Identity Check -Chapter Two

New exciting mystery-thriller now available on amazon.com on Kindle or paperback. Here’s the second chapter…

College junior Scott Harold, dressed in bleached-out jeans, a scarlet and gray varsity sweater, and brown penny loafers, looked at his watch–late again. He promised to meet Jessie for lunch but had run into some friends near the Natatorium and time had simply slipped away.

He picked up the pace, passing the William Oxley Thomas Memorial Library, weaving in and out of the hundreds of Ohio State students hurrying to class on the many sidewalks that crisscrossed the Oval. Chimes in nearby Orton Hall rang out the three-quarter hour as the powder blue spring sky started to cloud up. A few drops of rain fell on his face. Now he wished he’d listened to the WCOL weather report this morning before heading out to his six AM swim practice.

Covering his head with the campus newspaper, The Lantern, Scott waited for the light at Fifteenth and High Street to change. He smiled as he thought back to how he and Jessie had first met only a few months ago.

#

His fraternity, the Lambda Chi’s, wearing their traditional blue blazers, with matching striped ties, and tan chinos, had walked over to serenade the Delta Gammas. After the brothers finished the first song, instead of the girls coming outside to respond, the housemother stuck her head out the door, smiled mysteriously, and invited them inside the sorority house.

There, like a Busby Berkeley movie, poised on each step of a curving grand staircase, stood a bevy of the most beautiful women Scott had ever seen. On cue, the ladies slowly descended, each holding a flickering candle while singing a lilting ditty from Brigadoon. Although each girl appeared as beautiful as the next, he focused his attention on one particularly stunning young woman, who easily outshone the others, with her flashing eyes, high cheekbones, and international mystique.

Scott watched in fascination as this intriguing young lady, dressed in a flowing chiffon gown, got closer and closer, and then he broke out laughing when he spotted, just below the hem, a slip poking out imprinted with tiny Minnie Mouse figures. Black army boots adorned with polka dot laces completed the outfit.

Curious to meet this fashion diva, he worked his way through the boisterous crowd to her side. “Hi,” he shouted over the noise. “I’m Scott Harold. Love your boots.”

She looked him up and down, and then asked, “Are you wearing any underwear?”

Scott checked his zipper, relieved to see it remained closed. “Ah, yes, why do you ask?”

“You strike me as the kind of guy who might go commando to one of these shindigs.”

Scott blushed. “Thanks…I think…and you are?”

“Thirsty,” she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward the dining room. “Buy me a drink, and if you’re lucky, I’ll tell you my fascinating life story.”

They stood in line forever for a half-filled paper cup of chilled fruit punch, plus the last of the coveted chocolate-covered mint cookies and then found space to sit down on one of the living room couches.

She faced him, her brown eyes open full…their knees touching. “OK, you’ve got one shot–so, impress me.”

Scott thought, be bold, don’t hesitate, and don’t be clichéd. No, wait, what if she talks brash, but is really shy? Oh crap, I can’t screw this up. What should I say?

Jessie raised an eyebrow. “You with the zombie stare–did I put you to sleep, or is the pressure too great to carry on a normal conversation?”

He blurted out, “You are the most beautiful woman in the world–and I can lick my own eyebrows.”

She laughed so hard punch came out her nose. “Good one–and as a token of good faith in this negotiation, I am not wearing any underwear.”

“Would you go out with me?” he said.

“You’re cute, but a little dense. I’m giving off such a positive signal that I could be mistaken for a lighthouse. I think I’ll call you, Pookie.”

Scott frowned. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“What if I called you, Snookums?”

“Would it help with the Pookie thing?”

Scott shook his head. “Not really.”

“Okay, no nicknames, until we get to know each other better. Pick me up Friday night at eight.” She stood up to go.

Scott touched her arm. “Wait, what’s your name.”

She turned and smiled. “Jessie.”

#

That wonderful beginning had led to a series of incredible dates. Now Scott thought only of Jessie…his former girlfriends left far behind. His fraternity brothers had grown fond of her too. She had become a house favorite after showing up for the Hell’s Angels party on a Harley Fat Boy Classic, wearing nothing but combat boots, a red bikini, and a German World War Two helmet.

Today, Scott intended to take their relationship to the next level.

He entered the Char Bar and scanned the packed restaurant. It didn’t take long to spot Jessie because at five-foot-seven she easily stood out amongst the crowd. Wearing an open bolero-length leather jacket and jeans, she leaned against a high-backed booth, chatting away with Pam, one of her sorority sisters.

Jessie saw him approaching and loudly announced to the entire restaurant, “Mr. Scott Harold, here you are at last. I feared you had abandoned me. I’m pregnant and you won’t pay for an abortion. I’m ruined–ruined, I tell you.” She broke into tears and covered her face with her hands.

Several students within earshot gave him a disgusted look–including sister Pam, whose eyes grew so large she almost popped a blood vessel.

“Very funny, Jessie,” he said. “That’s not true…and please lower your voice, people are staring.”

Jessie took his hands but continued speaking at top volume. “When you left me that morning, ravaged from a torrid night of savage sex, you promised to love me forever. But by the next weekend, you couldn’t remember my name. Now I’m a gal in trouble, and you won’t return my phone calls.”

Pam’s jaw fell to her chest.

Scott whispered. “Tell Pam we haven’t done…it yet before she has a kitten.”

Jessie gave a clear, no holds barred laugh, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed the end of his nose. He loved that laugh–one of her many wonderful attributes, along with her trademark scent that smelled like a blend of fresh flowers and the lusty month of May. Whenever he got a whiff, he would flashback to their last make out session.

The rest of the Char Bar patrons went back to their meals, as the couple slid into the booth opposite Pam. Jessie said, “So, where have you been, dummy?”

“Sorry–unavoidably delayed.”

“Well, don’t let it happen again, or I’ll tie you down and spank you–oh wait, I already did that!” She laughed again.

Pam shook her head.

A waitress, in matching white apron and cap, took their orders. He selected the usual huge amount of food required to fill his six-foot frame, while the girls chose a salad, accompanied by the Char Bar’s famous double-thick milk shake. It amazed Scott that he could eat as much as he wanted and never weigh more than one-eighty-five–thanks to the four hours a day he spent in the pool as a member of the OSU swim team.

Jessie said, “Okay, we’ve ordered. What’s the secret you wanted to tell me?” Both girls leaned in for his answer.

