BONDS OF BLOOD
By Lance Matrix
(discovered by Matthew C. Funk)
MATTHEW C. FUNK has been a lifelong fan of Lance Matrix’s Tiger Team Bravo stories, one of the great mercenary team series. If they ever decide to revive it, no one knows the canon like Funk. A quick warning: if you ever get the chance to see Funk’s mint-condition complete TTB paperback collection, don’t touch. That is, if you prefer your ass unkicked. Thanks to Mr. Funk for choosing this gem from 1976.
The Tiger leapt the ramp, caught air snarling, all four tires smoking, soared over the jeeps of the Colombians. Met the highway still gunning it. Stacked shocks ate the impact and the car shot for the big-rig ahead.
Banzai Billy Takamura smoothed a hand over his pomade hair. Relaxed into the waft of Marlboro and fuming rubber. Gave Colonel Professor a nod of his mirror shades.
“Ramp was just where you said it’d be.”
Colonel Professor didn’t look up, eyes fused to his homemade transponder. “Kill point’s in five minutes.”
Banzai ground snakeskin boot into the accelerator. Highway vanished. The Cartel big rig loomed—a white chip in the shimmering blank of Texan desert.
Gunfire from the Jeeps behind. 9mm slugs tapping on the 2-inch steel plating Banzai had welded to the Tiger. A sound that echoed the heavy pour of Khe Sanh rain to both men.
Colonel Professor tilted out the window with his MP-40 and let the machinepistol yell at the Colombian gunmen.
Banzai launched on. The Tiger closed to 200 yards on the big rig. Two more Jeeps pulled alongside the truck from the front. Slowed by its flanks to cut off the Tiger.
The Tiger’s rear-glass spiderwebbed with dozens of bullet prints. Ricochets kicked the tires. Banzai caught a whiff of sweat through the leather of Professor’s bomber jacket.
He stuck the Marlboro in his lips; stuck out the empty hand to Professor. Colonel Professor filled it with the MP-40.
Banzai ripped the wheel left. The Tiger spun. Professor worked the brake.
Banzai stuck the MP-40 out the window.
Tires shrieked over V-12 engine roar. The MP-40 firing was a bright white line of noise. Banzai’s aim honed to pure fate behind mirror shades.
Professor cancelled the brake. The Tiger spun on. The two Jeeps spiraled off the road loaded with two dead drivers and two dead gunmen.
Banzai wrenched the wheel in line with the big rig. Gunned the Tiger deep into the red line. Professor watched the dying Jeeps flip behind.
“Couldn’t have just shot them aiming with the rear-view, Banzai?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Four minutes until Kill point.”
Kill point—the moment when the mission failed. The instant both men had been outrunning since Tiger Team Bravo had been abandoned in the Cambodian jungle to march their way out of a war that had cancelled their existence.
Neither man frowned to think of it. They hadn’t frowned since they’d been orphaned to that long march from enemy lines with Captain Teague and their other teammates left for dead behind them.
Outrunning that moment was what they did. It was who Tiger Team Bravo was.
Banzai kept it in the red and Professor kept the blank expression on his slate black face. He’d worn it since he smelled the pre-historic flowers and burning fuel ofVietnama decade ago.
“Three minutes, thirty.”
Banzai had his own clock: Seven seconds before the Jeeps alongside the truck trailer would reach its rear.
He punched nitro. The Tiger’s roar sliced into a scream. Asphalt disappeared.
Five seconds. 100 yards between the Tiger and the Cartel trailer’s rear.
Three seconds. Banzai lifted the MP-40 again. Sneered to ash the Marlboro.
One second. Banzai jerked the wheel right.
The Tiger’s front bumper clipped the rear of the Jeep to the right just as it dropped past the trailer. Slammed the smaller vehicle into a skid. The coked-up Jeep driver panicked; the skid became a spin.
Banzai balanced the MP-40 on his arm, sent a cloud of 9mm parabellum into the Jeep on the left. Opened the driver’s skull like a can of creamed corn. Sent the gunman sprawling.
The Tiger pulled straight. The two Jeeps joined the others twisted aside the nameless desert highway.
“Three minutes.” Professor lifted the M79 grenade launcher from the roof rack. Rolled down inch-thick bulletproof glass with his other hand.
The target held more than 300 kilos of Colombian flake. The Cartel used it as a mobile command for its drug shipments: Always moving, shifting the routes of its drug runners to dodge State cops and Feds.
It had taken Tiger Team Bravo three months for their source, Baretta, an ex-Army Intel joker they knew from MACV-SOG to worm his way into the Cartel enough to cough up one of the big rig’s routes.
