Camp Pendleton, California
Camp Pendleton, California
On a clear, crisp autumn morning in Southern California, Shake Davis stood on the firing line and tried to read the wind. A brisk, salty breeze blowing in from the ocean caused the red range flags to flutter, and prompted the Marines on his left and right to fiddle with the ACOG scopes on their M-4 carbines. Shake ignored the flags and looked downrange at the ground where the breeze was barely moving the leaves and grass cuttings spread over the one hundred meters he would have to cover when the klaxon signaled the start of the exercise. The M-16A4—strapped to his body by a single-point tactical sling—was box-stock with no advanced combat optical gunsight fitted. He was obligated to run the course using only iron sights because he’d let his battleship mouth overload his rowboat ass during a beer and bullshit session with a group of hard-chargers from the Marine Special Operations Command, who doubted his contention that age and experience trumps youth and enthusiasm.
No reason why they should believe it, Shake mused, and decided a slight right hold-off on his point of aim would compensate for the breeze at ground level. The Marines he’d been lecturing and coaching for the past week were all combat veterans—survivors of multiple tours doing the gut-level dirty work in Iraq and Afghanistan. These guys were skilled shooters who’d popped real rounds into real bad guys and they’d be running their A-Game this morning because the targets appearing randomly in each firing lane would not be shooting back at them, and because they wanted to show an old retired fart that they had the right stuff.
Shake ran his eyes over the rifle one last time and reached down to check the custom Kimber .45 caliber pistol in a droprig holster on his left thigh. If he got his ass kicked soundly and severely in the exercise, it would serve him right. It must have been the beer that prompted him to challenge these people to a shoot-off that involved running and gunning through a course requiring each man to fire his carbine dry, and then smoothly transition to a sidearm and finish the course scoring hits on each and every target along the way. He’d started out to make a point about using whatever was at hand in a tight situation and not relying on high-speed bells and whistles to get the job done. As the level in the beer keg dropped and the war stories got wilder, he’d felt just confident enough to bet he could clean the course using a standard-issue rifle with iron sights and his favorite slab-side .45 just as well or better than these young operators using tricked-out M-4’s and nine-millimeter Berettas.
“You ready for this, Gunner?” A smiling staff sergeant—the same man who embarrassed him at the beginning of his visit to the MARSOC command with a long and lurid recitation of Shake’s combat record over 30 years in the Corps—took the rifle and turned his back. The drill for this course of fire required a coach to load each man’s shoulder weapon with an unknown number of rounds, so the shooter could never predict when his magazine would run dry. Staff Sergeant Art Kybat inserted a magazine, hit the bolt release to chamber a round of 5.56-mm ammo, flipped the selector lever to safe, and handed the rifle back to Shake Davis. “No tellin’ how many rounds you’ve got, Gunner. Could be thirty; could be two. When she runs dry, transition to that hog-leg of yours and continue the attack. Any questions?”
“Just one.” Shake took the rifle and checked the selector position. “ How come a good Staff NCO like you let your guys talk me into this s**t?” Kybat chuckled and checked the other coaches on the line. “These guys are all rooting for you, Gunner. They may run their suck about time in The Sandbox and all that, but they really love having you here. Guys like you done a lot more with a lot less and they know it. We got a message from Camp Lejeune this morning. They want you out there as soon as you’re done here.”
“My wife might have something to say about that.” Shake shouldered the rifle and tried to find a comfortable position on his left side. The heavy flak gear he was wearing made it a difficult proposition. “She’s got this thing where she thinks being retired means I don’t do stuff like this anymore.” Just as he finally found a way to accommodate the buttstock and keep his right arm firmly under the balance of the weapon, Kybat tapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s a little different when you’re wearing the SAPI plate carrier, Gunner.” Kybat retrieved the rifle and demonstrated what looked to Shake like a very uncomfortable and awkward shooting position. “If you do it the old rifleman way, you’re exposing vulnerable body parts to enemy fire. The way we do it now is to move and shoot dead face-on to the threat—like this.” Kybat crouched and floated a few steps forward to demonstrate. He moved smoothly in a sort of gliding step with his upper body almost motionless. “This way, you only expose the upper-body parts that are covered by the small-arms protective inserts. The support arm kinda goes out to the side—like this.”
