excerpt one



The Green Ball

     Maggie stared at Pete with rapt, undivided focus. His dark face was smiling, his hand was hidden inside the heavy green bulk of his USMC flak jacket, and he cooed to her in the high-pitched, squeaky voice she loved.
     "That's a good girl, Maggie. You're the best girl ever. You know that, baby girl Marine?"
     Maggie was an eighty-five pound black-and-tan German shepherd dog. She was three years old, and her full name was Military Working Dog (MWD) Maggie T415, the T415 being tattooed on the inside of her left ear. Corporal Pete Gibbs was her handler. He had been hers and she had been his since they met at Camp Pendleton kennel one-and-a-half years ago. They were now halfway through their second deployment as a patrol and explosives-detection team in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
     Pete cooed, "We good to go, baby girl? You gonna find the bad thing for daddy? You ready to work?"
     Maggie's tail thumped the dirt hard. This was a game they played often, so Maggie knew what was coming, and lived for the joy of this moment.
     Al Jabar Province, 0840 hours, the Republic of Afghanistan. It was 109 degrees, and would reach 120.
     The desert sun beat hard on Maggie's thick fur as a dozen Marines un-assed three Humvees and formed up in a loose column twenty meters behind her. Maggie knew the other Marines, but they meant little to her. Pete was relaxed around them, so Maggie tolerated them, but only when Pete was near. They were familiar, but not pack. Pete was pack. Pete was hers. Maggie and Pete ate together, slept together, and played together 24/7. She loved, adored, protected, defended, and felt lost without him. When the other Marines came too close, Maggie warned them with a low growl. She and her kind had been bred to guard and protect what was hers, and Pete was hers. They were pack.
     Now, this moment, Maggie was totally focused on Pete. Nothing else mattered or existed. There was only Pete, and Maggie's joyful expectation of the game they were about to play, when a voice called out behind her.
     "Yo, Pete. We're good, bro. Roll out."
     Pete glanced at the other humans, then smiled wider at Maggie.
     "Wanna see it, girl? Wanna see what I got?"
     Pete took a florescent green ball from beneath his flak jacket.
     Maggie's eyes locked on the ball, and she stood like a shot, up on all fours, whining for Pete to throw it. Maggie lived to chase the green ball. It was their favorite toy and her favorite game. Pete would throw it hard and far, and Maggie would power after it, chasing it down with a feeling of purpose and bliss; catch it, clamp it tight in her jaws, and proudly bring it back, where Pete was always waiting to shower her with love and approval. Chasing the green ball was her absolute favorite game, but now, Pete showed her the ball only as a promise of the bliss to come. Maggie knew the routine, and was cool with it. If she found the smells Pete had taught her to find, she would be rewarded with the ball. That was their game. She must find the right smells.
     Pete tucked the ball back under his flak, and his voice changed from squeaky to firm. He was alpha, and now he spoke in his alpha voice.
     "Show me what you got, Maggie Marine. Find the bad things. Seek, seek, seek."
     Seek seek seek.
     Maggie was trained as a patrol dog and an explosives-detection dog, making her a dual-purpose patrol explosives-detection dog. She would attack on command, chase and apprehend fleeing persons, and was stellar at crowd control, but her primary job was sniffing out caches of ammunition, artillery ordnance, and roadside bombs. Improvised Explosive Devices. IEDs. The Afghan insurgents' weapon of choice.
     Maggie did not know what an IED was, but this was not necessary. She had been taught to recognize the eleven most popular explosive components insurgents used in their bombs, including ammonium nitrate, detonator cord, potassium chlorate, nitrocellulose, C-4, and RDX. She did not know these things could kill her, but this did not matter, either. She sought them for Pete because pleasing Pete meant everything. If Pete was happy, Maggie was happy. They were a pack of two, and Pete was her alpha. He would throw the green ball.
     At Pete's command, Maggie trotted to the end of her leash, which was tethered to a metal D-ring on Pete's harness. She knew exactly what Pete expected because Pete had trained her, and they had performed this same mission hundreds of times. Their job was to walk along the road twenty meters ahead of the Marines to find the IEDs. They went first, and their lives and the lives of the Marines behind depended on Maggie's nose.
