Boom! Boom! Boom!
The night erupted into a ball of fire.
Then an eerie stillness. Darkness hovering. Dawn not quite cracking the horizon.
Seconds later another thundering blast ripped through the sky—explosion after explosion.
Robinson Gilbert stood on the rooftop of the Palestine Meridian Hotel, his heart thumping erratically as the bombs exploded over Baghdad. The high-rise swayed, rocking with increasing intensity. He expected the twenty-story hotel to crumble and turn to rubble. He waited, palms sweaty.
His spine tingled, his back so rigid that he felt taller than his six-feet-four. Standing there, staring at a world gone mad, Robinson was disillusioned, weighed down by the fog of a war he didn’t want. The sky glowed a fiery crimson, silhouetted against the predawn. Mushrooms of yellow and orange fire clouds reflected in the shimmering water of the Tigris River. In the distance funnels of black smoke rose eerily above the center of this city of five million.
Other journalists scrambled to the rooftop to join him—one of them still struggling into his pants, another tucking his polo shirt in place. The reporter from Munich shouldered his video camera. The young Italian photographer, Ricardo de Nuccio, shoved his big, crooked toe into his Gucci loafers.
De Nuccio swore as he dropped his camera bag and pawed inside for his gas mask. His handsome face distorted, his voice mocking, he glowered up at Gilbert. “So you got your war?”
“Not my war.” Robinson’s retort was muted by another blast.
Peter, the Brit who often shared coffee with Robinson, wedged his way in-between them. “I find this bombs-away a right nasty way to awaken. What about you, Gilbert?”
“You and your sixth sense.”
Words burst past Robinson’s dry lips. “I’m thinking about my son.”
“Sorry. He’s one of the embeds, right?”
Robinson glanced at de Nuccio and lowered his voice. “I’m the fool who got Robbie the job. I should have encouraged him to stay home.”
“Reporters have always covered wars. It’s a journalist’s high.” Peter winced. “As sick as that sounds to the general public . . . Don’t worry, Gilbert. That kid of yours will have to kick the sand for days just to get here. But we’ve got a front seat for the showdown.”
On the streets below came the wail of emergency sirens. Shouts of protest in Arabic. The pop and crackle of burning buildings. The acrid smell of smoke. Of death.
Robinson’s chest heaved, his breathing spasmodic. For the first time in his long career as a correspondent, he wondered whether this was the war—the one more byline—that would take him out in a blaze of glory. If so, he would die fulfilling his dream of being on hand for the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
But glory? What kind of a fool was he? Some—even some at the Pentagon—viewed the unilateral journalist as little more than a mercenary, a soldier of fortune independently roaming the streets of Baghdad. Call him what they would. He had his eye on the story—and the commitment and passion to tell it.
He’d spent his career taking the risks that put him in the line of fire. But hadn’t the past thirty years been enough? Wasn’t it time to unplug his computer, give up jetlag, and step back from the limelight far away from the famed Gilbert headlines and public recognition?
He was close to burnout after spending a lifetime covering wars and dangerous overseas assignments from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War. He’d covered the home front too—from the 9/11 terrorism attack to the Columbia shuttle fragmenting in the sky in February. Then he’d nosed around on his own, doing an independent probe as NASA investigated the disaster. Even now he’d chosen to go it alone to cover the war from the heart of Baghdad.
“Did you report on the first Gulf War, Gilbert?”
“I missed that one.”
And be glad you did, Robinson wanted to say. He’d covered both wars—a fight for the same territory but with different excuses. One war for the liberation of Kuwait. This one for the freedom of the Iraqis in a war against terrorism. This war was different. For the first time in his career, he would appear on a television news report as a guest. He preferred straight journalism. But he wanted the public at home to know what was happening. Robinson seldom made his political leanings public, but inside he struggled against the bureaucratic mumbling that protecting oil wells was a calling card to war.
Now, as the hotel shook again, he turned to the man beside him. “We never finished the job the first time.”
Robinson wondered whether Peter supported Prime Minister Blair or had any political affirmations at all. Peter, an amicable sort, seemed almost blind without his glasses.
Peter squinted as he gazed at the fireworks. “That kid of yours . . . is he married?”
“Engaged—this Middle East crisis delayed the wedding.”