He loved the way her eyes sparkled when she smiled. She was a wonderful, complex, intelligent woman who kept him constantly on his toes. And although she liked to shock people with her brazen sex talk, they had waited to sleep together because she wanted the moment to be right. Who could guess that Jessie would turn out to be a Romantic?

He swallowed hard, turned toward her, and held out a gold twin heart promise ring in his open hand. “Jessie, would you wear my ring?”

Across the table, Pam squealed and nodded yes faster than a bobble head mounted in a speeding car on a bumpy road.

Jessie remained silent; her eyes guarding her thoughts, for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she said, “I don’t know, Scott. First, I agree to go out with you–and now you want me to wear a promise ring. People will say we’re in love.”

“Well…aren’t we?”

Pam’s head started bobbing up and down again.

“This is a giant first step, followed by engagement, marriage, and a baby carriage. Do you want lots of children, Scott Harold?”

He stammered. “I…I…uh…didn’t think that far ahead…well, ah…we might, uh, maybe…”

She laughed. “Don’t panic, I have no desire to march down the aisle quite yet either.”

Scott let out a sigh of relief. “So, what do you think?”

“Of course, I will, silly.” Jessie slipped the ring on her finger. “Now kiss me.” She pushed him against the back of the booth, pressing her body against his. Fortunately, she stopped after a few seconds or he might have burst. Jessie demurely brushed back her hair and took another sip of her milkshake.

“I should give out promise rings more often,” Scott said, mopping his brow with a napkin.

Jessie punched him in the arm. “Not if you want to live.”

“You two should be arrested for making out like that in public,” said Pam.

“Well then, we’d better keep it private.” Under the table, Jessie slipped her hand between Scott’s thighs.

“No w-way,” Scott’s voice broke, as he put Jessie’s hand back on her side of the booth. “I want to tell everybody that you’re my girl.”

“Let’s take out an ad in the campus paper.”

“Come on, I’m serious…and I want you to meet my mother.”

Jessie shook her head. “Not after what you told me.”

“Why, what’s wrong with his mother?” Pam asked.

“She can be a little intimidating,” Scott admitted.

Jessie twirled several of the dark brown hairs on the back of his neck around her finger. “Must I go?”

“Only for a couple of days. We’ll stay over Saturday night, eat a home-cooked meal, and then drive back to campus on Sunday. I can give you your choice of accommodation in our twelve room historic home.”

“So, where in this giant residence is your room?”

“Sorry, Mom’s an old fashioned kind of lady with a very strict Catholic upbringing. I had to learn about the birds and the bees from the neighborhood kids.”

“So asking her to join us is pretty much out?”

He gave her a look. “What do you think?”

“I get the picture–your mom’s legs are glued together, and no hanky panky for us on the schedule either.”

“I didn’t say that–we always could go watch the submarine races on the Miami River.”

Jessie kissed him on the cheek. “Now you’re talking. Who knows, you might get your periscope wet this weekend. ”

Scott chuckled. “Whatever am I going to do with you?”

Jessie smiled like the Cheshire Cat. “How much time before your next class?”

*********************************************

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Identity Check -Chapter One

New exciting mystery-thriller now available on amazon.com on Kindle or paperback. Here’s the first chapter…