“You guys can actually move and shoot like that?” The position seemed all wrong to Shake, who had always been taught to address a target by executing a half left or right face, and then shouldering the weapon with his support arm vertical under the balance of the piece. “I’m gonna wind up waddling downrange like a ruptured duck!”
The Range Safety Officer gave the stand-by signal and Kybat handed the rifle back to Shake. “Do it your way, Gunner. Any man who survived as many firefights as you, don’t need to fix something that ain’t broke.” When the command to unlock came over the loudspeakers, Davis flipped the selector switch to semi-auto and assumed a firing position that he hoped was a reasonable compromise between what he’d been shown and what he felt would help him get rounds on target. Kybat raised his hand and checked the line again to insure everyone was ready. “It’s a real privilege to have you here with us, Gunner. Now get out there and get some.”
When the starting horn sounded, Shake trundled forward with the rifle firmly in his shoulder and his head up and swiveling, looking for targets. He had no idea how many rounds were in his rifle and no idea how many targets were set to pop up in his firing lane. If he was carrying a short load in the M-16, he only had seven rounds in his pistol to engage any remaining targets with the required double-tap. And all targets had to be engaged and hit to score a clean run on the exercise. The first pop-up to his right front surprised him, but he was able to swing smoothly without stopping and put two rounds into the silhouette, causing it to collapse. The next target, about 15 meters further along, emerged from behind a mound of dirt and only revealed a partial shape like a man aiming in from the prone position. Shake kept moving, held slightly right on the part of the target he could see, squeezed the trigger, and it collapsed. So far, so good.
The third target popped up in a rickety window frame about halfway down the firing lane. Shake advanced firing and scored one hit before the bolt slammed back to stay. He was out of rifle ammo and fought the instinct to dive for cover while he reloaded. There were no reloads in this drill. He slung the rifle to the rear of his body and snatched the .45 out of its holster as he advanced on the target with his eyes locked on the Kimber’s front sight. The first round out of the pistol caused the target to disappear, and Shake took a second to try and guess how many targets might show in the 40 or so meters he had left to the end of the lane. Whatever the number, he now had exactly six rounds of .45 ACP to double-tap all of them. At that point things got interesting.
Whoever was running the target controls back at the line shack decided to up the ante in Shake’s firing lane. Targets seemed to be popping up every time he took another step forward. He hit one on the left and two on the right in quick succession before the slide on his pistol locked back, indicating an empty magazine. He was completely out of ammo and ideas when the final target popped up just five meters from the finish line. Maybe it was adrenaline or the instincts of an old warhorse. Shake Davis didn’t give himself time to contemplate. He hit the final target with a flying body block and beat it into submission with the barrel of his empty pistol. He was still flailing away at the brutalized target when the klaxon signaled the end of the run.
He was flat on his butt and breathing hard when he realized he was surrounded by a group of laughing, cheering, and applauding Marines. “You cleaned it, Gunner!” Staff Sergeant Kybat could barely get the words out between hoots of laughter. “I ain’t ever seen it done that way, but the rules say all targets must be hit—and you damn sure hit that last one.”
* * *
There were only a few other drinkers at the bar of the Oceanside steak house. Shake was glad to have a little time alone as he swirled bourbon over ice and contemplated having another one before calling a cab to take him back to his motel. It had been a great week, and he didn’t much mind the major dent he’d put in his personal plastic buying the MARSOC shooters a steak dinner after they cleaned up on the range. Truth is, he thought as he signaled for another drink, I love just being around these young Marines. And another truth is, he told himself as the second snort arrived, it’s good to know I’ve still got it. That’s my ego talking. I know it and I don’t give a s**t. For a beat-up old bastard who will never see the soft side of sixty again, I can still hack the load.
