“Zwei Biere, bitte.”
This statement nearly exhausted Lieutenant Commander Perry Hankinson’s knowledge of the German language, and, in the ordinary course of events, he wouldn’t need much else for the duration of their stay. For this evening, however, he’d sought out the sort of establishment unlikely to be frequented by English speakers, or base personnel, or any foreign tourists. It had meant taking a taxi to Kaiserslautern, the next town over, but the driver seemed to understand more or less intuitively where he wanted to go. Emily had offered “Bierstübe,” or something to that effect – as if she spoke any better German than he did – and here they were, a dimly lit pub with no big-screen TVs, no ‘high-and-tight’ haircuts, and no uniforms in sight.
“This is a relief.” Emily Kane, Captain USMC, glanced around a room full of civilians from their table in a far corner. Of course, she’d be indifferent to the question of whether they were locals, but she might like the feeling of anonymity. No one here would know them. Perry listened to the long, slow breath she let out. He used to think she was sighing, or exasperated, when she did that, but he’d gotten used to her ways over the years. No, the breathing wasn’t the sign of a mood, bad or good. It was something more… existential.
“After this morning… no kidding. Was it a melée before you got there, or…”
“Or what?” She turned her dark eyes upon him, and he began to regret having let his words run. “Do you really think I go looking for these things?”
“No, of course not. But…”
Street noise from the front door distracted him for a moment, and a tall woman with long black hair entered, followed by a man in a leather jacket. His eye followed them to the bar, before he turned back to Emily.
“But nothing,” she said. “You’d have done the same thing if some guys in tactical gear started beating on civilians in front of your face.”
Perry shook his head. “Probably not as efficiently as you did.”
“… and who the hell were those guys anyway.”
“Contractors, I expect… or maybe a German force protection unit on loan. Since the flight line got so much busier, what with all the activity in the Persian Gulf, the 86th doesn’t have enough manpower to watch the gates, when it gets… crowded.”
The waitress laid a menu on the table after a few more minutes, and Perry flipped through it with something more than casual interest. Emily glared at the bartender.
“Does it normally take ... God knows how long to draw a beer in this town.”
“Shhhh, they’ll hear you. Besides, it’s supposed to take a while. Just watch the next time the bartender gets an order. They have to let the foam settle with each pull to fill the glass.”
“Since when are you an expert on beer?”
“I’m a soldier. Beer is one of our preoccupations.”
Finally, he’d hit on a vein of conversation that drew out his girlfriend’s better humor, and he wanted to bask in the glow of her eyes, and the cheery tilt a smile gave her cheek and brow.
“Sauerbraten, bitte,” he said, when the waitress returned with two glasses. Emily added Bratwurst mit Spätzle to the order, and laced her fingers in between his.
“Are you serious about… you know, next spring…” Perry felt his voice quake before he could finish the question.
“Not signing a new contract, is that what you mean?”
“Yeah. I mean, don’t you owe them a second SEA tour, after this last…”
“My career jacket is totally shredded. I’ve got no coherent MOS anymore. General Lukasziewicz offered to put me back in an Osprey in the 31st MEU, but…”
“I thought you liked Sasebo, and wouldn’t that put you back on the Bonhomme Richard? Don’t you want that?”
“I do, don’t get me wrong. But Durant’s going to stick around in Quantico, what with how long his injuries are taking to heal, and…”
“What’s the old man got to do with anything?” The waitress returned with two plates, and Perry paused to unfold his napkin. “You can’t base a decision like this on him.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Emily gestured with a fork dangling a couple of skewered Spätzle noodles. “What am I supposed to do in Sasebo… or on Okinawa? Racket’s moved on, and Kano and Tsukino have left the Japanese Defense Force. Are you gonna hang out in Sailor Town with me?”
“There’s always Ishikawa. He’s not going anywhere, and I’m pretty sure he’d take you to Sake Town any time.”
Emily smiled at the thought of whiling away the occasional hour with ‘Dice,’ as Ishikawa liked to be called, in a Sake town bar, where no American sailors would be welcome… except her. “Yeah, he would, especially if there was a karaoke machine.”
