combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Dragon God's Blowback
excerpted from Dragon God's Blowback

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

          The ex-Marine finished his early morning sit-ups, rolled over on the concrete floor to start his push-ups. He paused to wipe sweat off his face with a towel draped over the metal frame bunk; thought about quitting the routine, then mustered inner energy and pushed himself.

          Finished, he carefully spread the towel on the bunk to dry, focused on a picture tacked to the concrete wall: his former girlfriend Ashley's laughing face, blonde hair tumbling down over her shoulders, wide-set hazel eyes brightening the cell's gloomy, gray atmosphere.

          He paused, stared at a strip of the white caulking that filled every joint in the concrete walls to preempt hiding places: he stared at the band of whiteness until, in his mind, it faded into the image of a glacier, where he found himself lying on his back, watching the sunrise splatter gold over the white snows. He relaxed, took a deep breath of thin, fresh, high altitude air, enjoyed the solitude, the sun warming his cheek.

          Pounding steps: someone in the passageway snatched him back to reality. The first thing he had noticed inside the military prison was increased auditory sensation: sometimes there were measured strides in the hall, often-times there were shuffling, aimless paddings, but there were never hurried steps like those he heard skidding to a stop outside his cell door. He rose and waited, balanced in a combat-ready stance.

          Lock clicked, slammed open. The solid steel door swung wide, his brother in the doorway: Billy Howling Dog, his childhood playmate, his teenage antagonist, his grown, red-faced half-brother. A big smile on his face. They had not seen each other during Jack's six months in Solitary.

          He moved forward to hug his brother and fellow prisoner. "Billy – how you doing?" A sneering guard had told him Billy had become addicted to Oxycontin, an opiate-based drug. "Dumb shit's popping Hillbilly H," the guard had proclaimed.

          "Hey, Jack. Whoa – what happened to you?" Billy's wideset grey eyes widened as he surveyed Jack's new, heavily muscled body; he strode forward and the two embraced.

          Jack Flashhardt glanced down at his new body. "I powered up 'cause there's nothing else to do in Solitary." He thought of the long pounding hours, running in place. Push-ups going on and on. Using the cot as rudimentary weights. Handstands, leg lifts. All to relieve the boredom – all to achieve exhausted dreamless sleep in soul-killing Solitary. All the self-imposed discipline had made OCS training at Quantico, Virginia, seem like kindergarten games.

          Billy shattered his momentary stream of thought. "Jack, I think we're getting out of here!"

          "Yeah, right!" Jack replied with a scornful tone. "My only chance of getting out are in nineteen years, six months, and a wake up." He wiped a drop of sweat off his nose. "Or out on a one way to an underground condo in Peckerwood Hill Cemetery." A rueful smile at his brother. "But, what're you doing here, Billy? Who gave you an opener to my cell? You're a prisoner, like me. You make trustee?"

          Billy Howling Dog glanced out the door, stroked his short but growing black braids, looked back at his older half-brother. "They sent me over here to USDB from the Colonel's office. You got a visitor and I was 'sposed to tell the Day Watch to bring you. But they're all out on coffee break. Only like, the video monitor guard there. He couldn't leave his station. Keyed a transmitter, sent me."

          Woefully reminded that he was, unlike his brother, in the highest security part of Fort Leavenworth – USDB – which housed murderers and other military felons with sentences of seven or more years, he exclaimed, "A visitor! Dad? He has news about the appeal? A pardon?" Hope surged.

          Billy shook his head, his short black braids danced on his broad shoulders; his white man's grey eyes sparkled, his teeth flashed as he smiled.

          Jack Flashhardt gestured around his stark cell. "Nobody else knows aboutme being here 'cept Ashley." Would his gorgeous blonde ex-girlfriend blast back into his life? He glanced at the only decoration in the cell: the picture of Ashley. Pouty lips that could kiss forever – lips that would never kiss him again, according to her. He felt a flush of painful loss.

          "Nope." Billy interrupted his mental whining. "Check this out – it's General Harmbruster's aide. He goes in the Warden's office, like, he wants to see you ASAP."

          Suddenly suspicious, Jack looked into Billy's eyes. "You using?"

          "Yeah, but I'm cool. Cept for my dreams – the Hindu Kush dragon's hauntin' me big-time. Wish we'd never stole the emeralds ...."

          Jack glanced at his brother. Billy's conveniently forgotten that he pried and looted the gems off the statue, not me. But the old monk had said, 'Go to Dragon God. Take the emerald shield, guard it for the rightful owner.'

          Jack sat on his military-perfect, made-up bunk. Wiped sweat off his face, rubbed his stubby short blond hair, interrupted his brother. "General Harmbruster. He's doin' a Vocati Ad Servitium? Call to service? I'm not goin' down that road again. Anyway, I can't leave the cell without an armed escort. Too dangerous. Guards say everybody in here wants a piece of me. Unless ... we're ready to make my breakout."

