The draft has just passed 85k words. It’s coming along quick now. So here’s the second chapter, to continue whetting the appetite.
Four Months Earlier
Amy and Tom were already outside on the curb waiting when Dan Tackett pulled up to the daycare center. It was already dark, and the clock numbers on his truck’s dash shone accusingly at him. It was already almost eight at night. Sandra Crawford was standing on the curb behind the kids, a stiffly impassive look on her face.
He parked the truck, grabbed the envelope off the dashboard, and got out. It was time to pay the daycare bill already, and he mused bitterly that every cent he made working extra hours was going into paying for those extra hours at child care.
“Good evening, Mr. Tackett,” Sandra said stiffly, disapproval at his lateness in every word. “I trust you know what time it is.” The Happy Circle Child Care Center was supposed to close at seven, and he was just getting there to pick up the kids at fifty minutes past that.
“Yes, Sandra, I do know what time it is,” he replied tiredly. “Work went late tonight. I couldn’t afford to pass up the overtime.” He handed over the envelope, while turning to the kids. “Amy, Tom, you ready to go?”
“Sure, Dad,” Amy chirped. Tom, younger than his sister by two years, just nodded. He had become a boy of few words ever since their mother had died in the crash. Amy grabbed her little brother’s hand and pulled him over to the truck, pulling open the back door and helping the three-year-old into his car seat.
“You really should make an effort to spend more time with them,” Sandra said, some of the lecturing tone gone from her voice. When he looked at her, he saw only concern in her eyes. “It’s not good for kids to spend all day every day away from their parent.”
He sighed heavily. “I’ll take that under advisement when I can afford to pay all the bills,” he replied, and started back toward the truck.
He got back in the driver’s seat and turned down the music. Julie wouldn’t have necessarily approved of the kids listening to half of the death metal that he’d taken to listening to ninety percent of the time since her death. But he found that in his current state of mind, much else in the way of music just kind of ground on him, and both the news and talk radio just pissed him off.
“How was your day, Amy?” he asked, as he pulled away from the curb. The little girl promptly launched into a detailed, if wandering and sometimes incoherent, story about the doings of the day in kindergarten and then at daycare. Dan couldn’t really follow most of it, but it meant he didn’t have to say much as his daughter chattered away. Tom was already asleep in his car seat; it was almost his bedtime already.
Dan clenched his hands around the steering wheel, Amy’s description of the esoteric, made-up game she and several others had played that afternoon fading into slightly high-pitched background noise. How am I going to maintain for another fifteen years? he thought. She’s been gone for four months and I’m already losing it. The strain of not letting the kids see that Daddy is coming apart at the seams is just making it worse.
It was a half hour drive to the house, where he gave Amy the keys to unlock the front door while he carefully lifted a sleeping Tom out of the car seat and carried him inside. Amy wanted to help take her little brother’s shoes off before Dan put him to bed, but Dan did it himself, then tucked the little boy in. Tom barely moved or made a sound, just turning over on his side, his eyes still closed.
“Did you get something for dinner?” Dan asked Amy.
She nodded, her blond curls, inherited from her mother, bouncing. “Miss Sandra got us some food before you got there to pick us up.” Good. At least Tom wouldn’t be waking up too ravenously hungry.
“All right, then, go brush your teeth, then it’s time for bed,” he told her. She nodded again, and bounced off to the bathroom.
It took another fifteen minutes to get Amy ready for bed, tucked in, prayers said, and the umpty-fifth reading of her favorite story gotten through, which Dan could probably recite word-for-word without being able to tell anyone what it was really about. He was running on autopilot by then, anyway, as the day’s exhaustion started to weigh him down. He finally gave his daughter a last hug, then turned out the light and headed downstairs.
He’d ignored the mail sitting under the slot in the door when they’d gotten home, and he wanted to ignore it further. He knew what was there. The mortgage was due again, as well as the insurance bills. All of which would just about clean out what was left of the last month’s wages. After standing over the pile of envelopes and unsolicited catalogs, he muttered, “Fuck it,” and went into the kitchen. In the cupboard above the counter were several liquor bottles, and he grabbed one at random before heading for the back room that had been his study.
