hogs #6 death wish (jim defelice’s hogs first gulf war series)




Air War in the Gulf




By Jim DeFelice


Book #6 in the HOGS Air War series

based on the exploits of the A-10A Warthog pilots in
the 1991 Gulf War





Copyright © 2002 by
Jim DeFelice.

All rights

This book may not
be reproduced in whole or in part, by any means, without permission from the
author, except for short quotes in reviews or discussions. Contact:
[email protected]



Death Wish








































































Other Books by Jim DeFelice






28 JANUARY 1991


Standing watch one
morning in their trench
a few yards from the Iraqi border, Private Smith and Private Jones began
discussing aesthetics.

Or more particularly, how shit-fully ugly the
desert in front of them was.

The conversation soon turned to a comparison of
the ugliest things they had ever seen.

“The back end of a seventies’ Buick,” said Jones.

“Mary Broward’s face,” said Smith.

“Things, things,” said Jones, trying to rein in
the discussion.

a thing.”

“If you’re including stuff like that,” sniped
Jones, “Sergeant Porky’s rear end.”

“You saw Porky’s butt?” asked Smith.

Jones’ response was drowned out by the whiz and
explosion of a series of Iraqi shells landing uncomfortably close to their
position. It was the third attack of the afternoon, and by far the most
accurate.  Geysers of dirt burst over their trench, covering their prone backs
with grit. The ground shook as the pounding continued, and it quickly became
clear that this time, the Iraqis were serious about what they were doing— the
rain of explosives started a slow but steady walk toward the privates, the
enemy homing in on their position.

“Mayday! Mayday!,” screamed Smith, grabbing for
the com pack that connected them with HQ. “Shit, incoming. We’re taking serious

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” shouted Jones,
grabbing his buddy. Just as they rose, a blast pushed them face down in the

“Pray! Pray!” yelped Smith.

As Jones started to carry out his friend’s
suggestion, a fresh sound filled the air: a hum that managed to carry over the
steady roar of the steadily approaching explosions. The hum became a roar, then
a piercing whine and a loud metallic hush, the sound a steel bar might make if
it were being beaten back into molten ore. The ground reverberated with the
hiss of a thousand volcanoes. The sky flashed with lightning. Both men felt
their ears pop.

Then, silence.

Smith and Jones managed to rub the sand out of
their faces and look skywards just in time to see their saviors circling above:
a pair of U.S. Air Force A-10A Thunderbolt II attack planes, better known as
Warthogs, or simply Hogs. The A-10s had flattened the enemy artillery with a
strong but simple dose of Maverick AGM-65 air-to-ground missiles. The
dark-hulled beasts tipped their ungainly wings back and forth in greeting, then
flew off.

“Now that’s fuckin’ ugly,” said Jones.

“Ugly, fuckin’ ugly,” agreed Smith. “How the hell
do they fly?”

“Damned if I know. Too ugly to land, I guess.”

“I could kiss ‘em.”

“Me too.”

“Saved my butt,” said Jones.

“Now that’s ugly.”

“Not half as ugly as yours.”

“Not half as ugly as theirs.” Smith thumbed back
toward the planes.

“Damn ugly.”

“Most beautiful fuckin’ ugly I ever saw.”

“Damn straight.”










28 JANUARY 1991



It briefed damn
easy: Head exactly north
four miles off the last way marker, dive below the cloud cover, plink the tank.

But in the air, falling through thick clouds at
five thousand, just finding the T-54 battle tanks was an accomplishment.

Or would be. Major Horace Gordon Preston, better
known as “Hack,” clenched his back teeth and pushed harder on the stick, urging
the nose of his A-10A Thunderbolt II “Warthog” downward. The Hog grunted, her
angle of attack slicing through forty-five degrees as she finally broth through
the thick deck of clouds. Unblemished yellow sand spread out before her,
oblivious to the war. The targeting cue in the plane’s heads-up display ghosted
white and empty over the dirt as Hack hunted for the vehicles.

 They were supposed to be dug into a revetment on
the southwestern end of Kill Box Alpha Echo Five. He had the fight place, and
it was unlikely that the Iraqis would have moved the tanks this early in the
morning. They had to be around here somewhere.

