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Phillip Ferguson set his Ruger over-under shotgun on the kitchen table and felt for the stock of the Remington Wingmaster. He racked back the fore end, stuck his finger into the receiver to ensure the gun was not loaded, unscrewed the magazine cap, and removed the barrel.
So far, so good.
He had cleaned his shotguns so many times he had once bragged he could do it with his eyes closed.
"Here's your chance," he said to the darkness.
He put down the barrel and felt along the tabletop for the can of Hoppe's No. 9 cleaning solvent, held a wet patch over the top, and turned the can over to saturate the swab. He sensed that he spilled a few drops of solvent, but he'd covered the table with newspaper to protect it. He'd never professed to being neat. The familiar pungent chemical odor made him reconsider slipping on a pair of rubber gloves, but he dismissed the thought; he needed the dexterity to feel what his eyes could no longer see.
He picked up a cleaning rod, found the end of the barrel, and pushed the wet patch through the tube. Then he set the barrel down to give the solvent time to loosen the powder. He couldn't rush the process, though anxious to get finished and lock the guns back in the cabinet; if Katherine were to walk in at that moment and see him sitting with his shotguns, she'd likely scream. His wife wouldn't admit it, but Ferguson knew she harbored doubts about his ability to cope with being blind. Hell, so did he. Living in the dark wasn't exactly how he'd expected to spend the rest of his life, but at forty-three he also wasn't ready to check out. He had moments of self-pity, but he would never abandon his wife and kids. Getting the shotguns ready for duck season would prove he intended to stick around. He might not be able to shoot anymore, but that didn't mean PJ had to give up the sport. Come the fall, they'd go out together with his brother, Joe, and bring home some duck.
Using the cleaning rod, he alternately ran wet and dry patches through the tube. After several passes he brought a dry patch to his nose to try and detect the amount of residual powder, since he could no longer see when the patch came through clean.
The dogs began to bark out front.
Ferguson froze, listening for the sound of an approaching car. When he did not detect the crunch of tire on gravel, he sighed in relief and went back to work. Given the ferocity of the dogs' yapping, they had likely treed another raccoon, or squirrel.
He set down the barrel, about to oil it, when he heard the front door open. "Damn." He stood quickly, bumped the table, and knocked over the can of Hoppe's. Fumbling to find it, he righted the can, and called out, "Katherine?"
He'd purposely waited until she went to work. What was she doing home?
Ferguson grabbed his cane and tapped the linoleum to the doorway, stumbling over something on the floor. He reached for the door frame to regain his balance. "What are you doing home?"
He stepped into the hall to block her access to the kitchen and give himself a chance to explain. A breeze brushed cool against his skin and he heard the weight sewn into the fabric of the lace curtains that covered the sidelight knock against the wainscoting.
"You left the door open. Katherine?"
A floorboard creaked to his left. Ferguson turned. "Joe?"
The front door latch clicked closed across the doorplate. The breeze stilled. "Who's there?" he asked, no longer certain.
Sensing someone behind him, Ferguson spun and whipped the cane, but the tip struck the wall, knocking a picture frame to the floor, glass shattering. He drew the cane back and coiled to strike again when something thick and solid struck him across the calves, knocking his feet out from under him. He fell backward, his head hitting the floor with a dull thud. Before he could recover, the intruders had flipped him onto his stomach. A knee pressed between his shoulder blades, driving his sternum into the hardwood. They yanked his left wrist behind his back, then his right, binding them.
"Get off me!"
One on each side lifted him to his feet. He heard noise coming from the kitchen, a third person in the house.
"What do you want? Just take it and leave."
The front door shuddered open. The breeze again blew stiffly in his face. They tugged and pulled him toward the door. This was not a burglary. There was a familiarity to the swiftness and efficiency of the assault. Snatch and grab, they had called it.
He planted his feet, fighting for traction, but his heels slipped on the hardwood, offering little resistance. Using the men on each side for leverage, he reared back and kicked out, wedging a foot against the doorjamb. A blow to his shin knocked it free, sending needles of pain radiating up his leg.
The men pulled him across the threshold onto the porch and down the steps, the boards creaking beneath their weight. The dogs continued to bark. From the direction of the sound, Ferguson realized they had been penned. Gravel jabbed the soles of his feet. Behind him shoes crunched rocks, the third person following.
He yelled over his shoulder, "Just tell me what you -- "
A jab to the lower back, the butt of a rifle, silenced him. The sharp pain flared down both legs, but Ferguson knew the force had been tempered, a warning to shut up and cooperate. Not that yelling would do him any good. The farm was set well off the main road, and the wind, blowing in gusts, would swallow his voice along with the dogs' barking. No one would hear him.
More important, Ferguson now knew the men were armed. Why? What could they possibly want from him?
The gravel ended. He felt dirt beneath his feet, but the familiar soil did not bring comfort. Stored images re-created the layout of his farm, and the intruders' path. They were dragging him to the barn.
