Colonel Neil McCallen strode into the building after the morning briefing and without a word to anyone, went into his office, closed the door and had remained sequestered there ever since. It was unusual for him to walk past everyone without a morning greeting. Unusual for him to keep his door closed. We all walked by it on the way to the copy machine or to get coffee, taking quick glances at the cheap laminate, wondering why he stayed sealed inside. I felt little relief when the door finally opened.
“Harper, can I see you in my office? Now, please.”
His command in the form of a question served as a clear signal he was about to tell me something unpleasant. My intuition was confirmed when I walked in and he wouldn’t look at me. He rocked back in his chair focusing on his computer screen.
“Close the door please, Lauren.”
The use of my first name was meant to put me at ease, but it had the opposite effect. I sat down and prepared myself for what would come next. The one thing I didn’t want to hear him say was that we had a new tasker.
“Harper, we have a new tasker.”
Shit. I attempted to erase any trepidation from my face and responded as calmly as I could. “Okay. What is it, sir?”
He stood, walked around his desk, crossed his arms and leaned his hip on the corner of the furniture. His uniform hung noticeably looser on him. Dark bags under his eyes stood out against his pale skin. Ruddy freckles, red hair and the thick white scar that ran diagonally from his eyebrow, across his nose and through his lips seemed lost in the pastiness of his face.
The child he and his wife had been expecting died after breathing for only a few hours. That was six months ago and rumor was, his marriage was in tatters because of the loss. When Michelle went into early labor, McCallen and I had been in Bosnia, deployed on the peacekeeping mission there. By the time he made it back to Heidelberg, his infant daughter had already died. Michelle was staying in bed most of the day, I had heard, stuck in a deep depression. Her mother had come to visit from the States and women from the Officer’s Spouses Club had been bringing meals by their home in Patrick Henry Village and running errands for the grieving family, but little seemed to help. McCallen took to bringing his two sons into the office at Campbell Barracks far more than he had in the past, probably in hopes of relieving some of Michelle’s burden. From the looks of him, the family crisis continued to take its toll.
“When I saw that the tasking requested you by name I had some choice words for Kranski in Operations. I told him you’d only been back a few months. He was apologetic,” McCallen said, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. “Kranski said the orders required my senior ranking NCO, and that means you.” He met my eyes for a moment and looked away.
McCallen and my sister Loretta had stood on either side of me to pin the rank on my uniform collar during my promotion ceremony to Master Sergeant several years ago. Leading people is something I am continually learning to do. I enjoy it. I think I’m pretty good at it, but sometimes being in charge sucks.
McCallen tried to justify the decision.
“It’s a six-week mission, so that’s not so bad,” he said, handing me the Operations Order that outlined the mission in stark military verbiage. The thick document felt heavy in my hands. I fanned through the pages quickly but wasn’t really comprehending any of it. When I glanced up at Neil, he turned away, returning to his chair.
“The CG approved it. He told me someone at the Pentagon made the recommendation.”
If the Commanding General and public affairs headquarters were involved there was little the colonel or I could do to change the requirement. Someone had to go and that someone was going to be me. I turned my attention back to the OPORD, finally realizing where I was headed.
“Honduras?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s a combat engineer mission—a bunch of National Guard and Reserve Sappers doing some road building, school construction, that sort of thing. Nothing controversial. The same nation building exercise the U.S. has been conducting in Honduras for years. What the orders don’t tell you is that a local TV news team from Minneapolis has requested permission to follow one of the Minnesota units on the mission. The team from KTOP say they want to do a series of features about the unit and their humanitarian mission, but a reporter on the team has raised a few red flags. Army public affairs says these guys are well known for blindsiding their subjects. One of those investigative reporting crews that always claim to have uncovered something.”
The fact that it was a Minneapolis news crew explained why I was tapped for the mission. I considered Minneapolis my home. I went to college there and did an internship with KTOP before I joined the Army. That was more than 15 years ago. Considering how often people moved around in the business, it was unlikely I would know the reporters, but I certainly knew the type of story the team was after. During my internship, I’d tagged along with several of the investigative teams, helping with research, interviewing people and writing scripts. Those facts didn’t make the my new assignment any more attractive.
