Brigadier General Tom Murphy stood in the sunlight near the helicopter pad on the roof of the Governor’s mansion, chilled by the arctic wind and trying to absorb a little sunlight to offset it.
Though his temples had gone grey in the last year, Tom still looked young. His narrow face was clean-shaven, and he had a tendency to walk around with a half-smile that he knew sometimes seemed inappropriate for a senior military officer. That was fine with him—the smile disarmed people in a way he never quite understood; it made him trusted by subordinates and superiors alike. He might not understand the psychology of it, but he certainly understood the practical effect.
He’d spent all too many days trying to maintain that half-smile. In the last few weeks it hadn’t felt appropriate at all. Behind the smile, he’d been torn by self-doubt and grief for his brother. Behind the smile, he’d been apprehensive that despite the quick conclusion of the brief war in West Virginia, the roots of the conflict had only been aggravated. And, despite everything he tried to do, the situation continued to deteriorate.
The transport helicopter approached; the slapping rhythm of its rotary wings rattling the windows on the rooftop. It settled into its position on the roof, blowing a dusting of snow into the air; and the rotors began to slow.
Tom ran toward the chopper, followed closely by his aide-de-camp; Lieutenant Aaron Thrasher. Thrasher was short; a West Point graduate who wore his standard issue birth-control glasses whenever he was on duty. He’d received high marks for his leadership during the ground invasion into West Virginia. A tour as a dog-robber to a general was a solid ticket punched for an officer with a promising career ahead of him, and Thrasher had jumped at the chance.
The side door to the chopper opened, and a crew chief in an olive-drab flight suit stepped out, and then reached in to help out the passengers.
Next out was Tom’s niece, Valerie. Tom almost stumbled when he saw her—she’d always been thin, but now she looked emaciated, her clothes ill-fitting, hair tangled. She looked around, big eyes darting around like a hunted animal. Tom took her hand, walked her away from the chopper, and then turned to hug her.
She held on like he was a lifeline, and he was shocked by how much she had diminished. She couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds.
Lieutenant Thrasher approached behind her with the new Governor, Al Clark. Clark didn’t look much better than Valerie, though at least he seemed well-fed. His suit was rumpled, and his hair hung below his collar. Tom released his niece, and then held out his hand. Clark gripped it.
“Welcome, sir,” Tom said to the former Congressman. “Let’s get inside out of the cold.”
Clark nodded, and the four of them entered the building again.
“We’re right in here,” said Lieutenant Thrasher, leading the other three into what was now Al Clark’s office. The smell of fresh paint was still strong in the large room.
A standard issue government oak desk had replaced the one which Frank Slagter had used as governor. There was no cleaning the blood out of the cracks and grooves of the desk, and Tom ordered it burned after the coroner completed his inquest. The wall behind the desk gleamed with fresh paint, and the carpet was brand new. He doubted that Clark realized his predecessor in office had shot himself in this very room, and he supposed Clark didn’t really need to know.
“Can I get you coffee? Tea?” asked the lieutenant as he led them to a table next to the window, overlooking downtown Charleston. Outside, they could see the ruins of the Byrd Federal Building, which had been bombed by terrorists six months before. That building had been joined by several others, destroyed by cruise missiles during the brief war in January. Snow blanketed the ruins, easing the lines a little, but it was still unmistakably a war zone.
It was hardly the beautiful city Tom had first visited a decade ago.
Valerie and Clark both asked for coffee, and the lieutenant exited the room.
Tom sat down in one of the chairs and waved for them to sit as well. Valerie did, but Clark stood, looking out the window for almost a full minute. Finally he turned around, and Tom could see in his eyes the same grief he himself felt every time he looked out there.
Tom studied both of them. They were pale, none too healthy. Valerie had shrunk in more ways than one—her eyes kept darting around the room, nervous, and her hands lay flat against her skirt. She sat hunched over, shoulders bowed and head down. Overall, she gave the impression that at any moment she might get up and run. None of the confidence he’d learned to expect from her was evident.
“Have you been treated well?” Tom asked.
She just shrugged.
Clark answered the question. “As well as could be supposed. We’ve both been in solitary confinement for most of the last three months. To be honest with you, it’s a little overwhelming right now.”
“I understand, I think,” Tom said. “I appreciate you agreeing to come in on the chopper. I sent it as soon as I learned you were being released.”
Valerie said, “Thank you. I don’t know where I would have gone if you hadn’t sent it. I don’t even know what happened to my apartment, my things.”