Panic brought another rush of adrenaline, and with it, strength. He dug in his left heel and jerked free his right shoulder, lunging at the spot on his left where he'd heard heavy breathing. The top of his head struck solid. A man groaned and swore.
Ferguson spun and kicked, missing, shuffling around the yard like a blind rooster. He hit another mark, drawing another grunt, then bull-rushed forward. The butt of the gun crashed into the small of his back. This time, it was no warning. The pain buckled his legs and he collapsed, rolling on the ground, fighting to get back to his feet. A kick drove the air from his lungs. Another caused him to bring his knees to his chest and curl into a fetal position.
"Enough." The voice was deep, authoritative. The beating stopped. "Get him up."
The men lifted him by his arms and carried him the remaining distance. His shoulders burned from the strain. His ribs felt like they were on fire. The barn door creaked open. After a few more steps the men dumped him on the ground.
Ferguson lay curled in a ball, coughing and wheezing, struggling to catch his breath while smelling the odor of damp straw, sawdust, and manure. His daughter's horse thumped about its stall, anxious. Overhead, pigeons disturbed from the rafters flapped and fluttered.
The intruders lifted him to his knees, but the searing pain in his side caused him to slump, head bowed. Despite the cool temperature inside the barn, perspiration dripped down his forehead, stinging his eyes. He envisioned the barn as he once could: the slatted light and shadows through the plank siding, wood support beams carved with initials, the leather saddles and blankets resting on sawhorses, reins and hackamores hanging from hooks alongside pitchforks and shovels, and the tractor parked in the back, its engine cold.
"Who are you?" Ferguson asked, his breathing still labored. "What do you want from me?"
The leader spoke again. "Why did you file a claim, Sergeant?"
The man's use of Ferguson's rank did not catch him completely off guard, though it further alarmed him. "I'm not a sergeant. I'm just a farmer."
"Why did you file a claim?"
From the sound of the man's voice, Ferguson sensed him circling, keeping a deliberate pace.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
The pacing stopped. The man now knelt directly in front of him, his breath a bitter, acrid odor. "The claim for your injuries, Sergeant. Why did you file it?"
"I told you I'm not..." Katherine had mentioned talking to an attorney, something about a claim to get money. "What do you care?" he asked. "What does that have to do with this?"
Something jammed under his jaw, forcing his body upright. Ferguson stiffened at the familiar shape. Two barrels, one positioned over the other, the distinct odor of the Hoppe's. His Ruger shotgun.
"Answer the question."
The pressure of the barrels made it difficult to move his jaw. His mouth was bone dry. "An attorney..." He sputtered, swallowing with difficulty. "An attorney told us to do it."
Wind whistled between the cracks in the wood slats, a high-pitchedwail like the sound of a distant scream.
"Bad advice," the man said.
Copyright © 2009 by La Mesa Fiction, LLC
SIX MONTHS LATER
Theresa Gonzalez squeezed David Sloane's biceps as each juror responded to King County Superior Court Judge Anthony Wartnik's question.
"Is this your verdict?"
After the twelfth and final juror confirmed her decision, Wartnik adjusted his black-framed glasses, made a few notes, and thanked the members of the jury for their service before dismissing them. Turning, he spoke briefly to the attorneys, complimenting them on having tried a fine case, and for their professional demeanor in his courtroom. Then he, too, stood and left the bench.
Sloane walked to where his young adversary remained slumped in his seat. Frank Martin was not gathering his documents or shoving binders into briefcases. He was not talking to his client, who sat looking just as forlorn in the chair beside him. Martin wasn't moving at all. Pale, he looked stunned.
Martin looked up at Sloane as if he were from Mars. His client, apparently in no mood to be collegial, shoved back his chair, and brushed past Sloane, already pulling his cell phone from his pocket.Pacific Northwest Paper had sent the portly plant manager, rather than a corporate officer, to sit through the trial, and the man now bore the unenviable task of telling PNP's officers exactly why they would have to pay Sloane's client $1.6 million in damages.
It had not had to come to this. The case should not have gone to trial.
The first day Theresa Gonzalez visited Sloane's office, she sat across his desk looking like a scared mouse. She told him she was terrified to go to court, that her English was poor and she feared not understanding the judicial system. Her husband, Cesar, had been electrocuted while operating a piece of equipment that had not been properly grounded at a PNP production plant. Cesar had been illegal at the time of his death, his green card long since expired. Theresa feared deportation, not for herself but for their three children. Sloane made sure that wouldn't happen. Then he gave PNP every opportunity to settle. They had refused.
"You tried a good case, Frank."
Regaining some color to his cheeks, Martin stood. "Apparentlynot," he said.
"Your closing was excellent," Sloane said. "I thought you hadme.""So did I." Martin continued to shake his head in disbelief.