Calvin Mills, the senior Democratic Senator from Maryland, relaxed in his favorite leather chair, watching the latest CNN news summary. He’d spent a long day on the hill fighting for his water conservation bill and felt as drained as a rock star after a three-hour concert at JFK Stadium. After shutting down the big screen TV, he headed to the kitchen where he found Danny sitting at the table, eating a late-night meal. “You find everything you need?” The startled Secret Service agent jumped to his feet, his mouth stuffed with a man-sized bite of a turkey sandwich, and mumbled, “Yes, sir, appreciate your hospitality.” “This protection is a waste of taxpayer money,” Calvin said, as he grabbed a soda from the magnet-covered refrigerator. Danny, his white shirt opened at the neck and his striped tie pulled aside for comfort, discretely wiped mustard off his chin with his finger. “No matter how much you complain, sir, we’re not going away.” Calvin nodded. “Now sit down and finish your sandwich, I’m going to bed.” The senator climbed the stairs toward the second-floor master bedroom, paused at the midpoint landing to catch his breath, and then entered the bathroom to brush his teeth. Judy, his wife and best friend for more than thirty years, clad in a white silk nightgown, sat up in bed, leaning against the headboard, but remaining so engrossed in her latest romance novel, she didn’t notice him enter the room. The sounds of running water, gargling and spitting, however, broke her concentration. “Calvin Mills, is that you?” He stuck his head out. “No, dear, some stranger is using your sink. Honestly, if I can’t get your attention, how do you expect me to win the nomination next month?”
“Don’t pout because I fail to dote on your every move. Look, you are a shoo-in. You have a sizable lead in the polls, and Walter doesn’t stand a chance in the general election.” Calvin put the toothbrush back in its silver holder, crossed to the antique four-poster oak bed, and slipped under the covers. “I can’t remember when an incumbent President didn’t win the nomination, and by the way, today’s Washington Post editorial agrees with me. Maybe I should have accepted his offer to be Vice President.” Judy laid down her book. “Absolutely not…why play second fiddle when you can lead the orchestra?” He held her hand and looked at her slightly wrinkled, but still lovely face. “We’ve been down this trail many times. You think I can walk on water, but it would take an even bigger miracle for me to become President.” “Don’t sell yourself short. Who knows what will happen? If you can’t line up enough votes, we’ll strike a deal. Walter’s will need his own deus ex machina to stay in office, but no matter what happens between you two, we can’t let the Republicans move back into the White House.” He kissed his wife on the forehead. “Now I remember why I’ve kept you around all these years.” Judy swung a pillow at his head, but he ducked, and playfully pinned her on the bed. “Besides, if everything else falls through, my old law firm would take me back in a heartbeat.” Judy wiggled under his weight. “It’ll work out for the best. It always does. Now get off me, you big horse.” Calvin rolled over to his side of the bed, smiling, as his wife performed her evening ritual–turning the nightstand clock radio to light jazz from WJZW-FM, setting the sleep timer for thirty minutes, and kissing the ornate, silver-framed picture of their son, daughter-in-law, and three wonderful grandchildren. Judy sighed, settled under the covers and leaned over to give Calvin a peck on the cheek, “Goodnight, sweetheart.”
“Goodnight, dear.” He switched off the Tiffany lamp, and cuddled behind her, spooning like newlyweds. The moonlight through the bedroom windows projected a diffused tick-tack-toe pattern on the polished mahogany floor as they drifted off to sleep. # A tall figure, nearly invisible in his hooded black sweats, waited deep in the shadows within a stand of birch trees, his breath crystallizing in the cold night air. Through powerful infrared binoculars, Frank Tate observed the activities at the Mill’s large colonial home, nestled safely in the upscale community of Chevy Chase, Maryland. He checked his watch and smiled with satisfaction as the agent, like every other night, finished circling the house, punched in the home security code, and opened the back door–trading places with a second agent, who now stood under the porch light enjoying his last smoke of the evening. Nasty habit, Frank thought, doesn’t he know those things can kill you. Pulling a titanium compound hunting crossbow from his bag, he cocked the heavy gauge Dacron synthetic string, placed an aluminum shaft, four-bladed arrowhead into position, and took careful aim through the ATN Mars6x Gen.2 scope. His adrenaline surged as he squeezed the sensitive trigger and the arrow flew true to its mark. The agent could only gurgle as he tried in vain to shout a warning to his partner and the sleeping couple he had been assigned to protect. Before the injured man could pull his gun, Frank quickly crossed the perfectly-manicured lawn and pinned the agent against the house. While covering the man’s mouth with one hand, Frank plunged his hunting knife just below the ribs. He stared into the man’s eyes, watching him blink several times before the agent fell to his knees and toppled face-first to the cement. Frank retrieved his arrow by pushing it the rest of the way through the neck.
Frank’s head throbbed after another successful kill. He tried to rub it out, but the unrelenting pain and intense flashes of blinding light behind his eyes made relief impossible. He fumbled out a homemade briar pipe from his jacket pocket and filled the bowl with a pungent-smelling mixture of marijuana and tobacco. After tapping the crushed leaves down with his finger, he raised the pipe to his lips and held a match to the potent concoction until it began to glow. Taking several deep drags, his headache subsided to a tolerable level. Frank put out the pipe, broke down his crossbow and tucked it away along with his arrow, and then advanced to the still open doorway. He peered into the empty kitchen and then inched his way forward into the home. He lowered his bag silently onto the kitchen table and stole a bite of a mostly-eaten sandwich lying there. Grabbing some paper napkins from an antique holder, he wiped clean the freshly-coagulated blood along the blade’s serrated edges but chose the back of his sleeve to brush away a few bread crumbs from the corner of his mouth. One down, one to go, he thought. Hearing a TV playing in the den, Frank bent low and crept across the carpet until he reached a spot behind the second agent. With the only light coming from the flickering screen, he rose, silent as a specter, knife in hand, and ended the man’s life with one slashing stroke, while a late night comedian made jokes about President Kendall’s latest ineptness. Crossing to the stairs, Frank looked up into the darkness and listened for any noise coming from his primary target. The blinding flashes returned, so he lit his pipe again, and then step-by-step climbed toward the master bedroom, hugging the wall as he went, so the stairs wouldn’t creak and provide any advance warning, although he wasn’t too concerned about the sleeping couple putting up much of a struggle. # Jazz still played on the clock radio, but discordant free-form improvisation didn’t cause Mrs. Mills to jerk awake–it was her keen sense of smell. She wrinkled her nose and shook her husband. “Calvin, get up. Something’s burning on the stove.” He moaned and replied without turning over. “Why does your imagination go into overdrive the minute I fall asleep? We never cook, so there can’t be anything burning–unless one of the agents decided to surprise us with a Sunday roast.” But then he picked up the scent too. Now a non-smoker, he could still recognize–and briefly crave–burning tobacco, but the familiar aroma was mixed with a sweetness he hadn’t smelled since his undergraduate days at Yale. Now wide awake, Calvin sat straight up in bed, put on his glasses and scanned the room for the source of the odd scent. He stopped at the bedroom door when he came upon a red glow, like a demonic eye, staring back at him. “Who’s there?” He shouted. But his words had barely left his lips before the stranger took three quick strides to the astonished senator’s side, pinned him to the headboard, and sliced a jagged trench just below his distinguished chin. Calvin turned toward his wife with a look of astonishment before sliding down to his pillow; coming to rest in an expanding pool of blood. Judy stared up at the man, trembling, crying. She tried to speak, but nothing came out until one pleading word emerged. “Why?” Frank shrugged. “It’s j-just some-thin’ I g-gotta do.” He moved toward her, and she screamed, “Danny…John,” but no one answered. Frank hated to do this, especially to a sweet old lady, but his orders were clear–no witnesses. As he reached for her, she picked up a silver picture frame from the nightstand and threw it at his head. He ducked and saw the missile shatter against the wall, sending shards of glass flying everywhere. Judy scrambled across her dead husband and ran out the bedroom door screaming. He caught her at the top of the stairs, his strong fingers snapping one of the thin straps of her nightgown, causing the woman to ricochet off the banister, half falling, half tumbling down the steps–collapsing in a heap at the bottom. Taking three stairs at a time, Frank hauled the dazed woman to her feet and held her tightly from behind. His head next to hers, he picked up the faint scent of her lily-of-the-valley perfume. Judy’s eyes opened in terror as he whispered into her ear, “S-S-Sorry ma’am.” With a gloved hand, he drew the knife across the woman’s delicate white throat, simultaneously severing another scream and the carotid artery. He scooped up her crumpled body in his arms, cradling the woman like a small child, and carried her back upstairs-carefully placing her beside her dead husband. He watched her lacy pillowcase turn dark red, the sticky blood making a mess of what used to be her immaculately-styled, mostly gray hair. After wiping his weapon on the bedspread, he put it back in its sheath and knelt down beside Mrs. Mills. He drew close, gently stroked her pale cheek, and wept–such a waste. Shaking off the sadness, Frank picked up his pipe from where he had dropped it during the attack and relit it. The drug, along with a moment of meditation, helped reduce the pounding in his head long enough for him to finish his assigned task. He opened a jewelry box on the dresser, stuffed a handful of rings, bracelets, and necklaces into his jacket pocket and threw the box on the floor. In a quick turn around the bedroom, Frank knocked over a lamp, trashed some books, and for good measure kicked a hole in small TV sitting on a wheeled stand in the corner. Pushing aside the clothes in the closet, he ran his hand along the floor looking for a seam, until he found and removed a small square of Velcroed carpet. Pulling a piece of paper from his pocket, he dialed the in-floor safe combination, opened the heavy metal door, and removed several documents and a banded stack of cash. Frank flipped off the light, bounded down the stairs, and swept up his equipment bag on his way out the door. Producing a cell phone, he hit a pre-programmed number on the pad.
After three rings, a thin male voice answered, “Yes?” “I d-d-done it…like you t-t-told me.” “Good. I’ll send the money to your regular account, Frank.” “I d-don’t d-do this for the m-m-money.” “Whatever.” “Why d-d-did that woman have to d-die?” “Don’t worry about it, Frank. Just go home.” Frank walked to an unlocked gray Ford Taurus station wagon and threw his gear into the backseat. He had parked three blocks away in case any of the neighbors might be watching. Probably not a necessary precaution, because these days neighbors barely spoke, let alone looked out for each other. Nobody had ever cared about him or his sisters. He sighed, climbed in behind the wheel, took another deep drag on his pipe, and drove off into the night.

