Short Stories“I never did understand what exactly it is that you guys do,” she said, as Loco looked into his glass of iced tea. His chair afforded him a view of all those who passed by or approached the open-air café. However, a potential threat was the least of his worries right now.“Apart from the fact that you’re soldiers, of course. Apart from whatever little you have told me about your work, I’ve noticed that all you guys ever talk about is guns, battlefields, maps…” she broke off.

Loco tried hard not to let his voice affect her. Once again, his mind flashed back to the time Gideon had introduced them, three years ago. They had acknowledged each other with polite greetings. As always, Loco offered a firm nod, looking straight into her eyes. That had been his first mistake.

“Covert ops,” Loco said. “Operations,” he clarified quickly. “We basically work on top secret missions for the government, in close co-operation with other governments. It’s ultra-classified. We don’t even know if there are other units like ours.”

The hint of a smile crossed her face.

“Even the comic books you read are all about war.”

Loco had to grin.

“Graphic novels,” he said.

She nodded.

“Which is just another way of saying comic books with nudity.”

Loco remembered arguing with her on this point for hours.

A ray of sunlight fell across her face, bathing it in a glow. Loco tried not to stare.

Over the next three years after their first meeting, Gideon had been instrumental in making them meet again several times. Loco had come to realise and accept the fact that there was definite attraction, which he could neither define nor try to deepen.

“Are you guys ever afraid?” she asked. There was genuine curiousity in her voice, like she’d always wondered but had never asked.

Loco shook his head. “Guys who’re afraid aren’t selected for our unit.”

“You mean they look for the crazy ones like you?”

“Something like that.”

“But you must feel something, if your jobs are so high-risk.”

 Sierra Leone. 2002. Search and destroy mission.

“You feel it yet?” Gideon asked.

Loco knew what he meant. That feeling which begins at the base of your spine without your knowledge and creeps steadily up to your head when you see possible death coming your way.

“I’m getting there,” Loco replied.

“It’s hard to define. But yes, we do feel something.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“And you’re sure it’s not fear?”

“I know what fear feels like. I used to feel it a long time ago. Now, every dangerous situation is just another situation.”

Ethiopia. 2004. Assassination mission gone wrong.

“Is that a LAW I see on that hulk at the back?” Gideon muttered. The M72 Law was an anti tank rocket launcher. Both warriors knew only too well what it could do if fired at their crumbling single storey temporary shelter.

“Sitrep: ten men, eight M16s with grenade launchers, one LAW and one Barrett,” Loco counted off, looking through his binoculars. The sniper was already setting up his Barrett, aiming for the building. Within seconds, he would be ready to pepper the building with .50 mm rounds.

“And how do you guys deal with it?” she leaned forward, and Loco had trouble to make sure he didn’t look into her eyes directly.

“We get used to it, eventually. After a point, it’s just another feeling.”

Darfur. 2007. Flash raid.

“Guard’s down,” Loco whispered into his earpiece, laying the guard’s body down and pulling the knife out of his neck.

“This one too. Punctured the bugger’s throat,” Gideon chuckled from his end.

“We have 60 seconds to get the rest of them before the squad moves in.”

“Bet you we won’t need more than 45.”

“Don’t you feel like confiding in someone? All that killing…? Or does it become a habit as well? Do you talk about it amongst yourselves like we’d discuss shoes?”

The rise and fall of her voice was sending shivers up his spine. For the hundredth time, he told himself to get back in control.

Congo. 2008. Sabotage mission with faulty intel.

“I’ll take the two lookouts and the two sentries,” Gideon said, readying his Dragunov.

“I’ll take the patrol vehicle, then bust inside and C4 the fuel dump,” Loco responded.

“I’ll cover you. I counted at least five of them patrolling the inner area. Draw them out and I’ll cap their asses.”

“And I’ll deal with any remaining inside.”

“What’re you asking me?” Loco said.

“I’m asking you if you’re all cold blooded killers beneath this…this façade of professional soldiers!”

“Yes we are,” Loco leaned forward and for the first time, looking into her eyes didn’t affect him. “Yes, we are cold blooded, ruthless killers. But only with those who come to kill us. With those who have killed scores and wouldn’t even look at us as numbers in their list of victims. With them, we are their worst nightmare. Some of us have wives, some have kids, others ailing parents. And we tell them all we can tell them, and they understand. They have to.”

Afghanistan. 2010. Chase and kill.

“I’m going for the fuel tank. Let’s blow them to bits!” Loco roared into his earpiece over the sound of the Hummer’s engine, leaning out of the back seat through the open door.

“Hang on, get back in.” Gideon shouted. “I’m gonna ram the two bikers first; drive them right into that truck!”

And then, one day…” her voice was a little more than a whisper.

Loco looked away and leaned back.

“Your luck runs out,” he said heavily. “It always does, sooner or later.”

Libya. 2011. Rescue mission.

“What, no false hopes for me?” Gideon was coughing blood.

“You know me better than that.”

“A lifetime of successful covert ops, and it’s a Libyan with a good throwing arm that gets me.”

Loco removed Gideon’s earpiece and opened up his shirt.

“Never saw the grenade coming. Bet I don’t look very pretty right now,” Gideon rasped.

“You ARE a freaking sight. Does it hurt?”

“Those kids get on the chopper?”

Loco could never be sure if Gideon saw him nod yes before dying.

She drained her cup and pushed it away. For a full minute, they both just sat there, trying to think of something to say. Then they both gave it up.

She pushed her chair back and slowly stood up.

“Your husband died a hero,” Loco said, not looking at her. “He was the best soldier I ever knew.”

She bent forward and picked up the rucksack containing Gideons’ personal effects.

“I know he was,” she said before walking away.

Gautam Mengle