Don't Write What You Know;
Write What You Care About -- Passionately!
- Rob Jackson
Recon 9, a group formed by veteran Air Force pilots who’d escaped a Russian POW camp faces a world devastated by plague, a desultory world war, and a widespread civic collapse.
Recon 9 follows a trail of bodies across Texas, discovering that west Texas put the wild in the wild west.
To catch the Russian agent they have to deal with bandit gangs, groups of homicidal maniacs, and military holdouts.
The agent is carrying out a program called Operation A or Operation Alpha.
To them, it seems to be: Operation Annihilation
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A man who’d just stepped out the door of a bar shouted, “Holy shit! Would you look at what just got off the boat.”
Reynaud studied the man a moment. The Texan, a lean man with a hard, weathered face wore, like most of the men they’d seen, jeans, cowboy boots and hat, and a jeans jacket over a nondescript shirt. Most importantly, he also wore a large, silvery revolver in an open holster.
“I told you we should have brought all the artillery instead of stashing the long arms outside town,” Logan muttered.
Steve grinned. “Logan, I think he’s picking on you because of that Hawaiian-print shirt you’re wearing.”
“What’s the matter with Hawaiian shirts?” Logan demanded.
The stranger had apparently heard the question. “Not a single damn thing, if you’re going to a pimp’s funeral, but we don’t have much use for them around here. They scare the stock and keep honest folk awake at night.”
Logan’s grin seemed frozen on his face but all traces of humor had deserted his eyes. “What’re you worried about then, asshole? You won’t lose a minute’s sleep over it.”
The group spread out with Logan, who’d been standing nearest the bar, stepping forward, turning as he moved, so he directly faced the Texan. Steve had moved from Logan’s left by three paces, and the Deacon had backed up two paces, also facing the man. Reynaud had continued another half dozen paces then he, too, turned to face the gunman.
“Hey, furriner,” the Texan drawled. “We don’t much like damnyankees and we really don’t like ’em when they got a big mouth on ’em.” The man stepped out to the edge of the sidewalk facing Logan, his hand hovering over the butt of his revolver.
Logan had just swung his coat open and held it out of the way with his left hand, reaching across his lower back. The movement displayed a military-styled holster and, suspended by a sling, an Ingram MAC-10. “If you reach for that hog-leg on your hip,” Logan said, “I’m going to shoot enough holes in you my friends will be able the draw the Last Supper on you just by connecting the dots.”
Suddenly they heard another voice, behind Logan and to his right. “Hey, bushwhackers, if you don’t like getting shot at, you’re in the wrong line of work.”
Reynaud spun. Two men with rifles or shotguns had moved into position behind them and no more than twenty yards away, almost invisible in an alley. The ambushers also pivoted to face the source of the voice then, at what sounded like two shots only a split-second apart, they tumbled and were flung to the street. Reynaud looked at where the shots had come and a man stepped into the street, reloading a revolver. He stood six feet tall in Navajo moccasins, with broad, strong features, deeply tanned skin, black hair hanging past his shoulders. He wore a flat-brimmed, flat-crowned black cowboy hat with a beaded hatband, dressed in black and orange and wearing enough silver and turquoise to open a trading post. The pistol he twirled back into its holster was one of a pair of ivory-gripped single-action revolvers and the holsters were a crossbelt rig. Apparently, the stranger was there to cover their backs.
Reynaud turned to face the man who’d started the argument. “You didn’t say this was an open party,” Reynaud said, as he loosened the flap of his military holster.
The man had, like Logan, reached across his back with his left hand although he wore no coat but a short jeans jacket. “Maybe we’ll all just call it a day,” the Texan said. “I’ll stand for the dri—” Suddenly, his left hand swept out, clutching a small revolver.
Reynaud had just begun to reach for his .45 automatic when the MAC roared and spat flames. The man spun and jerked spasmodically, flapping his arms as though he was trying to fly. The pistol in his left hand spun into the air and flecks of blood were spattered across the whitewashed front of the bar. With a final twitch, the corpse fell, a heap of bleeding meat.
Logan pulled the empty magazine out of the Ingram, shoved a fresh one in, and hauled back the bolt.
Seeing Logan was more than ready to deal with anything in front of them, Reynaud turned and walked back to where the stranger was bending over the bodies. “What’re you doing there?”
“Putting a shell in each of their mouths,” the stranger replied. “It’s sort of a calling card. Less messy than taking ears or fingers.” He looked up at Reynaud. “Slattery figured you might run into some trouble and he sent me to keep an eye on you. My name is Hasteen O’Ryan.”
Hasteen nodded at the bodies. “If any of their stuff appeals to you, take it. Spoils of war.” He dug wallets out of hip pockets, glanced into them, put them in his belt, and stood waiting.
One of the would-be ambushers had carried a strange bullpup weapon and a glance at the bore was enough to let Reynaud know it was twelve-gauge or larger. It had two pistol grips, the one behind the trigger equipped with a grip safety and the other on the forearm and had a perforated jacket around part of the barrel. A carrying handle doubled as the sights. He picked up the shotgun and pulled the bandolier of shells from the body. As he removed the bandolier, he found the two bullet holes in the man’s chest, near enough together they could be covered with an old silver dollar.
