Updated: Nov 7
I was getting tired of that word. I pretended not to hear as I pulled off my mask and attempted to wipe the sweat from my eyes. My gloves were likewise soaked, making the venture futile.
I let my rifle hang by its sling in front of me, one hand holding my hand and the other now on my hip as my lungs churned for fresh air. I squinted back towards Rocco, one eye still stinging. I couldn't produce words yet, so I just shrugged.
In his fashion, he stood stoic, arms crossed and left hand twirling a cigar. Expressionless, all he offered in response was his favorite phrase.
I drew in one large breath and sighed. I made the best work of the sweat in my mask with the last dry spot on my shirt before bringing it back to my mug once more. The visor was beginning to fog. I already harbored a great dislike for Florida, and these afternoon exercises in the July sun exacerbated my feelings.
I gripped the rifle again, removing the near-empty magazine and replacing it with a fresh one of 28 rounds. I downloaded from 30 for ease, a habit I carried from my service years prior. Trying to force fresh blood through my limbs, I stretched and shook my arms and legs as I regained my position at the starting line.
Officially, I was already on the contract that brought me here. But that fact didn't bother Rocco any. If he was going to work with someone, they had better show that they were up to the task. An impartial observer wouldn't be mistaken in calling this last week of intense drilling a tryout.
Rocco asked, "Shooter Ready?"
I willed my mind clear. I closed my eyes momentarily, then stared forward. I nodded.
Within a few short seconds, a beep rang out from a shot timer. I kicked off my plant foot hard, right hand on the pistol grip and left hand clamped around the magazine well. I held the rifle in front of me on the run with a slack sling. It rocked across my body left to right, right to left as I sprinted.
The drill was 50 yard dead-run to the shooting line. From there, I would place 5 shots into a target another 25 yards out. Then, retreating back to the original line, I'd shoot 5 rounds at the target beyond that. The second target sat 100 yards from the shooting line, making the second string of shots a total 150 yard attempt. I would do this three times.
I'd begun to learn where to start my slide to a stop. In the first iterations I'd simply slowed my pace. Now I trusted the dirt under me and coordinated a sliding stop. The rocks I kicked up hadn't yet settled when I slide my left hand down the rail and the buttstock found purchase on my right shoulder. I did not move my head. Instead, my motion brought the blurred circle and bright red star of my Aimpoint sight into my vision. I did not see the sight so much as the emitted red dot was superimposed over my focus.
I fired a pair of shots quickly, followed by another rapid pair, then a final shot to complete the first target. I knew all were hits. Good shooters blasted out all five in one string. My brain was still wired for what I knew as "controlled pairs." Another carry-over from years past.
My left hand slid back as I pivoted. I drove my first step as if I were out of starting blocks. I'd slipped the previous run. I did not this time.
I covered the 50 yard distance in a handful of long strides. I repeated my slide, spun, and brought my rifle back to an identical shooting position. The shots came slower this time. The range was considerably further for a standing shot. I pulled the trigger once between every exhale, using my breathing to pull the red dot I was using to aim down onto target. I launched 6 rounds, my last shot was not taken with confidence and a miss would hurt my score.
First lap down. The second lap happened much like the first, but with more confidence in my hits at the longer range.
On my last lap I pushed off, but not with the explosiveness of my previous launches. The fatigue of multiple runs was fully realized. I felt the wobble entering my legs. I tucked the buttstock into the elbow of my right arm and extending my trigger finger to the magazine release. It was not empty entirely, but I wouldn't have enough rounds left to finish the iterations if I did not exchange it for a new one.
It bounced out of my way after dropping free. My left hand was already making the contorted act of pulling the replacement magazine from my plate carrier in a manner to get a proper grip. My elbow was cocked and my wrist twisted so my palm faced forward. I pulled the mag with an established beer-can grip and slammed it into my magazine well with enough force that it would catch and remain. This was done easily on my closed bolt thanks to only having to fight 28 rounds worth of spring compression, not 30.
