98,000 words in the bag. Five or six chapters to go on the first draft.
The gear list hadn’t been a long one, so when the plane landed in Fort Myers, Florida, he walked off with his carry-on and didn’t even pause at the baggage claim. He headed straight for the ground transportation doors, his bag slung over one shoulder.
Spotting the group was fairly easy. Men in the contracting world have a certain look, and there were at least a dozen there on the curb who had it. All of them were of a certain age, fairly fit for the most part, short hair while still being outside of military regulation, some beards, jeans or khakis, collared shirts. Granted, some broadcast their “contractor” status more openly than others, sporting coyote tan backpacks, 5.11 shirts, tan desert boots, expensive Oakley sunglasses, and often worn, sweat-stained ballcaps in either tan or green, with velcro and patches on them. Those were generally the guys that Dan found he disliked. They were usually, though not always, more interested in projecting the tough-guy contractor image than actually being professionals.
There were a few others hanging around that he suspected were probably there for the same job, but they looked even less professional than the ones decked out in “contractor chic.” There was one guy with lots of tats, a screaming high-and-tight haircut, soul patch, and at least five earrings and a nose ring, wearing an old woodland BDU blouse. Another pair, who were standing over to one side, talking quietly, were both wearing black leather jackets and had shaved heads. He’d peg them for skinheads except that one was obviously Hispanic.
It was the girls dressed in the contractor starter kit that kind of threw him. There weren’t a lot of women in the contracting world, largely because most contractors were former combat troops. He guessed that the times were a’changing, and that MMPR was going all equal-opportunity in their recruiting. He wondered again if this was a good idea; he’d yet to meet a female would-be combat soldier who could quite hack it. If PC was going to be the name of the game on this contract, this could get bad before it even got out the gate.
He tamped down his concerns, though. If the company was as serious as their emails had intimated about the strictness of their standards, it would all come out in the wash. Either the girls, if they really were there for the same reason, and weren’t just gun bunnies going to one of the “tactical” training facilities that he knew littered southern Florida, would hack it or they wouldn’t. Given the current political climate, the recruiters may not have had any choice. It wasn’t his concern. If it became a problem, he could always quit.
He didn’t like to think that way, though. Quitting meant going back to the helpless nightmare that had been life since the phone call that had asked him to come identify Julie’s battered body. No, he just had to focus on meeting the training objectives and getting to work.
Three white, fifteen-pack vans pulled up to the curb, and a fireplug of a man with a shaved head got out of the front van. He was wearing a skin-tight black polo shirt and khaki cargo pants, and he looked like he juggled barbells for a warm up. He stood on the curb with a clipboard and glared at the gathered wannabe contractors for a second before starting to call out names. As each individual rogered up, he just pointed with a knife hand at one or another of the vans.
So, that’s how this is going to be, is it? Apparently, MMPR, or at least their training section, was going with the, “I don’t give a fuck about you shitbirds, get on the fucking bus and do what you’re told or get lost, we can always replace you” model of treating its contractors. He almost turned around to go get a ticket back home right then and there. In his experience, a contracting company that treated its contractors like boot privates or raw recruits generally wasn’t worth much. They were likely to demand the contractors do something stupid downrange, and selected for Active Stupid in training, however much of it they actually offered.
But that fifty grand a month was still dangling there, enticing him with the possibility of paying off the mortgage and a lot of other bills, making it that much easier to raise the kids. So he stuck around.
“Tackett!” the fireplug yelled.
“Here,” he called out, stepping forward. The bald guy looked at him with all the warmth of a shark eyeballing its next meal, then pointed to the second van back before going back to his clipboard, dismissing Dan as quickly as he’d noticed him. Dan didn’t worry about it. It was annoying, sure, but he just kept that paycheck in mind as he climbed in. He was already starting to slip back into the detached mindset that he’d learned both during eight years as a Marine grunt and then another five in the contracting world.