“I hope I can relieve you on that score at least. Your Dad asked me to take care of that—your rent was taken care of, and the lease closed out. All your things are here in Charleston. For now, at least, you’ve got a room here at the governor’s mansion, until you find a place to live.”
Tom had to strain to hear her almost whispered words.
Clark spoke. “Tell me a little more about the situation, General.”
Tom looked at his niece and sighed. His concern for Valerie, and his desire to make this a personal reunion, was outweighed by duty and the need to brief them on what had been happening in the state. But he didn’t have to like it. He started to reply, and was interrupted by the return of Lieutenant Thrasher, bearing a tray with a coffee pot.
Thrasher placed the tray on the table between them, then poured three cups of coffee. “I’m afraid we don’t have any actual cream here, but we do have some of the powdered stuff. I’ll check with the house staff on getting that corrected.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
Valerie sat with her hands cradled around the mug, absorbing the warmth, and breathed in the steam from the coffee, savoring it. The action was so… normal … that Tom could almost forget that she’d just spent three months in solitary confinement.
“Well,” Tom said. “Here’s the situation. I know the two of you were arrested the day hostilities began, so I’ll walk you through it. Essentially, we had a three day ground-war here. The state National Guard put up a ferocious fight, but they were overwhelmed. On the third day, Governor Slagter shot himself, and I accepted your father’s surrender, Valerie.”
Tension tightened Valerie’s expression. “Personally?”
Tom nodded, very slow. “Yes. I didn’t think—well, let’s just say I thought it would be best all around if it were he and I. He was taken into custody, and I suppose you know by now the results of that.”
Tom blinked his eyes as they watered involuntarily. The others were wiped out of his vision momentarily, as a vision of his brother’s execution intruded. The brother who had been his friend, and his hero.
“Valerie, for what it’s worth, I want you to know his last thoughts were of you. He…he asked me to look out for you, find out where you were being held and get you free. I’ve been doing everything I could to do just that.”
She stared at him, obviously fighting to maintain some semblance of control.
“Go on,” Clark said.
“Once we formally accepted the surrender, most of the federal troops were pulled out. I was appointed military governor, with one reinforced brigade left behind. I’ve been working to get things back up and running ever since. I can’t even begin to tell you what a challenge it’s been.
“I’ll be frank—West Virginia is bankrupt. Much of the state has gone through this winter with no power, minimal phone lines, and no services. Schools are still closed in a lot of counties because there is no money to pay the teachers and staff, and no heat in the school buildings. The state police are only up to half the manning they should have, and that’s pretty shaky. The three National Guard brigades are currently in custody here in Charleston, but all of their officers have been discharged, so we’re not really in a position to put them to use any time soon.”
Clark nodded, taking in the information. Tom only knew the former Congressman by reputation—the two had never met before now. But Ken had always spoken very highly of him. How had the three months of imprisonment affected him? Would he be effective as governor? God only knew they needed a strong hand at the helm, but that hand had to be a civilian’s.
“How is the economy?” Clark asked.
“It’s a shamble,” Tom replied. “We’ve had difficulty getting basic services back in place, particularly power. Business is still slow, and jobs are scarce. It’s much worse in the cities—at least in the rural areas, people are more prepared to deal with long periods without work. We’ve had riots in Charleston, and the mood is sometimes very ugly. Plus, half the legislature is still absorbed in the whole independence issue. It took me two months before I could even get a quorum to meet in the State House. As I’m sure you can imagine, the first order of business was to elect a new governor: the last thing I wanted was to be a long-standing military governor. You got stuck with the job.”
Clark responded. “That must have created some difficulty in Washington.”
Tom gave a wry smile. “You could say that. There were howls from the Justice Department and Homeland Security in particular. The media has been reporting dutifully every day on the fact that no charges had been pressed against the two of you. That’s one of the reasons I flew you out here in a military transport—if you’d flown commercial, you’d have never made it through the cordon of reporters.”
“I can only imagine,” said Clark.
“So, that’s the situation. To the extent we can, we’ve been running relief supplies all over the state. Food, water, generators. And that brings us to this morning. One of my supply columns was attacked by some locals claiming to be militia. They managed to make off with both weapons and supplies, and shot down two helicopters. I don’t know where they got surface-to-air missiles, but they have them.”
“Dear Lord,” Clark said. “Do you know who they are? Where did it happen?”
“No idea who they are. It happened in Whitesville—that’s in Boone County, not too far south of here, on the Coal River. It begs the question whether we’re at risk of looking at a wider insurgency, or is this just some disgruntled locals. We don’t know the answer to that, but I have to assume the worst.”
