My name is . . .” the sculptor began.
Schweitzer’s pocket buzzed. The bosun’s pipe ringtone sounded.
Sarah’s expression changed as Schweitzer lifted his phone to his ear, sliding from shock to recognition to hurt to anger and back to composure in an instant.
“I’m sorry, baby,” Schweitzer said as he hit the ANSWER button, his stomach doing somersaults.
“It’s fine,” she was saying, the professional mask already back in place. “Do your job.”
Her big night. The one she had worked four long years to get.
Schweitzer prayed it was a wrong number, or the babysitter calling to say Patrick wouldn’t go to bed.
“It’s our ship,” Biggs said. “We’re going.”
“It’s fine,” Sarah said again, reading Biggs’s words in Schweitzer’s expression.
But it wasn’t fine.
It wasn’t fine at all.
An impossible shot, and a risky one. Schweitzer took it anyway.
The small boat rocked beneath him. His target paced the cargo deck of the freighter, rolling with the swells, obscured by darkness and fog. The man was just a speck at this distance, at the limit of Schweitzer’s effective range, with five hundred meters of heaving water to cover.
But Schweitzer’s boat would cover that five hundred meters in short order, and deliver the SEAL team to the target. And that man couldn’t be left alive to sound the alarm before they arrived.
Petty Officer First Class James Schweitzer closed his left eye. The Night Optical Device mounted to his helmet turned the world into a shifting haze of green witchlight. NODs bent shadows, distorted depth perception.
They made it harder to hit what you were aiming at.
He squeezed the broom-handle grip under his carbine’s barrel, and a pencil-thin beam shot across the intervening distance, visible only to those wearing NODs. The boat’s modified engines turned soundlessly underwater. The silence and darkness rendered the craft nearly undetectable.
The distance was too great. The beam diffused far short of the target. Schweitzer breathed deeply and relied on his training. Lead the target. Fire between breaths. Slow, steady squeeze to the rear. Don’t anticipate the recoil. Let the shot break.
The carbine was silenced, but if he missed, there was nothing he could do to stop the noise of the bullet slamming into the freighter’s metal hull, or the side of one of the stacked shipping crates behind the man making his way along the cargo deck toward the superstructure. That noise would inevitably raise the alarm. Up close, the man might look like an ordinary seaman, part of the freighter’s deck crew, but Schweitzer knew that he was a hardened enemy operator. A killer, not so different from Schweitzer himself.
Schweitzer was a professional, a product of years of rigorous training. Shooting people was what he did. But even professionals had to step out on a ledge and take a chance sometimes.
The man stepped clear of the last container. Nothing but open air behind him.
He exhaled, waited half a moment, then pulled the trigger.
His rock-steady frame absorbed what recoil wasn’t already mitigated by the carbine’s padded stock and weighted bolt. The gun barely moved.
The bullet rocketed across the intervening distance, racing toward his target at thirty-one hundred feet each second.
It would be the greatest shot of his career if he didn’t miss. Behind Schweitzer, the four other SEAL operators held their collective breath, straining into their scopes to keep an eye on the bobbing speck that was Schweitzer’s target.
The speck hovered for a moment, stiffened.
SEAL teams were meant for foreign warfare. They could only conduct operations in American waters when there was a qualified terrorist threat. While the “nexus to"terrorism"#8221; made the operation legal, Schweitzer’s skill made it possible. He’d been a mediocre student, of middling looks. He’d never been a good hand at painting or music.
But out here, he was an artist.
Chief Petty Officer Ahmad let out a breath, the slight shudder in her exhalation the only indicator that she’d been nervous. “Okay, so you can shoot.”
Schweitzer lowered the carbine and allowed himself a moment to face her and the rest of the team. Ahmad never smiled, but Chang’s balaclava looked lumpy at the corners, the black fabric barely concealing his grin. “That was fucking amazing, dude.”
“Secure that,” Ahmad said, glancing down at her watch. “We’ve got another . . . fifteen minutes without air cover. Stay locked on. Watch that deck.”
“I don’t like this vague-ass target,” Chang groused. “Shipping container full of what? Bad guys? Explosives? Aliens? What’s in there?”
“We don’t get to pick the target,” Schweitzer answered. “You’re not the lieutenant, Steve. You want to call the shots, rank up.”
Ahmad jerked a thumb in Schweitzer’s direction. “What he said.”
Chang shook his head and was silent.
Ahmad looked at her watch again. “Fourteen minutes to air cover.”
Even so, they had time before they reached the target. The kill had earned them precious breathing room, taking down the only eyes on the freighter’s starboard beam. The enemy didn’t know the team was coming. Schweitzer’s shot ensured it would stay that way. Chang ceased smiling and returned to overwatch, sighting down his carbine’s thermal scope at the deck. Schweitzer released his carbine and let the sling take the weapon’s weight as he folded down the ruggedized minicomputer mounted to the front of his body armor. Compact and useful, the minicomputer would do double duty slowing an enemy round before the armor’s interceptor plate had to do its job.
Schweitzer propped up his NODs as the screen flashed into low light, showing the specifics of his target. The computer reeled off details of the Body Farm’s operations, from drug smuggling in Southwest Asia to trafficking sex slaves in Eastern Europe. But the vast majority of the hits were the kind that called for Schweitzer and his team, attempts to bring terrorists into the country:
NOV 13—0843z—MINI-CONEX DROPPED BY PARACHUTE (INTEL DRVN.)—CNT. 2 MANPAD ANTIAIR SYSTEMS.
NOV 29—1117z—SCALLOPER WITH HIDDEN COMPARTMENT (K-9 ALERTED)—3 PAX—ALL 3 MILITARY-AGED-MALES (MAMS)—ALL WATCHLIST HITS (CLICK FOR DETAILS).
Intel could never prove that those missiles were meant for those men or what their target might be. Frankly, Schweitzer didn’t care. His last op had been smoking-gun conclusive—terrorists being smuggled into the country. It resulted in a chain of follow-on raids, and the skipper had waived crew rest regs, working him nonstop for a month. Sarah had put up with it stoically, but he could tell it weighed on her.
