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The Enemy Breathes No More
The Backstory of Custom Merc Dirk "Stiletto" Rivers
By Erik Blake
Chapter 1 : How the Mercenary Life Came to Come to Me
Chapter 2 : Taking AIM
Chapter 3 : No Spring Chicken
Chapter 4 : Meeting and Greeting

Chapter One: How the Mercenary Life Came to Come to Me

The helicopter hovered just above the tree line in whisper mode. Nobody said much and the quiet, mixed with the throbbing hum of the chopper blades, lulled me into a kind of waking sleep. I stared out past the gunner and into the cold blue morning sky . . .

For most Americans, "Nam" ended in 1973.

For me it was just beginning.

I was nearing the completion of my high school career. It amuses me now that they call it a "career." As for my experience, it was more of a stint or a passing fad, and now only a dim recollection. You see, I didn't make much of an impression. Not on the other kids, not on my teachers. Not on anybody. I did well enough, ok. I kept up my grades, but I just didn't have much energy for the whole rigamarole. I didn't belong to clubs. I didn't play sports. I just went.

I guess the time passed, what with dead-end summer jobs and working around the house. Don't think my picture made the yearbook. Even if it had, no one'd be there to sign it. Anyways, when school was over, I didn't have anywhere to go, my family being fairly poor and all.

But I had to get out of town. I was sick of the place and I was pretty sure it was sick of me. Wasn't any opportunity to speak of in any case. So, after I saw one of their flashy adds, I joined the Army. Seemed a welcome solution at the time.

And it was. The Army suited me just fine. I didn't have to do much thinkin', and talkin' was kept to a minimum. I could look into the sky or stare at the ground just the same as long as I kept humpin', or hikin' or diggin', or whatever else the Sargent wanted. It was simple, direct and honest.

Then one day, we're doing field maneuvers, a combat training exercise, and one of my squadmates goes down. Just collapses right there in the fire zone. Heat exhaustion, I think. So I jump out of the low crawl I was doin' and grab him by the wrists and start dragging him out of there. There was cover nearby and I made for it. Well, no sooner than I had him rolled awkwardly up against a stone bunker than a round hits my thigh and I go down like a bag o' bricks. I kind of just sat there for about a minute or two, or so it seemed, before getting up and dragging myself out of the line of fire. No one around to help. So I limped it back to the medic in camp.

When I arrived he was having a conversation with one of the commanders, so I stood by, kind of shaky and unstable, and sweaty too, but silent. When the conversation paused I said, "Doc, I think my leg needs lookin' at," and collapsed.

Well the leg healed up fine and the commander was real impressed with my "reserve," I believe he called it. He said it takes a real soldier to brave the pain the way I did. He also said he'd looked over my charts and records, and noted that my riflery skills and physical abilities had received high marks. Told me that he'd put me on the recommended list for Force Recon. And like so many times before, I didn't say nothin'.

So, not six months after I found myself - quiet, little Dirk Rivers - airborne in a Huey Southeast Asian jungles. Oh, we weren't there officially, and all the hubbub, or the most of it, back home had died down. But a war doesn't just end when the troops withdraw. There are plenty of objectives to secure, records to vanish, snarls to untangle, and catastrophes to conceal. My team, we did a little of this and little of that, but mostly, mostly, it was the good stuff, the stuff killin' was all ok for . . . breaking out POWs.

That's how I got my nickname. I was deep in the bush with Tyrone "Lucky" Tibbs, a 6'4" warrior without an ounce of fat on his thickly muscled frame. We called him "Lucky" because he'd rushed the enemy dozens of time without backup and never taken a bullet. He called himself "Lucky" because his wife never found out about his girlfriend. Anyhow, Lucky and I were "machete-ing" our way towards this abandoned camp when he whistled and stopped dead. Two goons were about ten yards out; he'd seen the cigarette smoke hit the sun's rays as it streamed through the dense forest roof. So I got on my belly, which had seen more action than my feet by my reckonin', and crawled silent as a garden snake 'til I was right behind the smoking sentry. He inhaled deeply and before the smoke left his mouth my hand was over it. A quick stroke with my combat knife and he was down for the eternal count. Tibbs crawled up to me as I camouflaged the body with loose branches and leaves. That's when he said, "Man, you like them knives we had back home in the neighborhood . . . stiletto, that's it. Come straight out of nowhere." He liked that, said it around the other fellas, and soon enough, it stuck.

