âThanks, Hoff. Youâre the man.â
âListen, Tommy, you come around every night, and Iâll help you fill in that notebook,â Hoffman said. âYou were meant for better things, Iâm sure.â
âAwesome. Thanks, Hoff,â Tommy exhaled. âFuck Fowler. Heâs a dickhead officer anyway.â
âMy sentiments exactly.â
âHoff, we gonna be riding in this jeep?â
âItâs got a TV in it,â Tommy said.
âCan we requisition an Xbox then?â
âNice one, lackey, put it on the list.â
Later that night, they were released; Hoffmanâs squad, handpicked, the fantastic five of misfits from the Greater Ghazaliya division, unleashed like hounds from the starting gate, tearing through the narrow streets in their steel demon, breathing garuda fumes and the threat of massive fire, roof-mounted automatic cannon rattling in its cage, Hoffman cackling incessantly from the visions of bad mushrooms, his driving erratic and dangerous, the belly of the beast converted into a gaming den, four-player button-jamming NFL action, while Tommy spat random reports into his sat phone on a deliberately open frequency, apprising all interested parties of their progress, as they swept past bemused checkpoints, leaving stolid Iraqi soldiers debating whether to shoot or salute.
Into North Ghazaliya, past the great mosque, two hundred meters from the checkpoint into Shulla, they ran into a joint forces patrol, led by one Sergeant Tony Perdoso. After some mutual sniffing around, they realized they knew each other and guns were lowered, visors raised, knuckles slapped around in greeting, while the Iraqi army men stood by passively, hoping that so many Americans on a street corner would not invite an impromptu bombing.
âHoffman, you motherfucker,â Sergeant Tony was a barrel-chested Latino with a bar room voice. âIâve been looking for you.â
âYou ran out already?â Hoffman asked, incredulous.
âNot the suppositories!â Tony snapped. âItâs the two fucking civs you sent my way, maricon.â
âThey made it alright into Shulla?â Hoffman leaned forward in a whisper.
âThey fucking started a firefight,â Tony said. âRight on my doorstep. Three in the morning, two JAM trucks came rolling in, guns blazing. Showing off. Theyâre here to collect your boys.â
âThey were? Did you stop them?â
âShit, Hoff, I was fast asleep.â
âSafe, Tony,â Hoffman said. âI asked you to get them safely into Shulla. Does letting them get fucked by the JAM sound safe to you?â
âCalm down, pendejo,â Tony said. âWho said anything about getting fucked?â
âYour boy dropped some bodies,â Tony said. âPop, pop, pop, like a fucking cowboy.â
âTheyâre still alive?â
âI hauled a bunch of dead JAM off the street. Ainât none of them your guys,â Tony said.
âYouâre sure?â Hoffman asked.
âFuck off, Hoffman,â Tony said. âIâm from San Diego. All brown guys donât look alike to me .â
âWhat was the body count, Tony?â
âFour JAM dead, including Alihassan, not more than a couple hundred feet from my patrol,â Tony said.
âAlihassan? The son of Hassan Salemi?â
âDamn right. I gotta jump through hoops now keeping him happy. But Alihassan had it coming. I told that boy a hundred times, carry on like that in the middle of the night, with the guns and the religious chanting and all that and someoneâs liable to put a bullet through you.â
âLucky it wasnât one of your men then,â Hoffman said.
âHassan Salemi doesnât care who it was,â Tony said. âHe wants blood.â
âSo who shot him?â
âYour boy Kinza shot Alihassan in the