The couple at the bar seemed to be arguing, but Perry tried not to notice. He chewed on a chunk of the roast meat and forked a potato dumpling as he considered her situation. “Aren’t they about to make you an O-4?”
“That’s at least eighteen months away, and what do I want with more command responsibility? Can you really see me running a battalion, or… whatever…” Emily’s eye’s flashed darkly as she reflected on this prospect.
“You can’t keep blaming yourself for Tarot’s death.”
“It’s not that, don’t worry. It’s just that I’ve come to an understanding with myself. I’m an operator, you know… “
“That you are. I’d almost call you a ‘trigger puller’ without the trigger.”
Emily frowned at him. “All I know is what I’m good at, flying helos and Ospreys, and fighting when I have to. But command responsibility…”
“Keep talking like that and they’ll make you a SEAL.”
“Yeah, right… that’s what you see me doing?”
“I can picture you doing pretty much anything, sweetheart. But with your language skills… and combat experience, I assumed Admiral Crichton would put you on his staff. Plus, he has a soft spot…”
“… for my father, I know. All I wanted was a straightforward career path, not this crazy quilt where every promotion requires the special intervention of someone five or six steps higher. Besides, Lukasziewicz is retiring at the end of the year, and he’s been dropping hints about a place with a consulting firm he means to start.”
“Right, like the one thing I can’t picture you as is a merc.”
“Like you said, it’s my language skills they’d want, not my killing skills.” Emily almost choked on a piece of bratwurst as she said this last bit.
“You realize I’ve still got eighteen months to go on this tour, and then the next tour commanding my own SDV team, right?”
“I’m not asking you to retire, honey.” Emily pressed a hand against his cheek. “… and it’s not like we’ve ever managed to get any geographic consideration so far. This way, we might even get to spend more time together.”
Perry shook his head and began to pay more attention to his plate, until she went in search of the restroom, which he warned her might be called a ‘WC’ here. The waitress pointed her to the far end of the bar, where a corridor with a mirrored wall led to the back. He watched Emily pause to consider her reflection, and press a hand against her abdomen – strange behavior for a tomboy or, more precisely, the ‘god of battles’ he knew her to be.
His thoughts turned to the events of the previous day. She’d emailed instructions for a complex kata, which she called a two-man fist set. “Learn the right half before you get here,” the message said, and he’d taken it for nothing short of a command. Yesterday evening, in the hotel at Ramstein Air Force Base, they pushed the bed into a corner, and even though it was a large room, he had little confidence they could practice without smashing half the furniture.
“Faster,” she’d growled, when he held his fist by her ear, and his interest in the exercise had begun to flag. “What kind of strike was that? Attack like you mean it.”
“What good is a scripted set of moves? It’s not even realistic.”
“Of course it isn’t. What would be the point of that?”
“… maybe practicing moves that actually work in a real fight.”
Emily had paused to consider his face, his posture, the set of his shoulders, his hips, and he’d felt a little foolish for challenging her on this. A recurrent question presented itself – What on Earth could she see in me? – until she stepped to one side and thrust a hand low, toward his crotch, and the other high, just grazing his cheek. He swung a block down and ducked under her head strike, but before he could counter, she’d already stepped further around his hip, kicked his left foot out from under him, and grabbed his shirt collar.
He remembered trying to right himself, to regain his footing, by leaning forward, and only then recognizing how he’d played into her trap. She’d already grabbed the back of his trousers and twisted him into a sort of flying somersault, which she guided by seizing his wrist – Is she really strong enough to lift me off the ground? He ended up lying half on and half off the bed, his head a few inches from the floor, as he gazed at her upside down. A quick step and a leap – How did that not break the bed? – and she’d landed on top of him, legs straddling his waist. A few awkward grunts and wriggles later, and he managed to adjust his position underneath her.
“I get your point. You think two moves ahead.”
She peered down into his eyes, with that ambiguous smile that can turn so quickly into a frown playing on her lips, and tilted her head to one side. “I don’t think you do.”