And soon enough my tour ended. But something inside me was empty. I felt a loss for the first time, because for the first time I'd had something. Somewhere in between all that damp and heat and leeches and grime, I found a place that was mine and a skill I was good at. We all were. We were the outcast bunch that no one on this side of the world wanted to acknowledge, but needed just the same. Fightin', for the right reasons, is a reality in a world of tyranny, despots, and persecution, and, well, someone has to be there to do the fightin'. "The people" don't want to know who, or how, but they appreciate it and benefit from the result just the same. And there among the misfits and don't-belongs I discovered a companionship and trust, and a wholly other set of rules I had never known. But they suited me to a "T."

But here I was back in the states. The transport dropped me off in New York City, so in New York City I stayed. I didn't have much in the way of "marketable skills," but in the bush I'd patched a few guys up without a fuss (some of those leathernecks could take a bullet just fine, but pull one out of their buddy and they're blubberin' like schoolgirls). So I thought medicine, the healin' arts, might work for me. I applied to a nearby university and on account of my experience, fair high school record, and a couple of strings pulled, was accepted.

The courses went fine. I stomached the work a lot better than my straight-out-of-pre-med peers. But my evaluations were less than sterling. My instructor at one point noted, "Rivers possesses a comprehensive knowledge of the procedures, but his bedside manner is sorely lacking. Intensive mentoring is recommended prior to graduation." Well, it wasn't that I wasn't much for mentoring so much as I wasn't much for handholding and babysitting and gentle words of assurance. I did my work and expected the patient to let me do it. This, however, never did sit well with the professors.

I graduated, like before, without much fanfare, but the diploma came in the mail. Still, there weren't many prospects and my contacts dried up several years back. Couldn't exactly rely on my fellow graduates for connections. So I scraped up what little cash I had saved from over-borrowing on my student loans and put together a little practice in a hole in the wall in Manhattan's Port Authority area. Not exactly the white smock crowd.

I stared at the wall for a while. After school and the military I had gotten pretty good at staring at things. But then one day a gunshot victim hobbled in with two men in suits. I patched him up real nice, and they in turn paid me real nice . . . in cash. The patient's name, I clearly recall, was John J. Smith.

That was how I came to be rather popular in "certain circles." Men came in - bouncers, bodyguards, even "ultimate" fighters - and others, looking to get patched up. I didn't ask personal questions and they didn't expect medical answers. It was a nice little union. My clientele were men who had "particular privacy concerns" and I, believing fully in the Hippocratic oath (and the wad of bills), was happy to oblige them.

Well, it was inevitable. One day in strolls this young, black man asking for a physical. Well, I'd had some odd requests in the past, some demanding serious improvisation or exotic remedies, but this was the strangest. No one asks me for physical; you don't come here unless your bleedin'. But he just wants a physical, and some shots because he's going traveling. "I have to make sure the reflexes all check out," he states, smiling wide like a kid in a candy store. At that point he notices my Force Recon tattoo. And, of course, I notice him noticin', but I don't say nothin'. So, he, being the joker I would discover he is, pulls a small knife out his back pocket. I'm lookin' in his eye with my little flashlight when I see his pupil dart over to the west wall. His hand snapped up, but before the finely balanced blade left his fingers his wrist was wrapped in my hand. It then took me several moments to realize my neck was wrapped in his. We laughed, let go, and that was when he brought up Force Recon. Said he was on the short list for a mission to Arulco, a dustbin of a country, "just a speck on the map." But he said the money'd be real good, the company even better. And the country needed help, "big time." It was the same old story of one person in power slowly strangling the lifeblood out of the little folks . . . and I liked the little folks. He said a guy named Tarballs had put him up to it, and that he needed the shots because he was told it was already on short notice status. He then remarked that a doctor who'd seen some combat was always a worthy addition to the mix. "Should I put in the good word with Tarballs," he asked. Should he? Back to the bush, steel in my hand, my world, my people. "Sure," I replied. "Could use the vacation."