The place was as much of a wreck as most of the rest of the house. Part of that was because of the long hours he was working, and the corresponding lack of energy when he got home. Part of it was simply because he failed to see the point in trying to make it nice.
He realized, as he popped open the bottle and took a swig of what turned out to be rum, that he was deep in a depressive episode, and had been pretty much ever since Julie had passed. She had been everything that was good in his world for six years, and then, in the time it took for a drunk not to hit the brakes, she was gone. Now he was struggling to keep himself together for the sake of his kids, unsure how to care for them the way she had, and feeling like he was drowning with every breath he took.
He sat down at the desk and fired up his laptop as he took another fiery gulp. He didn’t know why he even bothered to turn the damned thing on. It never gave good news.
But he did the same thing he did every night anyway. Once it was up, he logged onto Combatant Jobs and SOCNET, and started scrolling through the listings.
I don’t know why I’m doing this, he thought. I’m just pretending there’s a chance to get back in the action, make some good money and get a little bit of that combat thrill again. Those days are past. I’m just sitting here, drinking, pretending that my life isn’t over.
“Listen to you, you self-pitying fuck,” he growled out loud. “’Oh, woe is me, my life is over.’” He took another swallow. He should have been getting buzzed by now, but the fact that he wasn’t didn’t say anything good for his alcohol consumption habits over the last few months. “It better fucking not be. You’ve got two little kids you’d better stay alive for.”
And now I’m sitting here drinking alone and talking to myself. That’s real great, Tackett. Real good sign, there.
He wasn’t really studying the job listings. Most of them he’d seen before; either State Department-sponsored training gigs in Africa, Stateside training contracts that were mostly tied up by one Good Old Boy network or another, or PSD assignments or static security jobs at big-box FOBs in Afghanistan. Those jobs were dwindling as the drawdown continued, though there looked like there were some new ones in Iraq. Of course, he was all too aware that most of the listings were from companies that didn’t actually have the contracts in question, but were trying to get a stack of resumes built up so that they could tell the client that they had a ready-built crew standing by when they bid on the contract, six to nine months down the line. None of which made those particular listings of any immediate use.
Who am I kidding? None of these are of any “immediate” use to me. I’m a single dad with two kids. I can’t just drop everything and go to Afghanistan for a year, certainly not for a measly…$65,000? You gotta be fucking kidding me. He’d been hearing for years that the glory days of contracting for $1200 per day were over, and his own perusals of the contract listings had borne that out, but if there were actually contractors settling for $65k a year in a war zone, it was worse than he’d thought.
He wasn’t sure what made him click on the next listing. All it said was, “Sensitive High Risk Contract.” It was just uninformative enough, and he was just drunk enough, that he had to check it out. He started skimming the description, then stopped and started over, setting the rum bottle aside.
MMPR Inc. is recruiting for a Sensitive, High-Risk, Counter-Piracy mission. Combat Deployment or Warzone Contracting experience required, minimum fourteen months on the ground. Candidates must be able to pass strenuous physical evaluation and training, as well as high-standard weapons and tactics training. Due to the sensitive nature of this contract, no details about operational location or the identity of the client can be included at this time, until the candidate can pass the pre-deployment vetting course. Training is expected to last two months. Actual contract is open ended, minimum four months. Beginning pay: $50,000/month. All resumes must be submitted no later than September 15. That was in two weeks.
Dan sat back and stared at the screen for a long time. He didn’t even reach for the bottle. Fifty grand a month? That was astronomical, even back in the good old days. He suddenly found himself wondering how much he could pay off with two hundred grand. Four months would pay off the house, easy. That would be one huge Sword of Damocles no longer hanging over his head. With the house paid off, even if he went back to wrenching on Harleys and Gold Wings for a living, he wouldn’t have to spend all the extra hours just to make ends meet.
