THE 13 OF HEARTS
by Kay Springsteen
Sometimes the battle comes to you.
Blurb: Peter "Rabbit" Kincaid wasn't always superstitious but after several deployments with the US Marines, he's picked up a few quirks. His last tour of duty didn't go so well, and now he's back home recovering from injuries and awaiting clearance to get back in the fight. The fight is about to come to him in a different way.
Melinda "Lin" Doyle is a two-time US Marine widow on the run from the fallout of an incident that threatens to separate her from her two children. Making their home in a motel where she works for board and half pay, with her oldest child attending school under an assumed name isn't her idea of being Mother of the Year. Then again, neither is being at the center of a murder investigation.
Rabbit believes everything happens for a reason so when he and the young family cross paths multiple times over the course of a couple of days, he pays attention. Lin would rather the handsome Marine officer take his attention elsewhere before he ruins everything. How can they ever get along when everything they do appears to be at cross purposes?
Kay Springsteen grew up in Michigan but transplanted to the south several years ago and now resides in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a couple of rescued mutts. On her days off, she enjoys photography, gardening, hiking in the hills, and spending time with her terrific family.
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Waiting always felt as pleasant as swimming in a stagnant pond. Rabbit hated it. Some nights, though, he wished the waiting would go on for just a few hours longer. Memories and possibilities had blended together into nightmares that had driven him from his cot into the night. He’d get no more sleep, he knew from experience. Not until the calendar page flipped over and erased the number thirteen.
Abbott had mentioned a poker game earlier. A shiver traced the length of Rabbit’s spine. He’d pass on that one. His luck had been running hot lately, built a reputation the guys were beginning to count on. If he won the night before he led them on a mission, they tended to be successful. But the odds were always strong the pendulum would swing back the other way while they were in the field. If he didn’t play, the lucky streak didn’t seem so long… so worn out.
As he exited the latrine, the door sprang closed behind him with a dull thud. He cupped his hands together and blew into them, spilling warmth into the chilly air around him in giant white puffs. Who knew the Afghanistan desert could get so freeze-the-six-off cold? It should have been hot as blazes. The ground on which he stood was surely the same stuff the devil’s own playground was made out of. Even the Afghan people referred to the Helmand Province as the Desert of Death. The densely packed sand beneath his feet wouldn’t be any softer in the blistering summer months to come than it was currently, in the depths of the harsh winter. The barren ground produced little in the way of nourishment for the people, but it did somehow manage to support drug habits worldwide with its bountiful harvests of white poppies.
“I need a smoke,” he muttered to himself, passing the pitiful shelter of the guard shack at Checkpoint Four with a nod to the corporal on guard duty. Instead of cigarettes, though, Rabbit pulled out a roll of hard candy and eased it open. He checked the color in the dim ambient light, and breathed a sigh of relief that the first one was too dark to be orange. He popped the disk into his mouth and sucked on it, the sour cherry flavor stimulating his salivary glands, reminding him he’d skipped his dinner MRE. He squeezed his eyes shut and then pushed them open again lest the horrors of his dreams somehow manifest while he was awake.
“There’s been reports of sniper fire outside of the perimeter after dark, Lieutenant,” reported the guard.
“Understood, Corporal,” Rabbit replied with a brusque nod. “I won’t go far.”
The candy wasn’t cutting it. His nerve endings burned as though thousands of embers had sparked to life beneath his skin. Need for nicotine clawed at his brain like a living entity. Spitting the cherry flavored circle into the dirt, Rabbit dug out the red and white pack containing his last few smokes. Then he patted his pockets, cursing out loud when he realized he’d thrown away his lighter earlier after he’d used it for the third time — better to toss it than risk accidentally using it a fourth time. He paused and glanced over his shoulder at the guard. “Got a light?”
The corporal tossed him a disposable lighter. Rabbit cringed at the pale color — white or yellow from what he could tell in the dim light — definitely not his usual lucky black. He accepted it with a smile of thanks, the need to light his cigarette outweighing the need to keep his luck running with him. But he jammed his hand into his pocket and tapped the green rabbit’s foot three times while he lit up.
