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“Good morning, Lieutenant. I trust your family leave went well.”
General Hawk’s office didn’t reveal any idiosyncratic quirks belonging to the Joes’ commanding officer. Anyone who knew the man wouldn’t expect it to.
“Mom’s doing about as well as could be expected,” answered Falcon, hiding his nerves while taking the seat facing the General. “Unfortunately, she’s no stranger to loss. Not that any mother should ever have to bury her son.”
A miniature American flag sat on the desk, joined by a West Point coffee mug and a metal-wire basket packed with manila file folders you just had to assume the General deeply despised. The surrounding walls consisted of the prerequisite portraits of higher-ups in the chain of command, the current Commander in Chief once again receiving headliner status in the top frame.
“True words, Falcon. No one knows the cost of violence more than a soldier, except for the ones he leaves behind. And, if you’ll forgive me for being brash, that’s the reason I asked to speak to you.” The General folded his hands together. “Where’s your head at? You do understand that we have programs to help with the grieving process.”
Falcon delayed his response; did anything he could to break Hawk’s gaze. He looked up to find the lone photo not representing the Brass. Nailed above a corner filing cabinet was a 9 x 12 “family photo” of General Hawk, then known as Colonel Abernathy, standing with the twelve soldiers he hand selected to form the original G. I. Joe team.
Falcon thought of that team, of the legacy his brother served. Of the obligations now weighing upon his shoulders. And, shamefully, of a previous meeting with the General, only a few weeks after joining the team. One necessitated by Falcon abandoning his post, falling victim to his worst instincts and causing the Joes a serious amount of grief. An enraged General Hawk ordered Falcon to his quarters to await his court martial, and he was right to do so.
The question asked in the office today was invasive, yet necessary. The General was owed an answer, regardless of Falcon’s instinct to clam up. “No offense, General, but I think it’s in my nature to keep things close to the vest. The wake the other Joes arranged was appreciated, and I hope it helped the rest of the team deal with the loss. As for me...I loved my brother, and I’m mourning him in my own way.”
“Just know that we’re here for you, soldier. It’s no easy thing, losing a brother.”
The General’s words carried an empathy that Falcon just knew couldn’t be faked. He also knew asking the General to elaborate on his own losses, prying into affairs Falcon didn’t have the proper “need to know” for, was breaking both spoken and unspoken Joe protocol.
“Truthfully, sir,” said Falcon, moving the conversation where he felt both men would be more comfortable, “what I think I’d like better than anything is a chance to step on some snakes. I know we’ve had a lot of luck on those raids recently...”
The General leaned back in his chair, reunited his hands in a folded position. After considering the proposition for a possible eternity, he returned with, “Falcon, I’m reluctant to send any Joe out into the field if he’s not ready. But if you think a return to action is what you need, we might be able to arrange something. Tell me, what are your thoughts on this Colin Kristofer case?”
“That KIA we’re supposed to believe is actually Cobra Commander? One of our own?” Falcon’s eyes darkened, revealed his anger. “What would anyone think?”
“I recognize there are rumors going around, and as you might’ve guessed, no shortage of federal agencies investigating these claims, all marking their own territory. Officially, the Joe team has been told to defer to the NSA, CIA, and FBI.” The General’s hands returned to his desk. He grabbed a pen, gestured towards his subordinate. “Unofficially, I think I might be able to authorize some leave time for a Lieutenant and two of his fellow Joes. And if you just so happened to select a specific town in New Jersey to spend a snowy winter break, well...your CO wouldn’t have an opinion on that.”
Falcon grinned, the first real smile in weeks. “Hypothetically, this Lieutenant would be fine with that arrangement. Permission to toss out names for a small team?”
“I’d like to take a certain E-4 Corporal along, one known for a unique perspective on life.”
“Footloose?” The General’s surprised gasp nearly turned into a laugh. “All honesty, Lieutenant, I wasn’t expecting to hear that name.”
“He looks at the world in his own way, sees angles I couldn’t begin to grasp. Yeah, a case this odd, I think his perspective could be quite valuable. Wouldn’t mind him watching my back, either, if we happened to run into some snakes.”
“Understood. Who else?”
“Well, General, with your permission...I’d like to bring a fellow Rawhide along. Specifically, ah, I was thinking of Jinx.”
The General’s expression changed. Part amusement, part disapproval. Falcon tried to tell himself he was imagining things. “You recognize this would make you the first Joe to ever request the ninja as a squadmate. Not afraid of her relationship with lady luck?”