He slid toward the back of the van, which was already occupied by two others. One was a linebacker-sized black man with close-cropped hair and a goatee, dressed simply in jeans and a plaid, short-sleeved button-up shirt. He watched Dan maneuver toward the back seats with cool appraisal in his eyes.
The other man was long haired, dressed in black cargo pants and a black t-shirt, with tattoos crawling up both arms and an earring in one ear. He looked like a hippy, except the tats were heavy on skulls, an American flag, and an infantryman’s cross—a helmet atop an inverted rifle with a pair of boots at the base. Dan quickly reassessed his initial impression; the guy might look out of place otherwise, but unless he was a poser, those tats belonged to a grunt, at the very least.
Since those two were taking up the very back seat, he took the next seat forward, next to the window, placing his pack on his lap. A moment later, a fat, red-haired man with a patchy beard puffed his way into the seat next to him. “Boy, they’re sure piling on the hard-ass routine early, aren’t they?” the guy asked. Dan just nodded.
“Do you think they’re going to keep it up through the whole training phase?” the red-haired man asked. He was still breathing a little hard, and looked sweaty. Dan wasn’t sure what he was doing there; he obviously wasn’t in shape, given the warning about strenuous PT standards, but then, they had women coming along too, so maybe the “strenuous PT standards” were only strenuous for some desk jockey who was looking at the numbers before writing the emails. Still, from the looks of the human fireplug out there, he wasn’t sure. He still thought that the redhead’s heart would probably pop if he had to run more than fifty yards.
In answer to the man’s question, he shrugged. He wasn’t feeling terribly talkative. Neither of the two men in the back seat seemed to be either, but that didn’t deter the redhead.
“I’m Aldo,” he said, sticking out a meaty hand. Dan shook it politely.
“Dan,” he answered. Aldo proceeded to reach back to the guys in the seat behind them to introduce himself.
“Vernon,” the black guy said, shaking Aldo’s hand. “Glad to meet you.”
“Trent,” was all the long-haired guy said. He shook Aldo’s hand, then leaned back and folded his arms. He was apparently not feeling particularly social, either.
“So, what do you think?” Aldo asked Dan. “Is this the way they’re going to treat us? That seems kind of fucked up. I mean, we’re not at boot camp here.”
Dan really didn’t feel like having this conversation, but didn’t see a polite way to avoid it. He shrugged. “Maybe the job really is as dangerous as the email suggested it was, and they’re trying to weed people out early. Good enough method.”
“But why would they offer to pay us so much if they’re going to treat us like privates?” Aldo didn’t seem to get it.
“I know, man,” the bearded man wearing a tattered III% olive green ball cap in the next seat forward said loudly, “this is bullshit. We’re professionals, we shouldn’t have to put up with this motard fuckery.”
“Then why’d you get on the fucking bus?” Vernon asked. “Ain’t nobody holding you here at gunpoint that I can see.”
The loudmouth looked back at him, but didn’t seem to actually have an answer. He looked slightly nonplussed for a moment, then turned back front and continued haranguing the small Asian woman who had had the misfortune of sitting next to him. Dan heard enough to gather that it was mostly about how badass the man was, and that he wasn’t going to put up with some bullshit contract trainer yelling at him like a drill instructor. After a moment, he put his head back against the window and tuned it out. It was the same thing he’d heard countless times, usually from people who were far less tough than they imagined they were.
After a few more minutes, the vans started to pull away from the curb. In a few minutes they were out of the airport and onto the highway. Few of the contractors talked, aside from the Three Percenter, who wouldn’t shut up. Aldo tried starting a conversation a couple more times, but was met mostly with monosyllables, so he gave it up after a couple of miles.
Dan was somewhat more interested in where they were going. He was vaguely familiar with a few of the training facilities in Florida, and which one they ended up at was going to tell more of the so-far mysterious story of the contract. He was already questioning their training methodology just from the bald representative’s attitude. If it turned out to be a professional outfit, it was good news. If it turned out to be one of the cheaper, loudmouthed, tacticool YouTube celebrity ranges, it might be a better idea to cut away and hope for another opportunity, regardless of the heartache he’d already gone through to get there.
