By J.S. Kierland
The Major drove north along 95 into the oncoming darkness. The sun hung
low over the desert behind him, turning Vegas into a blur of light in
his rearview mirror. From here it'd be forty minutes of uninterrupted
silence before the electric gates and building C came into view.Each night
he prepared himself like a boy scout on retreat. His assignments had become
top secret and a different officer put in charge with each one. A minimum
of words, the flight plan revealed,then the darkened room for ten hours
of flying time. Hebegan to feel more like a robot than a boy scout and
requested a transfer back to building A. Instead, he was promoted to Major,
given a pay raise, with an extra day off each month. Nothing else changed.
His promotion made Nancy happy. The extra money had more than covered
Billy'sprivate school for the year, plus the new couch. It also meant
he could keep the red Beemer, and she could continue driving the SUV.
The extra day off usually came on a weekend when he could catch up on
his sleep and watch a football game.
He found flying in a darkened room much more exhausting than the real
thing, and missed the freedom of disappearing into the sky without someone
sitting behind him monitoring his every move. He'd been denied his request
for a transfer back to Building A so he askedto be reassigned to the base
he had come from in Germany. They ignored that request completely and
didn't promote him, meaning he was going to stay in Building C where they
needed him until further notice.
Flying the drones was boring. Sitting in a seat over targeted terrain,
thousands of miles away, watching it on video screens from a few thousand
feet up. Color by day, black and white by night. A variety of young sergeants
were assigned to sit next to him and work the drone's cameras, but he
controlled the plane. That included the 500 lb. bombs and the deadly missiles.
They had turned war and surveillance into a video game, unlike flying
his beloved F-17 where he was as far above the target as he wanted and
didn't have to see it, or even think about what he'd hit below. The silent
drone was more precise and he could be in as close as he wanted. He could
see what people were wearing, catch their expressions, and even hear their
Most of the time he followed convoys, or a stranded soldier put in harms
way. He'd maneuver the drone in as close as he could to watch and protect
until reinforcements arrived. What he couldn't get used to was working
in such close proximity to the targets, and the high expectations of the
intelligence officers. They never seemed satisfied with anything he did,
and yet never complained. There were different agents every night with
great expectations for their particular projects. Nothing spoken. He'd
just be handed the orders and a flight plan.
He began leaving for the job earlier each evening to stop and pray at
the little church outside Indian Springs. There never were any priests
or people around and he'd arrive and leave alone. A priest's vestments
hung in a corner of the church near the confessional and several benches,
in need of paint, made up the few rows of uncomfortable seats. A large
crucifix dominated the simple yellow sandstone altar.
Invariably, a variety of coins had been thrown into the holy waterbowl
at the front door, probably by gamblers looking for a little luck at the
tables back in Vegas. The Major would scoop them out and drop the dripping
coins into the little wicker basket on the floor. Then he'd bless himself
with the residue of water on his hands, throw a few bucks into the basket
on top of the wet coins, pray for a few minutes, and head for the shiny
red Beemer he'd parked in the lot outside. His life had turned into these
simple rituals. Between the church's collection basket and Building C
his life had turned distant and faraway. Only the crucifix over the makeshift
altar and the ironed vestments hanging in the corner seemed real to him.
The ride through the darkness to Building C went quickly if he found the
jazz station that he sometimes got on clear nights when the desert smelled
of perfume and sand. Miles Davis' muted trumpet played his old version
of SUMMERTIME and it made him think about that time before he'd been born.
Those wars when jet fighters scorched the sky and the pilot's only challenge
was how fast or how high he could fly. In the years that followed the
fighter pilots had simply graduated to missions and targets. Those exciting
times were gone and only existed when he talked to the older men in worn
flight jackets, holding drinks in their fists,and dreaming ofwalking on
He came up on the security checkpoint and the lighted gates. The guard
knew him but went through the routine of checking his IDs, saluting, and
then raising the barrier. More dull repetitive rituals. He rolled into
the base at the required fifteen miles an hour and headed for Building
C. It was the nondescript tan building, hardly noticeable in the day,
andjust a dark shadow at night. Large fan palms had been planted along
its northern perimeter to lessen the look of the numerous satellite dishes
facing the southern sky.
