Sunday, August 25, 2013


Four Months Later

            “Rattler 21, Thunder 11 checking in as fragged, ready for words,” the metallic voice said over the Harris PRC-117F Manpack Radio.  The dismounted radio, called a manpack, served as a multi-band, multimode radio that covered the gamut of waveforms.  Frequencies covered included VHF, UHF, and UHF SATCOM radio.  The unit was also compatible with the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, an Army system.  It served as a lifeline for any JTAC to support assets in the air.
            “Roger Thunder 11, Rattler has you loud and clear, situation is as follows: we have several wounded friendly forces holed up in the urban village.  They are unable to move at this time and are surrounded by multiple hostiles in pickup trucks,” he replied looking up at the jets circling over their position.  From his observation position, he could barely hear the two F-16s in a right hand orbit high above, but with the overcast sky, he could clearly see two dark specks speeding across the clouds like ants on a blanket.
            The two men were set up on the roof of a metal building overlooking a series of tin buildings just a quarter mile away.  The terrain was relatively flat, and from atop the two-story building, they had a relatively unobstructed view of the village.  Even for a village, it wasn’t much.  A dirt road running north from their observation position was split by fifteen tin buildings before intersecting another dirt road that led out to a narrow tree line. 
            “Do you recognize the voice?” he asked, turning to the man standing next to him.  The man was about six feet tall with a narrow frame and muscular build.  He wore khaki 5.11 Tactical pants with a black Survival Krav Maga t-shirt.  Oakley Half Jacket mirror tinted sunglasses masked his deep set, blue-gray eyes, and a desert camouflage boonie hat covered his light brown hair.  His square jaw clenched as he pondered the question.
            “C’mon Joe, you know I don’t fly with those assholes anymore,” the man replied with a grin. 
Tech Sergeant Joe Carpenter laughed and turned back to his Toughbook Laptop and PRC-117 radio.  He was wearing the standard issue Air Force ABU digital camouflage uniform complete with flak vest and ballistic helmet.  A former Army Ranger, he had been a JTAC for three years after going Green to Blue in search of a more aviation-oriented career.  Unable to fly because of a color vision test, his search landed him right back with the Army, as an embedded JTAC.
            Perhaps one of the most physically demanding jobs in the Air Force, JTACs were frontline battlefield airmen.  They were embedded with ground forces to advise the ground commander on Air Force air power capabilities, and in the heat of battle, to control aircraft during close air support scenarios.  Of course, it was just Carpenter’s luck that he’d get out of the Army just to go right back in a new uniform, but he didn’t mind, he was at the tip of the spear and he loved it.
            To Carpenter, though, the best thing about working for Mother Blue was the toys.  He knew the Army had the same technology and capabilities, but in the Air Force, he always seemed to have the latest and greatest at his fingertips.  At the moment, the latest and greatest happened to be his Toughbook Laptop equipped with the newest Precision Strike Suite for Special Operation Forces software – PSS-SOF.  With PSS-SOF, he could pass airborne operators high fidelity GPS coordinates of his own position or the enemy from the comfort of whatever foxhole he happened to be operating out of. 
            “Damn Spectre, still no love for the Gators?”  Carpenter asked sarcastically.  The Gators were the 39th Fighter Squadron stationed out of Homestead Air Reserve Base in Southern Florida.  One of only two fighter squadrons remaining under the Air Force Reserve Command, the Gators had been Spectre’s squadron until the aftermath of his final flight that night in the skies over Iraq. 
            “None.  Don’t you think you should pass them a nine line and get this party started?”  Spectre was never known for his tact.  It was one of many reasons he and Carpenter got along so well.
            Carpenter nodded and keyed the microphone as he read from his Toughbook, “Thunder 41, nine line is as follows: items one through three are NA, line four: one hundred twenty feet, line five: group of trucks, line six: One Six Romeo Mike Lima Nine Three Eight Four Four Eight Zero Six, line 7 NA, Line 8: five hundred meters southeast, line 9 as required, remarks:  final attack heading 270 plus or minus 10 degrees.  Call in with final attack heading and expect clearance on final.  Read back lines 4, 6, and restrictions.” 
            The fighter repeated the 9-line perfectly as the F-16s maneuvered into position overhead.  By using the standard 9-Line format, Carpenter had given the fighters all the information they needed to take out the target, including elevation, coordinates formatted in Military Grid Reference System, distance from friendly positions and restrictions on attack direction.  
            “It’s Magic,” Spectre muttered.
            Carpenter turned and gave Spectre a puzzled look.
