By Stephen Mertz
All kidding aside, Blood & Tacos is honored to have STEPHEN MERTZ included in this issue. While we poke fun at the genre here and there, we’ve always viewed our stories as loving homage and the writers of the originals with respect and admiration. Having Mr. Mertz included in Blood & Tacos definitely forces all of us young pups to raise our game.
If you don’t know who Stephen Mertz is, you know nothing of men’s adventure books. Wikipedia him if you have to. But what you should really do is buy. If you need a place to start, try Hank & Muddy. In men’s adventure, he wrote at least nine Executioner novels, possibly more. He created Stone: MIA Hunter and Cody’s Army, as well as the Tunnel Rats—an accomplished writer who deserves to be discovered and rediscovered. Check out a pro at work.
Vietnam. 1970. Quang Ngai Province, north of Saigon.
The Huey gunship banked in over Firebase Tiger, a clearing carved from the jungle hilltop. The woman, who was calling herself Tara Carpenter, snapped pictures from the open side door of the helicopter, from behind the shoulder of the door gunner and his big, mounted M-60 machine gun.
The landing zone was a barren five acres. After the stark green carpet of jungle they’d flown over from Saigon, the base was drab and squalid. There were no trees, no color except for the coating of dust that blanketed everything: bunkers, vehicles and personnel. Machine gun emplacements were at intervals along the perimeter. Artillery and mortars were inside the compound. The sun, like an angry red ball seen through the gauze of a humid haze, arced low in the west, painting the horizon a brilliant red. This all vanished behind a veil of red dust, a sandstorm kicked up by the chopper’s backwash as the pilot touched the Huey down gently and initiated systems shutdown.
Tara’s fellow passenger stood beside her.
He said, “Getting enough pretty pictures for the war protestors back home?”
He didn’t wait for a response, leaving the gunship and striding toward a welcoming committee of three waiting soldiers.
His name was Cord McCall. He was an investigator assigned to a special operations unit of the Joint Services Criminal Investigation Division. Death was naturally commonplace in a war zone, but there were other crimes perpetrated within military ranks—homicide, desertion, robbery—that fell under the CID’s jurisdiction. McCall, a Major, was forty years old, dark-haired, heavily muscled. His fatigues were sharply pressed even in the three-digit heat and suffocating humidity. He wore an Army issue Colt .45 automatic in a shoulder holster.
Tara caught up with him. She was seven years his junior, a redhead with intelligent green eyes that glittered like those of a mischievous cat. The GI fatigues she wore did nothing to conceal a trim, shapely figure. She chose not to respond to McCall’s sarcasm because, McCall knew, she well understood and appreciated its source.
He was not overjoyed in the first place about being assigned the dual task of performing his duties in addition to nurse-maiding an embedded journalist. But there was another, more significant reason for his displeasure with the presence of Tara “Carpenter” in Vietnam, and she and he were the only two people in country or anywhere else who could appreciate the undercurrent of tension that crackled between them.
They were husband and wife.
Therein lay one hell of a tale, somehow as simple as it was complex. She’d been his wife for three years before he volunteered for Nam. Tara had never been your average military base wife. She’d been freelancing her photographs to wire services and news magazines before they met. During their separation while Cord was in Vietnam, she had continued to rise through the ranks of professional news photographers.
But he had been dumbstruck when he showed up that morning at the Saigon airport, not having the slightest idea that the photojournalist assigned to him was his own wife.
Tara had brazenly confided in him, with only a trace of smugness, that it had taken considerable finagling on her part, including coming up with a cockamamie story for her editor about the need for a cover name, but she pulled it off. Wars were the stuff Pulitzer Prizes were made of but ambition and self-interest were not the only reasons she’d hustled up this assignment. She’d grown impatient, sitting on the sidelines in the States. She wanted to learn for herself what was going on in Vietnam. Her voice softened when she explained to McCall that she wanted to experience his world. She would not have interfered under normal circumstances but this war was hardly normal. As his wife, she well knew his strength, his self-confidence. Now, she explained that morning at the airport, she yearned to know the source of that strength that she had decided could only be forged in sharing the fires of war with him.
