What’s the weight of 95,000 words? On me? A ton. The manuscript for my thriller novel about private military contractors, “Without Glory,” is ‘done’ and I’m eager to publish it. The hunt for agents (the literary kind) continues, but my ability to share this work directly, and digitally, is increasingly appealing. In that spirit, here is the prologue and first chapter of my story. I welcome feedback on this site, by e-mail or give me a call. Enjoy!
Jake Moore’s breath would hold out another minute. It had to. Even 15 feet below the Persian Gulf, he could hear the difference between rounds crashing into the inflatable boat and those that missed and tore through the water around him.
57 seconds. Being shot at wasn’t a new experience. Nor was losing friends. All SEALs had, especially guys like Jake who’d enlisted after Sept. 11. But he’d just seen his buddies gunned down in seconds. He was bothered by why he hadn’t been hit. He thought about the Iranian-American agent they’d just dropped off on an Iranian beach about 20 km south of the city of Bushehr. Farah had to be dead.
52 seconds. He knew that he could just stay under for good, if he had to. That thought kept him under the matte black water, where no moon tonight would give away his presence. His SEAL training taught him how to stay alive well beyond what he’d once believed was possible. He also knew the mechanics of how a person died from drowning. He figured he could probably inhale enough water to at least keep from bobbing up, for a while. It would be a death on his terms.
50 seconds. No news bulletin on Iranian state TV for my trial or execution, he thought. His head ached and his chest felt like it would implode.
49 seconds. The boat was gone. Surfacing after being blown overboard, he tasted diesel, salt and the copper bite of fear. The Persian Gulf’s waters were so warm it felt like bathing in blood.
43 seconds. He wanted to be back in the American River, flowing out of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Maybe 10 years or so ago. That meant floating on inner tubes, girls, cold Bud, warm rocks and freezing water. He remembered listening to his older brother Paul quietly tell a girl from their hometown of Auburn, Calif. about West Point’s graduation ceremony, how he’d laughed when the last-ranked cadet took the stage to a rousing applause. He’d have rather died than walked up to get his diploma as the “goat.” Paul was No. 2 in his class.
At the river that summer afternoon in 2000, Paul laid out his plans. He’d already graduated from West Point and was a captain in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis, south of Seattle. He knew it was his destiny, he’d said without a smile, to serve in one of the Army’s top special mission units. Maybe it would be Delta Force, but there were a few other units that had no public name. It was the closest you could get to an ancient order of pure warriors, Paul explained.
“That’s retarded. You think you can do all of that? I mean, I know you can but, shit, that’s a lot of work,” said Jake, shaking his head and squinting in the sun. Jake had already put off enrolling in community college twice but was pretty sure he’d get to it during the winter. He wanted to keep guiding on the river, work the lifts at Sugar Bowl as long as he could. “I know you can’t be back here, Paul. Man, I miss you. I really do. But I know you gotta do it. You can, I believe in you. As much as I believe in anyone, or anything.”
“I know, I know, Jake, I miss you and dad. A lot. But this is the life I’m supposed to live,” Paul said grinning, putting on his sunglasses. “Besides, who wouldn’t want to wear the white hat, be the good guy? Run every day, jump out of planes, shoot all you want, and get paid for it? That’s one part of it. But ask yourself, why are you here, I don’t mean on the river either. It’ll make sense what I do. You can’t live on the river forever, Jake.”
37 seconds. When Paul left that visit, he left Jake his favorite books. Thucydides. Donald Kagan. Michael Walzer. Cicero. Steven Pressfield’s tale of the Spartans standing against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae, “Gates of Fire.”
36 seconds. The firing stopped but the blood pounding in Jake’s ears made it hard to think.