They soon turned off the highway and onto a two-lane road that stretched off into the thick Florida pine woods and swamps. In moments, there was nothing to see outside but nearly impenetrable brush and trees on either side of the road. When they’d been driving for twenty-five minutes without a sign of a house or any other structure, he started to wonder how far into the boondocks they were going.
After a half-hour, the vans slowed, then turned off onto a gravel road that led even deeper into the swamps. The road looked relatively new, built up on a levee with swampland and woods on either side. There was a lot of standing water back there under the trees, and Dan could already almost feel the itch of the mosquito bites. Sure, it was fall, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything this far south.
They followed the gravel road for another fifteen minutes before coming to a blue-painted gate across the road. There was a barbed-wire fence extending from either side out into the woods. There was also an armed guard at the gate. Dressed in khaki cargo pants and a black polo shirt, just like the human fireplug of a rep, though his shirt wasn’t nearly so tight, he had an exterior belt on with a holstered Glock and four extra magazines.
The vans stopped just short of the gate, and the guard came out, pulling a small tablet out of his back pocket. He conferred briefly with the driver of the first van before walking back to the next one. Dan heard the driver list off the passengers, and the guard seemed to be checking them off of a list, before nodding and continuing back to the next vehicle.
“That’s interesting,” Vernon said from behind him. It was the first thing he’d said since he’d briefly shut the Three Percenter up.
“Seems like they’re really particular about who comes in and who doesn’t,” Dan observed.
“It sure does,” Vernon replied. “Makes me wonder even more about this gig.”
“Wonder what?” Aldo asked, making Dan regret getting into the conversation. He had a feeling he could actually have a meeting with the minds with Vernon, but the fat kid was out of his element, and for some reason Dan found himself irritated at his question.
Vernon just shrugged, though. “Well, between the alleged sensitivity of the contract, the tough-guy approach that seems to me to be calculated to drive people away, and now the security, well, it raises questions. The listing I saw for this job suggested that training would be strenuous and the job high-risk. Add in the paycheck, and I am really starting to think that they understated the situation a bit. Whatever this gig is, it ain’t the usual mall ninja job.”
Dan had to agree, though he kept his thoughts to himself just to avoid talking to Aldo. He suspected he wouldn’t be seeing the red-haired man for very long, especially if Vernon’s suspicions were on the money.
The guard walked back up the little convoy of vehicles and swung open the gate. As they drove through, Dan looked out the window and saw a Heckler and Koch HK416 leaning against the cooler back in the guard’s little shelter beside the gate. That was when he saw the second guard, who had stayed back in the shadows, wearing a vest and carrying his own HK carbine. They were not fucking around when it came to security.
They continued trundling along the gravel road for another twenty minutes after the gate, and still didn’t see any buildings, though Dan thought he caught a glimpse of what might have been a corrugated tin shed back in the trees at one point. Wherever this facility was, it was on some considerable acreage.
Finally, they came out of the thicker growth and into a broad, cleared area, probably about ten acres worth. Dan whistled.
Whoever was behind MMPR, they had money. A lot of it. A three-story brick barracks, that looked brand new, was only the least eye-catching part of the installation. The far side of the compound was lined with ranges, running from five-hundred-meter strips to a series of one-hundred-meter bays. A rappelling tower rose next to the barracks, and what looked like three entire combat towns, purpose-built training villages, covered a lot of the remaining area. There was even what looked like a fifty-meter pool, with an extremely realistic facsimile of part of a ship’s hull rising out of it, along with what looked like a partial superstructure. Three shiny Bell JetRangers were parked next to the helipad in the center of the open area.
“Well, that is rather impressive,” Vernon murmured.
What have I gotten myself into? Dan wondered. While this certainly wasn’t the crap training facility that he’d feared, its sheer expense further illuminated the questions that both he and Vernon had been pondering. This was definitely not your standard security contract job. Certainly not your standard maritime security contract, which often as not just threw a bunch of guys who could sort of professionally handle weapons onto a ship with as little training as possible, often while the company assured the client that they were all twenty-year Navy SEALs. No, this was serious business, far more serious than he’d expected.
