DISCLAIMER: None, other than any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All characters are mine. (© 1989, 2008, WGA Reg. #084582-00)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is my baby and it is very long, which is why I am posting it in sections. It is a complete story but I am transferring it from paper to disk, another reason for the sectional posting. PTR is as much about the trials and tribulations of basic training as it is one woman's personal journey through this time frame, which is why there will be sometimes as many paragraphs spent on military detail as on the lead characters.
WARNING: This is a story about the military so there are a lot of bad words. There is sex (some of it is heterosexual) and violence.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Permission To Recover
By Cheyne


Part One


Chapter Thirty-One

Dale knew when she woke up that morning that it was cold outside. Her foot told her. It took her at least five minutes before she could get out of bed and stand on it but, once up, the pain became tolerable and, as the day went on, almost non-existent.

The temperature hit twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill factor of four and was becoming more wintery as the morning progressed. The company was issued weapons cards and they lined up in front of the Arms Room to be assigned their M16s. Each weapon had an identification number on it and each trainee was ordered to memorize it.

The company was marched to the range where they became reacquainted with Sergeant Van Es. He briefly reviewed what they had learned yesterday and then turned the class over to Sgt. Glass who stood in front of them, cocky in his red and white range cap, and demonstrated for what seemed like the hundredth time how to hold and fire an M16A1 rifle. He pointed to a sign that had the initials B-R-A-S in bold letters. Next to the letter B was the word Breathe followed by R for Relax, A for Aim and S for Squeeze. Glass pointed to the B.

"Breathe in a regular manner, then inhale slightly deeper than normal, exhale partially, complete your aim, then fire." He moved his pointing stick down to the R. "Relax. Try to avoid tensing your muscles. You'll have more of a chance to hit your target." He then pointed to the A. "Aim. Aiming means aligning the target placement with the sights. The front and rear sight posts are aligned. The front post should line up in between the middle of the back post, evenly across. The best possible insurance of knocking that target down is to aim your front and rear sight posts just below the middle of the white square on those pop-up targets and fire your weapon." His stick touched the S. "Squeeze. Squeeze the trigger, don't jerk it. It doesn't take much pressure to fire this weapon. If you remember BRAS - these four steps - you should have no problem. Breathe, relax, aim, squeeze."

The trainees were then marched to a range where they were to zero their weapons and shoot four rounds of live ammunition hopefully into graphed targets designated for their individual lanes. All the drill sergeants were interested in at that time was to get the trainees use to firing the M16, not in any particular score.

Once given their firing orders, thirty trainees lowered themselves into cylindrical-shaped foxholes that covered their bodies up to their armpits. They were the first firing order. The second firing order stood fifteen feet behind each foxhole to observe how it was done as the rest of the company waited in a huge warm up tent off to the side of the range, getting used to the smell of gunpowder.

Shannon was in the first firing order and after she had put in her issued earplugs, she jumped down into her foxhole, removed the wool glove and leather shell on her right hand and placed the M16 in its firing position. The temperature was so low that she felt as if her finger was going to weld itself to the metal of the trigger.

On amplified instruction, Shannon flipped the selector level to 'safe' after checking to make sure the hammer was locked. She then looked to see if her bolt was open and made sure she kept her weapon pointed down range. She inserted a loaded magazine, slapped the bottom of the metal bullet container to insure that it was positively engaged and then she pulled the charging handle back as far as it would go, which released it so it slammed back into position. She struck the forward assist and took aim at the target some fifty meters in front of her. She placed the selector level on 'semi.'

"Now...watch...your...lanes..." the voice boomed from the loudspeaker in the watchtower.

When the firing orders and ammunition had been exhausted, the trainees remained on the range to police up spent cartridges, which seemed to take forever to do. It was, perhaps, worse for the first firing order who had to wait around until the fifth firing order was completed. To keep those bored trainees occupied while everyone else blew away targets and assorted vegetation, the range crew had them pick up rocks from one pile and make another pile with them. When that was done, the drill sergeants made them put the rocks back where the first pile had been.

Members of the consolidated mess hall and a two and a half ton truck, affectionately referred to as a deuce and a half, brought chow out to the trainees for their lunch. The meal consisted of goulash, mashed potatoes and mixed carrots and peas. For beverages, coffee, tea, fruit punch and milk were available and chocolate cake was offered for dessert. It all sort of tasted the same and though everybody complained, they ate ravenously.

After chow, the platoons were put into formation where their drill sergeants strongly advised them to keep their weapons with them at all times. Loss or misplacement of an M16 would be dealt with very severely. They were told to never leave their weapons unattended because if a drill sergeant found a rifle without an owner, the weapon would be gone. They were also informed that from that moment on, the M16 was to be referred to as a trainee's weapon, not his gun. According to a drill sergeant, "you fight with your weapon, you sleep with your gun." Anyone thereafter who called it a gun would make a repeated, intimate acquaintance with Mother Earth.

Alpha-10 marched back to the company area where they cleaned their M16s for the first time. It was not as easy as Van Es made it sound.

After disassembly of the rifle and cleaning it, each platoon's drill sergeant had to inspect the weapon to see if it met his or her standard of cleanliness. A majority did not. Most M16s had to be cleaned at least three times before they met with a drill sergeant's approval and could be turned in to the Arms Room.

The rifle cleaning supplies were put away and the trainees were marched to the PT field, given extensive physical training and then they were lined up to do wind sprints.

Lt. Henning, who supervised the exercises, noticed that Dale appeared to have difficulty running. Henning strolledover to Dale when she was at the back of the line and gently grabbed the CID agent's arm, pulling her out of hearing range of anyone else. "What's wrong?" Henning asked and pointed to Dale's foot.

"Nothing. Really. It's the weather turning so cold all of a sudden."

"Are you telling me the truth?" Henning looked concerned.

Dale always thought that was a silly question. Did anyone ever answer No? "Yes. It's the dampness. It's not just me, everybody's complaining. It probably has a lot to do with getting used to the boots again. Don't worry about me. If it does get bad, I'll see somebody."

"But you're limping now."

"But I won't be in a few days," Dale argued.

McCoy approached them. "Is there a problem, Ma'am?"

Henning glared at Dale and then looked up at the drill instructor. "No problem, Sergeant. I just noticed that Private Oakes seemed to have trouble running, that's all."

McCoy turned to Dale. "Something wrong, Oakes?"

"No, Drill Sergeant."

"Are you calling the lieutenant a liar, Oakes?" he asked, playfully.

"No, Drill Sergeant."

"You're fine, then?"

"Yes, Drill Sergeant."