But follow-ons were normally rare, and provided there wasn’t one here, Schweitzer could finally put the burden down, at least for a little while.
Ahmad was looking at her own computer, NODS up, no doubt frantically checking in the hope that the air cover would be available sooner than expected. She caught Schweitzer’s glance and misread its intent. “I’ve got you, shipmate,” she said. “I’ll pull Landry if there’s a follow-on. You get leave after this. All you’ll be responsible for is the after action and passdown.”
Schweitzer was embarrassed that Ahmad had caught him. He was thinking about getting off duty. Unsat. Focus. Missions fail because operators lose the bubble for a split second.
But the thought wouldn’t be denied. The past month of constant work was just one of many months like that, over a long string of years. Sarah had endured it all, filling her lonely days with Patrick and painting in the makeshift studio she put together, avoiding the gossip of the navy wives who wondered why she wouldn’t come to their socials, to church, to anything. But even Sarah had her limits. She hadn’t gotten married to be alone. Ducking out in the middle of her big show hadn’t helped.
With her pink hair and sleeve tattoos, Sarah wasn’t navy-wife material. She was a rare bird, maybe even a unique one.
Which was why Schweitzer loved her.
“She won’t put up with it, Chief,” Schweitzer said. “She’ll split.”
His hand went to his chest, pushing against his body armor. Beneath it, he could feel the set of dog tags pressing into his chest. They were engraved with an image of his wife and son, and pressing his armor until he could feel their comforting pressure against his chest had become a ritual every time he suited up.
“I know,” Chief Ahmad said. “I’ll keep my word. After this, you stand down.”
Last op. No follow-ons. He would be home.
“Don’t sweat it, Jim,” Chang said. “If you get zapped this run, I promise to marry Sarah.”
“Fuck off.” Schweitzer smiled. In his heart of hearts, he knew that if the worst ever came to pass, Chang wouldn’t hesitate to look in on her. But Chang didn’t know Sarah like he did. She didn’t need looking in on.
“Hey man, the Somalis do it all the time. Brother goes down, the other brother marries the widow. All SEALs are brothers, right?”
“You want to go back to Mogadishu, I’ll make it happen,” Ahmad said. “For now, shut the fuck up.”
Chang winked at Schweitzer. Schweitzer shook his head, but he still felt comforted. Because in a sense deeper than biology, Chang really was his brother. His six was covered. Sarah’s, too, whether she needed it or not.
Schweitzer swallowed a knot of emotion and toggled the screen of the minicomputer, switching to the air-assets heads-up. It was blank. Radar showed the freighter growing larger on the horizon as they sped toward it. Their own radar-dampened support craft were out of range, but ready to respond if the enemy fled or the mission went south. He craned his neck skyward, taking in the thick, roiling cloud cover that had swept in just after their boat launched, leaving the skipper with a choice, scrub the mission or accept that air cover would be stymied. Skipper had risked the mission like Schweitzer had just risked taking the shot.
Professionals knew when to make the hard calls.
“Last look,” Ahmad said. “Confirm your target. There are a lot of conex boxes on that deck. Be sure we’re moving to the right one.”
Schweitzer glanced back down as the computer brought up a layout of the deck, illuminating one of the conex-box shipping containers, a forty-foot steel rectangle at the bottom of a stack of five that soared fifty feet off the rolling freighter’s deck. Intel had managed to secure images of the thing, which displayed it from all angles, showing every scratch, dent, and patch of rust. The Body Farm labeled all its freight containers with the same front-company logo: a stylized face of a grinning Asian child, the word SHAN written underneath. Intel was vague as to what was in it, but if this was anything like past ops, it would likely be anywhere up to five bedraggled and stinking men, exhausted and half-starved, ready to build bombs or sling rifles after they’d been released into the country.
Or it could be bricks of explosives, vials of nerve agent, maybe even canisters of materials that would set off the radiation detector clipped into a pouch on his body armor.
Schweitzer wasn’t a fan of Chang’s giving voice to his doubts, but he couldn’t deny the truth behind them. In his entire career, he’d never had a targeting package this vague. Just a shipping container with no indication of what was inside. They were going in blind.
Schweitzer looked for obvious cracks in the container’s sides, screened “drainage” pipes. Years of running these ops had trained him to recognize such anomalies as disguised air vents, indicating living cargo. He didn’t see anything, but the images weren’t exactly clear.
“Everybody got it?” Ahmad asked.
Schweitzer didn’t have to look behind him to know that everybody did.
“Body Farm has this ship,” the chief said. “The able seamen on there aren’t able seamen. You treat them as hostile.”
Schweitzer’s training had long since taught him to dispense with stupid notions of fearlessness. Professionals acknowledged fear, tipped their hat to it, and got the job done anyway. As with every op, Schweitzer felt fear’s slow crawl from his balls to his belly. He swallowed, noting its presence, letting his training compensate. His body was rock steady as the boat surged forward.
The bulk of the freighter rose before them, a black wall lifting out of the pitching sea. Dan Perreto, the Coast Guard rep with the team, chucked Schweitzer’s elbow, but Schweitzer ignored him, closing up the computer and picking up the Jacob’s ladder from the bottom of the boat. Ahmad finally lowered her NODs and joined the rest of the team in covering him as the boat closed the rest of the distance and drew up alongside the freighter’s starboard beam, where the deck dropped low enough for the ladder’s hooked top to reach.
Ahmad whispered their position into the radio mic suspended over her mouth while Schweitzer extended the ladder, hooking it to the ship’s side and deploying the narrow netting that would serve as rungs. The loose black fabric was a challenge to climb, doubly so with all their gear, but the SEALs were professionals.
Schweitzer came last, swarming up the ladder as if he were floating. The coxswain, Petty Officer Martin, was a religious fanatic whose preaching made Schweitzer’s hackles rise, but he kept the boat perfectly alongside the freighter, keeping pace with the vessel’s slow swing around its anchor line.
