Soldier of Fortune (short story)
Updated: Jul 11
“So, Lieutenant Michael Murphy,” she sighs, “kindly tell me exactly what has transpired, to your best abilities.”
As the two rafts brushed up against the rocky coast of the northwestern coast of Anydros Island, Murph followed his fellow mercenaries off their inflatable vessels and onto the jagged beach. Mac and Qualls began pulling the rafts to dry land while Murph and the others unloaded their weapons and gear. Davies and Holmes knelt down in the sharp rocks, scanning their rifles back and forth on the night horizon of the island, searching for a target.
“Place gives me the creeps,” Davies muttered to herself. “Why the hell would anyone take a vessel all the way out into the ass-end of the ass-end of nowhere?”
“You’d rather they’d pick a hideout in public?” Holmes replied, never breaking his stance, ready to fire at the first movement.
“Bring it in, guys,” Mac whispered while producing a small map and flashlight. The five others crowded around Mac, with Davies and Holmes still facing out with weapons hot. Mac began pointing at sections of the map as he started his briefing. “The cave opening is on the southern tip of the island here, and we’re on the northwestern side here. Based on the description Kasos gave of this boat, there could be close to ten goons here - we’re outnumbered, but they aren’t us. Pratt and Qualls – we’ll head to the left and approach to the east. We’ll fan out with three hundred feet between us. Murph, Holmes and Davies - you three break off to the right and approach along the west, using the same three hundred feet formation. I need you in a base of fire position as we head into the cave before we arrive from the east.”
Mac looked at his watch, then at the moon in the expansive starry night sky. “Sun should be up within three hours. Once we clear out the cave, us three’ll do a full sweep of the exterior of the island to make sure we’re all clear of goons, while you guys secure the cargo. Then and only then will we call Kasos and chart a course for Bodrum. Questions? …Pull out.”
Holmes nodded, then turned to Murph and Davies: “I’ll take point, Murph in the back. Funnel formation of three hundred feet intervals.” And with that, Mac’s team of three grabbed their remaining supplies, pulled on their night vision goggles and scurried away to the left, leaving Murph and his two cohorts to traverse alone on the rocky terrain towards their destination on this mysterious, deserted island.
“Who is Kasos?”
“Leopold Kasos - our client. Some rich arms dealer from Cyprus. He had a shipment going from Derna out to Bodrum in southwest Turkey, but it got nabbed by unknown hijackers in the South Aegean Sea. The tracking device on his cargo traced it to Anydros Island. Why they came here of all places is beyond me.”
“So this Mr. Kasos employed you and your companions to retrieve his stolen goods and deliver them to their rightful destination?”
Murph nods his head. “Yeah, that’s the gist of things.”
A few seconds pass, and Murph wonders if this was it, but-
“Tell me about your company. The six men who traveled with you.”
“Five men. Davies was a woman.”
“Tell me about them.”
Murph shrugs. “Just coworkers on a job. That’s pretty much it.”
“No. There’s always more pieces to the puzzle. Tell me.”
Murph sighs. “I really only knew our squad leader MacIntosh - or ‘Mac,’ from serving with him in Syria some years back. And what can I say - he came to me with an offer for a quick buck when I could use the dough. I was only brought in after their guy Simms, ‘retired,’ so I never had time to get to know them very well. Qualls was a former Marine sniper I’d only heard about briefly in merc circles, but never met. Pratt was 2nd in command, but couldn’t be a day younger than sixty-five. Then there were Davies and Holmes. I never met or heard of them until this job – but they seemed pretty tight.”
“Something about this place doesn’t sit well with me,” Davis says, as they silently march in the moonlight. “I feel like we’re being watched, or-”
“Maybe it’s the bogeyman, Davies,” Murph rolled his eyes.
“How about we cut down on all the chatter, the lot of you!” Mac whispered into everyone’s ears over the headsets. “May I remind you we’re likely outnumbered two to one in the dark? Stay focused and be ready for an ambush.”