“Hey, I used to buy into that bunk, too, until she saved my bacon up in the Himalayas. No, I’d feel comfortable taking Jinx anywhere today.” Falcon wasn’t bluffing; his answer came easy because it was an honest one.
There were a few insignificant lies of omission, however. One of them he might’ve been able to get away with, assuming no one was spreading rumors about a victory kiss the two (hypothetically) once shared.
The General’s curious expression didn’t break. “And you’re positive you have no ulterior motives for wanting to spend time with the lady?”
Falcon’s acid reflux kicked in. He should’ve known General Hawk wasn’t in the dark about anything happening in his command.
“Sir, full disclosure...she’s good company. Honestly, she’s good for helping me keep my head on straight. On a mission like this, I think I might need a calming influence.”
The General considered Falcon’s response, then with no visible display of emotion, reached for his memo pad. While scratching out a note, he said, “Okay, Lieutenant, I trust your judgment. And, assuming the timing works out, I think perhaps you should take a detour on your way back to base; consider spending the holidays with Mrs. Falcone.”
The Lieutenant didn’t verbalize an answer, but he nodded his thanks.
“Think you can be ready to roll out by this afternoon?”
“No doubt, General.”
Hawk ripped the memo from the pad, handed Falcon the paper. “Excellent. Just pay a visit to Psyche-Out’s office and give him this.”
Falcon bit his tongue, withheld that visceral “What?” response.
The General reached for his coffee. “After he gives his approval, you’ll be all set, soldier.”
The city of Ashburn, Kentucky. Population just shy of three thousand souls.
Dr. Mindbender, in his previous life as an orthodontist, in his current life as the science czar of a notorious terroristic organization, would’ve never imagined traveling here. Couldn’t foresee himself roaming those dirt roads, losing time behind combine harvesters, narrowly avoiding collisions with deer.
Wouldn’t have dreamed the infamous Cobra Commander would plant “an invaluable asset” inside the humble brick structure that rested on a near-dead street, two blocks away from the single-story city hall building.
“This place must be a hundred years old,” the doctor remarked, parking their rental car on the side of the street.
“Clossse. It’s an industrial refrigeration house,” the Commander explained. Even if the region was experiencing unseasonably frosty temperatures, he’d appear to be overdressed for the weather. Sun hat, oversized aviator sunglasses, scarf, trenchcoat. Almost as if he were hiding a futuristic battle suit under the garments.
Standing at the side of the car, taking in the modest sights, he continued. “Before the average plebian had access to a refrigerator, they stored their meats in places like thisss.”
“And I am to assume that Cobra is now this establishment’s sole client?”
He opened the front door, gestured for Mindbender to enter. “Mister Alligood isss well compensated for maintaining his grandfather’s place of business today.”
Stepping inside, the doctor presumed the older man relaxing at the front desk, mindlessly digesting the game show on his portable television, was this Mister Alligood. His reaction implied he’d never even heard of the concept of customers.
“Uh, yes?” Alligood asked, recovering his wind, reaching for the television knob. “Can I help you?”
“It’sss quite all right, Mr. Alligood,” the Commander answered in a tone hinting at a long familiarity. He pointed to his absurd disguise. “Just bundled up from the cold, that’sss all.”
Alligood, now comprehending the situation, nodded. Mindbender detected the minor shakes affecting his body. “Right, well. I’ll be honest, it’s been so long since you’ve stopped by, I’d nearly forgotten why I even kept this place open.” He headed to a back room, called out, “Although, I hate to be a nag, but the last three payments…”
“Worry not, friend,” the Commander said, leaning on the counter. “You’ll be remunerated handsomely, when the time isss right.”
Alligood emerged with two pairs of parkas and gloves. Still nodding, his body language intimating he’d regretted even broaching the subject. “Well, nice to know. This should set you up nicely.”
The Commander refused the offer. Gestured towards Mindbender. “I’ll be fine. Jussst make certain my compatriot is properly bundled.”
As Alligood led them past two more doors in the back, providing the duo a scintillating tour of a storage room and a dusty office, Mindbender donned the thermal clothing. The final room on Alligood’s tour was a metal door, one requiring the Commander to enter a code into an ultramodern key punch machine. The doctor questioned if even the Ashburn Community Bank (which he’d driven by twice on his circuitous journey to this place) employed such technology.
The door’s hydraulic locks sizzled upon release, the subzero chills offering a reluctant welcome to all visitors. Mindbender noticed Alligood had already turned back, returned to the front office with no prompting.