The dead man also wore a pistol, a double-action revolver in what looked like a police holster. Reynaud had to fumble with the belt before he finally figured out how to operate the dummy buckle and tug the belt loose. Taking off his own military pistol belt with its .45 automatic, he slung it over his left shoulder and strapped the dead man’s belt around his hips. Pulling the corpse’s pockets inside out, he found nothing until he felt something solid in the watch pocket. Digging the objects out, he discovered one was a large silver coin and a smaller gold one, about the size of a quarter.
“You can stand drinks,” Steve said. He’d just strapped on the other body’s high-ride fast-draw rig with a single-action revolver. Bending down, he slipped the Beretta M-9 he carried out of its military holster and shoved it into his waistband, pocketing the extra magazines. He groped through the body’s pockets and flashed another gold coin. “I guess we can both stand drinks for the crowd.”
“Christmas came early this year,” Logan announced. He was grinning broadly and tossed and caught something that flashed with a yellow light, and Reynaud noticed he had two more pistols thrust into his belt.
“Hey,” Logan said, apparently noticing Hasteen for the first time, “it’s a faithful Indian companion.”
Hasteen stared coldly at him. “I’m not in the market for a Caucasian sidekick but you can submit an application if you think you can handle the comedy relief.” He glanced at the others. “If you’re ready, I’ll take you to see Slattery.”
“What about the bodies?” Steve asked.
“Leave ’em. You aren’t cannibals, are you? We’ve got no use for them and, sooner or later, somebody will get tired of walking around them and dump them outside of town.”
Reynaud, examining and experimenting with the bullpup, had figured out it was a pump-action shotgun. “It’s just that this is a little less formal than we’re used to. Since we got out of a Russian prison camp we’ve spent most of our time in Polish cities or in a sub.”
Hasteen led them on a zig-zag route until he shoved open the door of a garage, where several pickups, their hoods agape, stood in ranks, being ministered to by four men in greasy coveralls. “Slattery has a decent business, converting pickups to run on alcohol and replacing electronic ignition systems when they burn out.”
Logan shook his head sadly. “Seems like a helluva waste of good booze.”
“Well, they’re trying to get the oil patch producing again but it’s hard to find enough people to help rebuild the oil-cracking plants, and distribution is going to be shot for a long time.” Hasteen strode to the office door, pulled it open, and waved them inside.
The man sitting behind the desk looked as if the chair in which he sat had been built around him. Sitting in a chair in front of the desk, a Mexican with hard eyes stared at them.
The man behind the desk stood and thrust out a massive hand. “I’m Buttercup, better known as Jim Slattery.” He reminded Reynaud of a fifty-gallon drum with knees and topped with a head that had grown through most of its hair.
Each member of the group shook the hand and introduced themselves. After they’d finished, Slattery nodded to their “guardian angel” and the Mexican. “You’ve already met Hasteen, and this is Paco Morales.” The Mexican nodded and seemed to be studying them.
Hasteen shoved his hat back and let it hang by its latigo, mounted a chair backward, and sat with his arms crossed on the back of the chair. “You were right, Slattery. They managed to get themselves into a dust-up.”
Slattery sank back into his chair, which protested with a creak. “I thought I heard gunfire. What happened?”
“They got paid for.” Hasteen dug the wallets out of his belt and tossed them onto the desk. “It was a set-up, an ambush. All three of the ambushers had gold. Someone wanted them dead badly enough to pay top dollar.”
“I was afraid that might happen,” Slattery said.
“What do you mean?” Reynaud demanded.
“I mean we don’t have a secure radio here, so if the Russian you’re chasing—Chernikov is his name, right? If he or some of his contacts had been listening to the right band, they’d have known you were going to hit town.” He turned to Hasteen. “Did you recognize any of them?”
“One of them was Toby Wells.” Hasteen glanced at Logan. “That was the one you killed. Wells got himself fired from Gorman’s a few days ago—at least, that’s what I’ve heard.”
“Think you could find out who did the hiring for the jobs?” Slattery asked.
“Maybe.” Hasteen stood. “Paco, why don’t you come with me? We’ll make the rounds of the bars and see what we come up with.”
The Mexican stood and picked up the straw hat on the desk, patted it into place, then drew his .45 Colt automatic and checked the chamber. “I could stand a drink.”
As soon as the two men left the office, Slattery pulled a fifth of Bourbon out of a drawer of his desk. “Sorry, boys, but I don’t have glasses. We’ll just have to pass the jug around.” He took a drink, held out the bottle to the Deacon, who scowled and shook his head, then to Logan, who accepted it and took a long pull on the whiskey. “I know you boys are just brimming with questions, so ask away.”
Steve had just accepted the bottle from Logan and took a short drink then handed the bottle to Reynaud. He pointed at the door the two men had just done through. “Who are those guys?”