I did not slide to the shooting line on this pass. I slowed my sprint to a jog on the approach and came to a measured stop before shooting. Pair, pair, finisher.
I spun, final leg now underway. I could not conjure a full sprint from my aching legs. This run was not completely ragged, but the composure of my first pass was now unattainable. This is where I stopped worrying about the timer and started focusing on just finishing. I came to the starting line panting and mustering any remaining stability. My core throbbed. I became aware of a stitch in my side that felt like I'd been sliced by a blade. My final shots came without any rhythm. I squeezed when I could and was somewhat assured I would be on target. I was not at all confident of all of them, but I did not attempt any cleanup shots. I was finished.
I dropped the rifle, its two point sling guiding it to my side. Ripping my mask off, I pulled in the humid Everglade air. As stifling as it could be, it was a relief from sucking air through a filter. The mask was discarded to the ground and I paced erratically before bending over with hands on my knees.
The sweat dripped in a near stream off my nose, but I didn't care. The mask was like trying to breathe through a straw. All I wanted was oxygen, and I was greedily acquiring it.
Rocco sauntered over, eyeing the final time recorded on his device. He clenched the cigar in his mouth and went to clap me on the shoulder, but thought twice about it. I was soaked and his hands here clean. I waved him away, the smoke interfering with my recovery.
After recouping enough to stand, I untangled myself from my plate carrier and weapon. I gathered my mask and unloaded all the equipment into the open hatch of my vehicle. I would not give Rocco a chance to demand another run. I was spent. After retrieving the cardboard targets he let me know that I'd landed 31 total hits of the required 30. "Have more confidence, grasshopper."
All I could do was breath. He continued, "We'll work on that shave-and-a-haircut shooting cadence of yours later. But that's good enough work for now. Let's head back to the shop."
Rocco tossed the targets into the truck. I climbed in soon after.
We drove for a dozen before I gathered myself enough to talk, "Hey, I'm not complaining or anything, but what sort of job are we going to be doing? Tom gave me the impression that I'd be doing logistics and admin stuff." Tom was a dear friend and face of this operation. Rocco was a dear friend of Tom's, but this was my first true meeting with him. Everything I knew of him was reinforced in character as he trained me. A prior fighter, tactical instructor, and aficionado of south coastal culture. On paper it seemed larger than life, but he enveloped it all in an approachable package. He was quick to call out bullshit, but just as quick to offer a solution to it.
Rocco responded, "I'm not entirely sure myself. But here's the thing; the way my teams operate, everybody's a shooter. In fact, everybody's an everything." He peered at me from over top of his sunglasses, "Even my janitor can run a Kalashnikov out to 300 yards. When you have a wide array of tasks you advertise and only a small team to cover them, you don't have the luxury of specialists." I wasn't sure if that comment was meant as a jab or not. I had been a combat medic. I understood living the dual-role life well enough, but was still considered a special role among my peers.
He continued, "I'll shoot you straight here; we're spending so much time on the range because that's where your biggest question mark is. I've seen your rig, it shows you can wrench. I know your resume, you've got more medical than most guys already on my team. Tom vouches for your other soft skills, which is good enough for me. But here's the thing: I know you're assuming that when it comes to holding a rifle that you'll mostly be just watching our backs." He removed the cigar from his mouth for emphasis, "First off, that's a mistake of an assumption. But even if it weren't a mistake, I wouldn't let you watch my back unless I knew you could hit what was coming after me. I'll need you as good with a Glock as you are with a compass, understand?" I did, and I nodded to show it.
// --- //
Rocco's facility was impressive. A garage, shoothouse, armory, office, and lounge all shared home under Rocco's roof. He had two businesses, the tools of the trade and instruction on how to use them. Technically, his cigar shop nearby could be counted as a business, but he considered that a passion.
All around were weapons of any sort, many I recognized from his social media pages or others he'd tried to convinced me into buying. But my normal fair were not his usual stock.