     Maggie swung her head from side to side, checking the high scents first, then dipped her head to taste the smells close to the ground. The humans behind her might be able to identify five or six distinct smells if they concentrated, but Maggie's long shepherd's nose gave her an olfactory picture of the world no human could comprehend: She smelled the dust beneath her feet and the goats that had been herded along the road a few hours earlier and the two young male goatherds who led them. Maggie smelled the infection that one of the goats carried, and knew that two of the female goats were in heat. She smelled Pete's fresh new sweat and the older sweat dried into his gear, his breath, the perfumed letter he kept in his trousers, and the green ball hidden beneath his flak. She smelled the CLP he used to clean his rifle, and the residual gunpowder that clung to his weapon like a fine dust of death. She smelled the small grove of palms not far from the road, and the trace scents of the wild dogs that had slept beneath the palms during the night and defecated and urinated before moving on. Maggie hated the wild dogs. She spent a moment testing the air to see if they were still in the area, decided they were gone, then ignored their scent and concentrated on searching for the scents Pete wanted her to find.
     Smells filled her nose as fully as light filled her eyes, all blurred together as the hundreds of colors a person sees without seeing on library bookshelves. But as a person could focus on each individual book to see its colors, Maggie ignored the smells in which she had no interest, and concentrated on finding the smells that would bring the green ball.
     Their mission that day was to clear a five-mile dirt road leading to a small village where insurgents were believed to cache arms. The squad of Marines would secure the village, protect Maggie and Pete while they searched, and recover any weapons or explosives that were found.
     The miles crept past slowly, and they drew closer to the village without Maggie finding the smells she sought. The heat grew brutal, Maggie's fur became hot to the touch, and she let her tongue hang. She immediately felt a gentle tug on her leash, and Pete approached.
     "You hot, baby? Here you go--"
     Maggie sat, and thirstily drank from the plastic bottle Pete offered. The Marines stopped in place when she stopped, and one called out.
     "She okay?"
     "The water's good for now. We reach the vil, I want to get her out the sun for a while."
     "Roger that. Another mile and a half."
     "We're good."
     A mile later they moved past another palm grove and glimpsed the tops of three stone buildings peeking over the tops of the palms. The same Marine voice called out again.
     "Heads up. Vil ahead. We take fire, it'll come from there."
     They were rounding the last curve in the road toward the village when Maggie heard the tinkle of bells and bleating. She stopped, pricked her ears, and Pete stopped beside her. The Marines stopped in place, still well behind.
     "What is it?"
     "She hears something."
     "She got an IED?"
     "No, she's listening. She hears something."
     Maggie tested the air with a series of short, fast sniffs, and caught their scent as the first goat appeared through the shimmering heat. Two teenaged boys walked near the front and to the right of a small flock, with a taller, older male walking on the left. The taller male raised a hand in greeting.
     The Marine behind Maggie shouted a word, and the three oncoming men stopped. The goats continued on, then realized the men had stopped, and milled in a lazy group. They were forty yards away. In the rising, windless air, it took a few seconds for their smells to cover the distance.
     Maggie didn't like strangers, and watched them suspiciously. She sampled the air again--sniff sniff sniff--and huffed the air through her mouth.
     The taller male raised his hand again, and the molecules that carried their smells finally reached Maggie's nose. She noted their different and complex body odors, the coriander, pomegranate, and onion on their breath, and the first faint taste of a smell Pete taught her to find.
     Maggie whined and leaned into the leash. She glanced at Pete, then stared at the men, and Pete knew she was onto something.
     "Gunny, we got something."
     "Something in the road?"
     "Negative. She's staring at these guys."
     "Maybe she wants the goats."
     "The men. She doesn't give a shit about the goats."
     "They carrying?"
     "We're too far away. She smells something, but the scent cone is too big. These guys might have residue in their clothes, they might be packing guns, I dunno."
     "I don't like it we're standing here with the buildings right there. If someone lights us up, it's going to come from the vil."
     "Let'm come to us. You guys stay put, and we'll give'm a good sniff."
     "Roger that. We got you covered."
     The Marines spread to the sides of the road as Pete waved the goatherds forward.