            “Magic?  No man, it’s science.  We give them the coordinates of the bad guys with this fancy laptop, they plug it into their system, and the bad guys go boom.” 
            “No shit smartass, I mean the guy flying.  It’s Magic Manny,” Spectre fired back.  Lt Col Steve “Magic” Manny was the Director of Operations for the Gators.
            Carpenter picked up his binoculars with one hand and the handset of his radio in the other as he watched the F-16 roll in on its target.
            “Thunder 11, in heading 275,” announced the tinny voice of Magic over the PRC-117.
            “You’re cleared hot,” Carpenter replied, clearing the pilot to employ ordnance while ensuring that the fighter’s nose was pointing at the right target. 
            Spectre watched as the F-16 rolled in and hurled itself toward the ground.  Seconds later, two objects fell as the jet turned back skyward.  He winced in anticipation of the impact only to be greeted by two barely audible thuds.
            “Good hits!  Good bombs!”  Carpenter exclaimed on the radio.
            “Inerts are so anticlimactic,” Spectre sighed. 
            “What do you expect?  They drop two five hundred pound pieces of concrete that are shaped to look like real bombs.  It’s way better than when they roll in and just ‘simulate’ without anything coming off the jet.  Now that is boring.”  Carpenter always had a way of putting a positive spin on things.
            Just as Spectre was about to explain the merits of training without any ordnance on the aircraft, his cell phone rang.  It was his boss.
            “I have to go Joe, thanks for letting me spot for you,” he said as he hung up the phone.
            Carpenter gave him a nod and turned back to the target.  He had invited Spectre to make the drive from Homestead to Avon Park to catch up and observe the Forward Air Controller side of Close Air Support.  They had been friends since college, but aside from an e-mail or phone call here and there, they rarely got to see each other nearly ten years later. 
            Spectre picked up his backpack and climbed down the connex container to begin the mile hike back to his truck.  His boss had been brief but the sense of urgency was apparent in his voice.  It was time to quit playing and get back to the office – something new had come up.
With the boss as vague as he was, Spectre was forced to wonder what could be going on until completing the three-hour drive back to Homestead to find out.  Was the store finally going to be bought out by a bigger chain?  Did some new, rare find show up that needed an immediate appraisal?  These were the new questions that weighed heavily on his mind since his transition to civilian life.
            It wasn’t a very easy transition to make.  When Spectre was told by his superiors upon returning from Iraq that he’d never fly an Air Force Reserve aircraft again, he refused the non-flying staff job they tried to force on him.  For him, flying the F-16 hadn’t been about the adrenaline rush or the need for speed.  It was about serving a higher purpose.  In the current world climate, that meant providing close air support for boots on the ground.  When the powers that be decided he was no longer fit to do that, he decided his services could be better used elsewhere.
            Unfortunately for Spectre, the economy he escaped to wasn’t conducive to his unique skill sets.  And after several rejected applications to a myriad of three letter agencies and private contractors, he found himself quickly burning through his savings.
            That was until he met Marcus Anderson.  The gruff Mr. Anderson had been a classmate of Spectre’s in their Survival Krav Maga class.  And although Marcus was nearly twenty years his senior, the two became fierce sparring partners.  The former Marine versus the former fighter pilot, each did a good job of keeping the other on his toes.  A black belt himself, Marcus had helped Spectre earn his black belt in Krav Maga.
            Through their training and constant ribbing, the two became good friends.  And when Marcus learned that Spectre was down on his luck, he didn’t hesitate to bring him in on the family business. 
            Anderson Police Supply in Florida City, FL was established in 1981 by the late John Anderson.  A former Miami-Dade County detective, John Anderson had retired to the more rural Florida City to escape the explosive expansion of Miami and Ft Lauderdale, while still being close enough to visit.  What originally started as a hobby of collecting rare and unique guns soon became a fairly lucrative business for John.  His buddies from the force appreciated the discounts on firearms and supplies, while the locals enjoyed having a full service firearms dealer with a huge inventory right down the street.
            After returning home a decorated Marine Recon Sniper in 1999, Marcus decided to leave the Corps and join his father in running the store.  By the time his father passed away in 2001, Marcus had watched the store grow from the back corner of a bait and tackle shop to a 20,000 square foot facility equipped with an indoor shooting range and a fully configurable electronic shoot house. 
            When Marcus learned that Spectre had a business degree and extensive web design experience from college, he didn’t feel so bad about giving Spectre a chance.  And after only a year, Anderson Police Supply had become one of the foremost online dealers for firearms and tactical gear.  
