LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
The way his heart is beating is unreal, the rate, the intensity – it's like a jackhammer drilling into rock. He puts a hand up to his chest, and waits, gauges. This has to be close to some upper limit of what his or anyone else's heart is capable of enduring, because it's only an organ after all, a pump, a piece of meat, dark, red, wet – and incessant, naturally . . . but not imperishable, not indestructible.
You can push it, but only so far.
Weird thing is, however, he's not actually doing anything right now – he's not on a treadmill, or on top of some girl, he's not running from anyone or engaged in direct combat. What he's doing is sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV next to the most chilled-out motherfucker he's ever met in his entire life. They're both former servicemen, he and this other guy, and are virtual clones to look at – the buzz cuts, the pumped-up muscles, the armored vests, the mirrored shades – but Ray Kroner is prepared to lay even money that whereas he is ramped up to the max, his dial straining at eleven, Tom Szymanski here is barely a notch or two above clinically dead.
OK, Ray has got 600 milligrams of Provigil in his system, but that's not what this is. Big in the military, and even bigger now in the PMCs, Provigil will keep you awake for days on end, but it's not speed, it's not even coffee, it's just like an off switch right next to the sleep option in your brain – press it and one thing you won't have to worry about anymore is getting tired.
Ray looks out at the passing terrain.
This two-mile dirt track they're on runs from the compound to the landing strip. The SUV he and Szymanski are in is the last in a convoy of three, with the "package" just up ahead, and it's a safe route, they do it all the time, no need for armored personnel carriers or anything.
So that's not what this is about either.
Could it be the heat then? Because man, it's hot here, and not dry hot like Iraq, or even Phoenix, it's humid, sweltering, you can't breathe – four in the morning and you're like a beached fucking whale. It's unbearable. Pretty much like everything else in this shithole of a country.
Except of course that he can bear it, because he's trained to, and he's experienced – and if hot weather really was a problem for him, he wouldn't be here in the first place, would he? So what is his problem?
Why is his heart racing like this?
Is it the choices he's made? Quitting work last spring? Walking out on Janice? Selling the car, the computer, even Pop's old vinyls? Scraping enough money together to pay for the six-week training course? And all so he could do this again, hold a Bushmaster M4 in his hands? In his arms? Cradle it? Stroke it? The hard chrome, the matte black finish, the coated steel and aluminum?
Those choices were inevitable, pre-ordained. The six months he spent at home after his tour in Iraq were a disaster and when the momentum started building in his head after he read that magazine article about Gideon Global he just knew where it was leading and he went with it, didn't resist, let it envelope him. Janice was pretty much an alien by this stage anyway, with all that delusional new-age self-help shit she'd been gorging on while he was away, not that he's blaming her or anything, he just couldn't listen to it, the gossamer-light optimism, the breezy promises . . . not after what he'd seen.
And wanted to see again.
He closes his eyes.
Wants to see again.
But strangely enough still hasn't.
Because what's ironic is that this country is ten times more of a catastrophe than Iraq ever was, or ever will be, with millions dead, literally, and the kind of barbarism going on every day that even a sick fuck like him would be hard-pressed to imagine.
On top of which, as a private contractor, he's getting paid ten times more for being here.
He opens his eyes again, and looks around.
In Baghdad he often went on convoy runs like this one, from the Green Zone to the airport, but along what was essentially a six-mile shooting gallery of snipers and car-bombers, a flat, sunbaked road with endless blackened auto husks and rotting corpses strewn on either side of it.
Here on this route it's just, well . . . countryside, scrubland, lush green hills, faraway mountain peaks, and one roadside village – up ahead a bit now – which is little more than a cluster of wooden huts with aluminum roofs and a single-story concrete structure, dusty and shell-like, that has a faded Coca- Cola sign hanging off the front of it.
With never too much going on.
Which is the exact opposite of what it was like in Baghdad, where something was happening all the time – a guy pretending to repair his stalled car over here, a vehicle suddenly cutting across the median over there, and people just standing around, random pedestrians, old men, raggedy kids, spooky-looking women in black chadors, everyone gazing up at you with suspicion or even hatred in their eyes . . .
It meant you were permanently on edge, coiled tight, ready to respond at any second.
Which is something about here, actually, that he misses.