He parked in his usual spot away from the lighted entrance where hisred
Beemer would be less noticeable. He grabbed his leather pouch, threw in
his sunglasses, locked the doors, and headed for the building. It was
still hot and the strong AC hit him when he walked in. There was another
check of IDs at the closed window by someone he hadn't seen before. The
buzzer sounded and he went through into the narrow hallway, and down to
the cramped room they called the lounge. It was empty and someone had
left the TV on. A pro football game was in progress. The Redskins were
up on the Giants by a field goal.
"Sir," a voice said behind him. He turned and saw another new
face. "They're waiting to assign us. I'm Sergeant Davies. I'll be
with you tonight." They shook hands and the Major followed him down
Several extra people were at the table. He had worked with some of them
before. Their silence and avoided glances made him look around for the
guy who'd be running things on this particular mission. He sensed it'd
be the one in plain clothes at the end of the table, dressed in chinos,
Hawaiian shirt, and a desert jacket. He had a nondescriptpreppy look,
probably Ivy League, with a shock of sun burnt hair. Someone he didn't
know or want to know. The guy smiled and said, "You're late, Major."
"I'm sorry. It won't happen again,' he said stiffly.
"We have a lot to do," the man in the Hawaiian shirt replied,
and the usual manila envelopes were handed to him and the Sergeant. The
others stared quietly at the proceedings. The Major opened his envelope
and the Sergeant followed. A black and white picture lay on top of the
papers. A man dressed in Arab robes looked back over his shoulder. The
expressionhad fear in the eyes and a surprised look on his face, like
he wasn't sure which way to turn.
"This is Farouk Abdul. He's a top recruiter and one of the higher
ups in the organization," the Hawaiian shirt said, keeping the information
minimal. It was doubtful he even used the man's real name. The Major studied
the picture and the apprehensive eyes staring back at him.
"How old is the picture?" he asked.
The man smiled, and said, "A year at most."
In this game the Major knew how much a man could change in a year. He
looked for some clue in the man's face to be sure he could get a quick
identity. He saw a small, almost unnoticeable, birthmark along the left
line of his jaw. It would have to do. The angle of the picture made it
difficult to tell how tall he was, and the loose Arab clothes hid his
body and head.
"He's our target," the man in the Hawaiian shirt said. That
was it. An evening's work spelled out in three words.
The Major signed the usual pieces of paper under the picture and stood
up. The Sergeant rose with him and they both saluted the other men at
the table. They were ready for work and headed for the interior room behind
They took their positions in the large leather chairs and the video screens
flickered and lit up. The Sergeant adjusted the focus on his controlled
cameras and the brown terrain came into view. The Major thought it was
probably Afghanistan, or the run along the Pakistani border. On one screen
he could see mountains in the background and even a few houses. He took
the controls, gave the signal and felt the drone's power switch over to
him. He recognized this particular drone by the easy feel of it. He'd
spent an entire night flying it a week earlier, protecting a group of
men in a disabled Humvee. Shots had been fired and he'd used two missiles
to protect them. It had been a long, boring night but everyone in the
room seemed satisfied with his work and the positive results. Three insurgents
were killed and the trails of blood meant several others had been wounded.
He liked this drone and felt sure it was the same one he'd used that night.
This flight plan would take him over a mountainous ridge toward some small
houses nestled in along a dirt road that ran down the mountain. It was
early morning there and he could feel the men stir in the seats behind
him when they saw the houses. The Sergeant zoomed the belly camera in
and caught what looked like a covered lump behind one of the houses. The
Major maneuvered the silent drone higher and glided to the other side
of the structure where the shape of a car could be seen more clearly under
a loose covering. The Hawaiian shirt moved in closer to the TV monitor
and stared at the quiet scene. Absolute silence covered the room. The
Major kept the drone in the glare of the sun where it would be less noticeable.
The mountain peaks also helped conceal it from the houses.
