Today I'm starting Teaser Tuesdays here on the blog!
Although most teasers will be a LOT shorter, this is the opening chapter of Sea Glass Winter, the fifth in my Shelter Bay series, set on the Oregon Coast, where my high school sweetheart bought me a bag of taffy, then proposed years and years ago. Sea Glass Winter will be published January 1st, just in time to spend those holiday gift certificates! :)
Tech Sergeant Dillon Slater’s business was bombs. And in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, Dillon’s business was booming.
The landscape he was driving his Buffalo armored mine-disposal vehicle through could have come right from the pages of the Old Testament. Years of baking beneath the hot Afghan sun had turned the mud of the compounds as hard as concrete. Unlike some of the royal palaces he’d seen while deployed in Iraq, these dwellings boasted no gaudy exterior decoration. Uniformly putty colored, they were purely functional.
Children waved as the twenty-six-ton vehicle bounced over what felt more like a goat trail than a real road crossing the bleak, moonscape surface.
In earlier deployments, he’d been lucky if his EOD batphone rang a dozen times a week. But the enemy was nothing if not adaptive, and since the country had turned into the Wild West, they’d figured out that it was a lot easier to blow coalition forces up from a distance than take them on in a shoot-out-at-the-O.K.-Corral gunfight situation.
In the last week alone, 212 IEDs had been discovered and detonated. Doing the math—and he had—that worked out to more than 9,000 a year. What had once been a cottage industry—guys making bombs in their mud homes—had turned into an industrial complex capable of knocking out one IED every fifteen minutes, thanks to global jihadists sharing technologies and procedures.
“Crazy,” he muttered as he pulled into the area where a Ranger unit was standing around waiting for him.
He’d been called to this same spot yesterday to remove a crude pressure-plate device next to a basketball court he’d helped build. Together with other unit volunteers, he’d cleared the space and poured the surface, using Quikrete donated by some Navy SEALs. One thing Dillon had learned early on was that SEALs could get their hands on just about anything. Another thing he’d learned was to never ask them where they’d gotten it.
What really chapped his hide was that whatever cretin had planted that IED had been willing to take out the children who used the court every day—often with troops, who’d play with them. The pickup games were more than just a way to burn off energy: They served as yet another attempt to win hearts and minds. Which personally Dillon wasn’t so sure was working, since more people kept trying to kill him every day. But hey, military war policy and nation building were way above his pay grade.
Unlike the previous day, when the square had been filled with civilian onlookers, today the place was mostly deserted.
Which was not good. One of the first things Dillon had learned in training was to look for the absence of normal and the presence of abnormal. Both of which they definitely had here.
Did everyone but them know what was going on? Had the kids who were usually playing roundball on this court been warned to stay away? The hair on the back of his neck stood up as combat intuition, born from years of experience, kicked in.
“We’re being set up,” Jason West, one of his team members, said from the backseat as they pulled up next to a Hummer with Arabic writing painted on the side.
On Dillon’s first tour here he’d learned that the script translated to “Not EOD” (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). Having the guys on your side wanting to make sure no one mistook them for bomb guys was an indication of how popular Dillon and his team tended to be with the local population.
“Could be,” he agreed, drawling out his words on his native West Texas twang as he considered that unpleasant prospect. “Then again, we could have some hotshot showing off to his pals by playing with us.”
He jumped down from the Buffalo and went over and talked to the Rangers, the ones who had called in the possible explosive, who reported that none of the few civilians they’d been able to question had seen anyone plant an IED.
One of the cool things about the Buffalo was its thirty-foot mechanical arm with both a claw and a camera attached. Returning to the vehicle, he extended the arm to get a better look at the device, which was only partially buried right behind the basket pole.
“Bingo,” he said as the camera eye caught the familiar pink wire an eagle-eyed Ranger, who’d come here for a pickup game, had spotted. “This has cell phone guy’s fingerprints all over it.”
In the beginning, the IEDs Dillon had dealt with had been simple pressure plates. Drive over it, step on it, two pieces of metal connected, and boom.