Schweitzer took a knee on the deck, covering their six while the rest of the team got their bearings. The deck stretched off into the darkness, the stacks of conex boxes shrouded in the gloom, moon and stars blocked by the thick cloud cover. Schweitzer squinted up at it. The blanket of clouds looked unnaturally regular, as if painted on by some divine hand. He looked back down. A foot farther on, his target lay in a spreading pool of blood, folded over his dropped assault rifle. He wore a faded T-shirt and jeans, the colors washed into pale green by Schweitzer’s NODs. He’d been blown out of his flip-flops, which lay on the deck about a foot distant. Schweitzer’s round had tumbled, utterly pulping his head. The bullet looked like it had entered through the ear, leaving a ragged pit of an entry wound. The long distance and the impact with the body had attenuated most of the bullet’s force. If the tumbling trajectory had struck the superstructure after leaving the man’s head, it had done so quietly enough.
Schweitzer allowed himself a brief moment to appreciate his work. Hell of a shot.
Ahmad made certain the team was in place before flashing a hand signal and moving toward the bow. They’d be moving directly under the windows of the bridge tower, which rose at least five stories off the deck, but the towering stacks of conex boxes worked with the darkness to screen them from view. The goal was to ensure the target conex was in the specified location and verify the contents before unleashing hell.
Command wasn’t interested in dealing with the inevitable public scrutiny and legal wrangling that would surely accompany a counte"terrorism"operation in US territorial waters. Not to mention the lost opportunity to gather critical intel. That meant quiet, and quiet meant Schweitzer’s team. It was riskier this way, but if they were spotted, they could always call in the helos early.
If the cloud cover ever broke. The combat weather team had assured them it was passing, but a quick glance at the sky showed Schweitzer a thick sheet of black cotton. He spared a quick glance over his shoulder to ensure the team was moving, then rose to go with them.
There was the clunk of a wheel spinning. The watertight hatch on the superstructure’s side opened and light flooded out behind a figure. He stepped out, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dark. His first step put him on the deck, the second slid in the slowly spreading gore from Schweitzer’s kill.
The man lost his balance, grunted, went to one knee, eyes widening as he took in his fallen comrade. A military-grade shotgun hung from a sling around his torso, banging against the deck. Ahmad was right, able seamen didn’t carry weapons at all, let alone the sleek black killing tool this man bore. They were accurate, deadly. Expensive.
So close to his target, the superstructure behind the man would ring like a bell if Schweitzer took the shot. Instead, he raced across the intervening deck, grateful for the nonskid surface that gave his boots traction and increased speed. The man was just drawing breath to yell as Schweitzer closed, leaping over the corpse and dropping onto the palms of his padded gloves, kicking out at the man’s knees. The bottoms of his boots connected perfectly, popping the man’s joints sideways and sending his head banging into the superstructure with a resounding crack. It was louder than Schweitzer would have liked, but it stunned him, keeping him from crying out as he fell to the deck, rolling in the blood and fumbling for his weapon. Schweitzer pinned it with one hand, then pivoted off it, bringing his elbow down to impact the man’s throat. The firm flesh yielded, folding inward under the pressure of the elbow guard, closing his windpipe. The man flailed, clawing at his neck, eyes bugging out, making choked, gurgling sounds.
Schweitzer rolled over on top of him, smothering him with his own body, smelling the blood of the corpse beside him, still warm, feeling it soak into his uniform. The man shuddered beneath him. Schweitzer covered him with his bulk, letting the weight of his body armor, weapons, and gear hold him in place, crushing his forearm down on his opponent’s throat, making sure the airway stayed closed.
Schweitzer saw movement in his peripheral vision, glanced up.
Another crewman, this one unarmed, had emerged from the stacks of conex boxes and was staring at him in wide-eyed horror.
Schweitzer didn’t even bother going for him. He’d never make it before the man had a chance to raise the alarm. Better to stay on top of this target until the job was done, then face this new threat without an enemy in his backfield.
The crewman crouched to run, turned toward the superstructure.
Time slowed. Schweitzer could see the crewman’s chest rising, jaw dropping open as he gathered the air to shout a warning.
“Nope,” Perreto grunted, passing a garrote around the crewman’s throat and pulling the wire tight. The scream didn’t even have time to shift into a choked gurgle, and the only sound the crewman made was the dragging of his feet across the deck as Perreto pulled him into the shadows of the conex stacks and finished the job.
Schweitzer gave silent thanks and returned to his own target, pressing down until, at long last, the trembling stopped with a sigh, and his enemy lay still.
Ahmad’s voice came through his earpiece. “Schweitzer, quit fucking around over there. We’re moving.”
Schweitzer got to a knee and looked up to see Perreto emerging from the darkness, covering over Schweitzer’s shoulder with his carbine. Once Schweitzer had got to his feet and raised his own weapon, Perreto nudged one of the corpses with his boot. “That’s two arrests you’ve cost me.”
“What’d you do with your guy?”
Perreto jerked his chin in the direction of the darkness where he’d dragged his victim. “Well, we talked it over, and he’s repented his evil ways. He’s waiting for the end of the op to come home with us and surrender to a federal magistrate.”
“Cut the chatter,” came in Ahmad’s voice, as they rejoined the team and began weaving through the piled metal containers. The ship groaned beneath them as it drifted around its anchor and the swell began to hit it directly on the beam. The cloud cover was thick above them. When the hell’s it going to clear? With nearly no ambient light, the shadows coiled in every niche and recess among the stacks of conex boxes, putting Schweitzer’s reflexes on edge.
The bridge’s windows were dark, but Schweitzer knew that meant nothing. A crewman of the watch was most certainly on duty, hopefully sleeping, his binoculars resting on his belly. He glimpsed the windows one last time, the signal mast rising above it, before it was lost from sight as the towering stacks covered them.
They moved as if along a rain-forest floor, through a tunnel of rust-flecked steel, stacking on a corner as Ahmad extended a wand and peeked it around the edge, raising her NODs, dropping the minicomputer from her chest, looking down at it.
She turned back to the team while Chang covered over her shoulder and flashed a series of hand signals. Two contacts. Hard targets. Port and starboard of the hatch.
Schweitzer acknowledged with a tap on Perreto’s shoulder, which the Coast Guard operator sent on down the line until it reached Ahmad, who nodded and turned back to the corner. She flashed two more hand signals. Anchor position, come up. Buttonhook with me.