He had agreed to maintain the secret that she was his spouse as much to avoid complications as to avoid appearing the fool, but he’d made no secret of his displeasure during the drive to CID HQ and had protested adamantly, in her presence, to his commanding officer. Colonel Conglose had proceeded to not-so-patiently re-explain to McCall how this was part of an important PR campaign being waged on the home front by the Pentagon. McCall would obey orders and allow Miss Carpenter to accompany him during duty hours until further notice. That said, McCall was handed his assignment to Firebase Tiger.
He and Tara crossed from the Huey to the trio of waiting soldiers.
The ranking man stepped forward. He had the build and the leathery features of a farmer, thirtyish, with a sunburned crew cut and flinty eyes. He did not salute. Enemy snipers loved to disrupt the chain of command, and seeing who was saluted made selecting targets easy. Saluting was avoided in the field.
“Major, I’m Captain Larson, Executive Officer in Charge. Welcome to Firebase Tiger, though I imagine you’d rather be someplace else.”
The man next to Larson was a strapping man with a caffè latte complexion and E-6 stripes on his sleeve. “That goes for every mother’s son in this hell hole, sir.”
Larson said, “Easy, Top. Major, this is Sergeant Hines. He’s my top shirt.”
“I know,” said McCall. “I studied your personnel files on the flight in.”
Hines kept shifting his attention between them and scanning the darkening jungle beyond the perimeter.
The third man was a first lieutenant named Grey and everything about him matched his name. Blond-haired, in his late twenties, there was paleness to the junior officer that was almost albino-like except for the empurpled, swollen area around a bandage at his right temple.
Grey said, “Sergeant Hines speaks the truth. I wish I’d never heard of Firebase Tiger.”
McCall said, “You have a colonel who was fragged.”
Larson nodded. “Lieutenant Colonel Emmett, 13th Infantry Battalion. Someone tossed a hand grenade into his hooch just before dawn and splashed the walls with his guts.”
“Hooch” was GI slang for makeshift living quarters. “Fragging” was another recently coined term. Bad command decisions by an officer too often got good soldiers killed. Sometimes an officer’s own men—considering it more an act of survival than murder—would toss a grenade into the officer’s hooch, blowing the officer into itty bitty officer parts—“frag” him, in other words—before the officer got anyone else killed.
“Where’s the body now?”
Larson said, “What was left of it was tagged and bagged and sent to Saigon on the daily chopper run.”
Grey cleared his throat and nodded at Tara. “Uh, if you don’t mind, Major, who is she?”
“Her? Name’s Carpenter. Pretend she’s not here. Okay, Captain, show me where the fragging took place.”
Larson led them toward a squalid, dust covered pile of sandbags that was somewhat bigger than the other hooches.
“The colonel’s hooch was next to the main bunker.”
Tara commenced taking pictures.
Activity swirled around them; a world of coarse language, exhaust fumes and the clicking and clanking of engines, equipment, and weaponry. Nearly every soldier in sight was toting an M-16 and a wary attitude. The shadows of encroaching night deepened by the minute.
The colonel’s hooch was a low, ten-by-twelve, makeshift structure of timber and plywood beneath a shell of sandbags. Its entrance was charred, misshapen from the outward force of the murderous blast. McCall stooped and entered while the others grouped behind him outside.
Walls were splashed with gore. Flies buzzed, thick and loud. The sickly sweet smell of death was almost overpowering in the enclosed space.
“Did anyone see anything?”
Larson shook his head, negative. “Everyone heard the blast but Security was paying attention to outside the perimeter. The nearest personnel when it happened were me and Sergeant Hines and the lieutenant.”
Grey indicated his bandage. “I caught this when my patrol was ambushed the other night. I was laid up in my hooch, woozy on pain pills the medic gave me. But we compared notes. No one saw anything. It wasn’t the VC. They’d never breach our perimeter.”