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Chapter Two: Taking AIM

Ice Williams was his name and, despite his rather unusual sense of humor, he seemed like good people. As he left the office I had no doubt that I'd be hearing back from him. And, sure as shootin', I did. "The junkyard on 78th and F.D.R. drive in 20 minutes," was all he had time to say.

78th and F.D.R. drive was just what you'd expect from a junkyard - the periodic whine and hiss of a hydraulic motor echoing through piles and piles of empty wrecks, hulks picked clean for parts, the occasional ghetto kid riding through on his dirt bike. I spotted Ice, and with his dark shades and wool ski cap he looked quite the character. He slapped me on the back and then feinted a kick to my head that was slightly too fast and too close; leave it to Ice never to do anything halfway. He lead me into one of those little blue pressed aluminum sheds, like in the movies.

The shed's attendant looked too sharp for your run-of-the-mill, five-dollars-an-hour junkman. He looked more like a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. His tight black euro-style shirt and aviator glasses also didn't scream "just gettin' by." And when he opened the broken down refrigerator revealing an elevator compartment . . . well, it was pretty clear that this wasn't "Sanford & Son." Down we rode, not far by my reasoning, and there was just one lower floor indicated on the panel. The doors slid open and there we were: an underground bunker with thick concrete walls, computer terminals, the works.

Ice lead me toward a metal door in the back, and as we walked past two women I could swear they were speaking Dutch, Japanese and German all at the same time. They were far too busy typing and chattering away to notice me. As we approached the door, which I could now see was reinforced steel, Ice blew out a quick whistle. A man on the other side of the room stood, a loud buzzer sounded, and he frantically waved us on past the scurrying workers. The lock clanked and the door swung open.

Inside was a spare, white room. There were closed doors on all sides and a clean desk in the middle. There was a finely detailed map of the world. There was some high-end electronic equipment. But what you noticed most, and couldn't turn away from, was the large gray-haired black man sitting in the desk chair. "Gus Tarballs," he said with a deep voice, standing up to shake my hand. I, in turn, shook it. This wasn't the kind of man whose hand, when offered, you didn't shake. It was a pure reflex to shake it. And not shaking it, well, that just wasn't an option.

"The destination is Arulco, a small, southern third-world nation so far from the rest of everything that remembering it's existence is harder than forgetting it. The now exiled King of the country came to me with claims that the current ruler, a tyrant by the name of Deidranna, killed her husband - his son - and declared martial law. She now governs with an iron hand, milking the substantial resources of the tiny country, including its inhabitants, to its destruction. These claims have been verified." Tarballs continued, "Suffice to say, the beneficent nature of this mission and the requisite payment to our account in the Canary Islands convinced me to accept."

"The mission is simple: infiltrate the insertion team here in Omerta, establish a foothold, bring in support, disrupt and capture the supply lines and secure the natural resources, and then utilize elite personnel to re-take Arulco. Sources indicate that there will be no foreign intervention, and restoration of the prior ruling family will bring stability desired by all sides," concluded Tarballs. "Unfortunately, weapons caches are low at the moment, so the insertion team will be provided with a minimum of equipment. However, this should be ample to secure the first objective and prior recon tells us that munitions stores are present in the country."