They’d been crude. Hell, if he’d been into bomb making when he was a kid, he could’ve put one together in ten minutes for a fourth-grade science fair project. But they didn’t need to be fancy and high-tech to kill. The problem was that they also killed indiscriminately, meaning they were just as likely to take out civilians as they were American and NATO forces. Which hadn’t exactly made their makers all that popular.
So the insurgents had upped their skill set, adding command-wire remote controls to the mix. Bury one in the middle of the road, and if the patrol you’d planned to hit changed routes, you simply turned it off and avoided the collateral damage of blowing up some poppy farmer’s donkey. Or wife. Or child.
Then, just as easily, it could be switched back on again when the timing proved right.
n the beginning, garage door openers had been popular. More and more, though, Dillon had been running into cell phones, all tied up with pretty pink wires, which tended to make his team edgier—and even, from time to time, paranoid. Was that guy over there talking on his phone really speaking to his wife, telling her what time he’d be home for dinner? Or was he about to hit talk and blow more Americans sky-high?
“We could wait for another robot to be brought in,” West, who’d been riding shotgun, said.
Their own robot, Larry, named for Larry Fine robot in Revenge of the Nerds, had been injured when it rolled off a ledge two days earlier, and they were still waiting to either get him back or receive a replacement.
“If it’s a set-up, the longer we stay here, the more we become sitting ducks.” Chance Longstreet, who was in the back, pointed out what they all already knew. “The bastards have already gotten rid of Larry. Why let them take out some more of us?”
Although they’d all been pissed to have Larry out of commission, Longstreet, who operated the robot from a military-grade laptop, took the loss personally.
“Good point,” Dillon said.
Maybe it wasn’t a bomb at all. Maybe just some buried wires designed to pull the team into sniper range. Or worse yet, a kill box. The Buffalo might be armor clad, but if mortars started raining down on them from the roofs of those buildings, they’d all be toast.
Although their mission tended toward knitting them into a tight, cohesive unit aimed for consensus, as team leader, it was Dillon’s call.
He had a month left downrange, and then he was leaving the military and going back to the States, where he’d signed up with the Troops to Teachers program and already had a job as a high school physics teacher and basketball coach waiting for him in Oregon.
Which should’ve been the good news. And it was. But there was always a flipside, and the flipside of this situation was that while EOD was already one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, the last thirty days were the most risky, when fatigue, anticipation, and distraction dulled instincts.
As everyone was all too aware, in war, if you stuck around long enough, good luck ran out. Dillon was determined to be one of the ones who left this hellhole lucky.
“I’m going in.”
The Taliban were not shy about their belief that time was on their side. “You may have the watches,” the popular expression went, “but we have the time.”
Today, Dillon vowed, he was going to employ that same patience to keep from focusing on that separation countdown clock ticking away in his head.
West sealed him into the eighty-pound Kevlar-clad bomb suit, which looked sort of like a hazmat outfit but made Dillon feel like the Michelin Man. It also increased the intense desert heat to a temperature that felt like the surface of the sun. Not helping was the additional ninety pounds of equipment he was carrying.
Finally, lowering the face shield on the bulbous helmet, he began plodding forward. Although the suit had a radio receiver, he turned it off to avoid sending out stray radio waves that could set off the IED.
Which meant that he was walking toward a bomb that he knew nothing about, without any communication with his team, an easy target trussed up in a bomb suit that definitely hadn’t been designed for sprinting out of danger if things went south.
It was deathly quiet. The only sounds Dillon could hear as he took the long walk he hoped to hell wouldn’t be his last were the pounding of his heart, his steady breathing, and the whir of the fan inside the helmet.
With the temperature at 102 degrees, the fan was fairly useless, and salty sweat began dripping into his eyes, making him think he should’ve just opted for the lighter-weight body armor and helmet. Hell, if the thing did blow, he’d go right up with it, no matter what he was wearing.
Once he’d put that thought aside, since he’d already made his decision, options began running through Dillon’s mind. The explosive could be set on a timer, which meant it could explode at any moment.