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Novel – DRAFTED – Chapter 15

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 The platoon gathered outside a ten-by-twelve wooden shack, far removed from any inhabited part of the base. The drill instructor held up a rubber gas mask with bug-eyed goggles, a pig’s snout containing two dense filters, and double straps that fit over your head. He explained how the mask protected us from enemy chemical warfare and that it did the Army no favors if we died or passed out and couldn’t fire at the bad guys. It made sense to me.

The training officer told us to put on our masks, and so adorned, we turned an alien army of insect men, waiting uneasily for our turn to test out the weird-looking apparatus. There was one rubber-sealed door to enter the windowless building, and another to exit. The first group of five soldiers entered, and about thirty seconds later came running out, one after the other, mask in hand, with crocodile tears streaming down their faces.

I swallowed hard after they called out Sam, Tex, Steve, Harry and I to go next. We pulled our mask straps tight to assure a firm seal, and then cautiously opened the door.

A single bare bulb in the ceiling and an illuminated exit sign hanging over the back door provided most of the light. The dirt floor hut stood empty except for a small wooden table in the corner that held a raised metal canister full of gas pellets with a burning six-inch candle underneath. Some smoke rose from the candle, but, for the most part, the air looked clear.

Sarge stood in the middle of the room, also wearing a mask. “I want each of you to take a deep breath.” We reluctantly did… and nothing happened. The darn things still worked, even though they were WW II surplus.

Sarge ordered Sam. “Take off your mask.” Sam glanced at us for support, closed his eyes, held his breath, and then removed his mask with his right hand. Sarge said, “Open your eyes and look at me.” Sam squinted, but his eyes still swelled up and the tears began to flow. “What’s your full name, Private?”

“Samuel L. Johnston, drill sergeant”

“Now say your serial number, slowly, so I can understand it.”

“267-00-9999, drill sergeant.” The tears ran like a river now.

Sarge waited another few seconds. “Okay, private, you’re dismissed.”

Sam ran like hell for the back door, bawling like a baby. Sarge followed the same process for Steve and Tex but held Harry and me until last.

Catching us by surprise, Sarge reached out and ripped off our masks before we closed our eyes or held our breath. Harry cried out, a huge mistake because he got a giant gulp of the gas when he inhaled. He started running around like a headless chicken, first bumping into the table, knocking over the candle and tear gas canister, and then ran full speed into Sarge, almost knocking him down.

Sarge grabbed Horowitz by the shoulders. “Stand still, you little shit. What’s your name?”

“You know my name,” bawled Harry.

“Say it, along with your serial number.”

“Harry Oliver Horowitz, 222-47-0000.”

“Next time you have a grenade in your hand, what are you going to do with it?”

“Stuff it down your shorts.”

“Get the hell out my sight, wimpy boy.” He pushed Horowitz out the exit door.

Exposed to the gas for too long, my eyes had almost swelled shut. A burning pain extended from the front of my eyes to the back of my brain. I couldn’t wait, so I yelled, “Eli J. Jones, 256-24-2488,” as I ran toward the door. But Sarge stepped in my way and blocked the exit.

“I’m not done with you yet. I’m sick and tired of your smart-ass remarks and your little fucking tricks. You think I don’t know who’s behind all these stunts?”

“Shoot me or move,” I said, choking.

Sarge took a swing at me. I ducked to the side and then ripped off his gas mask. When he put his hands to his face, I punched him in the stomach and threw my shoulder into his side knocking him off balance. I neatly stepped around him and out the door, not caring if he brought charges against me or not.

Sarge followed me out of the building, also coughing and crying from the gas. Before Sarge could say anything, the instructor came over, took one glance at my face and said, “You’ve been overexposed to tear gas. I’m sending you to the base hospital for treatment.” He then turned back to Wolinski. “Sergeant, I want a full report about this incident on my desk by tomorrow morning.”

“Yes sir,” said Sarge, still glaring at me hiding behind the instructor.

I smiled through the pain. Sarge had just provided me a way to see Nurse Sarah again-maybe not too well at first, but I didn’t care.

****

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Novel – DRAFTED – Chapter 14

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Our instructor today reminded me of Don Knotts, the nervous deputy on the Andy Griffin Show. “This is a grenade,” said Sgt. Don in a shaky voice. “With an effective killing radius of five-to-ten feet. To activate, you hold this handle down against the base of the grenade with your right hand and pull the ring attached to this pin with your left hand. Once the pin is pulled, the grenade is live, but will not explode until you release the handle, which will pop off and trigger the device. There are an additional twenty seconds before the grenade explodes.”

“You will be going into the grenade pits in groups of three–two trainees and one instructor. You are to lob the grenade over the wall in front of you as far as you can–then duck and cover your head. To throw the grenade, cock your arm like this, next to your ear, and then throw as you would a football. Steel helmets are to remain on at all times. Any questions?”

Horowitz raised his hand. “What happens if you’re left handed?”

Sgt. Don said, “Good question. Hold the grenade with your normal throwing hand in the center of your chest, like this, and then with the opposite hand, reach over and pull the pin.”

Horowitz raised his hand again. “Is the grenade heavy?”