"Don't piss in my ear and tell me its raining, Tarballs," I snarled before I reconsidered for what felt like a lifetime my choice of words. "The retaking of a nation, by small covert squads only, is hardly what I call a simple affair." Tarballs, much to my surprise, laughed. Assuming an informal tone he replied, "Yes, well, that's the mission. The objectives are, in fact, simple. The execution is another matter. However, you must understand, Mr. Rivers, that our team includes the best of the best. You, since you know yourself, should gauge the team by your own abilities, taking into account that you would be its most junior member, despite your rather extensive experience. The worst of the best, if you prefer. Rest assured that one of us is worth many of them."

"And one of 'us' is exactly who?" I inquired. "Why AIM, of course. The finest incorporation of misfit mercenaries around," Tarballs said with confidence. He went on, "They're just like you, only better. We get them from all walks of life, 'mercenarily' speaking: military, police, ex-gang members, hired guns, British Secret Service, and on and on. Top-quality individuals who show extraordinary composure in combat. And like Ice here, many enjoy this line of work. I was lead to believe that was you too." I only made a small "hmmm" noise.

"Let's see," said Tarballs strolling over to the computer. "Dirk "Stiletto" Rivers, born 1957 of working class background. 3.2 high school grade point average. No outstanding merits. Joins Army late in 1974. Force Recon in 1975. Black Ops work, blah, blah, blah. Distinguished service recognized. Honorable discharge, 1980. Obtains Ph.D. and M.D. from Ian Currie University in 1986. Opens medical practice which, according to tax records, turns out a profit equal to a busboy's wage. Currently resides at same address as aforementioned business. No parking tickets, misdemeanors or felonies. Seems a normal life, if a bit stale and, umm, undercompensated."

I relaxed. Not so much feeling better, but weary from having my life laid out on a platter. It summed up my existence, or lack thereof. The only time I did something, anything, worthwhile, and was recognized, was in the Army. And even then the top secret nature of the work left it largely concealed. Perhaps this was my place, to use the space between spaces. To exploit my anonymity. To utilize my "forgetableness" against a known foe. And I like these people, these "misfit mercenaries," and they seemed to accept me. So, I answered, "Yeah, you pretty much got me all figured out there, Tarballs. It's not so much the money or the good times, but the challenge of packing light." I think he looked at my face and knew where I belonged. Now that I think of it, I know he did.

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Chapter Three: No Spring Chicken

AIM is a reputable outfit. Turns out the cream of the crop really does hang their collective hat there. For every pin in Tarball's map there's a story, and he was more than happy to share a few of them . . . once I'd signed the requisite paperwork. Tarballs is, well ummm, unique. I'd like to spend more time pickin' his brain. After all, it isn't the average man who takes his skill in the field and turns it into millions. An operation like AIM is nurtured and grown, and the liability is incomprehensible. But somehow this extraordinary fellow puts it together, and that's a damn fine accomplishment. And for Christ's sake, when I asked him about paychecks he told me that the dollars hit your account every day, "Scout's honor." That guy's been in one outfit or another since diapers.

Ice took me to the weapons requisition room, a veritable cornucopia of killing implements. However, as Tarballs indicated, our choice was limited . . . limited to what that mean hellcat of a woman who inventories the stuff allowed us to take. I would have had that sweet G41 if it was my choice, but it wasn't and so got it I ain't. Nope, its a little MP5K peashooter for me, though the silencer makes it a fun toy for girl or boy. And for me, nighttime is the right time, baby.

Yeah, right. When was the last time I stalked a zero in the full moonlight?

19 freakin' years. That's one hell of a long time without action. I mean, I kept in shape, else Tarballs would have put me on fundraising duty along with the other desk jockeys, but my skills cannot by any definition be considered "fresh." This worried me. Oh well, I'll see when I'm in it, and if I ain't able then seeing won't really be much my concern one way or the other. Like riding a bike, that's what I tell myself. And what a fine bike it was.

I began to think about those days more and more. They became vivid, like Polaroids coming into focus - colors growing deeper, images sharper, and even the rich, pungent scents of the jungle returning to my nostrils. I felt at ease, like I was reverting to myself. Arranging my finances, insurance and the like, was easy. Ice instructed me fully in the no-loose-ends approach to the Soldier of Fortune lifestyle.

