After-Action Report

by Aadler
Copyright October 2009


Dedicated to my sweet wife, who loves All Things Thomas.


Rank has its privileges, in the Corps just as much as in any other organization. Buck Greene was fundamentally leery of privileges, earned or not; there was always the chance they might make a man soft, or distract him from the essentials. Living in Hawaii was a special kind of purgatory for someone who tried always to keep himself toughened to the hardships a fighting man has to be ready to endure without notice. Buck Greene did a forced march of at least five miles every damn day, even when he had to do without sleep to find the time, and used a random system to toss out unpredictable combinations of load, terrain, time, distance, to keep from settling into anything that might resemble a comfortable routine. It was never enough. Start at 0300, navigate three miles of mountains and tropical growth with a full ruck and only one boot (the 'bitch factor' that his system tagged him with at irregular intervals), and finish the last two at a hard pace over broken lava fields … and still the sun would come up over the ocean and the morning breeze would be as cool and soft as a mama-san's fingertips, and the whole business would feel like a vacation.

Christ. Vacation.

Assignment in Hawaii wasn't a privilege, it was a danger Buck had resisted as far as he could without disobeying orders or forsaking his duty. Then he had taken it, because it had to be done, and if you were going to stick a Marine in paradise, it might as well be the sourest, toughest, most pitiless sonofabitch on the face of the earth. That might not be Buck — he'd fought against and alongside some pretty nasty customers in his day — but he was for damn sure no further back than third place.

There were some privileges he didn't dodge, though. Operating at his level meant he regularly had a ton of paperwork shoveled at him, but it also meant he had a staff to handle the majority of it, and even an aide who could (and did) sign Buck's name to ninety per cent of what remained. It was an indulgence, and Buck hated to grant himself any kind of indulgence, but this one allowed him to devote himself to carrying out the tasks that aren't spelled out in any manual.

Sometimes, however, the paperwork couldn't be avoided. Sometimes there were things that only he could say, or even see well enough to know what needed to be said.

He had already made out his formal report. It would do no good, he knew that already. He'd screwed the pooch so completely on this operation, he ought to be in the stockade for animal abuse, and he'd said as much, laying out the details of where and why and just how much. He had known while he was doing it that the whole thing was wasted effort. Generals, admirals, deputy directors, they were all the same: try to weasel around them and they'd nail your hide to the wall, but give them chapter and verse on exactly how you'd mucked everything up, and they'd nod and dismiss you and file it away. All they really cared about were the results, and Buck always delivered the results.

Even this time, when it had worked out in spite of his efforts rather than because of them. Hell, if anybody else had perpetrated a balls-up like this, Buck would have bounced him clear out of the service, assuming he didn't just throttle the sorry bastard on the spot. As it was, there was nobody except Buck himself to hold him to account, and somehow it was worse that only he could recognize the true extent of his failure.

The most vital task of his entire career had been decided, in the end, by luck, or perhaps by something even more tenuous. Never mind that it had come out right: he had failed.

And, since nobody else could really appreciate that fact, he would just have to be that much more merciless in his own personal post-mortem. He might face no further penalty, but he would at least catalogue every last aspect of this debacle, if only to see that no part of it was ever repeated.

With a pencil (plain wood, and Buck did his own sharpening), he wrote out three names on a lined sheet of paper. That was the crux of it: he had misjudged three people, each more badly than the one before, each unforced error spilling into the next to loose an avalanche of catastrophe. Any one would have been a black mark in his personal accounting; together, they formed something that went beyond unforgivable.

He studied the list, giving each line the total force of his ferocious concentration.

Quang Ki, People's Army of Vietnam. Ethnic Chinese (you could tell as much from the name, even if the full dossier hadn't been in Buck's files), which made it all the more remarkable that the insular, paranoid Vietnamese had allowed him to progress so far in any position of responsibility, no matter how many generations of his family had lived in the country. At the exchange site, he had worn the uniform provided by his compatriots in the People's Army, and the gold star — without epaulet stripes — meant Major General. Ki was in their espionage service, of course, so the rank was unlikely to be accurate. The real measure of his value had been in what they had been willing to trade for him.

Quang Ki. Spy, murderer, trading piece. Guilty. And alive, because he was a valuable trading piece.

And one other word added to the description: amateur.