He was going to nail them the second he saw them.
A pair of Maverick AGM-65B electro-optical magnification air-to-ground missiles
hung on his wings, balanced by four Mark-20 Rockeye II cluster-bombs. The
Mavericks would be fired first. He’d then close on whatever was left of the
target and pop the Rockeyes.

Assuming he found something to pop them on.

“Yo Devil One, you got our cupcakes yet?”

“One. Negative,” snapped Hack, acknowledging his
wingmate, Captain Thomas “A-Bomb” O’Rourke.

“Try nine o’clock, four miles.”

Hack glanced to the northwest. A brown smudge sat
in the distance there, too far away for him to make out. Still, it was
something; he angled his wings and turned in that direction, leveling out of
his dive. The nine-inch television screen at the right side of his cockpit
control panel fed video from the optical head in the missile on his port wing;
Hack had a perfect gray-scale image of undulating sand.

Preston glued his eyes to the altitude indicator
in the middle of the dash, momentarily worrying that he’d lost his sense of
where he was. Low and out of position for an attack, he realized he should tell
A-Bomb to take the lead. But that would have felt too much like giving up.

I’m only flying a Hog
, he reminded himself.
I can plink tanks with my eyes closed

Three or four years ago, that might have been
true. He was a high-time A-10 driver then, with tons of experience in Europe.
But he hated slogging around in the slow-moving, low-flying planes. Flying them
was about as glamorous as going to the prom with your mom’s grandmother, and
not half as good for your career. Thankfully, his Washington connections came
through with better gigs, transferring him briefly to the Pentagon before
finally sliding him into an F-15C wing. He came to the Gulf with the fast
movers, flying as a section leader; only a few days ago he’d nailed a MiG in
aerial combat over Iraq.

Within twenty-four hours— hell, within four— he
was transferred to Devil Squadron, back out of the fast lane, back into Mom’s grandmom’s
Model T.

The general who came through with the billet
advertised it as a command move, the chance to lead a squadron, admittedly one
of Hack’s most cherished goals. He hadn’t told him it was with A-10s until it
was too late. Nor was it a real command— he was only the squadron’s director of
operations or DO, second in line behind the commander.

The way Hack was flying today, he was lucky
someone didn’t bust him back to lieutenant. He needed more altitude to make the
attack work. Still not entirely confident that the smudge was anything but a
smudge, he began a tight bank, intending to spiral up like a hawk as he

The A-10 groaned. Never particularly adept at
climbing, the plane labored with a full load tied to her wings.

“Yo, Hack, you got ‘em?” asked A-Bomb.

“One. I’m not sure that’s our target.”

Preston could practically hear A-Bomb snickering
through the static. He came through his bank and pushed his wings level, now
dead on for the dark brown clumps. Maybe tanks, maybe not— the video screen was
a blurry mess.

Could be a pair of T-54s buried in the sand. Then
again, it could be an
I Love Lucy


A few stray clouds wisped in to further obstruct
his vision. Hack cursed at the gray fingers, flipping back and forth between
the two magnification cones offered by the missile gear in a vain hope that it
would magically help him find the tanks.

He needed to find the damn things. Partly because
he wanted to prove to A-Bomb and the rest of the squadron that he did really
and truly have the right stuff. And partly because he wanted to prove it to

Not that he should need to. But somehow the fuzzy
picture in the small targeting screen and the rust in his Hog-flying chops
negated everything else.

Hack checked his fuel and then his paper map as he
legged further north. He pushed the air through his lungs slowly, telling
himself to calm down.

Below the map and the mission notes, taped to the
last page of the knee board, were three pieces of paper. He flipped the sheets
up and looked at them now, talisman’s that never failed him.

One was a Gary Larson cartoon about scientists and
bugs. He looked at it and laughed.

The second was a Biblical quotation from
Ecclesiastes, reminding him that “wisdom exceedeth folly.”

And the last was the most important, a motto he’d
heard from his father since he was seven or eight years old:

“Do your best.”

All he could do. He blew another wad of air into
his face mask and put his eyes back out into the desert, trying to will some
detail out of the shifting sands. The smudge had worked itself into a dark
brown snake on the ground.

Not a tank. Something, but not a tank.

Hack sighed— might just as well let A-Bomb take a
turn; he was used to looking at things on the ground, and maybe his eyes were
even better. But as Preston slid his finger to click on the mike, the transmission
from another flight ran over the frequency. Waiting for it to clear, he saw a
gray lollipop just beyond the snake. Then another and another and another.