          Billy grimaced. "I'm goin' with, Bro. I'm goin'!"

          Jack cut the air with a fist. "Don't be stupid. You've got a much less sentence."

          "Bro, Chief Talking Dog made me swear a blood oath to cover your rear. So —"

          Jack snorted, "Don't give me tribal mumbo jum —"

          "Hey!" Billy exclaimed. "Don't be dissin' the Chief. He helped raise you after your Ma bailed from Dad an' the ranch." He walked to the door, looked into the hallway. His strong body odor infused the sterile cell's atmosphere. "I figure the general wants you for another impossible mission like last year. And if you get out, I'll get out, too. I was freakin' wrong back in Afghanland when I said this dump'd be better than the bush. I'm ready to return to my starrin' role as a blood-suckin' Arab killin' war machine."

          "Oohh, you baddie! But I'm not lookin' for another working vacation in Southwest Asia," Jack responded, his imaginary hopes of a pardon crushed.

          "Bro, I get dreams – bad ones. Dragon God is after me," Billy said with a frown. "We gotta go back, get rid of the emeralds. An' anyway, face it – you're the best hill-humpin' raghead killer around. That's why the general wants you."

          Jack took a deep breath, clinched his fists. "Let's do it. Hump our asses outta here." He glanced at Ashley's picture. Pulled it down, jammed it in his pocket. He looked at the un-opened letter – he guessed, believed, somehow knew it was from his long-gone mother. Decided to leave it on the shelf above the sink. No point in opening that bitter childhood chapter. Too late for her.

          The brothers peered into the hallway, saw no one about, cautiously set out for the admin center.

          "Wait a minute," Jack said. He returned to the cell, grabbed the letter, stuffed it in his pocket with Ashley's photo.

          The high security section's multi-level concrete bulkheads quietly echoed their tentative footsteps; they rounded a corner, an unseen inmate from the level above shouted an alert: "Traitor's out!" Yells repeated the alarm, echoed down the halls, through the two-tier cellblocks. Individual calls became a clamoring chorus: "Traitor! Mother-fuckin' traitor! Get the America-hatin' bastard. Scum-suckin' asshole!"

          Jack felt tendrils of fear. Thought of retreating to the safety of his cell. Flush of shame, surge of anger – a swell of resolve overcame his doubts. Images: blue skies unscreened by prison bars, a herd of wild horses joyfully galloping through green and brown Montana prairie grass, an American flag rippling in a fresh Bighorn Mountain breeze, frosty white clouds billowing and swirling above the snowy peaks – all flashed through his mind in seconds.

          Clenched his fists at unseen enemies and their chants of hatred in this dead gray hell. Smash things, bash prisoners, he thought. Looked up at the security cameras: red active lights not showing. Someone turned the all-seeing cameras off. The guards know what's going down: good or bad? They after me, too?

          A minute later, the two rounded another corner of the wide gray cellblock hall, encountered five prisoners led by a huge, multi-tattooed, spider-like white prisoner with a long torso, giant arms, short legs.

          Billy recognized the former Army sergeant: he was in for murder and for stealing weapons from a National Guard armory in Madison, Wisconsin and selling the contraband to God's Purpose – a white supremacist force in Tillamook, Oregon.

          Muscles piled on muscles – his neck looked the same size as Jack's waist. Jaw square like Jack's but a huge under bite, like a maniacal bulldog. Blue eyes like Jack's, but beady and close-set. Blond hair like Jack's, but shaved – a bulldozer of a figure, as though the Creator had taken Jack's form and added lumps of flesh and bone, squeezed haphazardly, then pounded the figure into shortness.

          Guy was so ugly, a dirty look from him would send any but the bravest man scrambling to a telephone to make a 911 call for help. In the background, a fat, white-haired, flat-faced guard watched. Licked his thick lips with eager anticipation.

          "Hey, guys, we got a date with the Colonel," Jack addressed the group with a neutral voice. "You can only get sloppy seconds." He noticed horrid tattoos all over the muscle man's exposed skin. As the man's physique flexed, the devil faces grimaced, scowled, appeared to snap their wide-open mouths.

          "You ain't goin' nowhere, traitor!" the leader growled. His eyes glared with hate under drooping eyelids. "Been waitin' for you, Flush-hard. Fix you up right now. Don't need no warden. Resistance is fee-u-tile!"

          Jack Flashhardt saw that he was two inches taller, at six feet, then the monstrous man, whose wide body blocked the passage. "I'm innocent, pal. Can't we all just ...?"

          His Brule Sioux half-brother raised his fists, yelled, "Get outta the way, fucker, or we'll go through you." At six feet one, slightly taller than Jack and twenty pounds heavier, he showed no fear on his dark face.