"Well, then, if the lieutenant is through with you, get back in line, Oakes."

"Yes, Drill Sergeant." Dale looked at Henning, who nodded. She double-timed it back into line, careful not to let her aching foot show.

The Army barracks were obviously decorated by the same people who designed the terminal ward of a hospital and about as exciting to live in as Sick Call. In fact, by the second full week, the way most of the women coughed and wheezed, it could have easily been the clinic just cleverly camouflaged as troop housing.

The trainees were not used to running themselves that ragged yet and the hours they kept had begun to take their toll, so much so that Travis had nicknamed them the Green Bay Hackers. Only the most physically fit seemed to barely escape the viruses and run down feelings that rampantly traveled through the barracks.

Shannon awoke Sunday morning after what seemed like an hour of sleep. She and half the female population of Alpha-10 spent most of the night coughing and continuously adjusted their body positions so that they could breathe properly without having excess fluid from their noses drip all over their pillows or down the back of their throats. Unfortunately, they still had to get up for formation and they still had to participate in physical training.

Between Fall In and PT, the trainees caught up on their laundry, writing letters, their boots, their brass, their rules, regulations and drills and being marched to the PX to replenish their personal supplies. Since Shannon and Dale took turns doing each other's laundry, Dale played cribbage with Bonnie Kramer again while Private Jason Zachary flirted madly with Shannon in the laundry room.

Sunday night, after the evening meal, the trainees were thrown their first GI party. It was not a festive experience. They moved their bunks around, stripped all the old wax off each tile, then mopped, re-waxed and buffed the floor. They completely scoured the bathroom and showers with toothbrushes so that they not only shined, they glistened. They finally made it to bed a little after midnight and the fireguards enforced that only one toilet and one shower was used until the morning inspection.

Monday morning, after the ritual of changing the sheets and an inspection where the barracks and the trainees' mental stability was torn apart, the company drew their M16s from the Arms Room and marched back out to the range. The temperature was lower than it had been on Saturday and Shannon made the comment that it was so cold, one could probably get ice cream straight from the cow. Several times while they waited to zero their weapons, there were rumblings from soldiers who feared the loss of feeling in their fingers and toes. The wind chill factor was ten degrees below zero.

Everyone who wasn't in the present firing order stayed close to the warm up tent. It was still cold in there but at least the canvas warded off the wind.

It would not have surprised anyone to discover that there were days when Ritchie was possessed by demons. His behavior was so erratic and immature at times, no one could really believe he held such an authoritative position. There was never any flattering conversation in the barracks about him, which Dale and Shannon knew was dangerous because of the bitch box's traitorous power to unsuspectingly transmit. However, even that knowledge did not prevent them from occasionally joining in the denouncement of his credibility or questioning his sanity. The trainees who planned fictitious ways for his untimely demise did it as often and with as much vigor as when they polished their boots and scrubbed latrines.

The senior drill sergeant circled the exterior of the tent as a majority of the three remaining firing orders crammed themselves inside to keep relatively warm. He scanned the shape of the canvas for small bulges that may have been caused by unattended M16s. After he made a mental note of what could possibly have been four rifles leaning against the inside of the tent, he began his mission to snatch and degrade.

Dale was the first one to spot the ungloved hand reach under the tent from the outside and feel around for the butt of a rifle. If she hadn't known what the humiliating outcome would be if the hand took possession of an M16, it would have been an entertaining sight. Fortunately, before the sneaky hand could connect with Pvt. Eddie Belden's weapon, he picked it up to take it with him outside so that he could smoke a cigarette. He was totally unaware he had just escaped certain mental agony.

Shannon passed Belden as she entered the tent and nodded to Dale, who was seated on the ground near the wood stove that had been providing heat.

"Walker, come here," Dale called to her and stood up. As Shannon approached her, sniffing back her cold, Dale saw the hand slide underneath the tent again, and reach for another M16. "Which drill sergeant is outside the tent?"

"The only one I saw was Ritchie."

A smile that could only have been described as sadistic crossed Dale's face. She crooked her index finger at her partner. "Come with me."

By this time, Dale was not the only one who had noticed the mysterious hand. Pvt. Kerwin Cross, whose rifle leaned up against the tent, almost lost the weapon. Just when Ritchie's hand was about to triumphantly grab the unattended M16, Dale picked it up and handed it to Cross.

Shannon and Dale began to follow in the direction they knew Ritchie was headed; toward the next M16 that leaned up against the tent. The two women also began to take on a quiet but appreciative audience. They silently alerted Caffrey that she was about to have her weapon stolen and she picked it up and laid it across her lap seconds before Ritchie would have had it.

Dale motioned to her partner to play along as they got their telepathy going. The dark haired lieutenant quickly walked ahead and leaned her M16 up against the tent so that the outline of it could be seen from the outside. Shannon stood poised, with her weapon ready. Just as they had anticipated, Ritchie took the bait and his hand sailed underneath the tent for a quick steal but before he could get a grip on it, Dale pulled it away and Shannon slammed the butt of her rifle onto the back of Ritchie's hand with such force, it would not have surprised or upset anyone if she'd crushed every bone halfway up to his elbow.

At the sound of Ritchie's eight-octave scream, all of the trainees who occupied the warm-up tent, scrambled back to inconspicuous locations. It was just in time before the furious senior drill sergeant burst through the entrance displaying a throbbing, swollen hand, followed closely by Audi and McCoy.

"WHO DID THIS?" Ritchie screamed, his face beet red, as his pointy little nostrils flared. He definitely had everyone's attention.

"Did what, Drill Sergeant?" Jimmy Judd, a six-foot, five-inch bean pole from Tennessee, drawled. It was an act of extreme control for the occupants of that tent not to even crack a hint of a smile. McCoy, who stood behind Ritchie, grinned but he was allowed.

"This, you hillbilly!" He held up his pain-riddled hand. "I want to know who battered me with their weapon and I want to know now! Battery is a serious offense and I want the cocksucker who is responsible for this!" Each word was spit out because of the excruciating agony Ritchie was experiencing.

A specialist fourth class named Raymond Haviland stepped forward. Sp4 Haviland was prior service, having spent four years in the Navy, and wasn't quite so intimidated by Ritchie's rampage. "Excuse me, Drill Sergeant..."

"What is it, Haviland?" Ritchie snapped.

"Somebody tried to steal my weapon from the outside of the tent about five minutes ago," Haviland lied. "I don't know who that somebody was but from what the drill sergeants tell us is that if somebody tries to take my weapon and bring undue hardship to me that I can do what I have to keep my weapon secure. None of us knew that was your hand, Drill Sergeant, it could have been anybody's. Whoever did that to you protected his weapon from a thief."