“Thank you, God, oh thank you,” he said. Looking
over, he dialed the Maverick targeting cursor onto the first T-54.

“You say something, Major?” asked A-Bomb.

“Have three, no four tanks, dug in, beyond that
smudge,” said Hack as he coaxed the pipper home. “Stand by.”

“Story of my life,” said A-Bomb. “Yeah, I got
them. Your butt’s clear. Snake’s the track from a flak gun. Zeus on the right
of the target area. Two of ‘em. Firing!”

As if they’d heard his wing mate’s warning, the
four-barreled antiaircraft guns sent a stream of lead into the air. They were
firing at extreme range and without the help of their radar, but even if they’d
been in his face Hack wouldn’t have paid any attention— he wanted the damned

His first Maverick slid off her rail with a thunk,
the rocket engine taking a second before bursting into action. By that time
Hack had already steadied the crosshairs on a second tank. One hundred and
twenty-five pounds of explosive dutifully took its cue as he depressed the
trigger, launching from the Hog on what would be a fast, slightly arced, trip
to its target.

Hack jerked his head back to the windscreen,
belatedly realizing he was flying toward the anti-aircraft fire. Well-aimed or
not, the 23mm slugs could still make nasty holes in anything they hit. He
jerked the plane sharply to his right, narrowly avoiding the leading edge of
the furious lead roiling the sky.




28 JANUARY 1991



As soon as Hack
cleared to his right, A-Bomb
dished off his two Mavericks, targeting the pair of four-barreled 23mm
anti-aircraft guns that were sending a fury of shells at his flight leader.

“What I’m talking about,” A-Bomb told the missiles
as they sped toward their destinations. “What I’m talking about is nobody fires
on a Hog and gets away with it. Go shoot at an F-15 or something. Better yet,
aim for a MiG.”

Never one to waste a motion, A-Bomb nudged his
stick ever so slightly to the left, lining up to drop his cluster-bombs on the
buried tanks. In the fraternity of Hog drivers, A-Bomb stood apart. He was a
wingman’s wingman, always checking somebody’s six, always ready to smoke any
son of a bitch with bad manners enough to attack his lead. But he did have his
quirks— he never entered combat without a full store of candy in his
flightsuit, and never dropped a bomb without an appropriate soundtrack.

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” qualified as appropriate, if
you skipped the mushy parts.

As W. Axl Rose prayed for thunder, O’Rourke tipped
into a gentle swoop toward the targets, planning to drop his Redeye cluster-bombs
in two salvos. In the meantime, Hack’s first Maverick hit its target, the nose
of the flying bomb sending a small gray-black geyser into the air.

“Decoy,” said A-Bomb. “Son of a bitch.”





28 JANUARY 1991



Hack rarely cursed,
but he found it nearly
impossible not to as he swung back toward the target area. A-Bomb might or
might not be right about the tanks being decoys— hazy smoke now covered the
target area, making it impossible to tell whether the tanks had been made of
metal or papier-mâché. Flames shot up from one of the antiaircraft guns his
wingmate had hit; black fingers erupted in crimson before closing back into a
fist and disappearing. He turned on his wing, edging north, still trying to
figure out what the hell he was seeing on the ground.

In an F-15, everything was laid out for you. AWACS
caught the threat miles and miles away, fed you a vector. The APG-70 multimode,
pulse-Doppler radar sifted through the air, caught the bandit eighty miles
away, hiding in the weeds. You closed, selected your weapon. Push button, push
button— two Sparrows up and at ‘em. The MiG was dead meat before it even knew
you were there.

Push button, push button.

If the MiG got through the net, things could get
dicey. But that was good in a way— you scanned the sky, saw a glint off a
cockpit glass, came up with your solution, applied it. You might even tangle
mano a mano, cannons blazing away.

But this— this was like trying to ride a bicycle
on a highway in a sandstorm. You were looking at the ground, for christsakes,
not the sky.

The desert blurred. Hack shifted in the ejection
seat, leaning up to get a better view. His elbow slapped hard against the left
panel, pinging his funny bone.

Stinking A-10.