That was the part Buck had missed. It had been there to see, in the way Ki had gone about his revenge quest. Not coming to the islands to take care of his own business, no, Buck would have done as much himself, but the way he had let his needs overrule his goals. He'd had to be there. He'd had to be where Magnum could see him when the blow fell, so Magnum would know who and why. He'd started out right, Quang Ki had, going in with a team and weapons and the placement of assets to herd his target into the kill-zone … but at the end, he'd backed away, given Magnum a chance to recover so that he could administer the blow personally. He hadn't been able to resist turning a straightforward task into something else: man-to-man, hand-to-hand, up close and personal. It hadn't been enough for him to kill his enemy, he'd had to beat him, and to give him time to realize how thoroughly he'd been beaten.

Amateur.

Man-to-man, only Magnum had been the better man. Letting himself be ruled by feelings, except the force Magnum drew from his feelings was greater. Quang Ki could have won — hell, he had won — but he'd thrown it away in his lust for personal victory. For satisfaction.

If Buck ever set himself to take out Quang Ki (or Magnum), he'd do it with a tap to the back of the head, from concealment, at enough distance that the bullet would arrive well before the sound of the shot. Because that was how a professional handled things, and satisfaction be damned.

So: Quang Ki's weakness, and Buck had seen it and misread it. He had given the orders to move the Hue woman and her daughter, anticipating that Ki might be damn-fool enough to go after them again once he was free. He had failed to consider that the man could be so stupid, so unprofessional, such a total goddamn amateur, as to arrange the hit before the exchange, endangering his release for no real gain, no purpose except to hurt Magnum by killing someone dear to him.

If Ki's people had any sense at all (and quite a few of them had quite a bit of it), they'd never again trust him with anything important. Once a seeming heavyweight, he had shown himself to be irredeemably bush-league. It wasn't impossible that they had wanted to get him back before he could somehow damage the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the process of his self-destruction.

If that was their aim, they had achieved it. Quang Ki had looked at the waiting chopper, and back at Buck, and it was there in his eyes: You would kill me if you could, but you are helpless. I and my masters are too clever, while you and yours are too soft. That is why we will always win. Buck could have told him better — I had a job to do, and I've done it. If you leave here alive, it's because I'm a hell of a lot better at what I do than you'll ever be. — but there had been no profit in that. Instead he had mouthed the impotent, blustering threat, planting the impression that might tempt Ki to underestimate him in the deeply unlikely event that they ever crossed paths again. Behaving like a professional.

And Quang Ki had gotten out alive. If his transport turned into a ball of fire somewhere over the Pacific, Buck would allow himself an extra two fingers of bourbon in lieu of mourning, because the aircraft wasn't his responsibility. He'd done what he was ordered to do, and achieved the desired outcome.

With the pencil, Buck drew a firm, hard line through Quang Ki's name. Ki wasn't really significant. He never had been, except in what he could be leveraged for and in what he had almost brought about because Buck hadn't recognized the depths of the man's sheer damn pettiness.

Ki's ill-considered actions had started a chain of events, coming at a time when Buck was already fully occupied with the details of the exchange, neck-deep in security and logistics and secrecy and timing. The unwelcome, needless complications had endangered the exchange (and Ki's own life, as if that had ever mattered) … which brought Buck to the next name on the list.

Thomas Sullivan Magnum. Commander (retired), United States Navy. Tough, clever, resourceful. Sentimental, undisciplined, ultimately stupid. And alive, because for all his failings he was one slippery bastard when things got interesting … and because Buck Greene hadn't been quite good enough at his job.

No, that was letting it get personal. His job hadn't been to kill Thomas Magnum, but to see to it that Quang Ki was exchanged for Edward Rockwell, and to kill Magnum if he threatened the exchange. Which Magnum would have done, blood debt being what it was, if Buck hadn't pulled so many switchbacks while he was making the arrangements that it was a wonder he hadn't collided with himself in the process. He had done it as he did everything: coldly, ruthlessly, thoroughly, in such depth as to make the whole thing a thousand times more complicated than it otherwise would have been but leaving nothing, absolutely nothing, to chance.

That had been the intention, anyhow. But Buck had misjudged Magnum, too, misjudged him even more badly than Ki, with the result that a real but manageable threat had escalated into an active danger.

Buck would have buried Magnum long ago, in Leavenworth or literally, if it hadn't been for two things. The first was that Magnum was a genuinely good guy: he'd done honorable service, always kept faith with his comrades-in-arms, and continued to live by most of the same standards even after taking off the uniform for good. The second was that whenever Magnum managed to get himself involved in Buck's business — even in those instances when Buck hadn't manipulated the involvement for his own purposes — he always stirred things up in a way that Buck was better able to handle than were any of the other parties concerned, so that it generally came out a win.