Thirty feet to go.
Or it could be electronically controlled by one of the dozen pairs of eyes he could feel watching him from those buildings surrounding the deserted square, which was more likely, given that familiar pink wire.
Dillon dropped to his stomach, took out his telescoping trip-wire feeler, and began crawling toward the target, altering his direction because if the bomb maker was watching and saw him take a straight line, next time there’d be a pressure bomb waiting for him.
This was where luck really came in. One zig where he should’ve zagged, and Shelter Bay High School would be looking for a new coach.
Dillon considered another option—maybe the wire was merely a decoy, drawing him closer to a buried pressure plate, just waiting for his body to set it off.
In his business, Murphy’s Law ruled.
At ten feet out, he’d definitely reached the point of no return.
His mind shifted into a familiar zone. He made it the rest of the way, took out a paintbrush from his kit, and began removing dirt and sand from what was, as he’d suspected, yet another cell phone bomb. It sometimes amazed Dillon that in this remote part of the world, where electricity and indoor plumbing were considered luxuries, every damn bad guy out there seemed to have a smartphone.
Feeling as if he were moving in superslow motion, he began digging away at the blasting cap, trying to lift it out without causing it to blow.
Just as the wire gave way, the world exploded.
From inside the blazing fireball, Dillon heard a bell ringing. Blindly groping out, his hand found the phone, picked it up, and put it to his ear.
“Yeah?” His voice was as shaky as the rest of his body, which was buzzing with adrenaline. Afghanistan faded away and he found himself in his bedroom.
“You okay, Coach?” the male voice on the other end of the line asked.
“Yeah,” Dillon repeated as he dragged himself out of the familiar nightmare. There were various versions, but all had him checking his body upon awakening, just to make sure every part was still where it belonged. “Sure.”
“Did I wake you up?”
“Hell no,” Dillon lied, reaching out to grab his watch, with its lit-up dial, from the bed table. It was mid-November and still dark at six in the morning. “What’s up?”
“I wanted to remind you that you’re having breakfast down at the Grateful Bread with the boosters this morning.”
“I’ll be there.” If only for the sweet potato hash. The company, which Dillon understood was well intentioned, he could definitely do without.
“Thought I’d better warn you—you’ll be fielding a lot of questions about the SoCal phenom.”
Now that his heart had settled down to something resembling a normal rhythm, Dillon decided to try getting out of bed. Hooh-rah, both his legs were not only still attached, but they also proved capable of holding him up. Just barely.
“And what SoCal phenom would that be?”
“Templeton. A kid from Beverly Hills who was the highest-scoring freshman in the history of California State hoops last year.
“Good for him. Sounds like the Beverly Hills High JV coach is going to have a dynamite season. And you’re telling me this why?”
“Because he just transferred into Shelter Bay. He’s our golden ticket to the state championship, Coach.”
Dillon rubbed his hand down his face, then dragged his body toward the kitchen, desperately in need of coffee for this conversation. Ken Curtis was a nice sixtysomething guy who owned Harbor Hardware and had headed up Shelter Bay High School’s booster club for the past three decades.
“Shelter Bay High School hasn’t had a winning season for twelve years,” Dillon felt obliged to point out.
“That’s why we hired you. . . . Just a minute.” Dillon heard a woman’s voice in the distance. “Marcy wanted me to remind you that you’ve also got a meeting with the cheer moms right after school tomorrow afternoon. They’ve got a new routine they want to debut at the opening game.”
Dealing with the cheer moms, dance squad, bag-lunch cadets, parent committee, and myriad other groups intertwined with the basketball team was a part of his job description that hadn’t been covered in his Troops to Teacher training.
As he poured water into the Mr. Coffee, Dillon, who’d always been an optimist, reminded himself that unlike in his last gig, none of those Shelter Bay residents seemed inclined to kill him.
At least not yet.
That's it for this week! I hope you'll check back next Tuesday for another sneak preview! Also, there's Photo Friday and various other unscheduled posts during the week, many sharing cards I've made for Operation Write Home.