Hines indicated the Tactical Operations command bunker.
“The captain and I were sprucing up the files for the Inspector General’s visit day after tomorrow. If it hadn’t been for a couple of walls between the colonel’s hooch and the TOC, we’d have been hamburger too.”
“Any ideas about who’d want the colonel dead bad enough to frag him?”
Larson said, “Suspects?” The flint was cold in his eyes. “Yeah, I could think of a few.”
Grey cleared his throat. “You might as well go ahead and tell him, Cap.”
Tara said, “Tell us what, Captain Larson?”
This got McCall’s goat.
“Not us, ma’am. Me.” He spoke to the men. “I take it the colonel was not well liked.”
Hines chuckled. “I’ll bet you’re saying that just because someone fragged his ass to hell.”
McCall said, “Emmett was assigned here just last month. A new CO always shakes up a command to put his own brand on it. The troops never like it, but it usually settles into a mutual respect.”
Hines regarded the damaged hooch with no visible sign of emotion.
“You want a list of suspects, Major? You could start with every man on this base.”
Grey stared at the ground as if looking at something far, far away. “Eight men who were stationed here went home yesterday in body bags.”
“A platoon from Bravo company,” said Larson. “Ambushed. Heavy casualties.”
“Wiped out by one of our own bombs,” said Hines. His eyes kept shifting back to the jungle tree line. “The VC find our dud shells, rig them up and use them against us.”
“Let me guess,” said McCall. “Saigon promised replacements today but they’re not here.”
Larson nodded. “The green machine. Efficient as hell, ain’t it? And until those new men get here, I’m way short of manpower. I’m hoping Charlie hasn’t figured that out yet.”
“Issue me an M-l6,” said McCall. “You’ve got one replacement.”
“Two, actually,” Tara volunteered.
They ignored her.
McCall didn’t miss the flash of anger that made Tara’s eyes turn a deeper shade of green.
He went around to the entrance of the command center and glanced inside. Tactical maps were spread out upon folding tables. Ammo crates served as chairs. A clerk was busy at a typewriter. A radio man monitored mostly static from a small receiver.
Grey said, “Colonel Emmett should never have ordered me and my men out on that patrol.”
Larson told McCall, “The firebase is assigned two companies of light infantry. One supports the other. The line company conducts recon patrols around the base, and it was Bravo Company’s turn on the rotation schedule. The other company provides mortar and artillery support from here.”
“The colonel should have never ordered my platoon into that area after dark,” said Grey. “I’m not some wet-behind-the-ears cherry. That ambush wasn’t my fault. Me and Sergeant Williams always brought our guys home. Right, Captain?
Larson nodded. “Right, Lieutenant.”
Hines said, not unkindly, “You need to relax, Lieutenant, if you don’t mind my saying so, sir. You, uh, haven’t been right since, well, since it happened. Maybe you ought to lay down in your hooch, sir. I’ll have a medic check in with you.”
A sideways glance told McCall that an impulse within Tara was trying to dissuade her from capturing on film, for posterity, Lieutenant Grey’s vulnerability and emotional unbalance; a poignant portrait of the ravages of war on a trained, competent man. She grimaced, lifted her camera and snapped the picture.
Grey said, “The sergeant who died in the ambush, Sergeant Williams, he served way back in the Korean War and until two nights ago he was keeping alive a good bunch of guys who should have been back home drinking beer. Every man on the base respected him. The sarge was our teacher, our preacher, the one we looked up to. And I owed him a personal debt. That’s why I wish to God that I’d been one of the dead in that VC ambush, not him.”
“Lieutenant,” said Larson, “you are not responsible for what happened.”
McCall said, “What sort of personal debt?”
“My dad served with Sergeant Williams in Korea,” said Grey. “He saved Dad’s life. Sarge greased a Red Chinese who was about to run Dad through with a bayonet. They stayed in touch after the war. They were both lifers. I must have heard the story a hundred times growing up. I never got tired of it. Cancer got Dad last year. I was raised to be a soldier. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got assigned to Sergeant Williams. I was supposed to be the platoon leader, but we all knew who kept us alive.” Grey’s lower lip trembled.