Hack pulled through a bank of clouds and ducked
lower, jerking the stick hard enough to feel the g’s slam him in the chest.
He’d been out of sorts his first few times in the Eagle cockpit, out of whack
again when he’d come over here for his first combat patrols, unsettled even the
day he nailed his Iraqi. There were no natural pilots, or if there were, he
didn’t know any and he certainly wasn’t one of them. There were guys who worked
at it hard, set their marks and hit them. You learned to keep the bile in your
stomach, slow your breathing, take your time— but not too much time.

Do your best.

“I’m thinking we of our cluster-bombs and maybe
have a go with the guns on that cracker box.”

A-Bomb’s transmission took Hack by surprise. “Come

“Cracker box, make that a box of Good ‘n Plenty,
two o’clock on your bow, three, oh maybe four miles off. Looks like the candy’s
spilling out of it. See?”

He did see – now. A-Bomb had incredible eyes.

“How come everything is food to you, A-Bomb?” he

“Could be I’m hungry,” replied his wingmate.

A-Bomb’s “candy” looked suspiciously like howitzer
shells. Their frag— slang for the “fragment” of the daily Air Tasking Order
pertaining to them— allowed them to hit any secondary target in the kill box
once the tanks were nailed. Still, Hack contacted the ABCCC controller circling
to the south in a C-130 to alert him to the situation, in effect asking if they
were needed elsewhere. Important cogs in the machinery of war, the ATO and the
ABCCC (airborne command and control center) allowed the allies to coordinate
hundreds of strikes every day, giving them both a game plan and a way to
freelance around it. Dropping ordnance was one thing, putting explosives where
they would do the most good was another. Coordination was especially important
this close to Kuwait, where there were thousands of targets and almost as many

The controller told them the building was a
hospital and off-limits.

“No way that’s a fucking hospital,” said A-Bomb.
“I’m looking at a dozen fucking artillery pieces, sandbagged in. Fuck.”

Hack waited for O’Rourke’s curses to subside, then
gave the ABCCC controller another shot. But he wasn’t buying.

“Devil One, we’ll have a FAC check it out on the
coordinates you supplied,” said the controller finally. “I have a target for

Hack’s fingers fumbled his wax pencil and he had
to dig into his speed-suit pocket for the backup. He retrieved it just as the
controller began the brief, setting out an armored vehicle depot as the new
target. He scrawled the coordinates on the Persipex canopy, then double-checked
them against his paper map, orienting himself. The target was to the east, a
stretch for their fuel.

Doable, though.

A-Bomb continued to grumbled about the ersatz
hospital, even after they changed course.

“Hospital my ass.”

Hack tried coordinating the numbers against his
map, but lost track of where he was for a moment, thrown a bit by the INS. You
could get distracted easily in combat, no matter what you were flying. He had
to keep his head clear.

The opposite seemed true for A-Bomb. “I’ve seen
more convincing hospitals in comic books,” he railed.

“O’Rourke, shut the hell up and watch my six,”
barked Preston.

“What I’m talking about.”

This time, there was no difficulty seeing the
target. It had been bombed in the past hour or so; smoke curled from the
remains of buildings or bunkers at the north and south ends of what looked like
a large parking lot. Roughly two dozen vehicles were parked in almost perfect
rows at a right angle to the buildings. Beyond them were mounds of dirt—
probably more vehicles, dug into the sand. Whatever air defenses the Iraqis had
mounted had been eradicated in the earlier strike.

A flight of F-16 Vipers cut overhead as Hack turned
to line up his bombing run. At least five thousand feet separated him from the
nearest plane, but it still felt like he was getting his hair cut. He hadn’t
known about the flight, which was en route to another target; Hack fought
against an impulse to bawl the controller out for not warning him that the
aircraft were nearby.

Do your best,
he reminded himself, as he
nudged tentatively into the bombing run. The A-10A’s primitive bombsight slid
slowly toward the row of vehicles as he dropped through nine thousand feet.
They were small brown sticks, tiny twigs left in the dirt by a kid who’d gone
home for supper.

Hack’s heart thumped loud in his throat, choking
off his breath. He began to worry that he was going to be too low before the
crosshairs found their target, then realized he’d begun his glide a bit too
late. He was in danger of overshooting the vehicles. He pushed his stick,
increasing his angle of attack. The cursor jumped onto a pair of fat sticks and
he pickled.

