INTO THE FIRE
Homefront Series, Book 3
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED AS FORGED IN FIRE
The final touchingly authentic book in the all new Homefront series from USA Today Bestselling author Jessica Scott
A warrior focused on battle…
Captain Sal Bello wants nothing more than to train his men for their upcoming deployment. But life at home is far more complicated for many of his men. And Sal doesn’t know how to stop the unraveling within his formation.
A warrior tested by combat…
First Sergeant Holly Washington has been baptized by fire and come out steel. She knows how to lead soldiers in combat and bring them safely home.
As these two warriors clash over what it means to be a leader, they’ll cross the line between officer and enlisted. And the fallout could be more than either of them are prepared to face.
Lieutenant Sal Bello stood at the edge of the t-wall barrier and watched the sun sink below the cement barricades that were the only thing protecting his tiny little outpost from the wild west of Fallujah and the men who wanted to slit their throats.
Beside him, his platoon sergeant, Sarn’t Louis Delgado spat into the dirt. “This has got to be the dumbest fucking thing we’ve ever done.”
“Mutiny isn’t really on the menu of options right now,” Sal said. He wasn’t sure how he felt about his new platoon sergeant. Delgado had been on the job a week. A week since his old platoon sergeant Murph had been evac’d back to the States for a ruptured appendix of all things.
Delgado made a noise. “So we’re just sitting here, waiting for what?”
“For orders from higher.”
Another noise followed by a thick silence. Sal flipped his father’s lighter through his fingers, the metal hot from being tucked in his pocket and the hundred plus-degree heat.
Lieutenant Sal Bello closed his fist around the lighter, concealing it from his platoon sergeant. “Nothing.”
He couldn’t say why he carried his father’s lighter with him to war beyond the fact that his mother had asked him to take it. Maybe it would bring him more luck than it had brought his father.
But he wasn’t comfortable sharing his mother’s superstition with his new platoon sergeant. It felt weird to think about his mother when he hadn’t eaten a solid meal in four days and his MRE crackers were running thin.
The adhan rang out over the cement barriers. Sal stiffened, holding his breath until the last note of the call to prayer echoed over the city and the inhabitants that were just waiting for the opportunity to slit an American throat or two.
He couldn’t say he blamed them. He’d be ready to fight if an invading army took up residence in his hometown.
There was a sudden burst of energy from the tiny gate where their one Humvee provided heavy weapons coverage down the main avenue of approach. He frowned, then walked toward the truck to listen to the radio chatter.
“Roger, Warhorse Main.” Private Baggins finished scribbling his note as Sal walked up. “Sir, we’ve got to send in accountability of all our boys.”
Sal paused, a sick feeling unfurled in his gut. “Didn’t we just do that?”
Baggins nodded as he pulled out a granola bar. Damned hobbit always had food stashed. “We’ve got two guys missing over in Second Platoon’s AO, sir.”
The radio crackled again. Delgado leaned on the door of the truck. Sal’s skin was slick and cold as the command post sent orders to secure the area and started mustering troops to start the search for their missing boys.
He grabbed the hand mike from Baggins. “Warhorse Main, this is Chaos Blue. We’re close to the area. We can secure the main approach.”
“Negative, Chaos Blue.”
“Warhorse Main, I say again, we are the closest element to the objective.”
“Stand down, Chaos Blue. Your mission is to hold your position.”
He looked at his platoon sergeant. Delgado met his eyes and said nothing.
“We’re missing two of our boys.” The lighter was hot in his hand, heavy as lead.
He looked down at the inscription. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
He looked back at his platoon sergeant. It burned in his belly to be told to stand down when they were literally two blocks from where the soldiers had been taken.
Delgado pulled the charging handle on his weapon and released it, loading a round into the chamber. “You’re talking about mutiny, sir. At the very least, disobeying a superior officer in a time of war.”
He didn’t know who was missing. He’d find out later. All that mattered was that someone from their formation was gone. Most likely taken. And if they didn’t move fast, they were going to have a repeat of the bridge in Fallujah where the insurgents burned the Blackwater contractors.
Over Sal’s dead body.
He looked up at his platoon sergeant.
“We’re going.” There was steel in his voice.
A slow smile spread across Delgado’s face. “Roger that, sir.”
He looked down at the lighter once more. For I am the meanest motherfucker in the valley.
He wasn’t supposed to hate the enemy. He was supposed to be here winning the hearts and minds.
But that kind of thinking got men killed. And Sal had little room in his heart for anything else. Hate was easy. Hate was power.
Hate wrapped around his heart and coated it in fire and steel and kept him from thinking about the families that lived in the neighborhood or the fathers that would likely die because of merely being in the wrong place and wrong time.
And as they rolled off their base toward the checkpoint where their boys had been snatched, rage toward the whole stupid, pointless war burned itself into the fiber of who he was.