Sloane felt no need to rub the young man's nose in the verdict, having once been in Martin's shoes. For thirteen years Sloane had represented similarly arrogant corporate clients in San Francisco before moving to Seattle two years earlier and changing his practice to nearly 100 percent plaintiff 's work. "Juries are unpredictable. You never know what they'll do."
Martin eyed Sloane with a sharper focus. "You did." His eyebrows narrowed. "You said the verdict would be unanimous."
"I was just -- "
"How could you have known that?"
Sloane had made the prediction after PNP's final refusal to settle at a mediation just before trial. He had hoped his certitude, and his reputation, would convince the company to reconsider. But PNP had remained recalcitrant.
"I was bluffing," Sloane said.
Martin scoffed. "Remind me not to play poker with you." He looked to the empty seats in the jury box. "It was as if they forgot all the evidence. You stood to give your closing and they just...forgot everything."
Martin turned to the doors at the back of the courtroom with a look of dread. PNP's officers were not the only ones who would be unhappy. Martin would have to explain to the law firm's partnership board how he had lost a certain victory for a signature client. He looked once more at Sloane, then, with nothing left to say, he gathered his things and packed his briefcases.
Gonzalez stood huddled with her family at the back of the room. As Sloane approached, she stepped forward, still trembling. Tears streaked her cheeks with mascara. No more than five feet, she had to reach up to hug him. "Thank you, David. Thank you for everything."
He let her cry for a moment. Then she stepped back, and one by one her relatives thanked him, her mother, white-haired and frail, last. The old woman stood on her toes as if to kiss Sloane's cheek, but when he bent she whispered softly in his ear.
"Usted tiene el regalo. Usted es un curandero."
She touched his cheek with a wrinkled hand, her brown eyes considering him as they had throughout the trial, not with curiosity, but with a knowing glint. A hint of a smile curled the left side of her mouth and she gave him the briefest of nods.
Sloane led the family to the courtroom doors, taking a moment to explain to Theresa what were likely to be the next steps in the legal process, including a defense motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and an attempt to settle the claim for less than the jury amount. Other attorneys had tried the same tactic. They had yet to succeed.
"Judges respect the jury system," he explained. "They don't like to overturn a verdict. But don't think about that now. Just go home and enjoy this," he said. "We'll talk further."
As the family filed out of the courtroom, the mother last, still smiling at him, Sloane let the courtroom door swing shut.
"You have the gift," she had whispered, using the Mexican term, un curandero, referring to a shaman.
Sloane strode back to counsel table to pack his briefcase and felt the fatigue from the long days in the muscles of his legs and lower back. He wanted to get home to Tina and Jake, to think of nothing but a week of lying on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, their first vacation together. He and Tina had honeymooned in Italy after their wedding the previous summer, but because of the move to Seattle -- both of them settling into new jobs, Tina trying to get an architectural practice off the ground and Sloane trying to re-create himself as a plaintiff 's lawyer -- this would be the first time they took Jake with them for anything more than a day or weekend trip as a family.
The word made him pause. Family. The last time Sloane had considered that word was the day he left the fourth and final foster home in which he had been raised in Southern California. Sitting at the kitchen table, his foster father had turned to him in between bites of pot roast to advise that when Sloane turned eighteen he was on his own.
"The money from the state stops then. It'll be time for you togo figure things out on your own. This family tried to do right byyou, but you got to stand on your own now."
That afternoon Sloane had walked to a hardware store to buy bolts to fix the Honda motorcycle he'd purchased, and insteadfound himself inside a marine recruitment center. He enlisted and went through boot camp thinking he'd found in the Corps the family he had never had, but after a while the empty feeling that something remained missing returned, and the camaraderie and brotherhood that had initially filled that hole, no longer could.
Sloane heard the courtroom door swing open and turned,expecting Theresa Gonzalez. An African American woman enteredinstead. She held a manila file and spoke as she approached.
Sloane had noticed the woman in the courtroom during his closing argument. He estimated her to be late thirties to early forties, an attractive woman in a functional gray-and-black tweed skirt and jacket with her hair pulled back in a tight bun that accentuated high cheekbones and beautiful skin.
"My name is Beverly Ford," she said.
He detected a subtle hint of perfume. "What can I do for you, Ms. Ford?"
"Adelina Ramirez is a friend of mine," she said, referring to one of Sloane's recent clients. Sloane had obtained a jury verdict on behalf of Ramirez and her two daughters after her husband was killed in a construction accident. "She said I need a wrongfuldeath attorney. She says you're the best. She says you never lose."
Sloane deflected the last statement. "Every lawyer loses, Ms. Ford. Nobody wins every case."
"You do." Ford spoke with a conviction that indicated she had not just taken a friend at her word. The verdict in the Gonzalez case was his eighteenth jury verdict in a row.
Sloane gestured to the bench behind counsel table. "Tell me how I can help you."Ford sat with her knees angled to face him. Her eyes, hazel with traces of yellow that reminded Sloane of sunflowers, regarded him steadily. "It's about my husband, James...about what happened to him."
