The Box: noun \baks\: The portion of a military installation designated for combat maneuver training. Usually hundreds of acres in size containing, firing ranges, MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) sites, and expansive spaces to facilitate all types of tactical exercises. Also known as The Sandbox.
Colonel Neil McCallen communicated his displeasure in his narrow-eyed glare. He’d already told me once to stop fidgeting but I couldn’t help looking at my watch yet again.
“Endlessly checking the time won’t make it go any faster, Sergeant Harper,” McCallen, said, scanning the crowd. “He’ll be waiting for you no matter how long this takes.”
I couldn’t help myself. My impatience felt skin deep, like tiny zaps of energy assaulting random parts of my body. I simply couldn’t stand still and if one more thing delayed this press conference, I’d go mad. Despite my best efforts, I had to glance at my watch one more time and sighed when I’d confirmed the minute hand hadn’t moved much since the last time I’d checked.
Yes, I knew Harry would still be waiting for me, waiting and probably feeling the same impatience I felt. We’d been trying for months to get away together. I’d learned over my many years in uniform that dating another soldier is always complicated. Dating a soldier that serves in a different Army is nearly impossible. Since I’d met Sergeant Major Harry Fogg of Her Majesty’s Royal Army, getting together had felt like a mythological quest involving golden fleeces, elfin rings or slaying six-headed monsters. Quests I felt wholly unprepared for.
Finally, after countless attempts and delays, we’d managed to arrange a long getaway. This final press conference, which marked the end of a three-week field exercise, was the only thing between me and a Greek island vacation with Harry. Despite my spit-shined combat boots, I could almost feel the sand between my toes.
An entire month. We’d both managed to arrange to take leave for an entire thirty days and we planned to spend every one of them together. Harry had started his leave this morning when he’d boarded a plane to make the short flight from Stansted Airport to Frankfurt. There he’d rented a car and driven four hours to a small village near Hohenfels, Germany where my unit had been conducting field maneuvers. The imposing British Special Air Service soldier had sent me a text when he’d arrived at the Gastehaus der Koenig, a small, family owned bed and breakfast only ten minutes away from where I now stood impatiently wishing to be with him.
We’d never shared a hotel room before. We’d never seen each other wearing anything other than our uniforms. I’d fantasized about what it would be like to be in civilian clothes, a dress even, off duty, relaxed and in his arms. Fantasized about it until I couldn’t stand it anymore. In about an hour, and I checked my watch again, I’d finally get to see him. The distraction of our imminent meeting had my heart racing, making me feel as anxious as a teenager waiting for her first prom date.
All I had to do was get through this last damn press conference and I could be with Harry. At last, really be with him.
“What’s taking so long,” I finally asked my boss. McCallen started to answer then paused, as if he needed to rethink his response, glancing around to see if anyone was listening. When he leaned in to speak to me I figured whatever he was about to say couldn’t be good.
“General Blunt is on the phone with his wife. The whole family arrived last night and are staying at the hotel on post. Evidently, they’re going on a road trip to Poland for the weekend.”
“Pottery shopping? General Blunt?” It was a favorite past time for many of the Army spouses in Germany, road trips to an area just across the Polish border where factories and warehouses offered up colorful pottery at bargain prices. I knew Pauline Blunt was a big fan of the stuff, having seen her collection displayed prominently in their home. That she was dragging the general with her on one of her shopping trips was more proof of who ruled their household.
McCallen shrugged. “Not sure he had much say in the matter.”
“Then why can’t we get this show on the road?” I said. “He must be looking forward to finishing as much as everyone else.”
McCallen glanced around rechecking to ensure no one was paying attention. The room was full of people who had come to watch the press conference, but everyone seemed to be ignoring us.
“Evidently, Brianna went missing for a while. She went out last night and didn’t get in until the wee hours of the morning. Mrs. Blunt is furious.”
Brianna Blunt, the eighteen-year-old handful of hormones and attitude was a never ending source of frustration for the general. The young woman wielded her beauty, her buxom body and her father’s position like a satchel of sharp knives, any one of which could cut you down in an instant. She looked like a model and acted like a diva. On a military base chock full of warfighters, she was like a jewel in a den of murderous thieves. Everyone eyed her with greed, but no one was stupid enough to reach for her first, knowing it was bound to end badly.
