from the world of PENANCE
Camp Pendleton California, 1979
The new guy dumped his duffel on his bunk, looked around the room.
“So, which one of you assholes used to be the best shot here?” he said. Cocky. The new guys always were.
Nobody said anything, just ignored him. He’d learn. Darius Cunningham headed past him toward the head.
“Damn boy, you’re a bigg’un. And nobody ever put much cream in your coffee, did they?”
Redneck. A lot of the Marine snipers were. Back-country boys that grew up shooting squirrels for dinner.
Cunningham stopped, turned, stared down the newbie for a long moment. Cunningham was 6’4” and weighed 220 pounds. He had very dark skin.
“You need some cream, boy?” Cunningham said finally, grabbing his crotch. “I’ll give you a mouthful.”
The rest of the barracks erupted in laughter. Then the door opened, the first sergeant stuck his head in.
“Cunningham! The CO wants you. Now.”
Cunningham knocked on the CO’s door.
Cunningham walked in, saluted, stood at attention. Colonel Stocking stood to the left. Two white men in suits sat at the other side of the table to the right of the Colonel’s desk. The man on the left was in his mid-thirties, sandy hair. But he wasn’t in charge. The Colonel wasn’t in charge either. The other guy, the guy with the close-cropped gray hair, the smaller guy in the beige, summer-weight suit with the rep tie, the guy who looked like he was sixty anyway, probably older, but who, Cunningham bet, weighed exactly what he weighed 40 years ago, that guy was in charge. He had his eyes fixed on Cunningham.
Colonel Stocking returned the salute. “Have a seat corporal. These gentlemen would like a word.”
Cunningham sat down across the table from the two men, the older guy’s eyes still locked on his. For a long moment, no one said anything. The Colonel did not join them, just stood by his desk like a guest in his own office.
Finally, the younger man spoke.
“Before we begin, Corporal, I’d like you to read something.”
He slid a beige file folder across the table. Cunningham opened the file and read the five, single-spaced pages. The document summarized various sections of the U.S. Code and the Uniform Code of Military Justice governing official secrets, with pointed references to the penalties for their violation. Terms like treason and capital punishment were salted liberally throughout the text. When Cunningham was done, he closed the file.
“Before we continue this conversation,” the sandy-haired man said, “I need you to understand that everything said in this room is governed by the laws outlined in that document. If you are uncomfortable with that in any way, you may leave now and return to your unit. If you stay, and, at any time in the future, disclose any detail of this conversation, up to and including the fact that it ever took place, you will be subject to prosecution under the terms outlined therein. With that understood, do you wish to continue this conversation?”
Cunningham was listening to the sandy-haired man, but was still holding the gaze of the older man.
“Go ahead,” Cunningham said.
The sandy-haired man nodded. “On certain occasions, we borrow assets from the military to assist with missions vital to national security. We have conducted an exhaustive review of Pentagon files and believe that you are uniquely suited to assist with such a mission.”
Cunningham finally turned his gaze to the younger man. Blondie.
“Who do you need shot?”
“No one said anything about shooting.”
“I’m a sniper. I’m pretty sure you didn’t fly out here because you want me to alphabetize files.”
“The nature of the mission is classified. You will be briefed on appropriate details once you accept it.”
“You gonna tell me where you want this shooting done?”
“So I’m supposed to sign up blind, that’s the deal?”
“That’s the deal,” Blondie said.
Cunningham didn’t say anything, just held Blondie’s eyes, but the sandy-haired man wasn’t very good at it, not like his boss. After ten seconds, he looked down, put a leather briefcase on the table, went to pick up the file.
“I think we’re done here,” Blondie said, and started to rise. The older man held up a hand. Blondie froze, then sank back into his seat.
“My name is Fisher,” the older man said. “We’re out of Washington.”
Cunningham turned back to the older man. So far as he could tell, the guy had not moved since Cunningham entered the room. Must have blinked at some point, but if he did Cunningham had missed it.
“And by Washington, you mean DC, not the state.”
“Yes,” Fisher said.
“And by DC, you really mean Virginia. Langley.”
Fisher just smiled.
“How about your friend Blondie here. He got a name?”
“A few of them actually, but that’s not important right now. Right now you are talking to me.”
Cunningham waited, still watching Fisher’s eyes, looking for anything, getting nothing.
“OK, if I’m talking to you, talk. Because this take-it-or-leave-it pitch, that ain’t working.”
Fisher nodded. “First, understand that your choice to accept this mission is completely voluntary. I have made that clear to your Colonel. If you choose to walk away, that will in no way affect your standing in the Marine Corps or any evaluation of your performance, past or future.”
Cunningham let out a soft snort. “Of course not. CO comes out says ‘Hey Cunningham, I need a volunteer,’ and I say ‘You know, I’m kinda busy at the moment,’ no way that comes back to bite me on the ass.”
Fisher offered a thin smile. “We have to be careful about what we reveal concerning our assignments to those we approach before we know they are on board.”
“Puts me in kind of a pickle, doesn’t it?” Cunningham said. “You have me read all this shit about treason and capital punishment and such, pretty much says that, if I talk to you and you don’t like something I say about it later, you get to shoot me any time you feel like it –“
“Lethal injection, actually. Before that it was hanging. No one has been executed by firing squad under the Uniform Code of Military Justice since WWII.”
“Well, that makes it all better then, doesn’t it? And I bet everybody that ever pissed you off and ended up dead, they all got trials, right?”
