Since Biff Bam Pop went live back in August 2008, New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry has been a great friend to the site. Today, as part of our Titanic Teams month and to coincide with the release of his brand new novel Assassin’s Code, the fourth in his Joe Ledger series of books, Maberry offers up a look at putting together the perfect team – Echo Team. Take it away, Jonathan.
A tough, independent, resourceful, and self-sufficient hero is all well and good if the bad guys come at him in ones or twos. If it’s a moderate-size pack of zombies he might get through it without help.
But when things go from bad to really frickin’ bad and the hero is outnumbered and outgunned, then a little back-up is useful.
For Joe Ledger, former Baltimore cop, ex-Army Ranger, current government agent and world-class smartass, that back-up comes in the form of Echo Team.
First, to explain Joe’s job. In the first book of the series, PATIENT ZERO, Joe is hired away from Baltimore P.D. by Mr. Church, the mysterious head of a special ops group that is way off the public radar. This group, the DMS (Department of Military Sciences), was created to tackle terrorist threats that employ cutting-edge science. About half of the DMS members are scientists –the kinds of guys who never placed second in science fairs—and the other half are first-team shooters recruited out of the SEALS, Force Recon, the Rangers, DELTA, SWAT and similar special teams. The best of the best of the best.
The problem with a group like that is you tend to have a lot of alphas. Every one of them is primed and suited to be a team leader. However the nation is facing a dire crisis in the form of a doomsday plague. Mr. Church needs a leader for his new team and he can’t waste time with the normal screening process. This is how Joe sorts it out:
I stood by the door and looked them over. I felt like there was this gigantic Big Ben-sized clock ticking right over my head.
The room was mostly bare except for a few folding chairs and a card table on which was an open case of bottled water, a tray of sandwich meats and cheeses and an opened loaf of white bread. Apparently the DMS budget didn’t extend to decent catering.
The guy closest to me, standing to my left, was maybe six-feet but he must have been two-forty and all of it was in his chest and shoulders; his face had a vaguely simian cast to it. Next to Ape-Man was a taller, leaner guy with a beaky nose and a long scar that ran from hairline, through his right eyebrow and halfway down his cheek. Opposite Scarface was a black guy who looked like every Army top sergeant you ever saw: buzz cut, a boxer’s broken nose and a lantern jaw. Behind Sgt. Rock was a red-haired kid in his early twenties who had a jovial face. In fact he was the only guy smiling in the room. To the Joker’s right was a real moose of a guy, easily six-six, with ropey muscles and heavily scarred hands. Jolly Green Giant was the first to speak.
“Looks like we got another candidate.”
I walked into the center of the group.
Scarface grunted. “Make yourself comfortable. We’ve been in here for almost three hours trying to sort out which one of us should head this team.”
“Really,” I said and kicked him in the balls.
He let out a thin whistling shriek of pain that I ignored as I grabbed the shoulder of his windbreaker and jerked him hard and fast so that he collided with Ape-Man and they both went down.
I spun off of that and stomped down on the Joker’s foot and then pivoted to bring the same foot up again, heel first into his nuts. He didn’t scream, but he hissed real loud; and I nailed Sgt. Rock with a palm-shot to the chest that sent him sprawling onto the food table, which collapsed under him.
That left Jolly Green Giant standing and he gaped at me in shock for maybe a half-second before he started to swing; but that was a half-second too long, and I darted forward and drove the extended secondary index-finger knuckle of my right hand into his left sinus, right next to his nose, giving it a fast counter-clockwise twist on impact. He went back like he’d taken a .45 round in the face.
I pivoted again to see Ape-Man pushing his way out from under Scarface but he was only halfway to his feet and I swept his supporting leg out from under him and he fell hard on his tailbone, almost –but not quite- catching himself by planting his hand flat on the ground. I stamped on his outstretched fingers and then chop-kicked him in the chest before spinning off to face Sgt. Rock –who had come up off the collapsed card table with an impressive display of rubbery agility.
The other four guys were down and it was just him and me.
He held his hands up and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sucker him again, but then he smiled and turned his karate guard into a palms-out. Not a surrender so much as an acknowledgement of set and match.
I gave him a nod and stepped back, and edged away from the other four. Two of them were down for the count. Jolly Green Giant was sitting in the corner holding his face; if he had any kind of sinus issues that punch I gave him would likely become a migraine. Scarface was lying on the floor in a fetal position, hands cupped around his balls, groaning. The Joker was getting to his feet, but he had no fight left in him. Ape-Man was sitting against a wall trying to suck in a breath.
I heard the door click open and I stepped to one side as I turned, outside of everyone’s reach. Church and Courtland came in. He was smiling, she wasn’t.
“Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “I want you to meet Joe Ledger, the DMS’ new team leader. Any questions?”
That introduction set the pecking order within the team. Joe became the team leader, Top (Sergeant Rock) was his number two. It’s a pack mentality. A short while later, Joe meets his team again after they’ve had a chance to clean up. His position as team leader is official now and he’s been given the rank of ‘captain’. He’s told to prep his team for action with the understanding that they may have to go into battle at a moment’s notice. Joe needs to know who he’s leading, though. This second scene is the one where he gets a quick idea of who he has to work with:
I shifted to stand in front of the oldest-looking man, the one I thought of as Sgt. Rock. His dark brown skin was crisscrossed with scars, old and new. “Name and rank.”
“First Sergeant Bradley Sims, US Army Rangers, sir.”