Another guided missile slammed into its target. Another bomb shattered Saddam’s city. The explosions pricked at Robinson’s nerves as more blasts shook the foundation. He couldn’t see them or hear them in the night sky, but he imagined that the pilots in the F-117 Stealth fighters were running on sheer adrenaline as they dropped their bunker busters. And, somewhere out in the Gulf, American warships were firing their cruise missiles. He shivered, excusing it as excitement, as pride in his country. In a way he felt distant, detached, but it still bothered him. Did he have any right to exhilaration at the death of this city?
His dry mouth tasted bile. Would he even be alive when his son reached Baghdad?
“Why don’t you try to reach your son by satellite?” the Brit suggested.
“I’ve tried to reach Robbie for days just to hear his voice. But all this high-tech equipment is useless.” Robinson’s words faltered. “I just wanted to tell my son to keep his head down.”
He knew from the Al Jazeera television coverage that the coalition ground forces had crossed the Kuwaiti border, heading northward. Thousands of British and American troops were mapping out roads of their own, picking their way through minefields, fighting off the bursts of fire from enemy troops, and battling for every inch of the 350 miles of desert sand. His son was in the middle of it.
“He’ll be okay, Gilbert. Just pray for him.”
As the plumes of smoke rose, Robinson gave a brusque nod and braced for the next tremor before inching away from the others.
As he watched the city burn, he thought of hell. Thought of God and wondered whether he had waited too long. His son, Robbie, was the praying man in the family. Robinson knew there were no guarantees in this war . . . or in any war, but he had long held God at bay. Now that life seemed closer to hell than heaven, he longed to speak to his son. Longed to commune with the God he did not know.
Instead, he gripped his satellite videophone and spoke in a booming voice to the nation back home: “This is Robinson Gilbert, once again reporting live from Baghdad . . .”
In a few hours the early morning sunlight would stream through Meagan Juddman’s living room windows, unveiling the craggy Cascade Peaks and the Methow Valley she loved. March hovered between seasons, with spring’s bouquets of wildflowers budding on the hillsides and the melting snows of winter rushing down the Twisp River.
But for now the mountains were silhouettes of darkness, and the news only added to her despair.
Meagan’s legs went numb as she stared at the television screen. Last week the news had focused on war protestors on the streets of California and in Paris. On unsettled resolutions at the UN. On the president and his war team setting deadlines—a leadership determined to go it alone into the Iraqi desert.
Yesterday the airwaves crackled with reports on the convoy of young soldiers waiting to cross the Kuwaiti border into Iraq. Of men checking their weapons. Touching pictures of soldiers being baptized in makeshift baptisteries in the sand. Of men—boys really—kneeling on one knee, eyes closed in prayer, their M-16s and gas masks clutched in their hands.
Now every channel had turned to the city of Baghdad. Meagan watched the blurred image of war unfolding and shuddered at the sound of explosions, the color of the fiery sky. Her knees buckled at the thought of innocent people dying. She eased back toward the sofa and sank into its soft cushions.
The knots in her stomach tightened. Casualties were inevitable. She knew that some of these men and women would not come home again. For them the war would be over. But for their loved ones the war would never end. Meagan’s eyes filled with tears, the bitter tears she thought were long behind her. Déjà vu! History reinventing itself. The battle for Baghdad had come full circle, once again threatening the lives of those she loved.
As the television transmission cleared, the war correspondent’s face came into focus. Meagan recognized him and remembered the last time she saw him. Robinson Gilbert was still a handsome man. Tall. Straight as an arrow. Thick hair, windblown at the moment. He stood on the edge of the hotel rooftop, looking much younger than his years with his shirt sleeves rolled up, his collar unbuttoned, and a camera slung over his shoulder. He was twenty years her senior, yet she remembered him as incredibly charming, his voice deep and seductive. But today his normally flirtatious gaze was solemn.
Once—in the darkest time in her life—he had tried to help her battle the Washington bureaucracy. Would he—could he—help her again? Her hand shook as she reached for the telephone. She’d place a call to his editor in Washington DC and beg to be put in touch with Gilbert. But her timing was off. The switchboard was down.
The Pentagon was too busy with its war to consider Meagan’s needs. The army too distant. The news broadcasters too busy gathering news to think of consoling widows or comforting children without fathers, parents without sons. A long time ago Robinson Gilbert had told her if she ever needed him, to let him know. She had sought him out twice before. He had failed her once. But if she could contact him, maybe he could track down the whereabouts of Ryan and Tharon in the desert of Iraq.