“The last thing he needs is a Brianna distraction,” I said. “At least she came back.”
“True, but you know how Pauline Blunt is. She must be quaking with righteous anger.”
I smiled at the accurate description. Mrs. Blunt, the epitome of military spouse perfection, hated scandal of any kind. To her, appearances mattered, which is why she’d evidently eliminated the Mississippi accent from her speech and never left the house without being perfectly coifed. I imagined she would be so angry at Brianna’s antics, even her solidly shellacked hair would be quivering.
‘It’s not funny, Harper,” McCallen said while attempting not to smile.
“You’re right, sir. Not funny at all,” I smiled back.
McCallen looked a bit tired, his face more pale than usual, his freckles and the long scar that started at his eyebrow and slashed across his face in a wide, violent looking line, looked stark in the morning light that filtered through the multiple windows surrounding the large room. His ruddy-colored hair, usually worn very short and trim, could use a trip to a barber shop. Despite his obvious fatigue, he seemed relaxed as if he were looking forward to the end of the long, exhausting exercise as much as I was.
We both lost our smiles when the general’s aide opened the office door, motioning for McCallen to go inside. He would spend a few minutes making sure the general’s uniform—his battle dress uniform in this case—looked in order, do a quick run through of the talking points and things to watch out for before the press conference finally began.
My public affairs team had set up shop in a tiny, old chapel building, converting the one story structure into office space, our living quarters and a place to hold press conferences. On a small riser in the front of the room, near where the old chapel pulpit would have been, we’d arranged an American flag, the Ninth Army guidon flag and a two-star general officer flag. Centered in front of the three flags was a podium with the Ninth Army shield on the front. In the section of the floor where pews would have been, we’d set up rows and rows of metal folding chairs, most of which were now populated with civilian media role players. In the area formally used for child care for the chapel, our captain, my two soldiers, and I had set up our office. Our cots tucked in various corners had served just fine for our sleeping arrangements. Opposite us was a small, old storage room we’d converted into Colonel McCallen’s office and quarters where he was now ensconced with General Blunt going over final notes for the press conference.
The building had worked out perfectly for us but I was ready to be done with it. As soon as the press conference was over, all we had to do was turn in our weapons, pack up our gear and get the hell gone. I couldn’t wait to take off the holster strapped to my thigh and turn in my nine millimeter.
Staff Sergeant Tracy Patrovski approached me with her camera, asking for help with the complicated settings. I noticed she’d put a bit of an extra shine on her boots and her raven hair was pulled back severely in a neat bun. She’d even applied a bit of makeup for the occasion which was unusual for the young woman.
“What’s taking so long?” she asked. I chuckled at our similar frustrations, but kept McCallen’s explanation to myself, instead felt grateful to have something to do while our wait continued.
In the middle of fixing the problems with camera settings, Captain Leon Jerreau sidled up next to me and whispered, “What’s taking so long?”
Patrovski and I both laughed. “McCallen just went in to do the final brief,” I said. “Hopefully they’ll be coming out soon.”
Jerreau, had only been with us about a year and seemed to take well to the job. His Cajun ancestry gave him olive-colored skin that was almost as dark as mine. I’d always wondered if there wasn’t a little African mixed in his blood somewhere. I noticed him fingering the small silver charm he wore on a chain in addition to his dog tags, his faced tinged with a redness that betrayed his agitation. He’d once told us his Cajun grandmother had given him the small disk as some kind of protection charm.
“What’s wrong, sir?” I asked.
He turned his dark brown eyes to me, a wrinkle in his brow. “I don’t know,” he said, rubbing the disk. “Somethin’ ain’t right.”
The captain’s tightly curled brown hair looked a bit mussed, as if he’d been running his fingers through it. In the months since Jerreau had joined our team, I’d learned to take his superstitions and beliefs as seriously as I could out of respect. While I didn’t believe all of his folksy ideas, he did, and more often than not his predictions of both good and bad events had been correct.