Schweitzer was the anchor, and he acknowledged with another tap, picking his line around the corner. Chang pulled a chemlight off his belt, broke and shook it, sending muted neon red shadows dancing around the team, before throwing it around the corner, sending it careening off the target container and hopefully distracting the enemy.
As soon as Ahmad heard the clicking bounce, she left cover. Schweitzer moved behind her, buttonhooking around the corner and raising his carbine to take the shot as she came into view and took a knee.
The chemlight lay on the deck off to one side of the target container, sending its distracting glow cascading over the short space between the corner and the hatch of the target container.
But the enemy wasn’t distracted. Both men were ignoring the short plastic stick, dropping to their knees and raising military-grade carbines, fitted with modified sights and extended magazines as advanced as the gear the SEALs carried. They looked nothing like the armed seamen Schweitzer had taken out. They wore black bodysuits, NODs mounted to high-quality Kevlar helmets, torsos enveloped in military-grade body armor that would stop most rounds fired into their center mass.
But Ahmad and Schweitzer were SEALs. They didn’t shoot center mass.
Their bullets took the enemy in their faces, exploiting the three inches of open target between the top of the armor collar and the brim of the helmet. SEALs lived and died by their Close Quarters Battle training. While most troops on the range were firing at whatever parts of the target they could hit, to pass CQB you had to put rounds in that same three-inch triangle each time, every time.
The enemy jerked backward as the backs of their heads came off, sending their helmets spinning and painting the target container with blood, gray matter, and bits of bone. The SEALs’ rounds clanged into the container, making a dull ring that probably wouldn’t alert the ship’s crew this far from the superstructure.
The rest of the team rolled around the corner, carbines tracking for targets, but finding none, the enemy already down and twitching on the deck.
After a moment, Ahmad let out her breath. “Well, that was . . .”
Shouts. A voice was crying out behind them, ragged and coughing, but loud enough to do the job.
Chang rolled back around the corner, returned a moment later. “Your guy, Coastie.”
Perreto’s jaw dropped. “He’s dead. I choked him out.”
“Well, you might want to make sure he’s a little more dead next time,” Chang said.
“Are you absolutely sure you finished the job?” Ahmad asked. “Sometimes they’re just passed out. Did you check his pulse? His airway?”
Perreto’s muttered curse was answer enough.
Light flooded the deck. A siren began to wail on the bridge.
“Fuck!” Ahmad’s voice through Schweitzer’s earpiece. “Get on that hatch!” Anger and frustration surged at the thought of Perreto’s blunder sending the op south. Schweitzer crushed the sentiment, letting cold professionalism dominate. There was no mistake, merely a change in mission parameters. Focus.
The team took up position around the hatch as Chang moved up with bolt cutters and bit into the lock. It was a fancy cipher job with a reinforced shackle, but the chromium and molybdenum-infused jaws worked through it. Schweitzer glanced along the container’s length as Chang worked the jaws, matching up the scratches, color, and label to the image he’d seen on the minicomputer. This was definitely the right container. He supposed it was possible that there were air vents topside, but he doubted it. That meant explosives, poisons, or fissile material. Maybe some kind of infectious bioagent. The thought of exposure made his stomach clench.
He forced the discomfort down. Intel hadn’t said anything about bioagents, and while that didn’t mean it was so, Schweitzer had no choice but to trust them. He was a professional. Professionals didn’t get a vote. They did their job.
Hatches began to bang open on the ship’s superstructure, and Schweitzer heard shouting. He looked up at the still-solid blanket of clouds. They were still out of the air-cover window. There was no way that Martin could have missed the commotion. Even now, the coxswain would be muttering prayers, bringing his small craft alongside the ship’s bow where the gunnels were higher off the surface of the water, but closer to the action if the team had to make a sudden break for it.
Which was looking pretty damn likely. Perreto echoed Schweitzer’s thoughts. “This is going to get interesting.”
“Shut up,” Ahmad said, as Chang finally got the lock free, and the two of them set to wrenching at the hatch handles. “Focus.”
The locking bars groaned, shed rust, and finally slid aside and the doors swung open just as the first enemy appeared. They had climbed up the backs of the container stacks opposite the team and now aimed down from the high ground, dialing in their sights and firing off a few experimental rounds, probing range and cover. Some of them were crew in T-shirts and jeans, but more were kitted out like the professional-grade operators Schweitzer and Ahmad had just taken out. For all their gear, they lacked SEAL training, and their shots flew wide despite the fact that the team was hemmed in around the target container. Many of the crew fired their assault rifles in three-round bursts, muzzles dancing wildly. The setting was effective for making enemies keep their heads down, so long as you weren’t hoping to actually hit anyone. Schweitzer never used it.
The SEALs returned fire single shot by single shot, each one unerringly finding its target. The first few men were plucked from their perches on top of the stack, the rounds drilling neatly through the three-inch box that SEALs were trained to target. But, as more enemy came pouring around the corners, Perreto and Chang’s fire was drawn off to keep their flanks clear, leaving only Ahmad and Schweitzer to engage to the front and cover the container in case Schweitzer was wrong and it did contain living threats.
Within moments, they both abandoned the tight target box and let their shots roam in the interest of being able to put more bullets in more people more quickly. Schweitzer shot one of the enemy operators in his gut—miserable aim by his standards and likely stopped by the body armor, but the force drove the man off his feet and he tumbled from the top of the stack, shrieking, to slam into silence against the deck below. Schweitzer’s eyes tracked and moved, sighting targets and shooting them, his hand mechanically releasing his empty magazine and shuffling it over two inches so the full one, duct-taped alongside, could move into the gun’s smoking ammunition well with barely a second lost before the carbine’s bolt slid home, and he was shooting again.
Bang. Target down. On to the next. Move. Bang. Target down. On to the next. Move again.
Part of Schweitzer ran through his killing drill. Another part marveled at the number of the enemy. The ship’s hold must have been crammed with a small company, at least a large platoon. In this business, you lived and died by the details. The tiniest slipup could bring down hell. Schweitzer had run op after op alongside Perreto. The man was a master at his trade. And even masters lost the bubble from time to time.