“The grenade only weighs about nine ounces. Any other questions? No? Let’s begin.”

Sgt. Don then divided us into two-man teams. Just my luck, I got partnered with Harry. We entered the first throwing pit, consisting of a timber-lined, U-shaped bunker built into a hill of dirt. Harry stood on the left, and I stood on the right, facing the target. Sarge stood behind us supervising. I gave a short prayer that the instructions had sunk into Harry’s brain.

“Jones, you’re first.” Sarge handed me a grenade. I held the weapon close to my chest, pulled the pin, looked through the small observation window at the target and with my left hand gave the grenade a heave over the five-foot wall. The three of us crouched down, covered our heads, and a few seconds later there was a loud explosion.

“Horowitz, your turn.” We watched in horror as Harry pulled the pin and threw it over the wall, leaving the grenade still in his right hand.

“Private, listen to me,” said Sarge. “Whatever you do don’t release the handle. Do you understand?”

Horowitz whined. “I knew I’d fail. I can’t throw with my right hand.”

“Transfer the grenade to your left hand, but don’t let up the pressure on the handle or the grenade will arm itself.”

Harry carefully transferred the grenade to his left hand, but his sweaty hands slipped off the handle. The three of us followed the handle as it fell in slow motion to the ground.

“THROW THE GRENADE NOW,” yelled Sarge.

Harry panicked, jerked around, and tossed the grenade toward the target. His wobbly pitch almost cleared the top of the wall, but instead bounced backward and landed smack in the middle of the training grenades box sitting at Sarge’s feet.

“RUN,” yelled Sarge, pushing Harry and me out the back of the bunker.

You didn’t need to tell me twice. Pretty sure I broke the world dash record that day while dragging Harry. Sarge kept pace step-for-step. Instructor Don ran next to Sarge, waving his hands in the air, and screaming like a girl, “I don’t want to die.”

Sarge yelled to the men in the other grenade pits to lie on the ground against the wooden walls for protection. The rest of the platoon scattered, trying to run as far away as possible before Harry’s grenade exploded.

We flung ourselves to the ground and covered our heads when we heard the first blast. Immediately after, a second, louder detonation turned pit number one, where we had stood moments before, into a mini-mushroom cloud of dirt, which rained down on us for several seconds. Thank God these practice grenades didn’t contain shrapnel like the real ones, just small explosive charges.

“Jesus Christ, Horowitz,” Sarge erupted. “I’ve been through two wars and never met a soldier as incompetent as you. For the safety of the platoon, you should be shot.” I felt sorry for Harry, but silently agreed, and began checking to see if any vital body parts were missing while trying to make my ears to stop ringing.

Horowitz sat up, his glasses dangling from one ear, wearing the dazed look of a deer caught in the headlights. “What happened?”

“I’ll tell you what happen numb nuts,” said Sarge, in his charming style. “You almost maimed more people in twenty seconds than the Viet Cong does in a week.”

“Sorry, Sarge. I threw the grenade as hard as I could. I told you I’m left handed.”

Wolinski growled, “Get the hell out of my sight before I shoot you.”

Harry walked away with his head hung down to his chest.

Thank God, no one got hurt; even the guys in pit two had their hearing return after an hour. We never did see Instructor Don again. For all I know, he is still running with his hands over his ears. Thus ended the lesson.

****

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Novel – DRAFTED – Chapter 13

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Today was our first visit to Proficiency Park to test our level of physical fitness by attempting a series of timed tests with a required minimum score necessary to pass and graduate.

The sun was out, raising the temperature a bit, so we left our heavy winter coats behind, wearing only our fatigue shirt, pants, and boots with our long-sleeved one-piece woolen underwear underneath.

According to the entrance sign, Proficiency Park is where the true test is written in steel and blood. How odd…at Ohio State, we used pen and paper.

We unloaded from the transport trucks and gathered in an open meadow next to the park. Sam took his turn to lead us in our daily exercises. He stood on a small, four-by-four, raised platform in front of the platoon shouting instructions and demonstrating proper technique.

I’m not sure what Horowitz thought he was doing, but it didn’t look anything like jumping jacks. He couldn’t get his hands and legs together in the right place at the right time. When God passed out coordination, Harry must have been in some other line. It didn’t help that Sarge kept riding his ass, standing so close that on one of the up cycles, Horowitz accidentally slapped him. At first, I thought Wolinski would kill the little guy, but Sarge backed off and continued yelling at any other trainee who wasn’t doing it right.

After we finished warming up with our stretches, push-ups, and sit-ups, Sarge took us first to the run, dodge, and jump. The course consisted of two hurdles buried in the ground, followed by a four-foot wide ditch, then two more hurdles. The test allowed 21 seconds to run in and out of the first two hurdles, leap the ditch, run in and out of the next two hurdles, turn around and come back in the same manner. Not easy, especially if you happened to be short-legged or heavy-set, like Harry.

Harry tried but never could quite clear that ditch. Even with Sarge shouting at him every step of the way, Horowitz would launch off the edge and come down somewhere in the middle. Most of the time, he would stumble and fall flat on his face.

Next came the monkey bars, like the ones on the playground, except mounted more than seven feet in the air so even the tallest man could hang without his feet touching the ground. Each soldier had thirty seconds to complete as many bars as possible, easy enough to achieve the top score–if you managed to hang onto the cold bars, and if you possessed enough wing span to skip every other rung.

“Climb up the steps and put your right hand on the first bar,” ordered Sarge.

Steve, Harry, Sam and I climbed up into position, side-by-side, and waited for the signal to start.

“Sergeant Wolinski,” whined Horowitz.

“What is it now?”

“I can’t reach the bar.”

“Tex, give Horowitz a boost.” Tex with the help of another soldier lifted Harry up until he got a good grip on the bar.

Sarge yelled, “Ready, set, go,” and we took off swinging ape-style from bar to bar. The three of us reached the end simultaneously, but nearly lost it, when we flipped around and saw Horowitz hanging like a ripe apple still on the first bar, feet dangling and wailing, “Help!”

Next came the low crawl event held in a parallel series of four twenty-yard sandboxes. “First row down on your bellies,” instructed Sarge. “Stay close to the ground, and crawl, alligator-style, to the far end as fast as you can. Do not rise to your knees.” Not too hard to score well, but we dug sand out of our shorts for the next three days.

