Iraq, 1991: Operation Desert Storm. In a terrible friendly fire incident, a U.S. helicopter massacres a small convoy of American MPs. Among the dead: a mysterious American civilian engineer discovered by the soldiers behind enemy lines.
San Diego, CA, 1993: A freelance journalist is hired to write a story about a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the dead engineer’s widow against the government and the defense contractor he worked for. The problem: the government insists the lawsuit does not exist, and the contractor claims the engineer did not work for them. Worse, someone is willing to kill to keep it that way.
Peter Brandt, the war-scarred journalist hero of Empty Places, returns in this story of greed, betrayal, and government secrets. Can Peter expose the truth without becoming another victim of the wartime tragedy?
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was an investigative journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s when the U.S. was plagued by massive defensive contracting scandals due to excessive military spending by the Reagan administration. I wanted to document that era with a story that was both entertaining and educational.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I developed the protagonist, Peter Brandt — a battle-scarred war correspondent — for my novel Empty Places. I’ve always enjoyed the type of sardonic, world-weary characters that writers like Raymond Chandler and Alistair MacLean created. I had that in mind when I created Peter Brandt.
“X-RAY ONE, this is Xray. Say again.”
The radio crackled as the military police lieutenant fingered the mike. “Xray, Xray One. I say again. We have a wounded American civilian. Repeat, a wounded American civilian. We need a dust off.”
“Roger, X-ray One. Is this a journalist?”
“Negative, X-ray. His papers ID him as an American engineer named Robert Stanning.” The officer spelled the name phonetically.
“Was he one of Saddam’s guestages?”
X-ray referred to a number of foreigners Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, had taken hostage, hoping to stave off an international military response to his invasion of Iraq’s neighbor, Kuwait. Hussein denied the captives were hostages. He called them “guests,” and the news media combined the two descriptions into the term ‘guestages.’
“Now how the hell would I know that?” the lieutenant said to the driver of the Humvee.
The driver, a young black MP in desert fatigues smiled and shook his head. “Rear echelon mental giants,” he said.
“I have no idea, X-ray. He’s unconscious. We found him in an Iraqi field hospital near Basra. The Eye-racks just said he was wounded during one of our bombing attacks. He needs a dust off—quick. Over.”
“Roger, X-ray One. What’s your position?”
The lieutenant studied a field map and sighed. Pinpointing their position in the Iraqi desert would be much easier if they were issued the kind of GPS satellite receivers the Special Forces units had, but regular army units didn’t rate them yet. After a few moments, the officer transmitted the estimated coordinates.
“Roger, X-ray One. Standby.”
The MP lieutenant listened to the RT crackle some more, tossed the mike onto the dashboard, then picked it up again. “X-ray Two, X-ray One. You there, Alvarez?”
The RT crackled with a voice from the Bradley fighting vehicle following the lieutenant’s own Humvee. “Roger, lieutenant.”
“How’s our passenger?”
“Still unconscious, lieutenant.” After a pause, Alvarez added. “He don’t look good.”
“X-ray One, X-ray.”
The officer thumbed the push-to-talk button. “X-ray One.”
“The dust offs are stranded. The juice goose hasn’t caught up yet. The closest they can get to you is LZ Zebra. You’re going to have to hotfoot it to them. Over.”
“Roger, X-ray.” The lieutenant picked up the map again, folded it over and found Landing Zone Zebra penciled in. “I have the coordinates, X-ray. We’re en route. X-ray One out.”
The lieutenant settled back in the Humvee’s front passenger seat. “We’re moving forward so fast, the logistics tail can’t keep up. The choppers don’t have enough fuel up forward to fly out to us. We have to go to them.”
“Someone ought to tell those Eye-racks to put up more of a fight.” The driver shook his head and clucked.
The officer grimaced. “Funny, Mitchell. Funny as a Scud. Let’s go.”
The lieutenant peered into the darkness outside the Humvee. Night in the Iraqi desert was an odd experience of total isolation amid massive congestion. The sky was as black as oil. In fact, it virtually was oil, with thick swirling black clouds of smoke thrown up by Kuwait’s burning oil fields hiding the heavens. Behind the Humvee, the lightless Bradley melted into the darkness, only its engine noise revealing its presence. In the distance behind them, was the sound of cannon fire.
They drove on, guided only by the feel of the road.
The first spasms of diarrhea began to cramp the officer’s intestinal track. “Damn. God damn it to hell.”
“I’ve got the damn trots again, Mitchell. Pull up before I shit in my pants.”
The Humvee slowed to a stop. “I told you not to eat that street food back in Saudi.”
“Shut up, Mitchell.” The lieutenant opened the Humvee’s door and climbed out. “Radio the Bradley to slow down. We don’t want them to ram into us in this dark.” The lieutenant disappeared into the shadows.
In the dark, Alvarez could just make out the dim outline of the Humvee. He pulled the Bradley up alongside. Behind him, in the cargo bay, a voice hollered, “Lieutenant better not take too long. I don’t think this guy’s gonna last.”
“Vaccaro, when you gotta go, you gotta go,” Alvarez said. “Know what I mean?”
In the Humvee, Mitchell was just as anxious. With the lieutenant gone, he suddenly felt terribly isolated. He opened the door on his side and stepped out. Looking around, his hand automatically groped for his M-16 rifle.
“Mitch.” The radio crackled with Alvarez’s voice. “Is the lieutenant back yet?”
Mitchell reached down into the cab and picked up the mike. “That’s a negative.”
“I don’t feel too good sitting out here like this,” Alvarez said. “I got hair on my neck bristling.”
Neither Mitchell nor Alvarez heard the muffled motors of the Cobra attack helicopters. A flash of light caught Mitchell’s eye, then he saw the long yellow streak of a missile. “INCOMING!” he screamed into the mike. The missile slammed into the Humvee before he could say any more. The blast of its armor-piercing warhead tore the top of the vehicle off, and left the vehicle lying on its side, burning.
Even before the Humvee settled from the blast, a second missile slammed into the Bradley. Its warhead burned into the Bradley’s armor with a jet of molten metal and exploded, turning the fighting vehicle into a cauldron of flaming death.
The gunships screamed over the carnage they had wreaked. The pilot of the lead ship looked out his window at the two burning vehicles. In the light of the flames, he recognized the familiar shape of the Bradley and the glint of an inverted “V” on its side, the recognition symbol for the Coalition Forces. The pilot felt his insides go empty.
“Oh, shit,” was all he could say.
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