Slattery’s predatory grin was broad enough it looked like a gash in his reddish beard. “Just two of the best gunnies you boys are liable to run into for a long ways around. Hasteen’s from Arizona. He’s half-Irish, half-Dineh—what us whites call Navajo—and all hell-on-wheels. Paco, he was originally from San Antone. He was visiting family down in Mexico when the Russians popped the nuke over near Lackland. Neither of those boys are real friendly or talkative, but they’ll both do to ride the river with. I hear you guys had sort of an interesting time of it, too.”
Reynaud had sniffed at the bottle. It smelled like very good Bourbon. Tipping it back, he took a swallow, feeling the welcome burn in his throat and belly.
Logan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Interesting if you consider riding back from Europe in a leaky bucket that couldn’t dive more than sixty feet interesting. And we got to worry about whether we’d have kids or, if we do, whether they’d have all the standard equipment and nothing optional—say, a spare head or tentacles instead of fingers, yeah, it was pretty interesting.”
“What was the trouble with the boat?” Slattery asked.
Reynaud watched the progress of the bottle around the circle. “It got hit by an air-launched torpedo during the war and the crew only had time for makeshift repairs, so they had a dive limit. They told us the reactor hadn’t been damaged but it’s a little unsettling to have an officer run a Geiger counter two or three times a day through the area where you sleep.”
~ * ~
Slattery passed the bottle on to Logan again, studying the men around his office. He was the head of the Reconstructionists in Texas for several reasons, but the most important of those: he was an excellent judge of men.
Billy Joe McCluskey, the teetotaler, looked to be the most military of them. He was clean-shaven and wore the navy dungarees like a uniform. He was a good six feet tall and he was lean and hard. He had the piercing eyes of a hawk, even a hooked nose that suggested the beak of a bird of prey, and a thin-lipped mouth set in a disapproving line above a lantern jaw. He looked twice as tough as a tree stump and gave the impression of having less mercy than one. He reminded Slattery of a Japanese lantern, lit from within by a flame. He was a thoroughly dangerous man, a sputtering fuse, but with too closed a mind to be a leader.
Steve Villareal was, like McCluskey, thin, but whipcord lean and flexible, less angular and craggy, and shorter, no more than five-eight. He wore a fine moustache and had the air of a well-bred man who’d become used to slumming. He moved with feline grace and the manner of a decisive man.
The Cajun, Dechaine, was about five-ten with a medium build, maybe a hundred seventy-five pounds, with a lush moustache and tightly-curled hair that suggested, along with a very light chocolate complexion, that some of his forebears were African. He had a watchful, calculating look about him.
Logan Reid was the shortest, no more than five-seven, and the heaviest, at near a hundred eighty-five pounds, all of it rock-solid. He wore a short beard, a sort of ginger color a couple of shades lighter than his hair. He seemed to like to grin and laugh but Slattery suspected he wanted to be far away when Logan stopped laughing. He was the only one wearing anything other than the navy denims and plain black boots.
Slattery had been given some information about these men, and he’d dug up a little more. They’d all been fighter jocks except McCluskey, who’d flown a bomber, and they were just about the last survivors of a Russian POW camp that had once held over two hundred men. They’d escaped, along with three or four others, and made their way to Krakow where they’d learned the camp commandant and his lieutenant had also gotten out. The lieutenant had remained in Krakow to assume command of the local FSB—the new name for the KGB—apparatus, but the commandant had gone to Texas.
When the escaped prisoners had learned what had happened, there’d been hell to pay, and those boys had done a thorough job of collecting the bill. With some Reconstructionists in Krakow they’d crippled, if not killed, the FSB in Krakow. Now they were in Texas to track down Chernikov, the commandant. It was a business trip as well as for pleasure. He’d heard rumblings of an FSB plan, something called Operation A or Operation Alpha. It seemed to be time to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.
“What’s this Operation A I’ve heard about?”
The Cajun looked at the bottle before lowering the level a good half-inch. “Damned if I know. I wish I did. About the only things I can tell you about it for sure is that it’s what Chernikov came to Texas to work on, and if he’s a party to anything it’s got to be dirty and dangerous.” He handed the bottle to Slattery.
Slattery took another good pull and held up the bottle. When all the men shook their heads he screwed the cap back on and replaced the bottle in the desk drawer. “That doesn’t narrow it down much. That sorta describes a lot of Texas. I guess the first thing we gotta do is get some clothes for you boys so you don’t look so much like pilgrims. The Wellington boots will pass, I guess, but you’re gonna hafta chuck the navy cast-offs. And, Logan, I’d advise you to lose that shirt unless you like to fight.”
The one named Steve laughed. “Hell, Logan would go three rounds with the devil with a stick, and he’d give Old Scratch the stick. What we’d really like, though, is some decent food. Since we broke out of the p-camp we’ve only had half a dozen meals that weren’t military rations. You ever eat freeze-dried peaches? And they were a delicacy. The worst rations beat the hell out of the slop the Russians gave us in that camp.”
“Let’s get the clothes first, and I’ll take you to a café. I’d also better bring you up to date on the doin’s here in Texas.”