He watched Clark to gauge his reaction. He knew Clark had voted against the independence referendum last fall. At the same time, the then Congressman had returned to Charleston to accept the position of Secretary of State in the briefly independent West Virginia. Where did his loyalties lie?
Clark’s face betrayed nothing. “Who is investigating?”
“My provost marshal and the Criminal Investigative Division. You’ll meet him later on. Unfortunately, we’ve got some serious gaps in the state police and military department, and frankly, I don’t trust the acting Secretary.”
“Who is that?”
“Asa Hatfield. Do you know him?”
Clark shook his head. “We’ve met once or twice, that’s it. I don’t even know which way he went on independence.”
“Nobody does—he plays his cards close to the vest. If you’re up to recommendations from me, that’s one of my first ones. You need someone you can trust in that job, and I don’t think he’s it.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” Clark said. “If I remember correctly, Hatfield’s brother was Logan County Sheriff, one of the brigade commanders in the Guard. Any idea what happened to him?”
“Captured. He’s in Kansas, awaiting his court-martial.”
“That can’t make the brother happy.”
“No, it certainly doesn’t. He’s one you want to keep an eye on.”
A pause in the conversation; then Clark spoke again. “All right, what happens next?”
Tom replied. “This afternoon, the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court will swear you in as Governor. At the same time, I’ll formally step down as military governor of West Virginia. I’ll retain my status as an advisor and overall commander of the military here. If this were a foreign deployment, we’d negotiate a status of forces agreement, so we could clearly define responsibilities and accountability. I suggest we proceed as if that were the case.
“I’ve called for a cabinet meeting immediately after your inauguration, so you can meet your department heads. From there—it’s up to you. I’ll advise you, and offer all the resources I can. The bottom line is, we’ve got to get this state up and running again, and quickly. As bad as things are, I’m very worried they could worse. We’re in a race against time.”
As he spoke, Tom watched Valerie. Her face was closed, expressionless, and the more he watched her, the more uncomfortable he became.
“For now, I’ll ask Lieutenant Thrasher to show you to your rooms so you can get cleaned up. I’ll put him at your disposal for the next couple of days if you need anything at all. He can make arrangements for haircuts, clothes, whatever you need.”
“Thank you, General.”
Tom stood. “Governor—we’ve never known each other, but I know you were friends with my brother. I’d be honored if you’d just call me Tom.”
Clark smiled. “Tom, then. Thank you.”
Valerie stood without a word, and Lieutenant Thrasher said, “If you’ll come this way, I’ll show where you are staying.”
The two started to follow the young Lieutenant; then Valerie stopped and turned back. Her face showed the first expression he’d seen since she’d stepped from the helicopter—grief etched in every line.
“Uncle Tom—you were the only person my Dad listened to. Why couldn’t you stop him?”
Tom flinched, and his half-smile slipped into a grimace. “Valerie—I don’t think anyone could have talked to Ken about this. I tried. He was determined.”
“I know,” she whispered.
Tom Murphy was ten years younger than his brother had been, only ten years older than his niece. Looking at her now, she seemed like the kid he’d known twenty years ago—composed, serious, but fragile. She’d soon be thirty, and in just three years she’d lost her entire family: brother and father in the last six months. Was it any wonder that she was reeling?
“Valerie, I can never replace your Dad, but—if you ever need someone to talk to, you know where to find me. I promised him I’d do whatever I could to take care of you.”
She shrugged. “Sure. Whatever.” Then she turned away.
Tom watched her go, and tried to keep a grip on his emotions. Ken, why didn’t you appeal? Why did you go so meekly to your death? Those kind of questions didn’t lead anywhere. All he knew was that Valerie was a woman who was as wounded as anyone he’d ever seen. Alongside his grief, he felt a flash of resentment for his older brother, who had left behind such a catastrophic mess for Tom to clean up.
He checked his watch. Ten minutes. He never had enough time these days. He left the room and walked back to the Operations Center.
Colonel Todd was already there to meet him, towering over the battle captains as he stalked back and forth across the room, anger writ large on his face.
As Tom entered, the operations officer called out, “Attention!” The officers in the room jumped to their feet.
“As you were,” Tom said. “Standing order: from now on, none of that when I come in. We may be going back on a war footing, and you’ve got more important things to do. Colonel Todd? Is Colonel Sanchez here yet?”
Todd shook his head. “He sent his XO, sir. Major Avedis, here.” He pointed to a young major, pale as moonshine, standing behind him. The major was almost as tall as Colonel Todd.
Tom felt a flash of rage and cursed. The major flinched. “Don’t worry, Major, I don’t bite. Go on in the conference room there, we’ll be right in.”
