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“Facing increasing pressure on the Pentagon budget, the Air Force now plans on ending development of a weapon system designed to eradicate Soviet satellites in space. Meanwhile, South Korean opposition leaders have declared the results of its recent presidential election invalid, due to what they deem ‘widespread fraud.’
“Back at home, Finn’s Point National Cemetery will be the site of a rare exhumation today. The body of E4 Specialist Colin Kristofer is expected to be exhumed, following recent reports of links between Kristofer and the notorious head of terrorist organization Cobra Command. Until recently, the masked fanatic’s identity was a stubborn mystery to authorities.
“We’ll be back with more headlines for this Friday, December 18th. But first, a message from the new and improved Red Rocket Burgers. Have you ridden the rocket today?”
Lt. Falcon, checking the mirror and adjusting the collar of his Army Service Uniform, tuned out the remainder of the broadcast. The Cobra story was potentially big news, but with so much of it classified as “need to know” and beyond, he’d already divested himself from the speculation, awaiting what official word, if any, came from his superiors.
Whenever General Hawk discovered the source of the leak, how he unleashed his wrath on the low-level intel drone who tipped off the media hounds, that was going to be something worth watching.
There was a larger story of the day, one not fit for civilian ears. First Sergeant Conrad S. Hauser, native of St. Louis, Missouri, would be laid to rest today. Perhaps some word of his codename Duke was leaked to the press on an occasion or two, those rare times the work of the covert G. I. Joe team couldn’t be handwaved away under the banner of “plausible deniability.”
Duke could’ve been quite the public face of the team, were such a thing ever necessary. Blond hair, blue eyes, chiseled chin befitting any soldier serving in those old Sgt. Granite comics. Falcon thought of the back issues inherited from his older brother, sent off to basic training three weeks after high school graduation.
Eight years old, the grunts starring in those pamphlets no less inspiring than the barrel-chested company mascot, soaring around the city in his cape and tights. All heroes, all invulnerable. Duke -- Conrad -- would write letters from the jungle. Special ones just for his kid brother, Vince. He told stories, reaffirming the bravery of his fellow servicemen, but also hinting at a darker truth not found behind the Sgt. Granite covers.
In his most blunt message, Conrad told Vince to respect his mother. That he’d be shocked to learn how many battle-hardened soldiers cry out that woman’s name during their final moments.
Vincent was a smart enough kid to pick up on the intimations in other letters. Maybe Conrad’s words turned the boy a bit too cynical, too early. Or perhaps it was the gravitational pull of hot rods and pretty girls that tugged Vince in the wrong direction.
Irrelevant now. By the age of fifteen, Vince was half a juvenile delinquent, giving his mother, and a few of the fathers around town, fits on most school nights.
Big brother hero Conrad S. Hauser soon found his image in Vincent’s mind replaced with that of pompous, didactic half-brother Conrad, with his irritating regulation haircut and too-perfect chin. An Army lifer, allowed two visits home a year, never shy about sharing his feelings on the topic of family screw-up Vince.
“He needs direction. Needs to realize the world doesn’t revolve around him. The draft might be over, but I know we can find room for that goldbricker. I’m telling you, Ma. Best hope for Vince is to enlist. Even if he washes out, the experience would do him some good.”
Did Vince sign those papers specifically to shut his older brother up? Did he make it through boot camp as a symbolic middle finger to Conrad’s low expectations? Maybe. He’d never know; the Joes had recruited a psychological expert in recent days, but Falcon wasn’t going to be scribbling his John Hancock on that sign-up sheet attached to the mope’s door.
He wasn’t going to be lying on some shrink’s couch, discussing his anger at Doc for giving them that false hope the night Duke pulled out of his coma. Doc’s the best of the best; he wouldn’t make that diagnosis capriciously. Doc knew Duke was a fighter, had convinced himself their “top” had pulled through the worst of it.
Those months that followed, Duke going in and out of the comas, the new strain of venom they discovered in his system resisting all treatment, Doc couldn’t have foreseen that.
Everyone makes mistakes. Pencils still come with erasers.
Falcon wasn’t going to be elucidating any revenge fantasies against Serpentor, that freak of nature Cobra sleaze who impaled his older brother with one of those ornamental daggers. Impaled him through the heart, the scene rotating in Falcon’s dreams like the most irritating of pop songs.
Any anxieties, or hopes, Serpentor survived, was still out there awaiting another rematch? Falcon wasn’t commenting on that.