"Tell me about it," he said.
She took a moment and spoke deliberately. "James was a schoolteacher. He was a schoolteacher...and they went and made him a soldier." Sloane sensed the story's direction. "Then they shipped him off to Iraq and he got shot." She pointed to a spot between her ribs. "He got shot in his side."
"I'm sorry," Sloane said, taking a moment to allow her to continue, but Ford sat stoically. "What is it you would like me to do?"
"I want to file a suit, a wrongful-death suit."
Perplexed, Sloane asked, "Who is it you want to sue?"
"The United States government," Ford said matter-of-factly. "And the military."
BEVERLY FORD OPENED the manila folder and handed Sloane an article clipped from the New York Times discussing a confidential report from the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner on Marine fatalities in Iraq. The report concluded that a large percentage of those fatalities had been from torso wounds that might have been prevented had the soldiers been wearing new ceramic-plate body armor that the Pentagon had, for two years, largely declined to supply to all troops.
Ford sat twisting her wedding ring and staring into the distance. "The day after he got his letter calling him to active duty, James kept trying to console me. He kept saying, 'Don't worry, baby. They're not going to put me on the front lines -- that's for the marines. Besides, I'm going to be riding around in a big old tank. There's nothing anybody can do to me inside a tank.'" She looked back at Sloane. "Then they put him in a Humvee and sent him to the front lines. Can someone explain that to me? He was sent to fight the war on terror in an SUV." Her voice softened. "He was a high school math teacher."
Sloane knew little about military law and what he did vaguely remember wasn't encouraging. He seemed to recall from his own service that it was exceedingly difficult for a soldier to sue the government.
"How did your husband get shot?" he asked. "Do you know the circumstances?"
Ford flipped through her file and handed him four multi-page documents. "The military gave me these. They didn't want to, but I made a Freedom of Information Act request."
A quick review indicated the documents to be witness statements, apparently from men who served with James Ford the night he died. Sloane thought it curious the military would give up witness statements, even to a surviving relative. In civil litigation, witness statements were rarely produced and normally protected as an attorney's work product. A FOIA request didn't change that.
"They awarded James the Purple Heart," Ford said. "They said he dragged a soldier from a building just before it exploded." She tapped her finger on the Times article. "No one told me about this. I found this out on my own."
Having been wounded in combat, a Cuban bullet to the shoulder fired from a Kalashnikov rifle during the invasion of Grenada, Sloane knew the military had a claims process for injuries and deaths, though he had not personally used it. "The military has a procedure -- " he started, but Ford interrupted him.
"I filed a claim," she said. "The claims office said if I didn't get a response within six months I had the right to file a lawsuit in court. I want you to take my case."
Sloane sought more information. "Why do you think James died because he didn't have the new body armor?"
"It's all in there," she said, tapping the file. "The armor wasn't adequate, and the military knew it."
Though it was tragic, Sloane sensed this was a case he could not win, and he did not want to give Ford false hope that he could, his reputation aside. Regardless of what James Ford had been stateside, in Iraq he had been a soldier, and soldiers died in war -- too many, always, but it was a sad fact of combat. The difficulty was how to explain that to a widow of one of those soldiers looking to him for help.
"Mrs. Ford, my instincts and experience tell me we'd have a very difficult time proving your husband died because he had inadequate body armor." He struggled to avoid the legalese while not sounding condescending. "What I mean by that is -- "
"I know what you mean," Ford said. "You don't think we could prove that even if James had been wearing the new armor he would have lived."
Sloane nodded. "I'm afraid so."
Ford regarded him steadily. "James did what was asked of him. He did it without question or complaint. He did it despite having four children at home. He kept his end of the bargain, Mr. Sloane. All I want to know is if the military kept its end of that bargain."
SLONE DROVE WEST on Highway 518 past the Seattle- Tacoma Airport. Normally after a trial his thoughts were about all that had gone right. Tonight he could think only of Beverly Ford, a widow with four children, and the steely resolve that had burned in her eyes.
He looked at her file on the passenger seat and wondered if fate, more than Adelina Ramirez, was responsible for bringing Ford to him. He took a hand from the wheel and felt the raised red scar beneath his shirt just above his right pectoral muscle. More than twenty years later, Sloane could still see the fear in the eyes of the marine sitting across from him on the helicopter transport when the young father of two realized he didn't have his flak jacket. Just twenty, Ed Venditti carried a photograph of his family inside his helmet. Sloane had no photograph. He had no family. He had no one, no mother or father, no grandparents or aunts or uncles. No wife or child.
"Take mine," Sloane said, quickly slipping from his jacket.
"Take it." Sloane dropped the jacket in Venditti's lap, then stood to disembark before Venditti could argue the matter further. After being shot, Sloane knew the truth would likely get Venditti court-martialed. He told the doctors and his commanding officer that he had taken off his jacket because it made him feel weighted. They thought he was nuts, which prompted a psychiatric exam, whereupon the doctor had concluded:
His spontaneous decision to join the Corps is consistent with his spontaneous decision to remove his flak jacket. It is indicative of a man dissatisfied with his life and therefore prone to making rash decisions to change it. Such decisions could, in the future, endanger not only himself, but also those for whom he is responsible.