Major Avedis stepped away, entering the conference room off the main operations center.
Tom walked close to Colonel Todd and spoke in low tones. “Rick, what the hell was Colonel Sanchez’ excuse this time?”
Todd’s mouth twisted into a frown. “He says he’s working an operation, sir.”
“Not anymore,” Tom said. “I’m relieving him.”
Colonel Todd’s eyes widened. “You sure you want to do that, sir?” Tom had known Rick Todd for going on twenty years: his hesitation made Tom slow down a little and explain himself.
“Rick,” Tom said. “I may have only had this star on my collar for a month, but I’ll be damned if I’ll have one of my battalion commanders ignore a direct order to report here. Who the fuck does he think he is? This is the second time! We’ve got what may be a full-blown insurgency blowing up in our face right now, and my Military Intelligence commander is off ‘monitoring an operation?’ What the hell we do we have battle captains for?”
Colonel Todd nodded. “I know, sir, and for what it’s worth, I agree. Sanchez is a serious liability if we’re actually going back on a war footing. But he’s got a lot of friends in high places, General. You won’t do yourself any favors with this one.”
Tom shrugged. “I’ll live. What do you know about his XO?”
Colonel Todd knew when it was time to stop pressing. He took the switch without a pause. “Major Cory Avedis. Bowling Green ’09. He’s an up and comer—already made the Lieutenant Colonel’s list, and way too young for it. Two years doing counterinsurgency as an advisor in Indonesia, followed by a stint as aide-de-camp to General Wells. Got himself a Silver Star during the war in January, but I don’t know all the details behind that.”
Tom grunted. “Okay, he’ll do for now.”
Without another word he turned and walked into the new small conference room. Major Avedis jumped to his feet when he came in.
“Have a seat, Major. As of about five minutes ago, Colonel Sanchez is getting a transfer. You’re going to be in command of the battalion for a while.”
If Tom had whipped out a baseball bat and hit Major Avedis over the head, the major wouldn’t have looked more startled.
“All right,” Tom said. “What do we have?”
“Not much more information, sir,” Colonel Todd replied. “Whoever it was, they’ve got mucho balls. They could have taken out that squad easy and made off with the trucks. Instead, they waited, lured out the choppers, and then took those out.”
Tom nodded. “What does that tell us, Major?”
Avedis replied, “They wanted to make a statement, loud and clear. I’d guess by tonight they’ll put out a press release, or stick something up on the net. They want people to know that we’re not invulnerable. It also says they’ve got significant planning capability: if I had to guess, I’d say whoever’s running the show is former military.”
“Agreed,” Tom said. “Who is the audience for the message, though?”
Todd looked thoughtful as Avedis replied. “It depends on their objective, sir, but I’d say almost certainly civilians. If they’re following classic insurgent tactics, we’ll see more attacks against our soft-points, and against anyone who works with us.”
“Right,” Tom said. “Which raises the next question, which is going to be your number one concern, Major.”
“Someone in our command structure tipped them off. I’m guessing it was someone in the cabinet—some of those folks are pissed West Virginia lost the war. CID’s going to be investigating from the inside, but your job is to work with them as you start collecting intelligence about the enemy. I want to know who the fuck these people are, yesterday. And I want to know who they’re talking to on the inside.”
Tom looked at the young major, trying to gauge his ability to pull this off. Avedis had the confidence, for sure; and Colonel Todd had spoken highly of him, which spoke volumes. Todd didn’t hand out compliments. Well, if he was good enough for this, he’d already have some thoughts in mind and should more than familiar with the capabilities of his unit.
“What’s your plan?” Tom said.
Avedis responded without hesitating. “First thing is we need to identify links. I’ll want to put someone on my team together with CID so we can run down everybody who knew where that relief column was going to be and when. Any ideas how many people that might have been, sir?”
Tom looked over at Colonel Todd.
Todd shook his had. “Too many. Everyone on our team in the headquarters of course, plus the battalion command and supply folks. The cabinet members themselves, plus whoever they might have told. State police, what’s left of ‘em.”
Avedis nodded. “That’s what I thought. I’m assuming we’re going to shift to a higher alert footing, in terms of who know about operations? Need to know?”
“We run down that list of people who knew or might have known where the column was going. Run their credit reports, find out who they’re related too, especially if they are from that part of the state. Political donations, any public records. CID would have to do the bulk of that, or Homeland Security, I’m not sure which makes the most sense. While that’s going on, we’ve been putting together a team on our side who are from the region – mostly Kentucky, some from West Virginia. They’ll go undercover as much as we can, here in Charleston and in the other cities. Where we’ll have trouble is in the little towns. The attack was in Whitesville? Population there’s about a thousand people. They’ll know any strangers. We’ll be better off recruiting locals for information there.”
