I KILL RICH PEOPLE 2, page 4
“Some of them must be Taliban I suppose,” he continued, shaking his head, “but mostly it’s one Rag Head trying to get some other Rag Head’s farm or there’s some other shit between them that has zip to do with you and me or the war. Anyway. Bang, three tips, name on a list, they give me the name, I find the closest one of you guys, you blow his head off, and, hakuna matata, it’s the circle of life.”
Miller reached for a cigarette and patted himself down to find his lighter.
“Not in here,” Spencer snarled. “Smoke outside.”
“Jesus. Blowing people’s heads off is OK, but a little second hand smoke…” Miller made another effort to get upright, managed to swing himself into a sitting position and slowly shoved bundles of cash back into the courier bag.
“Money,” Miller announced, with the conviction of a drunken sage. “Money, money, money,” he repeated. “Widgets. Guns, heroin, God. Everybody’s selling something.” Miller rolled toward Spencer and glared through a bloodshot eyeball. “Mister high and mighty Zen warrior, Master Sergeant. So full of yourself.” Miller poked his finger in the air pointed generally in Spencer’s direction. “Take the fucking money.”
Spencer shook his head.
“The Russians hate heroin,” Miller explained, waving his hands to emphasize that Spencer should wait, that it was going to make sense. That he really should take the money.
“The Russians… the Russians share their border with Afghanistan. Afghanistan grows 80 percent of the world’s opium supply. Do you know that we used to spray the poppy fields, but that’s all stopped? Opium. Heroin. Big profits. Four billion a year in foreign sales, their one and only export product until we leave and the Chinese come in to mine away their resources. Karzai makes billions, the farmers don’t hate us, and we flood heroin in to fuck the Russians.”
Miller tried again to fish out a cigarette before Spencer leaned forward to snatch the pack from his hands. He glared. “Hell, you want to eradicate the opium, you bring back the Taliban. Best narcotics cops in history. Karzai’s brothers want to run everything, except maybe not every district lets the brothers fix the market price for raw opium. So some farmer, say, wants to run a cooperative in his village and get a better price than Karzai pays out. Karzai or the brother has the cousins call in three tips, the farmer gets on the list, and you and I get tasked to blow him up.
“Sorry. That’s too messy for you, Sergeant. You don’t blow shit up, you ‘eradicate the target.’”
Miller pressed himself up out of the cot with bottle in hand, saw again that it was empty, and flung it at his translator outside.
“But it isn’t clean,” he went on. “It stinks. That stink is dead bodies. It comes off people. Somebody got pissed off and now they’re rotting meat. You did that. Own it.”
Miller rocked himself upright, held out his arms to get his balance, and then spun himself around like a whirling Dervish.
“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” he sang out sarcastically. “Take one down and pass it around, and then there’s ninety-eight more.
“It’s all just bullshit,” Miller explained. “None of this makes any difference. Take the fucking money. We’re going to leave here and it will all go right back to shit. Karzai will move to London or Paris or buy a penthouse in New York City. It’s markets, Sergeant. Commerce; everything else makes zero sense; the second you put a pin in it, this war pops like a great big balloon.
“You’ve got eyes, don’t you? The United States spends trillions so the big boys back home and here get to make their billions. Me? I’m just scraping this little tiny crumb off the bottom of the pie pan. It’s evaporation, barely a commission.
“Americans don’t turn down money. Military contractors sell $60,000 Toyota pickups and five-dollar sodas. Colonels and generals get seven-figure paychecks.
“Take the fucking money,” Miller urged him. “Are you a fundamentalist or are you a righteous American capitalist? It’s money. When it’s there in front of your face, you fucking take it! Do you really believe you can conduct yourself honorably? Really? And I saw the Blessed Virgin on the TP when I wiped my ass this morning! When the whole thing put together is a puss-ridden tumor, there’s no honor. Take the fucking money, Sergeant. Pick it up.”
Spencer stared blankly at the clean, crisp bundles, lying green like Kryptonite. A slide show history began to snap through his head, a zombie army of 131 dead targets that threatened to break through the walls of his psyche. All the training that he had done, all the exercise and focus and precision that sustained him; still shots of faces penetrating through the lens of his scope; all dead, but coming alive in a ruminating rotation.
Bullshit! You did your job, the job you’ve been trained to get done.
Money doesn’t sustain grunts humping 120 pounds across mountainsides, going solo sixty miles inside tribal areas. Money meant zip out there.
“Take your dirty money and get the fuck out of my place.”
Miller looked over the prefab shelter with disgust, grumbled something incoherent, rocked himself upright, and then scratched at the air to find a wall before stumbling out of the tent.
Spencer was tired enough to sleep for days. He knew he had to recharge, but every camp noise kept him awake and thinking into the night. The container was pierced, it wouldn’t hold water. The only way to fix the hole was to stop guys like Miller. Could he kill another kid on Miller’s orders?