As Murph and his team progressed across the island, Murph wandered into a thick patch of shrubs and trees, cutting him off visually from Davies. Passing the dried vegetation, he saw eroded remains of nearly featureless stone statues standing in the moonlight. It seemed strange at the time to see traces of past civilization on such a remote, miniscule patch of nothing rock. It was stranger still to see what could not be misunderstood as a gun holster on the waist of one of these stone statue ruins, but he had no time to stop and examine and digest its meaning. Shortly he regained visual on the rest of his team and ventured back onto the flat shrub-pocked rock and sand.
In short order, the three soldiers stealthily slithered around the rocky coast to the southern end of Anydros Island, where they could see in the clear night sky a small opening no more than six feet tall. Around the cave’s opening were worn-down wooden support struts, as well as traces of what used to be a steel track. This was no cave but a mine - at least for a time it was. Following a small path from the entrance, Murph could see a small, old yacht anchored in the choppy surf.
“Mac, we’ve arrived at the entrance, getting in position now,” Holmes whispered. “Davies, take the right. Murph – go left and make sure to drop anything that moves.” In the distance Murph could see the slowly approaching silhouettes of Mac, Pratt and Qualls along a sheer rock wall.
“Nothing on thermal,” Davies muttered. “Not at the boat, and not at the cave. They must be camping out deep in there.”
“An old mine sounds like a pretty silly place to pitch a tent,” Murph interjected, glancing around to make sure they weren’t sitting ducks in an ambush.
“Where the hell would they be then, genius?” Davies snapped back at him.
“Shush,” Mac hissed over the comms. “I’m not gonna say it again. Holmes - you guys in position?”
Holmes turned to Davies, then to Murph, and nodded before aiming his rifle again at the opening of the mine. “Ready to rock, awaiting your orders.”
“Copy,” Mac acknowledged as he crouched and shuffled forward towards the rocky outcrop before the mine’s entrance He turned to Qualls and pointed to the left side of the mine’s opening, then held two fingers to Pratt, who nodded in response. As Qualls scurried away to the left, Mac crouched low as he slowly approached the right side of the mine’s entrance, hugging as close to the rock wall as he could. Lagging behind Mac a bit, Pratt walked very slowly and silently, slinging his automatic rifle around his shoulder so he could grab two stun grenades from his vest.
Up above, Murph occasionally peeked behind him to keep an eye out for possible ambush, then back to the mine. He glanced over at Holmes and Davies, who sat frozen in position, weapons trained on as Mac and the others reached the opening. As he waited for Mac’s signal, he couldn’t help but think about the stony ruins he’d witnessed on the march over. He kept thinking of seeing that stone holster, which wouldn’t have had any other use but for some kind of handgun. Something didn’t make sense…
“Now!” Mac ordered aloud. Murph’s attention directly went back to the entrance, as Pratt pulled the pin on his first stun grenade and threw it deep into the mine, followed by the second. Pratt immediately grabbed his rifle and took cover next to Mac, ready to move.
A soft cloud of dust emerged from the mine’s entrance as the two stun grenades exploded inside. The six mercenaries patiently waited in position for the dust to settle, and/or for any of the hijackers to emerge. Just to be safe, Murph peeked around his shoulder again, in case anyone on the interior of the island would be alerted to-
“Murph!” Holmes hissed at him, “Eyes forward.”
Murph immediately looked forward and re-trained the nozzle of his rifle on the mine entrance. They waited minute after tense minute for someone to emerge. The dust was now clearing, and still no sign of life.
“Pratt, you cover from the rear,” Mac whispered. “Qualls, stay on the left as we go in. Holmes - be ready to come down and follow after when I give you the signal.”
“On your mark, Captain,” Qualls acknowledged. Mac turned to his team and pumped his fist - the signal to commence. Pratt quickly crouched in the center of the mine’s entrance, rifle fixed on the pitch blackness before him, while Qualls and Mac slowly slinked in on either side. After a few seconds, Pratt slowly followed his comrades into the darkness. The waiting continued from there.
“Qualls, stick to the left,” Mac directed. “Mine’s starting branch out a bit up ahead.”
“Got it,” Qualls whispered back.
Murph kept his rifle trained on the black hole, not flinching. Holmes and Davies remained statues, ready to pop off at a moment’s notice. Every now and then Murph could hear a deep breath from Mac or Pratt until, a few minutes later, he couldn’t hear anything more from the first team. He remained locked on the entrance, waiting either from an order from Mac or a target to reveal themselves. More time passed, and still nothing from his the first wave - every minute feeling like ten. Murph gave a quick glance around to make sure no one was springing an ambush on them, then turned to Holmes and Davies.