          Two more white prisoners: one tall and skinny, the other average size. Both had shaved heads, wore orange prison garb; their grins revealed missing teeth. Last two were black men, who didn't normally hang with the whites – they wore pale blue doo rags on their heads.

          "Ax 'em if'n they wans' give up, take a beatin', bro," one of the blacks said.

          "Yeah, I's gonna mess up his pretty boy face," the second black guy exclaimed. "Maybe get some white meat, close ta the bone."

          First one added, "Ohh, those pretty blues, long eyelashes! Sweet! I wanna kiss that six pack belly."

          The white leader shook his head. "Na, this deserter scum's goin' way beyond a beatin' or a screwin'."

          "Come on, Mister Bobby," the other sunken-cheeked black whined. He stroked his face. "He's too pretty ta waste. Looka those carved cheeks – that handsome chinny-chin-chin. I wanna feel those cheekbones 'tween my legs. He looks like one a those Hollywood stars."

          Tattoo snarled, "I want this traitorous, arrogant filth dead."

          Starting to feel totally trapped, Jack said, "Guys, I'm no traitor. I'm an all-American sunshine boy. I sent in an absentee ballot last election. "I'll even vote whiney, guilt-ridden liberal. I'd volunteer for jury duty ... well, skip that last ...."

          First black guy exclaimed, "Oh, I like talk-back bitches! Yum-me."

          His heart pounding like a berserk jackhammer, Jack responded, "You guys think maybe sign up for anger management or sexual harassment classes?"

          No more taunts from either side as the aggressors advanced on the brothers. Suppressing fear, Jack glanced at Billy. The rape thing changed their long-debated escape plan, made during their trip to Leavenworth in chains, the year before. They hadn't counted on forced sex. They couldn't fake a whipping in order to get admitted to the hospital if it ended in rape. He stared at the complex tattoos of devil faces on the leader's arms and neck. The faces snarled; the five prisoners attacked. Three piled on Billy, he went down. One man flew off the pile, another screamed, rolled away.

          Jack punched Tattoo in the midsection – like hitting a concrete block – pain flared up his arm. Guy grabbed his wrist, flung him against a bulkhead like a skinny rag doll: stunned, he bounced off, back to Tattoo like a kid's ball on a stretchy rubber string. The man wrapped his hands around Jack's slender middle, squeezed. Garlicky rotten-meat breath was horrendous. A second man punched him in the back of the head, once, twice. Twisted away: guy missed, hit Tattoo.

          Jack swung: midsection, then an uppercut to jaw – no effect. Sunk teeth into a fiend's image on Tattoo's collarbone: felt it crack. Saw the letters – KGC – in the mouth of a demon illustrated on Tattoo's neck. Jack fought harder. Desperate, he stuck a thumb in the muscle man's left eye, gouged it out.

          Tattoo squealed, squeezed. Jack felt his ribs popping, smacked the dangling eye as he struggled to breathe.

          Agonizing howl, Tattoo fell to his knees, clutched his face.

          "Dude, see my point of view?" Jack taunted. Kicked Tattoo in the head as he would a resting soccer ball: head thunked, twisted away. Sharp pain in the foot.

          Second black attacked: Jack punched him twice, guy fell.

          Grabbed from behind, he head-butted backwards, heard a smashing crunch, screech of pain. Arms released, he swung around, kneed the howling guy, then took two steps, field goal-kicked the other man on top of Billy.

          Freed, Billy jumped up, yelled a taunting, "Get some!" punched his attacker twice, a third time. Grabbed him by the ears, lifted him, threw his head into the bulkhead. Man grunted, collapsed.

          Jack hit the last guy, knocked him senseless. "Piece of cake!" he shouted, then winced as pain shot through his ribcage.

          Billy Howling Dog screamed a war whoop. Jack recoiled from the noise, covered his eardrums, giggled an adrenalin-laced laugh.

          Four more white convicts rounded the corner, waded into them. Knife slashed at Jack: he threw up his left forearm, the knife sunk home.

          A biting, searing pain. Ignored it, desperately pushed against the wielder so he couldn't free the knife. Two crashed into each other, Jack got his free hand under the other's jaw, pushed his head back. Fingers slipped into the man's mouth; he got them out just as the man clamped down with his teeth. Grabbed the man's lower lip, dug his strong climber's fingers in, stripped it away from the guy's face, flesh ripped to the jawline, the bloody flap dangled, danced, sprayed blood. Prisoner howled, fell to the floor screeching.

          Knife had penetrated his arm, protruded on the other side, a halo of fiery pain expanded. Swung the wounded arm at a second man, the knifepoint slashed the guy's face: an ear-shattering, wailing cry!

          He felt intense pain, a sucking, freeing sensation when he pulled the knife out. Saw blood splatter the floor, realized it was his, felt a sickening sensation sweep through his body. He slashed a man who was on his knees, gripping Billy's leg.