Schweitzer just wished it weren’t this one.
Bullets whined off the deck around him. He could make out Ahmad as he lowered his weapon to slide around her. Her eyes were completely focused, her face slack with concentration, the only indicator that she was in the middle of a gunfight was a thin runnel of sweat working down the outside of one ear.
Corpses lay atop the stacks, at the corners where the team had entered. Bang. Target down. Move. Beside the dead man, two others were unsnapping a tripod and mounting some kind of larger weapon atop it. Schweitzer’s roving eyes didn’t settle long enough to figure out what it was, but it couldn’t be good.
“Schweitzer.” Ahmad glanced up at the impenetrable cover overhead. “Check that container. Nothing living in there, blow it. Give us five minutes for egress.”
Schweitzer spun and moved to the container. Cold air slapped him in the face. The interior was refrigerated, the chill blotting out the thermal detection of his NODs, turning the green contours black and leaving him blind. But it didn’t matter, in this cold there was no way there was anything alive in here. Refrigeration meant bioagents, and he felt his skin crawl with revulsion as he pulled the charge from his pack and took a knee, swapping magazines again before turning to fire without the aid of night vision. He didn’t need it. The lights from the bridge silhouetted his enemies perfectly, making them stark black shapes against the gray sky. Bang. Target down. Move.
He turned back to the container, the shadowy interior coming into focus. The scratched, rust-bucket exterior was a lie. The interior walls were clean white plastic, the floor built from shining cross-hatchings of skidproof stainless steel. Stainless-steel racks lined the walls floor to ceiling. Two more dominated the center, with rows in between just wide enough to admit two people walking abreast. Vents in the floor and ceiling fogged cool air into the space, wafting over Schweitzer’s shoulders and out past the open doors, mercifully cooling his neck and reminding him of how hot he’d gotten from fighting under all that gear. Somewhere, a motor churned, probably the refrigeration unit.
The racks were lined with corpses.
They were laid out toe to head, perfectly preserved, save where stitching marked a bullet or knife wound that had been sewn carefully shut. They were shaved of all hair, blue lips and closed eyes looking bruised even in the darkness. Their waxy skin stretched taut over solid frames. Nearly all the cadavers were male, and all had been elite athletes in life. Tight muscles bunched beneath the dead skin, as if the bodies would notice the intruder at any moment, springing off their racks, reaching, dead hands eager to punish the intruder.
For a brief instant, the cold darkness in the container swamped him. The shadows coiled in the recesses of the racks, thick and malevolent, reaching out to him. He could hear the creaking of the metal as the bodies shifted nearer, hear the hissing of their rancid breath as they reached . . . He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.
Schweitzer felt himself in the midst of a current, a tide of energy eddying around and through him. His nostrils filled with unfamiliar smells: the chemical reek of embalming fluid and something else: a musky odor of ancient spices, a burned-sugar stink of bridled power.
And then he was back to himself, shaking his head to clear it.
He had run at least three different ops that intercepted bioagents. He had seen compressed cylinders, metal racks filled with vials, even powders compressed into the shape of children’s toys.
But dead bodies? He’d never heard of moving anything that way.
The feeling of supernatural unease lingered. If there’d been candle stubs and pentagrams, he’d have thought he’d stumbled onto the set of some cult ritual, hooded priests raising the dead. Killing men in a hopelessly outnumbered gunfight hadn’t bothered Schweitzer at all, but now he felt the slow crawl of terror up his gut again for the second time that night. And for the second time that night he tipped his hat to it and got back to work.
He bent to set the charge as the flank Perreto was defending collapsed and the Coast Guardsman backed into the container mouth. Perreto’s carbine had either jammed or run dry, and he’d transitioned to his pistol, letting the long gun dangle from its sling, slapping his thigh as he backed up. He was grinning, as he always did in a gunfight. “My scintillating personality just doesn’t seem to be cutting it here.”
Schweitzer felt the current in the nervous humor. Perreto knew he’d fucked up, was already beating himself up over it. Not good. It couldn’t be fixed now, and the man needed his head in the fight.
An enemy crewman charged around the container corner with a machete, screaming.
“Police officer!” Perreto shouted as he shot him in the face, then kicked him in the chest, sending him reeling into the man behind him, one of the enemy operators. Perreto shot that man in the chest twice, sending him sprawling while the Coast Guardsman changed magazines. “You’re all under arrest,” he finished. “If you surrender, your cooperation will be noted.”
Schweitzer fumbled with the charge as another enemy took one of Perreto’s rounds in the shoulder when he tackled the Coast Guard operator into the container. The two men sprawled, knocking the charge out of reach, forcing Schweitzer to go back to his carbine to prevent the enemy from pouring into the team’s backfield.
He dropped back onto his carbine’s sights and stared into a mass of enemy surging around the container’s side. He’d been right. The entire ship’s hold must have been crammed with them. What the hell was going on? He cursed and thumbed the fire selector switch to three-round-burst mode. It wasn’t like he could miss anyway. He swept the barrel as he fired, trying to make the rounds find as many different targets as possible, knowing that was futile. The heat from the barrel was beginning to register through the top of his glove. The patter of spent brass around him was a reminder of how quickly he was tearing through his limited supply of ammo.
Chang grunted and staggered into view, his body armor smoking where he’d been hit. He collapsed into a sitting position against the side of the container, still firing at the enemy. Whether the round had penetrated or not Schweitzer couldn’t tell and didn’t have time to consider.
With Chang and Perreto sewn up, they were cut off.
Now, the only way out was through.
Perreto tapped Schweitzer’s shoulder and knelt at his side. He’d taken care of the man who’d tackled him and taken his shotgun. The Coast Guardsman racked the slide, firing a blast of shot at close range into the attackers on the flank. They fell back, howling, and Schweitzer returned to Ahmad’s side, just as the tripod-mounted weapon on top of the stacks opened up, drilling heavy-caliber rounds into the deck and forcing them back into the container.