“What you think?” Murph whispered to Holmes. “It’s been a minute.”
Holmes shrugged at Murph, then faced forward and let out a hushed, “Mac, status? Pratt? Qualls, what’s the situation?”
“Captain, come in,” Holmes persisted. “What is your status in there? Did you make contact?”
The three soldiers continued to stay in their position, guns frozen on the entrance to the dark mine before them. Minutes passed, while Holmes asked a third time for a status update from Mac’s team. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. Still - nothing. Holmes turned to Davies and shook his head. “This isn’t good.”
“Nope,” Davies agreed, shaking her head. “Something’s happened.”
“Maybe the comms signal gets hairy in there?” Murph wondered.
“Maybe,” Holmes shrugged. “Maybe not.”
“We goin’ in?” Davies asked, still holding her rifle on the mine.
“Afraid so. Single-file, same formation as earlier. When we get in, Murph takes left, and I’ll stay on the right with Davies backing me up on the right. Let’s go.”
Holmes led the way down a rocky, slippery trail to the narrow path leading to the mine’s entrance. Quick and silent as ghosts the three soldiers reached their positions just as their missing predecessors. Once Holmes reached the entrance, he tried, “Mac? Qualls? Pratt? Any of you guys – it’s Holmes. If you can hear me, watch your six - we’re coming in.”
Holmes looked to Murph and nodded, who reciprocated and followed Holmes into the pitch-black mine, maintaining his presence on the left side. As Murph slowly moved forward, he glanced behind him to see the silhouette of Davies slowly entering the mine. Murph could see the details of the mine - old wooden support beams stretching far-off into the distance, occasionally lined with cracks and pocked with holes where dirt and rocks had seeped through. He looked down to find the remains of a mine cart track, mostly buried in dirt and sand - almost completely lost to time. Oddly enough, they would occasionally pass by narrow dark stalagmites rising from the mine’s floor, no taller than Murph himself. Otherwise, everywhere he looked he could see all traces of this being an old mine - but no hint of any recent activity, and no sign of Mac, Pratt or Qualls, until-
“Boot prints,” Holmes discovered as he started to follow. “Big, clunky boot prints with a big, clunky stride.”
“That’d be Qualls,” Davies nodded. Holmes quietly stepped forward, stopping at a small fork in the path. Murph and Davies caught up with Holmes, who was looking into this new forked path. Murph looked to the narrow detour, barely wide enough for one person to fit through.
“Murph, you take this chamber,” Holmes instructed. “Qualls clearly went this way - must still be down there. We’ll be on the comms and will go on ahead. Keep your ears peeled if we need support.”
“Likewise,” Murph nodded, and broke off from the rest of his team, down the tight, dark corridor. The path seemed to be descending as it winded through the jagged rock. The wooden support beams were more worn and decayed here, adding to the tension coursing through Murph’s veins with every step. Everything on this island continued defying his expectations, and his sudden discovery of a narrow winding staircase leading down into darkness simply added to the list.
“I found a staircase,” Murph announced over the comms while looking over the edge of the landing, trying to find the bottom. “Can’t see the bottom yet, but the footprints lead down the stairs.”
“Then follow the prints, and let us know if you run into any actual trouble,” Holmes replied. Murph sighed, feeling the whole ‘fresh fish’ treatment was getting a bit old, and started his slow descent down the narrow, dusty, stone stairs, keeping a cautious grip on the dusty steel handrail. The air was musty, and the farther down he went, he could swear he was getting warmer and warmer. Once he reached another landing, he checked his surroundings, looked over the edge then kept following the boot prints of his fellow comrade until he reached another landing. Sweat began to bead all over his face as the musty air grew warmer and warmer. He looked at his surroundings, and noticed an odd marking on the rock wall next to him. Murph took off his night vision goggles, clicked on his flashlight and approached the marking on the rock for a closer inspection.
“Holmes, look here,” Murph heard Davies alert over the comms. She sounded nervous. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Yeah,” Holmes replied, sounding equally spooked. “Mac’s rifle, but where is his-“
“Shit,” Murph said to himself, realizing what he’d found. “Guys, I found something down here. Looks like there’s blood sprayed across the wall.”