My favorite was the beast-of-burden test, racing 25 yards, carrying another man piggyback. Of course, Sarge assigned me the biggest, heaviest person in our platoon, but I still scored a time better than the minimum.

The final event in Proficiency Park was the mile run. To get a perfect score on this test required running four laps under six minutes on a quarter-mile track, in clunky army boots. The majority of the guys could run the mile in seven to nine minutes, while some took twelve minutes or more, and then afterward puked their guts out. Horowitz took so long his first try; Sarge gave up on him, loaded us back on the trucks, and we all went to lunch.

We had survived our first visit to Proficiency Park…and if you believed the entrance sign, in six more weeks, because of this wonderful training; there would be turned loose on the world another sixty ultimate fighting machines, ready to defend the constitution and the Playboy Playmate of the Month.

****

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Novel – DRAFTED – Chapter 12

CHAPTER TWELVE

Sergeant Wolinski says the Army places significant importance on protecting its bases, which must be why he keeps assigning me to guard duty. After all, who other than me has the skills necessary to thwart an Albanian sneak attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey?

I knew wearing a heavy green winter coat, gloves and a flaps-down wool Army hat made me look like a geek, but I planned to stay warm on guard duty tonight, no matter what the fashion cost. We were issued our M-1s with a five-shell clip, loaded into a truck, and after a ten-minute ride came to a halt near the ammo dump. “Your post, Eli,” called out the driver.

The duty officer walked to the back of the truck. “All right Eli, do you remember your standing orders?”

“I had the cheeseburger, side of fries, and a cherry coke.”

“I’m not crazy about being here either, but there is the right way, the wrong way and the…”

“Yeah, yeah, the Army way. I must stand my post until relieved, or blown up, or a hangnail causes me extreme pain.”

“You’d better not screw this up.”

“What are they going to do, draft me? Whoops, too late. I’m not supposed to be here.”

“Everybody on the base has heard your hard luck story.”

“I’m going to keep on bitching until they let me out. I’m not going to die in Vietnam.”

“Nobody wants to die in Vietnam. But you’ve got your duty to God and country.”

“I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but what does Vietnam have to do with God or the United States. I hear they’re all Buddhist over there. That lying draft board cheated me out of two years of my life and I want ’em back.”

“Tell it to the chaplain. Now stand your post. I’ll be back at zero three hundred with your relief.”

“Thanks for the sympathy.”

“You’re welcome. Remember the password?”

“Snow White.”

I reluctantly took my place inside the compound. The duty officer gave me a farewell salute, locked the gate behind me, and then headed off to post the rest of the guards.

Looking around the ammo dump, I was surrounded by a ten-foot high barbwire fence strung between thick wooden posts and topped off with concertina wire coiled like a Slinky along the top. Concertina wire is a nasty barrier with thin razor blade edges that will slice you into little pieces if you try to cross it.

I loaded my weapon and assumed my post next to a solid twenty by thirty metal bunker buried under several feet of dirt. A path surrounded the mound, worn bare over the years by the guard walking his post. A pipe sticking out of the dirt served as a ventilation shaft for a free-standing stove inside the bunker. I had an involuntary shiver and thought about how nice it would be to be inside and start a fire.

I had no idea why the compound needed guarding in the first place because the bunker appeared impossible to breach. The hundreds of ammo boxes stacked inside were secured behind a heavy metal door welded to four-inch thick metal bars and fastened with genuine Yale locks to deeply buried cement posts.

No way anyone could gain entrance without a key or a tank. If somebody showed up with a key–they were authorized. If they showed up with a tank–I sure as hell wouldn’t stand in their way.

The full moon provided some natural light, augmented by two overhead lights–one in the back near the bunker door and one in the front near the compound entrance. A box mounted on the front light pole contained a ring-down phone that connected the ammo dump to the guard duty shack.

I had arrived at twenty-one hundred, so according to my watch, I had five hours left of freezing my ass off. The temperature continued to drop, and based on the number of my nearly frostbitten fingers and toes, the temperature had to be near zero. I paced back and forth, hugging myself and clapping my hands together to keep the circulation going.

Another two hours passed and I hadn’t seen a soul. The Army had built the Fort Dix ammo dump in the most desolate part of the base, so there wasn’t even the occasional passing car to break up the monotony. I could picture the duty officer coming back and finding my corpse, stiff as a board, rifle frozen to my fingers.

A little after midnight, I finally saw something move–a car’s headlights, headed my way, weaving back and forth like a drunken sailor. Suddenly the lights went out, but I could still hear the engine running. Thanks to the moonlight, I could make out the faint shape of a Jeep creeping toward my position.

I got down off the hill and crouched in the shadows between the overhead lights and the bunker. The jeep stopped about two hundred yards from the gate and two figures climbed out. One caught his foot on the jeep’s door frame and cried out, after falling hard to the ground. I thought about calling the duty officer on the phone but was afraid if I stepped out from the shadows I would lose the element of surprise.

I could see the breath of the approaching men. The shortest of the pair kept panting and tripping on the uneven ground. They reached the outer wire and instead of cutting it, the taller man looked around, and then unlocked the gate with a key. The shorter man spoke. “Carlos, what are you doing with a key to the ammo dump and where the hell is the guard?” I swore that Shorty, as I decided to call him, sounded drunk.

“Quiet, sir,” said Carlos. “The guard might be asleep and we don’t want to wake him.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Uh, sir, because the new trainees never stay awake past midnight at this remote post.”

That answer seemed to satisfy Shorty. I knew what the Army expected of me and what my standing orders required… surrender the password…or else.

The two men stepped into the front lamp post circle of light, dressed in camouflage, each carrying a .45 caliber pistol, and wearing black face. Shaking from nervousness, but mainly the cold, I saw Shorty stumble, run into an empty trash barrel and curse again. Carlos raised his finger to his lip, “Will you please try to be quiet?”

I thought, who could sleep with all that noise? I stepped out of the bunker shadows and pointed my loaded M-1 at the intruders. “Halt, who goes there?” I must have surprised them because Shorty clutched his chest like he had a sudden heart attack.

“Jesus Christ, Private, you scared the shit out of me. What do you mean sneaking up on us like that?”

“I’m not the one breaking into the ammo dump, Shorty. Here’s the drill, I say, halt who goes there, and you tell me the password.”

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Shorty asks.