I did buy my rifle from Rocco on a friend-of-a-friend discount. That didn't make my prized Weatherby Mark V that much less painful on my wallet to purchase, however. Nor the spotting scope, Kestrel, and rangefinder. But they were necessary costs for me.
Only a couple years prior, I'd quit my promising and secure gig in the business world. I wasn't getting rich, but I was getting by more than comfortably. After packing my dogs and wife into a single bedroom apartment in a Suburb of Denver, I felt heavily the restlessness and inability to spread my legs. We took a risk, moved into the inner mountains, and picked up whatever gig would pay the bills.
I would moonlight as a hunting guide between other seasonal jobs. I faked it pretty well. I had never hunted much in the mountains before that. That expensive rifle was more of a marketing tool than anything. I rarely shot it, but it looked good to the well-funded lawyers and doctors that would pay exorbitant fees to shoot an elk.
To my credit, I could take mountain miles well, haul more than my share, and was pretty damn good with navigation. Once I'd studied the migration patterns, I attended a pair of distance shooting courses and learned enough to get rookies on target with regularity. I had all I needed to pretend I was a lifelong mountain man. I grew out my hair and beard to look the part.
It was a lean lifestyle compared to what we'd known, but we were happier. Part of me felt like I was finally getting to be one of the cool guys I was surrounded with during my military time. I'd been to Iraq and a few interesting courses, but the bulk of my experience was in support roles, medical and leadership. Even with the combat units, I had more time huddled over a map and wrestling communications than I did peering out of a fighting position.
Eventually, it became obvious the income wasn't going to be enough to finally buy a plot of our own and build like we wanted. Rose and I were embarked on a half sober and sullen conversation about whether our dreams were even feasible. We scrolled through job listings back in the city unenthusiastically. Fate would interject abruptly. The phone call from Tom offering me a slot for his upcoming contract came with salary promises that seemed too good to be true.
We left for Missouri two weeks later, our life downsized to only what we could fit in our 4Runner and pull-behind camper. Tom's ranch had a guest house, which would play home to us as details for the job materialized. Soon after, Tom and I were in Florida to begin the real work. The wives had lived through deployments before. It was never fun to leave them behind, but it was a comfort to know that it wasn't anything they hadn't handled before.
Rocco kept a cot in the garage, which may as well have been a 5-star Hilton to me. My bones were accustomed to sleeping pads and hammocks. I sat on my makeshift bed, showered and tending to Rocco's loaner rifle. It felt surreal to be the man I was and to again live like a man I used to be. I was working through my second round of coffee for the day when I saw the text message come through from Tom. It was sent in a group chat between him, myself and Rocco. "I'm on the way back. If there isn't bourbon in the office, we'll want some." So much for my evening decaf.
// --- //
I hated brown liquor. Begrudgingly, there was a bottle of gin bought for the wet bar to accommodate me. I was the last one to the room after finishing up my tasks. Tom had a tumbler poured and waiting for me. He handed it over with a smile when I arrived. "Well, that answers that question." I remarked. "Which question?" Tom asked.
"As to whether you needed a drink for bad news or good news." Tom replied, "you'll know if it's bad news if I ask for the whiskey. The good bourbon only comes out for a good occasion." Rocco nodded in agreement. It was his bourbon, after all. He'd not see it wasted on a case of the Mondays alone. He sat behind a large oak desk as Tom played bartender. I found a swivel chair and spun around to give my attention. A nod from the desk let Tom know the floor was his.
Tom smiled through his well kept beard. It had a light salt-and-pepper appearance that granted him a distinguished look beyond his years. Paradoxically, you assumed him the experience of a man in his late fifties with the capabilities of a man in his late twenties. His true age was somewhere in the middle. His wrinkles seemed equally earned from stress as they did laughter. He raised his glass and waited for us to do the same. "A toast, my friends, to the fine Pontifical Catholic University of Peru." Tom drained his glass. Rocco and I took a skeptical sip. We wouldn't celebrate our whole drink without whole answers. The patron seemed odd, we certainly weren't a parochial organization. "And for what occasion do they deserve a toast?" Rocco asked.