34 seconds. The full moon shining on the chromed Harleys parked neatly out front should have signaled all hell was breaking loose inside The Shanghai, but Jake and Paul went in anyway. “Maybe we should go over to the Cal Club instead,” said Paul looking warily at Jake. Jake looked like he was in his early 20s but had just graduated from high school a few days earlier. “I can’t get in any shit tonight. I’m heading back to my guys tomorrow, remember,” said Paul. Jake shook his head with an eagerness that betrayed his age, 18. “What better reason to stay, old man. You’re 26, not 62. Lighten up,” said Jake.
Auburn, Calif. had no better bar than The Shanghai for starting trouble on an August night. When the hordes of bikers on their way to Reno flooded the town as they did tonight, this was the spot to be. It didn’t take long for the fight, their fight, to start. Spilled beer, somebody’s tits, something always set it off. It didn’t matter what it was. This was the kind of night when nobody would bother with shoving. Punch first, drink later.
Jake then told a short, heavyset guy in a torn leather vest covered in faded patches to quit humping his leg as he tried to get a drink. A dirty beard veiled the biker’s face. Bloodshot, yellowed eyes glared at Jake. He wasn’t some lawyer from Sacramento, but that didn’t stop Jake. “Don’t you have to be on the road to Reno to go see your boyfriends,” said Jake.
“Boyfriends?” the biker grunted, trying to look Jake in the eye as he drunkenly made a fist. Paul hit him in the side of the head before the biker had a chance to bring up his fist. The only hint that Paul’s punch was coming was the crunch of popcorn under Paul’s running shoes.
Jake had played varsity football at Placer High School since he was a sophomore. He looked it. He weighed 220 and stood 6’1”. Every year he got stronger, but he also got meaner on the field, as he battled against the pain he felt from losing their mother in a car accident years before. Blond hair and an easy smile hid the turmoil. His square jaw looked unbreakable.
Paul left high school with a cross-country runner’s fragile build. At 6’5”, he stood four inches taller than Jake. When he graduated, he weighed less than 170 pounds. At West Point, Paul started lifting weights and swimming, growing out of his runner’s body and putting on muscle. Before he left Auburn, it usually took Paul a while to get spooled up, if he ever got angry at all. He was a reader with few friends because he couldn’t find anyone as serious as himself.
Not anymore. My brother’s a Ranger, he’s a fucking badass, thought Jake as he watched Paul punch the biker, the sinewy muscles in his arm catching the bar’s dim light.
The biker hit the floor without a sound. The big, sewn eagle on the back of his vest now looked like a vulture about to pick the biker clean, his wallet chain like a leash.
The roar of the bar then hit them like a tsunami. As it started to rain chairs and glass, they snuck out the back door through the kitchen, laughing.
18 seconds. Jake’s nostrils burned as the salt water worked its way into his body.
17 seconds. Putting the faded picture of his mom back into his locker, Jake softly shut the door and looked down at his tan boots. “You ready for this shit?” a voice called from behind him. “Yeah,” said Jake.
“Too last-minute?” said Tucker. “Boondoggle?”
“Sure it is. But Iran,” said Jake, sucking in air between his teeth. “Legendary.”
“It’s huge, dude,” said Tucker. “I can’t believe we get this one.”
“Tucker, you look a little nervous,” said Jake.
“If I wasn’t, you’d be worried,” said Tucker.
“I am,” said Jake. “I have to go find the H&K pistol, I want something quiet. My brother swears by the .45.”
“Dude, that gun is an anchor that belongs in a museum. Bringing your fucking tomahawk too?” said Tucker.
Jake shook his head and grinned. “Not that scared,” he said.
“I don’t even think this fucking girl can swim,” said Tucker, one of the five other SEALs who would drop the Iranian-American agent ashore on behalf of the CIA.
“At least she’s hot,” said Jake.
They planned to approach the coastline in a Los Angeles-class submarine, and then swim out of the converted nuclear vessel. Jake would drag the scuba-gear wearing agent to the surface, where they’d inflate a small boat with a muffled outboard motor to help them escape detection. About a mile offshore, they’d slip out of the inflatable boat and swim in with Jake dragging the agent to shore. She was his responsibility as chief petty officer, the senior enlisted SEAL on the mission. The boat would dash out a few miles and wait for a signal for the pick up.