Four years later
Captain Sal Bello sat in command and staff, his fingers seeking out the lighter in his pocket, and wondered when the meeting from hell was going to be over. The sergeant major’s voice was distant and far off. Sal struggled to pay attention. Something about missed appointments and too many soldiers on sick call.
Sal would have given anything for his first sergeant to be in this meeting instead of Sal, but Delgado was picking one of their superstars up from jail. Again.
And damn it if it wasn’t one of the platoon sergeants this time. For some stupid incident at a bar last night. Pizzaro was pretty much on his last leg with Sal, but Delgado was determined to convince him Pizzaro was just going through a bad spot since his divorce had been finalized last week.
Delgado always had Sal’s back. If he said Pizzaro was going through a rough spot, then that’s what it was.
He just wished this meeting would end so he could be done dealing with this stupidity and get back to what was really important.
Training his men for war.
The lighter was smooth and warm beneath his fingers. It calmed him. Gave him patience for the bullshit that garrison life involved. Crap like these meetings, where they went over every single missed appointment instead of training men to put rounds on target.
Half the time, Sal felt like he wasn’t even in command. He just sat in meetings all day.
Because that was what God had intended for him, right? He was a warrior, not a personal assistant. If someone couldn’t make it to a appointment, why was that Sal’s problem?
Sal paused where he was turning the lighter over in his hand. “Sir.”
Lieutenant Colonel Gilliad’s voice penetrated Sal’s focus on the lighter. “What was my guidance regarding missed appointments?”
Sal ground his teeth and refused to look up at his battalion commander. Sal’s body language was borderline disrespectful but Sal was just about out of fucks to give. And that was saying something considering he’d been in command for less than ninety days. “That if we have any more missed appointments, we’re going to have to personally explain each and every one to the brigade commander.”
It burned on a fundamental level that as a company commander, a man who was supposed to be a leader of men, he was reduced to little more than glorified babysitting in garrison life.
They should be on the range, blowing shit up. Learning how to control hallways and buildings with two- to four-man teams.
But they couldn’t even get to the goddamned doctor’s office on their own.
Sal ached for the war. The simplicity of it. The madness and the dirt and the evil chaos.
It was at least a devil he knew. This garrison life…he didn’t know how to do this.
“You disagree with my guidance, captain?” Gilliad asked.
For a brief instant, Sal imagined there was a good angel on one shoulder that slapped her hand over his mouth and kept him from speaking.
But the devil on the other shoulder shot her before she ever lifted her hand.
“Yes, sir, I do.” Sal finally looked at his battalion commander. “Sir, we’re wasting our time with this stupidity. Appointments? Really? Next thing, you’re going to tell me that someone won’t deploy if they don’t have their government travel card.”
Gilliad’s eye twitched. Beside him, Sarn’t Major Cox looked like he wanted to throttle someone. Probably Sal.
Silence ticked by. Another moment and an uncomfortable cough from one of the lieutenants who worked in operations.
The lighter in his hand was smooth and warm. The letters reminded him of what he was. And what he wasn’t.
Finally, LTC Gilliad spoke and the calm in his voice was razor thin. “While I appreciate your candor, Captain Bello, it behooves you to remember rule number one in this battalion.”
Sal knew rule number one all too well. Do what the boss tells you. Sal ran his thumb over the well-worn words engraved into the stainless steel in his palm. “Roger that, sir,” was all he said.
The meeting continued dragging on as LTC Gilliad went up one side of Headquarters Company for having the worst stats in the battalion. Sal almost felt sorry for Captain Martini but then he remembered all the reasons why he hated officers like Martini.
And no, hate wasn’t too strong a word.
Officers like Martini lived inside the lines. They didn’t wipe their ass without first checking it with the boss. Even when his first sergeant was arrested, Martini refused to color outside the lines.
The meeting was almost over. He just had to keep his mouth shut for a few more minutes. Sal turned the lighter in his hand, focusing on the strength in the words etched beneath his fingertips.
They all stood when the boss left the room and Sal was halfway down the hall before he could no longer pretend he didn’t hear Sarn’t Major Cox calling his name.
He closed his eyes and stopped.
Because of all the senior leaders in the battalion, Cox was the one person Sal actually respected.
And that was a rare, rare thing these days.
“Walk with me, sir,” Cox said, falling into step with him.
So Sal walked.
Because good NCOs were next to God and even wiseass captains with bad tempers listened to them if they were smart.
They stepped outside into the brilliant Fort Hood morning sunlight. It was blinding, reflecting off Cooper Field across the street at the Division Headquarters.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Sal had been around long enough that he knew Cox would speak when he was ready.
Cox sighed heavily. But he shocked the hell out of Sal when he reached out and gripped his shoulder. “I’m not sure what your malfunction is, sir, but I strongly recommend you figure it out. Go to therapy, start drinking. Get a puppy. Something. The boss is losing his patience with you.”
