"No, no, no," Sara Franklin yelled. "No more military here." Five men covered in green and yellow camouflage carrying guns and other means of destruction were getting out of the army truck that had pulled into her village moments ago. She intercepted the one who seemed to be the leader as he headed toward the village elders.
"I don't know who you people are, but I made it clear the last time that there would be no more military welcome here. Your presence is putting these people at risk."
The leader was a very tall and muscular African American man, but Sara wasn't about to be intimidated by his size even when he looked down at her and calmly said, "Mam, it's your village's proximity to the North Korean border that puts you at risk, not us. We will be in and out before you know it." He turned his back toward her and continued helping his men unload the truck. She had been dismissed.
Fuming was getting her nowhere. Just as she decided to confront the leader again, Chi Fung came up beside her and gently put his hand on her shoulder.
"Stop," said the village elder in Korean. "You are being rude to our guests. Offer them food and invite them to spend the night."
By now, most of the villagers had heard Sara yelling and were gathering in the middle of the village to see what was going on. Usually she appreciated their passive nature, but she just didn't understand why the people of the village couldn't see the danger that American military could bring down on them.
"We can't have them here…" she started, but the frail old man who was a father figure to all those in the village put both hands on her arms and turned her around toward the men.
"Go, invite them to sit with us and eat," he said firmly.
Throwing up her hands, she reluctantly stomped like a petulant child to the truck.
"Fiery little thing isn't she?" said Hector Williams, an African American with the heart of a warrior and the soul of a healer, as he unloaded the pack he would have to carry across the border on his back.
As he pulled his own pack off the truck, Bob Brown said, "Oh, you know these missionary types. They take their work pretty seriously, so they can be kind of touchy." Bob looked like he came right out of an Ivy League school, but his constitution was that of a hardened veteran.
Mack Gerhardt, second in command, was inspecting the contents of his pack to make sure he had included at least two knives along with his pistol, medical supplies and food. Their trip into North Korea was going to be an arduous one. "Well, she can be touchy with me any way she wants," he said with a little southern twang in his voice. "Her picture in our briefing didn't do her justice, did it Betty Blue?"
Betty Blue was Charles Grey's code sign. For safety reasons, these men would all have to use code signs until they finished their mission.
Charlie remembered the briefing that they'd had back at Fort Griffith. Colonel Ryan, their commander, had told them that the female missionary living in the village was hostile toward the military, but he still thought, if push came to shove, she would be cooperative and help them achieve their mission objectives. Charlie did remember her picture; long blonde hair, blue eyes, pretty face, nice legs. Mack was right. Her picture didn't do her justice.
"Dude, I've got a 5x7 in my wallet," Charlie joked as he drug his pack off the truck.
"Cool Breeze, secure the packs," ordered Jonas Blane, leader of this special forces team simply called "The Unit."
"Consider it done, Snake Doc," said Bob whose call sign was Cool Breeze.
"The villagers have offered us food and a place to rest before we head north. I suggest we take them up on their offer."
"I bet the little spit fire didn't like that," injected Mack.
Jonas replied, "She was none to happy, especially since she was the one who had to relay their offer." He laughed, but then added, "According to her background info., she is not only fluent in Korean, but she also understands all of the local dialects. We may need her on our side before we're finished here. Who wants to have a talk with her about her attitude regarding the military?"
The villagers were simple people dressed in a mixture of traditional and modern clothes all worn from heavy use. The housing styles were just as mixed as the clothing. Even though their resources were meager, the villagers set out a spread of food that would have fed an army of many more than five men. Outside in the middle of the village, rickety tables were set up with odd and end chairs of all sizes. Bowls and utensils also came in a variety of patterns and shapes. Sara couldn't stand to watch so much of the rice, beans, and barley that they had grown and harvested being wasted on a group of military men who would hardly appreciate it.
She started mumbling to herself, "Idiots, don't care about anything. Nobody understands the problems they bring. Why here?"