Tom's smile beamed, "The occasion of five million US dollars."
The bombshell truck both of us in very different ways. Rocco laughed heartily and downed his drink, "Yeah, I'd call that worthy!" I sat in awe. I was not sure if they were accustomed to dollar amounts in that volume, but I sure wasn't. Tom raised his eyebrows towards me to gauge my reaction. He jested at my hesitation. "What, is that not enough for you to drink to?" I crossed my arms and almost scoffed, "It's enough for me to fuckin' dance to, but holy hell, what job costs that much to do?" Tom replied, "An odd one. A real odd one. Did you take any archaeology in college?" I shook my head, my face reflected how puzzled I was.
"Okay, here's the gist as it was explained to me. The Caral, or Norte Chico, is the oldest known civilization in the Americas. This is in the northern area of Peru. Obviously, this region is of intense archaeological interest. However, the combination of the terrain and expansion of cartel influence has made research a dangerous venture. Both from the physical environment and the social environment." Tom poured himself another glass and continued to speak. "That's led to a lot of people turning to alternative methods to discover fruitful sites. You may remember a few years ago when a LiDAR device was used to see through the jungle canopy and find the lost cities of Mosquitia in Honduras. Of course, this sparked a revolution and such devices are being used all over." "But, things are a bit easier in the Peruvian elevation. There isn't as much jungle to penetrate visually from a plane. Or so it would seem. Recent rumors about artifacts in cave systems have cropped up. At least a couple people in archaeological academia thing this is worth investigating. So they did a big geological study to discover unexplored cave systems within range of known temples. You know what they found?" I shrugged, "a lot?" Tom gestured with his glass. "A whole hell of a lot. And now there's a frenzy to be the next Indiana Jones. Delving into cave systems to try and find lost civilizations." "Are we going cave exploring?" Rocco asked. "Sort of. There's particular interest in finding a certain formation in a very certain region. I haven't been told exactly where yet, those details are supposed to stay close to the chest until we arrive in country. We'll be working with a team of linguists, archaeologists, and geologists to do so." "Oh great," Rocco snorted, "we have to fucking babysit."
Rocco held up his glass in request of a refill. Confused yet, I interjected, "What's a Catholic organization's interest in this? That part doesn't make sense to me." Tom was glad I asked, he poured another drink for Rocco with ceremony. "This is the part I'm not supposed to tell anyone. Previously, there are no records of Caral language or writing. But an insider at the university thinks they may have one. Are you familiar with Babel?" I was somewhat, but instead of answering I ushered Tom to continue. My Sunday schooling had been long forgotten. Not that Protestants spent much time on Old Testament tales with children.
"Prior to Babel, the Bible teaches that all humans spoke the same language. God's mandate was for humankind to multiply and occupy the earth. A tower was built in Babylon to keep them united, but this worked against God's decree, thus God confused their languages and scattered them. Each nation having its own language, but sharing among them their original ties to Babylon." "So one day this linguistics grad student was having a drink with an archeology professor. Staff and student relationships are frowned upon, so you won't hear the university admit this. In discussing supposed symbols and drawings that were shared from a visiting country yokel cousin of one of the faculty earlier that week, a lightbulb went off. That lightbulb has both departments in a bit of a frenzy."
"Supposedly, the coincidences of their syntax and general meaning to those found at the Egyptian pyramid Djoser are uncanny. They don't believe this child old or smart enough to have simply invented something as complex as his own pictorial language. The child is also from remote enough region that exposure to Egyptian hieroglyphs is highly unlikely, and further understanding of them as a working language would be absolutely impossible." Tom paused in his own consideration. He had been told all this, but perhaps he was only now truly internalizing it as he explained, "The professors at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru believe they may have proof of Babylonian rooted language from pre-Columbian history." Tom drained his second glass. "They think they have proof of Babel."