          Man squalled, held on: Jack hacked again, got him in the shoulder blade; guy arched his back, the knife wrenched out of his hand.

          Billy rolled free, picked up the wounded convict, threw him into two advancing men, charged the pileup, punching wildly. Jack slugged the last leaning man in the jaw, guy careened off the floor, collapsed.

          Dizzy, Jack swung around, steadied himself against the bulkhead, saw the guard lift his baton. Jack looked around, no convicts standing. Forced himself to appear stunned, held still, pressing his bleeding wound to his side.

          Hit in the forehead, saw stars, consciousness faded to a dim reality. Fell to his hands and knees, landed on unconscious Tattoo, still cuddling his dangling eye. Waited again. Looked at the demon visages – they scowled, snapped at him. The images were terrifying. Thought, Wait a minute – he's out cold. How can he flex the tattoos? I must be hallucinating. The guard's kicks began lifting him off the floor. He struggled to his feet, leaned against the concrete bulkhead, snarled at the guard: fearful, the fat old man drew back. Jack reached in his pocket, felt the letter and the picture: safe. And the escape was on.

          Lying side by side on hospital ward gurneys, two prisoners, badly beaten, unconscious. A male medic hovered over each, wiping blood away from lacerations. Another medic finished switching IV bags on the officer and turned to the Indian. A female doctor – a lieutenant – hovered nearby.

          Marine Major Zack Broyer, short, trim, black, wearing a neatly pressed khaki uniform, looked at the two prisoners again, sniffed at foul odors in the room, tried to breath in shallow gasps.

          Broyer pointed at Jack. "How bad is Flashhardt?" He felt dismay: the naked man looked beaten to a pulp, his face swollen, smelled like antiseptic.

          The doctor, a slightly overweight brunette, with a bulging forehead, pale white skin and steady brown eyes, pointed at the twitching patient and said, "I'm going internal – take a quick look at his abdominal section, check for bleeding. Plus, he hasn't regained consciousness – MRI showed brain swelling. Doesn't look good. Broken wrist, a stab wound – closed that up – no big deal. Several cracked ribs."

          "Strange," Major Broyer said. "I always heard this guy's unbeatable."

          The brunette doctor brushed her bangs back. "Guard said there were nine attackers."

          "That's all? Guy's some kind of Oriental fight artist. An animal – he shoulda been able ta handle them. I wonder what happened?"

          The Assistant Warden entered the ward, responded with a wondering tone, "The nine were all down. Guard down and out, as well. Flashhardt and the Indian were still standing."

          The doctor pointed at Billy. "He's in better condition. But he shows signs of drug influence. A baggy in his pocket – Hillbilly Heroin. Oxycontin. Opiate-based."

          Broyer shrugged, didn't look at the second body. "I don't care about him. Can Flashhardt travel? I need ta get him ta Washington." "Not a chance," the doctor spoke with a firm voice. "I'm sending them to the hospital in town. These patients need a full-on trauma center."

          The major grasped the doctor's white sleeve. "Unless you hafta operate ta save his life, you stabilize him, I'll take him ta Bethesda Naval Hospital where I can monitor his recovery."

          The doctor's mouth dropped open, she closed it, looked grim. "He can't travel. It might take a month."

          "Release him ta me today. By noon. I'll have an air ambulance standing by at the airport."

          "What about the enlisted prisoner – the Indian?" the doctor pointed at Billy's unconscious form.

          "I don't need him," the major retorted.

          The Assistant Warden, leaning against the wall, stepped forward. "Take them both. Colonel doesn't want this to go on report. They came together, they leave together, if they die – they die together. Somewhere else."

          "Alright," the major turned away. "Just get them ready ta go ta Maryland, ASAP." The general's plan to re-enlist this mountain-climbing Marine maniac to go up against the bad guys in the frantic search for the LIIT bio-warhead, he thought. It's working ... slightly.

          "Why're you here? Looking for the LIIT?" Mara Bhutto, a Pakistani Communist, a Chinese Second Department field agent, and a former al Qaida officer, asked the sprawled-on-the-ground Russian prisoner if he was searching for the American biological bomb's warhead. She added, "What's your mission, Bruno?"

          Bruno Utecht looked up at his former friend, Mara. He shivered. Two of the massive Chinamen were easily holding him on the tent's cold rock floor. Their body odors were horrific – so bad he could almost taste their smells.

          Mara, known in the Southwest Asian clandestine world as the Black Orchid, was spectacularly beautiful. Even more so than when Bruno had met her in Islamabad the year before: a tall Eurasian woman with long shiny black hair, large green eyes that were startling against her amazing bronze skin. Broad shoulders, self-assured, but a hard look in her narrowed eyes as she stared down at him. He noticed the tight cammo outfit, sleeves rolled up, the knee-high black boots that proudly announced the femininity she had concealed the year before. He momentarily wondered why the Muslim terrorist trainees had accepted her; he briefly struggled against the two giants pinning him to the floor. "I can't say. It's Of Special Importance – meaning top secret."