Her ranting and rambling continued as she sat down in the quiet garden that marked the northern edge of the village and stared up at the stars that were sparkling in the inky black sky.
"The answers ain't up there," said Charlie as he came up behind her.
She sprang from her seat, "What?"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I just said that the answers you're looking for ain't up there." He sat down next to her and pointed to the night sky.
She sat back on the rock and leaned up against a tree. "How would you know?"
"Never found any there before."
She ignored his answer and said, "So you've been sent as peacemaker?"
"Oh, a martyr, then?" she quipped. "And you didn't even bring any weapons."
His only reply was a smile framed with dimples which tugged at her insides. Curly dark hair, close cropped beard, just a bit taller than she was, all those things she'd noticed before when he was unloading the truck, but now she saw his eyes, dark, expressive. They held promises and secrets which drew her to him even more than his dimpled smile. Oh, no, Sara, she thought to herself. Keep your distance from this one.
"So which one are you: Dirty Dunker, Hammer Heart, or maybe Snake Oil?"
With a little chuckle, he said, "I think you mean Dirt Diver, Hammerhead, or Snake Doc." He didn't tell her that those were Mack's, Hector's, and Jonas's code signs. "I'm Betty Blue."
"Are these names for grown-ups?" she asked. When he didn't answer, she said, "I can't call you Betty, unless you've had a sex change operation that doesn't show, so what about Blue?"
He grinned, "Blue it is."
He had lied to her. He hadn't volunteered. Hell, he hadn't even wanted to talk to her. She wasn't his type, but Jonas had ordered him to get her cooperation, so he was doing his best to win her over. She didn't seem to mind his attention. In fact, she seemed to be enjoying it. In Colonel Ryan's briefing, he'd said that she had been living in this village for seven years. Most of the men in the village were older, so she was probably happy to have the attention of a male her own age. He would use this and whatever means necessary to complete this part of the mission. For him, though, there could be no distractions. Just like all their missions, this one was too important.
"You probably haven't had much fresh water in a while," he said and offered her a drink from his canteen.
She took a sip. It wasn't cold, but it was cool, and she felt it go all the way down her throat. "Thanks, it is good."
"How did you end up here?" Charlie asked.
"I'm sure you were given some kind of background information on me. That's how it works, isn't it?" she questioned.
"I want the unpublished version."
"My parents were killed on a mission in North Africa when I was twelve. I was tossed around from family to family in our church until I was eighteen when I accepted a mission to this village."
He shook his head.
"Oh all right," she sighed, "My parents considered me little more than a nuisance that took them away from their missionary work, so naturally I hated what they did. As I got older, I realized that they were using Christianity as a price tag in exchange for aid. That's what got them killed. When I arrived here, I shared Christianity as one religion among many. The money that I was given was supposed to be used to build a Christian church, but I used all of it to hire a civil engineer to help develop an irrigation system. Because of that, I lost my mission and the funds that went with it."
"But you stayed here because these people had become your family and this village was the only stable home you'd ever known."
"You're very perceptive," she said. "What's your story, Blue? Oh, wait a minute. If you can't even tell me your real name, I don't suppose you can tell me anything about yourself, can you?"
Instead of answering her question, he said, "I admire the work you've done here."
"Thanks," she said. This was getting way too personal. Keep your distance, remember, Sara.
"It's getting late, and I suppose you have 'things' you should be doing," she said.
They got up and started walking around the outskirts of the village. Because of his training and instincts, Charlie naturally noticed entrance and exit routes, access to facilities, and places where an intruder might hide. As they walked, he was scanning the village to see if anything seemed out of place or if there were people who didn't belong.
"I can tell you that Snake Doc was right. You're too close to the border. You should encourage the villagers to move to a new location. "
Her first instinct was to be angry. Who was he to tell her what to do about village business? When she looked in his eyes; however, she could see that he was really concerned. She was touched.
"All right, I'll take it up with the elders."
"No argument, no discussion?" he asked. "What happened to the angry woman who hated the military?"
"I can agree with the military when the military makes sense," she said.
