Hi, I would love some unflinching feedback on the draft first chapter of my in-progress Mystery/Thriller novel, below:
[September 2007 - FOB Salerno, near Korengal Valley, North-Eastern Afghanistan]
“The Valley of Death.” Sanchez dropped his cigarette and ground it into the tarmac. “I should have guessed. The goddamn Korengal Valley.”
JT ignored him, and squinted against the dust. He liked the kid, but Sanchez hadn’t been with 1st Force Recon in Iraq. He hadn’t been there for Fallujah.
Without turning around, JT raised his voice to be heard over the rotors.
“DiMarco, what we looking for out there?”
“Hell if I know. One-three brass wouldn’t say.”
Heat waves shimmered above the tarmac, ripples distorted the row of black AH-64 Apache helicopters that stretched into the distance. The 173rd would be ferrying them in-country in one of the larger Chinooks; JT would have preferred the Apache’s firepower. Bringing in 1st Force Recon Marines for this operation meant something, though. JT knew this wasn’t a routine patrol.
Six years, he thought. Six years since the planes hit the towers and the world changed forever. He’d come home to a quiet house that night in Piedmont.
“It’s a sad day, James.” The lines in his father’s face looked deeper. His tie hung at half-mast. “The country needs engineers now. Berkeley wasn’t an easy school to get into. Your mother and I are proud of you. You can make a difference.”
His mother laid her hands on his shoulders. “To be honest, you had us worried for a while. All the trouble at school, the fights—“
“But that’s not important anymore,” his father said. “I talked to your uncle about Lockheed. When you graduate—“
“I joined the Marines today.” JT had watched their faces freeze. But still, six years later, he had never regretted his decision.
Their pilot was back now. Alone.
“Saddle up, gents.” The pilot climbed into the cockpit.
“Where’s your buddy?” JT asked.
“He’s in no shape to fly, Corporal. Birthday last night. I don’t want him puking in my cockpit.”
JT stared at him hard. “Regs say we don’t fly without a co-pilot. You better get on that radio.”
“Cut the kid some slack, its his birthday.” The pilot looked flustered. JT had that effect on most people. “I’ve got him logged as flight crew anyway, so we’re good.”
DiMarco’s voice cut the air. “Let it go, Corporal. Let it go.”
“They stand there looking at you.” Sanchez was leaning forward, a hand on his helmet. The beat of the rotors made him hard to hear. “You’re there helping them, right? Fixing the village’s water, treating the sick, talking to the elders, whatnot. Winning hearts and minds, all that. And you know. You just know.”
JT watched the tree line of the Abas Ghar ridge slide by outside. The kid was right, but so what? This was the new face of war. Get used to it.
Across from JT, Collins was nodding. “You see it in their eyes,” Collins said. “The ones hanging in back of the crowd. But you can’t do a goddamn thing about it. And then you’re heading back to base, you’re thinking: sniper? IED? Or full-on ambush this time?”
The floor of the copter bounced under their feet.
“Stop your bitching,” JT said. “This is a holiday after Iraq.”
DiMarco laughed. “At least these Taliban run away when you return fire. And they fall down when you hit ‘em.”
JT leaned forward to slap Sanchez on the knee. “Fallujah was different. It was like Dawn of the Dead. Muj there were true believers, not like these sorry-asses. You’d blow their arms and legs off, they’d keep coming at you.”
“An IED took out a US medical convoy,” DiMarco said. “The Muj got a huge stockpile of drugs off it. That’s what we were up against.”
JT nodded. “Muj were jacked on amphetamines, shooting up epinephrine - pure medical adrenaline. Word came down - take headshots only. Body shots were a waste of time. I saw a guy get hosed by a SAW, must’ve been hit fifteen, twenty times. Didn’t even slow him down. I shot him five or six times myself. Nothing. Guy was just laughing at us, shooting back. DiMarco had to take him out with an RPG.”
DiMarco leaned forward, bumped his own fist against JT’s dark knuckles. “Listen to the man. You guys are on vacation here, relax.”
“What the hell?” The surprise in the pilot’s voice was alarming.
JT looked down at the valley floor. Men and vehicles were moving down there, visible amidst the green cedars. A lot of them.
“That’s not right.” JT said.
He reached forward to smack DiMarco’s shoulder. But DiMarco had already seen them. He looked back at JT in confusion.
The Chinook lurched, and something wet sprayed the side of JT’s face. Oh hell. JT whipped his head around. The pilot was slumping sideways now. A red fan spread across the ceiling above him.
“Heads up!” Collins yelled. “We’re hit.”
JT’s eyes narrowed. He grabbed DiMarco’s tac vest, pulled him close. JT leaned into DiMarco’s face. He spoke very slowly, holding DiMarco’s eyes with his own:
“The IFF. Get the IFF on!” DiMarco’s voice was hoarse. “That’s an order, Corporal.”
JT shoved DiMarco away, and unbuckled. The Chinook tilted sideways and nosed down. Bracing himself against the ceiling, the muscles of his arms bulging, JT worked his way towards the cockpit. Sparks were coming from the controls. Black smoke filled the cabin. Behind him, he could hear Sanchez, speaking Spanish. Praying, JT realized. The air stank of stale sweat and fear.
The pilot was dead, no question about that. JT pushed aside his shattered helmet, and pulled at the controls. The Chinook failed to respond. Through the canopy, the ridgeline slipped by beneath them, and then they were out over the next valley. We’re going down in enemy territory. JT grabbed the radio handset.
The radio was dead. It had been hit, too.
JT scanned the control board. There it was, the IFF beacon DiMarco wanted. It would signal their location to friendlies. He flipped the switch and a red light came on, blinking with a steady rhythm. JT looked up. Outside the glass canopy, the tree-dotted far wall of the valley filled his view, looming larger with every passing second.
Mounting a rescue operation would take hours, JT knew. The enemy owned this valley. But first they had to survive the crash, and they were coming down hard. He levered himself up and scrambled out of the cockpit. JT pulled himself up into his seat. He raced to buckle his straps, tightened them.
Collins was bent over, coughing, pulling at something under his legs. Then he straightened up. He had the first aid kit in his arms. He hugged it to his chest, forcing it under the straps. Smart, JT thought. He looked at Sanchez. The kid was mumbling, staring at the floor. His face was contorted with terror. JT felt trickles of sweat rolling down his own shaved head, too.
The Chinook tilted the other way, the sound of the rotors increasing in pitch. JT reached out, grabbed Sanchez’s hand. Sanchez’s breath was coming in gasps. He looked at JT, and the fear in his eyes gave way to gratitude. Sanchez matched JT’s solid grip with his own panicky one. With his other hand, JT reached for Collins, held him steady.
JT’s gaze was drawn to the light of the IFF beacon. It blinked steadily, the red rhythm slow, almost lazy, as the wall of the valley grew larger and larger in the windscreen behind it. The beacon looked like a red eye winking at him.
The world shredded apart in a chaos of noise, motion, rock, and flying metal.