Wings now clean except for the Sidewinders and ECM
pod, the Hog fluttered slightly, urging her pilot to recover to the right as
planned. But Hack’s attention stayed focused on the ground in front of him, the
sticks steadily growing from twigs to thick branches. The bark roughened and indentations
appeared. They were armored personnel carriers, all set out in a line. He could
see hatches and machine guns, sloped ports. He stared at them as they grew,
watching with fascination as they became more and more real, yet remained the
playthings of a kid.

Finally he pulled his stick back, belatedly
realizing he’d flown so close to the ground that the exploding blomblets might
very well clip his wings. He reached for throttle, slamming the Hog into
overdrive, ducking his body with the plane as he tried desperately to push her
off to the south.

It was only as the Hog began to recover that Hack
realized he hadn’t bothered to correct for the wind, which could easily send a
stick of bombs tumbling off target.

As he twisted his head back to get a look, A-Bomb’s
garbled voice jangled his ears. He started to ask his wingmate to repeat, then
realized what the words meant.

Someone on the ground had fired a
shoulder-launched SAM at Hack’s tailpipe.






28 JANUARY 1991



A-Bomb repeated his
warning, then stepped
hard on his rudder pedal, twisting his A-10A in the air. The ants that had
emerged from the burned out bunker were fat and pretty in his screen— no way
could he waste a shot like this, even if there were missiles in the air. He
kissed his cluster bombs good-bye, then tossed a parcel of flares off for luck,
tucking the Hog into a roll.

He swirled almost backward in the air, goosing
more decoy flares off before finally pushing Devil Two level in the opposite
direction he’d taken for the attack. If either of the SA-7s that had been
launched had been aimed at him, his zigging maneuvers had tied their primitive
heat seekers in knots.


Something detonated in the air about a half-mile
north of him. Immediately above the explosion, but a good mile beyond it, Devil
One crossed to the west.

Assured that his wingmate hadn’t been hit, A-Bomb
pulled his plane over his shoulder, flailing back at the armored depot to share
his feelings at being fired on.

“I’m a touchy feely kind of guy,” he explained as
Iraqis scattered below. “So let me just hug you close.”

The 30mm Avenger cannon began growling below his
feet. About the size of the ’59 Caddy A-Bomb had on blocks back home, the Gatling’s
seven barrels sped around furiously as high-explosive and uranium
armor-piercing shells were fed in by a duet of hydraulic motors, only to be
dispensed by the Gat with furious relish. The recoil from the gun literally held
the Hog in the air as the pilot worked the stream of bullets through the top
armor of three APCs.

As smoke and debris filled the air before him; A-Bomb
pushed the Hog to the right, leaning against the stick to fight off a sudden
tsunami of turbulence. He let off the trigger as he came to the end of the row,
pushing away now at only fifteen hundred feet, close enough for some of the
crazy ragheads on his left to actually take aim with their Kalashnikovs. The
assault rifles’ 7.62mm bullets were useless against the titanium steel
surrounding the Hog’s cockpit, and it would take more than a hundred of them to
seriously threaten the honeycombed wings with their fire-retardant inserts
protecting the fuel tanks. Still, it was the thought that counted.

“I admire the hell out of you,” said A-Bomb. Then
he turned back to nail the SOBs. “Let me show you what a real gun can do.” As
he zipped back for the attack, the Iraqis dove on the ground. “Do the words ‘thirty-millimeter
cannon’ mean anything to you? How about u-rain-ee-um?”






28 JANUARY 1991



Tiny bubbles of
sweat climbed up the sides
of Hack’s neck, growing colder as they went, freezing the tips of his ears. His
lungs filled with snow, ballooning, prying his ribs outward against the cells
of his pressure suit. Hack jigged and jagged, throwing the plane back and forth
as he tried desperately to avoid the SAMs.

The sharp maneuvers sent gravity crushing against
his body. Even as his g suit worked furiously to ward off the pressure, Hack’s
world narrowed to a pinprick of brown and blue, surrounded by a circle of
black. He heard nothing. He felt nothing. He knew his fingers were curled hard
around the stick, but only because he saw them there.

The plane was going where he didn’t want it to.

He pulled back on the stick, struggling to clear
his head and keep himself airborne. The black circle began to retreat. The
wings lifted suddenly, air pushing the plane upward. Something rumbled against
the rudders.

I’m hit.

Damn, I’m going in.

His lungs had a thousand sharp points, digging
into the soft tissue around them.