The guy in the Hawaiian shirt looked back at him from the monitor and
smiled. He understood what the Major was doing. No one in the room moved.
Theysat waiting for something to happen like large birds of prey.
A door opened and a young man slipped out of the house dressed in Arab
robes. He looked carefully up and down the road,checked the mountain passes,
than moved to the car. Tugging and pulling at the covering he finally
managed to lift it, revealing an old, pale Mercedes touring car. The young
man checked the interior and pulledoutwhat looked like used food wrappings.
Then he turned, checked the road again, and went back into the house.
"Do you think he saw us?" the Hawaiian shirt asked.
"I don't know," the Major said. "Is he the target?"
"No," the man answered, and continued to stare at the quiet
scene on the TV monitor. "But they're getting ready to move."
The room got quiet again, in a death-like way, and he figured the car
would be his target and that they'd want the strike to be out on the road
somewhere away from the houses. The brass didn't like civilian casualties.
The room stirred when the same man came out again and got in the car.
He started the motor and pulled in closer to the house. A woman came out
with a covered basket that looked like food for a long trip, and she placed
it in the back seat.A berka covered her face so there was no way of identifying
her, or linking her with the man. She wrapped the cloth even tighter around
her head and went back into the house. Everyone in the room seemed riveted
to the screen. The door opened again and the woman came back out with
a little boy in tow. He was dressed in plain jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt
with something written on it. She opened the back door and lifted the
boy up into the Mercedes. He hugged her, and for a moment the berka dropped,
and she kissed him. The Sergeant tried to zoom in on her face but she
pulled the berka up again and wentback into the house.
The man in the Hawaiian shirt took out some other photos, spread them
across the table, and staredat the pictures that he'd probably studied
for months. "I don't think that's his wife," he said. "She
looked older. Maybe it's his mother."
"Who is the boy?" someone asked.
"I don't know," the man replied.
The screen didn't move. The Sergeant tried another camera to catch the
face behind the wheel but the man remained in the car's shadows. The Major
watched the door for the man in the picture to come out. There would only
be a moment for identification unless he went around the front to get
into the passenger seat. The Major was sure the man in the Hawaiian shirt
knew that too. The room tensed with the waiting.
The back door opened again and another man in Arab robes came out carrying
a small briefcase. He turned to speak to someone inside and then headed
for the car. It looked like the same man in the picture. Except now he
was laughing as he threw the briefcase into the car and got into the back
with the boy. The car pulled away and the men in the room got up and quietly
headed for the door, leaving the Major, the Sergeant, and the man in the
Hawaiian shirt alone in the room. "Thanks for coming, gentlemen,"
he muttered as they left.
The Major lifted the drone higher, staying behind the Mercedes so that
the mountains covered him. The car drove past the small community of houses
and turned north toward the main road. There was hardly any traffic and
the only question was the little boy in the car.
The agent took off his safari jacket and moved in closer to the monitor.
"He's our man. You can take him anytime, Sir," he said.
"What about the child?" the Major asked.
The air hung heavy in the air-conditioned room. "What child?"
the man asked, keeping his eyes on the monitor.
The Major did not acknowledge the Sergeant's quick glance at him, and
said, "I thought civilian casualties--"
"Our target has killed civilians and more," the man answered
quickly. "There's a ruthless killer in that car."
The man with the sun burnt hair had still not looked away from the monitor
and watched the Mercedes bounce down the road toward the main highway.
"We've been hunting this guy for three years, Major. I can't go back
and write another report telling them he got away again. This is exactly
what he's done in the past. I was expecting it."
Behavior like this was against the rules. The Major was in charge of making
the choices and decisions. Protecting policies and planes was his ultimate
duty. He watched the Mercedes go out past the last house, getting closer
to the main road. The man in the Hawaiian shirt finally turned away from
the video screens and stared at the two men in the leather chairs. He
started to say something but the car on the screen stopped and the Sergeant
The man in front of them turned back to the monitors. "Watch him,"
he said. "It may be some kind of trick."
"Are we sure it's him?" the Major asked.