It would be worth it.
The brain-trust of Cartel trade in the South, the big rig held the records of all Cartel border runs.
As Banzai brought the Tiger to within 50 yards of the 18-wheeler’s rear doors, the big rig showed it held some secrets too: The doors blew wide to show a cage of steel plate sprouting a .50 heavy machinegun.
Banzai tore the Tiger to the side as the .50 opened up, noise shaking the windshield. Slugs designed to chew up aircraft metal like rice paper chunked the road.
Professor had no choice—he leaned out the window with the grenade launcher.
The gold-toothed Cartel gunman tracked them with the 600-slugs a minute coming from the red hot barrel of the .50.
Banzai nodded at the road ahead. “Looks like your calculations were a bit off this time, Professor. Tunnel’s coming up in two miles.”
Professor aimed the grenade launcher. Slugs bigger than his hand sang around, creased his beret with violated air.
“One minute to the tunnel.” Banzai said.
Professor replied with the cough of the M79.
The grenade soared over the big rig’s profile. It dipped. The shell slammed into the roof.
Smoke billowed rot-yellow from the big rig.
“It’s all part of the plan.” Professor ducked back into the Tiger. The sound of a descending plane rumbled through the window as he rolled it up.
Banzai glanced up as he braked the Tiger. Jasper was dive-bombing the Cesna out of the invisibility of the high, powder-blue sky toward the yellow smoke trail. Vaquero already clung to the landing gear, tassels snapping from his red-and-white calfskin jacket.
The Cesna’s shriek grabbed the highway. The Cartel gunner tilted the .50 up to greet it. Tracers ribboned the air.
Tilting and swinging like a gut-shot crow, the Cesna wove between the blazing slugs. Jasper pressed his arsenal of crooked teeth toward the windshield, put the prop plane into a straight dive.
The Tiger followed to watch. It was Jasper’s show now.
The Cartel truck shot into the tunnel. The Cesna shot after it.
Jasper tilted the wing of the plane and coasted into the opposing lane.
The tunnel was dark and tight as a snare around the plane. Nothing new to Jasper. The run through the tunnel would only take him a minute. Buzzing the triple-canopy tree lines ofIndochinahad lasted five years.
“Keep it steady, hombre,” Vaquero yelled to the massive Cajun pilot.
“Steady as a coon hunter’s rifle,” Jasper hollered back. Spiced his words with a laugh. Saw the gold-teeth of the drop-jawed Cartel gunner as the plane pulled alongside the trailer and only grinned wider.
Jasper touched the Cesna’s wing with a bit more tilt. Vaquero tensed on the landing gear, an arm’s length away from the trailer’s roof.
A Buick station wagon’s headlights stabbed for the Cesna from the oncoming lane.
“Hold onto your linens, Vaquero!” Jasper yanked the stick. The Cesna soared over the Buick. Left wheel caught some camping gear and sent skis skittering on the tunnel floor.
Jasper dipped back.
“Intensity Level Bravo!” Jasper matched smirks with Vaquero.
“All the way!”
His fingertips met the edge of the trailer roof, clamped instantly, destroyed friction. Landing and hauling himself up was a single motion. Flung his spidery body onto the roof with hands still Mojave dry.
Jasper whirled a wave goodbye that went unseen. Vaquero dashed doubled-over for the trailer’s rear. Tunnel ceiling scythed a foot above his head. It did not slow him. Such fear did not exist for this man who had spent half a decade charging Vietcong in lightless passages below the surface of the earth.
He reached the trailer doors as the gunman was pulling them closed. A twist of his body and Vaquero went through the closing gates like a lance. His two snakeskins cracked the gunman’s jaw in four places.
The trailer’s interior glowed blue phantasmal in fluorescents. Vaquero spared no moment to take in the shock of the four Cartel men and their jefe. He dove into them with fingers hooked and lips drawn as a garrote.
One drew his .44 Magnum fast. Vaquero splintered his wrist with a one-hand twist. Flung him into the next fastest. Wet snaps as his human missile landed.
A third cocked the action on an AK-47. Vaquero slid forward, took his legs out with a spin kick. The same kick widened, clutched the falling man’s neck perfectly tooled to snap bone, broke him.
The fourth man spun his rifle on Vaquero. An instant of hesitation was all Vaquero needed. A wrist-throw tore the gun from his grip, an arm bar blasted his shoulder from its joint, a palm to the throat slammed it shut to any air.