The agent, and the game console-sized device she carried, had to be dropped off safely and without detection. No failure.
“Yep, that’s why you get to babysit her, Jake. You get to own that problem tonight,” said Tucker.
11 seconds. Jake looked down from the Ponderosa Bridge, squinting in the sun’s glare. Paul grinned back as the rush of the jump into the American River washed over him. Jake looked down again, and saw Paul’s smile fade as Jake climbed up to the railing to follow him. Then Jake scrambled for more height, scaling the bridge to get even higher than Paul dared go.
“Hey, dumbass, no! I said you could come down here only if you wouldn’t jump,” shouted Paul. “You promised!”
“I’m old enough,” Jake shouted back.
“No way, when you’re 10 you can go. That’s dad’s rule”
“Fuck you!” Jake retorted, too young for such a declaration, too young to climb to such a height with no fear of falling.
“Dad’s gonna kill you. Kill both of us,” cried Paul.
Jake looked at Paul once more, this time right in the eyes, and paused. He climbed back off the railing. Paul turned to the shore and began a slow swim, enjoying the current’s caress and the cold of the American River in the early summer. “Be there in a minute. Grab my shirt and meet me at the end of the bridge,” Paul shouted without looking up.
When he got to the shallows, Paul stood and turned to look back. No Jake. Did a car hit him? Did a tourist call the cops? Crap.
Then at the top of the span, a head appeared. There stood Jake, silhouetted against the blue sky, standing atop the girders. He could climb no higher.
“What are you doing?” shouted Paul.
Jake didn’t respond.
“At least hit the deep part, you moron.”
Jake jumped feet first, arms across his chest. He hit the water with hardly a splash.
Jake didn’t come back up. He found darkness and stayed there.
He didn’t see Paul’s dive, surfacing once with tears mixing with the glacial melt. Jake didn’t remember Paul’s grip on his wrist, dragging his little brother back to the surface, and back to life.
3 seconds. Jake began to black out and sink deeper into the warm Gulf waters.
1 second. Help me.
The damp note under Paul Moore’s windshield wiper read “Roosevelt’s Head 0530 Jake Rodeo Rodeo Rodeo.” A woman’s handwriting on a piece of all-weather notebook paper used by soldiers like me, thought Paul. A former soldier, he corrected himself, as he stood looking out at the evening sun glazing the Tysons Corner office towers in Northern Virginia. He was a contractor now, no longer a Major in the Army’s secret special operations forces. The paychecks now came from Ted Jason, a former Army buddy, who ran Jason Government Services.
The summer humidity immediately brought out beads of sweat on his nose and down his back but he felt chilled as he said to himself over and over again, “Rodeo Rodeo Rodeo.”
In his old Army unit, that was the dispassionate mantra heard in earpieces, headphones or over speakers in stifling command centers if an operator thought they were about to be captured. He’d only twice heard it, and never uttered it himself.
Paul’s piercing bearing and weathered face revealed many more lives lived, and taken, than his 38 years would seem to allow.
He got into his truck, flicking the wipers once to clear the windshield of the afternoon thunderstorm. He shut the door but didn’t start the engine. Could his brother Jake, eight years younger, have said those three words, or whatever they said in his SEAL platoon, with the brave certainty of someone facing supreme uncertainty? He hardly talked to Jake in the last couple years but a week ago in a choppy Skype conversation they had the kind of exchange that made him hopeful they could get back to speaking regularly.
The sense of loss disoriented him like vertigo. He blinked away a tear from his right eye. Panic. Why was it his right eye that always cried first, he thought, as he wiped the back of his hand across his brow. Then the feeling was gone. He coughed hard to clear his head, which he held lightly in his scarred hands.