Miller awakened inside the back of a Bradley. He stretched out a furry, dehydrated tongue then reached underneath his stomach for what was jabbing his insides and came up with a wrapped bundle of new one-hundred dollar bills. He studied them until his eyes cleared, and then random snippets from his drunken ramblings came back to him. He stumbled out the Bradley’s rear hatch into the black night air. Through the darkness, he tried to make out the outline of the tent where Spencer was finally lying asleep on his stomach.
“You fucking idiot,” he grumbled through a brutal hangover.
“Best case scenario if he talks, they transfer my ass.” That would be it for handling the cash. In small increments he had amassed nearly $600,000. Thanks to his big mouth he might as well have handed the key to Spencer.
“Crap.” The crime wasn’t taking the cash; his bosses were probably taking a hell of a lot more themselves. Putting the spotlight on the skimming? That was something else. That was a capital offense. His ass would get capped and nobody would ever think twice. Miller decided that the Boy Scout was going to talk. He would disappear in a shallow grave.
Miller gripped his knees and hovered over Afif’s sleeping mat. He fumed alcohol into the tribesman’s dark face; it was pouring out with every whispered order. He tugged a bundle of bills out of his shirt, felt its weight and then stopped himself from handing over the entire wad. Three bills were enough. Miller peeled off twice that, began to count it into Afif’s rutted palm, then gave up and crushed it in as Afif’s fist closed around the money.
Miller reached his hand over his own mouth, the universal sign for silence, and then pointed toward the wide-bladed steel dagger ground down from a Soviet bayonet that the Ismaili always carried at his hip. He missed and nearly fell forward before Afif caught him by his elbow to keep Miller upright.
“Kill him. Quietly.”
Afif’s turbaned head nodded. He understood.
Across the camp a Humvee fired up and headlights came on. Miller looked up then back. Afif and his knife had disappeared into the night.
The Ismaili lifted his loose trousers and squatted down outside Spencer’s tent, with only the canvas between them, listening to Spencer’s steady, undisturbed breathing rhythms. He withdrew the blade and felt his thumb along both edges. He would have honed it ahead of time if he had been killing a sheep. But cutting into a sheep’s woolen throat is harder than a soft and bare American. The tribesman held the blade o
Afif left his worn-out shoes outside and timed his entry to the gusts of wind ruffling the canvas. His yellow eyes were accustomed to the dark. He could make out the shape of Spencer’s legs stretched beneath the covers, stepped over the sergeant’s huge size thirteen sand-colored boots, and stood with his thumb against the hilt of his knife at the head of the cot.
Spencer’s ribcage rose and fell again as his lungs filled and depressed. The odor of decay drifting on Afif’s breath made Spencer stir in his sleep. Every vertebra along his spine stood out clearly beneath the taut skin. The Ismaili froze, watching and listening for Spencer’s deep even breathing to resume. Spencer’s fatigues hung above the cot, three stripes up and down and the white-faced Airborne eagle.
Afif flipped the knife so that his right thumb covered the butt of its handle, moving the blade into a stabbing position. His target was a two-inch circle left of the spine and just below the rib cage. Stab and lean in, driving the steel edge up into the heart. Down and push. More like killing a horse than killing a sheep or goat.
He shifted, spreading his legs to support his choreography, then lifted the blade and pillow and steeled himself.
Like a 2x4 slamming into Spencer’s ribs, the blade stuck there, all blunt force into bone. Spencer’s entire frame contracted. Afif’s full weight smothered him beneath the pillow. Spencer felt the sharp blade’s point moving, tearing a line down his back, through nerve-endings. Then a new, sharper pain surged deep inside; Afif had found unresisting soft tissue and plunged in the blade all the way to its hilt.
The agony surged into Spencer’s eyeballs. He rolled toward the pain, snapping and sweeping back his right forearm, thrashing instinctively, and the pain soared again, intensifying as the tribesman pulled back the blade to stab again toward Spencer’s chest.
Spencer lifted his blanket and stretched it out between his fists, meeting the knife as it was plunged for the kill. Spencer twisted Afif’s entire arm in the heavy cloth and rolled. His attacker’s shoulder socket popped out of joint. The blade dropped on his belly and fell to the tent floor.
Flashlight beams darted around the room. Spencer’s eyes swam as the interpreter’s face showed, brightly lighted just inches away. His cot collapsed under the weight of the soldiers diving on top of them. Spencer was unaware of his own shouts and of the five-foot bloody arc spraying the tent walls from his severed renal artery.
“You dirty motherfucker,” Miller screamed. Before anyone could react, he jammed his pistol barrel into Afif’s prominent nose and fired. An ear-ringing explosion of warm liquid, grit, and muck blew six feet around. A medic yelled something. Spencer felt hands turning him over. He imagined his hands gripping around the squared bars of a field stretcher.
“Get off me,” Spencer thought. Leave me alone, let me stand up. I’ll be OK. Only I need to stand up.