“Who’s blood?” Holmes asked, sounding very alert. “It’s sprayed on the wall?”
“Yeah, I’m on the second-“
Murph instantly held his tongue and froze in place as he felt a presence approach him from behind. A warm surge of adrenaline began building in his veins, though something inside kept him from moving even an inch.
“Who are you?”
He hesitated in answering - perhaps too long.
“Explain yourself! Why are you here? Who are you?” her voice comes again. Still as gentle as the first, but more demanding this time. Her accent appeared regional, but using a very odd dialect he’d never encountered in his experience.
“Lieutenant Michael Murphy,” Murph answers. “I go by ‘Murph.’”
“‘Murph’,” she chuckled. “I will not address you as that. What a silly name.”
“Can’t help it, ma’am.” he responded, noticing several independently moving ribbon-like objects wriggling over his shoulders and around his neck. Glancing down without tilting his neck, Murph could see the slithering bodies of snakes inspecting his chest. Murph risked a deep breath to try to calm his nerves and allowed the dark serpents proceed with their inspection.
“Please, Lieutenant Michael Murphy,” she sighs, “kindly tell me exactly what has transpired, to your best abilities.”
Still remaining frozen in place, and speaking softly enough as to not to agitate the mess of snakes moving back and forth around his neck and face, Murph began to recount his arrival on the island of Anydros, and details of his mission - he was likely a dead man at this point - what difference would it make to keep secrets? What was disconcerting to him, though, was the complete absence of communication from either Holmes or Davies the several minutes Murph took to tell his story to this mysterious snake charmer behind him. After he finished his debrief, the female interrogator remained silent for an uncomfortable amount of time, yet maintained her presence directly behind him. Murph felt compelled to break the silence.
“Who are you?” Murph asked, almost expecting any question he asks to be his last. Another uncomfortable silence followed, and Murph felt compelled to risk turning around, but as soon as he made the slightest nudge of his neck, a foul warm breath filled his lungs, along with even more snakes slithering along his shoulders and neck and chest and through his hair. He decided to remain where he was.
“Please, turn and see for yourself,” she calmly welcomed. “To your own peril, of course. Of what consequence is it to me?”
“I’d rather not, then,” Murph muttered.
“I am Stheno, and you have intruded upon my home. A man passed this way ever so recently, and never ventured farther than where you now stand.”
“I figured as much. The others I came here with - above us - I assume they met the same end?”
“Indeed, likely they chanced upon my sister Euryale. We share this island together, the two of us. Long ago there used to be three, in much more fruitful times and in much homelier abodes, but no longer. Opportunists like you and your intruding cohorts have driven us into more and more remote depths of this world…now it is only Euryale and Stheno, and this is ourisland that you’ve invaded. You’ve disturbed us and tainted our home with our presence.”
As Murph stood frozen and listening to Stheno speak, he felt some of the snakes coiling around his throat slowly tighten. He glanced down to see one of the snakes staring at him in the eyes, looking for any excuse to strike. Murph stood like a statue, listening to the foul-breathed Stheno speak her mind.
“In any case, worrying about your companions would not be a rewarding use of your remaining time. If you also inquire as to the group who arrived here in the vessel - the initial party you seek - they shall no longer concern you either.”
“You’re gonna kill me, then?”
“Hm…” Stheno pondered. Murph felt the snakes loosen their grip, and the horrible stench lose some of its potency, which must mean she’s backed off a bit. Only moving his eyes, he looked down at his hands. One hand was still holding his small flashlight - the other holding his assault rifle. “I’ve not yet decided which path for you. It is your good fortune that your previous companion came when he did - he and the others shall keep Euryale and I fed for the next month, at least. We’ve learned to survive on modest bounties, and slaughtering you now may put you at risk of spoil, after we finish with the others.”
She remained silent for a moment. Murph considered how fast he would need to be to swing around with his gun and empty a clip into who or what this “Stheno” was behind him…but his body disagreed and remained compelled to stand frozen, and to listen.