Hold on, now, he thought. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. He read through the listing again. There weren’t any overt red flags, at least not at first. The pay was high enough to raise some eyebrows, including his own, but the rest seemed to be pretty standard contract listing boilerplate. He studied the company name for a moment. MMPR? Never heard of ’em. A quick search turned up a company website, which was as sleek and generally uninformative as any contracting company website he’d seen. Companies with their fingers in the high-end, sensitive contract world didn’t tend to advertise it on their front pages. If you could find it on their job listings, it would be couched in such esoteric, euphemistic terms that it would be next to impossible to know for sure what the job was or where it was.
He sat back in his chair again, the booze forgotten, and stared pensively at the screen. He’d opened this particular can of worms as depressed, alcohol-fueled, maudlin pining after the glory days gone by, expecting, deep down, to do little more than fantasize about being a trigger-puller again. He knew it probably wasn’t a good idea, especially with the kids to worry about, but that fifty kay a month was damned enticing. It would solve a lot of problems.
But Amy and Tom gave him pause. He would be away from them for a long time, at least six months to go by the listing. Of course, how much time do I spend with them now? They’re being raised by kindergarten teachers and babysitters, not their father. Abruptly, he pushed back from the desk and left the room. He crept up the stairs to the kids’ bedroom, eased open the door, and stepped inside, looking down at them.
Tom was still on his side, his knees pulled up, the blanket halfway down his torso, one chubby hand splayed on the sheet next to his head. Amy was lying asleep on her back, her golden curls splayed out on the pillow, breathing softly. For a long time, he just stood there, watching his children.
They’d be fine with Grandma and Grandpa, he thought. Hell, probably better off than they are with me right now. And Julie’s folks have offered to help time and again. I’ve just been too damned stubborn to take them up on it. He felt a flash of guilt at the thought. He hadn’t refused Roger’s and Darlene’s help because he bore them any ill will. He’d done it because he’d been too proud, too convinced that he had to take care of his kids all by himself. And so I pay strangers to take care of them for me. He turned to leave, the decision all but made. He eased the door shut, carefully turning the knob to latch it without making noise.
Back downstairs, he sat at his desk again, and picked up Julie’s picture. Please forgive me, he thought. I can tell your parents and anyone else who asks that I’m doing this for the kids, to make enough money that I can take better care of them. But I’d never be able to lie to you. The money’s a bonus. I’m dying from the inside out, have been ever since I came home. I need this. I need something. I promise I’ll come back and try to be a better father after this, once I’ve got enough of a nest egg to pay for the house, at least. He hoped with every ounce of his being that he wasn’t still lying.
He still hesitated ever so slightly as the pointer hovered over the “Apply” link. He still knew nothing about the company or the contract, and the promised paycheck was high enough to be as much of a warning as an enticement. What the hell, he thought, as he clicked the link and prepared to start filling out the application form. It’s worth a try. Probably just another resume farming operation, anyway.
The next day went pretty much the same as the day before it had. He got up too early after going to bed too late, worked out until his headache was gone, then got the kids fed and off to kindergarten and daycare before going in to work. He tried to get back to pick them up from daycare earlier than he had the day before, and managed it. By a whopping fifteen minutes.
The entire day, he’d done his damnedest to concentrate on work and not think about that job listing. It probably was going to be just like so many he’d responded to before. He’d send his resume and then hear nothing. It wasn’t like he was dead set on it.
But as soon as he got home and got Amy and Tom to bed, he went to the laptop, started it up, and went straight to his email. Nothing.
Well, what the hell did I expect? It’s not like I’ve ever heard of a contracting company replying in twenty-four hours or less.
He had a couple more stiff drinks than he’d planned on and went to sleep.
Three more days went by. Dan kept working late, but he put the listing out of his mind. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Then, on the fourth night after he applied, he checked his email to see a message from MMPR Inc.