“Roger, sarn’t major.” He really wasn’t in the mood for a pep talk about getting his attitude in check. He knew this already. Hell, everyone knew this.
He just didn’t care. He was tired of dealing with all the drama of garrison life. He was not a counselor. He was not a divorce attorney and he damn sure wasn’t a personal finance manager. And yet, garrison life seemed to assume that he was all of those things.
Sal frowned. “Picking up Pizzaro from jail.”
Sal bit back a smart-ass reply. “Roger that, sarn’t major.”
“And how long before I see that packet on my desk?”
Sal stiffened. He’d been waiting for this conversation. Hoping to avoid it, honestly. He had misgivings about Pizzaro but Delgado wasn’t wrong. “I need platoon sergeants, Sarn’t Major. I can’t have lieutenants running around Fort Hood unsupervised. God only knows what trouble they’ll get into.”
“Partying isn’t the problem, commander, and I think you know that. It’s the getting arrested part that’s causing problems.” Cox let the silence hang.
Sal finally couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “Sarn’t Major, you know this is bullshit, right? We’re wasting time in meetings over missed appointments and you’re busting my balls over one of my platoon sergeants in a bar fight?”
“Captain Bello, I like you. But if you don’t figure out really quick that there is more to commanding soldiers than teaching them to shoot a motherfucker in the face, you’re not going to be commanding soldiers very long.”
“What else is there?” Sal asked. Yeah, he was feeling belligerent. He hated the idea of having to break in a new first sergeant and he damn sure didn’t like feeling as though this was going to be a permanent change instead of a temporary one.
“Leadership is about preparing your men for war.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, Sarn’t Major. That’s why I need men like Pizzaro on this next deployment.”
“I’m not going to tell you how to run your company, sir, but I think you need to take another look at what’s happening inside your formation. Pizzaro is a symptom of a larger problem.” Cox jammed his finger in Sal’s general direction. “If you want to take these boys downrange, get on board with what the boss wants. You might command your men but don’t forget that your job is to execute his commands. That’s the way the army works, son.”
Sal slipped his hand into his pocket and felt the cold comfort of the worn out steel lighter.
It reminded him of what he was.
And what he wasn’t.
And reminded him that men like Cox, men who understood what the war would demand of them, were rare. They were not the enemy.
First Sergeant Holly Washington knocked on the battalion sergeant major’s door. Her stomach was in knots but not because she was afraid of him.
No, it was something much more personal.
She’d served with Sarn’t Major Cox many moons ago. And today, standing outside his office, the memories were piling up, beating against the wall she’d carefully constructed to keep them at bay.
One day they were going to break free and she was going to have to have a come-to-Jesus with her past.
But today was not that day.
“Get your sorry ass in here, First Sergeant,” came Cox’s reply.
She sucked in a deep, bracing breath and stepped into his office.
He’d aged. It had been almost ten years since she’d seen him last. His hair, what was left of it, was whiter now, graying at the temples. His face more lined and darker from the sun.
But his eyes. His eyes were still the same. Glittering and dark and filled with an intensity that most people found downright terrifying.
She had been one of those people, once upon a time.
Until the night her world had gone to hell and the only person standing by her side when the debris had been cleared was then First Sergeant Cox.
He ignored her. Kept typing whatever he’d been working on before she stepped into the office.
She didn’t move. Not one inch.
Finally he removed his hand from the keyboard and clicked the mouse. “Close the damn door.”
She kicked it shut with her boot.
And found herself buried in an enthusiastic hug that lifted her off the ground and crushed the air from her lungs.
But it did nothing to tear away the smile that spread across her mouth.
“Holy shit it’s good to see you, kid,” he said when he finally put her down. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Good to see you, Sarn’t Major,” she said. And it was. Too damn good.
“Really glad you told me you were coming here,” he said after a while. “Sit down, tell me about things. You in-processed?”
“Out at Stillhouse.”
She braced for the inevitable family question and was grateful, so damned grateful when he skipped it.
He remembered. He knew.
And he was as good a man as she remembered for not bringing it up.
“Well, I’ve got a hell of a job for you.”
“So I gathered from your e-mail,” she said, sitting on the small, dingy couch in his office. “You know I like a challenge.”
“Oh, you’re about to get the challenge of a lifetime,” he said, and his grin was pure evil in the way that only a sergeant major’s could be. “You’re taking my support company. The support battalion still can’t seem to find me some leadership so I’m finding my own.”
“I thought we were friends,” she said dryly. Support companies had a dangerous mission no matter where they were in country. They were always on the roads, making sure the front line fighters had the beans, bullets, and bandages they needed to keep fighting.
They also came with their fair share of problem soldiers.
