Zovko took out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one.
"Thank you, no." I poured the rest of the bottled water into my glass and watched the 5 o’clock crowd hustle past our outdoor table at the café next to the firms building.
"Right. Corporate guy. Don’t smoke, drink Pellegrino, golf on Saturdays… "
"No – but we, of course, practice other native vices." Vices 180 degrees from the ones we’d practiced together in '91 in Kuwait City.
"Yeah, let’s hear it for the Department of Morals, Ethics and One Night Stands."
I offered a flat, non-committal grunt. Two outta three.
Magnum cupped a hand over his smoke and lit up. He earned that nickname the night we blew off steam our first Saturday away from the Academy on account of his mustache, his success with the bar waitress and the fact that Magnum P.I. was a former Navy SEAL, something Zovko wouldn’t shut up about.
"How’re you doin’ these days, lieutenant?” he asked.
"Just another old soldier working on the second act of my career.” He was always a cool customer and if I let his timing play out, I might not find out what his deal was until last call. I got to the point. “You said something about a lawsuit on the phone.”
He smashed out his cigarette and fumbled for a new one, then leaned in and lowered his voice. “The sons of bitches – they cut our rear-facing guard so they could boost their profits.”
“Hold on there a minute. You’re a mercenary?" My stomach tightened. Not good. Not at all.
Magnum looked offended – and hard. “I’m private military. We’re soldiers.”
"No, you’re not." Years of the honor code and adherence to authority were shoving reality out of a Black Hawk without a chute. Marines standards of courage run deep. We don’t sell that for any amount of money.
“The contractors pay us a quarter of a million dollars, tax-free.”
“You’re a soldier of fortune.” I accused.
“You don’t get it, Chase. You don’t know.”
“You got thirty seconds to tell it, plain English.”
Magnum laid it out, cold and committed. "Remember The Bridge, lieutenant? Those boys slaughtered because they were sent out with cheap semiautomatics, no time to test-fire or adjust the sights. The insurgents just walked up from behind. They were missing the third man, too. A machine gun and a rear guard – we’d have never seen our men hanging on the bridge."
I could only stare at him. It’s why I hated PMF’s on principle. The private military sector cared about profits and their ranks were filled with South African hit men, Serbian paramilitaries and, apparently, Magnum. They all made money by doing work the military once handled on its own. He went on to tell me about his divorce, his two kids and how he needed the money. He had parlayed his skills with our unit into acting and consulting on Hollywood movies, selling a line of fitness videos and working as a climbing guide. For the past three years, he was a gun for hire: I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here To Help.
“I’ve seen bad things, Chase. They’re sending men out without equipment, without goddamn current maps. We’re 15% of the armed allies there and over three hundred of us have died. There’s just no accountability with these private security companies. Some of us are filing wrongful death suits.”
I knew he had a point. He was stand up, but I couldn’t get past the tarnished reputation of a sell-out, even if I had trusted him with my life. He read it in my eyes, slamming his fourth smoke on the sidewalk and obliterating it under his boot. I just stared at the black smudge. “I’m sorry, Magnum. I can’t help.”
He stood up, looking down at me silently for a beat. “I’m packin’ this circus outta here.” I waited until he rounded the corner and disappeared on Tremont, then tucked the bills under the ceramic flower vase and went back to the firm.
The floor was quiet and I didn’t see anyone on my way to the break room. Looking around for something, I saw two leftover fortune cookies on the counter and cracked one open. Absently, I ate it and unfurled the message inside:
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
"You’re not going to find your fortune in some cookie, soldier – unless her name is Paris." Denny stood in the door, his coat on, no briefcase, of course. "Partners find it in their 401k." He punched out his parting line. "I know I do." A minute later, when I heard Denny’s elevator ring its arrival, I thumbtacked the slip of paper to the corkboard.
Who doesn’t follow the money?
[Cross posted to Theatrical Muse: "Fortune: Some people have it, some people seek it, some claim to predict it, and some say that it favors the brave. Write a ficlette inspired by the word fortune."]
Rest easy, Zovko