As the air conditioning began to cool the truck’s cab, he realized how much he’d missed Jake, talking about training, girls, trucks, whatever. He missed being looked up to, something Jake stopped doing when he left the Army to become a contractor.
During that last Skype conversation, they didn’t talk about their work, as that was the problem in the first place. They talked about their dad and how much they were both long overdue for a case of beer and a swim. If Paul thought his black Ford F-150 parked all day in Northern Virginia was hot, it had nothing on Basra in August. Paul knew that too well, but had chuckled all the same when Jake complained it wasn’t hot enough for him. At least Jake was on the water with the Iraqis most days. Jake asked Paul why he’d gotten rid of his patchy beard. Since he was a teenager, Jake had regularly had a thick beard, something Paul could never manage. Now that Jake was a SEAL, the beard gave him the satanic Santa look of some of the best special operations soldiers. Paul never could grow a thick beard like that, despite months of trying. Paul said his beard had been shaved off in the hospital after the IED attack in Baghdad.
During the Skype video chat, Jake revealed a new tattoo, an anchor chain wrapped around his left bicep. Paul avoided tattoos his entire career, knowing they could be a problem in the secret units he worked in. Jake’s embrace of the SEAL warrior culture led him to regularly add new tattoos after deployments or intense training. The austere designs on Jake’s muscled body looked as natural as a tiger’s stripes. Jake’s first tattoo, the Greek phrase “Molon labe” above his heart, came immediately after his SEAL training. The phrase was the defiant answer, “come and get them,” given by the Spartan king Leonidas to a call for surrender of their arms by the Persian emperor Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. Paul’s response to the proud look on Jake’s face when he’d first showed it to him: “Let’s hope it doesn’t ever come to that.”
Paul cracked open a fresh Kodiak tin and knew he had to just drive. He had to keep moving.
Turing past a high-dollar steakhouse favored by defense company executives, lawyers and consultants, he muttered to himself, “Your taxpayer dollars at work.” The restaurant was on the ground floor of an office building not far from where Paul worked for Jason Government Services.
Paul’s Blackberry rang.
“Moore,” said Paul.
“Paul, General Buck here. Meet me at Legal in 15 minutes?” said Howard Buck, using his command voice. A retired one-star Army general from Special Forces, he still fell back on his old ways when he really wanted something from Paul. Even something as simple as a drink at Legal Sea Foods, in the Tysons Corner mall a short drive from the Jason Government Services offices, could bring it out.
“Roger, General,” Paul said, pronouncing the rank with sarcastic deference as he hung up and turned his truck around.
JGS kept a low profile in the Washington area. It looked to be just one of hundreds of companies sending people over to Iraq or Afghanistan. Its biggest contract was protecting U.S. Agency for International Development officials in Iraq.
Buck’s job as at the company was to help raise the firm’s profile at the Pentagon with the special operations and military intelligence community. Ted Jason also liked having a retired general on speed-dial, it seemed to Paul, more than anything the general actually did for the company.
Why Buck wanted to see Paul now piqued his curiosity. Buck had avoided Paul all week, shut in his office behind drawn blinds or out at meetings. He was up to something. Something stupid. Paul would tolerate a drink with Buck because he might know something about Jake.
When Paul slid into the wood-paneled booth at Legal Sea Foods and sat across from Buck, he marveled at the differences between the two men. Buck’s tan spoke to his high salary and his badly fitting pinstripe suit attested to his long service in uniform. He still didn’t seem comfortable in civilian clothes despite being out of the service for almost a decade. Paul was half a foot taller at 6’5” and his wiry frame and swimmer’s shoulders gave him the look of a very serious triathlete. Paul kept his dark brown hair long, more like a writer than a military man, but dark circles and crow’s feet at his eyes made him look like a soldier on the run. Buck carefully tended the vestigial signs of his military service: a high-and-tight haircut and his metal-frame military-issue eyeglasses.