Now Vaquero looked around. The jefe was a man with a trimmed beard and a false beauty mark on one fat cheek. He was diving for cover under a bank of computers.
Vaquero dove on top of him. He snatched the drive of the computer and tucked its suitcase-sized bulk under one arm. A last glance around confirmed there were no other records—only cheap furniture and a fortune in cocaine.
Vaquero spun and ran for the trailer doors.
The jefe lifted a Colt .45 in a trembling, four-ringed hand.
Vaquero leapt from the trailer without stopping.
He landed on the hood of the Tiger, dead-center on its tiger paw logo of red-and-black stripes.
The sound of the Cesna dropping a barrel of napalm at the head of the tunnel sent the jefe to his knees in the trailer.
The Tiger sped to keep Vaquero balanced. He seized the curve of its hood. He held tight as Banzai slowed to avoid the inferno opening ahead.
The truck could not slow in time. Hydraulic scream muffled by the explosion of napalm. The trailer jack-knifed into the cab.
The cab sheared into the flames that choked the tunnel.
The Tiger spun. The glow of the exploding big rig cloaked it. Banzai gunned it.
Jasper cackled on the Tiger’s radio. “Feeling that Bravo mojo?”
It was time to head home.
Home was many different things for these men.
The war had bound their fates.
First in the silent pines and starvation of Green Beret survival training atFortBenning.
Then the five years “in country,” suffering and dealing suffering in a jade-and-clay land, so vastly strange and horrible it often seemed only the stitching of the red-black Tiger stripe patch of the 5th Special Forces Group they shared held them together.
Then the message, received inCambodiaover their stained and fading radio fromDa Nang, disavowing them and condemning them to fight their way back to a civilization they no longer understood.
Tiger Team Bravo was bound together as orphans of war.
They belonged somewhere, though. They had families.
Vaquero’s home was a duplex inScottsdale. He pulled up outside in his Ford Bronco, bought with cash and rebuilt with his wife’s help.
He took notice that the building’s paint was already fading under the stiffArizonasun. Another chore to see to. He liked that.
He grabbed his duffel from the truck bed. A new tool set clicked inside—a Christmas present for Alexandra, his wife. It held other things he carried at all times:
The yin-yang symbol from his sensei that Alexandra had made into a keychain. The survival knife from Benning. The pair of taxidermy rattlesnake heads, dried into a fanged snarl, for luck.
Vaquero smiled at that luck as he took the stairs to his apartment two at a time. He was fortunate enough to have a simple life. Work and love were easy when unquestioned.
He never questioned, never suspected, what he found when he opened the door.
Jasper’s home was not a building, but a land. He knew every copse of pine and ball cypress he drove by on that last stretch into Bayou Lafitte.
He thought of all the places that this one place contained: The flatboat docks with their twelve-foot poles where he could wile away a pair of days just drinking and trawling. The floating bars strung with Christmas lights and the hoot of zydecko music.
Today it would be a visit to his old man, though—to the stilt house cradled in the roots of the banyans he’d climbed as a kid. It was a special occasion.
That it was the holidays was incidental. Today was special because the Cartel job had won him enough money to buy his Pa his own shrimping boat. No more seasons having to put up with Buford Clemens as a sloppy, stuck-up skipper.
Jasper left the Cartel cash out in the Dodge. He took into the stilt house what he always had on him: Pair of dice. Deck of Tarot cards fromNew Orleans. Black Leatherman tool.
He had a six-pack of Abita in hand, too. He damn near dropped it at what he found inside the stilt house.
Banzai felt as at home atLong Beach,Californiaas he did anywhere else. He stepped off the bus and walked to where he could see the waves. The waves understood him and he, them.
Life and home to Banzai was like a tide: Surface and motion ever-changing, substance always the same.
Childhood had been one place after another—Sacramento, where his mother’s grave was while his father was busy dying in the 442nd during World War II. ThenOmaha,Kansas City,Pittsburgh, as his grandparents fled the memories of internment inCalifornia. Then back toCalifornia, to here inLong Beach, as they returned to make peace with those memories.
He glanced around the edge of his mirror shades at the dormered houses packed close alongOcean Boulevard. His grandparents were in one—they were his constant.
Banzai carried little up the flagstone path, flanked by Zen rock gardens, to their house. No identification. No cash. Only his shades and a set of needlenose pliers, useful for hot-wiring, lockpicking, stabbing.
This, he thought, was a useful life: Constantly ready for motion, with love of family as core.
After seeing what their house held, Banzai wasted no time rushing to a payphone to call Colonel Professor.
Colonel Professor had madeComptoninto his home. It had taken work.