“Agreed,” Tom said.
“What I’d like to do, sir, is really put together a good network. Not just in that area, but across the entire state. Recruit folks in every town who can pass us information. It’ll cost some money.”
Tom sat back. Okay, the kid was thinking. That was the most important part. “Okay, do it. Let me worry about the money. Are you going to have any problems within the battalion? With you taking over command? It won’t be permanent, but it might take a few weeks before we have a light Colonel who can take the slot.”
Avedis nodded. “Yes, sir, I think I might, to be honest. Major Blake Harwood—he’s the S3, and is senior to me by date of rank.”
“All right,” Tom answered. “I’ll take care of Major Harwood.”
“Thank you, sir.”
A knock at the door interrupted him.
“Come!” Tom called.
The door opened, and the watch officer stuck his head inside.
“General, sorry to interrupt, but we just a got a report I thought you should know about right away.”
“What is it?”
“Sir, call came in from the State Police as a heads up. The Boone County sheriff was found dead about an hour ago. Murdered.”
Colonel Todd let loose a long a slow whistle, and Tom sighed. “Any details?”
“Yes, sir, that’s why they called us. Whoever did it—they were petty thorough, tore his place apart. Tore him apart—apparently at least twenty gunshot wounds. Machine gun, maybe. They left a note—here’s the fax from the State Police.”
He handed a sheet of paper over. Tom lifted it, read the words, and then passed it over to Colonel Todd, shaking his head. The note confirmed his worst fears.
The note, written in block letters, contained only one word, written in large block letters:
1996 – Second interlude
When the phone rang, Joe Blankenship was half-laying on the old tattered couch watching an old black and white horror flick. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, had just cut into the film to make fun of the bad acting, leaving Joe half-laughing when the loud ringing startled him. He reached over and picked up the old rotary dial phone. His eyes glanced to the digital flip-clock radio on the stand next to his parents’ bedroom. The plastic tabs had just flipped to 2:05 AM.
“Joe? It’s Mandy.” Her voice was so distraught from crying he could barely understand her.
“Mandy, what’s wrong?”
“It’s my Dad. Can you… can you come get me? I’m …. Please?”
“Where are you?”
She sniffed, loud, then said, “Downtown, in front of the drug store.” Her voice broke into a tremor, and she whispered, “Please hurry? It’s cold out here.”
“I’m on my way.”
Joe stood, then stopped. His father, wearing a dirty t-shirt and boxer shorts, stood in the doorway to his bedroom.
“What’s going on, Joe? Where you headed?”
Joe unconsciously looked down at the floor and tensed, then back to his dad. “Picking up Mandy… I think her dad’s on a rampage again. She called me from downtown, asked me to come get her.”
The older man nodded his head slowly, then said, “You best get going then. Car keys are on the kitchen table.”
Joe let out a sigh of relief, then whispered, “Thanks, Dad.”
Outside was silent and extremely cold, the woods crowding in close to the house, a narrow stretch of stars clear in the sky between the hills.. Joe’s breath steamed as he got into the truck and started it. The venerable engine coughed into life on the third try, and he backed away from the decrepit frame house and steered out into the empty road. Five minutes later the truck cab still hadn’t warmed much when he reached downtown.
Mandy was hard to miss, standing in the icy cold in front of the drug store in an old pair of sweats and a giant Tweety-bird t-shirt. What the hell had her old man done, that she’d run outside in her pajamas?
He pulled to a stop, leaned across the seat and opened the door. “Hey, get in.”
She stepped up into the cab and he took off his down coat and passed it to her. “It’s not warmed up here yet, put this on.”
Trembling and teeth chattering, she nodded gratefully, apparently unable to speak clearly.
“Let’s get back to the house and get you something warm to drink.”
She crossed her arms across her chest, pulled her knees up close and nodded rapidly.
Joe simply drove. He’d long since learned that Mandy would talk when she was ready and not a moment before. Right now, his priority was to get her indoors next to a space heater with a hot cup of tea. All the same, he felt the stirrings of rage at the crippled bastard who had fathered her. Frank Mays might have been a good miner, and a good friend to Joe’s dad, but he was also an out-and-out son of a bitch, especially when he was drinking the hard stuff. Usually the first week or so of each month, right after his disability check came.
This being the third day of February, the sinewy old sot was due for a brawl.