They both wore identical two-tone gold and steel Rolex diving watches.
“Truce?” said Buck.
Paul smiled and shook his head.
“This isn’t Girl Scouts. We don’t need a truce, General,” said Paul. “We both want what’s right for the company. It’s just we have very different ideas about what’s ‘right’? Right? I just don’t think we should hire an investment bank and start trying to shop JGS around to sell it completely. Ted’s still building this … this thing. He’s got a plan.”
“So this is creative tension, let’s call it that,” said Buck.
“Sure,” said Paul. “What’s on your mind, General?”
Buck nodded to the waitress who brought over a pair of martinis.
“A toast, first. To Ted,” said Buck.
“To Ted,” said Paul, who told himself that the first sip of the vodka martini would be the only one he took. He needed a clear head on his run.
“OK, so let’s step back. Think outside the box. That’s what you do best, right Paul? And call my bullshit. So how long, how much more do you think we can keep protecting the U.S. Agency for International Development PhD’s over there in Iraq.”
“Providing security teams for USAID is going to be long-term work. Straightforward stuff, making sure nobody gets hurt, no politics attached to it,” said Paul. “A good mission, and a pretty easy job.”
“You really give a fuck about that work?” said Buck.
Paul considered the heft of his martini glass and took a second sip. He’d known Buck long enough in uniform and out to definitively say he would have become much less of an asshole if he’d been made a two-star general before retiring.
“No,” said Paul.
“What if I told you we could get some new work, with the DIA,” said Buck. Buck had been promising Ted he’d make some inroads at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which had an enormous budget and personnel all over the world.
“Providing security teams and convoy protection, that kind of thing?” said Paul.
“No, sport. Your kind of work,” said Buck.
Paul’s real role at the company was to run a small team of contractors in Baghdad. They worked out of the same camp as the USAID guards but Paul’s guys worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. They spent their nights capturing, interrogating and sometimes transporting terrorists out of Iraq. Though the CIA had a massive presence in Baghdad, within the Agency the eight men who worked for Paul were only known to the Baghdad chief of station. The JGS contractors’ work was the most secret kind of U.S. government effort, a special access program only known in Washington to a handful of CIA, National Security Council and Pentagon officials. And the President.
“Something like Vampire?” said Paul, leaning in close to Buck.
Burned out in the Army, Ted Jason hired Paul to help it win the contract for this CIA program, whose current code name was “Vampire.” The missions were very close to the secret missions he’d been involved with when he was in the Army. But the paychecks were much, much bigger.
Over Paul’s objections, one of the contractors made joke unit patches, which were never worn. The patch was a bald eagle clutching a fighting knife and an olive branch, with “USAIDCIA?” written below. The JGS lightning bolt logo was in the upper right hand.
Paul’s own patch was back at a JGS townhouse nearby, in a safe with his guns and his first wife’s wedding ring. Paul’s most prized possessions fit easily into the coffin-sized box. There was also a brick of $220,000 in $100 bills. He wasn’t sure whose money that was. It was there in the townhouse safe when he moved in. He counted it once and then shoved it aside to make room for his letters from Jake.
“Yes, exactly like that,” said Buck. “And much more. Maybe even use some of the same guys. I like the roster we have.”
The JGS contractors on the Vampire program were mostly former enlisted men from the U.S. military’s elite units: Army Special Forces or Delta Force, Marine Force Recon, Air Force commandos and Navy SEALs. They had an average age of 41 and most had a basic knowledge of Arabic. The days of $1,000 a day guard work in Iraq were long gone, except at JGS. The men were mostly very good and Paul knew in his gut he might have to call on some of them to help Jake.
“The Agency isn’t going to like that. No way they’re going to share us with DIA,” said Paul.
