PROLOGUEThe boys lined up in six squads of seven, dressed in the tomato-red shorts and bleached white shirts of their Hale Jr. High School gym uniforms. It was a bright southern California day, the sun blazing high above the field where the boys were in line. Each squad had a leader who answered to Coach Vince Nieman, who was nothing more than a grown-up boy himself: a has-been, first string high school football player who used to be good enough to land himself a spot on the bench in exchange for a college football scholarship. Now he wasn’t good enough for anything but teaching P.E. Brent’s squad leader was a C- student named Russ Carlton, a bulky, red-haired, freckle-faced bully whom, even in middle school, every one of his teachers would have voted as most likely to become a criminal - that is, except for Coach Nieman, who found his brawn useful for crowd control.
Brent hung his head down and filed in. He hated P.E. and made no secret about it.
“You’re a fag, Marquez!” Russ Carlton spouted.
“A dickless fag!” chimed in another.
“You’re a dickless fag who sucks dick!” Now there was a chorus.
“Do it, Steinman!” Russ commanded.
That was the cue for Gary Steinman, a skinny, pathetic-looking kid with a generous brown bush of frizzy, crumpled hair, to fall in line behind Brent. With both hands he grabbed the waistband of Brent’s shorts and underwear and pulled down with all his strength, until they were dangling around Brent’s ankles. Gary’s efforts were rewarded by a cacophony of belly laughter from everyone.
As Brent pulled up his shorts and began to run away, Russ affirmed to the group: “See, I told you he was a fag!”
“Yeah, what a pussy!” exclaimed Gary.
Brent ran past Coach Nieman and into the locker room.
“Where do you think you’re going, Marquez?” asked the Coach. Brent ignored him. Then he turned to Russ. “Carlton, go get Marquez and bring him back out here."
“Come on, Steinman,” commanded Russ as he ran after Brent into the locker room. Steinman followed him like a trained dog.
Brent spun the lock on his gym locker and opened it. The locker room smelled: a combination of the stench of armpits, sweaty balls, and dirty stale socks. He was just putting a leg into his jeans when the two arrived.
“Suit up, Marquez. Coach wants you back out there.”
Brent pretended not to hear Russ and kept putting on his street clothes.
“What are you, deaf, faggot?” asked Steinman.
“I heard you. I’m not going.”
“Get him, Steinman," Russ said as he shoved Gary Steinman into Brent, slamming Brent’s back against the locker. Like a cobra, Brent came back at Steinman, grabbing his left arm, which he twisted behind his back, and applying pressure upward, causing Steinman to wince as he turned and smashed his nose against the locker door.
“Who’s the faggot now, Steinman?” Brent bellowed into his ear.
“Let him go, Marquez, or I’ll fuck you up,” threatened Russ Carlton. Brent ignored Carlton and kept up the pressure.
“What’s going on here?” Coach Nieman’s voice boomed through the locker room. Brent wouldn’t let go. He pushed harder on Steinman’s arm until he thought it would break and ground his face into the locker. Steinman’s wire-rimmed glasses bent at the nose, fell off, and hit the filthy locker room floor.
“No fighting, Marquez. Let him go, now!” barked Nieman. Brent let go of Steinman and gave him a push to the floor. “You two: back outside. Marquez: to the VP’s office, on the double!”
“This isn’t over, faggot!” said Russ, walking backwards and pointing his finger at Brent threateningly.
Brent left the Vice Principal’s office with a two-day suspension from school, which was fine by him. It was nothing but a wasteland of adolescent scum, as far as he was concerned. The classes were a joke, and the so-called students seemed to be in a popularity contest over who could be the most ignorant.
As Brent closed the door of his locker and turned around, there stood Russ Carlton and about eight of his friends. What a surprise.
“You wanna fight, pussy?” said Carlton, shoving Brent against the locker, the combination dial digging into his spine. “I’ll kick your ass!” Brent dared not shove back. There were too many of them. He popped back on his feet and Steinman shoved him back into the locker, followed by a body slam from Nate, another push from Joe, and a sock in the stomach from Briscoe.
“You call this a fair fight?” Brent said, gasping for air. “One against five?”
Russ cackled like a chicken. “The Mexican wants a fair fight!”
“I’m not Mexican.”
“Sorry, I forgot. I guess that’s not your brown skin, is it? You must have just rubbed shit all over it.” Russ laughed again, accompanied by his band of delinquents. He leaned into Brent so closely that Brent could smell his dead-fish breath, and he sniffed at Brent’s neck and grimaced.
“Smells like beans to me. How ‘bout you Briscoe?”
Briscoe stuck his big, long nose right under Brent’s earlobe and sniffed.
“Yup, beans and tortillas.”
“It’s official, Marquez: you’re a beaner!” said Russ, and roared with laughter, to the chorus of guffaws and chortles of his entourage.
“Tell you what. Steinman, here, has to earn his wings. Plus, that wasn’t a fair fight in the locker room today.”
“Yeah, he ain’t been initiated yet,” said Briscoe.
“Did I ask you, dog breath? Like I was saying, Steinman needs his first fight. Saturday, 12 noon, Knapp Park. Be there or we’ll come and get you, and I don’t have to tell you what that’ll be like.”