He piloted the Tiger down Imperial, one eye on green lights popping on and off along the dashboard. Each green light meant the security measures he’d installed every one-hundred yards around his house were still alive and unviolated.
It gave him calm. Knowing his girls were safe meant the world to him.
When he had returned fromVietnam, they had become his world. Their mother had abandoned them to him. She claimed it was out of disgust over what he had done overseas. He doubted that. Why abandon the girls if that was the case?
But things were what they were. Life went according to plan.
Colonel Professor did the best he could to make it go according to his plan.
He had to. Above all, for the sake of his girls—Marsha was on her way to nursing school. Angelica hated a lot about 9th grade, but gymnastics and flute were passions that saw her through the lack.
There was too much lack, too much loss in this life, for him to fail them.
He clicked a button on the Tiger’s ceiling to open the iron gate of his driveway. Another button on the dash disabled the traps in the yard. A final button opened his garage.
Motion sensors along the rose-circled house’s perimeter sent data by radio to the Tiger’s homemade screen.
The pale-green read-out told him what he would find inside.
Colonel Professor gave himself fifteen seconds to hunch over the wheel, face split in grief, sobbing.
Then he cut himself off. He checked inside to confirm what his machines had told him. After he had seen, he picked up his phone and dialed to send out a code to his team: Threat Level Bravo.
Colonel Professor knew, even before they called back to confirm the meeting site, that his team had something else in common now.
All their families were gone.
Tiger Team Bravo assembled in the parking lot of Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Even Jasper looked as grim as Colonel Professor always did.
“So cough it up, egghead.” Jasper spat a brown string of dip. “Who stole our people?”
“I have some leads.”
“Thought we were dead on paper, hombre,” Vaquero said, shaking his head, boneless with sorrow. “Who would know enough about us to come after our families?”
“Our list of enemies is long,” Professor said. “Private mercenaries operating on US soil tends to draw attention. In the two years since we escaped the war zone together, we’ve brought down crooked cops, Mexican gangs, industrial tycoons.”
“Baretta knew,” Banzai said. “He’s about the only one who does. Maybe Cartel surveillance could pick up Vaquero’s wife…”
“Her name’s Alexandra, hombre. Use it.”
“But my grandparents?” Banzai went on. “I’ve only visited them twice since we got back.”
“Same with my pa,” Jasper said. “He don’t even have a phone or power.”
“Like you say, Billy,” Professor said, “Only Baretta knew enough about our families to put an enemy on them. Especially so quickly after the big rig went down. It makes sense that kidnapping our loved ones is retaliation for stealing the Cartel records.”
“Well, there you go,” Jasper said, nodding eagerly. “Plain as the Ace of Spades. Baretta.”
Professor scowled up at the coffee shop’s sign, its curving letters blinking against the brown-and-orange blaze of theLos Angelessky.
“It’s when things make sense that you’ve got to worry,” Professor said.
They found Baretta in his French Quarter loft, his high-tech ransacked into a glittering mess around him, holes through his head. The bullet had punched from one temple through the other. They left his eyes intact to bulge like the note stuffed in his mouth.
Jasper pulled it out, spread the wadded paper. He read it as Professor examined the bullet holes.
“It’s in Mexican,” Jasper said. He handed it to Vaquero. “You read it.”
“I’m Brazilian.” Vaquero frowned. “We speak Portuguese.”
“Well pardonez-moi. Do you read Mexican or not, cowboy?”
Vaquero shrugged as he scanned the note. Banzai paid no heed, lost in the sepia of a photograph—one taken of his grandparents when they were in the Internment Camp inCalifornia.
“Outlaw thugs, it says,” Vaquero read, “I guess that means us. Return what you have stolen and we will return your families.”
Professor traced the angle of the bullet hole to the wall: A nest of splinters held a gold wad. He plucked it free, weighed it in his palm.
“Then it gives a time and place for the drop.” Vaquero finished. They all looked to Professor. He displayed the slug on his hand.
“A solid gold bullet.”
“Manuel Segura,” Vaquero said.
“The one that got away, huh?” Jasper said, swatting Banzai on the shoulder. Banzai kept his mirrors fixed on the photo. Jasper turned from being ignored, spat on the floor. “Knew we should have smoked that greaser when we had the chance, ‘stead of just freeing all them chicas he had locked up in his plantation.”
“At least we know where to find him,” Vaquero said.
“That’s what bothers me,” Professor said.
All of them watched him. He led them out the rainbow screen of beads curtaining the loft’s exit.
