“How long does he need to hold them?” Thin, short, and determined, Ellen held the Captain’s gaze without flinching. Despite the desert heat, she didn’t seem to be sweating. She was not the type of person who had time to worry about heat, sand, or the rat-tat of heavy gunfire in the distance.
Built like a linebacker in camouflage, the Captain glanced back at me, disdain and mistrust evident on his face, and turned to look down on Ellen. “I need him to hold the forces on the West side of the city for thirty minutes. Thirty minutes, and my Marines are in, out, and a few miles South of this shit hole.”
Ellen looked at me. She knew that I’d never held that many people for anywhere near that time. I might have held the house in Fallujah for nine minutes, but that was nothing to compared to this job. Hundreds for thirty minutes was out of the question.
“You’ve got twenty. No more.” Her voice left no room for negotiation. It never did. “Marines make do, Captain.”
Still glaring at Ellen, the Captain yelled, “You heard the lady! We’ve got twenty minutes to bust through enemy lines and punch out the other side. It’s our god damn lucky day!”
He was pissed. It hadn’t been three weeks since the CIA pulled me out of training and stuck me in Iraq with Ellen, but I already knew that Marines hated taking orders from a twenty-eight year old agent and her pet spook. The only thing they hated more than her orders was me. They were the adult equivalent of the jocks who rode me in high school. They were big, strong and highly trained to do jobs that no one else could. Me? I was the geek, a one hundred forty pound weakling who got a rash if I didn’t stay covered in the sun. Hell, they probably liked the Iraqis more than me.
An explosion rocked the city below us, but Ellen didn’t twitch. “Get your self ready, Parker. They’ll be rolling out in five.”
“I’m not sure I can do this. It’s too much.” Sweat rolled down my forehead in sheets, and my voice was shaking. No wonder the Marines hated putting their mission in our hands.
”Yes, you can. You have to.”
The confidence in her voice had stopped being contagious days ago. She couldn’t acknowledge the possibility of defeat, but I was certainly capable of screwing it all up. “What if I can’t let go this time?”
Humvees roared to life behind me like angry animals, and Ellen raises her voice to a yell. “I’ll bring you back. Now get ready.”
Knowing I couldn’t win, I shook my head and turned to stare at the Western side of the city. Clouds of smoke rose from several buildings, and I could see what looked to be muzzle flashes flaring out occasionally. There were a lot of Iraqi soldiers, maybe even Republican Guard units, and they were dug in deep. Not a very friendly place for Marines, but the Captain had to move. It was either wait for the fly boys and artillery to clear the mess, or use the spook.
I closed my eyes and focused my thoughts on the men in the city. The heat and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the air slid away from my perception. Humvees plowed past me, kicking up a spray of grit, but I made the noise and wind go away.
All that mattered were the men. So many of them, but they were all coming into my mind’s eye, each one brighter than the desert day and larger than life. They were all connected to me. We were all connected, Iraqi soldiers and the geek. In my head, a golden, translucent thread stretched from my hands to each man.
Slowly, the music, Beethoven’s Fifth, seeped into my thoughts. They’ve told me that I sway and hum when I work, but I don’t know what happens on the outside. Inside me, my thoughts fell into rhythm with the music, and the melody, powerful and compelling, filled me. The men in the city were starting to feel the music through me, but they were out of rhythm and very off key. Picking one man, I pulled on his thread until he fell in line with the music, until I felt him join me. Following the ebb and flow, I moved to the next man and the next until we all moved together as one.
I don’t know how long the music and harmony lasted. I have never known. One moment we were all lost in the sound. The next, the familiar burning prick of the drug cocktail flooding into my veins wrenched us all back to reality. With the return of the heat and the incessant din of battle, I dropped to my knees and retched in dry, violent spasms.
Standing above me, Ellen turned off the satellite phone. “Nice job. The men made it through with time to spare.”
When the retching had subsided, she handed me a bottle of water and helped me up. “I know you want to rest, but I was just on the line with Jenkins. He’s got a special ops force about to do some really risky shit. He needs us there ASAP.”
I reached into my pocket for the bottle of aspirin that would help fight the inevitable headache. “That was too many. I almost lost myself this time. I can’t take that again.”
Putting a hand on my shoulder, she said, “We know what you can take. We’ll tell you when to stop.”
Without another word, she pulled out the phone again and started walking toward our Humvee. Hearing her request an air lift, I followed my handler. Who else was gonna get me out of this damn desert?