Tara stepped forward. She rested a hand gently on Grey’s shoulder.
“Lieutenant, listen to your captain and to Sergeant Hines. There is a thing called survivor’s guilt. You must maintain. That is what you owe Sergeant Williams and your dad and yourself.”
Grey’s lower lip stopped trembling.
“Yes ma’am. You’re right.” He drew himself to his full height, his shoulders back. “I’m not doing anybody any good, pissing and whining, am I? I’ve got to regroup and be ready for whatever’s coming next.”
Tara nodded with a smile. “1 couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Grey turned to Larson. “Captain, uh, I guess maybe I should try and get some rest.”
“I think you’re right, Lieutenant. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.” Grey added to Tara, “And thank you, ma’am.” He lowered his eyes from theirs and walked away.
When Grey was out of earshot, Larson said, “There goes a fine soldier, wearing a hair shirt from hell.”
“He’ll make it,” said Hines. “That kid’s got a lot to offer this man’s army, but he was on the razor’s edge of losing it. Miss Carpenter, I believe you helped steer that soldier back in the right direction.”
Tara started to say something.
McCall spoke before she could.
“Yes, ma’am. That was a humane and noble gesture. But now I must ask you to allow me to proceed without distraction. You’re a non-participating observer, Miss Carpenter. Captain, I’d like to take a look as Sergeant Williams’ hooch.”
“This way,” said Larson. He started them toward a line of hooches near a row of mortar placements. “Mind if I ask, Major, what are we looking for in Williams’ hooch?”
Striding apace with them, Tara said, “The lieutenant said the men on the base looked up to Sergeant Williams like a hero.”
Hines nodded. “That’s as good a word as any, ma’am, and that’s why everyone hated the colonel after Sergeant Williams died on a patrol that never should have been sent out.” A bleak smile creased his coffee latte features. “And that’s the connection. I get it. Lady, you’re a Sherlock Holmes.”
McCall tried hard not to yield to his building irritation.
He said, “She’s a civilian.” This wasn’t going to work, having Tara tagging along every step of the way. He would just lay it all out for Conglose when they got back to HQ. They had a war to win. He had a murder to solve. What the hell was Tara thinking? What the hell was she doing here? Cool it, he told himself. He said, “And I’ll thank you, Miss Carpenter, to just zip it and take your pictures, okay?”
McCall sighed. “Sarcasm yet. I’ll be lucky to stay a major with you bird-dogging me.” He barely caught the man-to-man grin that passed between Larson and the first sergeant at this verbal sparring. Damn. The electricity between him and this sassy redhead was so obvious that anyone who witnessed it would catch on even if they didn’t know exactly what they were seeing. To change the subject, he nodded to the row of mortars near Williams’ hooch. “Not the quietest neighborhood.”
“No such thing as a quiet neighborhood in this sector,” said Hines. “We’re surrounded by bogey land. It’s a free fire zone beyond that perimeter.”
“The first change Colonel Emmett made when he took command,” said Larson, “was to send out patrols after dark. It was unnecessary. Too risky. Everyone except the colonel knew it. The mission for this firebase is recon. You can’t recon in the jungle at night.”
Hines spat. “We have an outstanding record for targeting VC for the flyboys. We do our job. But doing our job wasn’t good enough for the colonel. He wanted a higher enemy body count so he could get himself a general’s star and he didn’t give a damn about sacrificing good men like Sergeant Williams for a promotion.”
Tara lifted her camera and snapped a picture of Hines.
They reached Williams’ hooch.
McCall entered the hooch alone. Tara lowered her camera and positioned herself between Hines and Larson in the entrance. Their grouped presence in the doorway deepened the interior gloom. The hooch was of uniform furnishings: cot, foot locker, a makeshift desk. McCall knelt on one knee to conduct a thorough search of the foot locker.