“How you figure?” Confusion crushed Jasper’s expression. “Who else uses gold bullets for his executions? Got to beSegura.”
“Think about the angle of the bullet,” Professor said, voice a rasp below the hollers of the French Quarter crowd as he led Tiger Team Bravo into the swelter ofNew Orleans’ streets. “Where have we seen that before?”
“Only in ‘Nam.” Vaquero was quick to answer. “In one temple, out the other. That’s how the ARVN used to do in the captured Cong.”
“Well, other than that little hitch in our giddy-up,” Jasper said, “Makes sense that it’d beSegura. He deals with the Cartel and has a grudge.”
Professor answered only with the deepening of the worry lines in his dusky face.
Manuel Segura’s antebellum mansion sat on a sprawl ofLouisianaland abandoned by the census to the teeming of the bayou. But even before its moss-draped ivory columns were raised, pirate maps had been drafted in Indian ink by smugglers shuttling slaves and tobacco into the Colonial territories.
Those maps were ash now. Their embers still glowed only on the tongues of the Cajuns, passed down through generations.
Government forgot those weedy canals, but to Jasper Babineaux they were vivid as the lines in his palm.
Tiger Team Bravo glided up their mystery in a flatboat, skin shadow-torn with black camo, night vision crisp as jungle cats.
The channel ended in the green gum of undergrowth, fifty yards from a grove of spruce by theSeguraplantation’s slave quarters. Vaquero took point, slipping them through roots gemmed with blue lichen, past wire snares laid bySegura’s hired trappers, into the heart of the plantation.
They clipped through the chain link gate bordering the mown lawn.
They fanned out around the house, adrenaline prickling at the absence of guards.
They encircled the manor, its wedding-cake height lit sparingly on all floors, a ghostly orange watched by Banzai as he waited at the tree line to deliver covering fire at an instant’s demand.
Doors were forced at the same moment. Vaquero led Professor up the back porch. Jasper stormed the kitchen’s side door with sawn-off shotgun goring ahead.
No gunshots came to Banzai’s pitch-perfect hearing. Only the grumble of bull frogs and the rippling of gar in the bayou. He dashed to join the others.
Their room-to-room took five minutes. Colonel Professor spent half of that watching out the windows. He didn’t need to say what was written in his scowl:
This was a trap.
When the shapes of men with rifles drifted like smudges of cinders from the plantation’s borders, Professor keyed his radio.
Jasper was already on it, calling in from the third-floor bedroom.
“FoundSegura. He’s got and in-and-out hole through his head.”
“Incoming Tangos,” Professor whispered back. “Move to the upper floors to lay down fire.”
“Eighty-six that idea, chief,” Jasper answered. His boots thumping down the stairs were the only sound. “Head to the basement.”
“We’ll be blockaded in there,” Professor answered.
Jasper bounced down the last step, slapped his commander on the shoulder, and flashed a crooked grin. “Just trust me.”
They dashed for the cellar as machinegun fire shredded the silence. Glass popped. Wood clattered with a hundred dashes of lead.
Tiger Team Bravo fled into the cellar door with puffs of butchered furniture behind them.
Banzai slammed the cellar door. He shot the iron bolt home. A leap brought him onto the soil of the basement floor with his comrades.
He found Professor staring at the central support beam.
“I don’t hear them comin’ in,” Jasper yelled above the snarls of gunfire overhead. “No boots or nothing.”
Professor clicked on the flashlight affixed to his combat webbing vest. The light shone on a bulk taped to the beam, amidst the clutter ofSegura’s pinball machine collection.
Atop a column of compound explosive, a clock’s third hand sped away the final thirty seconds. Professor’s jaw went tight as his haircut.
“Well, don’t that beat all,” Jasper said with a smirk. “Should have figured something like that.”
“You figure how we get out of this?” Vaquero said.
The clock spun past twenty seconds. The gunfire above faded as the hostiles withdrew. Professor sized up the bomb: Four pounds. Enough to atomize the house.
“Better figure it fast,” Professor said. “Fifteen seconds.”
Jasper angled a thumb at a colossal wooden armoire against the wall. “Then we better duck behind that, pronto.”
They ran for it, with ten seconds ticking away faster than even Professor could keep up.
After Manuel Segura’s mansion vaporized in a bright-red ball, the squad that had surrounded it spread back into the bayou.
The plan was to disperse, check in with Commander Delta to confirm the mission’s success, then lay low for a few days.
Sergeant Bear Collins hunkered in the brown-green stew of an inlet, listening to his teammates call in on the radio. Bear was last to key his transmitter.