Refined. That's what that the lifestyle was, refined. The more I broke it down into its component parts - my desire for it, my draw to it - the more I realized that it was the simplicity. The life and death struggle was real. The gear was all you had on your back. The buddies were genuine; they saved your bacon and you saved theirs, end of story. I liked the defined boundaries of it, clear and linear. Maybe not the killing, but the life and the cause, that what was I lived for. And it was high time to start livin'.

Besides, I was good at the killing.

The day of the flight down to checkpoint I was like a boy going off to camp for the first time, excited, and scared. I had erased my relationships -- gave the few associates and acquaintances who knew me best the closure they desired - without a second thought. And, to the relief of my distinguished patients, my records were stored deep in Tarballs' lair, and a letter explaining my sudden onset of incurable amnesia was sent to all . . . at least those I could find. So there I was, the same battered gray-green duffel from the old outfit lying beside me. The same worn handle on my trusty combat knife. And a shiny, well-oiled MP5K. Looking them over I realized that I was that old gray-green duffel.

And both of us were back in business.

Business, at first, was none too lucrative. My initial payout, as the "worst of the best," was on scale. A veteran like the much-heralded Ivan Dolvich, made out like a celebrity. Of course the guy could take a platoon with a toothpick and some pocket lint. There were others in Ivan's league as well. But all the rest fell in the gray area in between. "In between" because bargain basement was defined solely by me. Luckily, I had a nice stash put away, no wife, girlfriend or "other," and I didn't give a rat's arse. You grow up poor and it's all relative, see?

With my fresh buzz cut and my good suit on I felt like one of those shiny Miami tourists as I headed into the plane. A shapely woman in a tropical shirt even asked me if I was headed to Disney World. "Arulco," I replied, "it's like Club Med used to be, very hush hush." Yeah, like Club Med used to be before the dawn of civilization. Aw hell, twenty bucks says she thought I said "Acapulco."

We touched down. Disembarking in the dry heat of the afternoon sun felt exhilarating. "If I get a rush like this getting off the damn jet, how's that Huey gonna be?" I thought. Well, sure enough, my "car service" had arrived. Actually, there was more rust on that Chevy than steel. And my "driver," Jesus, had an interesting interpretation of the notion of the direct route. Was that Sidney I glimpsed getting into that Jaguar? Honestly, I didn't want to know.

The helipad was what I'd expected. Well, what I should've expected from Tarballs: all business. There were two small, business class jets; one twin propeller, "pontooned" plane; and two state-of-the-art whirlybirds, one black and the other camouflage. Thinkin' about it I felt all "oh gosh" and embarrassed that my mind's eye had seen a Huey. Damn reliable choppers back in '75. Out to pasture today. Well, I guess I'd have to get used to a few changes. Old dogs can learn new tricks, can't they? Hell, I was pretty sure scumbags still went down when hit with a bullet, just takes a little more firepower to punch through the ballistic-grade Kevlar vest. The fear was just a cover-up for the real insecurity: could I cut it side-by-side with the young turks and veteran pros? Or had I become a pretender yearnin' for lost memories like a yuppie biker with a wash-off tattoo? Should I be playin' paintball in the yard? Nah. You've put up, now shut up. Time ta meet the crew.

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Chapter Four: Meeting and Greeting

"Where's Tarballs," I asked of the official looking gentleman in the black beret. "You can't imagine that Mr. Tarballs attends all pre-mission briefings," he calmly replied before putting an abrupt end to our brief conversation by turning away and walking to the presentation board at the front of the room. "Please take your seats," he instructed, and all of us found our way to the rows of plain writing desks centered in the front. "Those assembled here represent the initial incursion squad into Arulco. You have all been thoroughly briefed on the background of this mission and provided with detailed maps of the country. As you are also no doubt aware, our on-the-ground intelligence work has been minimal and information regarding the quantity, training and overall state of the hostiles is largely unavailable. However, we have been assured that much can be learned once in country. This will be a mission of improvisation, people."