Five minutes later they were back at the house. Mandy sat in front of the electric space heater, wrapped in a blanket. Joe poured steaming hot water into a large mug, dropped a tea bag in, and two spoons of sugar. He carried the cup into the other room and handed it to her. She took it, a grateful expression on her face, and cupped the mug between her hands.
Joe sat down across from her and held his hands out toward the space heater.
“You want to talk about it?” he asked.
She didn’t answer right away. Whatever had happened must have been pretty bad. Her face showed the lines of strain and her eyes still reflected fear. Mandy didn’t scare easily.
They both looked up at the sound of Joe’s dad clearing his throat from the cracked bedroom door.
Joe’s dad nodded toward the small pile of blankets and pillows resting on the floor at the end of the threadbare couch. “Joe, you can sleep on the couch, and let Mandy have your room.”
His face flashed a short expression of regret, and he frowned, then said in a gruff tone, “I know your Daddy’s gone off the deep end a few times since he got hurt. Your welcome to stay here as long as you need to. You’re family, far as I’m concerned, understand?”
Mandy’s eyes watered suddenly, and she said at a whisper, “Thank you, Mr. Blankenship.”
“Here now, none of that eye waterin’ silliness. I’m off to bed. Joe, you take good care of her, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe responded.
The old man looked back and forth between them, then firmly closed the door.
Mandy took a sip of her tea, then whispered, “Sometimes I think I’m going to hell. Because I wish my dad was dead, and I had yours.”
Joe responded quickly. “Wishes ain’t acts, Mandy. You can’t help what you feel, and God knows your dad’s not been right since the accident.”
She shook her head. “He wasn’t right before the accident. It’s just now he’s got an excuse to be a complete bastard.”
She whispered, “He came at me with a knife, Joe.”
He sat up straight, said, “He did what?”
She closed her eyes. “I think he was having some kind of hallucination. He kept shouting about Mom and the devil and … I don’t know. Bob heard the screaming and came running, grabbed the knife from him. He pushed him over out of the wheelchair.” She opened her eyes and the tears ran freely down her face. “My dad’s a … a monster, Joe. I think he would have really hurt me if Bob hadn’t stopped him. I just… just ran. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Joe reached out and took her hand. She was shaking.
She hiccoughed, and then spoke again, her voice still on the edge of a whisper. “Thank you for coming to get me, Joe.”
Joe looked at Mandy, squeezed her hand gently, and said, “I’d come get you anywhere, Mandy. No matter where you were. No matter what.”
Joe’s eyes popped open at the sound of something heavy hammering against the front door. The house wasn’t much to speak of: cheap framing and clapboard siding that had seen its best days well before Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in the Presidential race. The entire edifice shook from the hammering on the door.
Joe shot off the couch and opened the door. “What the hell?”
Frank Mays jerked the shotgun he’d hammered against the door back to his lap, then brought it up and pointed the gun at Joe.
“Where is she, boy?” he thundered.
The twin barrels of the shotgun were so big Joe couldn’t see anything else at all. He stammered, “Mr. Mays… uh…”
“Don’t mess with me or I’ll turn your hide into a god damn rug! Where is she?”
Mandy’s father’s eyes were wide and bloodshot. His words were heavily slurred, and not just from drink: the right side of his face seemed to have collapsed in on itself, as if all the muscles on that side had simply let go. Heavy jowls on that side hung down, and a small spot of drool collected on his chin.
Despite the thumping of his heart, Joe realized that it wasn’t just Mr. Mays’ face: the man cradled the shotgun on his left side. His right arm hung loose against the armrest of his wheelchair. Frank Mays had suffered a stroke, and recently. Did he even realize it? They’d known for a while he wasn’t in his right mind, but Joe couldn’t help but wonder if he had a mind left at all. And if not, what that meant for Joe, who was standing at the wrong end of a loaded a shotgun.
At that moment he heard both bedroom doors in the house behind him open near enough to simultaneously. Without turning, he called out, “Mandy, Dad, stay back!”
Mays’s eyes narrowed, and he said, “I told you not to fuck with me, boy. Send her out here now.”
Joe took a deep breath, and spoke slow and clearly. “Mr. Mays, lets be calm. Mandy’s perfectly safe, and we don’t want any accidents to happen.”
“Yer goddamn right, boy. You think I don’t know what you’re up to, dragging my daughter out in the middle of the night? I ought to blow your goddamn no good head off right here and now.”
Joe swallowed, then said, “Sir, with all due respect, until you sober up, Mandy’s staying right where she is. I won’t have her hurt.” As he spoke, he tensed. Heavy footsteps were approaching behind him… his father. He needed to calm this situation down before Mays did something crazy.