“What I have in mind is a bit more ambitious. Think more of a full-service operation. Room and board for the bad guys, if you catch my drift,” said Buck. “Maybe set up another camp or a new detention site over in Iraq, maybe something even we could do here. Our own mini task force. The, uh, hotel from hell, I mean. Besides, it would mean you could have as many guys under you as you wanted. You’d have some real budget dollars, I bet, to flow through. Serious money. I could put in a word with Ted if you want.”
“General, back up a bit,” said Paul. “We are having a hard enough time keeping on top of what we’ve got. I don’t want to add more people because they just cause more problems. I don’t do big. That’s your world. Ted have you nosing around DIA for new work?”
“No, it’s my own special project that I want to have set up before I pitch it to Ted. I can imagine the PowerPoint slides already, gonna be awesome. Bottom line for me is I trust the Pentagon more than I do the Agency,” said Buck. “I think they’d hang us out to dry in a second if they needed to. DIA, Hell no! They don’t play by those rules. I’m thinking of Ted first here.”
Paul had tried to work through the legality of the company’s CIA contract on many of his long runs. There wasn’t much of a paper trail, partly by choice and partly owed to the fact that JGS spent so little money on its back office staff. As Paul understood, their work was tied to a vague presidential order that remained locked in a safe somewhere in the White House. It approved the Director of Central Intelligence to conduct “mission-critical force protection and dynamic information-collection initiatives.” The mission mattered, the bookkeeping did not, Paul figured.
“There’s not much paper trail with Vampire, but that won’t keep anyone from getting hauled in front of Congress,” said Paul. “It had happened before with Iran-Contra in the 1980s. Can’t put e-mail in a paper shredder.”
“But whose law really applies if the results are right?” said Buck.
“That’s what Ted likes to say,” said Paul.
“The demand for the dirty work will keep the politics in check,” said Buck. “It’s like a lost hiker giving up hope of being found. That’s when they die. If there’s hope we can still win the long war, they’ll give us a long leash.”
Buck drank delicately and then mumbled: “I have hope. I hope you do too.”
“With what Ted has planned for the company, I think this idea, ambitious as it is, isn’t going to work. Ted wants an outside investor to come in and buy him out, so he can change the business. But I know he loves the CIA work,” said Paul.
“I know,” said Buck. “Just think, if he’d been able to follow your path in the Army, would we even be sitting here today? He never would have started the company, I’d bet.”
Paul clenched his fists, and dug his nails into his palm to try to distract himself from the pain of what Buck just said. He turned his attention to the glass in front of him, and drank half the martini he’d left unmolested for most of the conversation.
“I have a lot on my mind right now, Buck, I don’t want to talk about the past,” said Paul. “I need to get going. I need a run.”
“What about my idea? Time is right for something new for Ted, and for us,” said Buck.
“It’s a dumb idea at a bad time, General,” said Paul, hammering the pronunciation of Buck’s former rank.
Buck knew how much Ted valued Paul’s input, above anybody else at the company because Paul had the scars and the experience to see a disaster coming.
“Don’t be so sure about that, Paul,” said Buck. “You’re not thinking big enough. Even if Ted altogether quits the security business, we could set something up for him that would be totally deniable and I am sure a real ATM of an operation. Register it somewhere in a galaxy far, far away so you and your Jedi can fight the dark side. Trust me, Paul, it can work.”
Buck motioned for the waitress signaling their meeting was over. “Paul, I appreciate you coming over. We can pick this up later on,” said Buck.
After Paul left the meeting with Buck, his grip on the Ford’s wheel tightened with every minute in the grinding evening drive along Route 7 southeast toward Falls Church. Inching out of Tysons Corner, he looked out his window at the Beltway’s rush-hour spectacle of taillights and saw a crimson tourniquet around the Washington, D.C. area. He smirked, until a honk prompted him to creep forward another foot.
Paul relented and turned the truck’s air conditioning on, which helped him work through the algorithm of how his only brother could have gotten in such trouble.