"Jim, I think you should get right over to the hospital and have that looked at," Audi suggested to Ritchie, soothingly. The two of them exited without another word.

McCoy turned to Haviland. "Nice job, Swabbie."

"Thank you, Drill Sergeant, but it wasn't me who did it."

"It doesn't matter. Whoever did it was in the right and you backed them up." He looked at everyone. "Carry on."

As McCoy left the tent he heard a lot of easier breathing, laughter and backslapping. Maybe his last cycle as a drill sergeant wasn't going to be so bad after all.

On the warpath when he returned an hour later, Ritchie, whose hand had miraculously not been broken but was severely bruised and was now wrapped, became unbearable even for the other NCOs to deal with. At one point when he had been out of view of the range commander or Alpha company cadre, He kicked Pvt. Scott McNulty in the helmet while McNulty was in a foxhole. Ritchie had asked the private a question and McNulty, not used to wearing earplugs, did not acknowledge the senior drill sergeant. Ritchie let go with a sharp kick that connected with the private's steel pot, which knocked McNulty violently against the side of the circular trench.

Ritchie immediately looked around to see if anyone of importance saw it and seemed relieved to find all the NCOs preoccupied. However, both Dale and Shannon had witnessed the action and that may have been Ritchie's biggest mistake.

At the end of the day while Henning rodded weapons, Shannon moved toward her and announced loudly, for the benefit of everyone else, "No brass, no ammo, Ma'am!"

"Fantastic," Henning responded, bored with shoving the metal stick down the barrel of the M16s. "How'd you do?"

"Could have done better."

"Then stop fooling around and get to it, Private," Henning winked.

"Right." Shannon looked behind her and when she saw no one close by, she said, "If you see any knuckle skin on the butt of my weapon, take my word for it, it was deserved."

"I figured it was either you or your partner who did that. No one else would have had the guts."

"That man is going to get himself into some deep shit if he doesn't straighten his act out real soon."

"What else did he do?" Henning sighed, but before Shannon could answer her, another trainee came up behind them both, holding his weapon at such an angle that, if it went off, it would have removed the left cheek of Henning's rear end. "POINT THAT WEAPON DOWN RANGE!" the training officer yelled at him. "Moron," Henning sputtered, as Shannon grinned and moved on.


Chapter Thirty-Two

That night, directly after evening chow, the trainees were called into formation and given a 'be careful while on leave' speech. Henning informed them that this was the first time they would be in public as members of the U.S. Army and they were to represent the military with respect and pride. Her lecture lasted approximately fifteen minutes and then the trainees were ordered to line up by platoons on the north patio by the CQ Office where they were to be individually paid before leaving for Christmas exodus. Henning was in charge of that, too.

Dale could tell when she went in to the Orderly Room to get her leave money that the training officer was provoked about something. It was not the most appropriate time to ask why when two armed MPs stood by the desk, SFC. Fuscha ran around, an assorted number of NCOs came in and out of the First Sergeant's office and barracks gossip Charlene Keival was on CQ duty.

Dale attempted to break the mood while Henning searched for Dale's name on the list and pointed to a small, sparsely decorated spruce twig that was sat on the corner of the desk. "Excuse me, Ma'am, is that a Christmas tree or did somebody bring you a holiday corsage?"

Henning looked up in the direction of the six-inch tall tree. She looked back at Dale, her expression unchanged, made no comment, then she returned to scanning the list.

"Don't bother the lieutenant," snapped a particularly burly MP, who wore an E-4 rank on the upper sleeves of his dress uniform. Dale looked at him surprised.

Henning kept her eyes on the computer readout sheet. "You're out of line, Specialist," she admonished and did not glance at him. "Here you are. Oakes." Henning handed Dale a slip of paper. "Make sure all the information is correct."

The CID agent checked over the sheet of paper that informed the Army where Dale was going to be from December fifteenth until January second and how they could get in touch with her if they needed to.

"It's correct, Ma'am," Dale told her and handed the paper back. Henning counted out the cash and held it out to Dale.

"Count it again, Private Oakes and make sure it is the correct amount."

Dale recounted the money. "It's all here, Ma'am."

"Outstanding. Sign right here," the company XO pointed to an area on the receipt and Dale scribbled her signature. "Thank you, Private Oakes. Have a nice holiday," Henning said, blandly, disinterested.

"Thank you, Ma'am. Same to you."

"I'm beginning to really hate you," Shannon admitted to her partner, "you get out of here for two weeks and I have to stay."

"Come on, we decided reasonably and intelligently. It's not my fault you called tails," Dale reminded her. "Besides, you said you'd be better off not going back home for a while."

"Look, just because my landlord and I are at odds right now doesn't mean I don't have other places I could go," the blonde lieutenant protested and blew her nose.

"You have a cold. You would be miserable where ever you went, anyway. I'm not giving in. I've got work to do, too, you know. My time isn't going to be spent entirely in Vermont, partying."

"You don't understand. You get to go out and drink and dance and have wild, uninhibited sex," Shannon emphasized, almost whining.

"That's right," Dale confirmed. "And I'll probably do it all with the exception of the wild, uninhibited sex. I told you I broke up with Keith, remember?"

"Big deal. It never stopped you when you two were together, why should it stop you now?"

Dale laughed and shrugged, "Let's just say I've changed." And nothing seemed to have brought that home more than the past month. Before her partner could question that statement too deeply, Dale gave Shannon a gentle shove. "Just think how much more aware you'll be of the other trainees who are also staying."

"Don't try to pacify me with a sense of duty."

"Come on, it's only two weeks."

"Only two weeks? We've only been here a little over two weeks. Can you honestly say it doesn't feel like two years?"

"It's been three weeks and don't be a poor sport. Think of all the money you'll save by being stuck here. Let's get off this subject because you are not going to make me feel any guilt what-so-ever."

"Selfish bitch."

"Thank you. Feel better? Now that you've aired that, do you happen to know why our industrious training officer was in such a wonderful mood when she was giving us our pay tonight?"

"Yes I do. Town Crier Keival said Stubby had to ride all the way back to the company area with a ten thousand dollar payroll and absolutely no armed or unarmed escorts. Just her and Silva, the duty driver."

"How the hell did that happen?"

"Ritchie never arranged for an escort and Henning waited as long as she could. When she and Silva got back to the company area, the MPs were here instead of where they were supposed to be. I guess she couldn't contain herself and blew a fuse at Ritchie. They took it into Ritchie's office and closed the door but Keival said she did overhear Henning ask him if he had any knowledge of any inbreeding in his family, which led to one hell of a shouting match."