“All clear here,” he said. “Hell of a job, Tiger Team Delta.”
Unlike the times in the past he’d said it, Bear didn’t smile. This mission felt even more sour than his first. He’d thought nothing could be worse than the slash-and-burn jobs he’d done outside ofHueCity. Knowing otherwise made him sick in his gut, and Bear hardly ever lost his appetite.
That gut dropped as he heard a branch shift behind him.
Bear swung around his M-16. His aim found only darkness. He kept his sights on it a second longer to be sure.
A second too long. A bayonet pressed to his throat from behind.
“Y’all look like you got plenty of dumb ideas in that hairy head of yours,” Jasper said, pressing the blade closer. “Don’t pay ‘em no heed. Just drop the gun.”
Bear weighed his options. Jasper cut them down to one by sinking the knife enough to draw blood.
Bear’s rifle splashed to the ground.
Vaquero stepped out from behind the tree that had stolen Bear’s attention. Colonel Professor followed. Banzai circled to Bear’s side with a pistol to his head.
“How the fuck did you manage it?” Bear blurted.
“Just some local know-how,” Jasper said.
“Local know-how ain’t enough to survive being blown to smithereens.”
“It is when it tells you that these old plantations have secret tunnels out to the slave quarters, so that the masters could have their nightly fun.”
“Well fuck me sideways.”
“We’ll get around to that,” Colonel Professor said, shark-dead stare fixed on Bear as Vaquero watched the perimeter of the grove. “Tell us who’s behind this.”
“You tell me this,” Bear said. “Would you give each other up if you were in my position?”
Professor just stared.
“That’s what I thought,” Bear said. “Same rules apply.”
“I figured that,” Professor said. “So why’s he doing this?”
Tiger Team Bravo showed Professor the same puzzled look. Bear smiled.
“Same reason as got us all into this mess in the first place,” Bear said. “He’s following orders.”
At a snap of Professor’s fingers, Jasper brought a pistol butt down on Bear’s skull. Bulk splashed into the bayou. Professor turned the knocked-out soldier over to keep him from drowning.
“You want to explain all of that to us?” Jasper said.
Professor looked to Vaquero. He got a nod.
“I know what you’re thinking, jefe,” Vaquero said. “That the Ozark shipping address in the Cartel’s records is making a lot of sense now.”
“Ozarks?” Jasper said. “You mean…”
“It means,” Professor said, “We have a call to pay on an old comrade. Captain Teague has some explaining to do.”
“This is a real end run, amigos.” Vaquero said, giving a sour look to the map Jasper spread.
“Not like we don’t know the field.” Jasper flashed a smile.
It was true. The Ozark forest they hunkered in, a spot on the edge of the map they gathered around, even smelled as they remembered. The decade of time since they trained here had changed so much in their lives, but the rhythm of the scissoring wind, the pine and soil aroma thick as gravy, even the rustle of animals in the mist, remained.
“Shocked to my spurs you didn’t recognize the address on the Cartel list at the first glance, Professor.” Vaquero glanced at Professor Colonel, crouched nearby keying a long-range radio. “Getting old?”
“Been old since I was young.” Professor lifted the transmitter to the rim of his beret. “No, I didn’t suspect the address until we found out Teague’s Tiger Team was involved. It’s not like I’m an authority on secret Special Forces training grounds’ street addresses.”
That sobered Vaquero. He tugged a jacket tassel. “Think Teague’s behind this? Some kind of revenge thing against us?”
Jasper didn’t look up from his study of the map’s clouds of green and tributaries of yellow, the rises and vales of the secret training ground. “Maybe he crawled out ofIndochinawith some Golden Triangle heroin connections.”
“We’ll know soon enough, cowboy.” Professor said to Vaquero.
They held each other’s stare, Vaquero’s demanding certainty, Professor giving only confidence in reply. Vaquero dropped his head first, shook it. “A real damn end run.”
“Nobody knows these woods better than us.” Jasper tapped the map’s right border. “Now look here, y’all.”
“I’m looking, I’m looking,” Vaquero said. “You looking, Banzai?”
“I’m always looking. You just can’t see it.”
Jasper grinned big enough for Banzai and him both, then traced their infiltration route. The wind gusted and ebbed, shuttling eddies of mist through the rearing pine. As the radio clicked in answer to Professor, he spoke.
“Hello. Been awhile.”
Jasper walked his fingers along a narrow yellow slash—a dead-end valley—on the map. “Right here’s the draw where we set up that ambush, back in the day. Wiped out them weekend warriors on our war game finals, you remember?”