Do your best.

The plane’s shudder ceased. He caught his arm,
easing back, leveling off.

He was free. The missile that had been chasing him
had given up, exploding a few yards behind as it reached the end of its range.

Or maybe he’d just imagined it all in his panic. Maybe
the g’s rushing against his body had temporarily knocked him senseless; made
him hallucinate. In any event, he was free, alive and unscathed, or at least
not seriously wounded.

As deliberately as he could manage, Hack took
stock of himself and his position. He was about three miles south of the target
area, now clearly marked by black smoke. Open desert lay below and directly
south. He was at five thousand feet, climbing very slightly, moving at just
over 350 knots— a fair clip for a Hog.

Fuel was low, but not desperate.

Where the hell was A-Bomb?

“Devil Two,” he said over the squadron frequency.
“Lost Airman. A-Bomb?”

“Yo,” responded his wingmate.

“Where the hell are you?”

“I’m just north of Saddam’s used parking lot, helping
them put up the going out of business sign.”

“Where the hell are you?” Hack repeated.

“Relax Devil leader,” said O’Rourke. “I got you.
Hold your horses and I’ll be on your butt. We’re clean.”

“What do you mean, we’re clean?”

“I mean the only thing we have to worry about is
running into some of those pointy-nose types on their way to mop up.”

“What are you screwing around for? Check your
fuel. Come on. Didn’t you get a bingo?”

A-Bomb didn’t answer, which was just fine with
Hack. He turned southwards to intersect the original course back to King
Khalid, where they would refuel before heading back to the Home Drome at King

Dark curls of black wool filled the eastern
horizon. Saddam had set the Kuwait oil fields on fire and released thousands,
maybe millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, doing to the environment what
he had done to Kuwait.

“Got your back,” said A-Bomb, announcing that he
had caught up and was now in combat trail, roughly a mile offset behind Hack’s
tail. “How ‘bout we find a tanker instead of going into Khalid? Their coffee

“Can it.”

“Man, you’re being bitchy. What happened? That
SA-7 get your underwear dirty?”

This time, Hack was the one who didn’t reply.






28 JANUARY 1991



Lieutenant Colonel Michael
lowered his head toward the desktop, stretching his neck and
shoulder muscles until he could feel the strain in the middle of his back. Then
he rolled his head around slowly, trying to keep his shoulders relaxed as he
completed each revolution, counterclockwise, moving his head as slowly as he
could manage. Six more times and he put his chin on his chest, covering his
face with his hands, fingers massaging his temples. Then he dropped his arms
and sat upright in the chair, breathing slowly.

Though dissipated, his headache had not quite
disappeared. The throb was familiar and low-grade, potentially manageable by
one of several additional therapies, including what Skull called “the oxygen
cure” — breathing pure oxygen through his pilot’s face mask. But there were only
two real cures— one was time, the other was a drink.

Or perhaps they were the same, for wasn’t he
destined to drink, again, and again, and again, sooner or later?

Knowlington had been sober for twenty-three days
before last night. Then, on the ground at KKMC, waiting for his umpteenth
debriefing, someone had stuck a beer in his hand and he’d slipped down a long,
familiar hole.


No one made him drink the beer. He didn’t slip, he
went willingly. He took the beer and drank it, then got another and another.

There were extenuating circumstances. He’d gotten
back from a hellacious sortie north, fighting the odds to help rescue one of
his pilots, one of his kids. B.J. Dixon had been a ground FAC, helping a Delta
team spot Scuds deep in Iraq territory. Dixon— who was or at least ought to be
sleeping in his quarters in nearby Tent City— had saved the life of one of the
Delta boys but got separated from them in the process. Devil squadron had found
him and brought him home.

As squadron commander, Knowlington had felt
responsible for the kid and went along personally to bail him out. Everything
had gone well— too damned well, which was the problem. He’d let his guard down.


He’d wished for it. He’d known what was happening.
The tingle in his mouth, the roar in his head— he knew what he was doing.

Just a few beers.

How long had he been sober before that? Two weeks?
Three? He couldn’t even remember now.

Yesterday, he could have counted the minutes.

Michael Knowlington pushed back in his office
chair, staring at the blank wall of his trailer headquarters.

God, he wanted a drink.

It would take him ten minutes, fifteen tops, to
walk over to the Depot, an illegal “club” located just off the base property. A
few slugs of Jack Daniel’s and he’d be back on his feet.