"What is the matter with that man? I don't believe him. I especially don't believe that incident with McNulty. Thankfully it just dazed him. Ritchie could have really caused him a serious injury. Somebody better put a bug in McNulty's ear to go to the IG. He's supposed to be protected against crap like that."

"It makes me even happier about what we did to him in the warm-up tent this afternoon. Does Bishaye know what kind of lunatic she's got as a senior drill sergeant here?"

"Well, you would think, wouldn't you? But I doubt it because she didn't give us a head's up. I sincerely hope I have opened her eyes about Colton, if I start in on her about Ritchie, she's going to think it's me."

"Thank God both Colton and Ritchie leave in two days for two weeks."

"Where are you lucky dogs moving to until we get back?"


"Who else is staying?"


"See?" Dale winked at her. "You don't have to be lonely if you don't want to be."

Shannon ignored her and continued. "Michaelson..."

"Michaelson is staying? I can't believe that such a perfect specimen of womanhood has no one to go home to or anywhere else to go."

"Maybe she flipped a coin, too," Shannon said, sourly. "Quinn Brewer is staying. Swinegar is staying..."

"She is? How come? She was so enthusiastic about leaving."

"She says she's fallen in love. She and that holdover, Ribak, have apparently struck up a romance. He's staying because he is waiting on orders so now she's staying. I think she really wants to stay because Robin's going to be NCOIC and we all know, including Robin, how she feels about him."

"And who knows? Maybe Robin volunteered to be in charge because Michaelson is staying. We all know how every normal, red-blooded male feels about her. Crushes are a terrible thing, aren't they?"

"As long as it stays a crush."

"Well, there you go. Now you have a reason to stay."

"Yeah. Right," Shannon sniffed. "People fall in love so Goddamned easily around here and I don't understand why. This is not my idea of a romantic environment. Let's face it, between you and me, falling in love in basic training is just silly."

"Silly? This is Alabama, I think love between you and me is illegal."

Shannon glared at her. "Thank you, Henny Youngman."

"So Swinegar is staying because Ribak is staying or so she wants everyone to believe."

"Right. And Tierni isn't going home for exodus. She's going to spend two weeks in Atlanta with Silva."

"Oh, you know, I thought something might be developing between those two. I'll make it a point to get to Atlanta sometime before January first."

"How will you find them?"

"I'll just ask Tierni where they plan on going and take it from there. Or I could always just hit the Atlanta Underground. Everybody eventually ends up there."

"Maybe you should just leave them alone. I would be very surprised if either one of them knows anything about why we're here."

"You just don't want me to go to the Atlanta Underground without you. But you do have a point so I will leave them alone. Good for Tierni. That Silva is a cutie." And though she meant it, it no longer implied she found him personally attractive or wanted him for herself. That was another epiphany.

"Yeah, he is. He's a good company driver, too. I think they're going to miss him when he comes down on orders. What do you say we go upstairs? We've got another long one tomorrow."

"And another cold one, I heard."

"Peachy," Shannon commented and blew her nose again.

It was now Tuesday and Christmas exodus was only two days away. The company had started to get anxious about their temporary return to civilian life and most of them acted as though they were convicts about to be paroled.

Yet imminent release was still approximately forty-eight hours in the future and there was still serious military business to attend to. The new soldiers were warned not to be caught daydreaming and, in all honesty, if a trainee's thoughts drifted to anything other than the matters at hand, they drifted to how it was going to feel to be in a nice, warm, comfortable bed, regaining that lost art called a decent night's sleep.

The temperature was also higher than it had been the past week and the extra clothing the members of the company had been wearing to fight the cold weather now made them sweat.

The trainees were again placed into firing orders once they marched to a different range. They now dealt with shooting at pop-up targets, at intervals of fifty, one hundred, one hundred fifty, two hundred, two hundred fifty and three hundred meters for trial classification. They had to fire four times, ten rounds each, in one order in two positions - prone and standing foxhole - and each position allowed sixty-five seconds to engage and hit ten targets.

Everybody was understandably nervous about the next two days. Their performance on the rifle range, especially tomorrow, determined whether they would continue training with Alpha-10 or be recycled to another company that was a week behind them in schedule. It was the first phase of the process of elimination. If a trainee didn't hit at least seventeen out of forty targets to qualify as a Marksman by the end of training day tomorrow, he or she would be moved out of Alpha-10 and reassigned to Bravo-10, where they would have another chance to qualify after Christmas exodus.

Dale hadn't done particularly well on the practices because she knew when it came time to qualify that she would be able to pull off a decent score. She also knew she could knock down all forty targets, with the exception of the lock-ups, if she fully concentrated. She found the M16 a weapon that had been easy to master the first time she picked one up. It was just something that had come very naturally to her, which surprised her because before she entered the Army, she had never handled a rifle or associated with anyone who was familiar with one despite the fact that her hometown was known for being deer hunting country. Dale's uncanny ability for accuracy astounded her. She did almost as well with a pistol.

Not as well as Shannon, however, whose father, uncles and brothers were cops so she grew up around handguns. When brothers shot at homemade targets, Shannon was right there with them, unloading one of their .22s, .38s, .357s or .45 caliber pistols into plastic, water-filled, gallon jugs or tin coffee cans. Rifles, on the other hand, got the best of her and when it came down to actual qualification, she rarely hit higher than a Sharpshooter, which was twenty-four to twenty-seven targets out of forty, whereas Dale never scored lower than an Expert, which was anything over twenty-eight up to forty targets.

Until it counted, Dale was intelligent enough to look like a scared amateur. In fact, she did so poorly that morning that Kathan made it a point to make an example of her in front of her firing order in the warm-up tent. He told her that he doubted she would continue her training with Alpha-10 if she kept shooting in a similar fashion. It was not a pleasant moment but it was one that Dale could tolerate because she knew she still held high esteem with her peers for what she and Shannon had done to Ritchie the day before. Most importantly, she also knew there was no chance of her being recycled even if she couldn't improve her score.

Henning, who had just arrived at the range, patrolled behind some of the foxholes,

supervising, when she finally decided to sit down and observe. She was surprised to see the name 'Walker' printed in laundry marker ink on masking tape on the back of the camouflaged steel pot of the scorer and even more surprised to see the name 'Oakes' on the rear of the helmet of the soldier in the foxhole.

"How did you two manage this?" Henning shouted, to make herself heard through Shannon's earplugs.

"We didn't. It just worked out this way. She makes me sick on the rifle range," the blonde lieutenant told the XO. "I'll get even on the pistol range though."