“Hard to forget,” Vaquero said, smirked, rubbing his sun-ripened neck. “Though I don’t remember much about the week celebrating that came after.”
Jasper whistled. “All’s I got to remember from that’s the tattoos, myself. Anyhows, that there draw’s got a defilade up on its south ridge we can slip through, right into the heart of the training ground forest.”
“Okay, but how do we get to the draw?”
Professor squinted at the dusk bruising the spine of the mountains, spoke evenly into the radio. “Understood. I don’t owe you anything either. It never was about owing. You know that.”
Jasper skittered his fingers along the yellow of the map, then skipped them into a green patch in its center. “Well, we just march right up this private road until we can see this here elevation, about 800 yards shy of it, and cut into the woods bearin’ north-northeast from there.”
Vaquero frowned. “What if Teague’s people have advance snipers covering the road?”
“They don’t,” Jasper said.”
“What if they do? What if they shoot us?”
Vaquero sighed. Wind and birds held their breath, and the only sound was the rumble of a monotone voice on Professor’s radio.
It paused, and Professor was quick to answer. “That’s right. This is about honor. That you can trust in.”
His Tiger Team exchanged dismayed looks at his answer. Jasper was first to shrug it off and started circling his finger around the green patch, the target, on the map.
“Once we make it through the draw,” Jasper said, “they’ll have pickets around the main site.”
“And, we can guess,” Vaquero said, rocking on his snakeskin boot heels, “a house where they’re holding Alexandra and your families.”
“Right.” Jasper couldn’t smile at that. “We just slip in through the pickets, then make contact at the back of the house.”
“Easy as that.” Vaquero’s tone was flat as a folded flag.
“Easy as that.” Jasper said.
“I know we’re putting our lives in your hands. Like I said, it’s how it’s always been. We’ll see you soon.” Professor keyed off the radio and turned to the stares of his men.
“Got the uniforms?” Professor Colonel asked Jasper, sending him rummaging in his Confederate-colored rucksack.
“How’d you get those anyway, Jasper?” Vaquero slipped off his jacket.
“I’m a person who knows people.” Jasper snapped on a grin. “Besides, since the war, this stuff’s just been collecting mold down inMississippi. Easiest thing in the world to pinch a few for the price of a case of beer.”
“Let’s suit up and hit it,” Professor said.
Jasper was first to put his fist out. His voice had a heavy sobriety to it for once. It didn’t weigh down his smile. “Intensity Level Bravo.”
Professor nodded and held his knuckles to Jasper’s. “All the way.”
The others joined, completing the circle of fists. “All the way.”
As countless times before, they broke ranks, suited up and marched into the woods as though they belonged to them.
Captain Teague turned from watching General Parkinson burn the ledgers in the trashcan. He stared at the mellow spill of Ozark forest out the bay window of his three-story lodge. Past the reflection of his glower, one eye slashed by a long-scar fromHanoishrapnel, the sight of mist-ringed trees rolling down the mountain soothed the disgust rising in him.
These dense and gauzy forests were a familiar sight. Teague chose this place as his hideaway after the war because of that familiarity. Their resemblance to the Central Highlands ofVietnammade living inAmericafeel less like being on an alien planet.
“Rotten cocksuckers,” General Parkinson said, inspiring a nervous glance from the three MPs clutching M-16s by the study’s doorways. “Can’t even clean up a simple mess.”
The sight of burning records brought a different familiar feeling to Teague. He kept it to himself. Telling Parkinson of how he’d watched Dial Soapers—rear echelon officers—burn records of the Tiger Teams at 5th Special Forces Command beforeSaigon fell would be wasted on the general.
“I told you they’d be a hard target,” Teague said, still standing sentinel at the window.
“Your team was supposed to be harder still,” Parkinson snarled at him, dumping more files stuffed with Cartel payments and cocaine distributors’ names into the trashcan blaze. “Fight fire with fire, right? You were supposed to beAmerica’s best.”
“We are,” Teague said. His shoulders couldn’t get any straighter. “But so are Tiger Team Bravo.”
Parkinson scraped ash from his hands onto his dress greens. Gave Teague his worst Fort Bragg scowl. “I’d hoped the millions of dollars your Tiger Team Delta is tasked to protect were incentive enough to prevail.”
“Millions in drug money.”
“Don’t play the innocent.” Parkinson wadded his swollen features into red contempt. “Whether it was heroin from the Golden Triangle inLaosor coke fromColombia, black ops cash has to come from somewhere. Nothing changes.”