He didn’t have to be at Roosevelt Island until the next morning. Roosevelt Island was a small nature area on the Potomac between Virginia and Washington, D.C. The island’s trails, and the long footbridge connecting it to the Virginia shore would make it easy to spot surveillance. There was a public bathroom, or “Roosevelt’s head,” where he’d find out what was going on. The handwriting on the note made his stomach flutter as soon as he laid eyes on it. He’d find a woman with a conscience, and a message. Heidi.
When Paul reached the JGS-owned townhouse where he stayed in nearby Falls Church, a short drive from Tysons Corner, he broke with ritual.
Instead of reaching for the Johnny Walker Black Label, he changed out of his JGS logo polo shirt and khakis and found his running clothes, which were wet from his pre-dawn run but he put them on again. He set his Rolex down delicately next to his bed, strapped on a digital Suunto watch as big as the Kodiak tin he just put down and grabbed his black Oakley sunglasses. Then he strapped on the neoprene brace for his left knee. He didn’t trust himself to just sit still and drink tonight. It wasn’t the right time to fling e-mails all over the Mideast, sober or not. If there were an answer in what to do besides wait, the run would find it for him.
Two miles into the run he had the flashback he’d dreaded.
Paul stood on a rock outcropping, at the edge of a 500-foot cliff. The spectacular sunset joined the jagged peaks around him in a wonderful marriage of light and substance. Afghanistan could be magical. He knew that by now, even though he’d only been there a few weeks with his Delta Force squadron. It was the winter of 2001. He held a satellite phone in his hand and looked at the red sky fade. Then he dialed slowly, unsure of what he would say.
“Dad, it’s me,” said Paul. “Did I wake you?”
“I may be retired, Paul, but I am still Air Force. We know how to get up early too,” said Fred Moore with a chuckle. The connection was perfect and Paul felt like the wind dropped off just for this conversation.
“I don’t have a lot of time, but I’m OK. We’re doing some amazing work here, just know that,” said Paul.
“You find Osama yet?” said Fred with a chuckle
“No. We’ll get him. Only a matter of time. We’ll get him, dead or alive. Bring UBL’s body back to New York, then the Pentagon and maybe burn it in that field in Pennsylvania,” said Paul. “Someone at the Agency said they want his head in a box. We’ll do our best.”
“Listen, Paul, I need to talk to you about Jake,” said Fred.
“Uh oh, what did he do?” said Paul.
“I’ll make this quick. He’s enlisted,” said Fred.
“What?” said Paul. “Enlisted?”
“Signed up the day after, on Sept. 12th. It’s the Navy. He’ll tell you himself, but he wanted to write a letter, not tell you over the phone,” said Fred. “Says he’s going to be a SEAL, he told me. 9/11 changed him. I sat there with him, and he’s a different son now. He’s more like you, Paul, than he’s ever been.”
“He should have talked to me first,” said Paul. “I can’t believe he didn’t tell me.”
“Don’t take it hard, Paul. He didn’t tell me either,” said Fred.
“I’d thought he’d stay in Auburn for life,” said Paul.
“I wanted to tell you, well, to say to you, that this isn’t going to be a quick war,” said Fred. “It’s not going to be easy. Soon enough, Jake will be in it, like you are now. Promise me you’ll keep him safe, in whatever way you can. It’s just something I have to say.”
Paul stayed silent. He watched the peaks in front of him suck the sunset’s red marrow from the blackening sky.
Then he said the only thing he could: “I promise, dad. I’ll keep him safe. I always have.”
“89 days,” said Fred.
“I know, I know,” said Paul, knowing that his dad had to say this.
“Vietnam was a long time ago, but I can remember each day of captivity. Not so much what was happening to me, but what was happening to the guys I was with. My co-pilot. Damn. I remember it all,” said Fred. A pause. Biting his cheek so he could continue.
Paul felt the wind pick back up, a ragged and desperate icy breath on his neck.
“I’m sorry to bring this up, now of all times,” said Fred. “I couldn’t stand to have that happen to either of you.”