Authors: Jack Quinn
For Teague. Again and forever .
Copyright © Jack Quinn, 2011
All rights reserved
Cover design by Tom Chandler at
Camp Champion, Kuwait
The half dozen officers and non-coms stood in the harsh light of elevated klieg lamps observing the orderly line of Bravo Company troopers clad in desert camouflage utilities, jogging in place with slung weapons. Each of the soldiers carried forty pounds of gear in backpack and parachute strapped to their chests. Khaki scarves or bandannas tied across the lower half of their faces provided scant protection against the gritty particles of sand swirling around them in the chill night air by the dervish-like sirocco.
“Airborne! Airborne! All the way!” Their muffled shouts melded with the cacophony of the final loading of heavy equipment, pallets of ammunition, Humvees and helicopters onto C-130 Hercules transports on the cargo tarmac beyond. Standing in the forefront of the observing officer group, his helmet jutting several inches above those of his subordinates, Third Battalion Commander Colonel Clyde G. Callaghan of the 367
Airborne Infantry Division spoke to the man at his elbow without gesture or turn of his head. “That trooper near the end of the line is favoring his left leg.”
Major Charles Geoff ordered a sergeant to retrieve the soldier in question, and the NCO ran out to the boarding line. He returned at a slower pace to accommodate the limp of the person dressed in non-regulation jump suit, helmet, rucksack and parachute.
The sergeant came to a halt before the Colonel, snapping off a salute before addressing the senior officer. “Not a trooper, sir.” He turned to introduce the person beside him. “NNC-TV correspondent Andrea Madigan.”
“Good morning, Colonel.”
Callaghan cocked his head at the black and red circular patch above her left breast. “Skydiving Club, Orange, Massachusetts,” he read, raising his eyes to the woman’s face under the dented WW II helmet only a few inches below his own. “This is no free fall contest, Miz Madigan. What’s the matter with your leg?”
“I’ve made seventeen jumps, Colonel, three of them training with the 101
at Fort Campbell,” Andrea answered. “I’m qualified for combat exits and authorized to accompany frontline troops by your own General Paulson.”
“What’s the matter with your leg?” he repeated.
“Just a Charley horse. It’ll work out before we’re off the ground.”
“It had better work out before you board that plane, or you’re not getting on it.”
“Colonel, I’ve worked my tush off for the past month getting certified for a drop like this. You can’t pull the plug on me now!”
“If you look like you need help once you hit the ground, a couple of troopers would come to
assist, ignore their duties, put all of you, maybe the entire squad in danger. The plug is pulled, Miz Madigan.”
“Let the Doc give you a once-over,” Major Geoff said. “Maybe you can catch up with the ground troops scheduled to follow.”
The staff sergeant linked his left arm firmly with her right, leading Andrea away from the roaring engines of the aircraft she had hoped to board, behind the officer group, toward a string of tents on the perimeter of the landing strip.
“Yeah,” Andrea threw over her shoulder, “in a couple of weeks, after you guys find the son-of-a-bitch!”
Before they reached the flap of the lighted tent with its barely discernible red cross burnished by the abrasive sand and sun, the engines of the first huge transport revved up to taxi speed behind them. Andrea pulled her arm free of the sergeant’s grasp. “No sense bothering the Doc now,” she told him, walking away. “I just missed my flight.”
Steve Sarno emitted a squeal of pain, sitting bolt upright in his bunk when a feline arm reached under his mosquito netting to dig insistent fingers into his shoulder, as the narrow beam of a pencil flashlight probed his eyes.
“What the hell...!”
“Shhhh,” Andrea whispered. “You’ll wake our illustrious peers. Get dressed to go. Bring your stuff. I’ll wait outside.”
Steve had been Andrea’s cameraman since they had been teamed up together by NNC’s news director T.P. Viola on the morning of 9/11 when both had been on separate assignments in New York City. Steve was a short, pudgy mid-twenties video whiz with no idea in what direction or at whom to point his lens. Under Andrea’s domineering guidance that horrible day, Steve shot some of the most relevant, heart-breaking footage of any news organization in the country, albeit through a stream of tears, fogged glasses and protest met by threats and verbal abuse from the dispassionate senior reporter.
Andrea was sitting in the passenger seat of a battered Jeep enclosed by a worn canvas top with scratched plastic windows when the cameraman emerged from the darkened tent of his fellow newsmen, which some of them rarely left except for meals and to collect copies of the printed briefings issued by Lt. Brooks, the battalion press officer. Steve placed his roll bag and camera case in the back seat before sliding in behind the wheel.
“Want me to drive?”
“Getting kind of uppity for an indentured slave,” Andrea shot back.
“It’s four o’clock in the morning, Andy!”
“Drive, Steverino, we need to be in Kuwait City by sunup.”