The thirteenth had begun, and its hours stretched ahead of him — a Friday on top of everything else. A day he’d rather spend holed up in his bunk, not coming out until the clock hit zero-hundred hours on the fourteenth. But that wasn’t an option. Of course, when the entire year ended in a thirteen, every date became potentially hazardous anyway. Thankfully, that particular phenomenon was about to end in just a couple of weeks with the flip of the calender to January first.
He kicked at a frozen puddle until the ice broke free, sending a huge chunk flying through the air to shatter against a fifty-five gallon drum that was usually lit with a warming fire. No blaze graced the barrel, not with sniper fire in the area. Rabbit glanced at the stub of cigarette between his fingers. Even that small light could draw the wrong kind of attention. With a final puff, he dropped the stub into the dirt and ground it beneath his heel. Around him, Checkpoint Four began to stir. The waiting game was almost over, whether or not he wanted it to be.
The predawn hour passed in a blur of equipment checks and gear stowing. Three men stood together near a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, the first vehicle in line behind the mine chaser that would lead their convoy.
Chuckling, one of the men handed a picture back to the guy next to him. “She looks just like you, man.”
The kid grinned and smoothed a hand over his carrot-red hair. “Yep. Got her daddy’s good looks. And as soon as I get off this deployment, I’m putting a down payment on a house. Can’t raise kids in that cracker box we’ve got.”
The third man clapped a hand on the ginger kid’s shoulder. “If that’s the first thing you’re gonna do with a wife as pretty as yours, you and me need to have a talk about priorities, son.”
“Come on, Vince.” The first guy slugged Vince in the arm. “Not everyone’s a horndog like you. Besides, you know he knows how to do it. He’s got a kid!”
The group broke into easy laughter, but it fizzled quickly at the approach of their sergeant. Rabbit turned away. The guy shouldn’t be going on an op. Family men should be home. With their families.
All too soon they were Oscar Mike — on the move — and then Rabbit found himself focused on the world of gray and tan he could see through the armored window of the MRAP in a blur of another sort as they traversed the Desert of Death.
The mine chaser at the head of the pack found nothing for a couple hundred klicks, but the first stop wasn’t unexpected. The farther out from a checkpoint, the more apt an IED would be buried where it might score a hit on a vulnerable personnel carrier.
The third time they halted to disarm a roadside bomb in as many kilometers, Rabbit got out and stretched. They were near their target according to the GPS unit on board. Might as well do a quick recon. He eased away from the side of the giant armored vehicle with its rumbling engine and instantly lost his comfort zone. Too exposed. Changing direction in mid-stride, he angled his steps toward a low outcropping of flat gray rocks. The late winter sun gave off scant heat, and he shivered even under the weight of all his protective gear. The chill racing up and down his spine didn’t help.
They had traveled a line just under the top of the ridge known locally by some unpronounceable Arabic name that loosely translated as Eternal Torment. As he scanned the stretch of ground above them, he rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the sensation of wasps swarming beneath his collar. A scorpion scuttled around the largest rock. The attack was swift and unexpected. A tan speckled lizard, about as long as Rabbit’s hand, exploded from the loose sand and stone at the rock base and devoured the scorpion. After a satisfied flick of its long blue tongue, the reptile shimmied back into its dusty hiding place. Nothing else moved. Rabbit’s heart rate adjusted to a more normal pace.
The earlier wind had kicked up dust devils in the dry sand beneath his feet, but even that had stilled, leaving the air heavy with silence. No human sounds, nor any expected so far inside the perimeter of the Desert of Death.
Yet something about the silence was different, eerily so. Chief Warrant Officer Keith Sanders joined Rabbit to look out across the monotonous expanse of grayish tan that made up the landscape all the way to the horizon.
“Ever seen such a lack of color in your life?” asked Sanders in the Alabama drawl that never quite left his voice.
Rabbit snickered. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I see plenty of color — it’s just all butt-ugly.” He blew out a slow breath through pursed lips and concentrated on relieving his anxiety. It had to be nothing but the usual Friday the thirteenth jitters trying to grab hold of him. He couldn’t let them win. He swept his gaze right to left, then left to right, and saw nothing. Maybe there was nothing to see. Although intel had pinpointed the crashed drone as having gone down in the Sangin district of the Helmand province, they still hadn’t found it. Problem was, insurgents could strip abandoned planes and helicopters quicker than a neighborhood gang could strip an abandoned car in Detroit.