          "Not an answer, Bruno," Mara replied.

          After the blond Russian failed to respond, she nodded to Mo Poo, a man almost eight feet tall, leader of the Afghan cavern's inhabitants. The giant ripped open and pulled down Bruno's ragged, dirty pants, exposed his slim hips, white skin over muscular legs. The Chinaman waited for Bruno to quit writhing, grabbed a testicle as if he was grabbing a goldfish in a tank, slashed it off with a long knife that also cut Bruno's thigh open.

          Bruno screamed until he ran out of breath, then sobs alternated with more screams until he yelled, "Yes! Yes, yes, anything!" He stared up at Mo Poo's hideous face, scarred by a tiger's attack. The smell of terror flushed from his body.

          Mo Poo held the red mass on his huge hand, squeezed until the bloody plum popped out of its jagged skin sheath, tossed it into his huge maw and chewed with gusto. Blood and fluid spurted out of the healed-open wounds on his huge jaw. He rumbled in his basso voice, "How is that, you stupid little Fan Gway? You tastes good, tiny foreign devil. Torture begins now."

          Bruno, half-starved, still managed to wretch green bile over his body, onto the floor. Mara felt her own stomach heave, nauseated at the horrific sight. Vomit rose to her throat, she quickly swallowed, tried to control her innards. She was as terrified of her Chinese comrade as was the captive writhing on the ground.

          "Al Qaeda! We came to destroy your al Qaeda training camp." Bruno gasped.

          "You fool!" Mara responded with a cutting tone. "We are not al Qaeda. That was the past. We —"

          Her satellite cell phone rang. She glanced at the screen – it was a blocked number, but a welcome diversion, whoever it was.

          "What'll Saladin's Fist first target be?" Rama Razi's voice asked from the cell when she turned it on.

          Mara hurried into the second room in the interrogation tent, tried to shed the image of the bloody pulp so easily carved away from Bruno's groin; pictured her financial partner in her mind: Rama Razi Muhammad – nicknamed Razzle Dazzle Rama in college because he was light on his feet despite being over four hundred pounds. Now, the handsome Arab – rich beyond imagination – exceeded seven hundred pounds, was permanently bedridden, was ministered and served by young women recruited from the Palestinian refugee camps that encircled Israel.

          Razzle Dazzle Rama: a rich, powerful Palestinian. With misappropriated American military aid funds, his family had started an opium cartel that stretched from Thailand, Singapore, and Laos, to Afghanistan and as far as Georgia, the former Soviet republic.

          Mara Bhutto spotted a speck of blood on her bronzed forearm, hurriedly scraped it away on the tent ceiling; she regarded a map of the United States taped to the tent wall over her desk. "I think the Pacific Northwest," she answered. "Easy to penetrate from Canada. A park in —"

          "A park?" How'll that make a huge impact? What about the biobomb —" Rama asked.

          "Stop!" Mara yelled into her cell. She quickly added, "I have linked to an American extremist group, named God's Purpose. They've promised weapons support. They've suggested that we wipe out the entire population of an American hamlet in Oregon. Followed up by a huge fire in a redwood park. Evidently, the redwood tree is an important symbol to Americans."

          Mara repeated, "An important symbol to America." A smile warmed her voice. "If we succeed, they offer bigger —" she broke off, looked on the battered map for a park in Montana, Jack Flashhardt's home. She saw Glacier National Park and Yellowstone Park. She wondered which was close to his home. Sensed a feeling of power over her enemy, Jack Flashhardt. To burn his family home and ranch – what a delicious retribution for his destruction of last year's attempted al Qaeda attack on San Francisco. Then, to explode the biological bomb in an American city.

          "Oh, great!" Razzle Dazzle Rama spoke into the silence created by Mara's distracted musings. "If we burn up a park, people are going to think we're eco-terrorists, tree-haters."

          "Don't worry, Rama," she smiled again. "By the time we're done, all will know who and what Saladin's Fist is about." She took a deep breath – the air was fresh now that she was away from the Chinese giants. "Or maybe the forests of California – they're having a drought. It all depends on the weather and forest conditions. The God's Purpose contact in America will advise me. We want to create hundred kilometer long fire holocausts."

          How did you find this American group?" Rama's voice was filled with suspicion.

          "Don't worry," Mara assured her massive friend. "KEGYA set up ... never mind right now." Mara could have bitten her tongue for mentioning the super secret American group.

          "What about the Russian spies?"