Ahmad’s expression was even. She wasn’t even breathing hard as she turned to Schweitzer. “You find a back door?” The rounds thudding into the deck outside provided a stuttering reminder that the front was no longer a viable exit. Chang collapsed in alongside him. Schweitzer still had no way to tell how bad Chang’s wound was.
Schweitzer shook his head at Ahmad. A small part of him was amazed at how quickly the op had gone south. There had been so many unexpected turns. The number of enemy belowdecks for one.
Ahmad glanced up, noted the bodies, stiff and silent on the steel racks. If the sight affected her, she didn’t show it. She only blinked and turned back to the mounting odds against them.
It didn’t matter. She’d go down fighting. They all would. That was part of the job. They’d known it when they’d signed on. Schweitzer’s only regret was that he wouldn’t have the chance to make things right by Sarah, wouldn’t see his son’s sudden smile when Daddy walked through the door. He kept firing, imagining he saw the tracery of his wife’s dyed hair in the filtering starlight that had begun to dapple the bullet-scarred deck outside.
The cloud cover.
Schweitzer didn’t wait for Ahmad’s say-so. He toggled channels on his radio. “White, white. Blue is pinned down with one WIA and TIC. Request CAS run. Your brief, stack, mark, and control.”
Again, Ahmad gave no sign she noticed, other than to reach into a pouch on her tac vest and produce a targeting beacon, which she hurled out the container doors. Schweitzer followed suit, throwing his as far from hers as he could, to give the sortie a range. Chang, still shooting one-handed, added his out the container’s far side.
“Blue, blue. This is white,” fire control responded. “Two hawks in the air.”
“Paint is on target,” Schweitzer replied. “We’re danger close forward of the mark. You are cleared hot.”
“Roger that. Hawks are cleared hot. Birds away. Hold on.”
They held on.
The tight confines of the container limited their maneuver, but the racks provided some cover. The SEALs moved seamlessly. Bang. Target down. Move. Somewhere along the way, Schweitzer noticed that Chang had stopped firing and was lying against the container wall, his carbine resting across his lap like he was taking a nap. Unconscious, he’s unconscious. He’s not dead. Ahmad tossed a grenade outside, and the team took cover. Schweitzer dragged Chang behind a rack as they weathered the backblast.
“How the hell are you supposed to take care of Sarah if you die, asshole?” Schweitzer asked him, trying to see if his brother SEAL was still breathing. The heavy body armor and tactical vest made it impossible to see the rise and fall of his chest.
Or lack thereof.
Screams reached him from outside, and he stepped back into the smoke. He fired, the carbine’s bolt locking to the rear to remind him that he had no ammunition left. He dropped the long gun and wrenched his pistol from its drop holster, firing again.
Silence. The blast had bought them some time.
He bent to check on Chang, but Ahmad called to him, firing out of the container entrance as the enemy began to regroup. Boots tromped, voices shouted. Even with his adrenaline pegged, Schweitzer had been fighting nonstop for too long. His hands began to tremble, his limbs feeling heavy. He swallowed. The fear and fatigue, the worry about Sarah, the painful tide of missing his son, all slid down his throat and into his gullet. He tightened his abdominal muscles and crushed the emotion, held it there, freeing his mind and hands to do what they had been trained to do. What they had been born to do. Bang. Target down. Move.
The knot of enemy formed a solid black mass outside the container, surging inward. Too many. Way too many.
“Shipmate . . .” Ahmad began, her voice hinting at the first strains of emotion he’d ever heard from her.
“Shots on target,” Schweitzer’s radio buzzed. “Take cover.”
The team hit the deck as thunder erupted around them. The steel of the deck outside the container churned like liquid and the black mass of attackers suddenly vanished. There were no screams, only the thunderous roar of the guns followed by the dull thumping of the helicopter rotors as the birds finished their strafing run and turned to sweep back over.
The SEALs weren’t the only professionals. The aviators put their fire precisely on target. Spent bullet casings rained down across the shattered freighter deck, pelting off the stacks of conex boxes and smoking in the shredded remains of the enemy lying among them.
But not a single bullet fell forward of the target. The team sheltered in place unnecessarily. They could have walked to the edge of the storm of rounds had they chosen, reached out, and felt the bullet contrails skim past their fingertips.
The helos made another run, then turned their attention to the bridge. They had eyes on the target now and no longer needed direction from Ahmad’s team. The thundering of the miniguns ceased, and Schweitzer began to hear the crack, pause, crack of single shots as the snipers on the helos began to pick out individual targets on the deck, among the stacks, through the bridge windows.
Ahmad moved to the container mouth and scanned outside. After a moment, she nodded, radioed that the target was clear, and returned to check on Chang. The operator breathed shallowly, his pulse normal. Schweitzer stripped off Chang’s body armor and probed the wound behind it. An ugly patch of purple had spread across the unbroken skin over his chest. “What do you think?” Ahmad asked.
“Broken ribs. Probably in his lung. Fucked up his air. That’s why he passed out. He’ll make it if we hurry.” Thank God.
Ahmad nodded and called for a medevac as the first members of the regular boarding team fast-roped to the deck, boots resounding loudly, the need for stealth long past.
Schweitzer looked back up at Ahmad, whose game face was back on again. The sound of gunfire had stopped. The battle was over.
The charge lay undetonated, but the interior of the container had been shredded by bullets, the corpses lying in heaps, torn to pieces by the sheer volume of fire. Whatever the Body Farm had wanted to do with these cadavers, it wasn’t happening now.
He turned back to Ahmad. “So, Chief, how about that leave?”
Ahmad shook her head, but Schweitzer found himself smiling.
Because Chang would live. Because he knew Ahmad would be as good as her word.
Because he knew they’d all be going home after all.
Chang was conscious and joking with the pararescuemen before his medevac helo even lifted off. The senior airmen lifting his stretcher into the helo confirmed Schweitzer’s suspicion. The round had cracked Chang’s ribs, driving them into his lungs and depriving him of oxygen. But the oxygen mask over his face made up for it, and his eyes were in focus as Schweitzer squeezed his shoulder.
Perreto’s face was a mask so rigid that Schweitzer could tell he was holding back tears. “God, Steve. I’m so sorry. I fucked up, brother.”