A burst of laughter drew our attention to the side of the room. A group of soldiers, most of them covered in dirt from the field, their helmets off, their faces streaked with worn-off camouflage paint and sweat, were all smiles and loose amusement. A handsome blond man seemed to be the entertainer. I noticed they all wore the same unit patch and Ranger tab and figured they must be here to see General Blunt who’d also worn the tan beret and tab during his career.
With his forehead pulled into a frown, Jerreau furiously rubbed his charm, staring at the group of Rangers. “What is bothering you, sir?” I asked him again.
He shook his head. “You go on and pooh pooh all you want, Sergeant Harper. I got the sniff of nasty swamp gas up in here.”
Patrovski voiced her doubts. “Sooooo, there’s something evil around?”
“Yeah, you laugh now,” he said. “Go on and laugh, you.”
Patroviski and I exchanged smiles for a second before someone called the room to attention. I turned to see McCallen stepping out of his office with General Blunt following close behind.
“Endlich,” I mumbled the German word at the same time Patroviski said the same thing, only in English.
“Finally,” she said.
We swapped smiles before she moved closer to the front of the room to take pictures.
McCallen adjusted his shoulder holster as he walked past the media role players with their notebooks, cameras and recorders and the bystanders who’d come just to watch the event. He tapped the microphone to ensure it was on, cleared his throat, arranged his notes on the podium and began. The people running video cameras and other recording devices, including one of my soldiers, Sergeant Dominic Owens, took it as their cue to start rolling.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming,” McCallen said. “In a minute, Major General Preston Blunt, commander of Ninth Army Forces, Europe, will come to the microphone to answer your questions.”
My boss ran through his opening remarks. I glanced at Blunt who stood next to McCallen looking serious and for good reason. The group of mock reporters had been a tough bunch, asking pointed, biting questions that backed you into a corner if you weren’t careful. Blunt had started the exercise with a few bad turns but had gained confidence and skill in high-pressure situations. Patrovski would take pictures and Owens would record the entire experience so that we could review the results with him later. If he followed the pattern he’d established so far, I expected Blunt to wade through the minefield of questions without tripping up.
As McCallen set the stage, he looked relaxed and frankly, handsome. The kind of handsome that made women look twice, fix their hair and wet their lips. His ruddy complexion, freckles, red hair, and the jagged scar were all together sexy, like a hero in the flesh. He’d gained back the weight he’d lost after his newborn daughter died and his wife left him. He seemed better, now. Fit. Comfortable with the way his life had shaken out. And damn him, there were times when I still thought about him in improper ways. But I had blown out the torch I’d carried for him, once and for all. Still, the confidence and power he exuded were exceedingly attractive. The female role players all sat up straighter and fiddled with their hair whenever he was around.
I took a deep breath and clasped my hands behind my back, squeezing my fingers, trying to prevent myself from looking at my watch again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Major General Blunt,” McCallen stepped aside as Blunt made his way to the podium.
Blunt cleared his throat and glanced down at the notes McCallen had left for him on the podium. He would see his own opening statement, along with some bulleted talking points he could use for questions we anticipated.
He glanced up, scanned the crowd, pausing now and then to acknowledge people scattered about the room. He focused for a moment on the cluster of Rangers, then focused on the reporters in front of him and began to speak in a clear, confident voice. We’d provided him with a microphone, but he didn’t need it. His voice was easily heard where I stood near the back of the room.
I tried to pay attention, but since I’d written the statement, I already knew what he would say. I glanced around the room, listening only to detect any stumbles or if he misread my carefully written remarks.
Aside from the people serving as the media, about fifty observers stood around the back of the room, some of them obviously just coming out of the box, the Rangers forming the largest group of viewers. I remembered the story Patrovski had written about the Ranger battalion. The group had traveled from the states to participate in the exercise at General Blunt’s request. They would be sticking around for a few days after we left. It appeared Blunt had some admirers amongst the ranks who wanted to watch the general in action.
“Clearly, things are returning to normal in most of the townships,” Blunt said, wrapping up his opening remarks. “Publican civilians are returning to work, shopping in markets and sending their children to school. All of these are signs they have confidence in the peace and safety of their communities. I will take your questions now.”
Every reporter’s hand went up.
I sighed. This was going to take forever.