He was a wild card, and would never be anything else, but he was a wild card Buck knew how to play, or to react to when it fell into play without warning.

Still, it was hard, damned hard, not to resent the man.

Part of it was that ridiculous, prolonged adolescence. Magnum had used the phrase often enough that it had eventually worked its way back to Buck: I woke up one day at thirty-three and realized I had never been twenty-three. So, to try and recapture the time he'd skipped, Magnum had thrown himself into self-indulgence, into irresponsibility, into a shore leave that had stretched out over nearly ten years. Pathetic. His buddies were building lives for themselves — even Wright was trying to set himself into something solid, and Calvin was actually a respectable businessman now — but Magnum had turned his post-service days into one long beach party.

There was more to it than that, though. Buck had seen plenty of men who just couldn't hack it in the service, and others who could never adjust once they left it. Magnum was neither. Magnum was still in the fight, but he seemed to think he could do it by his own rules. Could pick his causes, could take a stand on principle regardless of the results.

You didn't get to do that. If you had a duty, you carried it out. No matter what it cost, no matter what methods you had to use, you did what was necessary because the bastards on the other side wouldn't balk when you did, they'd just drive straight through and people would be dead because you hadn't been willing to bruise your tender conscience. Buck had been forced to live with a lot of things in his career, but never that. Because he'd always understood: you either get out of the game, or you go all-in. It's got to be one or the other.

Magnum … Magnum was still convinced he could have it both ways.

And the man was damned good. Despite the unsoundness at his core, he was a near-genius at attaining an objective once he put his mind to it. That was why he'd always done so well at unconventional warfare: his whole life was unconventional, everything about him, he came in from so far off the wall that nobody could ever predict what he might do next.

Nobody but Buck.

Usually.

Most of the time.

Buck had thought he knew Magnum, had taken his measure well enough not to underestimate him. He had expected rage, he had expected determination, he had expected the cold fury that would make the man willing to burn all his bridges, expend every resource and call in every favor and betray every friendship to squeeze out the last possible shred of advantage. He had expected ingenuity, desperation, recklessness, total uncaring kamikaze commitment. He had been ready for suicidal directness, or for satanic cunning. Hell, Buck had originated a directive that had every ship within a thousand-mile radius lock down all their cruise missiles for twenty-four hours before the exchange, just in case …

He hadn't expected what happened. He still didn't really understand it.

Magnum had ascertained the location of the exchange site, and then penetrated the security with seeming effortlessness. It should have been impossible. There had been so many layers of defense, so many diversions and false trails, so many personnel on hair-trigger alert, even a suicidal dead-luck lunatic genius should surely have gotten caught on some part of it. Magnum hadn't. It was … it was as if his grief had stripped everything else away, all expectation and anxiety and reservation and preconception, until what was left was so empty that he just slipped through the world around him without leaving a ripple.

And he had been capable of far more subtlety than Buck had ever suspected was possible. When the counter-sniper team had found the abandoned rifle — a Steyr SSG 69 — and Buck had recognized it as his own, a complete, detailed structure of realizations had clicked into place. Magnum had taken the rifle out of his gun cabinet. Magnum had been in his home. Magnum had located his home, the place he hardly ever used, had located the files Buck had kept there because everybody knew a compulsive by-the-book hardcase like Buck Greene would never keep classified material in a nonsecure location, and so they'd suspect a trick or a trap even if they found it …

Given the time frame, how quickly everything had moved, how much time Magnum would have needed to reach the Ile Debonnevie before the exchange, he must have found the information less than a day after receiving the news of Michelle Hue's death. How? Buck had acquired the apartment only a week or so before the exchange had first been proposed, less than a month ago even now, and made the arrangements with all the caution that had become automatic for him by that time. Lease, utilities, phone, none of those were in his name or any name that could be traced to him. Oh, Magnum could have found the place just by tailing Buck, but he would have had no reason to do so until after learning of the assassination; Buck had left before then, and hadn't been back since. Hadn't had any mail sent there, or set up a mail relay. Hadn't called the place to check for messages because there wouldn't be any, Buck sometimes made calls from there but never let anyone call in —

Wait. He'd given the number to Rankin, and to Judge Haruda, in case either man had needed to reach him in some last-minute emergency regarding Ki's case. But he'd had them memorize the number, cautioned them against writing it down anywhere, and intended to have it changed anyhow as soon as he got back. If there was any possibility there, it was a damned slim one, and Buck couldn't see how such a minor potential opening could have been discovered and followed out in the vanishingly slender window of opportunity.