“Okay, Top, why are you here?”
“To serve my country, sir.” He had that noncom knack of looking straight through an officer without actually making real eye contact.
“Don’t kiss my ass. Why are you here?”
Now he looked at me, right into me. There were all kinds of fires burning in his dark brown eyes. “Few years ago I stepped back from active duty to take a training post at Camp Merrill. While I was there my son Henry was killed in Iraq on the third day of the war. Six days before his nineteenth birthday.” He paused. “My daughter Monique lost both her legs in Baghdad last Christmas when a mine blew up under her Bradley. I got no more kids to throw at this thing. I need to tear off a piece of this myself.”
“I got a nephew in junior year of high school. He wants to join the army. His choice if he enlists or not, but maybe I can do something about the number of threats he might have to face.”
I nodded. “Okay, Top.”
I stepped to the next man. Scarface. “Name and rank.”
“Second Lieutenant Oliver Brown, Army, sir.”
“Two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan.”
“I was at Debecka Pass.”
That was one of the most significant battles of the second Iraq War. I’d heard a general on CNN call it a ‘hero maker’, and yet the mainstream news barely mentioned it. “Special Forces?”
He nodded. He did it the right way, just an acknowledgment without puffing up with pride. I liked that.
“That where you pick up the scar?”
“No sir, my daddy gave me that when I was sixteen.” That was the only time he didn’t meet my eyes.
“Tell it to me later then.”
I moved on. Joker. “Read it out,” I said.
“CPO Samuel Tyler. US Navy. Friends call me Skip.”
He paused. “Nickname from when I was a kid.”
“Let me guess. Your dad was a captain and they called you ‘Little Skipper’.”
He flushed bright red. Hole in one.
“No sir. I washed out during Hell Week.”
“They said I was too tall and heavy to be a SEAL.”
“You are.” Then I threw him a bone. “But I don’t think we’re going to be doing much long distance swimming. I need sonsabitches that can hit hard, hit fast, and hit last. Can you do that?”
“You damn right,” he said, and then added, “sir.”
I looked at the last guy. Jolly Green Giant. He towered several inches over me and had to go two-sixty, but his waist couldn’t have been more than thirty-four inches. Yet for all the mass he looked quick rather than bulky. Not like Ape-man. One side of his face was still red and swollen from where I’d hit him.
“Give it to me.”
“Bunny Rabbit, Force Recon, sir.”
I shot him a look. “You think you’re fucking funny?”
“No, sir. My last name is Rabbit. Everyone calls me Bunny.”
“It gets worse, sir. My first name’s Harvey.”
The other guys tried to hold it together, I have to give them that –but they all cracked up.
“Son,” said Sims, “did your parents hate you?”
“Yeah, Top, I think they did.”
And then I lost it, too.
Before the team even has a chance to train together they’re called into combat, into one terrible battle after another. That process acts like a forge. It melts away the impurities and hardens the steel core. By the time the mission is over, the survivors have bonded. They’ve been through hell and come back, and that connects people like nothing else. A shared awareness of personality mortality and terror, the knowledge that they suffered and fought for something of value, and the understanding that when things were at their toughest, they were fighting for each other rather than an ideal or a flag.
I’m about to release the fourth book in the Joe Ledger series, ASSASSIN’S CODE, and I’m writing the fifth book, EXTINCTION MACHINE. At this point in the series, Echo Team has undergone a lot of changes. Members come and go. Leaving Echo Team generally happens in combat and it’s a permanent departure. The two members who endure throughout the series, Top and Bunny, have become the core of the DMS. Top is the wise older soldier, and Bunny is the heart. They’re ruthless and efficient killers in the heat of a fight, but otherwise they embody the things they fight for: family, humanity, conscience, freedom.
The soldiers in Echo Team are not, however, blindly patriotic flag-wavers. In fact, they hold that the concept of ‘my country right or wrong’ is a decidedly un-patriotic viewpoint because it allows for corruption and wrongdoing. Top and Bunny –as well as the new members of Echo Team we meet in ASSASSIN’S CODE (the laconic sniper John Smith, the professorial Khalid Shaheed, and dangerous Lydia Ruiz)—did not bond over politics. We never discuss political affiliations or parties in any of the books in the series. What bonds them together is that they have been given a chance to do some actual, measurable good in the war on terror.
Their relationship has also deepened because they’ve come to know each other’s strengths and weakness. They know what makes each other tick. Familiarity, despite the old adage, does not always breed contempt. Sometimes it forms such a deep understanding that strangers become friends and then family. Being on a team may inspire loyalty, but when it comes to family there’s nothing you won’t do.
ASSASSIN’S CODE by Jonathan Maberry is out now in print, e-book and audio from St. Martin’s Griffin.
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and Marvel Comics writer. His latest novel is ASSASSIN’S CODE, a vampire-themed technothriller, debuting April 10 from St. Martins. His previous novels include Rot & Ruin, Dust & Decay, Patient Zero, The Wolfman, and others. He has written extensively about vampires and other monsters of myth and legend in his nonfiction books: Vampire Universe, They Bite, Wanted Undead or Alive, and others. He’s the editor/co-author of V-WARS, a vampire-themed anthology debuting in May. He was a featured expert on The History Channel special ZOMBIES: A LIVING HISTORY. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry. He teaches the Experimental Writing for Teens class, is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club. Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara. www.jonathanmaberry.com.