There were times when Sloane wondered whether the psychiatrist had been correct.
The freeway ended at First Avenue South, a thoroughfare of strip malls. Sloane considered pulling into the local Blockbuster and picking up a movie, then thought again of the file sitting on the passenger seat. Though dog-tired, he wanted to get through it before the weekend; he wanted to leave for vacation with a clear conscience and focus only on Tina and Jake. That meant reading it tonight.
He drove across the intersection through the town of Burien and descended Maplewild Road. The steep, winding access road led to Three Tree Point, a tiny beach community on the edge of the Puget Sound said to have been named for the three cedar trees at the tip of a spit of land that jutted into the slate-gray waters. Bald eagles nested in the limbs of one of the trees, and king salmon swam along the shores.
At the bottom of the hill, Sloane turned past the darkened windows of what had been a community store and parked perpendicular to a ten-foot-high laurel hedge separating his property from a public easement that led to the rock and shell beach at the edge of the Sound.
He stepped from his Jeep and pushed through a wooden gate he'd installed in the hedge to allow access to his back porch. The front door was around the other side, hard to access and rarely used by anyone. The three-story colonial with white clapboard siding had been built on a small bluff. Crabgrass sloped twenty yards to a cement break, buttressed by driftwood logs that had washed ashore, which separated the property from the beach. Sloane had rented a house for a year before his Realtor found the property. He wanted to live near the water, as he had in California, and he relished the chance to restore the 1930s home to its original grandeur. But as was normally the case, his legal practice had allowed him limited time to make the desired improvements.
He climbed the back stairs and removed his shoes, a house rule since he'd refinished the hardwood floors. Then he stepped inside the nook off the kitchen and hung his keys on a hook protruding from a life-size cardboard cutout of Larry Bird, the legendary Boston Celtics basketball player. The cutout had made the trip north from Pacifica when he moved. Tina had only mildly protested,knowing what the cutout meant to Sloane. It had once belonged to Joe Branick, the White House confidant of former president Robert Peak. Branick's sister, Aileen Blair, had sent it to Sloane as a gift. Blair had been a lot like Beverly Ford when Sloane first met her at Joe Branick's home in Virginia, resolved and determined. Sloane needed to know why Branick had sent him a package of documents just before he died, and Blair wanted to know who killed her brother and why. They struck a deal.
Aileen Blair had read the documents inside the package and looked up at Sloane in astonishment.
"But if the woman listed on these forms didn't give her child up for adoption, then these papers make no sense," she had said.
Sloane had come to the same conclusion. "No, they don't. Someone forged them to make it look like Edith and Ernest Sloane adopted that child and named him David."
"Who would have done that?"
"The only logical assumption is that it was your brother."
"Joe? Why would Joe have forged them?"
"I think it was to hide my identity."
"Why would you assume that?"
"Because Edith and Ernest Sloane did adopt a young boy, Aileen, but David Allen Sloane, seven years old, died in that car accident with them."
Bud jumped onto the counter and meowed. It wasn't love. He wanted to be fed. Sloane cradled the cat in his arm and walked into the kitchen, smelling garlic. He stopped at the stove to lift the lid on a pot. Tina's marinara sauce bubbled softly inside. He lowered the lid and walked from the kitchen into the family room, sprinkling fish food in the tank, which had also survived the move north.
Tina sat in one of the two white wicker chairs on the enclosed porch. She lowered a paperback, set it on the navy-blue wool blanket covering her legs, and pushed her shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ear. "Isn't it beautiful?" she asked, looking out the plateglass windows. Wisps of maroon from the setting sun streaked the gray sky above the jagged, snowcapped Olympic Mountains.
Sloane ignored the view, thinking her just as stunning, and wondering how he had not seen it for so many years. Married less than one year, they had known each other for more than ten. Tina had been his legal assistant at Foster & Bane, in San Francisco, where interoffice relationships were taboo. He had not even known that she was attending school at night to earn a degree in architecture until the day she told him she was quitting and moving to Seattle.
Tina turned back from the view and caught him staring. "What?" she asked, with a hint of a smile, her eyes widening.
Sloane kissed her, and let the kiss linger. When their lips parted, Tina smiled up at him. "What was that for?"
"Just to let you know how much I love you."
"Well, let me know some more," she said.
He kissed her again, put Bud on the floor, and picked up what he thought to be iced tea, but tasted something stronger. "Getting an early start on our vacation or hard day at the office?"
He handed back her drink and sat in the other chair. "Still no word on that building retrofit in Des Moines?"
"They told me they liked our design, but they say the decision will be a while longer."
"You know how cities work. It takes forever to get them to approve anything."