“Fine. What is it, then?”
“You’re always complaining that I can tell what you’re going to do before you do. But it’s not because I’m thinking two moves ahead, or even one move ahead. It’s not like that.”
“Is this where you tell me I don’t know how to breathe right?”
“Well… yeah, that’s also true… and you need to work on that. I just thought the paired kata might let you experience what it feels like to know beforehand what someone else is going to do.”
“Oh,” he said, now a little flustered by the simplicity of her thinking. “That makes sense.”
She’d begun kissing him before he could say anything else. Maybe she even meant to stop him talking, which was probably also a good idea. But a noise pulled her away, and before he knew quite what had happened, she’d leapt off the bed, and somehow yanked him face down onto the floor. Just then, the door to the adjoining room swung open and Li Li poked her head in, with Stone looming over her shoulder.
“What’s with all the noise, guys?” Li Li pushed all the way in, and glanced around at the new arrangement of the furniture. “Are you training?”
“We’re not doing anything.”
At that moment, Emily reminded Perry of his own mother, as she mounted this sadly transparent deception, even though these weren’t really her kids. The precise nature of their relationship had never quite been made clear to him. He knew the story, more or less: a rescue, North Korean operatives, some sort of prison facility hidden on the Kamchatka Krai. But the few details he’d gleaned seemed implausible, or were shrouded in an excess of caution, though he could guess that it probably involved a fight to the death. He didn’t want to press her for a clarification.
“Then what was that crash we just heard?”
“Oh, that was nothing…” Perry said, once he’d picked himself up off the floor. “… just me bouncing off the wall.”
Somehow, Emily managed to turn the kids back through the door with what he could only describe as maternal authority. Stone, the immense man-child, was surprisingly docile and obeyed her implicitly. By contrast, Li Li offered the resistance one might expect from a freshly minted teenager. But even she had to comply soon enough.
The couple at the bar leaned their heads together, as if they were whispering, and Perry thought the woman glanced anxiously over one shoulder at him. She seemed somehow familiar, the shape of her nose, and an elegant line along her forearm and wrist. Perhaps her body didn’t quite suit her clothes – not that they fit badly, but she seemed incongruous in them. SEALs are trained to be observant, but after two tours in Afghanistan perhaps he’d lost his sense of how women dress in the west. She’d make more sense in that outfit if she had blond hair. A moment later, she stood up, apparently in a huff, and stepped past the mirrored wall toward the WC, and the man stole a glance at him over one shoulder.
Perry’s imagination was working over time, fabricating something suspicious out of random details. The crowd in the Bierstübe had thinned out, and the light dimmed behind the door to the kitchen, with its porthole window. He glanced at the clock over the bar, which showed 10:30, and wondered if the kids had gone to sleep yet. The base hotel had free cable, so they might still be squabbling over the remote control.
That morning, Emily had risen before him and was out the door in running gear before he had fully wakened. Whenever he asked her about it – why she got up so early, even on leave – she’d say something opaque, or absurd, like that she didn’t want ‘Granny’ to get the drop on her. He stumbled into shoes and shorts, but she was nowhere in sight by the time he made the lobby. He’d catch her up, eventually, since speed wasn’t the virtue of her running, but if it didn’t happen until near the end she’d still give him ‘that look.’
Even if he didn’t know the route she’d take from the previous day, it wouldn’t be hard to guess. Out the east gate and toward the undeveloped woods that shade that end of the base. She could go a few miles in that wilderness without encountering any sign of civilization, other than the occasional fire-break the local Feuerwehr had cut through the trees. She’d turn north to skirt the golf course, and then west-southwest along some fields that shaped the edge of the forest. If it had been his choice, he’d run along the golf course and enjoy the manicured lawns, but she preferred something more ‘natural.’
Once she reached the L356, she’d dip into an old growth forest on the south side of the four-lane road and run where there are no paths. It was a familiar drill – run so as to leave no trail. Somewhere along here, he expected to catch sight of her, looping widely to avoid having to see the base housing on the streets named after states: Alabama Boulevard, Oregon Street, etc.