However it had happened, it had happened. The discovery of the rifle showed how Magnum had found the site, but Buck had already known, from the Rockwell woman's description, that Magnum was there. It had gone up to the wire, Buck carrying out his duty while navigating a thoroughly unfamiliar sense of complete helplessness, and even as he delivered his parting line to Quang Ki, Buck had been half-watching for the man's skull to come apart under the impact of a high-powered bullet. Quang Ki himself had hesitated before boarding the chopper, as if feeling the eye of doom upon him and looking around for the dimly-sensed threat. Inexplicably, the shot hadn't come. The exchange had gone through smooth as a K-Bar through one of those plastic pouches they were starting to use for combat meals, but Buck knew. He'd achieved the objective, but he hadn't actually — quite — won.

It would do. For now. The next time he found Magnum in the mix, he'd have to do better. And there would be a next time, count on it. Magnum was a wild card who'd keep popping up until he was forcibly removed from the deck.

Buck wasn't much for instinct, his world was built out of meticulous protocols and the unthinking reflex that came from endless training. Even so, something had prompted him to have Rockwell's daughter at the exchange site, up-ending all the arrangements he'd set into place, and he still wasn't sure if that, somehow, had tipped the balance or if it had just been some wild-assed idea thrown out simply because Magnum's utter unpredictability had spooked him.

Dumb idea. Hell, Magnum bedded women younger than Annie Rockwell, it was crazy to think she might strike some kind of father-daughter chord with him, even subliminal. But it had cost nothing to give it a try, and you never knew if it just might …

Maybe Buck should devote more attention to Magnum, more analysis. Once the man had the location, his penetration of the defenses had been unwelcome but not at all surprising, but the last failure — if it sprang from a change of heart rather than from being hung up on some crucial obstacle — could indicate unsuspected depths …

Buck grunted, shook his head, and drew a steady line through Magnum's name. There were still loose ends, but he'd gone as far as he could for now; any more would come out only with patience and subtlety and time.

That left only one name on the list.

Margaret Constance Poole. Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy. Brevetted to Intelligence, against his recommendation, and Buck had been cracking the whip at her from the moment she came under his authority. He'd warned her about Magnum — knew they'd be crossing paths, it was an inevitability — and then watched her starchy resistance waver before that calculatedly boyish grin and exaggerated Marlboro-Man handsomeness. Buck had expected that, tried to fortify her against it, and then set out to use it to his advantage when he saw it happening anyhow.

Only, that part hadn't gone at all the way he planned it. This had been Buck's third, and worst, misjudgment. The tipping-point into what should have been complete disaster.

Weakness. Buck despised weakness, in any form, but it was there in everyone if you knew where to look. Buck had gotten very, very good at ferreting out the individual vulnerabilities and manipulating them to best results. He'd have preferred better from Maggie Poole, but been unsurprised when her vulnerability had manifested itself. She was still useful, within limits, so he had channeled her into those limits and kept her in reserve for the time when he needed an extra ace to play. Better to have someone whose weaknesses you knew, and could compensate for, than one whose breaking point hadn't yet been determined.

The time had come, and Buck had played Maggie as coldly as if sticking a minnow on a hook. Laid the false trail that would send Magnum into a deep-cover trap, and Maggie the only one with access to the information. It would have ended with Magnum in custody or dead (the waiting team was authorized to take whatever action proved necessary), and Maggie Poole facing court martial for treason. Because that's what it would have been: putting personal sentiment ahead of her sworn duty.

He would have regretted the loss — she was so earnest, in the half-baked moonshine way of those so young they'd never had to face any real hardship, and genuinely capable at her job — but he hadn't hesitated to set her up and wouldn't have hesitated to exact the penalty for her failure, regardless of how he had suborned it. Except … she hadn't failed. Somehow, faced with the test, she had seen the deeper need in the exchange — the recovery of an American POW whose existence had never before been admitted — and valued that more than any loyalty to a grief-stricken friend.