McCallen ran a hand through his short hair and puffed out his cheeks. “I’m not sure why the newsies gained approval to go in the first place, but they have. Now public affairs wants us—well, you, to do what you can to minimize any sensational reporting they might do. These local investigative reporters,” he threw air quotes around the word investigative, “they’re usually the hungry type. If they’re looking for scandal, they’ll find it.” He shook his head and avoided my eyes.
I finally found the public affairs annex of the OPORD and saw my name there. It was unusual to be personally named in an Operations Order. I could have felt some pride in that, but didn’t.
I noticed my hands shaking and tried to stop them, but failed. The inner voice inside my head screamed no, not me, choose someone else. I needed more time. Time to return to normalcy. Time to heal. My last mission, to a small peacekeeping outpost in Bosnia, had been a nightmare. A soldier under my supervision had been murdered, and for a long time I was the main suspect. I still felt battered. After several days in a hospital in Bosnia recovering from my physical wounds, it was obvious the mental scars were going to be around for a long time. I’d refused therapy, still unable to bring myself to talk about the experience. McCallen knew what I’d been through, but not many others did. I needed time to unwind and recover. I needed time to get my head straight. I had made plans to go to London to see the man who helped save me from the hell I had been through. The thought of canceling my trip to London hurt the most.
My mother had always said that time and distance could heal all wounds. I rarely argued with my mother’s wisdom. Despite my agreement with her advice, I wasn’t going to get the time my healing required.
“I wish I could send someone else, Harper, but I can’t. There’s already a Reserve public affairs team on the ground to take care of the day-to-day stuff. Your only responsibility will be to move this Minneapolis TV crew around, get them from place to place and hook them up with the right people.”
“And keep them honest,” I added.
“And keep them honest, if you can.”
It wasn’t just a babysitting job. If the reporters were looking for a scandal, I would have to figure it out before they found the dirt they needed. It was the kind of challenge I loved. If this order had come at any other time, I would be looking forward to going to a new country in a new hemisphere and beating them at their game. The timing sucked.
McCallen watched me, waiting for my reaction. We locked eyes for a long moment. When he glanced away, a blush crept up his neck.
“I’d go myself but, I’m pretty sure she’s thinking about leaving me, Harper. She’s never liked Germany. If I leave her now, she’ll take the boys and go to her mother’s. Besides, she needs me. I simply can’t go.”
“Of course, sir. I wouldn’t expect you to go. None of us would.”
He stared at his computer screen, and I could almost read his thoughts. So many things had happened in Bosnia. Among them, the undeniable fact that we had kissed, my commanding officer and me. After so many years of working together, we had crossed an emotional line between officer and enlisted, between boss and employee, between a married man and a single woman. McCallen had been feeling guilty about it ever since. After his child died, he had even more reason to wear his guilt like a medieval torture device.
Sure, I felt guilty about it too, but I wasn’t the married one. I’d done my best to avoid the intimacy we’d finally succumbed to while deployed, and I was doing everything I could to make sure we never strayed down that path again. At first, I thought McCallen blamed me for the threat our attraction had posed to his career, the threat it posed to his marriage. While I know he felt guilty about what we had done—that stupid damn kiss—I also knew he wanted more. In the days since I’d come back to work, we’d avoided being alone together, but I still caught him staring at me, the desire in his eyes causing my skin to prickle in an electric response.
The crush I had for my boss, the one I still had trouble controlling, was the least of my problems now. In just two weeks, according to the orders, I’d have to pack my bags yet again. Worse, I had to call London and tell a certain Sergeant Major Harold Fogg and his mother that I would have to cancel my plans. I didn’t want to make that call.
“It’s okay, sir. After all that Bosnian rain, a few weeks in the jungle won’t be so bad,” I said.
By the time I made it back to my desk, my calm exterior had vanished. I pitched the OPORD into the trash can shouting a four-letter-word that would have embarrassed my mother, kicked the side of the trash can, sending it sailing against my cubical wall and picked up a palm-sized stress ball I kept on my desk and flung it at the window. I impressed myself with imaginative combinations of insults and threats to the people who’d selected me for the mission. I had my hands on the back of my chair ready to shove it down the aisle, when I stopped. Took a deep breath. Straightened my uniform.
I sat down to call Harry and apologize for canceling our plans. I was sad and angry and frustrated and had no idea that, as bad as I felt, things were about to get much worse.