“General Blunt, Tracy Simonson, TNT News. How can you say that things are returning to normal when there is still so much unrest? Just yesterday, in Mayberry, people seemed to be expressing their displeasure with your continued presence there.”
“I’m glad you brought that up, Tracy…”
I tried to hide my smile. We’d purposely left the protests out of the opening statement, knowing it would be one of the first questions asked.
“We don’t see the protests in Mayberry as unrest as you have characterized it,” Blunt said, almost reciting the talking points we’d written verbatim. “We see this as an exercise in freedom of speech. In the past, those demonstrations would have resulted in violence, arrests and perhaps even deaths. The results are far different today.”
He continued with more, hitting the responses out of the park, sounding calm and in charge. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride in how masterful he’d become at this. McCallen and I had worked closely with him and it seemed the training had been worth the effort.
“General Blunt, just yesterday, the mayor of Pleasantville accused your forces of being heavy handed. He complained that the constant patrols, the check points and searches are interfering with his town’s ability to conduct simple commerce. Why is Pleasantville being singled out for this heavy-handed treatment?”
“Jason, your own paper reported the story about the bodies of three men found in the Pleasantville schoolyard. We have confirmed that those men had been shot execution style. Bottom line is, the local Mayor of Pleasantville has asked for our help and we are giving it to him. Look, insurgents throughout most of Publican have laid down their arms. There’s a stubborn group in Pleasantville and we’re not going to abandon that town’s efforts to return to peace and bring security to their citizens.”
In my head, I imagined myself screaming, “Blah, blah, blah. Just get on with it already!” I squeezed my fingers again to stop myself from doing or saying something inappropriate. Blunt demonstrated that he’d been trained well. He stuck to his talking points, and since many of the questions were ones I had anticipated, it felt like watching a movie I’d seen a million times. My attention wandered. I watched Patrovski as she moved about the room taking pictures. Sergeant Owens had obviously locked down the video camera and just let it roll on the General. I knew most of the people in the room, all from various units I’d worked with.
I glanced to where Colonel McCallen stood and found him staring at me, his blue eyes softened, his expression intense. I averted my gaze, feeling the heat rush to my face. It had been a long time since I’d seen that look of desire from him directed at me. Why would he be looking at me like that now? Telling myself I’d misread him, I looked back again but I hadn’t been wrong. “Crap,” I mumbled, before I directed my gaze at the floor, willing myself not look at him again, my heart racing.
I focused on the Rangers, needing something to distract me. They were all new faces to me. The tall blond major looked like a pleasant enough fellow. Standing next to him was a striking-looking Captain, a tall and burly bodyguard type who looked Native American. He wore his hair in an extreme high and tight, cut to look like a Mohawk. Another man, shorter and rather slight, looked familiar somehow but I couldn’t see his name from where I stood. And next to him, was a burly looking guy with a crew cut and a weathered face. Looking at him reminded me of Harry.
I sighed. Harry. Soon, very soon.
All of the men standing in the cluster of Rangers seemed completely focused on everything going on, their heads shifting back and forth as they followed the questions and the answers like a tennis match.
I felt the pull to glance at McCallen again, but managed to overcome it.
“General, we all know the Publican police are notorious for corruption. How can you break them of the methods they’ve employed for so long?”
Blunt had been asked this question before, which told me the reporters were running out of material. That was a good thing. It meant they’d be done soon. I glanced at my watch, my stomach still in knots of anticipation. I was going crazy with eagerness. I considered ducking into the restroom but thought better of it. I didn’t really need to go that bad. I’d just wanted something to do besides stand in the back of the room.
I took a deep breath and tried to focus my attention on the matter at hand. Blunt continued to command the room, looked at ease and in charge. He said something funny and the media corps erupted in laughter. I didn’t know what he’d said that was so funny, but I noted how loose everyone seemed and realized we were coming close to being finished. My relief at the idea that it was finally almost over distracted me so much that I didn’t notice the soldier approaching them until he was right in front of the podium. McCallen noticed him first. He glanced over Blunt’s shoulder, his eyes suddenly wide in shock. At first, I didn’t understand why he looked so alarmed. He’d instantly lunged forward, reaching over the podium, but there was little McCallen could have done when the soldier raised his nine millimeter pistol and shot the general in the head.