But then, curiously, in that very moment – and unlike his heartbeat – the convoy starts to slow down.
'What the fuck,' Szymanski says under his breath.
They're approaching the edge of the village, where something seems to be happening.
They both crane forward, and sideways a bit, to try and get a better view.
Then the radio crackles to life.
'Deep Six, standby, some kind of bullshit here.'
Szymanski is Deep Six. His radio call sign. The guy up ahead, in the lead vehicle – Peter Lutz, their unit commander – is Tube.
Ray is Ashes. As in rising from. And Phoenix. His hometown.
After another few seconds, the convoy – flush now with a cluster of huts on the right and the concrete structure on the left – comes to a complete halt.
'Man,' Szymanski says, with a weary sigh, and leans forward over the steering wheel.
Ray stares out of the window.
The village, he thinks - half in wonder, half in disgust – the village. What is a fucking village anyway? Do they even have them anymore, outside of fairy tales, and Europe, and Vietnam, and godforsaken shitholes like this one?
Against all protocol, he suddenly turns, opens the door of the SUV and gets out.
'The fuck, man,' Szymanski says.
The door remains open.
'Ashes, what are you doing?' an alarmed Tube adds, over the radio.
Ignoring them both, and with a firm grip on his M4, Ray steps away from the convoy to get a proper view of what is going on.
'Get back in, man. Jesus.'
In the second car, the package – some grey-suited fuck from New York or Washington – has his window down and is looking over at the wooden huts, clearly nervous.
Up ahead, Ray sees what is wrong – there's a pile of vegetables or some shit spilled in the middle of the road, and two women are frantically loading whatever it is back into a large wicker basket.
Behind them, playing, are three small children.
Ray glances across at the wooden huts and thinks he detects something . . . inside one of them, movement . . . someone . . . moving. Then he turns in the other direction and looks towards the concrete structure, only a sliver of which he can actually see, due to the position of the two SUVs. But framed there in the space between them is a tall man leaning against the wall, staring right back at him.
The man's face is long and drawn, his expression intense, his eyes bloodshot.
He seems restive, restless . . . shifty.
Ray hears the crackle of another radio communication from inside the car, but he can't make out what is being said.
He looks around again, rapidly – at the huts, between the SUVs, up ahead – only difference this time being that the two women have stopped doing what they were doing.
Perfectly still now, crouched on the ground, they too are staring directly at him.
And that's when it dawns on Ray what's going on, what this is – it's not fear, not anxiety, not regret, it's anticipation . . . a sickly, pounding realization of what might happen here, of what he might do, of what he might be capable of doing, and while there's no way he could have known in advance they were going to stop in this village, not consciously anyway, it's as if his body knew, as if every nerve ending in his system knew, recognized the signals, picked up on them, so that now, as he raises his weapon a little higher, he feels the rhythm of his heartbeat falling into synch with the rhythm of this unfolding situation . . .
He directs the muzzle of the gun at the huts, then at the women and children.
'Kroner, Jesus, are you fucking crazy?'
Ray glances back at the car, Deep Six more animated than he has ever seen him.
In the middle car, the package is still staring out of the window, a look of horror forming on his face. It's as though the anticipation has spread, as though it's a virus, or a stain, alive somehow, crimson and thirsty.
He's thirsty himself, the feeling in his veins now, inexorable, like a dark, slowly-uncoiling sexual desire that senses imminent release.
He puts his finger on the trigger.
A few feet away, the door of the lead car opens slightly, just a crack.
This is shouted.
Ray exerts a tiny amount of pressure on the trigger.
'Tube,' he shouts back. 'DON'T.'
The car door clicks shut again.
Ray re-focuses, taking everything in.
But there's no longer any movement he can detect from inside the huts. And the man at the concrete wall is inert now, frozen – like a splash of detail from some busy urban mural.
The women ahead are frozen too, and still staring at him – though the children in the background seem oblivious, unaware . . .
Hopping, dancing. Licks of flames.
In the oppressive heat, Ray shivers.
He really doesn't have any idea what he is doing, or why, but one thing he does know – there is nothing on earth, nothing on the vast continent of Africa, nothing in the even greater interior vastness of Congo itself, that can stop him now from doing it.
Excerpt of Bloodland by Alan Glynn. Copyright 2011 by Alan Glynn. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of Picador.