            Spectre arrived at the store well after business hours, but the parking lot was still full.  Something must really be going on, he thought.  He had spent the three-hour drive going over the possibilities in his head, but none of them seemed likely enough to cause Marcus to be so tight lipped.  He really had no idea what to expect.
            He swiped his access card and opened the heavy metal door as the lock clicked open.  The access control system had been installed shortly after the latest renovations, allowing better control and tracking of those employees who were able to access the building after hours.  He then proceeded inside the large showroom, complete with multiple glass showcases.  Handguns of all calibers and types were proudly on display inside each case, organized by manufacturer.  Rifles of varying calibers and sizes were mounted behind each of showcases on the wall.  It was a gun lover’s heaven.
            Specter noticed the staff crowded around the range rental counter of the store.  He could barely make out Marcus’ gray hair standing behind it, apparently talking to the staff.  He threw his backpack on one of the showcases without slowing down and continued to where the others were gathered around.
            “No, it does not mean you’ll lose your job,” Marcus continued, apparently already midway through his speech.  He paused and nodded as he noticed Spectre join the crowd. 
            “Then what does it mean?”  one of the junior salesmen asked.
            “Would you let me finish?  Do you think I won’t tell you?”  Marcus barked.  The junior salesman retreated, his face red.  Spectre chuckled.  That was Marcus.  Patience and diplomacy would never be his legacy.
            “What’s going on?”  Spectre whispered to the girl next to him.  She was barely five feet tall with long brown hair and bright blue eyes.  To Spectre, and most of the males in the store, she was probably the most attractive girl there.  Were it not for his pending engagement, he might have made a move on her.  Perhaps even more successfully than the hundreds of guys that were being shot down on a daily basis.
            “The boss just announced that the store is downsizing,” she replied.
            “Downsizing how?”
            She replied with a finger to her mouth and pointed to Marcus who was still staring down the junior salesman.  Even at 5’9” and just over 170 lbs, Marcus was an expert in creating the fear of God in just about anyone.
            “As I was saying,” he continued, “we’re not downsizing staff for now.  We’re going to move a lot of the floor salesmen... err... salespeople to the corporate accounts, internet sales, and range.  We’re also going to be cutting back on the store hours.  I don’t want to have to let people go, but you’re all going to have to work with me.  This is the best I can do with the shit sandwich we’ve been given.”
            Marcus made a point to make eye contact with every man and woman standing around that counter as if he were readying the troops for a final charge into battle.  To Marcus, that wasn’t that far from the truth.  For his business, this was do or die time.  They had to either pull themselves out of the red and adapt to a changing economy, or face extinction.
            “That’s all I can say for now, folks.  Just know that we’re going to work together and pull this through.  Cal, can I talk to you in private?”
            Spectre nodded and walked behind the counter.  He followed Marcus into his office and closed the door behind them.  Marcus collapsed into his big leather chair and rubbed his temples.
            “Nice speech, boss.  The troops are ready for war,” Spectre poked with a grin.
            “War is a lot easier than this shit.  Way easier.  You have a target.  You have an objective.  You kill him.  This?  This is a cluster fuck.”
            “What’s going on?  When I left yesterday, things weren’t so doom and gloom.  Sure we had a bad quarter, but nothing we haven’t seen before,” Spectre replied.  He was referring to the quarterly financial reports their accounting staff had put together the day prior.  As expected, gun sales were down across the board.  The only thing doing well was the internet sales department. 
            “We were doing fine.  Until this morning, and I got this,” he said as he handed Spectre a letter.
            Spectre took the letter and started reading.  He couldn’t believe it.  It was non-renewal notice from the local Customs and Border Protection branch.  One of their largest government contracts for supplying firearms, ammunition, and tactical gear was being terminated.
            “I’ve got a buddy at CBP; I’ll ask what’s going on.”
            “Don’t bother, I already talked to the Air and Marine Branch Chief in Homestead,” Marcus said, eyes closed as if what he was saying was also physically painful, “the President has cut funding to all Customs Air and Marine branches nationwide.  He thinks this one might be closing altogether.”
            “It can’t be!  This is one of the busiest branches in the country!”  Spectre was beside himself.  The Homestead Air and Marine Interdiction branch of CBP was the front line in the country’s battle against smugglers, drug runners, illegals, and terrorists.  With a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters, ASTARS helicopters, Dash-8 surveillance aircraft, and trained interdiction agents, it was second only to the Tucson branch in activity.
                “I know.  Fucking Democrats.”  Marcus sighed.   

Spectre Series