She forced herself to look away from the television. Her eyes settled on the photos on her credenza—the familiar faces of the men she loved. Cameron in the center. Ryan to his left. Tharon on his right. Meagan disliked commercial photography. For her, candid snapshots were more realistic, and always filled with memories. Her lip trembled as she stared at the picture of Cameron the last time she saw him, trumpet in hand.
And then there was Ryan—more boy than man—glancing back over his shoulder with a quick wave and quicker smile. At last she focused on Tharon—dear Tharon in his work jeans, his bare back to the sun, tearing down the FOR SALE sign on his property in the mountains.
Her foreboding deepened. Keep looking at them, Meagan. You may never see any of them again.
For days the greatest fighting force in the world had wilted under the sweltering heat, waiting for the convoy of tanks and armored vehicles to move out across the Kuwaiti border into the unknown. Into war. Into sand dunes. Into yesterday’s drenching rains.
They were an invincible marching army, moving on command. Bravado and the confidence of youth abounded. Whoops of delight that the wait was over. Eagerness to get the job done—to go home again.
Everything—even the soldiers—looked the color of sand. Except for their facial expressions and voices, the soldiers in desert-camouflage uniforms appeared identical.
Robbie Gilbert, an embedded journalist, kept a frayed photo of Adrienne Winters in the liner of his helmet. Beguiling Adrienne had spun magic on his heart the day he met her in Paris. They’d been just a couple of kids then, attending the American Academy near the River Seine. He thought her beautiful. She thought him ridiculous, amusing. But she had always been his girl. Today was supposed to be his wedding day. Instead, he was 350 miles from Baghdad, a world away from his fiancée.
Clutching his laptop, he wrote in his journal: Adrienne, I miss you, but I’m proud to be riding with these men and women.
Day two brought more sweat and sand. Another twenty-four hours packed like sardines in the Bradley, their cheeks pressed against the muzzle of their M-16s, their bodies sleep deprived and covered with dust. Robbie rode with them, but they didn’t accept him. He carried a computer and a tape recorder, not an M-16 and extra ammunition. How could he shoulder his share of the battle?
But in the weeks back in Kuwait, he’d slept where they slept—in the belly of an armored vehicle or bedded down by the wheels of an Abrams. He’d showered with his clothes on—just like they did—accomplishing both bath and laundry with the same bar of soap. He’d used the same latrine. Heard the same jokes. Kicked the same soccer ball out over the desert sands where the men, with reluctance, acknowledged his skills.
At dusk Robbie kept his eyes cocked for foot-long desert snakes. At dawn he waited eagerly for mail call. With gut determination he rode the strenuous midnight maneuvers with them. But out here on the long push toward Baghdad, he felt isolated, estranged from these soldiers who cleaned their weapons as he sat with a laptop balanced on his knees. These last few days he felt less of a man for being a noncombatant and twice had been forced to defend his position as war correspondent with those in command. But didn’t he swat the same bugs as these men? Eat the same MREs? Wasn’t his back also rubbed raw as they rode along with their bodies braced against the metal of the armored vehicle?
His only comfort came with thoughts of Adrienne: her soft mauve lips against his. Her warm body in his arms, embracing him. Her large mahogany eyes misting when he said good-bye.
He glanced at the faces of the men across from him. Somber. Their thoughts, like his, no doubt on their own loved ones. Oh, God, I want to be up to this job. I want to drive into Baghdad as their friend.
With the battle ahead, how could his prayer waft its way to heaven? It struggled to slip past his cracked lips. His body clock was out of kilter, with days and nights turned inside out. He and the soldiers weren’t riding midnight maneuvers any longer. Their drive northward was the real thing. Relentless, miserable days with the glare of the sun on sand and the fear of the enemy appearing from nowhere. And miserable nights of pain—riding over the sand dunes, sitting upright in the armored vehicle with their heads swaying and their spines merging with metal.
And then day four. All day as the convoy roared toward Baghdad a wind stirred over the sand, whistling through the sagebrush. Swirling with increasing intensity. The men lowered their night-vision goggles, but a fine coating of sand fogged their vision, obliterating the path ahead of them.