     Maggie swung her head from side to side, hunting for the strongest scent, and felt alive with anticipation. The scent grew stronger as the men approached, and she knew Pete would be pleased. He would be happy with her for finding the scent, and reward her with the green ball. Pete happy, Maggie happy, pack happy.
     Maggie whined anxiously as the men drew closer and the scent cone narrowed. The older boy wore a loose white shirt and the younger a faded blue T-shirt, and both wore baggy white pants and sandals. The taller man was bearded, and wore a dark loose shirt with baggy long sleeves and faded pants. The sleeves hung in folds, and draped when he raised his arms. His body reeked of days-old sour sweat, but the target scent was strong now. It came from the taller man, and Maggie's certainty flowed up the leash into Pete, who knew what Maggie knew as if they were one creature, not man and dog, but something better. Pack.
     Pete shouldered his rifle, and barked at the man to stop.
     The man stopped, smiling, and raised his hands as the goats now herded around the boys.
     The man spoke to the boys, who stopped, and Maggie smelled their fear, too.
     Pete said, "Stay, girl. Stay."
     Pete stepped out ahead of her to approach the tall man. Maggie hated when Pete moved away from her. He was alpha, so she obeyed, but she heard his heart beat faster and smelled the sweat pouring from his skin, and knew Pete was afraid. His anxiety coursed through the leash, and poured into Maggie, so she became anxious, too.
     Maggie broke position to catch up with him, and shouldered into his leg.
     "Out, Maggie. Stay."
     She stopped at his command, but gave a low growl. Her job was to protect and defend him. They were pack, and he was alpha. Every DNA strand of her German shepherd breeding screamed for her to put herself between Pete and the men, and warn them off or attack them, but pleasing Pete was also in her DNA. Alpha happy, pack happy.
     Maggie broke position again, and once more put herself between Pete and the strangers, and now the smell was so strong Maggie did as Pete had taught her. She sat.
     Pete kneed her aside, and raised his rifle as he shouted a warning to the other Marines.
     "He's loaded!"
     The tall man detonated with a concussion that slammed Maggie backward so hard she was thrown upside down. She lost consciousness briefly, then woke on her side, disoriented and confused as dust and debris fell on her fur. She heard nothing but a high pitch whine, and her nose burned with the acid stink of an unnatural fire. Her vision was blurred, but slowly cleared as she struggled to rise. The Marines behind her were shouting, but their words had no meaning. Her left front leg collapsed with her weight. She shouldered into the dirt, but immediately stood again, propping herself on three wobbly legs that stung as if being bitten by ants.
     The bearded man was a pile of smoking cloth and torn flesh. Goats were down and screaming. The smaller boy was sitting in the dust, crying, and the older boy stumbled in a lazy circle with splashes of red on his shirt and face.
     Pete lay crumpled on his side, groaning. They were still joined by the leash, and his pain and fear flowed into her.
     He was pack.
     He was everything.
     Maggie limped to him, and frantically licked his face. She tasted the blood running from his nose and ears and neck, and flushed with the need to soothe and heal him.
     Pete rolled over and blinked at her.
     "You hurt, baby girl?"
     A burst of earth kicked up from the road near Pete's head, and a loud crack snapped through the air.
     The Marine voices behind her shouted louder.
     "Sniper! Sniper in the vil!"
     "Pete's down!"
     "We're taking fire--"
     The crazy loud chatter of a dozen automatic weapons made Maggie cringe, but she licked Pete's face even harder. She wanted him to get up. She wanted him to be happy.
     A heavy crack of thunder so close it shook the ground exploded behind her, and more dirt and hot shards blew through her fur. She cringed again, and wanted to run, but went on with the licking.
     Heal him.
     Soothe him.
     Take care of Pete.
     "We're gettin' mortared!"
    Another puff of dirt kicked up from the road beside them, and Pete slowly unclipped Maggie's lead from his harness.
     "Go, Maggie. They're shootin' at us. Go."
     His alpha voice was weak, and the weakness scared her. Alpha was strong. Alpha was pack. Pack was everything.
     More thunder shook the earth, then more, and suddenly something awful punched her hip and spun her into the air. Maggie screamed as she landed, and snapped and snarled at the pain.
     "Sniper shot the dog!"
     "Take that fucker out, goddamnit!"