“Jesus, Dan,” Chang said. “Shit happens. You didn’t choke him all the way out. I blocked bullets with my chest. Even perfect people make mistakes.”
His chuckle quickly turned into a cough, his smile melting with pain.
Schweitzer winced, tried to distract him. “Hell of a fight, Steve. You went down shooting. Badass.”
Chang found his smile, wheezed through the mask. “Just needed a nap. Would have finished things up if you hadn’t pussied out and called in the cavalry.”
Ahmad snorted and called down to Martin, telling him to shove off. The team would take one of the helos out.
Schweitzer smiled and nodded to the pararescueman. “Take good care of him, Doc. We need him back on the line so I can take leave.”
Then Chang was off into the helo, and Schweitzer followed Ahmad and Perreto to the freighter’s helipad, where a large gray Seahawk was landing, keeping its rotors spinning, ready to take off again.
“Dan,” Schweitzer began.
“Stow it,” Ahmad said. “No plan survives contact with the enemy. We made it. That’s what counts.”
Perreto kept his eyes straight forward. “I fumbled the ball. I’ll take what’s coming.” As the Coast Guard liaison, Perreto already caught a rash of shit from the all-navy unit, and every action he took reflected on the Coast Guard. Until tonight, he’d covered his service in glory. In a way, Schweitzer thought, he’d gotten it worse than Chang.
Chang would heal. Mistakes like Perreto’s never went away.
The intel and medical teams were already scouring the freighter, along with security forces, securing any enemy left alive.
There were precious few of those.
Perreto gratefully left the SEALs to join the regular boarding team, lending the Coast Guard’s police authority in case any of the Body Farm operatives turned out to be United States citizens.
Lieutenant Biggs sat in the Seahawk’s interior, typing fiercely on a ruggedized laptop. He was bigger than all of them, a giant of a man who Schweitzer knew had been a ground operator himself before successive promotions had taken him out of the action. He looked up as the team came aboard, barely acknowledging them, focusing on completing his work. The team clipped into the floor ring and patched their helmet mics into the helo’s system as it slowly lifted off. Biggs looked up, still typing, and cocked an eyebrow at Ahmad. “You look tired, Chief.”
Ahmad shrugged. “Intel got the enemy numbers wrong.”
“I heard,” Biggs said. “Sounded like a lot.”
“A few.” Ahmad shrugged again.
It was almost a whole fucking company, Schweitzer thought. Why would they commit that much firepower to guard a box of dead bodies?
Biggs looked over her shoulder and down at the freighter’s deck, still littered with corpses and living men being forced to their knees and into zip-cuffs. “A few,” he said.
“Cloud cover was a problem,” Schweitzer added.
Biggs waved a hand. “Skipper’s call. How’s Chang?”
“He’ll be okay,” Ahmad said. “SAPI plate caught the round. Broke some ribs.”
Biggs nodded. “You take care of my lamb.”
Schweitzer nodded along with Ahmad. Biggs referred to every SEAL under his command as one of his lambs. “Always.”
“Anyone want to tell me why that turned into a stand-up fight?”
Schweitzer shut his mouth. He wasn’t going to talk smack about a teammate. That the blunder was inexcusable didn’t change the fact that that kind of thing could have happened to any of them. “Perreto didn’t finish his target. He garroted him out, but left him breathing. Bad guy raised the alarm after we moved on.”
Biggs frowned. Schweitzer wouldn’t want to be Chief right now, but shitty tasks like owning up to your team’s failures were part of the job she’d signed up for when she’d pinned the anchors on.
“How the hell did that happen?” Biggs asked.
“Perreto didn’t check the target’s ABC’s. He thought he’d killed him. Target was just passed out.”
“Fucking Coastie,” Biggs growled.
Ahmad smoothly interrupted. “What do you want? Bad guy had an iron neck. It was a good hit from where I stood.”
Biggs shook his head. “Well, he’ll have to answer for it.”
Ahmad said nothing. She knew that. Perreto knew it, too.
“So, corpses,” Biggs said.
“Yeah. There was a refrigeration unit to keep them cold,” Schweitzer said, grateful for the change of subject. “I’m guessing twenty to thirty at least. Got chewed up pretty bad in the gunfight. Any idea what that’s all about? Who the hell pays for shipments of corpses?”
Biggs shrugged. “Not our problem.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Schweitzer said. “If its bio stuff, there are more easily concealed ways to move it. Someone had put some effort into prettying them up, too. They were cleaned, stitched. If you’re just moving bioagents, why the hell would you do that? And why use people?”
“I’ll say it again,” Biggs said. “It’s not our problem.”
Schweitzer frowned. “Okay, boss.”
“You misunderstand me,” Biggs added. “I mean it’s officially not our problem. As in, we’re not to talk about it.” He pointed down at the laptop. “That’s what this e-mail is about. Comes from the skipper himself. The intel team is being stood down. No follow-ons. No tactical questioning. No document exploitation. Langley’s sending in their own people to go over the ship. Civilians.”
“Civilians?” Ahmad asked. Schweitzer’s own curiosity was piqued as well, but it was overridden by another thought: Please don’t let this turn into another long paperwork drill. I need to get home. I need to see Sarah and Patrick.
But that thought was followed by another, more urgent. Something is wrong here.
“Boss, this doesn’t . . .”
“Operations is your job, Petty Officer,” Biggs said, steel coming into his voice. “What comes after is above your pay grade.”
“Yeah, but shouldn’t we at least debrief with the intel team? I mean . . .”
“Holy shit, Jim. We are not having this conversation. Is that clear?”
Biggs had never talked to him like this before. He shrugged with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “You’re the boss.”
“I’ve got Non-Disclosure Agreements on here.” Biggs tapped the laptop again. “I’ll need digital signatures from both of you, and we’re still going to need you both to write your statements for the After-Action Report. Chief, you’ll have to get Chang’s once he’s recovered.”