They kept to their grueling pace for another half-hour, advancing under a full moon until they were left scanning a horizon they could no longer see and staring into the blackness on either side of them. The convoy came to an abrupt halt with the shamal gusting at sixty miles an hour, creating undulating waves in the desert sand. Blinding the soldiers to their surroundings and to the threat of the enemy lurking there. Choking them. Coating their nostrils with sand. Making sandpaper of their throats. Pelting their skin with grit.
Robbie scrambled down from the back of the Bradley and hunkered down by one of the Abrams tanks. As he landed hard on his rump, his Kevlar helmet pushed forward; it rimmed his thick brows, its strap rubbing his bristled chin raw.
A soldier dropped down beside him and slapped his ammo box into the sand. “That you, Gilbert?”
He recognized Sergeant Danston’s voice. Danston was a ten-year army man. Confident. Purposeful. One of those sticklers for military rules and regulations. When his men complained, he ordered them to clean their guns again. Yesterday, when the convoy slowed its thundering drive, he’d shoved two of the men out the rear end of the Bradley and made them run a pace or two in the desert heat. They kicked sand for several yards before Danston extended his hand and pulled them back on board.
Right now Danston’s rugged face looked weather-beaten, the whites of his eyes blood-red. He bragged about taking all of his men home again, bragged about keeping out of the line of fire, but he wore his blood type in bold print on his flak jacket.
This time the sergeant grumbled. “Just my luck. I’m opposed to outsiders riding with us. And here I am, sitting out this storm with a journalist.”
“Better than waiting it out with Saddam,” Robbie threw in.
Struggling to his feet again, Danston braced against the wind as he shook out his canvas bedroll and tucked it over the wheel of the Abrams. For ten minutes the two of them huddled beneath the smothering makeshift shelter with the stench of human sweat between them and the wind snapping at the canvas. Then the shamal whipped into a frenzy that swept their Tinkertoy refuge away.
“Sorry, Gilbert. I’m not an engineer—that’s why I went infantry.” Danston cocked his ear. “I don’t like it.”
“Sitting out a storm with me?”
“That too. But this weather has brought our whole convoy to a standstill. We’re sitting targets. The enemy could attack from any direction while we wait out this storm.”
Robbie held up five fuzzy fingers. “But how can they see us?”
“They grew up in sandstorms,” Danston shot back. Then, more amicable, he added, “You got any family, Gilbert?”
Robbie crooked his neck, sending unwanted twitches along his spine.
Sergeant Danston leaned closer. “You know, those folks we left back home. The ones who know more about this bloody war than we know, thanks to CNN . . . Do you work for CNN?”
You know I don’t. “No, for a syndicate in Virginia.”
Danston spit into the sand. “Haven’t read your reports. Don’t know whether you are any good or not.”
Robbie bristled. “My editor is satisfied. That’s what counts.”
“They’re not apt to pass muster with me. I don’t think there’s any place in this man’s army for a noncombatant.”
“Look, I’ll do my job. You do yours,” Robbie fired back. “You’re good at what you do, Sergeant, and I’m good at my assignment. We’ve been locking horns ever since we met in Kuwait. Whether you like it or not, I was assigned to this unit, and I’m going all the way to Baghdad with you.”
The sergeant stiffened. “You know, I could have you sent back for insubordination.”
“Fat chance. You wouldn’t like the headline: Sergeant Danston Sends Journalist Home. Besides, I think they’ve canceled all public transportation from here back to Kuwait . . .”
Robbie was exhausted from fighting the desert heat and trying to stave off the fine particles of sand that bombarded them. He didn’t want to fight the sandstorm and the sergeant’s contempt any longer. He lowered his head, agitated that Danston had gotten the best of him. Robbie’s breathing grew more labored as the sand clogged his nostrils. He wanted this man as his friend. His life depended on it.
“Look, Sergeant, I was out of line,” Robbie apologized. “You have a lot on your mind, taking raw recruits into battle.”
Danston growled back, “You’re a greenhorn too. But I’ve promised my men I’m going to take them all home again.”
“That’s a heavy burden.”
The sergeant’s eyes darkened. He leaned over and thumped the laptop sheltered in Robbie’s Kevlar vest. “Gilbert, when the time comes, stay out of our way.”
“All roads lead north, Sergeant. Yours and mine. We have the same goal. Get this war over with and get back home.”
“That’s settled then . . . So do you have a family?”
