The tavern door was manned by an ancient rustic seated beneath the sunken black felt of his hat; he squinted at the Americans as they ducked the lintel and stood before the counter in the shifting glow of christmas lights entwined around its timber fixtures, alternating red and green. Their leader scanned a gloom composed of candlelight and the malted stink of upset beer and smuggled cigarette smoke. Wessner was the tallest of them by half a foot but carried enough muscle to offset any impression of idle length, his face a neat, squared, close-shaven summary of his Pennsylvania Dutch extraction, his pale stare guarded by a forehead promising resolve. Belying these cues, he turned his back to the imbibing locals and reached down into his pocket to consult his GPS device for the third time since their arrival. Their communications officer leant over the small appliance himself, unduly invested in his vacillation. Amis was slender, watchful and dark-haired, possessed of a limpid gaze and restless limbs; Shaw murmured, too late to prevent the staring habitués emptying their vessels down their throats and departing in a flat-footed mass, the exodus leaving a single clique seated at the far end of the narrow room.
Its members sat behind imported beer bottles, nursing half-closed and blackened eyes and other undisguised contusions, their battered faces sharing the colours guttering in the grate of the tiled stove beside them. The shadowed atmosphere agreed so closely with the dark woodland pattern of their partial fatigues that their limbs merged with the furniture. Turning again, Wessner addressed Shaw beneath his breath, looking back toward the bar.
“They’re not our source.”
“We can't look like this.” Shaw muttered, glancing back at the remaining patrons while Amis sucked a corner of his mouth between his teeth. One of the trio beside the stove addressed them loudly from their crowded table.
“That’s okay, you know... your source, he talk to us, and he’s cool. Very, very cool.” he called to them through a smirk, lifting one booted foot and setting it on his knee. Their predacious smiles lit the silver in their eyes and spread into a slow, smug chuckle that they shared, exhaled with cigarette smoke. One of them kicked out a bench from beneath the table; before Wessner could object, Shaw moved to accept the invitation, standing before the stove. Their self-styled host’s star tattoos moved slowly on either side of his throat as he spoke. “You know, I was thinking about this so much... what gets black op guys all the way to here? Maybe it’s big and not so friendly and maybe it likes English girls... because, I think I know where you can find this.” He folded his hands behind his head and leant back against them.
Taking a look around them, Wessner issued a reply without returning his eyes to the alujha, and Shaw withdrew, retracing his steps toward the bar. The thin plank door in the shadowed wall beside it cast a line of light across the floor, and he put out a boot and pushed it inward. Behind it, one of the bright blonde bargirls stood bent over a trough-like sink beneath a naked bulb, her head pulled back by the fist wrapped in her ponytail; it belonged to a youth in a camouflage parka and combat boots, addressing himself with single-minded emphasis to the posterior revealed by the brevity of her denim skirt. She abused Shaw’s intrusion while ash fell from the delinquent guard’s cigarette over the rainbow tattoo on the small of her back; the latter slowed their conjugation and with one hand swung the assault rifle from his shoulder at Shaw’s features. He retreated slowly, looking into the pink-pencilled pout of the older barmaid as she sat upon a high stool, a glass of white spirit at her elbow.
The stove-side conclave adjourned, the sound of shuffled benches drawing the alujha guard from his tryst into the bar, zipping up his pants as he emerged. Shaw looked to his colleagues expectantly as they stepped out onto the street, hunching against the slight slant of the drizzle.
“It was positive.” Wessner assured him, against the weight of his own frown.
"You got a location?" They headed south along the side of the road, the few headlights pushing past them blurred by the mist beading around their eyes.
“Posted on the sat nav... advised on terrain, ordnance...”
“What’d they want?”
“They took a five year NOMO.” Shaw stopped before the turn they were about to take, blinking into the weather; Wessner’s scowl deepened as he looked back toward him. “Is there something you want to say, Shaw?” The demand turned Amis’s head to them as though pulling string knotted beneath his chin.
“These crews know we don’t have a presence out here... they want cash, not non-molestation bonds... they’ve been all about buying land since the eighties.”
Wessner shook his head as though at an absurdity.
“You're saying I should run this entire operation off of hearsay? We gave them what they asked for... what is your personal experience with this genera?” he demanded.
“Eight years, six campaigns, five on point.” The taller man’s stare faltered.
Shaw's impetus carried him past both men and onto the narrow lane running from the main road, the clay turning his boots a claggy yellow by the time he had made their billet in the hamlet’s collective-era grainstore, its blockwork stained with long streaks from the rusting lights on its facade. Josephine sat on a ply chair, eating her rations from a foil tray. Eight black sleeping bags were laid out in rows upon the concrete in the rear of the hangar-like structure; the conscripts assigned to them stood in a line with their hands clasped to the backs of their heads, their faces pressed to the furthest wall in an attitude of punitive immobility. She glanced up at Wessner as he brought his scowl inside, shaking the rain from his jacket and staring at the arrangement of his personnel. One of the entailed men turned slightly toward them and began to speak, shouting loudly over the blade-like tone still screaming in his head, but Josephine reached again for the poison-orange fob clipped to her belt and chastened his presumption. Wessner leant over her while she cornered the last element of her meal against the tray with her fork.
“I left orders for them to be sleeping off their air tranqs.” he hissed.
“I deal with verbal insub before it escalates.” she told him. He shook his head bitterly and looked back toward the punishment detail.
“Hit your bunks. We break at o-four hundred.” he declared. “Shaw... first watch.”
Shaw took a rain-damp chair sited by the door.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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