“I don’t care who you are, Mr. booze-breath. If you don’t tell me the password, I’m going to shoot you.”

“Don’t be stupid. I am the training division commander, Colonel Clark…and I don’t need the password.”

“Hit the dirt or prepare to meet your maker.” I put a round in the chamber.

“Holy shit,” said Carlos, assuming the prone position at my feet. The Colonel stared at me, with hate burning in his eyes.

“I will not lay in the dirt for some stupid, lowly trainee.”

I shot the ground six inches from Clark’s right foot and then pointed it at his nose. “These are live rounds, Shorty.” Clark hit the ground pretty fast for an old guy, cursing all the way. “I will have your balls for breakfast,” snarled the Colonel.

“You have a rather exotic palate,” I said. Keeping my rifle trained on the pair, I backed up and grabbed the phone. “Wait until the duty officer hears I caught two drunks breaking into the ammo dump. They’ll make me a hero; maybe my picture and story in the New York Times.”

Carlos shook his head as if to say to Shorty, better not let that happen. Clark fumed but realized Carlos might be right, so he calmed down. “One second, son.”

“Yes?”

“Let’s not be hasty. I realize you’re just doing your duty. I got upset because you startled us.”

“Keep talking,” I said.

“Put down the phone and allow me to show you some I.D.”

“Colonel Clark, if that’s really your name, what the hell are you doing at the ammo dump after midnight and why don’t you know the password?”

“I don’t know the goddamn password,” Clark said through clenched teeth.

The duty officer’s voice came on the phone. “Eli, what’s wrong? Why are you calling the guard shack?”

I covered the mouthpiece with my glove while cradling the phone under my chin and keeping the rifle pointed in the Colonel’s direction. “What’s in it for me? I’m not supposed to be here. Can you have me discharged out of the Army?”

Flames shot out of Clark’s eyes. “Are you crazy?” He once again regained control. This guy was an emotional roller coaster. Then he added in a calm voice, “If you’ll hang up the phone, we can certainly discuss it.”

“Eli,” said the duty officer. “Is everything all right?”

“Give me a second.”

Covering the phone again, I said to my captives, “Let’s see that I.D.” They opened their wallets. “Toss them over.” I let the phone dangle while I verified the information.

I stuck the I.D. cards into my pocket, retrieved the phone and told the duty officer, “Sorry sir, I thought I should test the line to make sure it works…in case, I spotted any trouble.” I winked at the two prone men.

“Excellent initiative, Jones,” said the duty officer. “I’ll note that in the log.”

I hung up. “You can stand up now.”

Handing them back their I.D.s, I kept my finger on the trigger. “Let’s talk.”

“You don’t really expect to be discharged out of the Army, do you?” Clark asked.

“Why not?” I explained my unique situation to the Colonel.

“I can look into it. How about a more immediate reward for your silence…like some time off from basic…maybe a little R&R?”

“Getting discharged is the most important thing, but sure, what’s wrong with having a little fun, although Sergeant Wolinski isn’t going to like it.”

“He works for me. What did you have in mind?”

“How about a weekend pass to New York City for me, Sarah, Tex, Steve, and Sam…plus a car, so we can travel in style.”

“Is Sarah your girl back home?” The Colonel asked, smiling.

“Nope, she is this very fine nurse I met here, built like a brick shithouse. I’m hoping to get lucky if you know what I mean.”

“Sarah is a nurse on this base?” For some reason, the Colonel started turning red again.

“Yeah, why?”

“If you think I will let you take my daughter away for the weekend, you’re crazy!”

“Sarah is your daughter, huh? I can’t believe you two are related. Is it a deal or not? I can always call the duty officer back.” I reached for the phone.

“All right,” Clark conceded sputtering. He used every ounce of willpower to avoid taking a swing at me. “What’s your name, Private?”

“Eli Jones, sir. May I call you dad?”

“No, you may not. Remember, if I ever find out that you leaked a single word about this, I will ship you out to Vietnam so fast it will make your head spin. Do you understand?”

“Got it, sir. Let’s make the pass for next weekend, so I have time to ask Sarah and you can find me a car.”

“A car! You expect me to find you a car!” Clark struggled to compose himself. “All right, fine, how about a brand new Cadillac–right, Carlos?”

“Oh no, sir, not my Cadillac,” Carlos asked, already knowing the answer.

The Colonel turned back to me. “Is that all?”

“Yep…you’re free to go now. You don’t even have to tell me why you were here. I’m sure it was for a good reason.”

“Thanks–as if I needed your approval.” The Colonel stormed toward the gate with Carlos on his heels, like a faithful puppy dog.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” I shouted at the rapidly retreating figures.

“Shut up, Jones,” the colonel’s voice floated back, but he never turned around.

****

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Novel – Drafted – Chapter 11

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Colonel Clark stood over an eight-by-ten quarter-inch thick plywood board held up by three wooden sawhorses. The layout in front of him had been decorated with a jungle, tall grass, small hills, a river, and a village with tiny bamboo huts. But instead of scale model trains, the battlefield diorama featured tiny toy tanks; machine gun pillbox emplacements, concertina wire, and blackened craters where pretend aircraft had dropped pretend bombs from the sky.

There were two distinct uniformed armies on the board–Americans and North Vietnamese regulars. The Colonel was busy poking over enemy soldiers with a long stick and muttering, “Bang. I got you, so fall over, because you’re dead. Ha, I got another one.” He ducked, and then quickly popped up, blowing a raspberry at a line of soldiers. “You missed me, you evil little Commies.” Clark then grabbed a toy tank and ran over several soldiers, while chanting, “Squish, squish, squish.”

His aide-de-camp, Carlos, stood nearby, wondering why this lunatic hadn’t been locked up somewhere by now. The Colonel, in his early fifties, stood about five-foot-five, with dyed black hair, sported a noticeable bald spot, bit of paunch, and a retro handlebar mustache from the era of flappers and bathtub gin. It amazed Carlos that he had survived working for this man for nearly two years without the two of them killing each other.

The Colonel looked up after another decisive victory. “Why, Carlos? Why can’t I earn one crummy star after twenty years of dedicated service? It’s because I’m locked away in this lousy boot camp, isn’t it? An Infantry Colonel is supposed to lead men in battle–not deal with new recruits tripping over their own dicks.” He sighed. “I need to be where the real action is–Vietnam. What can I do to escape this hell hole?”