No sign of her yet. “She must be really moving,” he muttered. “What is she playing at?”
On the far side of the wire, they’d have to cross the Mohrbach at a shallow point opposite Ramstein High School, try not to get wet feet, and circle around a scalene triangle formed by the outer fence to approach the main gate. As he passed the city pool complex, the protestors came into view, which meant the rally had to be sizable to be visible through the trees this early. He hadn’t paid much attention to the security briefing when he arrived. Soon after the press revealed that the drone strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere were controlled through an uplink at Ramstein, crowds descended on the base to voice their displeasure. So far, they’d been peaceful: to Perry’s eye, a bunch of hippies in tie-dye clothes who mainly wanted to disrupt traffic. Not just young men, either, since they can be a combustible element at such events, but women and children were often well-represented, too.
That must be why she looked familiar, the woman at the bar.
In the crowd, at the center of the trouble this morning, a young woman with strawberry blond pigtails had pushed a baby stroller right up to the Force Protection unit outside the main gate. A black uniform and tactical gear made them readily identifiable, Spezialkräfte, on loan from the German Bundeswehr, and it looked like an excessive response to this threat. Because of the outline of the base fences, Perry had to run away from the gate sixty or eighty meters before he could clear the point and turn back. But this gave him a clear view of what happened next.
The crowd chanted something he couldn’t understand, though he assumed it was a general complaint about drone warfare, and a few signboards mentioned Dronen in red letters. It was loud, but hardly threatening, and yet the men in black reacted aggressively, shoving people back from the gate. The woman with the strawberry pigtails had pushed her stroller to the front, and just as it looked like she might get crushed in the conflict, a rifle butt raised above her head, Emily appeared on the scene.
Perry recognized the moves, even if the Spezialkräfte did not, and to tell the truth, he thought, these guys ought to be ashamed for making themselves vulnerable in the first place, and so unnecessarily. The rifle seemed frozen in the air, and when the Kommando turned to see what the problem was, Emily released the barrel and jabbed him just below the armpit, and once more with two fingers to the soft spot under the chin. One arm fell to the side, limp, and he dropped the rifle, and slumped to his knees, clutching at his throat with the other hand. Two more men rushed to neutralize her – finally a threat worthy of their armament had materialized. Somehow, she knew how to find the soft spots, even on men wearing body armor, and maybe she’d gotten better at this since her stay in China, though Perry could hardly imagine how. Within seconds, three men had been immobilized, writhing on the ground and not a shot had been fired… yet. The civilians shrank back, desperate to get clear of whatever might happen next, as more men in black moved to surround her.
“No, no, no,” Perry cried out, running now as quickly as he could through the horrified crowd. He waved an ID card and shouted louder, hoping not to get shot himself, since like Emily he was not in uniform. Meanwhile, Emily stood her ground between the stroller and the Kommandos, eyes alight, glowering at them like one of the furies, and the woman cringed below in her shadow. The American gate guards had taken an interest at this point, and four of them rushed in from the other side, M4s leveled, intentions unclear. “She’s USMC,” he shouted again. “She’s with me. Stand down.”
When one of the guards seemed to recognize him, he barked a command, and his men turned their M4s toward the Kommandos. Defusing this situation required a few minutes, and a touch of bravado from the Americans, but eventually their German counterparts withdrew and reinforcements arrived in two Humvees. Placating the base command staff turned out to be a more involved process, and Emily accepted the dressing down she had coming. This dimension of her personality impressed Perry almost as much as her fighting skills. She’d face down armed men with hostile intent, but not take the trouble to defend her actions in front of a superior officer. She’d take the heat for whatever she’d done, no lip, no excuses, and probably do it again the very next day, if she deemed it necessary. In this particular case, however, the heat came from a husky master sergeant, backed by the Colonel who served as Vice-Commander of the 86th Airlift Wing.
“Yes, ma’am,” Emily said.
“We’ve got more important things to do here than clean up after wannabe heroes.” MSgt Gwendolyn Degen continued in a deep southern drawl.