A beat up and rusted pick up pulled up behind Mays’s van. It was Bob, Mandy’s older brother. Bob shot out of the truck and called out, “Dad! Put the shotgun down!”
“Shut up, Bobby! This is between me and the boy here.”
Joe’s dad appeared beside him, gently pushing Joe to the side.
“Frank, you’re not gonna hurt a kid, now, are you?”
“Your boy picked up my daughter in the middle of the night! What the hell you think I’m gonna do?”
“Now, let’s chill out just a little, Frank. Mandy was out in the cold without even a coat to keep her warm. And Joe here slept on the couch, gave Mandy his room, so she’d be warm and safe. You got nothing to worry about.”
The shotgun started to waver, and lowered just a little bit. Joe didn’t hesitate. He jumped forward and grabbed it, raising the barrel into the air, then yanked it savagely away from Mandy’s father. Frank Mays let out a string of curses, then an animal cry as the bones in his trigger finger snapped.
Joe stepped back quickly as his dad went to Mays and grabbed his shoulders. He opened the stock and cleared the loaded rounds, dumping them to the ground.
Mandy burst out the front door, wearing a badly fitting pair of Joe’s jeans and a t-shirt that nearly hung to her knees. She kneeled down beside her father, who was howling in pain from the broken finger.
“Daddy? Are you all right?” Her voice was frantic.
Mays lashed out viciously with his unharmed fist, hitting her in the face with the sound of crunching bone. She fell back to the ground with a cry.
Joe shoved the wheelchair bound man backward, then crouched over Mandy as Frank Mays let loose a string of expletives. Joe gently lifted her as she held a hand against her face. Blood was pouring from her nose.
Bobby cut off the cursing from his father. “You vicious old shit! What the hell did you do that for?”
By this time the neighbors were watching from their front porches, and Joe heard the sound of an approaching siren.
Joe’s dad said, “Bobby, keep your dad over there and shut him up. Joe? Get Mandy some ice for that face. What a clusterfuck.” He shook his head.
Joe quietly said, “Come on inside, Mandy.”
The pair went back into the house, just as a sheriff’s deputy turned the corner onto the street. Bobby and Joe’s dad could deal with them for now.
When Jim Turville joined the Army, he fully expected to find himself deployed in a war zone eventually. After all, the Army and Marine Corps had born the brunt of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the years he was growing up. It was pretty much guaranteed that if you were foolish enough to sign up, and then, even more foolishly, ask to be assigned to the Infantry: you were going to war.
He never expected that war to be less than two hundred miles from home. But the last two years had changed his life beyond all recognition. Two years ago he was a high school senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, where he’d done well, if not outstandingly. He could have easily been accepted into George Mason or some other college, but not long after the beginning of his senior year, he’d announced his intention to join the Army instead.
His mother tried to persuade him otherwise. He could do so much more with his life, she said. The military would send him far from home, and the odds of coming wounded, either physically or psychically, seemed all too high. Not to mention the fact that for more than ten years, soldiers were churned in multiple tours in and out of Iraq and other countries.
This argument only infuriated Turville’s father. Pat Turville was a firefighter, a brave man (and a drunk one), who had served a tour in Iraq with the National Guard. Turville’s father argued, persuasively, that the military wouldn’t do him any harm.
Unfortunately, Dad was probably the strongest example of his mother’s argument. After his Iraq tour, he’d come home bitter, suffering from trauma, and consumed with anger at anyone he perceived as questioning the value or righteousness of the war. Ten years wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of that anger; much less to heal.
Unfortunately, “those” people, as he often put it, included his wife. Politics became a taboo subject in the house when Turville was in middle school, because the alternatives—divorce or homicide—were unthinkable.
Turville graduated, spent the summer and early fall working whatever odd jobs he could find, then left for one-station unit training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Basic training was uneventful as far as such things go. He’d breezed through the classroom and field training and enjoyed the challenge of it. Once it was all over he was assigned to 1st Battalion Fifteenth Infantry at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he managed to completely screw up during his first week with the company.
That would have blown over eventually, but when the Federal Building in Charleston, West Virginia was destroyed in a terrorist bombing last September, 1/15 Infantry was deployed to provide security at the site. Tensions were already far too high in the area when Turville’s company was assigned to assist the police in a cordon and search operation. Their assignment was pretty simple—move en masse through the streets as the local police and state bureau of investigation questioned potential witnesses and suspects.