We received your application for the Sensitive High Risk Counter-Piracy Mission we listed on Combatant Jobs. We are happy to say that you appear to meet all of our qualifications for a successful candidate. Therefore, we would like to invite you to attend our initial vetting course outside Naples, FL, from October 1 to November 30. Given the closeness of the date, we have attached your itinerary. Our chief instructor, Decker, will meet you at the airport and drive you out to the training facility. All required forms are attached, as well as a list of documents and equipment you should bring.
We wish you the best of luck at training, and urge you to bring your A-Game.
J. Colton, Director of Recruitment and Training, MMPR, Inc.
Dan sat back in his chair and stared at the screen. His bluff had been called. Could he turn his kids over to Roger and Darlene for six months or more, while he went off to probably sit on a ship, waiting for nothing to happen? But even as he thought the question, he knew that it wasn’t quite accurate. No company throws that kind of money around for glorified security guards on a freighter. There was something else going on. But for $50,000 a month, could he afford to care?
He thought for a long time, then grabbed the bottle, took what he determined was going to be his last drink for a while, and grabbed the phone to call Roger.
Three and a half weeks later, he pulled up to Roger and Darlene’s house. Tom was excited to see Grandma and Grandpa, but Amy was a little more pensive. As he swung her down to the ground, she asked, “Why do you have to go away, Daddy?”
He knelt down in front of her and held her shoulders. “I got a new job, Amy,” he said. “It’s only for a while, and it’s going to solve a lot of our money problems. I’ll be able to pay off the house, and take better care of you and your brother. But to do it, I have to go away for a while, and I can’t take you with me. So that’s why you’re going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a while.”
“When are you coming back?” she asked. There was a little bit of a quiver in her lower lip. She had already been through the death of her mother, and now she was having to say goodbye to her father, less than five months later. It was a lot for a five-year-old girl to handle.
“It’s going to be a few months, but I am coming back,” he told her. “And when I get back, things are going to get better. I promise.” Please, God, don’t let that be a lie.
Amy was tearing up. This was not going well. Dan felt a lump hardening in his own throat. “I’m scared, Daddy,” she said, her voice starting to get choked up. “What if you don’t come back?”
He hugged her tightly. “I’ll come back,” he repeated thickly. “I promise. Grandma and Grandpa will take good care of you until I do.”
Darlene intervened to collect her hug from her granddaughter, saving him a little bit of further heartache, but when he turned to get Tom out of the car seat, the little boy was already crying. He clung to Dan’s neck tightly, sobbing. Through the sobs, he picked out that Tom didn’t want his Daddy to go. He held his son for a little bit longer, murmuring reassuringly that it was only going to be for a little while, that he had to go, that it was going to make their lives better in the long run. He didn’t know how much Tom understood or believed. At that point, he wasn’t sure how much he believed, either.
But there isn’t a great alternative, is there? I could call it off right here and go back to wrenching on bikes on overtime, letting strangers raise my kids while I struggle to make enough money to keep a roof over our heads, but then we’d be in the same boat, wouldn’t we? I have to make this work. It’s only for six months or so, and then I’ll be able to stay home. He hoped he wasn’t deceiving himself. He was afraid that he was. He knew the world he was about to go back into.
Darlene, cooing comfortingly, gathered Tom into her arms and carried him toward the house. The little boy was so miserable that he had forgotten his excitement at seeing his grandparents, and just kept bawling into her shoulder.
Dan watched his kids go into the house, his fists clenched, tears in his eyes, feeling like the worst father in the world. I’m doing this for them, I’m doing this for them, he kept repeating in his mind.
Roger, having stood nearby while Darlene ushered their grandchildren into the house, stepped over and put his hand on Dan’s shoulder. He knew Roger understood; the man had done three tours in Vietnam, and later gone to Rhodesia, where he’d served with the Rhodesian Light Infantry. He had seen the elephant many times. Dan still couldn’t help but imagine that his father-in-law disapproved of his running off to chase adventure, especially so soon after Julie’s death.