The vans rolled past one of the combat towns on the way to the barracks. As they passed, Dan studied the buildings. After the first two, he was fairly certain that they were all heavily built enough that they probably had ballistic walls, which meant they were all for live-fire. That was rare enough, especially on a civilian facility.
The vans pulled up in front of the barracks. The bald man got out and stood there on the curb with his arms folded as doors were pulled open and the contractors started getting out. Apparently, not quickly enough for his satisfaction.
“Hurry the fuck up!” he bellowed. “We haven’t got all fucking day! Get the fuck out and get on line, or you can stay in the van and go back to the airport!”
That got people moving a little more quickly, scrambling out of the side doors and around to the back to retrieve their luggage. Since Dan didn’t have more than his backpack, he just got out and stood by the curb. The bald man stared at him for a second, then seemed to nod to himself and went back to staring at his watch.
With a frantic scramble that Dan hadn’t seen since the School of Infantry, the men and women hurried to get in a ragged line on the curb, hauling their luggage along with them. Some of them had far more than Dan imagined they would need for an overseas deployment, never mind a training course. They were some of the last to get in position, and the bald guy looked decidedly pissed off as he watched them straggle in.
“Listen up, ladies and gentlemen,” he said loudly. “You’re going to have to do a lot better than that over the next eight weeks if you want a job here. We don’t have time to play boot camp games, and we sure as shit won’t coddle your asses. It looks like a few of you didn’t read the full listing before you applied, but don’t worry. We’re going to sort that shit out in a hurry.
“You may call me Decker. I’m the chief training cadre here, which means I’m in charge of deciding if you’re going to be an asset, or dead weight that needs to go away. I’m not your friend, I’m not your fucking mentor, and I’m not a nice guy that you’ll want to have a beer with when this is all over. I’m a prick, I know it, and I will continue to be a prick for as long as you have the misfortune of knowing me. If you piss me off, you’re gone, and I’m easily pissed off.
“All of you know that the job is going to be risky, and it pays really, really well. I guess we’ll see just how badly you want that paycheck.” He pulled out his clipboard again. Dan was already starting to loathe it for some reason. “Now. Room assignments.” He began calling off names and room numbers. If anyone took more than a second to roger up, he repeated the name loudly, with a rising note of anger in his voice.
He wasn’t kidding about one thing, Dan thought. He really is a prick.
“Tackett! One oh seven!” Decker called out.
“Roger!” Dan replied, playing along. “One oh seven.”
Decker got to the end of the list, and lowered the clipboard. Then he looked at his watch. “You’ve got five minutes to get to your rooms, stash your shit, and be back out here in PT clothes. Starting now. Go.”
There was another frantic scramble, with several of the recruits getting tangled up with each other and their luggage. Dan was finding that old habits were quickly reasserting themselves, and he hung back to avoid the worst of the press. He still got to his room while probably half of the class were lugging their bags down the hall or up the stairs, huffing and puffing as they tried to race Decker’s watch.
He found his room quickly enough. It was spare, with cinderblock walls, a desk, a folding chair, a small private head, a twin-sized bed, and a rifle rack against the wall. He dropped his pack on the bed, dragged out his running shoes, shorts, and t-shirt, and quickly changed. He was one of the first ones back outside. Vernon was already out on the curb when he came back out, and Trent was on his heels.
Decker didn’t appear to have moved. He was still standing there in his khakis and polo shirt, his arms folded, looking at his watch impatiently and tapping his foot. Dan hadn’t bothered to check his own watch when Decker had started his time hack, but he gathered that the last few who came running out of the barracks, including Aldo and the Three Percenter, whose name was apparently Jon, were pushing the time limit down to a matter of seconds.
As soon as Aldo, already sweating and breathing hard, was in line, Decker simply said, “Let’s go,” turned, and started running toward the ranges. There was a moment’s hesitation, as the contractors tried to figure out what was going on, then the line turned and started straggling after him.