“Based on your tale, it is certain our meeting was simply by chance and nothing more. Neither Euryale or Stheno were targets for you or your late companions. Although, in recent ages every encounter is happenstance. That’s how it begins…we’ve lived long, and endured much, but this does not lessen our agony. If I let you go, there are no assurances you can give that you will not alert those who would bring harm to myself or my dear sister. They’ll come searching for the two sisters, yet again driving us from even these most humble abodes. Always on the move - always more restrictions. You will never know the torment of having your native land repeatedly stripped from you - to be hunted down and risk extermination by those who would rather misunderstand. Why can you mortals never learn to simply mind your own affairs?!?”
“For what it’s worth, Miss – if you let me go – you’d have my solemn vow that no harm would come of you or your sister by my hand.” As Stheno paced and raised her voice, Murph could hear and smell her growing closer, and his eyes quickly darted to his rifle, contemplating every movement of every nerve in his arms and hips - trying to calculate exactly how fast every muscle would need to contract to swing around and put her down, but as he has not even seen what this threat even looked like, he needed to try something else. A plan began to stir in his mind.
“You understand, I could split you open like a nut without even the faintest push,” Stheno threatened, moving very close behind him. Murph could feel the hot, rotten breath waft over him, followed by the reemergence of her snakes, slithering all over his shoulders, neck and head. “Maybe Euryale is correct - I have grown soft in my ages. I’ve forgotten the pitfalls that come with showing mercy.”
“You can trust me,” Murph promised her. “My entire trade exists by operating in secrecy. I’ve seen things - donethings - no living man knows of. What happens here - it lives and dies with me. You have my word.”
“I recall a mortal long ago boasting similar declarations to one of my sisters. He succeeded in charming her the way you’re trying to charm me. What good did it do my sister - to trust this mortal man to his word? He presented my dear sister’s head to his queen as a trophy. Forgive me if I find the promises of men lacking.”
The noxious stench grew heavier still, and he felt a sharp claw-hand rest on his right shoulder. Murph glanced down, and beyond the mess of wriggling snakes he could see a very feminine hand, yet with sharp talons at the tips. The talons and entire forearm were sticky with fresh red blood. As Stheno’s left claw rested on his left shoulder, Murph cursed himself for wasting his only chance at action. Diplomacy will be his only salvation; he must talk his way out of this mess - probably the riskiest move he could make.
“Look, Sss-then-oh,” Murph slurred, already on the wrong foot as he struggled to pronounce his captor’s name. “No matter what, my client Leopold Kasos knows my exact location. He knows precisely where the island is, and why we were sent here. If his cargo does not reach his destination, he’ll want to know why. So, having said that, it looks like you have only two options. Option One: You kill me, Kasos finds out his mission failed and his cargo is still on the island. He’ll bring even more soldiers here, with even bigger weapons, and whatever security you and your sister want here will be over and done with.”
Murph slightly winced in pain as he could start to feel the talons on both is shoulders begin to pierce the skin and ever-so-slowly dig into his flesh. Nausea was beginning to take hold as he couldn’t help but inhale the hot, vile fumes coming from Steno’s mouth, mere inches from his.
“Option Two,” Murph continued, struggling to keep composed as his shoulders screamed in pain from Stheno’s hooks, “Option Two: you let me go. You let me leave with the cargo I was sent here to get all along so I can make my delivery to the buyer on the mainland, and no one will ever come here again, leaving you and your sister here in peace. I get it - it’s hard to trust people - believe me. But the alternative will bring you a whole world of trouble that you simply cannot afford. For your own good – for your sister’s own good – you need to trust me here. I don’t want to be here - you don’t want me here. I’d pick Option Two if I were you. It’s the only sensible path.”
Behind pursed lips, Murph was gritting his teeth from the sharp, stinging pain in his shoulders. He continued to stand motionless, trying with all of his strength not to move and alarm Stheno, who stood in silence for what felt like an eternity to Murph, still with her long claws deep inside his flesh. Finally he felt the grip loosen and the talons slowly pull out - the relief almost drawing a vocal wince from Murph’s clamped mouth. The snakes and Stheno’s breath receded again, and Murph was able to draw in at least a deep breath to help ease the hair-raising tension that had been consuming him.