“Uh huh,” he said.
He rose, letting the lid of the locker snap shut. He exited the hooch, leafing through a small bound-leather volume.
Captain Larson craned his neck to try to make out the printing on the book.
“What did you find, Major?”
Hines guessed, “A Bible?”
McCall shook his head, snapping the book shut. “Not even close.”
Tara studied the book’s dimensions and appearance. “A diary.”
“When men keep one, it’s called a journal.”
Larson ran a broad palm across the bristle of his crew cut. “Why would Sergeant Williams keep a journal?”
“Why the hell wouldn’t he?” growled Hines. “I’ll bet he had plenty of stories to tell, going back to Korea.”
“Too bad he kept them to himself.” Larson extended his hand, palm up. “Mind if I take a look, Major? Maybe he wrote something that will help us.”
Tara said, “You could make bet on that.”
McCall slid the book into a pocket. “Sorry, Captain. First I’ll have a look for myself.”
Tara studied him. “You think that diary—excuse me, journal—holds a clue to who fragged the colonel?”
“That’s what I intend to find out.” McCall patted the book in his pocket. “Something tells me this is going to make for an interesting read, and I want to get started.”
Sergeant Hines said, “I’ll show you to the guest billets, for what they’re worth.” He glanced at his watch. “And it’s past chow time.”
Tara let herself into one of the guest billets—not her own—without announcing her arrival.
McCall sat at a makeshift desk, a slab of plywood resting across two empty oil drums. Remaining seated, he pivoted with incredible speed, a blur of movement, freezing with the .45 in straight-armed target acquisition, its muzzle inches away from the center of Tara’s forehead.
She froze, lovely mouth agape, her green eyes wide, holding her breath in astonishment.
McCall sighed mightily, flicked on the safety and returned the .45 to its shoulder holster.
“Now there was a real temptation.” He returned to the material spread across the desk. “I thought we were going to avoid personal contact, Miss Carpenter.”
She stood beside him. She rested a hand on his shoulder. Her touch had always had its intended affect on him. He felt that humanizing affirmation borne of the touch of woman, of grace and beauty so uncommon, practically unknown in the harshness of war except as memories nursed by those who fought. She glimpsed the paperwork he’d been poring over: three personnel files, a yellow pad full of his notations, and the slim leather volume, folded open with the spine up.
She read aloud the names off the personnel files.
“Captain Larson, Lieutenant Grey, Sergeant Hines. I’m glad I don’t have to guess which one of those three fragged the colonel.”
McCall decided that he could either blow up or give up. This woman had a backbone of steel coupled with a tenacity that could wear down stone.
“And what makes you think the killer is one of them or that I’m guessing? It’s called investigating. What the hell am I going to do with you?”
An impish smile curved her lips, and with one graceful, impudent motion she was straddling his lap, her fingers entwined behind his neck, mischievous green eyes glistening, her lips, inviting, only inches away.
She whispered huskily in his ear, “I’ve got an idea what you could do about me.”
“You’re a vexatious wench.”
“Sometimes I wish you were more of a nag. That would be easier to deal with.”
Realizing that he was serious, she lost some of her good humor. She withdrew from his lap.
“So what about the journal? Was it interesting?”
At that instant, someone outside yelled, “Incoming!”
Then everything became drowned out by a startling, eerie whistling that increased in pitch and then was itself drowned out by a deafening explosion, an impacting blast that shook the hooch violently. Dust and red dirt powdered down upon them.
McCall grabbed the M-16 he’d been issued and rushed outside.
A night fog had fallen. A bursting flare overhead cast the base in surreal daylight. The first explosion had been a direct hit on the Huey that had brought them here, now nothing but an unrecognizable, flaming ruin. Everywhere on the base, soldiers were responding to the attack, some firing their M-l6s on the run, firing the weapons on full auto into the darkness beyond the perimeter. The artillery and the mortars and machine guns opened up, shredding the night with thunder and fury.