In response to her cameraman’s reasonable queries, Andrea related her encounter with Colonel Callaghan ‘over a damned Charley horse’, and his refusal to let her jump with the troops who would begin scouring the Northern Syrian Desert to intercept the anticipated flight from the royal palace in Baghdad of soon-to-be-deposed President Saddam Hussein.
“He’s probably right,” Steve told her. “Diving out of airplanes at 20,000 feet ain’t exactly stepping off the curb.”
“I’m a big girl.” She pulled a cigarette out of her fatigue jacket. “I do not need my hand held.”
“Might be a nice feeling for a change.”
She turned to glare at him. “I don’t remember giving you permission to comment on my personal life.”
“Or lack thereof.”
She punched him hard on the bicep. “Mind your own damned business! At least until your mother allows you to date.”
Steve shifted gears after clearing the military police guarding the base entrance, changing the subject as he did. “This the same Charley horse you been nursing for the past couple of months, refusing to let the Doc check it out?”
“Lack of potassium, the pharmacist says. I need to stretch more.”
He knew from experience that arguing with Andrea was futile. “So why are we going to Kuwait City?”
“Charter a plane, fly out to find a couple of Callaghan’s patrols.”
“Geeze, Andy! Mom says you’re gonna get me killed someday, and I’m starting to think it’s on the calendar.”
“Relax, pal, we’re in friendly territory all the way to the city. We rent a plane and pilot from the contract mercenary outfit the marines use for backup; hire a local guide when we get to the area were Callaghan will probably have ten, fifteen patrols scouring the desert around Saddam’s hometown. We’re sure to catch up with one of them pretty quick.”
Andrea slumped back in the lumpy passenger seat and closed her eyes. The leg was getting worse. She’d have to get a checkup when they returned to the States. Callaghan was a hunk. She wouldn’t mind letting him hold more than her hand. Ridiculous! They were on different teams in this war. He would struggle to win it with Geneva Convention tactics against religious fanatics who sent suicide missions against unsuspecting civilians. She would try to bring the mistakes and atrocities on both sides to the American public. Anyway, he probably despised her.
Rand Duncan stood in the glass VIP booth above the newsroom with T.P. Viola, watching the client monitor. Below them, Frank Morrissey sat alone at the anchor desk leafing through pages of script as the station’s senior cosmetician applied mascara to his graying eyebrows.
“She’s a goddamn anachronism,” Duncan said, frowning at the television screen on which Andrea Madigan was stubbing her cigarette out against a tire of the local station tech truck 500 miles away. A peculiarly handsome woman, the tall, angular, brunette combed her fingers through the gray streak running through her thick hair from her left temple to shoulder as she studied several sheets of copy through horn rim glasses perched on her prominent nose.
A makeup girl leaned into the frame to apply the lipstick Andrea rarely wore off camera.
Andy brushed her aside, picked up the cane propped against the truck fender and limped several paces to her mark. Steve Sarno followed, sighting though the viewer of the video camera on his shoulder.
“Anachronism or not,” T.P. said, “she scooped the industry with this and worked her ass off getting the story to where we can air it. She deserves to break it.”
“That’s not the only thing she’s done with her ass over the past twenty-odd years.”
“Give it a rest, Rand. She’s the best we’ve got and you know it. What do you want to do, put a sack over her head to hide the wrinkles?”
“A gimp bag lady is not the image I want to project as NNC’s idea of a world-crisis news correspondent.”
Polished, thirtyish Rand Duncan adjusted the hem of his pin-striped suit coat and turned from the TV monitor to face the harried news chief twenty-five years his senior. “I want her gone from here, T.P. A pretty face and a full blouse sell news today, not a female reincarnation of Edward R. Murrow.”
“You may get your wish, Rand. If this thing bombs she’ll be dog meat in this wonderful business in spite of her track record. If it flies, she’ll beat you up for more money, you’ll refuse and she’ll quit.”
In the studio below them, three camera operators made final adjustments to their focus. The audio technician called for silence to check sound levels amid the last-minute hustle before the live broadcast, as production assistants stepped over the snake pit of thick, black cables slithering across the floor in apparent random. Track spotlights on the ceiling burst to full bright on Morrissey as the producer spoke into his mike. “Ten seconds.” Nonessential personnel left the studio; the ambient
noise dropped to zero, and the first-string news crew took their places. Rand Duncan glowered at
the picture of Andrea Madigan as he lowered his ample bottom into the lounge chair in front of the monitor. T.P. Viola sat beside him pushing the rolled sleeve of his Tattersall shirt farther up on his forearm.
The eyes of the floor crew were riveted on the director who stood between camera two and three wearing earphones with attached thin boom mike, her hand raised in the air, listening to the countdown from the glass-enclosed production booth high on the wall at the rear of the studio. Her gaze was glued to her monitor depicting the station sounder and voiceover lead-in to the highly promoted nine PM newscast that could propel the world into another Mid-East crisis. At the producer’s count of ‘one,’ the director slashed her outstretched arm down sharply, her index finger pointing at Frank Morrissey.