The instructor offered some minor details regarding supply routes and communications and continued, "On to the introductions. Your team leader will be Sidney Nettleson. Sidney is relatively new to command and made it clear that he expects all squad members to act independently and demonstrate individual initiative. He is not prepared to hold hands." The instructor went on without pause, "Dr. Q Huaong is your medic. You will find that he has extensive field training and is a superlative combat physician. Barry Unger will handle demolition work and minor mechanical. Monica "Buns" Sonderguard, who makes it known that she tolerates but rather dislikes her nickname, will mainly serve in an assault function and as a backup nurse. Dirk "Stiletto" Rivers is, despite his age, a new recruit who has spent some time away from the action, but possesses extensive prior Special Ops experience and will, no doubt, come up to speed quickly. Mr. Rivers is also a physician and will provide trauma care in addition to Dr. Q." He concluded, "You are the front line and the only line at this point. Depending on your success, backup will no doubt follow. However, until that time you are to establish a foothold in Arulco and create 'room to maneuver' whenever and wherever possible. I am certain that you all understand the importance of your role and have already formulated a feasible game plan." Eager to make new friends and lighten the heavy air left by the humorless instructor I raised my hand. "Yes, Mr. Rivers?" the instructor queried irritably. "Is Arulcan cuisine palatable or should we best brown bag it?" The instructor replied, "Good luck," and left.

Ten minutes in the air erased twenty years. I was back in the saddle, in my element. The chopper might have advanced map-of-the-earth electronics, whisper mode and sight-aligned fire controls, but its rotor spun just the same as the old flyin' bathtub Hueys. After taking in the morning breeze and several moments of amused self-reflection, I glanced about the tight cabin. "Buns" had the stiff posture of a schoolmarm. While it made her look taught, athletic and oddly attractive - as no doubt she was - it also lent her the asexual demeanor of a female East German Olympic swimmer, the kind with broad shoulders, a butch hairdo and none to faint sign of facial hair. Sidney just sat drinking his tea, legs crossed, and reading the paper like at any moment he'd kiss his wife on the cheek and set out for the office. After he noticed that I'd been staring at him for awhile he simply said, "hello," and returned to his reading. Barry was making all sort of annoying observations. He just wouldn't stop talking, although what he said was impressively intelligent. He seemed to have that wide-eyed view of the world. Hell, he was young. But he was bothering Q, who was meditating or somethin'. Probably some Oriental inner focus mumbo jumbo. Then, as Q stared fixedly at his crossed feet, Barry holds up his knife and says, "I've heard of your agility and prowess with your hands, Dr. Q, but I bet that . . ." Barry suddenly stopped mid-sentence - the first time the conversation ceased. Q had his knife.

Takin' 'em in as a whole it felt like I was on the wrong end of a Benetton commercial. We were all colors of the rainbow here, and Ice, when he arrived later, would add even more "flavor." Asian, English, Hungarian, Swedish . . . female! Nam never looked like this. It felt like that 'copter scene in "Predator" where it was as if the Village People took steroids and went on safari. There was that big, black, bald guy who was always shavin', and that Indian with the bowie knife, and that Texas redneck with the cowboy hat. Great stuff. But this was the real deal, and these were the real pros. No stunt men, camera crews and fancy refreshment carts.

Then music sounded. Monica had thrown on some German opera. Sidney didn't seem to mind, Barry didn't seem to notice, and Q didn't seem to care. Here I was heading into battle for the first time in twenty years listening to some fat lady blort out in a language harsh enough to make young children pee their pants. Not exactly how I pictured it. I was thinkin' Creedence Clearwater . . .

The pilot interrupted, "We have drop zone in two minutes." Two minutes and I have to use the facilities. A little more warning might have been nice. I headed back to the head. Didn't leave me much time to mentally prepare. I emerged to see Buns rappel out of the cabin. Q and Barry were already gone. Sidney waved me on. So this is how we're gonna play it? I grabbed my pack, then the rope, and descended.