The lovely and talented Mrs. Chan Dwyer Davis, his bride of the past three years, had made him solemnly promise no more jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or swimming out of fully functional submersibles, but she understood why he wanted so badly to accept the invitation from the Marine Special Operations Command to visit, talk shop, swap war stories, and generally inspire all the young operators to great sacrifice and even greater dedication. It was what the Corps called the moto factor. You get a visit from a retired Marine Gunner like Shake Davis with a colorful reputation and a combat record stretching back to before most of them were born, and there’s a certain motivation to it. And so be it. If that’s an ego trip, I’ll buy the ticket and take the ride. Retired is one thing—don’t give a s**t anymore is another thing entirely. Marines aspire to live up to their history—to match the deeds done by their predecessors—and that can be a powerful multiplier even as they are writing their own colorful chapters in military history.
It’s like I told Chan, Shake thought as he stared at his craggy countenance and thatch of snow-white hair in the mirror behind the bar. I ain’t dead and I ain’t crippled and I sure as hell still care about Marines. If there’s something I can do to make what they’ve got to do a little easier or a little more palatable, then I need to do it. Fortunately, his 30-year pension and Chan’s hefty salary as a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency provided enough slack for Shake to travel and play a little bit without worrying about paying the bills.
He decided a third drink wouldn’t hurt as the bartender was pouring short anyway. He ordered and then reached into a jacket pocket to look at the message Staff Sergeant Kybat handed him before herding his team of operators back toward the base. Apparently, he’d gotten good reviews from his visit at Camp Pendleton, and the word had been passed through the special operations back channels. He was now officially invited by the Commanding General of the MARSOC command at Camp Lejeune for an extended visit and some consultation on the special operations training syllabus. That was right in Shake’s personal wheelhouse, but he’d need to call Chan and get her blessing before he accepted. She was a terrific woman and a wonderful wife, but there was only so much absence on the part of her husband she’d tolerate.
For a former Military Intelligence officer who’d been at his side through some interesting adventures, Chan had a remarkably strong nesting instinct. She cherished their time alone in the pricey townhouse they’d bought in suburban Virginia and was always finding domestic chores for him to handle. Shake didn’t mind—in fact he relished pleasing her—but there were only so many leaky faucets and creaky floorboards he could fix before he started getting antsy. He supposed it was something in the genes she inherited from her Thai mother, but Shake had quickly come to understand that he’d married a woman with very strong opinions about marital stability and a relatively placid domestic life.
He was reaching for his cell phone when it began to vibrate and the caller ID indicated Chan was either missing him or reading his mind. Could be either or both, he thought with a grin, and punched the button to activate the call. “Sawadee, Spouse… how you doing?”
“I’m missing you.” Chan sounded a bit distracted but Shake decided that might be his escalating hearing loss—or the booze. “How’s it going out on the Left Coast?”
“All is well, Chan. I’m sitting in an Oceanside bistro boozing it up to soothe my damaged ego after an embarrassing day on the range.”
“Range? As in firing range? I thought you were out there just shaking hands and motivating troops with tales of past glories.”
“I did all that—and somehow it developed into this deal where I had to compete with a bunch of young, muscular, and enormously talented special operations door-kickers. It was entertaining for them—embarrassing for me.”
“Well, you better come home.” Something in Chan’s voice put Shake on alert. It wasn’t her usual stop-screwing-around tone.
“I got this invitation from the MARSOC guys at Camp Lejeune. I was going to ask you about heading over there and…”
“Better send regrets, Shake. You’re needed here.”
“Anything wrong, Chan?”
“I can’t talk about it on the phone but there’s someone here who wants to talk to you in the worst way. Guess who it is and you’ll know why I’m sounding so weird.”
Shake belted at his drink and motioned for another. “Does his name start with a B and rhyme with Bayer?”
“Yep. He dropped by the house last night looking for you. He’s out of the CT business these days and holding down a very big desk at Langley. There’s something up involving Mike but he wouldn’t say much more. You better catch the next thing smoking out of LAX for Dulles.”
“I’m on my way—first flight I can book in the morning. I love you, Chan.”
He stabbed disconnect, swallowed the drink that had just arrived, and shoved his credit card at the bartender. He had no earthly idea what the senior CIA man who called himself Bayer wanted, but if his best friend Mike Stokey was involved there was no option. Shake Davis would do whatever was necessary to help.