The Player - By Rhonda Nelson
Fort Benning, GA
“WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, sir, that’s bullshit.”
Colonel Carl Garrett lifted his gaze from the report he’d been pretending to study and determinedly squashed the smile that tried to curl the disapproving line of his lips.
Best not to tip his hand.
Instead, he leveled a cool stare at the three men seated on the wrong side of his desk, most particularly at Guy McCann, who’d issued the comment. The other two, Majors Brian Payne and Jamie Flanagan, sat stony-faced but, predictably, had a better grasp on their tempers.
“Bullshit or not, Lt. Colonel, brawling off-base is an Article 15 and, as I’m sure you’re aware, puts a flag on your clearance papers.” He paused, purposely injected a little more piss and gravel into his voice. “I’m not sure you’re seeing the gravity of the situation.”
Not a threat, per se, but a reminder. Hell, he knew perfectly well they understood what was going on. They hadn’t been handpicked for Project Chameleon—a special forces unit so secretive that there was absolutely no evidence of its existence in any military file, computer-generated or otherwise—because they were stupid. Garrett suppressed a grimace. In fact, they were too damned smart, which had made trying to get them to rethink leaving the Army with the usual methods—re-upping bonuses, flattery, better posts, etc…—useless.
Unfortunately guilt had a better grasp on them than any form of greed—feeling responsible for the death of a close friend would do that. Through no wrongdoing on their own part, Project Chameleon had lost one of its own during its last mission, and so far, no amount of lecturing and reviewing what had happened could ease their sense of guilt. They’d gone in as four and come out as three.
Major Payne—a name he’d understandably taken considerable grief for over the years—released a weary breath. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Rutland’s an asshole,” he said, his voice a barely controlled mixture of irritation and hope. “You know that.” He snorted. “Hell, everyone knows that.”
“The bastard needed his ass kicked a long time ago,” Flanagan chimed in, leaning forward in his seat.
All true, he knew. And he secretly applauded them. Still…“If Rutland needed an attitude adjustment, it was not up to the three of you to give it to him.”
“He mouthed off about Danny,” Flanagan said, as though that should explain everything.
And it did.
McCann swallowed and the other two grew quiet at the mention of their late friend’s name. Silence thick with the weight of grief and regret suddenly expanded in the room, causing a twinge of remorse to prick Garrett’s resolve.
Major Daniel Levinson had been a good man, a better soldier, and an original member of this unit’s college crew. Each of them had come out of the ROTC program at the University of Alabama. “Roll Tide” was a frequent cheer amid their set and Bear Bryant was revered with the sort of exaggerated regard worthy of a fallen saint. It wasn’t merely football—it was a religion.
Though their military careers had taken them on different paths over the years, they’d remained close. Closer than any band or so-called brotherhood of buddies Garrett had ever known. He’d always admired them for that. Truth be told, he’d envied them as well. The military was a boys’ club, its very nature a breeding ground for camaraderie and lasting friendships. But these Bama boys were different, had shared a special connection that made them more like family than friends.
When Project Chameleon had come along, it had been a no-brainer to reunite the four. They’d all been at the top of their field, each one of them successful in their own right. Each one of them different enough to offer unique qualities to the unit, making it one of the most balanced and effective special forces teams the Army had ever known.
Though he had a reputation for being a bit of a ladies’ man—a player in today’s slang, if Garrett remembered correctly—at a little over six and half feet, Flanagan not only had the brawn but also sported a genius-level IQ which made him the brain of the unit. Honestly, it had surprised him to learn that Flanagan had thrown the first punch in this recent scuffle. Ordinarily he wasn’t quite so rash. Though they’d all taken Levinson’s death hard, Garrett suspected that Flanagan was having a harder time dealing with the loss than the other two at the moment.
Understandable, of course, given how Danny had died. Still…
With nerves of steel and an attention-to-detail which had landed him the nickname “The Specialist,”