          Mara frowned. "Our Tajiks caught and killed the entire recon team, except for their leader, my old friend, Bruno Utecht. We're interrogating him here in Shangri —"

          "Don't say more!" Rama Razi exclaimed. "You've said too much! Who knows what filthy entities may be eavesdropping? I've heard of this Echelon, the slimy American entity that can monitor —"

          Mara listened to her partner with half an ear. The Russian's mutilation had un-nerved her, caused her to blab needlessly. She could hear Bruno, in the next room, talking as fast as possible.

          When Rama Razi had chattered out his worries, she said goodbye, hung up.

          Mara's eyes drifted to the photograph next to the map of the U. S. The tattered photo guided and motivated her life: the picture of the hung man on the gallows, was Mara's only record of her father's death.

          All her childhood, Mara's uncle and her mother had left the picture in Mara's bedroom. The image showed the how of her father's death. In college, Mara had the resources to investigate and understand the why: at American governmental instigation, the Pakistani government had tried, convicted, and hung her father, Zulfigar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and an avowed disciple of Mao Tse-tung. It had happened when she was three.

          Years later, with degrees from Quaid-e-Azam University and Cairo University, she had taken a three-month course of subversive warfare in The People's Republic of China. At the Hainan Island school, Mara had learned armed and unarmed combat, tactics, assassination techniques, skydiving, demolitions.

          Bruno stopped talking in the next room, moaned again. Mara returned. "Is your Russian FSB acting alone?" she asked with a glare. "How did you find out about this camp? How did you find out the bomb survived?"

          Bruno stared dully at Mara. She realized her former friend was going into shock. "Give him a break," she said. "Tie him up, put him in a cell in the cavern."

          Jack Flashhardt saw Death on the glacier for the third time that day. Tall, impossibly thin – looking as skinny as Jack had after his escape from the Taliban prison the year before – Death was dressed in a tight black snowsuit.

          The fiend snowboarded across the glacier's white expanse. In the second appearance he had paraglided to Jack's location from the deep blue, pre-dawn sky. Time before that he had just appeared, hovering in the starlit sky. Now, dawn's first rays turned the snow golden, the sky a lighter blue, but the black spirit absorbed all light, reflected nothing.

          Death skidded his snowboard to a stop, splashed cool, moist snow on Jack's face, sat down, flashed a ghastly, gray-faced grin that highlighted blood red teeth. "I've been waiting for you. I'm glad the convict beating got you out of Leavenworth. Now you can climb Chomolungma – Mount Everest. I'll be waiting on top – it'll be grand! You've always wanted that peak. Now you get —"

          Jack turned away, woke up. He was in a hospital room. IV going into his arm, oxygen tube under his nose. No pain – a dreamy, drugged feel to his body. A beautiful blonde vision dampening his face with a cold cloth. Fell asleep.

          Woke: saw two men – they resolved into twin Marine General Harmbrusters sitting in chairs next to the bed. Wearing a khaki uniform, the two stars on his collars glinting.

          Tried to speak. Throat was dry, croaked, "General, didn't know you had a twin."

          "No, Jack, my boy, just me. You're back among the living. Prognosis excellent." The shaved-head general flashed a wide, Eisenhower grin from his tanned, handsome Prussian-looking face. Jack peered closer and noticed heavier wrinkles on the general's face then he had seen the year before.

          "You gave us a scare – had some apparently serious injuries from your incident two days ago, but the doc says you've managed an amazing recovery. You'll be up and about in a few days. Doesn't seem possible, but there it is." The general glanced at Jack's new musculature. "Maybe because you've grown a bunch since last year."

          Thought of beautiful Penel's words, spoken in the Hindu Kush Mountains the year before as she scooped mineral water from the tarn spring with her hands and poured it into his mouth: "Drink and be restored. These waters have wondrous healing powers. For now and forever." Maybe she had something going with the water thing. I do feel better than I should.

          "Incident?" Jack sat up, winced. "General, I had the crap beaten out of me by some maniacs at Leavenworth. Where am I? Where's Billy?"

          "Bethesda Naval Hospital. Your brother's fine. I wanted you close by so we can take good care of you." The senior officer poured water in a glass, regarded Jack with intense, wideset blue eyes as he sipped.

          "I appreciate your concern, General," Jack said. He fingered the bandage over his stab wound. The injury had made the fingertips on his left hand numb. Where the hell was your concern when I got court-martialed last year? All in your cause. And I'm not a captain anymore – I'm a convict!

          "You deserve it, lad. You've paid a heavy price for your patriotism."

          "Why, General?" Jack unconsciously pulled the bandage off his stab wound, tried to rein in his anger.

          "Look, Jack. You know I was unavailable – deep-cover in Syria, Agent Holland was also in Syria, Captain Nakamura was in flight school," the general said. "We didn't know about General Farley's sneaky initiation of your Article 32 and subsequent general court-martial 'til it was too late. And you know the records of your Hindu Kush LIIT bomb recovery operation are sealed, couldn't be used at the court-martial."