“You think the drone’s even out here?” asked Sanders, scanning the landscape.
“I think if it was, it’s likely not here now,” admitted Rabbit with a shrug.
“It’s quiet.” Sanders put his field glasses to his eyes and aimed them at the landscape again. “Too quiet — even for Helmand.”
Rabbit cringed. Man, he hated that it wasn’t just him thinking those things. Especially on what had to be the unluckiest day for a mission. “Yeah, been too quiet for the past five klicks,” he murmured.
Sanders froze. “What’s that? About two hundred yards straight out.”
Rabbit lifted his binocs but stopped at the soft, warbling whistle from behind him — Gunnery Sergeant Hector Chavez’s unique warning cry. Rabbit glanced over his shoulder.
Chavez gave a surreptitious nod in the direction they’d been heading. “Foot mobiles incoming,” he said quietly.
Shifting, Rabbit aimed the binocs on the road. At first glance, the ragtag band of men appeared fairly benign.
Which is exactly why the hair at the back of Rabbit’s neck stood on end. The figures traveling in their direction — four men and a boy in his early teenage years — all wore the traditional pale-colored Afghan payraan tumbaan, plain with no embellishment. A lot of grunts referred to the people as “pajamas” based on the look of the loose-fitting pants and knee-length shirts. For himself, Rabbit tried to steer away from derogatory terms. Indulging in bigotry only made their goals that much harder when they couldn’t relate to the people of the region.
The group had to know they were approaching U.S. troops. A small convoy of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles was hard to miss. Yet they walked with confidence, not hesitation. Definitely not showing fear. The spotter in the turret on top of the first MRAP turned his focus — and his rifle — to the approaching group.
Satisfied no surprises would arise from that sector for the moment, Rabbit turned toward the anomaly Sanders had seen and raised the binoculars again. Sure enough, in the middle of the tan-grayness of the winter-sleeping landscape, he could see the barely discernible outline of a wing. The same color as the terrain surrounding it, only its smoothness made it stand out. Two figures — locals, from their clothing — moved from behind the ruined aircraft, each carrying what could only be electronic components of the downed drone.
“Son of a biscuit-eater,” murmured Sanders. “They’re stripping it like a blessed car.”
That boy sure did like to state the obvious. Heat erupted along the back of Rabbit’s neck. Ever since their unit had taken a hit and lost two members to injuries a month back, they’d all been on edge, and the date sure wasn’t helping the pangs in Rabbit’s gut. But it was more than that. Something was off.
The sound of laughter and loud voices speaking in Arabic drew his gaze, and he frowned. A couple of the approaching men were acting like drunken dockworkers with their coarse and rowdy behavior, a neat trick since the Afghan people were forbidden to drink.
“Looks like me and my brother when we got into our daddy’s ‘shine.” Sanders confirmed the assessment.
The people in the region tended to a more conservative show in the presence of foreign troops. Why would those men want to draw attention to themselves?
“Diversion,” muttered Rabbit.
“Decoys,” Sanders said at the same time.
Both men turned back to the wreckage in time to catch more men scurrying away from the site. The sudden silence from the men up the road brought Rabbit’s head up. Not a soul could be seen. The group seemed to have vanished into thin air.
“Where’d they go?” Sanders squinted up the road, a frown creasing his forehead.
“I don’t know.” Rabbit’s fingers twitched. He readied his M16, double checking the magazine and giving the stock three pats. “Okay, Lucille, this just might be showtime.”
A high-pitched whine began to the north and drew closer.
“Incoming!” came a shout from the lead MRAP.
“Get down!” screamed Chavez from somewhere behind them.
The world seemed to spin in sluggish motion. Time slowed, events dragged out.
The freckle-faced ginger kid in the gun turret of the MRAP looked up. His eyes widened and he slid from his straps, scrambling to abandon the vehicle.
“Get out!” shouted Rabbit, waving his hand. “Get out of there!”
The explosion threw him several feet. He landed on his back against a low mud wall. Searing pain scissored along his right side. The acrid smell of burning rubber scorched his nostrils, but it was the screams filtering through the ringing in his ears and the smell of cooking flesh that made his stomach heave up what was left of his breakfast MRE.