Wasn’t going to be rationalizing to some stranger why he’s still kicking himself for choosing that codename. Falcon. A nod to his late father, Duke’s stepfather, Adriano Falcone, true. But also a subtle jab at his half-brother, reminding him that even if they were both serving on the distinguished Joe team, Vince was still his own man. Not a Hauser. A Falcone, a turk from the next generation, no baggage from that war out in the jungle where the rain has that funny smell and no one expected a parade when they got back home.
A new day, a new Army, lots of stuff to get done before nine AM.
And, on this snowy day in northern Virginia, a funeral to attend.
Dark gray soil dripped from the maw of the bulldozer, landing neatly in the allotted area to the right of the grave. The vigilant operator, working to treat the boy’s resting place with as much dignity as possible, whispered a prayer.
That morning, he’d turned down an offer of a thousand dollars to give some reporter the “inside track” on what was happening here this morning. Even said a few words he didn’t want his kids to overhear, telling that weaselly little jerk to never call again.
Not that Umberto could’ve given much of an answer. He’d heard the same rumors as anyone else, yet wasn’t half as eager to believe them. The stories floating around, the idea that some twenty-year-old junior enlisted rank could somehow fake his death out there in the jungle. That he went underground, traveled back home, built some criminal empire…no, not criminal. Terrorist. No different than those animals planting bombs on the airplanes or targeting our Marines overseas.
The thought of this Colin Kristofer dishonoring his service, disrespecting his country, it would be quite a story for those talking heads on the television. They’d get three weeks off this dirt, easy, until another pop star was arrested for his sick habits, or a TV preacher got caught leaving the wrong hotel room.
Police barriers were keeping those wolves at bay. He recognized a few from the evening news. Some were even stars on the national shows, he realized. Perfect hair, sparkly teeth, cameras at the ready. All eager to believe the worst about this body, all desperate to defame a memory.
Umberto wouldn’t buy the rot they were peddling. He never knew this Kristofer kid, but he served with dozens like him during his tours. More than a few came back with scars, they certainly weren’t all angels even before enlisting, but the whispers going around about this kid were beyond obscene.
The Cobra Commander, that hooded lunatic on the TV, was an Army man? An innocent boy from Salem County, answering the call to serve his country?
No blessed way.
Coffee-colored soil was heaved atop the casket, all with predictable military precision. Falcon, his arm stretched across his mother’s shoulder, whispered words of support, words he wished he could believe himself.
He held her closer, told her not to be ashamed of the tears. Through the snow, searching for any distraction, Falcon studied the attendees. The brass made the call to prohibit rank and file Joes from attending, hoping to minimize any connections between this Conrad Hauser and the Joe team. Just another service in Arlington, one of over a dozen funerals held on this day. Aside from General Hawk, and E-6 Staff Sergeant Scarlett, Falcon didn’t recognize a single face in uniform.
No, not quite. The Vice President. Falcon certainly recognized him from the television; this morning’s news headlines, in fact.
He tried to think back to that half-heard report, the scandal brewing around the man, the talk of the danger it posed to his inevitable run for the presidency. Falcon, his interest in politics past minimal, forgot the issue within a millisecond. His attention instead turned to the Staff Sergeant, grief just now shattering her stone face. He questioned why the redhead had been granted access to the service, just who offered this Joe the exemption from that callous order.
Falcon thought of his new friends, the Rawhides, the crew of rookies who’d been recruited onto the team just in time to watch the world go mad. With pride, he thought of their final showdown inside that ice dome, those science fiction horrors getting a taste of bitter defeat.
They should be here today, those Rawhides. They should all be here now, regardless of rank, regardless of whatever policy the brass thinks is best suited for the team’s already diminishing anonymity. He knew a memorial was scheduled back at the base, but standing in the biting cold, offering what he knew to be inadequate comfort to his mother, Falcon simmered.
A public display for the upper echelons of command, a nice, stately goodbye worthy of a political cameo, but no official showing for the grunts. Typical. Falcon thought of the one face he’d like to see here, more than any other Joe.
It belonged to a dark-eyed girl who’d earned a reputation as bad luck, although he could no longer personally testify to the veracity of those stories.
And, just as fast as the thought materialized, he rebuked himself for falling into old habits. This was a day for mourning, a day to celebrate Duke. Let the brass have their show. Let mother Falcone have the pomp and ceremony, if she got something out of it. Let her get a hug and some condolences out of the veep. And let the Joes have their own celebration of the man later, over cold drinks and salty pretzels.
None of it was going to bring him back, anyway.