“No,” Teague said, turning from the window. “Nothing does.”
Teague’s radio buzzed. He answered it.
He listened, Parkinson staring fixedly at him. “That was Tomahawk,” he told Parkinson. “They caught Tiger Team Bravo just outside the rear perimeter, trying to slip through disguised as Guardsmen. He’s bringing them in”
“That’s more like it.” Parkinson shoved the grill of medals on his chest out to match his grin. “We’ll get them to tell us where the Cartel records are. Then we’ll liquidate them and the hostages and move out.”
Parkinson looked around for a way to extinguish the burning files. He picked up a decanter of Glenfiddich ‘37, considered it, and then put it down. “Find me a way to put out this fire.”
The study doors parted and Tiger Team Bravo were marched in at gunpoint. Flanked by four MPs, carrying their M-16 carbines, the team looked shaken and weary in shabby Guardsmen uniforms. Teague neither smiled or frowned to see them.
Parkinson stood astride Teague’s Buddhist prayer mat, beaming.
“Well, you dumb son of a bitch,” Parkinson said to Colonel Professor, who glowered back from below his skewed beret. “Got anything to say for yourself?”
Professor didn’t reply. Parkinson’s smile went fish-bone thin.
“You can start by telling me where those Cartel records are.”
“I have only one thing to tell you,” Colonel Professor said.
The smile didn’t shift, but Parkinson’s eyes readied some venom. It slipped into his tone. “What’s that, Colonel?”
“It’s time for some Bravo mojo.”
Parkinson only had time to wrinkle his nose. The MPs that brought in Tiger Team were already tossing the carbines to them. In a single smooth motion, as if both teams were one, Tiger Team Bravo caught up their rifles and set them on Parkinson while their MPs drew sidearms and aimed them at Parkinson’s men.
Parkinson’s MPs dropped their hands from their holsters. Parkinson dropped his jaw.
“What the fuck is this?” Parkinson said.
“Fine work, Tiger Team Delta,” Teague said to the MPs allied with Bravo.
From behind Banzai’s left shoulder, Bear tipped the MP helmet he wore at his commander. “Our pleasure, boss. Good to be back on the right side.”
“Get the greenhorns out of here,” Colonel Professor ordered. At Teague’s nod of agreement, the counterfeit MPs led Parkinson’s men away with their white gloves raised high.
“What are you doing, you traitorous cocksucker?” General Parkinson roared at Teague, tone sour as the cigar scent staining his liver-hued lips. “Kill them all!”
He spun to find Teague holding Parkinson’s own ivory-handled Colt on him. His gaze floated between his lost pistol and Teague’s scowl as if deciding which was deadlier.
As Banzai shut the study doors, Tiger Team Bravo clustered around Parkison. Colonel Professor nodded at Teague.
“Captain,” he said.
“Colonel,” Teague replied in his coffin-groan of a voice. “I would say it was good to see you, but given the circumstances.”
“Understood. Seems it’s always that way, Captain.”
“Yes it does, sir.”
“Traitor,” was all Parkinson could spit.
“This the fucker who stole my Pa?” Jasper poked the chill of his rifle barrel into Parkinson’s neck.
“As if his kind hadn’t already done enough to my grandparents,” Banzai added, the burn of his glare showing even through the mirror shades.
“Traitors!” Parkinson bellowed. “All of you. Betraying your country.”
“By surviving?” Colonel Professor held out his hand to Teague.
“By not betraying each other?” Teague filled Professor’s grip with the General’s Colt.
Parkinson’s laugh had a disease in its cough. Stare stuck to Tiger Team Bravo like Agent Orange. “No, you fucking grunts. By not letting the war end when we told you to. By not doing as you were fucking told.”
Colonel Professor put the Colt’s sight on Parkinson’s temple. His stare in reply, cool and heavy caliber. The Ozark wilderness outside a perfection of silence packaged in mist and memory.
“If there’s one good thing we took from your war, General,” Professor said, “it’s each other.”
Parkinson’s lips split to speak. Professor saved the silence with a bullet through the general’s skull.
The shot sped through both temples and out for the forest to keep. Parkinson’s body shook the ash of the burning files as it fell. It sprawled stiff on the prayer mat, frozen to be forgotten on the floor above where Team Tiger Bravo’s families waited to be joined.
Matthew C. Funk is an editor of Needle Magazine, editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily, and a staff writer for Planet Fury and Criminal Complex. Winner of the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story on the Web, Funk has online work indexed on his web domain and printed work in Needle, Speedloader, Off the Record, Pulp Ink and D*CKED.