And there it was. He had done what he set out to do. He smiled and nodded.
"This is my hut," she said. He took that as an invitation to follow her in, but she flattened her hand onto his chest. "You may be charming, but not that charming, Mr. Blue." She leaned against him and gave him a little kiss on the cheek. "I'm not that naïve; I understand what you were doing, but as a peacemaker, you did pretty well."
This woman was full of surprises, so he decided to give her one in return. Before she could get away, he tugged on her arm and pulled her close enough to kiss her gently on the lips. The expression on her face was priceless.
In his earpiece, Charlie heard Jonas's voice, "Betty Blue, time to get a move on."
"I've gotta go. Take care of yourself, Sara," he said and ran off to join the other men as they were putting on their packs and preparing to take off into the night.
They had been hiking at a pretty fast clip. The little known hidden tunnel that went under the demilitarized zone wasn't far now. Jonas called for a short water break and they were all sipping from their canteens on bent knees.
"So was she as hot close up as she looked from far away?" Mack asked.
"What?" Charlie stalled.
"Oh come on, Betty Blue," Bob pleaded. "Give us some details to get us through the rest of this hike."
Charlie looked to his best friend, Hector, for some support, but he just smiled. "We all saw you outside the hut," he said.
"Water break over," Jonas said. "Let's get a move on. We've got a mission to complete, gentlemen. Let's keep our minds focused on that…, but when we get home, Betty Blue can tell us all about his position on the missionary."
Charlie rolled his eyes, but the rest of them laughed. It was the last words they spoke to one another until they completed their mission.
Sara was restless. Images clouded her mind, blurry images of her and Blue in her bed… together, moving in rhythm, bodies intertwined.
She woke in a sweat. The humidity was stifling. The outside at least promised fresher air, so she wandered over to the garden where she had sat with Blue the night before. Chi Fung was there looking up at the sky as she had done only a few hours ago.
"You could not sleep," Chi Fung said in his native tongue.
"You couldn't either," Sara replied.
"You like him, do you not?"
He didn't have to tell her who he meant. When she started to protest he threw up his hands, "Do not bother to argue. I saw you talking to him. Many of us did."
"Were you offended by what you saw?" she asked.
"You misunderstand my concern. You have been with us for many years. I think it may be time for you to return to your homeland."
"You have been more of a father to me than mine ever was. This is my home. All of you are my family. There is nothing for me in America."
"Are you sure?" he asked as he got up and walked back to his home.
They'd made it through the tunnel without incident and arrived at their target on schedule. A North Korean scientist, Dr. Tak Chung-Hee, was working on a nuclear development project in one of the southernmost regions of North Korea. Jonas and Bob would kidnap the doctor. Charlie and Hector would set explosives to destroy the lab where he was working. Mack would be on over-watch to make sure everything went as planned. The timing of the mission was perfect because most of the personnel at the facility, including the guards, would be home with families celebrating the Seol-nal or Lunar New Year.
Using hand signals, Jonas sent Charlie and Hector down to the lab first to set the explosives. Each member of the team had multiple specialties. Charlie had studied physics, circuitry, and weaponry. He knew just about everything there was to know about explosives, so Hector followed his lead. Jonas and Bob went into action when they saw the doctor come outside to take a smoke. They would rendezvous back at the village where their mission had begun.
Sara was on her way back to her home from the evening meal when she saw three men enter the village from the north dragging a fourth along with them. Sara held her breath as one by one, she identified the members of the military team that had been there the night before. Two of them were missing.
"Where are Betty Blue and Hammerhead?" she whispered.
They looked at each other for a moment before Mack answered, "We separated during the mission, but they're fine. They'll just have to catch up with us."
When she looked at their faces, Sara could tell that they were worried. They didn't know where the other two were. Could they have been captured, or worse, were they already dead?
"Betty Blue is the only one of us who speaks Korean. We need for you to translate what this man says," Jonas said.
When she didn't answer, he said, "Do you understand? We need for you to translate."