          Suddenly feeling dizzy, Jack swallowed, then summoned failing energy and asked, "So, what's the deal, General? Why'd you send your aide to Leavenworth? I figure I got a right to know, since it almost killed ...."

          General Harmbruster smiled, put down his glass. He eagerly stood, walked around the room. "That you do, Jack. The fact is, we need you once again. No one else has a combination of your climbing and intelligence expertise, your leadership skills, your mountain combat experience." The general leaned forward, smiled. "I can't point to one man in the military that can climb into those high mountains and carry out intelligence gathering and or combat like you can." The general paused and surveyed Jack's battered face. "I must say, you don't look bad considering how many prisoners attacked you and your brother. I checked your records – you don't have any special hand to hand training. Looks like another one of your grand efforts."

          "I grew up on a ranch in Montana, General. My grandfather and my father were both Marines. And I was a wrestler in high school." How many solitary hours shooting arrows, stalking prairie dogs, throwing knives and hatchets during long Montana days, alone as the only child on the ranch? With only Indian cowhands who pumped him full of the Indian Way.

          "Well, you garnered an excellent background, Jack. Now I want you to put all your skills to work for America, once more."

          "To do what, General?" Look for another lost Air Force biobomb in some godforsaken canyon or high pass in Afghanistan? Stop crazy Muslim terrorists, end up in Leavenworth again? So you can pick up that third star? Forget it, pal.

          "One of National Counter-terrorism Center's Echelon Spy Sats assigned to Eagle's Aerie intercepted electronic communications originating in Baluchistan. In southern Iran. Words popped up after a massive search and comparison of computer files: Bruno Utecht, Saladin's Fist, Shangri-La. The computers found two of the terms in a action-rep you gave me in Islamabad last year, when you returned from Afghanistan. Remember? Just before the stabbing attack from – what was her name?"

          Jack suppressed a shudder. "Mara Bhutto – the Black Orchid. Pakistani, also a Chinese assassin-type secret agent. Tried to shish-ka-bob me. Did: sixty-some stitches. Stayed away from foreign babes ever since."

          The general chuckled. Jack thought, Guy loves the mention of blood – even when his own men are bleeding.

          "Anyway," the general continued, "this Saladin's Fist is – we think – a terrorist cell that's plannin' on hittin' American domestic targets." The general looked at Jack. "And that name, Bruno Utecht – I remember meeting him at your welcome home party in Islamabad last year. Young Russian officer with a German name and an attitude."

          "That'd be my pal, Bruno. He's Russian FSB – the spy guys. Tried to grab the Long Island Iced Tea bug bomb for Russia. Coincidently, he's pals with Mara Bhutto."

          Jack thought of the handsome Russia, continued, "His grandfather was a German V-2 rocket scientist. Captured by the Soviet Army. Grandpa served as an American spy in Star City. Adopted a Lebersborn baby during the war, born of a Norwegian woman."

          "Lebersborn? Sorta rings a bell," the general leaned forward, stared incredulously at the stab wound on Jack's forearm. It was almost fully healed.

          Jack self-consciously put his arm under a blanket. "Hitler's program to create the Master Race. Lebersborn kid was Bruno's dad, and was raised in Russia after the war by the scientist stepfather. Bruno, the grandson, is a loyal Russian, despite his German heritage." Jack rubbed his wound, added, "He's rich, as well. The U.S. paid beaucoup spy bucks into a Swiss account for the grandfather, who ended up in a Gulag when he was caught spying for our side, never touched the money."

          "Rich?" the general exclaimed.

          "Yeah, but Bruno's dad was a committed Communist, never touched it either. So it just sat there. Bruno says he's not spent any of the dough. He's a committed patriot, busy protecting Russia."

          "Well, Captain, to more recent events," the general said. "Last month, I tried to send a rifle company in a squadron of V-22 troop carriers. Into their training camp in KGCV 409, the valley on the Chinese border – you called it Shangri-La. But it was impossible to land. The pilots reported the winds were too intense. They went back a second time – same problem." No, General, Jack mused, that's a minor problem. I was convicted for desertion and treason – that's the real problem. So why don't you take a long hike with a short-fused bomb up your hinder?

          A nurse walked in: blonde, piles of curls, peaches and cream complexion – a wonderful smile over big breasts. A whiff of apples and roses perfume. "Time for your pain medication, Captain." She looked at the visitor, was un-intimidated by his rank. "Five minutes, General, then I'm givin' this hunk a bath."

          Dizzy, Jack looked again, saw two nurses. "Hey, girls, wanna go out for a drink after work?"

          The long-legged, slender blonde giggled. "It's just me, honey. Usually I'm enough. Nurse Reynolds – Commander to you. Hold that 'drinks thought' until you're better. You're goin' nowhere for now, honey." She giggled again, left the room, saying, "And remember, I outrank you. When we go for that drink, you'll have to follow my orders to a T."