He wasn’t starting out with a nice jog. He had launched directly into what Dan felt was a slightly stiff distance pace, but which was obviously punishingly fast to a number of his classmates. After the time spent sitting in airports and airplanes on the way to Florida, he found he was sucking wind to start with, but he knew his own level of fitness well enough to be fairly certain he’d get his wind soon enough. Some of the others, he wasn’t so sure.
Decker led the way down the five-hundred-meter range, keeping the same pace the entire way, then ducked behind the berm. Dan, about ten people back, lost sight of him, but as they came around the berm, saw that he’d stopped, and was now standing there, breathing normally, his hands on his hips as he waited. He pointed to the ground in front of him, facing back uprange, and the contractors started getting on line in front of him.
By the time the rest of the class had lined up, Dan was already breathing slowly and evenly, though he had a nasty suspicion that it wasn’t a state of affairs that was going to last. The final arrivals, mostly the heavier contractors, though including more than a few of the women and a couple of the men who had looked halfway fit, were already obviously hurting, and they had barely gone half a mile. Aldo was already looking green around the gills and sweating profusely.
As soon as the last stragglers had stopped running, Decker rapped out, “Fifty burpees. Go.” He proceeded to suit actions to words, and dropped to begin his own reps. Dan had to give it to him; Decker might be an asshole, but he wasn’t going to demand they perform anything that he wasn’t going to do himself. Still, there was a chorus of groans at the command, and Dan had to suppress his own. He hated burpees with a passion, but he dropped and started cranking them out.
Predictably, Decker was done first, though Vernon, Trent, Dan, and about a dozen more of the fitter-looking contractors were right behind him. Dan’s breathing was labored, and his chest hurt a little, but it was no more than he expected after fifty burpees. Damn, those things fucking suck, he thought, as he fought to get his breathing and heart rate under control.
As soon as the last one finished, Decker simply turned and started running again, at the same pace as earlier. It was a little more painful this time, and Dan concentrated on stretching out his strides and keeping his breathing easy. This was going to be a long afternoon.
The trail led out into the woods and swamp, though fortunately it seemed to mostly be built up like the road had been, so they weren’t running through the mud and water. Yet. Dan wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to come to that. This was a hell of a way to start a training course, but as he thought about it, it seemed like an efficient enough way to weed out anybody who wasn’t ready to be there, whatever the job ultimately turned out to be. He remembered the warning in the job listing about “strenuous” PT standards and thought, They weren’t kidding, were they?
After another half-mile or so, they came to a mostly dry spot, with rows of pullup bars. Decker went to the farthest one and waited. Dan covered down on a bar and waited to hear how many he had to do.
It took even longer for everyone to catch up this time, and that was probably only going to get worse. Dan didn’t mind; it gave him time to rest and even out his own breathing. Decker still didn’t seem to be sucking much wind. He was still just as merciless, too. As soon as Aldo staggered to a stop, his hands on his knees and his head bowed toward the dirt, Decker called out, “Thirty pullups. Go.” Again, he led the way.
Dan was feeling the burpees a bit, and had to get off the bar a couple of times to shake out his arms and hands, but he got his thirty knocked out, however ugly the last four or so were. Decker didn’t bat an eye as he stepped away from the bar and let the next guy up.
It was ugly. A lot of the candidates weren’t up to the task, and it was painfully obvious from the beginning. Aldo took three tries just to get his first, and was visibly weakening with every moment. Dan traded glances with Vernon. Depending on how Decker handled it, it was likely that they would see the last of Aldo, along with a number of others, sooner than they’d thought.
Finally, there were close to a dozen candidates still frantically kicking and kipping toward the bar, when Decker looked at his watch. “One more minute,” he barked. “If you haven’t gotten your thirty by then, get off the bar and wait here. Cadre will collect you and get you on your way back to the airport.” His voice dripped with contempt, and he actually sneered as Aldo promptly dropped off the bar and stepped away, once again dropping his hands to his knees.