“Another incident I’ll have to smooth over with the Germans,” Col Brickhouse muttered, as he pored over his open laptop. “You’ve seen some action, Captain Tenno, and that’s commendable. But you have to take it down a notch when you’re on leave. You’re not in theater anymore.”
Afterwards, Perry couldn’t help wondering what Brickhouse had read on that screen. Even Degen was surprised to see how lightly he’d let Emily off, barely a raised voice. Had the Base Commander intervened? Could Lukasziewicz, or maybe Crichton, have already put in a word? But how would they have known to take the trouble, and why would Brickhouse, or his boss, even be interested in their character reference for a troublesome 0-3?
It couldn’t be the same woman. Perry was sure of that much, but when he looked up from his reverie, the man from the bar had taken a seat at his table.
“You like what you see, American?”
For whatever reason, these words didn’t register at all, and the heavy accent probably wasn’t the reason. Perry gaped at him. “Uhh… what?”
“The girl, she pleases you? We can come to an arrangement.”
Dumbfounded by the blunt intrusiveness of this proposition, a part of him wanted to think that it felt like some of the interrogation techniques he’d learned in SEAL training. Impose on your prisoner, invade his most personal feelings, disrupt the foundations of his self-image. Sexual insinuations are the stock in trade of the aggressive interrogator. But if Perry allowed this thought to come to full expression in his mind, he’d probably throw this interloper to the floor and exact a measure of physical punishment on him. As it was, he merely stared straight ahead, unfocused, wide-eyed, uncomprehending.
“We have a rate for threesomes, if you prefer,” the man continued, leaning over to reach for a back pocket, perhaps in response to the way Perry flinched at this last suggestion.
Had he been able to focus, Perry would have noticed her approach. But, in his present perplexity, Emily’s sudden appearance seemed stunning, especially when she seized the man’s hand from behind, twisting and raising it to an awkward and painful angle. He squealed when she twisted the tactical baton from his grip and drove him to the floor with a further twist.
When the woman with the black hair shrieked something at Emily and charged across the near empty room, swinging her own baton, Perry grabbed the man’s wrist and crouched down to press a knee into his back. He felt no sidearm, but located a holstered stun gun. Who the hell are these guys? The man growled up at him, his neck twisted back, to say, “Bey Eff Fau,” or something to that effect. “Release me, American. We’re BFV… law enforcement.”
The waitress, who’d been watching these events from behind the bar in the now nearly empty Bierstübe, reached for a mobile phone and began to dial a number, before the bartender touched her hand and shook his head. Emily had already disarmed the woman, now holding her by the throat with one hand and preparing to strike with the other, when the black hair slipped to the side, and a bit of close-cropped blond hair peeked out.
“They’re cops, Em. Let her go.”
Perry released the man and stood off him, and Emily let the woman slide from her grasp to the floor.
“Not police,” the man said, dusting himself off. “More like your FBI, I think.”
Emily reached down to massage some feeling back into the woman’s arm and shoulder. “Did you follow us here?”
“You disrupted an operation, Captain Tenno.” She gestured to her partner. “Enough, Dieter. There’s nothing to conceal any longer.”
“You are here under a diplomatic passport,” he said to Emily, with a significant glance at his partner. “But you haven’t registered as a foreign agent.”
“I’m not… I’m in between postings. I’m just traveling with my family.”
The woman cocked an eyebrow. “He’s family? You’ll forgive me, but…”
Emily reached for Perry’s hand. “Almost family.” These words worked a powerful magic on him, and his face felt warm. “… and my kids are back at the base, in our hotel.”
“You’re running an op at Ramstein?” Perry demanded, as soon as he’d managed to bring the conversation back into focus. “Has base security been made aware?” He took some little satisfaction from the perplexed expression on Dieter’s face, now the tables had been turned.
“Well, no… not really on the base.” After a couple of exchanged glances, he nodded and the woman continued.
“We have reports of rightwing extremists in the KSK.”