          The general, not used to levity from underlings, stared, shocked.

          Jack laughed, responded to the general's comment about the inaccessibility of the valley. "High winds, narrow openings in the cliffs, General." He looked, saw two pills in two hands and two glasses of water, wondered whether he was overdosing or seeing double again. He palmed the pills, drank the closer water. "Never get a six pack of cruise missiles in there, either." Pictured the huge, snow-covered Hindu Kush peaks looming over the remote valley the natives called Shangri-La. I wonder why it's called 409? he mused.

          "Right," the general agreed. "So we sent mountaineering recon teams from the 10th – they tried to go over the mountains twice, but our climbers couldn't hack it. They turned back. Bad weather, avalanches, crevasse fields, altitude sickness. Your Shangri-La doesn't sound like paradise to me."

          Jack suppressed a yawn. "What's it all got to do with me, General? I'm just a poor, innocent, all-American boy serving twenty years in Leavenworth because I worked for you." Guy's crazy if he thinks I'm going back to the Hindu Kush for him. "General, you offered me a chance to go back to law school last year, remember? You said I could become a JAG – a Judge Advocate General officer – for the rest of my Reserve tour. I put that aside to help you out. By finding the LIIT biobomb."

          The general sat back, smiled. "That was commendable, Captain. Outstanding, really. You and your team did a great job. That bomb, delivered to America, could've killed millions." His eyes narrowed into a calculating look. "Of course, you failed to destroy the bomb'"

          "And where'd my volunteerin' get me, General? I shoulda listened to my dad: like, never volunteer."

          The general frowned, shook his head. "Bullshit! Your father was a wonderful Marine. Deadly, cool – absolutely fearless. You're just like him. But you used some unfortunate tactics in Pakistan. Nemo est supra leges – no one is above the law."

          "Got you there, General. Silent leges inter arma – during war, the laws are silent. I did what I had to do."

          "Exactly! You got it done each time, without whining or asking mom for permission." The general stood, walked around the room in a restless manner, turned back to Jack. "You're right – you did what you had to do. That's why I want you to take a recon team over the heights, into 409 – find out what's going on. I'm confident that you'll succeed where others have failed."

          "So you can get my convictions dismissed after this? And Billy's?"

          "No guarantees, but I'll put forth max effort in your cause. I promise, I'll deliver after your mission." The general sounded sincere.

          Yeah, right! Too sincere, Jack thought. "Everything I did last year was to solve your problems, General. Look where it got me."

          The general shook his head, looked sad. "I know, Jack. But you stole that Pakistani Caribou aircraft, paid for those Pakistani stolen weapons with illegal drug money. Nobody asked you to do that. And then your brother busted General Farley's jaw in the courtroom. That was ill-advised – to say the least."

          "Billy did that when General Farley lied on the witness stand." Jack smiled at the memory of Billy going through the MPs, vaulting into the witness stand, laying out the general. "We needed everything we took to complete your mission, General. And when I couldn't get weapons from our military, a British SAS man gave me the drug money. To buy black market weapons. To use against the Taliban. We didn't have time to put in requisition forms – you know all that."

          Harmbruster leaned forward. "And a great job, you did. But that's the past, son. Now, I need you to climb into that valley, KGCV 409, and let me know what's going on."

          "What about my brother, Billy? I'd need him."

          "I'm afraid the Indian has to go back to Leavenworth. Serve out his sentence. General Farley insisted on that – he's still pissed about his jaw."

          Jack tried to restrain a smile as an image of the pompous little general with a big white bandage holding his jaw in place, popped into his mind. "You don't understand, General. Billy Howling Dog serves under a blood oath from his maternal grandfather, Talking Dog. He has to protect me." He yawned, felt serious drowsiness sweep over his body.

          "We'll talk about it as soon as you're up, Jack. Rest now."

          "I'll be happy, General, to —" he fell asleep in the middle of the sentence. He had intended to ask if KGCV 409 had anything to do with the Knights of the Golden Circle, also known as the American branch of the Knight Templars.

          He fell into an instant dream: his drill instructor at OCS, Bulldog Mahoney, was screaming a date, "409? That's April 9, 1865, you shit-for-brains! Lee surrendered to Grant on that day," he yelled.

          Jack instantly woke, heard the general say to himself as he rose and left the room. "Son, I'm glad to see your positive attitude. You'll do fine – just what we need. Duty, loyalty – that's the ticket. Semper Fidelis, Captain Flashhardt."

by Wayne T. Haaland
... who is a retired Marine officer, instructor of English and Asian Religious History, a mountain climber, and freelance writer. Dragon God's Blowback is the sequel to Dragon God of the Hindu Kush in the trilogy. It will be published in Fall 2005 by Cammo Books.

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