She did understand. They were talking about the fourth man, the Korean man, the one they'd been dragging with them when they arrived back in the village. This man was their mission, and Blue might have been killed trying to complete it.
"Yes, yes, I understand, and I'll help you."
The commotion had woken many of the villagers. Sara told them to remain calm and return to their huts.
"Now, who is this man and, and what do you need to ask him?" she said.
By the time she had asked all of their questions and translated the answers, she figured out what their mission had been. It scared her. Dr. Tak Chung-Hee was a nuclear scientist. What damage could he have done here and around the world if he'd been allowed to stay in North Korea? She now had a better idea of what the military was trying to accomplish here.
"How long before the others come back?" she asked Jonas.
"It shouldn't be too much longer," but the pacing he'd done during the last half hour contradicted that answer.
She went back to the garden where she and Blue had sat and talked just hours before. It was nighttime again, and she couldn't help but look up at the stars. Blue was right. There were no answers there. Her Christian background kicked in at that moment, and she began to pray.
"How much further?" Hector asked.
"Mile or so," Charlie answered. "How's our time?"
"You worried we'll miss the extraction or the girl?"
They were heading back to the village, their rendezvous point. It had taken longer than expected to set the charges, and they had almost been caught.
"There it is," Hector pointed, "just over that ridge."
As they got closer, Blue could see Sara sitting in that same damn garden. She was leaning against a tree and was asleep.
"Come on, Betty Blue," said Hector, "We don't have time for this."
"Tell Snake Doc I'll be there in a minute," Charlie said as he put down his gear and sat down next to her.
Hector pointed at his watch.
"Yea, yea," Charlie said, "a minute."
When Hector left, Charlie turned and saw that Sara was awake. She seemed so relieved. He put his arms around her and pulled her close.
"Are you all right?" she said in a shaky voice.
Instead of answering, he said, "I have to leave."
He intended for his kiss to be a gentle good bye, and that was how it started, but when he felt its punch deep in his gut like the backlash from an explosion, he bumped up the intensity. More, damn it, he wanted more, but there wasn't time.
The truck was loaded. The doctor was settled and ready for transport to meet the troops that would be waiting for them at their plane.
"Hammerhead, where's Betty Blue?" asked Jonas.
"Ummm." He pointed in the direction of where he'd left Charlie.
"Should have known," said Jonas. "Hammerhead, go get Lover Boy, so we can leave."
She'd never been kissed like this before. One of his hands was in her hair and the other was pressed against her bare back under her shirt. Her head was spinning and her body was hypersensitive, but all too soon, it was over.
Hector cleared his throat, "Lover Boy… I mean… Betty Blue, Snake Doc says it's time to go."
Charlie looked up and saw Hector waiting for him. Sara's cheeks were an attractive shade of pink.
With gear in hand, he said, "Remember, move your village. It isn't safe here anymore. Promise me."
"I'll make sure it gets done soon," she said.
"Soon," he repeated. "Good luck, Sara."
"Be safe, Blue." She watched as the truck pulled away.
She touched her lips with her fingertips where just a few moments before he had been kissing her. "Be safe."
After a bumpy helicopter ride, they arrived at the airfield where their plane was waiting. They handed over the doctor to United Nations troops and took off for home.
It didn't take long for the questions to begin.
"Okay, give it up, Man. What happened with the girl?" asked Mack.
"You saw most of it," Charlie said as he examined some of his gear.
"What didn't we see?" said Bob.
There was a long pause before he said, "Dude, she was waiting for me."
That wasn't enough for Bob or Mack. "What do you mean, waiting?" Bob said.
He sat up. "Both of you and Jonas are so damn lucky."
Jonas interrupted, "Hey, don't bring me into this."
Charlie continued, "You have these beautiful, strong women waiting to welcome you home after every mission. There hasn't been a woman waiting up for me, worrying about me since my mother died. Sara was waiting for me."
"So why didn't you do something about it?" asked Mack.
Charlie had been wondering the same thing. He got up and walked to the seats at the back of the plane where he could be alone for a while.