It fell from the sky and hit the sidewalk with a loud, wet, plopping sound, barely missing the corporal’s regulation spit-shined boots. The knot of shoppers surrounding him and his companion broke apart like an overripe melon splattering to pieces upon impact.
He jumped away from the impact site and bellowed to his companion, “Mandy! Get down!”
Pushing Mandy behind him into the shelter of a doorway, he dropped into a protective crouch in front of her, weapon drawn, eyes raking the agitated group of shoppers.
Gunnery Sergeant Simon Baxter stepped out of a neighboring pawnshop into the melee on the sidewalk. He tensed, balancing his bag of reclaimed weapons.
Trouble. Potential crisis. A trained specialist knows what to do in an emergency situation: observe and assess, then act.
Simon took in the sound of the impact; the stream of frightened civilians whooshing away like feathery particles from a dandelion’s white seed-head; the sudden glint of sunlight on the barrel of a gun.
He sized up the situation, then dropped the weapons bag and acted, approaching the gunman, arms extended, palms out.
“Hey, corporal! You’re off-duty! Are you authorized to carry an M9 in this sector?”
The gunman narrowed his eyes and waved a sidearm at Simon. “Innocents need protecting, Sarge. Get down or get out of the way!”
Mandy laid her hand on his gun arm. “Jerome. Honey. It’s all right.”
Edging closer to the couple, Simon repeated her words. “Yeah Jerome. It’s all right. Stand down!”
He pointed upward toward a second-story fire escape, and Jerome’s eyes followed his finger.
“See? Some kids with water balloons. This is not a situation, just a prank. Okay?”
The two locked eyes, and Jerome ratcheted down. Lowered the gun. Looked around and found Mandy, with her right hand on his shoulder.
She put her other hand on his and guided the gun back into its holster. “Easy, baby,” she said. “I’m all right. There’s no threat.”
Simon stopped, glanced back up at the fire escape, at the three-pack of gangly boys hooting and high-fiving each other as they jumped off the stairs and ran down the street.
“There they go, laughing their heads off, stupid little bastards.”
Mandy shook her head. “Doesn’t matter,” she said to Simon. “We’re all right now. He won’t leave the house without his gun, but he’s not going to shoot anybody.”
She smiled at Simon. “Thanks for trying to help.”
“No problem, Miss,” he said, keeping his eyes on Jerome. “Just want to make sure nobody gets hurt, that’s all.”
Jerome rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath. “Thanks, man,” he said. “But the damn gun ain’t even loaded.” He nodded toward Mandy. “She hid my ammo.”
Then he extended his hand to Simon. “Appreciate what you did, man. Name’s Jerome. Dealing with combat reflexes from 36 months with the 4th Marines in Iraq. Sorry for the dust-up.”
“No prob, man. I’m Simon. Simon Baxter. Did my time with the Second Division in Desert Storm. Glad you’re OK.” The men clasped forearms and bumped chests. “Semper Fi.”
Simon watched Mandy and Jerome step over the water-drenched slivers of latex that had almost made the headlines. Then he turned, picked up his dropped weapons bag, and headed for home. His senses remained painfully alert, every nerve jangling.
What really happened here? What did I miss?
Simon trudged along the street, head down, examining every crack in the sidewalk, avoiding eye contact with passers-by. His skin tingled with the uncomfortable itch of fast-drying flop sweat.
Three kids on a fire escape, pranking a combat-spooked vet. Nothing to worry about. Pissant little bastards, but harmless.
Blood pounded in his ears, driven by a heart that refused to slow its beat. He broke out in fresh sweat, walking and reviewing their faces in his mind.
I was wrong. Not kids. Not harmless. Bad guys on a mission is what they are.
He knew it now. They were short, skinny killers. Killers in camouflage, on assignment to take out good guys.
The water balloon had been a feint—nothing less than the initial action in a planned series of attacks. A harmless-seeming prank designed to get the good guys to drop their guard. He shook his head.
I fell for a trick that made three skinny guys look like harmless kids. A trick designed to slow my reaction time later. I let those devils sprint to the next stage in their mission.
He knew it wouldn’t be water balloons next time. They would toss a handful of grenades. Or rip off a salvo of AK-47 fire from a high sniper position.
Simon walked faster, rivulets of sweat oozing from his temples down the sides of his face into his collar, staining the back and pits of his shirt. His mind raced; he had to look out for his men.
But my men aren’t with me. They’ve deserted me. I can’t fight these murdering devils alone.
Simon looked up from the sidewalk and scanned the crowd around him. Swiveled his head, checking second and third floor windows in tall buildings on either side of the street.
The devils could be anywhere. I can’t kill them all. But I have to find them.
Simon began running, swinging his weapons bag to scatter pedestrians from his path. His face contorted, and he cried as he ran, sloppy tears following the tracks of sweat that marked his cheeks.
Hugging the buildings, he followed the insurgents. They were laughing, talking, bragging about how they had fooled the filthy Americans.
His excitement built with every step. His body took a pounding: feet hitting the pavement, tremors shooting up his legs, blood pumping faster and faster, head throbbing.
Filthy buggers don’t have long to live. I’ve almost got them.
He sprinted harder. Breath came in gasps. Warm breeze dried the tears on his face.
Any minute now.
He was smiling in anticipation when the aneurysm exploded in his head.