"I know, but it would be nice to know before we leave."
"So you'll have a nice surprise when we get back," he said.
She shook her head as if to shake away the thought. "Saturday we'll be sipping margaritas on the beach in Cabo." They'd timed the trip with Jake's spring break from school.
"Amen to that."
"Will the defense fight the verdict?"
"They always do." He looked out the windows.
"You don't look like a guy who just won another big case."
He turned to her. "You remember Adelina Ramirez?"
Since leaving San Francisco, Sloane had devoted much of his current practice to helping Hispanic immigrants. Having not known who his biological parents were for many years, he had come to realize his own Hispanic heritage late in life. His dark hair and complexion came from his mother's Mexican descent, but he was also tall, six foot two, with light eyes, genes that likely came from northern Spanish blood.
"A friend of hers came to see me after court today. Adelina told her I'm the best wrongful-death attorney in the state."
"She said I never lose."
"You don't. What happened?"
"You remember the report in the New York Times article attributing the deaths of some soldiers to inadequate body armor?"
"He was one of those?"
"The report was about marines; her husband was in the National Guard. He got shot in the side. I don't know much about military law, but I remember after I'd been shot a JAG officer came to my room. The specifics are a bit fuzzy, but I recall something about a soldier not being able to sue the military, the possibility of injuries and fatalities being inherent in the job and benefits being the only remedy."
"Did you explain that to her?"
"I told her I didn't think she'd have much chance of success."
"But..." Tina said, drawing out the word.
He shook his head. "I don't know, maybe I just like a challenge."
Tina smiled. "Or maybe you think you can help everyone."
There was more truth in the comment than he wanted to admit. "She has four children."
"Tragic," Tina said. "So what's bothering you?"
He turned to face her. "I don't know. I also thought about Joe Branick today."
"We've had this discussion. He wasn't killed because of anything you did."
"It was a selfless act, sending me that information."
Tina put her paperback next to her drink, pulled back the blanket, and went to him. She leaned forward and looked him in the eye. Then she kissed him.
"And what was that for?" he asked.
"Just promise me you'll start giving yourself credit for all the people you do help." She struck a pose and changed the subject. "I bought a new bathing suit for Cabo. Interested in seeing it on?"
"On? Not really."
She grinned. "Saturday we'll be soaking up sun, and you'll have a week to unwind. Think about that."
"You'll be soaking up sun. I'll be puking off the side of a boat and getting sunburned while Jake fishes. Speaking of which, where is he?"
She rolled her eyes. "He won't give up until he catches a king. I figured I'd let you reel him in tonight."
She laughed and walked toward the kitchen. "It'll be good practice for when you have to drag him off that boat."
SLOANE ZIPPED CLOSED his leather jacket and stepped over the tree trunks and debris the Sound had washed ashore. Jake stood twenty yards down the beach, a lone figure outlined in a ghostly silver glow. The wind off the Sound prevented Sloane from calling out to him, and the boy was too fixated on his line in the water for Sloane to draw his attention.
During certain months king salmon, and the smaller silvers, swam along Three Tree's shore, bringing out a parade of boats and anglers who fished from shore each dawn and sunset. Jake had caught the fishing bug after watching a neighbor boat a 34-pound king. Outfitted at the local Fred Meyer, he rushed to the water's edge each day before and after school, sometimes at the expense of his homework. Sloane was learning that being a parent was a lot like being a lawyer. Finding out what the child really wanted was the first step to negotiating a compromise. They agreed that Jake could fish, but only after completing his homework, and only if he maintained his grades. His study habits had actually improved.
As Sloane neared, Jake caught sight of him. "David. Hi."
"How're they biting, Hemingway?"
Jake shook his head. "Not too good tonight."
Now 11, the boy had lost much of his baby fat and was tall and lean like his mother. His sandy-blond hair and lean facial features bore a strong resemblance to his biological father, a man who continued to have little involvement in his son's life since the divorce when Jake was four. Frank Carter wasn't a bad guy. Sloane had met him a handful of times. He seemed decent, just too young to be a father. He didn't want the responsibility of a child. It was easier just to show up for the special events, like birthdays and holidays. Sloane hoped someday Jake might take to calling him "Dad," but he wasn't pushing it.
Despite the chill wind, Jake wore baggy shorts, a hooded sweatshirt, a worn San Francisco 49ers baseball cap, and the clownish rubber boots Tina mandated after he ruined multiple pairs of shoes in the salt water.
"Well, it's likely getting to be too late now. Your mother wants you to do some reading before bed."
Jake snapped back the catch on the reel, prepared to cast. The green buzz-bomb lure twisted at the end of the line. "One more cast?"
Sloane looked at the light shining in the kitchen window and turned his back slightly. "I don't think I saw you take your line out of the water."
Jake drew back the pole and snapped it forward.