Buck seldom misjudged anyone so thoroughly in so serious a matter. Even more rarely did he find himself glad to have been proven wrong. That he should feel so, revealed a weakness in himself, but he was too hard-headed to try and pretend it didn't exist. Oh, she'd gone right up to the edge; she'd accessed the files, found the planted information, the call from that panicked lieutenant had made that clear. She hadn't even tried to disguise the breaking of the seal, she had known she was throwing away her career and gone ahead anyway. She'd done all that, but there she had stopped.

The proof was in the fact that Magnum hadn't gone to the decoy location. When he hadn't shown, when the deadline had passed and the team had reported Magnum's non-appearance, Buck had shaken his head and grudgingly credited Maggie with more resolution than he had expected. Then, when he got word that the information had been accessed, Magnum's absence had taken on a frightening new meaning.

If she had told Magnum, Magnum would have been there; he would have trusted Maggie, especially if she truly believed what she was telling him. If he wasn't there, it was because she hadn't told him. If she hadn't told him, though, Magnum would have kept looking, and his efforts would have registered on the feelers Buck had out in every intelligence and law enforcement agency in this hemisphere … but since they hadn't, that meant he wasn't looking. And if he wasn't looking, it could only be because he already had his answer.

There were only two possible answers: the false one Buck had planted with Maggie, and the real one that should have been buried under secrecy and misdirection. Magnum hadn't gone to the first, which could only mean he knew of — and had probably already arrived at — the second. That was when Buck had started to sweat, though he hadn't let it show, and within minutes his certainty had been confirmed by Brodski's report from a puzzled Annie Rockwell.

Disaster, not just in the making but there and ugly and ready to start pouring blood. Hadn't happened, and Buck still didn't truly know why, but that wasn't the point. The point was that Buck's assessment of Maggie Poole had been wrong, catastrophically wrong. She'd had the information Magnum wanted. If she had told him, he would have gone to the decoy location. He hadn't been there, so she hadn't told him. Simple as one, two, three.

Buck had failed, but — and this was where it got very, very interesting — Maggie had not. She had confounded Buck's judgment, shown herself to be more than he had expected, and that opened up an entirely new world of possibilities.

Already Buck's mind was ticking over different and more challenging avenues to steer her through, to see just how far she could go and just what she might prove herself capable of doing. Her loyalty to Magnum, however undesirable, was deep and powerful, which made her ultimate decision all the more remarkable. She had put duty ahead of friendship, even the kind of blood-bond that could make two people willing to fight and die beside one another. If she could do that, how much more might she someday be able to do, if properly seasoned?

Buck knew himself, knew his capacities and his limitations. He was very, very good at what he did … but he wasn't the best, and he had spent enough time studying the best to recognize that there was a boundary he would never cross. He was a warrior, bred to blood and steel and wedded to that stern mistress who responded to the utmost devotion by demanding yet more. He was the pinnacle of the type, and could command boundless loyalty from other men of the same breed …

… but his current role was something else, neither greater nor lesser but different, its upper reaches a rarified level that — he admitted it, because he wouldn't tolerate the weakness of denying his limits — he would never be able to attain.

Not him, no, but maybe, just maybe …

Maggie Poole was made of a different material. She had faced an agonizing choice, and in the end had not only taken the right path but done it for the right reasons. A hard bastard like Buck Greene could learn subtlety, craftiness, lateral thinking, but at bottom he was still a hard bastard. Take someone like Maggie — sentimental, dedicated, idealistic but willing to follow through on the tough choices — take someone like that, and hammer her to the edge of breaking, and hone her to scalpel sharpness, shove her face in the ugly necessities and then dismiss her contemptuously as being fundamentally incapable of working in such ugliness …

The possibilities went farther than Buck's ability to process them. That was his job now: to ready her for a level beyond his own. A challenge that — finally — went beyond putting out this week's fire, and next week's, and whatever popped up the week after that.

Next to Maggie's name, he put a firm check-mark.

That was it. The report existed nowhere except in his own mind, but that was where it mattered most. He had gone as far as was possible tonight, but later there would be plans and programs, tests and probes and scenarios …

A chime sounded on his desktop computer, and Buck looked up as text scrolled across the screen. All right: seven miles, start time in twelve minutes, eighty-pound load … and yes, there it was, broken strap on the ruck. The time would be tight — that gorge was eighteen different kinds of a bitch in the dark — but those were the specs and if you didn't like it there was always the Air Force, so MOVE IT, MARINE!

He left the list on his desk. It would still be there in the morning, and he could settle in to begin the job that lay ahead of him.

end