Russ slammed Brent back into the locker and walked away, followed by Steinman and each of the boys, until Brent fell on his butt on the concrete. He picked himself up, dusted off the knees of his filthy blue jeans, and decided right then and there that he would never back down from any bully.
He sat at the table, patiently. At first glance, he appeared like any other ordinary person, unless you looked a little bit further. Then you could see that he was different than most people. Oh, he could put on the charm and act like everyone else. But this time, he was staring – an intense, unwavering fixation that made you want to look away, run away.
“You’re pretty brave, you know?”
“Either way, this has to be settled.”
There was a darkness in his eyes – an emptiness so deep that if you were unfortunate enough to catch his gaze, you also caught a chill. Those eyes kept staring ahead – two ebony pools with no reflection; an endless void, a black hole.
“This isn’t a game, you know.”
“I know that better than anybody. You need to call this off, immediately.”
His lips curved upward, as if to form a smile which turned into a sneer. He clenched his fists tightly until his knuckles began to turn red. He was a professional. Being a professional meant not only being skillful at what he did, but also being careful about whom he did it for. And who he did it to. He didn’t like to make mistakes of judgment.
“You’ve really got guts, I’ll give you that.”
“When the stakes are as high as this, you have to. So, do we have a deal?”
“There’re no refunds. That’s a rule.”
“You can keep the money. I consider it well spent.”
He leaned forward across the table, his reptilian eyes still staring forward, expressionless and empty.
“Did you bring the termination fee?”
“Yes. It’s all there.”
A black bag was placed on the table. He opened it and thumbed through it, his eyes all the while fixed. Then a malicious, sardonic grin spread across his lips.
“Then I suppose the contract is terminated.”
“You get numb to it. Numb to death, killing. That’s all I can say. You get numb to the things that happen in war, but you never can forget them. They come back in your dreams after you finally come home and they never leave.”
“SPORT – called the immediate action drill. Helps remind you what to do if your rifle malfunctions. It’s drilled into your head in training. You’re breaking that rifle down and putting it together two hundred times a day and by the time you get over there, you’re doing it like a machine on autopilot. But all that training goes out the window when the first shot’s fired in combat. That adrenalin kicks in, lights you up like a firebomb. But you remember SPORT because that rifle’s the most important possession you’ve got. You’re only alive as long as its in your hands.”
Never surrender as long as there’s a means to resist. And never leave any man behind.
“General Smedley Butler said: ‘War is a racket. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It’s the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.’ Well, I know war. Probably better than I know anything. You see in the movies all their charts and maps and plans. But when you hit the ground its pure fucking chaos. The loud thumping of mortar rounds, helicopters buzzing around, rockets exploding, the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. Guys getting hit. People screaming, calling out, ‘Medic! Medic!’. Pieces of flaming hot metal flying. Sweating like shit under all that gear, guys screaming, the fucking smoke. The blood, the heat, the flies, the bodies swelling up, the smell.”
“Get small in your foxholes! Air support on the way!”
“They tell us we don’t have to obey any order that’s illegal. Then they tell us if we don’t obey it, we’ll go to jail. Orders come down from the Colonel and I’ve got to give them to my company. Two hundred lives under my charge.”
You have to distinguish between the civilians and parties to the conflict at all times. But, make a mistake and you’ve either killed innocents or you get a whole patrol barraged by rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire.
“Rules of engagement say you can use deadly force to protect your life. I’ve had to make split-second decisions on who to shoot and who not to shoot. We all have. Some guys have shot people carrying bags of groceries heading toward them because they thought they were insurgents coming to kill them.”
Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.
“I enlisted on a scholarship – a higher education. I got it, but my real education started after the first deployment. It was then I realized that they we weren’t playing by the rules. We weren’t fighting for honor, for freedom. That was all a lie. But we fought. We fought for our own survival. We fought for each other. For the guy to our left and the guy to our right. I fought for the survival of the entire company. Our goal? To go home.
“I’ve given orders to guys older than me, who’ve seen more action than I have. To sergeants who know more about what goes on outside the wire than I do. I’ve sent the guys out on casualty collection – you’d be talking to your buddy one day, and the next day, you’re picking up pieces of him after he’s been blown to bits by and IED. Some guys have had to shoot dogs who picked up an arm or a leg and wouldn’t let go of it. You do what you’ve got to do because everybody comes home. Dead or alive. We don’t leave anyone behind.”
Captain Ryan Bennington suppressed the tears as the unwanted souvenirs that had been muffled and restrained ascended out of the depth of his memory and flooded his brain as he faced his accusers. Memories that had begun when he was at the top of his graduating class at West Point. Twenty-six years old and with nothing ahead of him but a great future. Two years later, he was carrying the bloody body of an 8-year-old girl as she died in his arms.
Said Eade of the comparisons, "Readers compare me in style to John Grisham and, there are some similarities, because John also likes to craft a story around real topics and we are both lawyers. However, all of my novels are rooted in reality, not fantasy. I use fictional characters and situations to express factual and conceptual issues. Some use the term 'faction' to describe this style, and it is present in all my fictional works."
Eade has written twelve novels, which are now in the process of being translated into six languages. He is known to keep in touch with his readers, and offers a free Kindle book to all those who sign up at his website.