"Have you fired yet?" Henning asked.

"Last order. I got fourteen."

"Fourteen! How did that happen?"

"There were snakes in my foxhole. I had to use twenty-six cartridges killing them. The rest went into the targets."

Henning stared at her, incredulously. "Are you serious?"

"The weather warming up must have brought them out. I hate snakes. It was them or me."

"How many were there?"

Shannon held up two fingers.

The thought of two snakes plugged with thirteen bullet holes in each made Henning laugh out loud. What kidders, these two women. She was about to accuse Shannon of making it up when a blood-curdling scream pierced the air from two foxholes up.

Henning returned to Shannon's scoring table five minutes later, after she investigated the ruckus. Henning made no comment to her.

"What's all the commotion?" Dale yelled to her. She turned around and removed her earplugs.

"Sherlock had to be given another firing position," Henning answered, not looking at Shannon. "She refused to stay in a foxhole with what was left of two snakes."

Dale shook her head, turned around and faced the targets again. As she put her earplugs back in, she commented, "Shannon, the reptile annihilator. She doesn't just kill them, she obliterates them. Nothing left but a bloody shadow. Coming this Christmas to a theater near you."

"I can't help it. I hate snakes," Shannon said to no one in particular.

The range commander checked the flags to make sure everyone was clear down range and gave the order to fire. On the second shot, Dale's rifle jammed.

Henning was about to wave her flag indicating an improperly functioning weapon when Shannon stopped her. "She knows what to do."

Immediately, Dale placed the selector level on 'safe' and released the magazine. She pulled the charging handle to the rear and the jammed live round popped out. She then placed the bullet into the magazine and slapped it back up into the rifle, moving the selector level back to 'semi.' Even though the entire process took only eleven seconds, she only got to shoot at two more targets but was too distracted to regain her concentration.

"Cease fire...cease fire..."

As Dale pushed the selector level back to 'safe,' she pounded her fist into the ground in frustration. On command from the tower, she lifted herself from the foxhole and into an unsupported prone position.

"That's too bad," Henning said to Shannon, "she missed those points."

"Not really. She'll do extremely well when we qualify tomorrow and it actually looks better if she keeps her scores lower today."

"I suppose that's true but what happens if her weapon jams during qualification?"

"Then she'll call a safety NCO over. It would have been a waste of time today."

Dale was heard muttering, "Shit, shit, shit," to herself as she lined up her sights.

That afternoon, the trainees were marched back to the company area to learn more Drill and Ceremony, mainly Inspection Arms, Order Arms and Port Arms. Then, after the trainees' own arms felt like they were useless and devoid of any strength from holding the M16s in an outstretched position for most of the drills, the troops were assembled on the south patio to listen to a speech from Colton.

It seemed a painful thing for him to have to say and even more excruciating for Ritchie to hear but the company commander actually told the women how proud he was of them and surprised at the way they held up. As if that wasn't enough of a shock, Colton then admitted that so far, he felt that they were outshining the males. The expression on Ritchie's face was one of ultimate betrayal and he stared at the handsome captain in indication that now he had gone too far. With the limited knowledge Dale and Shannon thought they had of Colton, they realized how difficult this speech must have been for him and they accepted it, as did everyone else, in good faith. Some of the male trainees were disappointed but a majority of them had to agree that the females had really put forth a noticeable effort.

Some suggested the C.O.'s speech was said to boost morale for qualification on the range in the morning. Everyone anticipated the next day, some eagerly, some nervously, some with dread and hoped, if nothing else, the weather would be on their side.

It had started to get chillier again toward the afternoon. By evening chow, the temperature had hit below the freezing mark again. Being that it was one of the coldest winters Alabama had ever experienced so far, the weather did nothing to encourage even the most inspired troops and one of the main reasons for that was the combat boots.

As with any new footwear made from leather, it took time for the material to soften and mold comfortably to the foot. Since the military budget had been cut back, the labor and materials used to manufacture the boots had been cut back also and the quality of leather and the construction of the boot itself weren't what they used to be. Therefore, this brand new leather combat boot was fitted to the foot, accompanied that foot outside and because of the colder climate, immediately froze, became brittle and shaped itself incorrectly and harmfully to that foot.

It was not uncommon for some troops to have problems with improperly fitting footgear in any type of weather, particularly females with arches too high or arches that had fallen but this cycle, especially, ran into problems. Uncle Sam's Christmas gift that year was going to be contusions, abrasions, swollenness, blisters, callouses, shin splints, tendonitis, stress fractures, bone spurs and bursitis, podiatry problems that would stay with some of these trainees the rest of their lives.

Everybody took extra-long showers that night and let the hot water beat on their already abused feet. A few of the women even bribed some of their barracks mates for foot rubs. Ordinarily, a patrolling drill sergeant who observed such activity between the females would have made mental notes on who rubbed whose feet but under the circumstances, not only did the drill sergeant who performed the bed check fully understand, he wanted to get in line.

Shannon had lucked out. Possibly it was that she was used to combat boots but so far her feet still felt pretty good, considering. Although the onset of what began to resemble shin splints from marching on hard surfaces such as concrete, paved roads and sidewalks had started to creep up from just above her ankle bones and she was not pleased about that but she knew how to work with her feet to lessen the pain.

Dale, on the other hand, did not fair as well. Not only did the boots wreak havoc on her left foot but the dampness mixed with the cold made the arthritis that had obviously settled in nearly unbearable. Four times in the past week, Dale had awakened in the middle of the night with the kind of paralyzing pain that was reserved for charlie-horses. She had to bite the inside of her cheek not to make any noise and rouse anyone else out of their well-needed slumber but, within minutes, after being able to completely straighten out her foot, the throb tapered off to a dull ache.

Every time this happened, Dale promised herself she'd go to the TMC but by the time 0730 rolled around and sick call time came, Dale had decided she could live with it, at least until Christmas exodus, and forged ahead with her day's training. By 1500 hours, she usually regretted this decision. And by 1700 hours, as Henning had noticed, Dale limped slightly. If any of the drill sergeants had seen it, they had neglected to mention it. Pamela Ryan, who was in the bunk next to Dale's, had noticed and offered to massage Dale's feet as she exited the shower.

"No but thanks anyway, Ryan," Dale acknowledged her, appreciatively. "The heat from the water seemed to do the trick," she lied. It was a sweet gesture but at that point, any inexperienced hands that pushed and pulled on Dale's already aggravated injury may not have been the wisest idea. "How about you? How are your feet?"