As soon as the minute was up, Decker led out again. He ran like a machine, keeping the same steady, relentless pace. After another mile or so, as the trail got rougher and wetter, they came to another cleared space, this one with forty-five pound dumbbells lying on the ground. Dan suppressed a grimace. He knew what was coming next. Sure enough, once they had all gathered, Decker announced, “Forty renegade man-makers. Go.” Dan dropped to the pushup position with his hands on the dumbbells, did a pushup, renegade row with the left, another pushup, row with the right, another pushup, then stood up and pressed both weights overhead. One down, thirty-nine to go.
And so it went, for what felt like the entire afternoon. Every half-mile or so, there would be another exercise. Kettlebell swings, rope climbs, ladder climbs, eight-count bodybuilders, more burpees, bear crawls, log lifts, log carries, casualty carries…it went on and on. When they finally ran back to the barracks, Dan was starting to stagger in spite of himself. He was so drenched in sweat that he felt like he’d been through a swim qual rather than any kind of regular PT, and every muscle ached. His lungs were burning, and his head was starting to hurt. It was beyond anything he’d done in years, as hard as he’d worked to stay in shape.
They hadn’t actually lost that many more after the pullups. A few had fallen out from sheer exhaustion, but for the most part, about forty had hung in there. They had lost probably half of the women, and those who were still gutting it out were at the rear, but they were still pushing through, though they looked about ready to die.
Once everyone was back at the barracks, Decker finally slowed, and led an easy jog around the barracks and the closest combat town, then led them through a fairly comprehensive cool-down. When they were finished, standing there as the sun went down, he said, “Congratulations. You made it for today. Tomorrow we start Weapons and Tactics. Now get out of my sight.”
A couple hours later, after grabbing a rather insufficient boxed dinner from the small dining facility in the barracks, Dan was about ready to collapse into bed when there was a knock at his door. When he answered it, Vernon was standing there in the hallway.
“Hey, man, we didn’t exactly get introduced,” the big man said, sticking out his hand. “Vernon White.”
Dan shook his hand. “Dan Tackett. Come on in.” He waved Vernon to the chair and perched on the side of the bed. “What’s on your mind?”
Vernon sat down. “What did you do before this?” he asked.
“I’ve been a mechanic for the last year, after my home improvement business went under,” he replied. “Before that I did a few gigs with WPS, and before that I was with 3/5 and 2/1. You?”
“First Ranger Battalion for six years, then WPS and a few other gigs.” He didn’t elaborate on what the “other” gigs were, and Dan filled in the blanks without asking. “First time I’ve ever seen a setup like this since I got out of the Army, though.”
“It’s pretty wild,” Dan agreed. “Can’t say I’ve seen that method of weeding out undesirable candidates on contract before.”
“Hell,” Vernon said, “I’ve never seen this level of performance demanded on a contract before, and I’ve been on some pretty high-end ones. What do you think we’re actually going to be doing?”
Dan shrugged. “The listing said counter-piracy. The only reason I can think of for going full-motard right out the gate would be if we’re going to be less security guard on ships and a little more Executive Outcomes, if you know what I mean.”
Vernon nodded. “Pretty much what I was thinking. And if that’s the case, I think I’m actually glad that training is going to be hellish. I wouldn’t want to go to actual combat with half the motherfuckers I worked WPS with, but they could pass the standards.”
“Yeah, I’ve known some awesome dudes in the business, and I’ve known some real turdbags,” he replied. “What I’m wondering is how they’re getting the clearance to do it if we really are going offensive? There hasn’t been a company that’s successfully done that since EO got shut down, at least not so far as I know.”
“No idea, man,” Vernon said, getting up and stretching. “But it’s probably a question best left until later. Tomorrow’s going to start early, and I know I’m going to be hurting in the morning after that death run this afternoon. Just wanted to make sure I properly introduced myself. See you in the AM.”
“Cool,” Dan replied. “Later, man.”
Five minutes after Vernon left, he was asleep.