SLOANE LIFTED HIS head from the papers spread across his desk and looked out the windows of his home office. The lights in the houses on Vashon Island, four miles across the Sound, sparkled back at him, and the faint sound of cellos and violins resonated from the portable CD player, a Christmas gift from Jake and Tina.
Beverly Ford had done considerable research. At the start of the war, the military had issued body armor only to what it thought would be dismounted soldiers fighting on the front line. Command had to ditch that plan when it became clear there was no front line. That meant it suddenly needed 80,000 more vests, a need that could not be met overnight. Eight months after the start of the war, nearly one-quarter of the troops still did not have the new ceramic armor and were being forced to take their chances with inferior vests, or to rotate what new armor they did have. At a congressional inquiry, General John Abizaid, then the commander of the forces in Iraq, admitted he did not have a good explanation for the shortage of vests, given that the invasion had been contemplated for more than a year.
The improved vests, called Interceptors, included removable ceramic plates fifteen times stronger than steel and capable of stopping bullets fired by the Kalashnikov rifles favored by the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sloane picked up the SF-95 form Beverly Ford had sent to the regional claims office. Stapled to it was a standard letter advising that her claim had been received and would be considered in due course. Not content to wait for the military's response, Ford made a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents related to the investigation of her husband's death. Subsequent replies had more or less denied her request, citing national defense concerns. But Beverly Ford had been persistent, and, perhaps in an effort to appease her, the claims office eventually provided her the witness statements.
Sloane picked up the first of the four, a statement by a Sergeant Phillip Ferguson, and read.
OUTSIDE FALLUJAH, IRAQ
JAMES FORD LEANED forward, eyes straining to see through thedirt-and-grime-smeared windshield. The seven-ton trucks in front of himcontinued to kick up dust as the convoy rumbled along single-file, eachvehicle maintaining a fifty-meter buffer with the vehicle in front. Properspacing was a necessity in Iraq, where every paper bag, dead dog, and pileof garbage could be an insurgent's improvised explosive device, or IED. InIraq the question wasn't if your convoy was going to get hit, but when.
Ford swerved to avoid a large pothole, but the Humvee's left-front tirecaught the depression, causing the vehicle to rock violently.
"Jesus. Can you miss one?" Dwayne Thomas groaned from the backseatover the strain of the diesel engine.
Ford didn't like hearing the Lord's name used in vain. "Jesus isn't driving, DT. If he was, I'm sure he'd miss every one. You want to take a shot at it?"
"You're supposed to be the damn driver."
"At ease," Captain Robert Kessler said from the passenger seat.
The potholes were mostly nuisances, but the burned black craters, likely from exploded Soviet-era surplus mines buried beneath the road, served as a vivid reminder of the danger troops faced each time they left Camp Kalsu, their forward operating base near Fallujah.
The convoy, which the soldiers referred to as the "traveling road show," had nearly completed the hundred-mile round trip to the large PX near Baghdad International Airport to restock supplies like water, toilet paper, and cigarettes. Ford's Humvee was last, providing rear security, and the men were hot, tired, and uncomfortable.
Ford wiped a trickle of sweat from the side of his face. Normally they left Camp Kalsu either at night or very early in the morning, but today they had left mid-afternoon, with the June sun still a bright white orb that caused him to squint, even wearing sunglasses, and baked the top of his head beneath his Kevlar helmet. Still, they didn't even consider rolling down the windows. During their training in the Mojave Desert troops had driven through mock Iraqi cities with M16 and M4 rifles sticking out the windows in what they called "the porcupine." The tactic was meant to intimidate, but as the insurgents became more sophisticated and better shooters, it also turned into a good way to get killed. An order came down the chain of command to keep the windows closed, no matter how hot or piss-poor the air-conditioning.
Ford envied Phillip Ferguson, who stood in the center hatch, head out the roof, manning his M249. At least Fergie got a breeze and wasn't suffocating on the smell of sweat-soaked cammies. The pungent odor reminded Ford of the smell of unwashed gym clothes and sneakers in his sons' bedroom.
"Everyone hydrating?" Kessler asked.
Ford held up a half-empty bottle of water.
"Doesn't help to hold it, Ford."
"I just drank a full one, Captain."
Ford unscrewed the cap and chugged the rest of the bottle. He had actually grown to dislike the taste of water. Seemed like all he did was drink water, sweat, and drink more water. About the only good thing that had come from it was he had shed thirty pounds from his six-foot-five frame. He wasn't svelte, but 220 pounds was better than 250.
He stretched his neck, popping vertebrae, which caused Michael Cassidy to lean forward from his seat directly behind him. "Dude. Don't fucking do that! It creeps me out."
Ford grimaced. "Sorry, Butch, back's killing me."
Cassidy wasn't much older than the high school kids Ford taught in Seattle. They had nicknamed him Butch, as in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Cassidy wasn't anything like the calm, polished bandito Paul Newman had portrayed. He was a bundle of exposed nerve endings and tics from a liberal use of caffeine pills he washed down with cans of adrenaline like Red Bull or Ripped Fuel. Cassidy, too, had lost weight, but he hadn't had a lot to lose, and it had left him looking like a strung-out dope addict, gaunt through the face with sunken eyes and dark circles. His uniform hung from his shoulders and bunched at his waist.