"Great. York did mine about ten minutes ago. She should go professional. My feet feel like they just had sex."

Dale perked up and looked in York's direction. "Is she busy?" She saw two people seated on the floor, waiting for Linda York's magic fingers. Dale shrugged. "Oh, well." She climbed into bed. "Thanks anyway, Pam."

"Sure. Good luck on the range tomorrow."

"Thanks. You, too."

"Thanks. I'll need it."

Pam Ryan really didn't need luck. She had paid attention to her instructors and had shot well all along. She just had this underlying fear that her qualifying score was going to be analogous to high school. She had always done fine in class but when it came time to be tested, it was as if the questions were in a foreign language and she always drew a blank. This time, however, her fear was unfounded. She had been picked for the first firing order and had scored twenty-five out of forty, which qualified her in the second category of Sharpshooter. She would have preferred Expert and if she had knocked down three more targets, she would have made it. Although she wasn't disappointed; of her firing order, she had tied with Perry Sargent for the highest score. At the end of the day, her score was average with most of the males but higher than most of the females who barely made Marksman.

Both Dale and Shannon had been selected for the third firing order, Dale snugly in foxhole number twelve and Shannon three away from her in foxhole number nine. For the most part, it went well, except Shannon's first ten round magazine jammed and forced her to shoot an alibi round. That broke her concentration and hindered the outcome of her score but even with the alibi round, she had hit enough targets to qualify as expert. Everyone else acted impressed but as familiar with the weapon as Shannon was and as many times as she had qualified, she felt she should have done better than knock down thirty targets.

Henning, who rodded once again, saw Shannon approach. She looked discouraged. "No brass, no ammo, Ma'am," the blonde agent announced.

"Great," Henning responded, as she shoved the metal rod down the barrel and pulled it back out again. "How'd you do?"

"Thirty, Ma'am."

"Don't sound so depressed. That's better than I ever did. From what I hear, you and Annie Oakley shot higher than a majority of the guys."

When all the results were in, at thirty-eight out of forty, Dale Oakes had scored the highest on the rifle range. Drill Sergeant Kathan was very offended. For two and one-half weeks, he had insulted her, berated her and tried to pound into her head what a no good, lazy shitbird she was so how dare she have the audacity to not only challenge his insight but downright defy him by being the best...in anything. At first he figured that her scorer must have cheated for her so he checked who had signed her fire performance test sheet. Raymond Haviland would have had no reason to alter her score. As prior service, he knew better, he knew what the consequences of those actions would have been if he'd been caught. The lock ups were correct. Kathan had to face facts...it must have been a fluke.

News traveled fast. While she cleaned her weapon on the patio with her platoon, every drill sergeant with the exception of Ritchie congratulated Dale. Second platoon males were happy because she put them in first place in the unofficial and playful competition between the three platoons. The women were proud of her because she was a female and had scored the highest. They didn't care what platoon she was in.

"Show-off," Shannon said, later, as they stood outside by a picnic table that overlooked the parking lot.

"Damn right," Dale answered, proudly, "my grandfather always said, 'What comes easy, let go free'."

"My grandfather used to say that, too. Except he was referring to farting."

"Come on, Shan, if your M16 hadn't malfunctioned, you would've been real close to my score. You've gotten as good with that rifle as I have gotten with a pistol. In six weeks, I'll be the one pissed off because you scored higher. How's your cold?"

"It's better. Last night Stubby sneaked me a cap full of some cold medication that is supposed to not only help you sleep but it works on your cold while you sleep. It's potent stuff. She gave me another hit of it tonight when I cleaned her office. I'm getting a little drowsy."

"Maybe you should get to bed then. Take advantage of its effect." Dale yawned, also feeling tired. "Twelve people didn't qualify. They're taking them back to the range tomorrow. I heard they are going to keep them there until they score a seventeen or over."

"So much for the idle threats of recycling. Who are they, do you know?"

"Well, there are three women - Hewett, McTague and Newcomb. I'm not sure of all the guys but the ones I do know are Muscatello, Stavis, Swan, Jasinski and Drago."

"I wonder what happened to McTague? She did okay in the practice qualifying. She must've choked."

They had reached the landing to the female bay. "I can't believe they're giving them a second chance, though. Things sure are being done differently here."

"I know. I wish they'd make up their minds whether they were going to be hard asses or not. It's very confusing."


Chapter Thirty-Three

The next day after details were done and everything was in order, the soldiers received their Class-A uniforms and their individual scoring badges. The people who had gone back to the range had returned by noon chow, all with a qualifying score. A group of fifty trainees left later that afternoon and night for the beginning of exodus. The rest who were going would leave the next day.

That evening, for the trainees who remained, the mess hall was set up with snacks and refreshments until 2100 hours and the new GIs were allowed to dress in civilian clothes and mingle freely with the soldiers and cadre from the other three Tenth Battalion companies. The only Alpha cadre members in attendance were Putman, Audi and Henning.

It was a relaxed but well-controlled little affair. The drill sergeants kept a close eye on everyone and ensured if anyone disappeared, it was to return to the bays. They didn't want any of their trainees, especially the ones remaining for Christmas company, to make any impulsive trips to the "Green Grass Motel."

Upstairs in the A-Company female bay, Dale packed as Shannon sat on her partner's bunk and watched her. "So are you going to make up with your boyfriend?"

Dale shrugged, noncommittally. "I doubt it."

"Don't you miss him?"

"Yeah, to a point. I got used to having him around. Or him being around me."

"Wow. That sounds like true love at its best."

Dale smiled at her. "True love it wasn't. I never had any illusions about that." She closed her small suitcase. "You'll never guess who came up to me about fifteen minutes ago and congratulated me on my score."


"No. Bradbury," Dale said and laughed.

"Why you dog! Where's your first stop going to be on your leave? The Arms Room? No, seriously, maybe she's trying to improve a score of her own."

"That occurred to me but she seemed very sincere. And, incidentally, fuck you." Even though Dale was losing the battle fighting an attraction toward women that had slowly begun to overwhelm her, Staff Sergeant Jane Bradbury was not someone who entered her realm of interest. The Bravo-10 drill instructor was too obvious, too stereotypical, too on the make. Pretty sure now that these urges and feelings Dale were having were not just a phase, either way she knew that the overly horny Bradbury was not someone she was willing to risk her Army career over.

Thankfully, their conversation was interrupted by the odd sound of change jingling. Lots of it. Oblivious to the noise she made, Travis passed Dale's bunk, munching on something chocolate, her pockets literally loaded with coins. Less than a minute later, Tramonte entered the bay and strolled by Dale and Shannon, also snacking and jingling. The two CID agents exchanged looks as curiosity got the better of them.