Schweitzer and Ahmad shrugged simultaneously. SEALs weren’t exactly known to be people of many words. That part would be short. A human-trafficking organization selling corpses, with more firepower than some armies, and the government stepping in to keep it quiet. Schweitzer began turning it over in his mind, then dismissed it with a will. Not your problem. Get home and take care of your family. You’ve done your job here.
“One last thing,” Biggs added. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but it’s protocol for big firefights. I’ve got to send you off to see the wizard once we land and you clear medical.”
Schweitzer groaned inwardly. He knew the corpsman and would clear the physical checkup in no time flat. But a meeting with the psych doc would take hours, and he’d have to wait on post to get an appointment.
Ahmad came to his rescue. “Boss,” she said, “Schweitzer’s due for a break. You’re really going to have to send him off to see the wizard if you don’t let him get home as soon as he clears medical.”
Schweitzer shot her a grateful look. Good chiefs took care of their sailors, and Ahmad was the best he’d ever known. Biggs paused. Ahmad never countermanded her officers unless it was critical. Biggs turned to Schweitzer.
“It’s Sarah.” Schweitzer shrugged. “I really need to get home.”
“Okay.” Biggs nodded. “I’ll handle it on our end. File your report and go home. You’re lucky they ordered no follow-ons. I’ll stand up section 3 for the next two weeks.”
Ahmad nodded gratefully. With their section stood down, everyone would get some much-needed rest. “Outstanding,” she said, leaning in to sign the electronic NDA.
“Remember,” Biggs said as Schweitzer added his signature, “this is compartmentalized now. They’re not screwing around. No gossiping about it, no speculating. No e-mailing anyone, even on the classified network. You don’t talk about the Body Farm. You don’t talk about what we found. You don’t talk about what happened on this raid.”
Schweitzer nodded as he signed. “When Chang . . .”
“Chang will be fine. I’ll call you the second I hear anything.”
“Jim,” Biggs said, “I’m not fucking around here. I am counting on you keeping mum about this. You got that?” Schweitzer nodded again, but Biggs’s words came to him as if from the bottom of a well. They didn’t matter. Sarah’s face was filling his mind. He was an artist in his way, and she was in hers. Painting, papermaking. She smelled of rosewater that she made herself from the dried petals. He could almost smell it now over the high chemical reek of the Seahawk’s burning fuel.
Once I see her, I can fix this. If I can just touch her, she’ll know.
The Seahawk banked again, eating miles, each twist of the rotors carrying him closer to home.
Schweitzer bounded up the steps three at a time, heedless of how the thumping of his boots might wake the neighbors. When the corpsman had come to him in the squad bay, Schweitzer simply shook his head, hoping his eyes would convey his need. The corpsman understood. He made some marks on a piece of paper, tore off the yellow carbon copy, and handed it to Schweitzer. “Welcome back,” was all he said, before moving on to check Ahmad. Schweitzer had looked numbly down at the yellow paper. FULLY MEDICALLY READY, it read.
He’d tucked it in his pocket and headed to the armorer to stow his gear.
Schweitzer fought impatience as he went through the necessaries: shower and a fresh uniform, the clunky, slow-as-molasses computer system used to file his report, the last-minute tasks and questions, the traffic on the drive home, inexplicable given the odd hour.
It was three hours before he was finally on his way up the stairs to home. He turned the key roughly in the lock in his excitement, making the old door creak as he opened it before he remembered the late hour. Sarah and Patrick would be asleep. He slowed down, but too late, he could hear Sarah stirring from the bed in their loft above the living room, surrounded by her paintings. Moonlight would be filtering in through the huge bay window overlooking the Chickahominy River.
Patrick’s room was off to the side on this floor, but the boy could sleep through anything, and Schweitzer let his seabag thump to the floor without bothering to slow his roll.
Sarah appeared at the top of the stairs, cuffing sleep from her eyes. Her pink hair was tousled, and she wore only her panties and a T-shirt featuring one of the Japanese comic-book characters she was so crazy about. Sleeve tattoos covered slender, muscular arms.
The open door drew the air from inside the apartment toward him, and the rosewater smell came with it, filling him with love and lust simultaneously. Sarah was his wife and mother of his child. Her strength had pushed him through training and the many ops that followed. She was a hundred times smarter than him and good at everything she touched, from word games to musical instruments. It had taken him a long time to accept that someone he admired so much could love him, but he managed it. But everything else aside, she was in her underwear, her tight hips and long thighs exposed. Her small breasts strained against the tight T-shirt.
He went to her.
“You’re home.” Her voice was sleepy as he folded her into his arms, one hand cupping her ass, the other in the small of her back. He held her close, inhaling her scent, steeling himself for the confrontation, trying to just love her for a while. He stiffened in his trousers and tried not to grind it into her. Now wasn’t the time. They had talking to do.
“I’m home,” he said, “and for a while. We’re stood down. Maybe two weeks.”
She relaxed a bit as he buried his face in her neck, kissed his way up to her earlobes, moved to her mouth.
She responded coolly, pushed away. “You’re okay?”
He gestured down at himself. “I’m fine, baby. How’s the P-Train?”
“Sleeping. He made a painting for you.”
“Like his mommy.”
“Is it really two weeks this time?” she asked. She reached down, and his lust surged as he imagined she was reaching for his crotch, but her hand moved past to the cargo pocket on his thigh, where she tapped his ruggedized smartphone through the fabric. He’d been on leave before. They rarely let him go the full length of it without calling him back to action.
He nodded. “Chief’s covering for me. She promised.”
Sarah stepped away from him. “Bullshit.”
“No, Jim. Give me one good reason why it’ll be different this time.”
He opened his mouth, closed it. He didn’t have a good reason. This op had felt different. It wasn’t the biggest firefight of his career, but it was close. Was it the corpses? The secrecy? Something made him believe that this time, he would get the R&R he deserved.
“I don’t know if I can keep doing this.” The words struck Schweitzer like a blow. He’d known they were coming. He just hadn’t expected them so soon.
“Baby, come on.” He reached for her.
She stepped away. “Jim, you are never, ever here. I get that what you do is special. I get that it’s important. I get that it makes you happy, but I have to be happy, too. Patrick has to be happy.”
“I can make you happy, baby,” Schweitzer said.