“Yeah, I have a family.” Robbie thought about his girl back at the Winterfest Estates. He didn’t want to talk about Adrienne to this stranger—nor awaken his longing for her.
There was little to say, either, of the mother who had walked out when he was a boy. But he could speak with pride of his dad, his best friend. “I have a dad.”
“Sitting in some office with his feet on the desktop?”
“That doesn’t describe him.” An unwanted ache formed in Robbie’s parched throat at the image of his dad: tall, silver-haired, deep bass chuckle. Cocky and arrogant, but with a heart of gold for those who were hurting. “He’s another noncombatant—a journalist, always on the run for a news story. Right now he’s covering the war from Baghdad.”
“Holed up in the Palestine Hotel?”
“Is he some kind of nut?”
Robbie ignored the barb. “Dad likes being in the thick of things.”
He saw momentary envy in Danston’s eyes. Or were more flecks of sand burrowing beneath his eyelids?
“Maybe your dad will meet up with Saddam before we do.”
Danston spit out more particles of sand and darkened phlegm. “I go where the army sends me. But you could be home eating a chocolate sundae. Is covering a war worth this misery?”
“It’s our job.”
“Then you must be in it for the glory ride.”
Another soldier crawled over to the spot beside them. “Hey, Sarge, give our modern-day Ernie Pyle a chance.”
“Why should I, Mitchell?” Danston frowned. “How’d you know about Pyle? He was a journalist in World War II. Long before your time.”
“Before your time, too, Sarge, but my grandpa told me about him.” The kid pushed the strap of his helmet away from his chafed chin and secured a scarf over his face. It muffled his words, making his wide, dark eyes more prominent. “Gilbert here carries that little Book of his. Maybe he has God on his team. So I crawled over to join you . . . I hate this storm. I hate this war.”
Danston shrugged. “I’m not a religious man.”
Robbie licked a dab of saliva over his lips. “And I’m just a prodigal who made peace with God.” He looked at the teenage soldier. “Give God a chance, Jared. I did.”
The sergeant scowled at them both. “And all it got you, Gilbert, was a place in the desert.”
Robbie stretched his legs, and more sand flowed into his boots. “Not a bad place when you consider that God met Moses in the desert.”
They were trapped in a powdery brownout. The sergeant swallowed some water from his canteen. He took another swallow, rinsed the grit from his teeth, and spit with a vengeance. The winds picked it up and blew it back. “Mountain spring water never tasted like this.”
“Sergeant, I wonder if they have an ophthalmologist in the next village.”
“Looking for a pair of glasses, Gilbert?”
“I’d like to get the gravel washed from my eyes.” Robbie faced Jared. “What about you? Where’s your family?”
“Scattered. All seven of us.” Jared jabbed at his eyes with his knuckles. “I’d give anythin’ for some of my mom’s chicken and dumplin’s. And I’ve got me a pregnant wife waiting for me back in West Virginia.”
Robbie hunched forward. “Then you’ll be glad to go home again.”
Jared picked at the dirt beneath his nails. “If I ever get there.”
Robbie felt certain Jared was running scared. They all were. “When the storm ends, I’ll loan you that little Book of mine.”
“I’m not a good reader.” Jared stumbled to his feet and bent into the wind, his boots kicking up sand.
“Just like a kid,” Danston put in. “Off to relieve himself right in the middle of a storm. He’ll get himself lost, and we’ll have to send out a search party.”
“He’s just scared, Sergeant. Homesick.”
“Who isn’t? I’m out here priming my men for battle, and you’re out here spouting from the Good Book. We’re in war, man, not some fancy cathedral. We’re not up to a sermon.” The sergeant patted his ammo box. “Most of us are pumped up. Ready for war. Ready to get this job done and get home again. There’s just a handful who have written themselves off. But, Gilbert, when you send your news articles in, none of us wants to be recorded as a coward. Not even Mitchell.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Danston turned and faced the Abrams, curled into an embryo state around his ammo box, and slept.
As the hours rolled by, Robbie braced himself against the Abrams. The sand caught between his teeth. Gravel scratched his eyes and scraped his cheeks raw. Sleep-deprived, he grew angry at Danston, who snored beside him. Robbie didn’t dare open his Book, lest the tissue-thin pages be shredded by the gusting winds. He groped for his water canteen, took a swig, and was rewarded with a mouthful of grit.