“KSK?” Emily asked. “Is that your special forces… the force protection units on loan at the main gate?” When the woman nodded, Emily’s shoulders slumped. “So I saved your ass for nothing, then?”
“How could you do something so reckless, if you thought dangerous, heavily armed extremists were involved? To provoke an incident… and for what?” Perry sputtered out this last question, his eyes sharpening as he groped for words. “That’s what it looked like to me. You shoved that stroller to the front just as the crowd grew restless. ”
“I told you it was a stupid plan, Dieter.”
“Halt deine Fresse, Anneke.”
“No. Those people could have been killed. I could have been killed.” Anneke stopped suddenly, perhaps surprised by her own outburst, and turned to Emily. “It was fortunate you were there.”
“You have to understand, we have no police authority,” Dieter said. “We cannot make arrests or use force. All we can do is gather intelligence and turn it over to the Landespolizei, or the Stadtspolizei, I mean, the local police.”
“Except when you’re inciting violence at protest marches?”
“The locals don’t always give our intelligence enough weight, and the danger is more real than they know.”
“You followed us tonight… Why?” Emily glowered at Dieter. “To check us out. But why trust us with your intel now?”
“Because you… ‘saved my ass’,” Anneke said.
“We needed to know exactly who you were,” Dieter added.
“And do you…” Emily paused to size him up in that way Perry always found unnerving when she did it to him. “… know who we are?”
“Yes. You are plain spoken, American soldiers… not intelligence agents operating without formal permission on German soil.” Dieter returned the favor, turning from Emily to Perry, sifting their expressions for any hint of a hidden agenda.
“Like I said…”
“Ja, ja, vacationing with family. Enjoy your stay, and keep it brief.”
“Reckless idiots.” Perry grouched the whole ride back to Ramstein, his mind veering between resentment of Dieter’s initial sexual insinuations, and of their ploy at the morning’s protest rally. “His slimy grin… I really ought to have…”
“…had me kick his ass?”
Emily’s smirk had the effect of a reproach, and he simmered over it as they passed through the main gate. Had he become too passive, letting her handle all the dangerous stuff? He’d been outmaneuvered by Dieter’s surreptitious interrogation. He ought to have recognized it sooner, and jammed his fist in Dieter’s face. Why hadn’t he?
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. That was unfair.”
“No… it wasn’t.”
Eventually she cajoled him out of his dark mood, and the ordinary tasks of any family helped, like making sure the kids were asleep, packing for the next morning, etc. He watched as she tended to Li Li’s clothes, legs bent underneath so she could sit on the back of her feet. Her fingers smoothed out the wrinkles in blouses and shorts, her backed arched in a perfect curve to shake out a sweater, and when she leaned forward to slip rolled up socks in a side pouch, he felt again the little bit of magic she’d always been able to work on his heart. She could be difficult… and demanding, but he had no stomach for imagining the void her absence would surely create.
Later that night, having been awakened by the light of the moon, Perry lay next to her and listened as she murmured a lullaby in her sleep. He’d heard her sing it for the children over the years, and Stone still liked to hear it – huge as he was, moments like that revealed the little child he was inside.
On’nanoko papa wa doko e itta?
Kawa o koete no sato e itta.
He’d asked her what it meant once, and she said her mother used to sing it, and it came from an ancient folk melody. Back in Bagram, he’d been spending his free time trying to teach himself Japanese, without telling her. Perhaps he’d hoped to surprise her, or maybe he was embarrassed, though he hardly knew why. Warrant Officer Yamashiro helped him out now and again with pronunciation, but his knowledge of the language was not impressive either, since he grew up in Torrance, and his parents spoke English at home.
Still, Perry thought he had pieced together at least these two verses – a question and an answer: “Where has your father gone, my daughter? Across the river to his village.” He might ask her if he’d got it right in the morning, if he felt brave enough to reveal what he’d been up to. Of course, his qualms were ridiculous, he realized. How could she be anything but pleased to hear he’d made this effort to understand her ways just a little better?
Continue to Ch. 2
Continue to Ch. 2