American Spartan (Part 3)
The man in the black shirt walked into the briefing room. There were about a dozen high-ranking officers sitting around a conference table. A video screen was ready to show him a PowerPoint presentation, or something like it. He hoped it wouldn’t last long. He did not introduce himself. He did not mention his name; Phillips was the only person in the room who knew it.
The man always tried to deformalize these situations. He had long ago learned to hate these setups when he was on active duty, because nobody ever said what they really thought; it too often devolved into a yes-man contest.
As usually happened, he got some long looks from a few of the uniformed men in the room. He could almost hear their thoughts. “Who the hell is this guy with his untucked shirt and sunglasses propped up on his head?” But the colonels were different; they observed him with an air of understanding. They knew why he was there; he was a necessary evil they were glad was on their side.
Since the situation called for it, he followed protocol.
“Gentlemen,” he nodded and greeted them.
“You must be the man who’s going to fix our problems,” smiled the General, a man named Peck.
“I hope I can help, General,” he said.
The General continued. “Take a seat and we’ll show you what we’ve got here.”
“On June 21, one of our sniper teams got hit on a rooftop in Ramadi while they were providing over watch. In broad daylight. The thing is, they were basically ambushed and executed; somebody was able to infiltrate right up to them and shoot them, almost at point blank range. Whoever did it stole their rifles, two M40A1s, and we still haven’t recovered them.”
“We’ve been able to gather some intel, and we think we know who did it, at least who orchestrated it. But we have been unable to find any of the shooters or the planners.”
The man in the black shirt absorbed this and remained silent for a few seconds. “How do I fit into this? This doesn’t sound like something combat-related; it sounds like murder. Like a hit or something one of the insurgent groups might do.”
“I know. I realize it’s different than what you’re typically used to doing. But we need someone who is able to go off the reservation if needed,” General Peck stated flatly.
A lengthy pause ensued. The room was quiet.
The man broke the silence. “You know, sometimes this just isn’t a counter-sniper situation where you can sit somewhere on a roof trying to draw people out. Being reactive doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to take other measures to find these guys. And sometimes it ends up being face to face. And then you have two choices of what you can do: Capture them, and then they get released back onto the streets in a few days. Or you can fix the problem right there.”
The room went quiet again for several seconds as the men around the table contemplated the import of what the man had just said, too stoically some of them thought. The General seemed to be considering it for a moment.
Peck finally shook his head. “I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do that. You know we can’t, though I’m sure it happens sometimes. Sometimes men take matters into their hands, and we cannot have that. There’d literally be blood in the streets. Civilian blood. And the alternative of trying to make this some kind of official operation is just as futile. It’s not like it used to be where everyone’s wearing a uniform and you find the guy and know who to shoot. That would be a lot easier. Everybody looks like everybody else. We don’t have a uniformed enemy; they’re all around us. The kid walking down the street carrying a backpack and weighing 160 might be a bomber or a sniper. We can’t pull everyone in and interrogate them, and if we did nobody would give anything up anyway.”
Another silence followed.
The man had been in rooms like this many times before, and he knew where this was headed. He wanted to get to the bottom line. “What do you want me to do General?”
Peck looked around the room as if reminding everyone what had already been decided, then leaned closer to the man and said, “I want you to use whatever means necessary to find these guys. I don’t care what you do when you find them, though I don’t need to remind you that you have much wider discretion than we do. And I want our rifles back.”
The man looked around the room to take its measure. Most of the other people were now looking down at the table top or away. Nobody wanted to make eye contact with him. But Phillips looked at him as if to say, “You know what to do when you find them.”
Without changing his expression, the man broke the nervous tension. “Ok, General. I’ll see what I can do. But I need access to everything you have; every source, every witness, every piece of evidence. Everything. No exceptions. This will be my operation. That’s the way I work.” And then he delivered a statement that sucked the air out of the room. “And if I get into this and find out that you or anyone else are holding anything back, I’m done.”
A couple of the officers seemed to blanch; others almost gasped. Nobody spoke to a general officer like that, not even a suit-wearing civilian in the executive service. Maybe a President, or the SECDEF, but no one else. It was the first time any of them had ever witnessed it. But the general, a seasoned combat veteran himself and academy grad, took it in without reacting.
He studied the man for a second and said, “I can assure you that no one is holding anything back from you, and no one will.”
“Good,” the man firmly responded.
The man and General Peck held each other’s attention for a few more tense seconds, then the general wrapped things up.
“Since you and LtCol Phillips already know each other, he will be your primary point of contact on everything,” Peck said as he stood. Everyone else leapt to their feet. When a general stood, so did everyone else in the room. “Captain Danforth is his XO,” Peck said pointing out the young Captain, who nodded at the man.
Peck looked back to the man in the black shirt, seemed to ponder the situation once more, then said, “If you need anything, anything at all, just let me know.”
“I will General. Thank you.” And the meeting broke up.
The man turned to Phillips. “I’m going to grab my gear. Where can we get started?”
“Meet me in Danforth’s office in ten minutes,” Phillips said.
The man nodded, and walked out of the room.
After the man was out of sight, a fellow Lieutenant Colonel named Reeves walked over to Phillips. “Who the hell does that guy think he is?” asked Reeves, his voice dripping with disdain. “I’ve never seen anyone talk to a general like that. He’s lucky somebody didn’t choke him out.”
Phillips looked at Reeves — a notorious shit-talker and sycophant on the staff who liked to talk big — with derision he simply couldn’t hide. “You think you could choke that guy out?”
“What? Is he some kind of super ninja? Should I be worried?” Reeves said in a comical, mocking tone, feigning laughter.
Phillips had already had enough of Reeves. “Oh, I don’t know. But if I were you, I’d be careful.”
Reeves wasn’t convinced. “Why? Who is this guy?”
“Well, actually, you could say he goes by several different names,” Phillips said, starting to enjoy the moment. “In Kuwait during the first Gulf War, they called him the Reaper. In Somalia, the warlords called him the Devil. In Kosovo, the Serbs called him the Wraith. My personal favorite is what the the Taliban and AQ in Afghanistan called him: Malak al-Mawt — ‘The Angel of Death.’ And the insurgents here, they aren’t as dramatic; they just call him the Ghost.”
Reeves’ furrowed eyebrows and confused eyes suddenly leveled out, and then slowly widened in understanding. He didn’t need to say a word; the look on his face was enough.
“That’s right,” Phillips said as he smiled. “That’s David McKinnon.”
Glen Hines is the author of two books, Document and Cloudbreak, available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is presently at work on his third book, Crossroads, to be published in early 2019. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.