He shook his head. “I wanted you in my ops cell but I need your ass in one of the line companies.” He leaned forward, his expression shifting. “I had a first sergeant arrested a couple of weeks ago for threatening to kill his kid. Another one just had a heart attack.”
“Sounds like you’ve been having a blast,” she mumbled.
“Never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure.”
Holly nodded and said nothing, the situation hitting far too close to home.
“Anyway, you’re going to have your hands full. You’re my senior first sergeant now that Sorren went and had a heart attack.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure the boys are just going to love that.” She didn’t try to restrain her sarcasm. Not around Cox.
“You’re probably going to get into a dick-measuring contest on day one but it’s nothing you’re not used to.”
Holly raised both eyebrows and smirked. “I think I’m offended.”
“No you’re not,” Cox said. And he wasn’t wrong. She’d known him too long. And more importantly, he’d known her too long. He knew exactly what she was likely to do when someone tried to break bad with her.
It was always fun to watch the shock when the guys realized she wasn’t going to take their shit.
“Anyway, I need your help. The other first sergeants can’t seem to get their legal packets done. I need you to help me there. We’ve got some real pieces of work that I need out of my Army.”
Holly shook her head. “I think I’m supposed to have some obligatory remark about how you’re being sexist by assigning me to work on paperwork.”
He flipped her off and she almost choked on the laugh. “God, it’s good to see you,” she said when she stopped laughing.
“And you know why I need your help. We’ve got to clear out the formation. And I think Delgado in Diablo Company is deliberately shielding his men.”
Holly lifted one eyebrow and fought the wave of anger that rose quickly from the dark recesses of her memory. She was used to the feeling. It was her constant companion these days, as the officers around her seemed to care more about numbers than the men and women they led.
And that caring meant putting bad soldiers out of the force. Soldiers who could not or would not soldier needed to find another job.
“Do you need proof?”
“I need the packets done, Holly. We’ve already fired the entire chain of command in every company. We’re going to war with the Army we have. We’ve got to make the best of it.”
Holly nodded and folded her hands together, leaning forward. “So are any of the commanders worth a damn?”
“You’re going to have fun with Diablo Company. Bello is a loose cannon depending on what day of the week it is. He’s chafing under garrison life and the way the commander wants to run things. And his first sergeant…I’m not sure I trust Delgado.”
“And you can’t fire him, huh?”
Holly couldn’t help the wry look that she knew called bullshit on Cox’s statement. He didn’t miss it because a slow flush crept up his neck as he laughed.
“Nice,” she said.
“I need your help with Delgado and Diablo Company. Captain Bello thinks his first sergeant is right about everything; he doesn’t listen to but a very few people. And he’s got some baggage.”
“Don’t we all?”
“His is a little unique. Ask him about it sometime.”
Holly sighed. She loved Sarn’t Major Cox like a father but the man really liked putting her in tough situations. “Couldn’t you just tell me and be a pal?”
Cox shook his head. “Nah. What would the fun be in that? I’m going to love watching you put him in his place.”
“I shall endeavor to make a scene, if only for your enjoyment, Sarn’t Major. But understanding his psychological trauma and hang ups doesn’t affect whether or not I get to do my job.”
Cox didn’t smile. Instead his mouth got that twisted half grin that told Holly she was already in over her head. The only question was how deep.
“You’re not going to tell me about this guy, are you?”
“I think Sal Bello is someone you have to experience for yourself,” he said.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, Sarn’t Major. You need me to run two companies with one potentially crazy-eyed captain, I’ll do it. But only because it’s you asking me to,” she added after a moment.
“I knew you’d be a sport.”
“How much am I going to regret what you just signed me up for?”
“Not sure. But it’s going to be fun to watch. I’ve wanted to see you in action since I first found out you got promoted.”
“I live to keep you entertained.” She stood, recognizing the gauntlet for what it was and started toward the door.
Cox may have been there when her life had gone to hell but he’d never babied her. He’d never held her to a lesser standard. He’d pushed her harder after that night. Never let her quit even when she wanted to.
She turned back to face him, bracing for his next words.
“I’m glad you didn’t let the son of a bitch win,” he said quietly. “We need leaders like you. Now more than ever.”
Her throat tightened and she nodded briefly. “That’s why I’m here,” was all she could manage.
Jessica Scott is an Iraq war veteran, an active duty army officer and the USA Today bestselling author of novels set in the heart of America’s Army. She is the mother of two daughters, three cats and three dogs, and wife to a retired NCO.
She’s also written for the New York Times At War Blog, PBS Point of View Regarding War, and IAVA. She deployed to Iraq in 2009 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)/New Dawn and has had the honor of serving as a company commander at Fort Hood, Texas twice.
She’s holds phd in morality in Sociology with Duke University and she’s been featured as one of Esquire Magazine’s Americans of the Year for 2012.
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