     "Ruiz, Johnson, with me!"
     Maggie paid no attention as the Marines ran toward the buildings. She snapped at the terrible pain in her hip, then dragged herself back to her pack.
Pete tried to push her away, but his push was weak.
     "Go, baby. I can't get up. Get away--"
     Pete reached under his flak and took out the green ball.
     "Get it, baby girl. Go--"
     Pete tried to throw the green ball, but it only rolled a few feet. Pete vomited blood, and shuddered, and everything about him changed in those seconds. His scent, his taste. She heard his heart grow still and the blood slow in his veins. She sensed his spirit leave his body, and felt a mournful loss unlike anything she had ever known.
     "PETE! Pete, we're coming, man!"
     "Air support comin' in. Hang on!"
     Maggie licked him, trying to make Pete laugh. He always laughed when she licked his face.
     Another high-pitched snap ripped past her, and another geyser of dust spouted into the air. Then something heavy slammed into Pete's flak so hard Maggie felt punched in the chest, and smelled the bullet's acrid smoke and hot metal. She snapped at the hole in Pete's flak.
     "They're shooting at the dog!"
     More mortar rounds whumped just off the road, again raining dirt and hot steel.
     Maggie snarled and barked, and dragged herself on top of her alpha. Pete was alpha. Pete was pack. Her job was to protect her pack.
     She snapped at the raining debris, and barked at the metal birds now circling the distant buildings like terrible wasps. There were more explosions, then a sudden silence filled the desert, and the clatter of running Marines approached.
     "We're comin', man--"
     Maggie bared her fangs and growled.
     Protect the pack. Protect her alpha.
     The fur on her back stood in rage, and her ears cocked forward to scoop in their sounds. Her fangs were fearsome and gleaming as bulky green shapes towered around her.
     Protect him, protect the pack, protect her Pete.
     "Jesus, Maggie, it's us! Maggie!"
     "Is he dead?"
     "He's fucked up, man--"
     "She's fucked up, too--"
     Maggie snapped and ripped at them, and the shapes jumped back.
     "She's crazy--"
     "Don't hurt her. Shit, she's bleeding--"
     Protect the pack. Protect and defend.
     Maggie snapped and slashed. She growled and barked, and hopped in circles to face them.
     "Doc! Doc, Jesus, Pete's down--"
     "Black Hawk's inbound!"
     "His dog won't let us--"
     "Use your rifle! Don't hurt her! Push her off--"
     "She's shot, dude!"
     Something reached toward her, and Maggie bit hard. She locked onto it with jaws that brought over seven hundred pounds per square inch of bite pressure to bear. She held tight, growling, but then another long thing reached forward, and another.
     Maggie released her grip, lunged at the nearest men, caught meat and tore, then took her place over Pete again.
     "She thinks we're gonna hurt him--"
     "Push her off! C'mon--"
     "Don't hurt her, goddamnit!"
     They pushed her again, and someone threw a jacket over her head. She tried to twist away, but now they bore her down with their weight.
     Protect Pete. Pete was pack. Her life was the pack.
     "Dude, she's hurt. Be careful--"
     "I got her--"
     "Fuckin' scum shot her--"
     Maggie twisted and lurched. She was furious with rage and fear, and tried to bite through the jacket, but felt herself lifted. She felt no pain, and did not know she was bleeding. She only knew she needed to be with Pete. She had to protect him. She was lost without him. Her job was to protect him.
     "Put her on the Black Hawk."
     "I got her--"
     "Put her on there with Pete."
     "What's with the dog?"
     "This is her handler. You gotta get her to the hospital--"
     "He's dead--"
     "She was trying to protect him--"
     "Stop talkin' and fly, motherfucker. You get her to a doctor. This dog's a Marine."
     Maggie felt a deep vibration through her body as the thick exhaust of the aviation fuel seeped through the jacket that covered her head. She was scared, but Pete's smell was close. She knew he was only a few feet away, but she also knew he was far away, and growing farther.
     She tried to crawl closer to him, but her legs didn't work, and men held her down, and after a while her fierce growls turned to whines.
     Pete was hers.
     They were pack.
     They were a pack of two, but now Pete was gone, and Maggie had no one.

2012 by Robert Crais 


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