He wasn’t fit to command the squadron. He
should resign

Someone knocked. Skull turned toward the door,
waiting a moment before saying anything, though he had already recognized the familiar
rhythm of knuckles tapping against the frame.

“Come,” he said.

Chief Master Sergeant Allen Clyston pushed into
the small office like a bear inspecting a new cave.

Clyston was the squadron’s first sergeant— and
much, much more. He personally oversaw the maintenance of Devil Squadron’s
twelve Hogs. In the squadron’s stripped-down organization chart, every enlisted
arrow pointed to him: Knowlington’s capo di capo, the colonel’s right arm— and his
left, and his legs, eyes and ears. Clyston was the last of a veritable mafia of
enlisted men who had helped Knowlington through half-a-dozen commands and
assignments stretching back to the waning days of Vietnam.


“Colonel.” Clyston groaned as he slipped onto the
metal chair across from Knowlington’s desk. “Ought to let me find you a real

“Don’t want visitors getting too comfortable,”
said Skull. He tried smiling, then realized how forced it must seem.

“I hear ya,” said the sergeant. He folded his arms
around his chest, leaning back in the chair so his gray-speckled head
touched the wall. “Got a problem I thought you could help with.”

“Fire away.”

“Got a fix for the INS units,” said Clyston,
referring to the gear that helped the A-10As navigate. Though a basic piece of
equipment, the gear was notoriously unreliable and needed  constant
readjustments. “Kind of a work-around-upgrade thing, but we need a pair of
special diodes I can’t seem to get through the usual sources.” Clyston reached
into his pocket for a piece of paper. “Becky Rosen says she can give them a
five-year, sixty-thousand-mile warranty if she gets this stuff.”

Skull’s head throbbed at the mention of Sergeant Rosen.
She was a damn good worker and smarter than hell, but she had caused Skull
nothing but trouble. She had a way of pissing off half the officers who crossed
her path. The rest made passes at her— not her fault certainly, but her way of
dealing with them fell somewhat outside the parameters of the Military Code of

Worse, she’d recently joined Delta Force in an
unauthorized foray across the border to help the Army retrieve a battered
helicopter. A good many butts were hanging in the wind because a woman had gone
over enemy lines.

Not that she hadn’t done a kick-ass job and
probably single-handedly saved the operation.

“Your usual channels can’t get this stuff?” Skull
asked, trying to make sense of the specifications.

“My channels are military,” said Clyston. “Turns
out, those are pretty rare little circuits. Rosen claims she can adapt them to
regulate the voltage and then use that to feed back against the errors. Has a
little card designed and everything, neat as a pin. She’s a whip, I’m telling

“It’ll work?”

“She says so, if we can find the parts.” Clyston
shrugged. “You know somebody at GE, right? They probably have something like
that. Or they’d get us onto someone. Maybe a regular supplier of theirs or
something. That G.E. guy now— Rogers, right?””

No, not Rogers. Jeff Roberts, who’d flown Phantoms
with Skull out in California. Some sort of senior vice president at the company
now. Probably didn’t know shit about radios, but he’d like this. Roberts had
always talked about finding ways around the brass, military or otherwise.

Skull did know a Rogers, though. Had known.

Captain “Slammin’ Sammy” Rogers had gone out over
Vietnam, ended up a POW. Supposedly, he’d been at Son Tay with a bunch of other
guys shortly before the raid there in ’70. Knowlington had led one of the
support packages, flying a Phantom.

The raid came up empty; Rogers never came home.

“Captain Roberts,” said Clyston.

“I think he went out as a lieutenant colonel,”
said Skull.

Clyston’s left shoulder edged up slightly in a
shrug. “Pretty much a captain’s attitude, though. It stays with you

“Oh, that’s a new theory.”

“F no,” said Clyston. He smiled. “Guy has a rank
stays with him for life, whatever the stripes say. Or what have you.”

“What rank am I?”

“Oh, a colonel. Definitely. Not full of shit
enough to be a general. No offense.” Clyston smiled.

The capo probably hadn’t come here to give him the
parts list. He must know about Skull’s drinking. The reference to Roberts— a
subtle hint that he ought to resign?

Clyston could be very subtle. But he was also
pretty straight. Very straight.