Carlos shuddered at the thought of this maniac being in charge of a battalion in Vietnam. He wouldn’t last more than a week before his own men shot him. “I don’t know, sir. Do you have any ideas?”

“Damn right I do. I found out that somebody is stealing ammunition from the base ammo dump and then selling it to gangs in New York City. Did you hear anything about that?”

“No, sir, but I understand you can make a lot of serious money that way.”

“That reminds me, Carlos, aren’t you from New York…and how in the devil did you afford that new Cadillac on what the government pays you?”

“I’m very thrifty, sir.”

“Oh well, never mind. I have a brilliant plan to catch the thieves, which will make me a hero and guarantee my promotion. Meet me here at twenty-four hundred hours in camouflage uniform and black face. We’re going undercover.”

Carlos forced a smile. “I can’t wait.”

#

Sarge had us up bright and early, issued weapons at the armory, loaded on a truck, and headed out to the firing range faster than you could say, dead soldier. Today we got to fire the M-16–the weapon of choice for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. I had hunted rabbits before with a twenty-gauge shotgun, but the M-16 was a frickin’ machine gun. Visions of “Baby Face” Nelson blasting his way out of a robbed bank rippled through my head.

I smiled enviously at one of my platoon mates who had fallen asleep curled up inside the truck’s spare tire (mounted inside the canvas cover on the back wall of the cab). I had a hard time grabbing a catnap, unlike most of the others, who seemed to nod off at every opportunity.

Arriving at the range, we lined up to receive our instructions. Today, instead of a traditional fixed bull’s eye target, each rifleman would face human-shaped cardboard targets that would pop up on a random basis, either obscured by vegetation or out in the open, anywhere within a twenty-foot wide individual shooting lane. The targets, spaced out from 50 to 300 yards, were of an enemy soldier standing or kneeling and pointing a rifle at you.

Before starting with the targets, the instructor had us set the assault rifle to a single shot with the switch on the right side of the mid-stock area then squeezed off a few rounds to get a feel for the M-16. The weapon fired like a dream with very little kick. The instructor had us then switch to fully automatic. I pulled the M-16 tight to my shoulder, held my breath, and squeezed the trigger. My barrel started to rise as a steady stream of bullets kicked up dust in a straight line a hundred yards out. What a rush!

Test drive over, we dropped into a prone position. “Lock and load,” commanded the instructor. I dropped out the empty cartridge and shoved home the second clip I’d been given. “Firers, watch your lanes.”

I peered down the sightline. A soldier’s torso sprang up about 75 yards away on the right in some tall grass. I squeezed the trigger and smiled with satisfaction as the target dropped. Not everybody got lucky, so after twenty seconds the missed targets went back down on their own. The instructor told us the most important thing was to take out the target, so we should fire as many times as necessary. Armed and ready, we waited for the next command. “Firers, watch your lanes.”

This time, a full-length soldier popped up about fifty yards away, half-hidden behind a tree on the left. One quick burst and down he went. Tex hollered from the next lane over, “Way to go Eli. Show no mercy.” I nodded as he took out his target.

I impatiently waited for the next cue, because I knew what was coming next. “Firers, watch your lanes.” Up popped a new target, but this time, instead of a North Vietnamese soldier, each target had Sergeant Wolinski’s face pasted on it. A thunderous explosion of bullets shredded Wolinski’s picture in all twenty firing lanes. When the dust cleared, not a single target remained standing.

Sarge raced over to my position and bellowed, “Goddamn it, Jones.”

I looked up at him. “But Sarge, we just set a firing-range record. You said you’d do anything to improve the platoon’s shooting.” Wolinski clenched his fists, and from the color of his face, his blood pressure must have hit 200 over 80. None of the platoon members dared laugh, but I’ll bet the guys were all grinning on the inside.

We finished the training and vastly improved our overall scores. But instead of getting praised, Sarge forced us to run back to the barracks. Once again, I was picked to jog around the formation. Wolinski rode beside us in the truck all the way home, offering a steady stream of curses, mostly directed at me.

#

When Carlos arrived, Colonel Clark sat behind his desk, a glass of whiskey in his hand, staring out the window. The only light in the room came from a small lamp on the desk. Carlos could tell the Colonel had been there for a while from the half-empty fifth of Jack Daniels sitting next to the lamp.

“Ah, there you are, Carlos,” Clark remarked with more than a hint of slurring in his normal speech pattern. “Why do you have black all over your face? Are you appearing in a minstrel?”

“No, sir, I’m here to help you on a mission, remember?”

“Of course, I always have a firm grip on what’s happening. I’m the division commander.” Clark leaned too far back in his swivel desk chair, which shot out from under him, causing the good Colonel to crash hard to the floor. He quickly pulled himself back up to a standing position. Using the desk for support, he tried to look composed. “So, tell me again, why are we here so late?”

“You told me that we planned to go undercover tonight and discover who is stealing from the ammo dump.”

“That’s right, you fool. Why do you think I sent for you? Let’s going get.”

Carlos raised one eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to do this tonight? Maybe we should wait until you’re feeling better.”

“Nonsense, I haven’t felt this relaxed since I got a “happy ending” massage at a bath house in Kyoto…and I’ve waited too many years already. Come on, Carlos, you wimp. Let’s go catch a thief.” With that pronouncement, Clark marched straight into the closet and closed the door behind him.

Carlos muttered under his breath, “They don’t pay me enough.” He sighed and then knocked on the closet door.

A muffled voice came from inside the closet. “Yes, what is it?”

“You are in the closet, sir.”

“I know. Any moron can see that I am in the closet. I thought it might be cold and I wanted my coat.”

“Your coat is out here, sir, lying on the couch.”

“Fine, excellent, let’s go then,” said the muffled voice.

Nothing happened. There were a few moments of silence, and then Clark stage-whispered, “Carlos?”

“I’m still here, sir.”

“I seem to be stuck. Would you mind helping me?”

“Not at all, sir.” Carlos opened the door and there stood Clark entangled amongst the hangers, outerwear, and uniforms; his face buried in a wool overcoat. The Colonel quickly leaped backward–sucking in as much air as possible.

“Thank you, Carlos. You may have saved my life.”

“No problem. Shall we go?”

The colonel nodded. Avoiding direct eye contact with Carlos, he turned and stormed out of the office, with his aide-de-camp a few steps behind.

****

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