"Hey, Travis, when's the sleigh ride?" Shannon inquired.

"What do you mean?" Travis asked, her mouth full of her last bite of candy bar. Instead of looking genuinely puzzled by the question, she and Tramonte, whose bunks were next to each other, looked caught.

"You two come up here sounding like jolly old St. Nick, we were just wondering if maybe Dale and I missed a floating poker game somewhere."

Travis and Tramonte glanced at each other again and shook their heads negatively. Since no one else seemed to have noticed or, if they did, obviously didn't care, the two trainees decided that there was no harm in confiding in the two lieutenants. Especially after some of the stunts they had pulled. Travis made a gesture with her head that indicated she wanted them to step a little closer. Dale and Shannon complied.

"You know the candy machine downstairs?" Travis began.

"The one that's off-limits?" Dale asked.

"That's the one. Well, I wanted some gum so I asked Putnam if he minded if I got a pack since everything else seemed okay tonight. He said sure, go ahead, and he left to go downstairs. So Tramonte and I put the money in and pushed the button for the gum to come out and with the gum came the money we put in plus more change. So, on a whim, we tried it again and doesn't our change come back in triple. So we kept on putting money in and getting more money back."

"Didn't you have to buy a candy bar to make it work?" Dale wondered.

"Sure, at first but then we ran out of candy. So we put a quarter in the slot, pulled on the change return handle and we'd get two quarters and a dime or two back."

"It felt like we were in Atlantic City for a while," Tramonte added.

"How much money did you end up with?" Shannon asked.

"About seventeen dollars out of the machine."

"What did you do with all that candy?" Dale asked.

"We took it up to the male bay and sold it to the guys for twenty cents a piece." Tramonte said and looked at Travis.

"We made about five dollars off that, which we split," Travis admitted.

"What would you have done if one of the drill sergeants had answered your knock on the bay doors?" Dale inquired.

"We made sure Putnam, Audi and Henning were downstairs before we went up," Travis said, confidently.

"What about McCoy?"

"What about him?" Tramonte asked and shrugged.

"He's the staff duty NCO. He's floating around, making sure no one's taking advantage of the Army's hospitable behavior tonight."

"He is?" Tramonte asked, a little weakly. Both she and Travis were terrified of McCoy.

Shannon nodded. "You must have just missed him 'cause he was in here about ten minutes ago."

"Oh, shit," Travis sighed, relieved and they all started to laugh. "He's probably wondering why all those candy wrappers are in the trash."

"He's probably not wondering at all. He's just a nicer guy than we all think," Dale commented.

"Yeah. And my future husband is Robert Redford," Travis said and rolled her eyes.

Shannon looked at her partner. "You keep saying things like that and we're going to change your last name to Snow."

Tramonte sat down and unloaded all the change from her pockets onto her bunk. "Where is Snow, anyway? Did she leave already?"

"Who cares?" Travis said, opening her locker.

"Well, I just hope she didn't sneak up on this conversation without us knowing and go running out to find the first Smokey the Bear hat she sees."

"Wasn't she downstairs in the mess hall when we looked?" Travis paused as she tried to recall.

"Maybe what she was really looking for is an Australian Bush hat," Shannon stated. A smile curled the corner of her mouth.

"MacArthur's not here," Tramonte said.

"But...Bradbury is," Dale volunteered.

"Bradbury, who's that?" Travis asked.

Dale and Shannon remembered that not everyone else was as aware of the surrounding personnel as they were. They didn't have to be. "She's that C-word from Bravo," Shannon explained.

"Oh..." the two trainees chorused and immediately knew who she was. "Good pair," Travis nodded. "I hope they live happily ever after."

"Bradbury's probably not interested anyway," Dale spoke up. "I don't think Snow presents much of a challenge."

"But we know who does, don't we?" Shannon winked at Dale.

Dale glared at her and said, "So, Walker, why aren't you leaving for exodus?"

"Yeah, Walker, are you insane?" Travis inquired. She tppk quarters out of her pocket by the handfuls and put them into stacks of four.

Shannon shot Dale an 'okay, we're even' look. "I just figured if I had a chance to leave here, I might not come back. Tell me all of you haven't thought that at least once."

"I haven't," Dale lied. "If I'd wanted to stay in Vermont so badly, I wouldn't have enlisted."

"Then why are you going back for a visit?" Shannon challenged for the benefit of Travis and Tramonte.

"Because I have family and friends and a boyfriend or two there."

"If they mean so much to you, why did you leave?" Shannon prodded.

"They weren't enough. The jobs I had were too boring. Spending every night out drinking in bars gets a little old after a while. I couldn't care less if I ever live there again but that doesn't mean I don't ever want to see the people again."

"Well, I made the break and I'm sticking to it," Shannon said.

"Then why don't you leave here and spend Christmas somewhere else, somewhere new?" Tramonte wondered.

"I can't afford it. Besides, I don't have anywhere else to go. Just think how much more conditioned I'll be when all of you get back."

"Brainwashed, you mean, don't you?" Travis clarified. She still counted her profits.

"Obnoxious," Dale countered and smiled.

"You don't really think I'm obnoxious, do you?" Shannon brought up to Dale, later, as they sat on the picnic table closest to the north laundry room.

"About as obnoxious as you think I am," Dale replied.

"Wow. That bad, huh?" Shannon exhaled cigarette smoke.

Dale pushed her partner a little too playfully and caused her to fall off the table. Shannon regained her balance and sat back down. "I don't think you're obnoxious. It's just that sometimes you sound a little too gung-ho about the Army."

"Sometimes I feel very strongly about it."

"Think you're going to be a lifer?"

"You mean a career-oriented soldier?" Shannon corrected, then cocked her head, thoughtfully. "I don't know. I've been in six years now. I see no reason to get out yet. When it stops being a job and starts consuming my whole life then I'll look into something else. I think if what happened to you hadn't happened, you wouldn't be getting out."

Dale paused, pensively. "Maybe."

"So, really, what are you going to do with your two weeks?"