Fisher just held Cunningham’s gaze.
“Let me ask you this,” Cunningham said. “You say you looked at all the files in the Pentagon, and you want me?”
Fisher gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t have any self-esteem issues. I’m good. But you got at least a couple of guys on this base that can out shoot me, on the range anyway.”
“Not during combat exercises.”
“Got one guy that’s just as good, and he’s seen some combat. I haven’t.”
The older man just nodded.
“Then you got the rest of the Marine Corps, you got the entire U.S. Army – now granted, those are Army pukes and not Marines, so by definition they aren’t actually men, but one or two of those Green Berets might actually have some game, maybe some of those boys from this new Delta group I’ve been hearing about. Then you got your SEALs. Overall, gotta be a dozen guys in my league anyway. So why me?”
Blondie interrupted. “We had you pegged as a warrior, Cunningham. A sharp end of the spear type of guy. Figured you’d leap at a chance like this. I guess we were wrong.”
Cunningham turned to the younger man again, held his eyes until the guy started looking around the room. Then he turned back to the older guy. Cunningham wasn’t talking to Blondie anymore.
Cunningham tilted his head toward Blondie, spoke to Fisher. “That what you need? Some guy that’s going to jump through your hoops because Blondie here pushes his buttons a little?”
“No. That is not what we need.”
Cunningham just waited, holding Fisher’s eyes. Cunningham could do that all day. He was pretty sure the older guy could, too. Not a peep out of the Colonel. Usually, Cunningham showed any attitude, the Colonel would tear him a new one. But now he just stood off to the side like a potted plant.
“Ninaelewa kuongea swahili vizuri kabisa,” the older man said finally.
“Sir –“ Blondie blurted, but the older man just held up his hand again.
“Your accent’s off a bit,” Cunningham said, “but yeah, I can get by in Swahili.”
“Your father was a Kenyan national. An intellectual. Close ties to the British colonial administration. He was targeted during the Mau Mau uprising and immigrated to the U.S.”
Cunningham nodded. “Yeah, land of the free. Got to Chicago in 1959. Got beat up for wandering into the wrong neighborhood in 1960.”
Fisher said nothing.
“So it’s Africa. That’s why you like my file. When I roll out of the rack in the morning and get in the shower, me just standing their naked, I’m already wearing all the camouflage you need.”
“Yes, that’s why we like your file. That and, in Kenya and vicinity, when you get out of the shower, you’ll know how to ask for a towel.”
“What’s wrong? When your buddies at Langley made their recruiting rounds at Yale and such, somehow they forgot to pick up enough brothers to lend the right local color to the SOG?”
“Something like that.”
Cunningham waited for the older man to say more, but he didn’t.
“OK,” Cunningham said. “Suppose I’m in, how does this work?”
“Colonel Stocking puts through the paperwork seconding you for a classified overseas assignment. Your Marine Corps service will continue uninterrupted. You will continue to draw pay at your current rank. When the mission is completed, if you return to your unit, you will be promoted one grade. The paperwork in your file will indicate that you were on an international assignment training of forces friendly to the United States. The location and nature of that training will be classified. For the duration of the mission, you will also draw pay at a GS level equivalent to your current rank.”
“So I get to double dip?”
“You will earn it.”
Cunningham nodded, waited a beat. “You said if.”
“You said if I return to my unit.”
“You might die. It has been known to happen.”
Cunningham waited. The older man spoke again.
“Corporal, like you, I started in the military. I have devoted my entire adult life to the service of this nation. I believe, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, that this country is the last, best hope of mankind. And I will do whatever is necessary to protect this nation from its enemies.” Fisher stopped for a moment, still holding Cunningham’s eyes. “In this cynical age, some find sentiment quaint. Others find it laughable.”
Cunningham had heard speeches like that before, and the man was right. The sentiment had always been laughable. But this time it wasn’t funny. And Cunningham had been stared down by white men before, but this time there was no fear in the man’s eyes. There was something else. Cunningham thought it might be respect.
“Do you find that sentiment laughable, Corporal?”
“No sir,” Cunningham said. “I do not.”
The older man nodded. Cunningham waited, but the older man had nothing else to say.
Finally Cunningham spoke. “So now what? Blondie gives me the file again and I put my John Hancock on it?”
The older man shook his head. “When you agreed to continue this conversation, our relationship became as official as it is ever going to get. The Colonel will complete any paperwork the Corps requires to explain your absence.”
Cunningham nodded. “When do I report?”
“You leave with us today.”
Cunningham nodded, started to rise. “OK. I’m in. I’ll get my gear.”
Fisher shook his head. “Your gear will be provided. You will not return to your barracks. You will not write home. You will not say goodbye to your comrades. You will leave with us directly.”
Cunningham and the older man held each other’s eyes again. So it was like that. Cunningham nodded, stood and put his hand out across the table.
“You and me, we have an understanding. Will you shake on that? Or is that too official for you?”
The older man stood and took Cunningham’s hand, the shake lasting a count longer than Cunningham expected. When the older man released his hand, Cunningham chuckled a little.
“Is something funny soldier?” Blondie said, puffed up, trying to get some skin back in this game.
“Yeah. All my life, my the color of my skin has been a strike against me. And where I come from, most white men’s nightmares include a nigger who knows how to use a gun. Now I got two white guys in suits begging a nigger to do just that.”
Blondie reddened a little, but the older man just smiled slightly.
“Is this a wonderful country,” Fisher said, “or what?”