Being off base midday made all of them tense, and when Ford got tense he thought about his family. He pulled an envelope from his ammo vest and slid out the photograph Beverly had given him the morning he'd left their home in Seattle. In the photo he stood behind his wife with his arms around her waist, nuzzling her neck and breathing in her beauty. It had been a split second of intimacy before the kids jumped into the fray, clinging to his arms and legs like ornaments on a Christmas tree. His mother-in-law had snapped the photo.
"That your family?" Cassidy asked, head still between the seats.
"No," Thomas said, "he's carrying a photo of someone else's family."
"Shut up, DT," Cassidy replied.
Kessler, who was also married and had kids, pointed to Ford's baby girl sitting atop his shoulders and beaming down at the camera. "Who's she?"
"That would be my Althea," Ford said.
"She has quite the smile."
"She's my angel. We were supposed to be done after the third. She was a surprise. I believe God sent her to me special."
"I got a little girl too," Kessler said. "They're special until they turn thirteen. Then the aliens snatch their brains and you can't do anything right. Enjoy it while it lasts."
Thomas muttered something from the backseat.
"How's that, DT?" Ford asked. Being another black man, Ford had thought he and Thomas might develop a friendship, but Thomas seemed perpetually angry, with a chip on his shoulder he never shook.
DT raised his voice. "I said, you just torturing yourselves, carrying around pictures and shit. Why you worrying about that stuff ? This shit is hard enough to do without all that other crap."
"You married? Got kids?" Ford asked.
"Then you wouldn't know what it's like to be away from them, worrying about them."
Thomas leaned forward, defiant. "Don't want to know. What does it get you? Nothing." He sat back. "Me? I'm just here doing a job. Didn't join the Guard to go fight Muhammad in the desert, but here I am. So be it. I just stick to routine. Wake up, put on the same clothes, eat in the same place looking at your same sorry-ass faces, mount up for patrol, sleep, wake up and do it all over again. Only thing I'm going to die from over here is boredom, and that's just fine by me."
"Where's home?" Ford asked.
"The Aroma of Tacoma," Cassidy chirped. "Smells like shit driving through there."
Thomas scowled. "You smell like shit."
"At ease," the captain said again, trying to keep the peace.
"They cleaned that shit up long time ago," DT said. "The pulp mills caused it."
"What do you do there?" Ford asked.
"I used to work at a health club, but I got an application in with the city, and being in the Guard is going to put me top of the list. I get on with the city and I'll be set for life. Get me benefits and a pension."
"Bet you didn't think that deal would include an all-expense-paid trip to Iraq, though, did you?" Kessler said.
DT sat back, disgruntled.
"I like it here," Cassidy offered.
"That's because you're a dumb shit," Thomas muttered.
"I do. I like wearing the same clothes and eating in the same place. You don't even have to think about it. Einstein did that, you know, wore the same clothes so he didn't have to use his brain."
"You and Einstein have that in common all right," DT said, causing Ford to chuckle.
Cassidy said, "I look at this like a hunting trip."
DT scoffed. "That why you keep that dumb-ass Rambo knife strapped to your ankle?"
"You a hunter, Butch?" Ford wasn't buying Cassidy's bravado. He had a lot of experience with kids like Cassidy. They were usually loners from abusive homes. When they did get some attention, it usually wasn't for anything positive, but they relished it anyway because at least it acknowledged their existence. Columbine and other school shootings had proved that.
"Hell, yeah," Cassidy said. "Me and my dad hunted all over eastern Washington. Bird mostly."
DT mocked him. "Bird? That don't make you no hunter."
"Bambi? You shooting Bambi!"
"Not just deer neither," Cassidy persisted. "Boar."
"Boar?" Kessler gave Ford a look. Wild boar did not live in eastern Washington.
"You know," Cassidy said, "those big pigs with the tusks and hair all over them. Mean sons of bitches."
"You sure that wasn't your girlfriend?" DT said, bringing laughter.
"Laugh all you want. But I shot one with a compound bow once and chased it for miles. Slit its throat and gutted it right there and brought the meat home." Cassidy looked out the window. "The way I figure it, killing Hajji ain't going to be no different. I'm looking forward to getting me some."
"One big difference," Kessler said, turning to stare out the windshield. "Bird and deer don't shoot back. Hajji does."
WHEN WE HAD finished reading the statement, Sloane sat back, thinking. Something here, something. He thought of a sermon he'd recently heard by the pastor of the church he attended with Tina and Jake. Then, rising quickly, he made copies on the Xerox machine in his office and placed the duplicates side by side on his desk to reconsider them more closely. As he read, he picked up a yellow highlighter.
Copyright © 2009 by La Mesa Fiction, LLC