Not half bad, I thought. Despite the rotting tenement-hovel-shacks that dotted the countryside, Arulcan scenery wasn't so far off from most choice vacation spots. And the weather was nice. Sure beats Nam. Nam sucks. My older self will certainly appreciate the more hospitable clime. "Intelligence reports hostiles about," states Barry. Great, just like the Hungarian loudmouth to spoil my "special" moment. Time ta get to work. Where do I punch my card?

Sondergard drew her Italian pistol. Nice little silver number, packed a good wallop. Q had an MP5K, like mine, though I'd managed to grab the last silencer. Sidney had a slick, clean Commando. I state for the record that I am nothing but heterosexual, but in that black SAS gear with that polished Commando, Sidney looked damn good. I got ta get me one of those. Monica had already rushed the nearest building. More like a crumbling shanty, but it provided cover just the same. She held her pistol up to her chin with both hands and appeared to be listening keenly. Barry had stalked forward with his machine pistol, heading for the open door. Sidney gave me hand signals I didn't understand; they were all British, for Christ's sake. I shrugged and moved silently to the far wall. And Q, well Q was nowhere to be found. Slippery bastard.

Sidney was the first to notice the flash of metal - gun barrel in the hot sun streaking toward the building's shade. And logic dictates that there's a scumbag attached to that gun somewhere. It's my job to find him. Sidney makes an outward sweep, sidestepping in a rough circle wide of the creep's crevice of choice. I make to the rooftop. Buns moves lightly inside in the structure. Barry's prone and waiting. And Q, where for the love of Mary is Q?

Gotcha! I can feel that adrenaline surge, that focus that happens to the few of us when most others would blank and panic. My finger heads instinctively for the trigger and the MP5 steadies in my hand. Pyuntt! The first bullet strikes the wrist, shattering the bone. The enemy's gun drops. Pyuntt! The second hits the shoulder and snaps him back in a contorted spin. Crack! Sidney's muzzle flash heralds the killing blow signaling the end of the first quarter. Good guys: 1, Enemies: 0.

Buns has started talkin' to herself. Her Italian friend keeps barkin' in nice, steadily repeating yelps. Bang, pause . . . bang, pause . . . bang, pause. Out of the corner of my eye I see the goon punched up but still comin'. Then Barry, no grace and all glory, charges out on full "no-nonsense" auto and fills the guy so full of holes that there ain't enough flesh and bone left to keep him standing. Good guys: 2, Enemies 0.

I climb down and prowl the ground. Sidney has taken off for a nearby building - the perfect spot for the opposition to sit tight until we stumble into the path of a bullet with our name on it. But I'm so busy starin' at Sidney's tactical artistry that I fail to notice the greasy devil hiding in the shadows of the elm. The sound or the pain, not sure which came first. But my side erupted. Not bad, but the little ones hurt the most. I'm all in the open. Got no choice but to charge in close.

Firing an MP5 from the hip is ill-advised. The "upchuck," as I call it, from such a short gun causes an undesired haphazardness to adversely effect marksmanship. The short of it: I missed twice. Now I'm on top of the guy and I'm thinkin', "He's got a bead on me . . . He's got a bead on me . . ." Pyuntt! His legs buckle as a round impacts his thigh. Then, in the most surprising moment these blue eyes have ever recorded, Q flies in from nowhere and kicks his head. He shot him, then he kicked him! Unbelievable! Down for the count just like that. Not dead, but he ain't gettin' up again in this lifetime. Then . . . silence. Q's mouth is moving and he's started toward the road, but a hostile is at his back, and Q's right between him and me. The nature takes over from the nurture and I drop, the pain in my side suddenly vanished, and put one through each of the villian's knees. Q, startled, yells, spins - knife now in hand - and garrots him in a vicious surgeon's slash. He's dead before his head hits the pillow.

"That enemy breathes no more," observes Q.

"You're damn right."



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