Valerie wanted answers. She cuffed the pants Hyka had provided, put her shoes on, and looked in the mirror to adjust her tank top, careful to maintain her modesty despite the lack of undergarments. She walked down the hall to Jack’s room. The door was open, but the space was empty except for his ruck next to the bed. His room was smaller than hers and did not have a bathroom. A picture hung on the wall. Men in combat uniforms sat on a concrete barrier. She recognized many of the faces from those gathered at the toast Max had given earlier. Her father had no expression on his face, which made her smile. He never smiled for photos for as long as she could remember. Not even family ones.
“This picture was taken at the training site in Louisiana. You might have been eleven or twelve years old. Thick as thieves, we were,” Jack said from the door. He gave a motion with his head to follow him down the stairs toward the sound of voices and the smell of food.
In the kitchen, a buffet-style dinner was laid out on an island table. Seven people walked around filling their plates. They joked with each other like a big, loud family. These were her father’s friends with bonds stronger than blood. She looked at their faces and tried to imagine her father fighting alongside them. They must have felt a duty to help her. This offered a little more comfort and solidarity toward them, but she was still a bit apprehensive. She fell in line with Jack to fill a plate of food.
“Jack McGuire, if I didn’t know you to be a dirty old man, I might give you the time of day. Nice hair, pony boy,” Hyka said from across the island, a slight smirk being the only indication of her joke.
The room erupted in laughter. Only Valerie and the man standing to the right of Hyka did not join in. Instead, the man shot a disapproving look at Jack. He must have been Hyka’s father. Valerie blushed and gathered her plate and utensils. Barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, dinner rolls. When her plate was full, she found an open seat near a pitcher of water. Her body craved the nutrition, depleted by her travels, but the knot in her stomach had returned.
“Are you doing okay?” Jack asked, leaning close so she did not have to raise her voice.
“No. Did you watch the news? They are turning the collection process into a manhunt.”
“Yeah, we watched that piece. Eat. Enjoy a distraction. We leave tomorrow night. You need to rest and get your strength up, and we still need more time to figure things out.”
“I powered my entire room with my hands,” Valerie said, too loud; she meant the comment for only Jack. She immediately regretted not keeping the incident a secret. Max looked up at her, then back at his food. She looked down at hers, a good excuse to stop talking. He had heard every word.
She filled an empty glass with water and listened to the conversations around her. The table was loud, with moods light and joyful. The men shouted remember-when stories over the course of the meal. Some included her father: the legendary Mike Burton and how he commanded his troops with an iron fist and a cold heart. They told stories of the man she remembered. Duke described a story of when he had occupied a mansion in Ramadi, Iraq, during the first elections after coalition forces liberated the country from Saddam’s reign. Her father had led one hundred and fifty infantry soldiers. First Sergeant Burton made his men collect the rubble from the demolished side of the building and organize the debris into what he called a rock garden. Even though they thought the task was ridiculous, the troops followed the order. Two weeks later, a rocket was shot into the compound, ricocheted off her father’s rock garden and exploded a safe distance away, leaving the building and occupants unharmed. They never questioned the rock garden again.
Valerie could laugh at the story. She missed him. Judging from their interactions, everyone else did, too. Hearing about her father lifted her spirits. She became less skeptical of the group as a whole, and her appetite returned. She kept a careful eye on Max. He was the exception to her newfound comfort.
After they had eaten their fill and cleared the table of food, Max passed beers to those in attendance. Valerie declined the alcohol in favor of water. The transition from dinner to the meeting was marked and formal.
“Let’s get down to business. I am Maximus Jonah Davis, airborne, air assault, the best damn cook this side of the Rockies, and your host.” As Max took his seat, the man to his right stood.
“Edward Griffin. I go by Griff. An agent with Homeland Security.”
“Jack McGuire, master gunner.”
It was Valerie’s turn. She was unsure of her title but followed suit the best she could.
“Valerie Russell, Sergeant Major Burton’s daughter.”
“And DiaZem,” Max added as she sat down. His eyes followed her. No one else seemed to notice, but his gaze was invasive. She wanted to cover herself every time he looked in her direction.
“Austin Major, armorer, logistics, combatives master, tactics master, and master of anything else you can contribute to killing someone.”
“Hyka Major, medic and combatives master.”
“Eric Earl. I als...