"Hmmm...let's see...I will give myself a day or two to catch up on my rest and then I will go back to Manchester, New Hampshire and spend a couple of days with a friend of mine, Sharon Burke. She's a career counselor at the AFEES there and someone I was stationed with at Fort Lost-In-The-Fog. She also knew Carolyn Stuart on a social level so I am going to nose around and see what I can find out. If that turns into a dead end, I will come back here a few days ahead of schedule, stay with Anne Bishaye and her husband and try to get what I can on our current drill sergeants. Then, unless the plans change, Anne will drive me to the airport early on January second and I will hang around the USO room and come back here with a bus load of trainees." She had not really thought about spending time with Anne Bishaye until that very moment when she vocalized it. She was still ambivalent about her feelings toward the woman, angry at her for her the way she handled the Kirk situation and acting so damned clinically about it and still powerfully attracted to the older officer's knockout presence and sizzling magnetism. Part of her hoped they would get some time alone and part of her prayed that Jack would not leave her side during her visit. She was torn between wanting and not wanting to be tempted.

"Are you sure you're not going to see your British bartender while you're home?" Shannon's voice interrupted her internal musing.

"Keith? No. I told you, it's over." It made her sad and relieved to admit that. Keith had become such a part of her routine, had become such a safety net for her that suddenly realizing he was no longer there for her to fall back on, to...well, use...was a revelation she wasn't sure she was ready for. Yet she knew this was how it had to be. She had to start being true to herself, whatever that meant at this point in her life, and that truth did not involve her ex-boyfriend. In fact, it may have no longer involved any man and although the sense of freedom in that thought was refreshing, it was also frustrating.

For years she had fought against the rumor that just because she was a female in the military, that she was gay, that just because she was a cop who also happened to be a woman, that she was gay. It wasn't that she was offended at being thought of as a lesbian, it was the assumption that irked her, her being considered a stereotype just because she had entered into an environment and a profession that was predominantly male-oriented and dominated. Because she desired to do and was good at an occupation considered 'manly,' she was automatically thought of as too tough to 'tame' and not feminine. She could have had sex with the most masculine male in the town square and had it broadcast on the evening news and people would have still suspected her of being a dyke. She couldn't escape it.

Dale had lost her virginity at seventeen to a boy she didn't even know. Her carnal history for the next seven years was strictly heterosexual and she indifferently satisfied her needs when the urge struck her with whoever was available (and reasonably attractive) at the time. Sex didn't really mean much to her and it became more of a bodily function than a pleasurable reward. It was only now, since she had begun to question her orientation, that she understood why she may have been so determined to sleep with a lot of men and that was not so much to prove to everyone else that she was straight but to convince herself, as well. The funny thing was, it hadn't worked. She had really convinced no one, least of all herself.

But this realization that had now washed over her, that she might, indeed, be a lesbian and not just curious - this revelation - was a double-edged sword. The acknowledgement of her desire for the fairer sex, which might now finally set her free, would also now keep her imprisoned as Uncle Sam would not be quite so enthusiastic about her acting upon who her heart and loins told her to gravitate toward. If she decided to make a career out of serving in the military, she would have to hide any personal happiness she might find along the way. Although she really loved what she did for the Army, she hated the idea of the catch-22 of not being able to openly enjoy a whole life like her straight colleagues could do. While she agonized over coming to terms with this realization, she wondered how anyone could think homosexuality could actually be a choice. Sure, one could choose to closet themselves and hide their true inclinations but that was almost impossibly distressing and one could also opt for coming out and face ridicule, ostracism, family banishment, religious exile and violence. Who, in their right mind, would openly choose that?

Then there was the issue of whether or not to tell Shannon. It was true that she and her partner possessed a remarkably strong friendship but would Shannon accept this little detail? Dale knew that Shannon was okay with lesbian soldiers but Shannon was very conventional and to Dale's knowledge, had no one close to her who was gay…that Shannon was aware of, anyway. The fact that Dale was not sure if her confession would affect the friendship was exactly what prompted Dale to stay silent. For now.

"So it really is over, huh?" Shannon again broke Dale's introspection.

"We want different things." Boy, that was an understatement. "We have for a while. Better to make a clean break than to let it linger, you know?"

Shannon agreed. "I know."

"What do you say we head upstairs and hit the rack? We both have a long day tomorrow. Well..." Dale grinned, impishly. "I do, anyway."

"Yeah. My heart bleeds for you." She took the last drag on her cigarette, extinguished it and flicked it out into the parking lot.

"You should have field stripped that butt and put it in your pocket. You'll just be picking it up tomorrow."

"My hope is they'll make you do police call before you go."

"I wouldn't make any bets on that." They were just about to leave the patio to return to the bay when they heard the sound of a car drive up. Caution being second nature to both of them, they waited, hidden by the east wall of the laundry room, held their breath, and hoped to catch a piece of conversation. All they heard was the muffled sound of two female voices.

After the car door shut and the sound of the vehicle drove away, Dale and Shannon scrambled around the side to the north wall. Shannon peeked around the corner to see Deirdre Snow head upstairs. She turned to Dale who had quietly moved to a better position to see who was in the car. When they heard the door of the female bay open and close, Dale joined Shannon.

"Who was it?" Dale asked.

"Snow. Who was in the car?"


"Why am I not surprised? I'm beginning to agree with you, except I think she gives all women a bad name, not just gay women." Shannon leaned back against the wall and stared at the ceiling. "Well...what do you think about this?"

"I think it was just sex, Shan. I think they got the itch, found an opportunity to scratch and took it. I think if it had anything to do with why we are here, it wouldn't have happened so soon and it would not have been so stupidly blatant. Anyone could have seen them, from here, from the second and third story bay windows, anyone."

"Anyone could have...but you and I did. I'd like to not say anything to anyone about this. Just keep it between the two of us and, eventually, the four of us, until the time becomes right."

Dale eyed Shannon suspiciously. "What have you got up your sleeve? Blackmail?"

"Blackmail is such an ugly and illegal word, Dale. I mean for incentive. And convenience. Bradbury obviously couldn't care less but this is just an ace up my sleeve for Snow."

"I understand your motivation but what if it turns into something bigger."

"Do you honestly think it will?"

Dale thought about it, seriously. "No."

"Me, either," Shannon smiled, rubbing her hands together in glee. "I can't wait for the opportunity to wipe that smugness right off her face." She glanced at her watch. "Oops...light's out was five minutes ago." They jogged to the stairway and up the steps to the second floor landing. "Let's go in quietly so that she's not sure who came in after her. God, how depressing. Even she's getting some."

"Oh, don't sound so deprived. Ingersol is more than willing and I'm positive that Ms. Bravo Company 1977 would be more than happy to accommodate you."

"Please. If I was a knothole, they'd both accommodate me, too."

"And you'd probably be cruel enough to leave those slivers in Bradbury's tongue and Ingersol's -"

"You're very ill, Dale," Shannon said and laughed.

"You wouldn't want me any other way," Dale teased as she opened the door. "See ya in two weeks," she whispered as they slipped inside.

End of Part I

Part II

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