A whistling round missed McCall by inches, chipping off a chunk of the hooch doorframe. He felt a trickle of blood from a flying splinter, razor-thin along his cheek.
The next incoming mortar shell struck the main bunker. The Tactical Operations Command evaporated in a copper-red eruption of flame.
Then Tara was with him.
She said, “Damn but I wish they’d issued me a weapon. Don’t suppose I could borrow one of yours?”
McCall grabbed her wrist. “First let’s get you to cover. They’re targeting the hooches.”
They stormed into the battle, dodging strobe-like explosions. Shouts filled the air along with the stench of destruction, of burnt gunpowder, of killing and dying. McCall led her to a nearby pile of debris somewhat in the shadows; empty oil drums and discarded machine parts. A good place to stash a troublesome wife until the fighting was over. A round pinged off an overhanging piece of metal. She was right. He could not leave her unarmed.
He handed her his M-16. “Here. You qualified with one of these on the range back home. Time for practical application. Keep your head down. You are a non-combatant.” He unleathered the .45 from its shoulder holster and flicked off the safety. “I’ve got to keep moving, to help out.”
She took hold of the rifle, wholly comfortable with it. Then her eyes were distracted by something.
He whirled, half knowing what to expect. Then he saw it too.
Through the disorganized melee of battle, a soldier, whose features were obscured, darted through the tumultuous firefight with determined haste, staying low to avoid incoming fire, one hand steadying his helmet as he ran, appearing to McCall to be somehow disengaged from the battle, particularly when he gained the hooch the McCalls had just vacated. The soldier entered the guest billet.
“Wait here,” said McCall, and he bolted.
“Right,” Tara said to herself.
She gave McCall a ten-count. Then she slung the M-16 over her shoulder by its strap and followed him.
McCall hesitated at the entrance to the hooch, the .45 automatic held down at his side, his presence undetected by the man inside because of the ferocious battle raging around them and because the soldier was preoccupied, in the process of reaching for the slim black book on the desk.
McCall said, “It’s not a journal.”
Larson whirled. His expression struggled between surprise and panic.
“Major, I can explain.”
They had to raise their voices to be heard above the cacophony outside.
“Captain, I’m arresting you,” said McCall. “You murdered Colonel Emmett. You fragged a fellow officer.”
Larson drew his broad, farmer’s body up straight, doing his best to reassert command even if he was outranked.
“Arrest me? On the strength of what? Every man on this base wanted to see that bastard dead.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one who went for the bait.” McCall nodded to the black book. “That’s no journal. It’s a notebook that I always carry. I had it on me when I knelt down to search Williams’ foot locker, and with the dim lighting inside the hooch and a little sleight of hand I had everyone thinking I’d found it there. I wanted to see if I could smoke out someone with a guilty conscience, and it looks like I succeeded. You wanted to see if Williams incriminated you in a journal after you confided in him that you were going to frag the colonel. Maybe I hadn’t gotten to that page yet and you could steal the book before I did. It was a crazy long shot, but it was the only chance you saw, so you went for it. A soldier like Sergeant Williams would tell you to bite your tongue and follow orders.”
A jolt of raw, bitter emotion erupted from Larson. “That’s exactly what he told me. Let it alone, Williams said. Follow orders. Right, follow orders. Sounds real honorable but look what it got the sarge and those other men of Bravo Company. Emmett was killing my men, goddammit. He had to be stopped, and I stopped him.”
A shell struck the next hooch over with a thunderous crack! like a lightning strike. Shouts for “Medic! Medic!” could be heard.
Larson lunged at McCall. “Bastard!”
McCall had hoped that sight of the .45 would discourage something like this, but Larson wasn’t about to be taken easily. McCall brought up the .45.
The snap! of a camera flashbulb came from close behind his ear.
Tara had crept up from outside and eavesdropped. The white flash seared the interior of the hooch, not impairing McCall’s vision because it came from behind him. The flash startled, stunned and stopped Larson. He reflexively threw his arms up to cover his eyes.