For two summers during his teenage years, the doctor was employed in a neighborhood supermarket’s meat department. The character of this room, not much larger than the size of the average suburban home’s kitchen, and the walk-in meat locker of his youth were remarkably similar. No hanging bovine or pork carcasses here, though, only a simple box strategically located in the center of the space, resting atop a plastic pedestal.
“You sssee, Mindbender, whatever knowledge you possess in biochemistry came secondhand, while I, as a nobleman in a once-great society, devoted my life to its ssstudy.”
The doctor exhaled, disregarded the insult. “You dragged me to a boil on the rear end of the middle of nowhere to boast of your superior intelligence, Commander?”
The Commander admired the fiberboard box for several seconds before deigning to hand it over to his companion. “I merely wished to ssshare the final punchline to the cruelest joke imaginable.”
Mindbender flipped open the hinged box, extracted from inside two trays. One contained small specimen tubes, the other, syringes.
“Thessse cell samples have rested here for years now, sssilently ssserving the glory of Cobra,” the Commander said while shedding his absurd disguise. He gestured to the back of his neck. “Would you aid me with the helmet?”
Mindbender returned the box to the pedestal, entered the proper code to circumvent the detonation of the battle suit, then took a step back as the Commander lifted the helmet overhead.
That face, the outlandish, inhuman color, could still astound the doctor. In his years with the organization, he’d entertained idle speculation on the face behind Cobra Commander’s mask; every member from the lowliest blueshirt to the highest ranks had done so. Common chatter conjectured a gruesome, scarred visage. No doubt the consequence of an early battle against the nauseating pro-democracy forces.
No soul could’ve anticipated the truth. Not even the most oxygen-deprived of Dreadnoks would’ve guessed the Commander wasn’t even human behind that disguise.
“Underssstand, Mindbender, the genetic link between my ancestors and yours isn’t as wide a chasm as some might believe,” he stated as basic fact. Removing a specimen tube from the box, then a syringe, he stabbed the needle into the sample and continued the oration. “Or, perhapsss, bridging that divide required a genius intellect the world had never experienced before.
“It wasss an early devotee of our cause; a bystander of the western world’s lethal hypocrisies who provided these sssamples,” he said, tapping the syringe. “She assumed her mission a test of conviction; true enough. But she didn’t suspect the more…practical motivations behind my order.”
Mindbender stood in awe, observed the Commander inject the syringe into his neck, never once searching his skin for the proper vein. With no commentary, Cobra Commander returned the syringe and sample container to the pedestal.
By the time he’d finished repacking and closing the box, his hairless face began trembling, started to contort in perturbing ways. Light ash brown follicles penetrated his scalp and jawline. Patches of skin morphed, peach taking the place of periwinkle.
Within ninety seconds, standing before the doctor was no freak, no refugee from bad science fiction. This was the all-American male, ripped straight from a Penney’s catalogue.
“You…so, that’s why…” he spluttered, the realization kicking his neurotransmitters into overdrive.
“A sssplendid transformation is it not, Doctor?” The Commander’s laugh shook his entire body. “Don’t thessse amber eyes just light up my face?”
August 23, 1966
She had all but fallen asleep, sunbathing by the pool. Colin’s less than graceful entrance over the fence, specifically the sound he made as he plummeted five feet and crushed their gardener’s hybrid rugosa roses, was enough to snap her out of her somnolence.
“Colin!” she shouted, grabbing for her towel. “What are you doing?”
“Can’t you tell?” he answered with a smirk, brushing himself off. “We’re living out a forbidden romance, sweetie.”
“So dramatic.” She wrapped the towel around her waist, checked to make sure no one was around, then greeted her love with an embrace. “You know how my parents feel about you.”
He tucked her delicate chin between his thumb and pointer finger, kissed her cheek. “But if they knew a common boy was more than friends with their blue-blood daughter? Doubt that would go over well.”
She didn’t know how to respond; chose instead to squeeze him harder, exchange a few more kisses.
To her surprise, he was the first to pull away. “Anyhow,” he said, blushing, “think you can sneak away for a ride on a recently purchased Norton Navigator?”
She offered a smile, the devilish one that covered her entire face, the smile Colin could never resist. “As if I have the slightest inkling what that is?”
“A bike.” He noticed that grin turning mischievous. “Not a kid’s bike,” he corrected. “A motorcycle. They have cutting edge motor technology like that back home?”
“Colin! How did you afford a motorcycle?”
“With the work ethic my old man left me.” He patted her cheeks. Stared her down with honey brown eyes. “Now, c’mon, do you want to feel the wind in your hair or not?”