“I have been trapped, have I not?” Stheno growled, clearly annoyed with Murph. “You present me these options as if there is a balance of sensibility. You have a way with words, mortal. Indeed…Very well, I shall spare you. Euryale will spout her grievances, all justified to be sure, but she will understand in the end. This is the only path for me, correct?”
“Sorry to say,” Murph empathized. “Running into you was never my intent. I never knew you were here, and I think neither of us want me here any longer.”
“That is a truth surely bereft of deceit,” Stheno agreed. “Yet, I cannot allow you to leave unscathed. This ‘Kasos’ will never believe you as the only survivor of your charge without the scars of proof. Your triumph must be hard-won. Turn around and look at me, hero.”
“With respect, I’d rather not. I know deception, too.”
“Ha! You are truly a man of considerable dark instincts. Very well - but you still must bear the scar of a hard-won victory. Would you agree to this, mortal?”
Recognizing just getting out of this whole experience alive will be enough, and knowing this is his ticket out, he quickly nodded in agreement. “Yes. I agree. Do what you need to do.”
“Reach out your right hand.”
Murph slowly let go of his rifle and slowly, achingly extended his right arm out, wincing in pain in his right shoulder the entire time. A veteran of torture, he tried to find the mental strength for yet another rodeo, but he was never given ample time to prepare as he felt long, razor-sharp fangs sink deep into his forearm and rip the flesh away, taking his hand and wrist off, snapping the radius and ulna clean off. Murph dropped to his knees, shrieking in pain and terror as he looked at the broken, exposed bone in front of him. To his horror, the torn flesh seemed to sizzle and cauterize before his eyes. Quickly he took off his tactical vest, ripped the shirt off his torso and commenced to wrapping his wounded stump in the bloody, sweaty cloth. He put pressure on his new wound and held it for a few moments, trying to grasp his new reality. After collecting himself, Murph slowly rose to his feet.
“Now. Leave this place at once.”
Delirious, Murph slowly turned and began marching back up the dusty old stone staircase, always feeling the hot, repugnant breath of Stheno right behind him as she followed. Completely forgetting about the multiple gashes on his shoulders from Stheno’s talons, the bewildered Murph continued to march forward, staring at the ripped and cauterized wound he held in his left hand – his motive. Before he could even notice, he was back out into the main chamber of the old mine he’d wandered into what felt like ages ago. He squinted at the bright rays of dawn shining into the mine’s entrance. He turned and began to make his way to the doorway but froze when he heard a shrill venomous voice approaching.
“Who is this?” shrieked Euryale, Stheno’s younger sister. “Another intruder? Shall he join the others in my gallery of stone?”
“He shall not,” hissed Stheno in response. “I have given him clearance to leave us in peace.”
“You’ve done WHAT? Oh what a FOOL you’ve been, sister.”
“This mortal shall not harm us. I’ve made sure of that.”
“Just like the beast who violated our sister?!? Have you not learned the lesson?”
As the two sisters continued their bickering, the disoriented Lt. Murphy took this as his cue and continued to stumble forward, out of the mine’s entrance and down the narrow path to the small boat. He dared not look back at the squabbling monsters in that cursed cave - all that mattered to him was to get away from here. Finding all the cargo safely secured onboard the vessel, Murph took the controls and moved the boat away from the island of Anydros and started his trek northwest to Turkey, as per his promise to the beast that spared his life. It wasn’t until he was nearing the island of Kalimnos that he finally glanced behind him, feeling he was safely away from the deadly gorgon’s stare.
Arriving in Bodrum, Leopold Kasos dropped his “Murph” moniker and immediately met with his buyer, showing off his new wounds as proof for his delay. After receiving his full payment, Kasos checked into a local hospital for treatment for his injuries. As Leopold Kasos grasped the weight of the long, painful recovery ahead, he could not help but feel intense satisfaction that his scheme went off as perfectly as it did. The arms deal to set the plan in motion, the fake “hijackers” as bait, the five other disposables to safely lead him the island - simply to prove to him that the legendary monsters did in fact exist – all his for the taking. In-between surgeries – every moment Kasos had to himself – he was already planning his return to Anydros to acquire the two most rare specimens in the world for his collection.
“I’ve forgotten the pitfalls that come with showing mercy,” she had told him. Kasos heartily laughed through his pain, remembering the moment he knew he had won.