Then, as they moved down an alley, the unthinkable happened. They saw a young man with a gun, and when they flushed him out with tear gas he came running out of the alley raising the weapon.
At least they thought it was a weapon. Turville opened fire, killing what turned out to be a teenager, armed with nothing more threatening than a video camera.
Turville didn’t have to think hard to remember the kid. Short, but well built, he’d worn a baggy black raincoat and high-top shoes. His camera had been an expensive one—a gift, as it turned out, from his grandmother. Logan Jefferson was his name, and he’d been an honors student in high school and was expected to go to college to study filmmaking.
During Turville’s two month stay at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, following his injury during the ground war, he’d spent a lot of time pondering the differences between him and Logan Jefferson. Neither of them had grown up rich, and they’d both pursued similar interests in high school. Turville was a few years older, for sure, and white, but it wasn’t too crazy to think that at one point their lives might have intersected. That is, if Logan Jefferson hadn’t been killed.
Murdered, the sometimes cynical, self-critical voice inside Turville said.
The Article 32 investigation recommended against a court-martial, effectively clearing him; but he’d be a fool to not recognize that his exoneration had as much to do with the flow of events as it had with him. After all, no one ever even argued the fact that he’d, against orders, loaded his weapon and fired on a civilian.
At the last minute, Captain Mike Morris—then the company commander—had fallen on his sword, taking responsibility for Turville’s screwup.
But Turville knew who was at fault all the same. If he hadn’t disobeyed orders by loading his weapon, there would have been no accidental killing.
All of which made him more determined than ever to never, ever screw up again. And made him more than a little uncomfortable with the news he had received this morning.
Just before chow, Sergeant Nguyen, his squad leader, appeared in the tent Turville shared with three other infantryman. Nguyen was an odd mix of genetics, the result of a tiny Vietnamese mother and a Kentucky born and bred giant. The resulting mix of Asian facial features, rural Kentucky colloquialisms and oversized body and voice merely made him more vivid to the soldiers in his squad. The big Vietnamese-American sergeant seemed to fill the tiny tent, his gaze falling on each of the enlisted men before settling on Turville.
“Specialist Turville,” boomed Nguyen.
Turville jumped to his feet.
“Got some news for you,” Nguyen went on. He glanced at the other three soldiers—Tilman, Santiago, and Nowell—and went on. “These jokers might as well hear it as well. First, we’re having a full company formation at 0900 hours—they’re making some changes in our mission. We’re going to be out in the field amongst the natives from now on. Turville, make sure you’ve got a clean uniform. They’re giving you a Bronze Star for getting yourself shot trying to rescue Sergeant O’Donnell.”
Someone muttered, “Holy shit.”
Turville nodded. “Yes, sergeant.”
“Second bit—you guys will not be getting a new fire team leader. You got the job, Turville. You’re getting promoted.”
Turville swallowed and glanced at the other three men in the tent. Then he said, “Sergeant, why me?”
Nguyen frowned. “What? Don’t want the job?”
“It’s not that, Sarge. It’s—can we talk outside?”
“Fuck that, I’m not standing around in the cold. Privates! Get the hell out of the tent!”
Turville stood as the other three tent-mates groaned theatrically and cleared out of the tent. Once they were gone, he spoke.
“Sergeant, I’m honored. I’m just a little—well, you know, Sarge. I screwed up last fall and shot that kid. I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”
Nguyen nodded. “Yeah, I thought about that. I’ll tell you what, Turville. Yeah, you screwed up. Big time. You’re lucky not to be in prison, and sometimes you’re so dumb you couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the directions printed on the bottom. But, on the other hand, you put your ass on the line to pull your Sergeant out. Then the other day, when those choppers went down, you were the only person in the squad who thought first to protect the civilians. That was the clincher as far as I’m concerned. I told the Lieutenant I wanted you to get the job after that happened.”
Turville thought about that. He didn’t know why he’d run for the two teenage girls when the choppers had gone down. It just made sense at the time. The Lieutenant had called Short-Girl—Rebecca Mays—and the military police had returned her truck. He wondered if he’d ever see her again. Probably not. Somehow he didn’t think his instinctive move to protect the girls necessarily made him into a leader.
“Will I be going to PLDC?” he asked, referring to the Primary Leadership Development Course, the first class given to new and rising non-commissioned officers.
Nguyen snorted. “Yeah, eventually. But right now, see, we’re still in a war zone.”
“All, right, Sergeant.”
Nguyen smiled. “In that case, congratulations, Corporal Turville. We’ll make it official later today.” He held out his hand for Turville to shake.
Turville took the hand, but he couldn’t shake his doubts.