“It’s always tough on kids,” Roger said. “Fortunately, Darlene and I didn’t have ours until after we’d already come Stateside, but I’ve seen it enough times before.” He looked Dan in the eye. “It’s going to weigh on you. You’re going to be sitting on the plane, going wherever you’re going, and you’re going to keep replaying Tom’s crying and Amy’s questions in your mind the whole time. Listen to me. You’ve got to leave that on the plane. If you’re going somewhere risky, and for the paycheck they’ve promised you, I can’t imagine that ‘risky’ quite covers it, you’ve got to have your head in the game at all times. For their sakes, you have to trust that we’ll take good care of them, and just concentrate on getting your ass home in one piece. You hear me, son?”
Dan nodded, his throat tight, his eyes still wet and stinging. He finally met Roger’s gaze. The old man was studying him with narrowed eyes.
“I hope so,” Roger continued. “I worry about you, Dan. With this coming so soon after Julie passed…well.” He paused, as if searching for the right words. “There was a kid who came to join the RLI, not long before the war ended. He was barely military age. He’d been out in the bush for a couple of days, and got home to find that ZANLA terrs had murdered his parents and his little sister. He crushed training, and when we got out to the bush, he was one of the most aggressive, ferocious fighters we had.
“But we could tell that he wasn’t in it for revenge. There was a different look in his eye. One of the boys said he was, ‘looking for a reunion round.’ He was hoping to catch a bullet and see his family again.” He paused again, as Dan looked at the ground. “I know you miss Julie, Dan. So do we. Not a day goes by that we don’t still cry about her. But you can’t go see her yet. Those little kids in there need their Daddy, even more now that their Mommy’s gone. So if that’s anywhere in your mind, you need to forget about that reunion round and concentrate on getting back to Amy and Tom.”
Dan nodded again, and looked Roger in the eye. “I hear you,” he said. “I’m not suicidal, Roger.” Are you being entirely honest, here? a little voice asked in the back of his mind. Shut up, he thought. “I walked away from the mil contracting world five years ago, and I still remember why. I’m doing this strictly for the money.” Okay, that’s not one hundred percent honest, but it is the primary motivating factor, so let’s keep things simple.
Roger just raised an eyebrow, as if to say, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, kid, but let it go. “That actually brings to mind another worry. I know, I sound like an old Jewish grandmother. But the pay…that’s a lot of money, Dan. A shit-ton of money. Not only does it tell me that you’re going to get dropped into some pretty horrific shit, but it’s also the kind of money that people will go to great lengths to get their hands on. And I’m not just talking about your fellow contractors. Watch your back, Dan. Twenty-four seven, you need to be watching your back. As good as that paycheck sounds, it gives me a bad feeling.”
Dan looked up at him with a raised eyebrow of his own. “You’re thinking that if I’m dead, they don’t have to pay me?”
“I’ve seen it before,” he replied grimly. “Had a friend who was working contract in Afghanistan a few years ago. He said that he and his crew got ordered into an obvious ambush. He could never prove anything, but he’s always suspected that his supervisor was trying to get rid of them because the company was having money troubles. Greed is an eternal motivator, and it turns people into monsters. Never forget that.”
“Oh, I know,” Dan answered. “I’m not new to this business, remember? I’m under no illusions that I’m anything but another monkey on the shelf to these people.” He looked back toward the house. Amy and Tom were both in the window, watching, anguish in their faces. It looked like Tom was still crying. It was going to be a rough few first days in Roger and Darlene’s house. He turned to Roger. “I’ll be careful. Now, I should probably get going, while I still have the guts to go through with this.”
Roger clapped him on the back. “Fair winds and following seas, son,” he said. “We’ll take good care of Amy and Tom. Call whenever you can. It’s important. They need to know that Daddy didn’t just leave and forget about them.”
“I will.” He turned and stepped into the cab of the truck. “I’ll be back in a few months.”