Skull folded the piece of paper and put it down on
his desk. “You got something you want to say, Allen?”

“Huh? Not me. You?”

A ton of things. Angry things: How dare a sergeant
hint that a colonel hang it up? A stinking decorated colonel with three
confirmed air kills and well over a hundred combat sorties, medals up the
yahoo, friends in all the right places— what gave some sergeant who’d never had
his fat butt graze an enemy’s gunsight, by the way, the right, the audacity, to
hint that he was over the hill?

Calmer things: Gratitude for pulling the men
together maybe a million times, for making planes whole, for moving heaven and
earth to keep the Hogs flying.

Other things: Sadness over people like Rogers who
hadn’t made it back, frustration over the delays and screwups and the human
factors, fatigue and nerves. Rage that they were both growing so damn old, that
after all these years, after all they knew, they had to keep sending kids to
places where they could die.

But words were not things that came easily to
Skull. There were too many, and no way of prioritizing them— no checklist to
follow, no map to plod your way through. Much easier to stay silent— and so he

“Saddam’s taking a poundin’,” said Clyston

“Hope so,” agreed the colonel.

“How much longer, you figure?”

“That’s a hard game to play,” said Knowlington. He
thought of all the times before he’d played it— ‘Nam, mostly, ancient history,
but he’d also had a squadron during Grenada and one that just missed a mission
in Panama. Then there were the alerts, probably a thousand of them.

They were silent a moment longer.

“You sure nothing’s bothering you, Chief?”

“Gettin’ old, is all,” said Clyston. He smiled,
but it wasn’t his usual smile; Allen definitely wanted to say something, his
eyes hunting the office. But before they could settle on anything, there was
another knock on the door.

Skull glanced at Clyston, then said, “Come.”

Captain Bristol Wong, an intel and covert ops
specialist Knowlington had “borrowed” from the Pentagon, pushed open the door.

“Colonel, Captain Hawkins and Sir Peter Paddington
would like a word,” announced Wong. His voice seemed more high-strung than
usual, possibly because of the thick bandage wrapped around his chest beneath
his uniform. A dark patch of skin on his face covered a fractured cheekbone,
and there were several burns along his hairline, all souvenirs from his recent
trip north to save Dixon. He’d also dislocated his shoulder, though it had been
placed back in its socket by a burly Para rescuer on the ride home.

Wong shrugged off the injuries, claiming he’d been
hurt worse trying to grab the last seat on the shuttle between Boston and D.C.

“Tell them to come in.”

“With all due respect, sir,” said Wong nodding at
Clyston, “this would be a code-word classified discussion, strictly

“I doubt you could fart on this base without The
Chief catching a whiff,” said Skull.

The welt on Wong’s cheekbone turned dark purple.

Clyston got up. “I was just leaving,” he said.
“Appreciate it if you can get us those doodads, Colonel. Let me know.”

Knowlington pushed his chair back against the
desk, making room for the other men. Hawkins was a Delta Force captain who had
worked with Devil Squadron before and helped rescue Dixon. Paddington’s exact
status wasn’t clear. He apparently served with a British MI-6 agency and worked
for one of the British commands. He was an expert on Saddam Hussein and the
Iraqi command structure, and seemed to fill a role as a liaison with the
British Special Air Service. The SAS commandos were working north of the border
spotting Scuds, scouting troop locations and sabotaging enemy installations.
Sir Peter had been involved in a failed plot to assassinate Saddam that the
Hogs were in on, helping set the time and place. He flitted freely around Saudi
Arabia, but his rank and role in the Allied war effort were far from obvious.

What was obvious was the stench of gin emanating
from his breath, so strong that it threatened to turn Knowlington’s stomach.

“Captain Hawkins, good to see you again,” said
Knowlington. He’d first met Hawkins two months before, planning a clandestine
operation known as Fort Apache.

“Thanks.” Hawkins flexed his shoulders, a
linebacker waiting to blitz. “We appreciated your help on that bug-out.”

“My men did that on their own,” Skull said. “Right
place, right time.”

“Yes, sir.” Hawkins sat down in the chair.

“Paddington.” Skull frowned in the British agent’s
direction, then looked at Wong. “So?”

“The British command desires our assistance,” said

“Not precisely, Bristol,” said Paddington. He
twisted the cuff of his blue wool blazer, as if adjusting a watch.