"It's him!" the man said.
One of the back doors on the Mercedes opened and the little boy got out
and ran off the road. The man in the back got out to follow him and the
camera zoomed in closer. The boy ran to a ditch and pulled down his pants
to piss. The man came closer and the boy laughed and waved him away. The
man laughed with him and stepped back. The Major angled the drone slightly
and felt the missile release in his hand. The monitor lit up in colors
and a cloud of dust and debris covered the area. Through it he could barely
see the Mercedes beginning to move down the road and he flew the drone
up over the dark cloud and headed north with the car. He angled the drone
again and fired. The silent explosion rocked the video picture.The car
lurched off the road, the gas tank blew, anda ball of flame covered the
picture. The Major lifted the drone and slid back toward his first strike.
The smoke had almost cleared and he could see the dark hole where it hit.
He looked toward the ditch for the boy but nothing moved.
"Do you see the kid?" he asked.
"Negative," the Sergeant called.
"Get out," the Hawaiian shirt yelled.
The drone lingered and moved to the other side of the ditch. One of the
cameras caught the boy lyingon the side of the ditch. He either crawled
or had been blown there.
"There's nothing you can do. Get out!"
The man was right and he knew it. He lifted the drone and headed for the
mountains. There were people running like bugs across the screens. Then
the mountain peaks suddenly covered everything. He veered the drone southward
and gave the signal. He felt it come back and heard a voice telling him,
"Nice work," and he let go. For a few seconds he sat there letting
the tension run out through his arms and neck.
"Great shooting, Sir," a voice said next to him. "You might've
even saved that kid." When he looked over the Sergeant saluted him.
"I never saw anything like it."
"It was a definite kill," the other man said, shuffling papers
and pictures off the desk, and stuffing them into an attaché case.
He spun the numbered lock, picked up his jacket, and said, "You're
absolutely the best, Major. The best." Andhe heard the door close.
"I'll be in the lounge, Sir," the Sergeant said.
The Major left the building and went out to wait in the car to be reassigned.
The young Sergeant came out to tell him he could go home early. It was
still dark. The moon had come up and its pale light covered the desert
in a cool glow. The Major swung the car out past the security gates and
headed for the highway. He tried not to think of what had happened and
clicked on the radio. Bill Evans and strings drifted in around him playing
a Faure piece. It had a clear sound to it like the night. The road was
empty and he picked up speed, heading for the glow in the sky over Vegas.
He'd be home in half an hour.
When the turnoff to the church came he took it, and had to rethink which
way to turn in the dark because he had never come up on the church from
this side of the highway. He needed to pray.
He slowed down, saw the pile of stones by the church's entrance, and made
the turn. It looked different at night. Smaller. He edged the Beemer forward,
looking for the parking spaces. It seemed to take longer than usual and
then he saw the building ahead. It was difficult to judge how far he'd
come because the headlights seemed to miss the structure completely, turning
it into a shadow. He thought he'd taken the wrong turn, and got out to
see where he'd landed. When he turned the headlights off the old stucco
building glowed in the moonlight off to the left. He had come in from
another angle and started walking down what looked like a path to the
He didn't expect to see anyone around at that hour and made the turn to
open the door, but it wasn't there. It had been ripped off its hinges
and thrown out of sight. What were left of the benches had been piled
in a corner. The holy water bowl had been removed and the wicker basket
gone. He looked up at the altar where the crucifix used to be, but only
the faint image of a cross was left on the yellow sandstone.
He looked quickly around for the priest's vestments. They were gone and
he felt cold and alone. The church looked like it had belonged to the
desert for a long time. The Major turned and saw the covered stall of
the confessional box where the vestments used to hang. The oval tophad
been smashedbut theset of seats were still intact. A lizard looked up
at him for a moment and then crawled quickly away under a board. Nothing
seemed to move in the cold moonlight. He pushed aside what was left of
the torn pieces of curtain on the confessional, mumbled a short prayer,
and began talking about what had happened to him and where he'd been.
His voice got stronger as he spoke, but only the moonlit night heard him.