Pressure applied against his back.
The sweet, rusty, familiar stench of blood.
Being lifted. He reached his right hand around the stretcher’s rail, feeling the heat coming off its utilitarian square steel. A chopper motor. The screech of metal sliding on metal then the door clunking shut. Nothingness.
Four days in Bagram. Landstuhl, Germany, after. Where they took his kidney.
Spencer transferred stateside on a stretcher. His complete belongings consisted of a light blue hospital gown, one blue toothbrush, and an army-green baseball cap. No Barrett. No guitar. He told himself that his weapon and his music were waiting for him; the mission was getting back to combat readiness. From the second day in Germany, he ignored doctor’s orders to relax and give his body the time to heal, and began a strict regimen of micro-exercises from toes to his waist and neck to his shoulders; hours of them. Once the intravenous drips came out he mouthed pain medications beneath his tongue then dumped them out the window. At Madigan, he tried a squat exercise and ended up feeling something tear. But now the sutures were out of his back, he was ambulatory, putting on weight, and already planning to be into more intense workouts. Behind his bed, the window looked down into the open quad where groups of broken men, half of them in wheelchairs, sat around and chain-smoked together. Spencer fought being lumped in beside the gimps. He didn’t belong.
The poor bastards would never be soldiers again. Some were missing limbs, others looked fine except that TBI’s, traumatic brain injuries, had robbed them of their abilities to process thoughts or to speak or to make it through a day without uncontrollable seizures. If a chair was set down hard on the linoleum some of them would dive for cover. Any loud noise could freak them out.
Spencer eyes scanned them when he shuffled through to the bathroom. Some had noses gone, some minus an arm, two in wheelchairs with air where both legs were gone, one with concave voids, no eyes, with both forearms ending in bandaged stumps.
I’d chew a bullet, he thought.
Estimated wait time before his Medical Evaluation Board and final Physical Evaluation Board was out to nearly four months, meaning that he was stuck there with the gimps. He had a singular purpose for his time: to come out of there physical fit; better than ever before. In four months, he was going to overcome anything they put in front of him. Keep it together and get back to what you were trained to accomplish. Only Major Davies, the female psychiatrist running the floor, just wouldn’t leave him the hell alone.
“Master Sergeant Spencer, I can’t force anyone to attend group counseling sessions, but psychological fitness is equally important.
“Sergeant,” she warned him, “isolation is a sign of depression and I consider that your unwillingness to support your fellow soldiers in their own recoveries is a serious malaise.”
When Spencer offered no response she put it more simply. “Participate in Group or I’ll write you up, Sergeant. You receive a negative psych eval and I guarantee it will impact your PEB.”
Her message was loud and clear. Attend or face a shitstorm.
Major Davies spoke in group using a practiced calm tone that sounded like a bad infomercial with a touch of Southern Baptist tossed in there. She sounded to Spencer like any of a hundred Southern black women around where we grew up in Virginia. Strong women, always ready to lead the congregation, looking for “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” Only the major had been on the job too long. The evangelist had left the building. Spencer quickly learned to tune her out. He would show up, but that was all. Nobody was going to turn him into one of them.
Spencer wanted to run out of the room. He should not have been there; his presence was like leaving a weapon out in the rain. It was irresponsible and wasteful. When he got back to business, he didn’t need that stuff in his head; none of it added to his capabilities.
Major Davies, all five-foot-three of her, sat there bursting out of her uniform like a sausage in the frying pan, one part doctorate in social welfare, part cheerleader, part hardened no-bullshit realist. “We’ve all been told and trained to be tough; we stick our heads down and work through the pain when it gets hard. But when you’ve been through stuff that is never going to make sense no matter how many times you put it through your head, that doesn’t work so well, does it?
“All the toughness in the world won’t bring back your arm or your leg and toughing it out won’t make you a better son or brother or husband or father because it isn’t just you; the people who love you don’t understand and just won’t get it no matter what. So don’t drag them through your being tough. Behind all that toughness, it’s scary. We’re leavi
“Can’t decide if I’m going to become a court stenographer or a film editor,” the blind guy offered, deadpan. He raised his stumps and held them together in a handless mock prayer.
“Won’t one of you righteous individuals please help me?” he mocked. Spencer had a hard time looking at the man.
“From recruitment to basic right through to every deployment all we hear, Major, is ‘us,’ ‘we,’ ‘together,’” Captain Sam snarled. “We and us, plural; team, squad, unit, company, battalion, division. ‘We’re only as good as the guy next to us.’ ‘That soldier next to you, ahead of you, behind you, we’re there for one another.’ All ‘us,’ all fuzzy warm togetherness. And then we get shot or we get blown up or worse, we get it in the head where nobody else can see what’s wrong. Then nobody fucking says anything about it being ‘us’ anymore. One split second and then it’s all ‘you and you and you and you ‘cause the army is all done with ‘us’. We’re on our own and we are fucked.