Tara said, “Gotcha!”
McCall brought his .45 around in a swipe that cracked the side of Larson’s head. Larson’s knees buckled and he collapsed. McCall pinned Larson with a boot to his back. He holstered the .45 and reached for the handcuffs attached to his belt. He spared a quick glance over his shoulder.
The beauty of his wife’s face was smudged with grime. Her red hair was tangled. She looked stunning.
He said, “Thanks, hon.”
Larson’s face, against the earthen floor, was an emotionless mask.
“You’ve got this all wrong, Major. Yeah, I thought it was Williams’ journal that you found. I came for a look to see if he thought anyone on base killed Emmett, to see if he wrote that down. I didn’t frag anybody.’’
“Sergeant Hines will fess up,” said McCall. “He gave you your alibi when he said you and he were together prepping for the IG inspection. But Sergeant Hines is lying because he hated Emmett too. You weren’t in the TOC bunker with your First Sergeant when Emmett was killed. I’ll go to work on Top’s conscience and his duty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and when he breaks, Captain, I’ll have the proof I need.”
Larson sneered. “What the hell kind of a soldier are you? Whose side are you on, McCall? I’m on the side of our troops. That’s more important than any VC body count so some fat-assed colonel can advance his career. You think I could let that go on? Our body count is my concern. Emmett got what he deserved. You know that, in your heart.”
“You’re out of luck, Captain. It’s my job to take you in.”
Someone outside yelled, “Incoming!” and again the air was split by that fast-approaching, ear-piercing whistle.
McCall sprang at Tara without hesitation, yelling to the man on the floor, “Move, Larson! Save yourself!
Larson got to his feet but made no effort to move.
He said in a calm voice, “Up yours, Major.”
With the incoming whistle growing impossibly loud, McCall plowed into Tara with enough force to knock her off her feet, sending them both airborne, pitching them outside of the hooch and onto ground. They landed together. Cord’s arms were around her. They rolled a few times before coming to a stop with Cord on top.
Again lightning and thunder struck. The ground trembled beneath them as a direct hit demolished the hooch. McCall pinned his wife, shielding her from a pelting shower of falling debris.
Then they lifted their heads.
The battle was winding down. Three Huey gunships had rotored in to commence pulverizing the surrounding jungle, making the night sky a fire show of tracer bullets, rocket fire, and multiple explosions. There was no more incoming fire. The mortars and artillery were quieting down. The primary activity on the base now was tending to the wounded, regrouping, assessing.
Tara arched her neck for a view of the smoldering remains of the hooch they had just vacated.
“Captain Larson …”
“It’s better this way,” said McCall. “He died in combat. That’s better for his family back in the world.”
“You’re not going to report that he fragged a colonel?”
McCall said nothing.
She stared up at him for a long moment. Then she kissed the thin red line of dried blood that crossed his cheek and for one stolen moment there on the battle-scarred ground, they shared a prolonged embrace.
“Know what?’ whispered Tara.
“It’s been so long, I wouldn’t even mind being on the bottom.”
“You,” said McCall, “are impossible.”
“And that’s only one of the reasons you’re crazy about me, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Crazy is definitely the word. I must be out of my mind.” Two figures were hurrying in their direction. “Here come Sergeant Hines and Lieutenant Grey. I’ve got some explaining to do.” He got up off her, extending a courtly hand. Tara accepted, rising to her feet, and he said for her ears alone, “Now stow the personal stuff, okay, hon? I mean it, Tara.”
He turned to greet the approaching men.
“Right,” Tara said to herself, and hurried to join them.
Stephen Mertz was one of the architects of the men’s action/adventure series genre. His two landmark series from the 1980s, Stone: M.I.A. Hunter and Cody’s Army (as by Jim Case), have been reissued in e-book format. Under his own name Stephen has written a number of highly praised novels. The most recent of these, Hank & Muddy (2011) and The Castro Directive (2012), are also available as e-books. He lives and writes in Arizona.