Yep, today’s the day. The Green Berets: Chasing the Son
I’m not sure what number book this is for me– somewhere around #60. I keep trying different things. The longer I write, the less I believe in a strict structure for a novel. I particularly like one of the flashbacks near the end of the book that explain how Sarah Briggs became who she is.
And here’s the prologue, which goes back to the origins of Horace Chase:
It was three in the morning when Lilly Chase pulled her battered Chevy into the trailer park. She was upset with herself because once again she’d allowed the manager of the Foxhole to foist off some of his closing duties onto her, therefore making her an hour late. Jenny, the sweet girl who lived two trailers down, had a not so equally sweet mother, who didn’t appreciate her daughter being left to such late hours attending to Lilly’s not quite two month son.
Lilly’s head was full of what lie would suffice to explain, instead of admitting the truth. That she could lose track of Jenny and little Horace long enough to make things that shouldn’t be important, but simply because someone asked, matter more.
It was Horace’s father’s only real complaint about her. The fact that ‘no’ was such an unfamiliar word to Lilly, that she’d put the very people she loved the most in the sad reality of her absence rather than say one little word, that was actually her right as a human being.
Closing up wasn’t even in her job description. She was exhausted after a long evening of dancing for money in the Foxhole. She wasn’t a stripper, the Officer’s Club did have some limits, but the gaze of desperate second lieutenants going through Infantry Officer Basic at Fort Benning stripped her as effectively as if she took everything off. The Foxhole was a small bar off from the main bar, which was where higher rank ruled. The Foxhole was where the fresh meat came to blow off steam. Lieutenants to be sent to Vietnam.
Lilly was so busy pondering shameful truths about herself that she nearly hit the car filling her allocated parking space. For the briefest of moments she felt the flash of righteous anger that came over her every time she came home late and had to drive around and find somewhere else to park. But it lasted only for a moment, not just because righteous anger wasn’t a weapon in her repertoire of emotion, but because she was registering the fact that no one living in this trailer park had a car so new. Or with government issue plates.
She put her car in park and turned off the engine. It sputtered for a few more seconds, the way any car that’s never seen a service has to in order to wheeze itself through the rattling gasp between on and off.
While the car died, she sat there, willing herself to believe the possibility that her husband hadn’t just died at the same moment. He could be wounded or missing. He could be in jail, awaiting a court martial, because, really, she’d already seen the soul of her impatient husband in their equally impatient son, Horace Junior.
What a ridiculous name for a baby. She had tried to fight it, but most women newly pregnant will make some promises, especially to a husband shipping out to war. She thought of the fact that his father had never seen him and now never would. She wondered what it was going to be like to be as a widow at nineteen. She thought all this in the few seconds it took to jump out of the car and run to the concrete block steps. And the door was already opening as she reached for it. A uniformed officer, a captain, was cradling her baby in his other hand. She could see Horace’s tiny fingers reaching up, searching for the breast that wasn’t there, instead fumbling over rows of ribbons and a Combat Infantry Badge. He had a green beret on his head, cocked at that same angle all those men her husband served with wore that little piece of cloth that mattered so much to them.
For the rest of her life she’d always remember that hand searching for what wasn’t there and she’d feel the rush of grief all over again.
Another officer, a first lieutenant, aged beyond his years by the ribbons on his chest, helped her in and to the couch, where Jenny should be sleeping. But he was explaining in odd words that made no sense that they’d sent Jenny home.
They hadn’t delivered the punch line yet, but she knew it absolutely, as sure as she’d ever known anything, so the words were hardly worth listening to.
Lilly began to cry, because no one sends the babysitter home, except to spare even the babysitter the bad thing these two men needed to tell her. The captain didn’t even hand Horace Junior to her, so she knew that this was her time to dissolve, to disintegrate emotionally for the time they could allow her, because soon they would be gone and she’d be alone with the feeling which she’d imagined so often.
This new explosion in her chest, doubling in size every second could continue to grow and eat her alive, except for the fact that her dead husband had left her the one part of himself that would keep her from sliding down the hole of her own grief—their son.
For a few minutes she didn’t hear their words, but allowed the feeling free rein to pulsate. And when it was a tiny fraction from ripping through her ribs and devouring her, she reached out for her baby. Through sheer force of will she stopped that feeling right there and then. She didn’t care about the officers who were being so kind. She pulled up her shirt and the bra beneath it and Horace’s fingers clasped on her and his tiny mouth nuzzled against her until he found the realness of all the mattered to him right now.
These men, these Green Berets, did not look at her like the naïve lieutenants in the Foxhole. If she’d bothered, she’d have seen tears in the captain’s eyes and the fear in the lieutenant’s who probably had his own wife at home with their own baby.
All she knew in the moment was that she was not feeding her baby her pain and never would. All the doubts she’d had about herself as a mother, which she’d written to her husband about for so many months, were as easily vanquished from her soul, as she allowed in all the words he had written back to try to reassure her about herself. That he believed in her. In fact, she realized now, they were not even close to the truest part of herself. Sometimes life shows you the truth in ways that aren’t so easy.
The men asked if there was anyone to stay with her and she wanted to laugh. Of course there was. She was holding him in her arms.
After they went out, not really reassured but relieved by her new resolve, she heard them start her car. Move it. Pull their car out. Pull her old car into its righteous slot.
She moved Horace to her other breast and thought that for just this moment everything was in its rightful place. For now, everything was as it should be.
A little while later, when he was sleeping in the bassinet next to her bed, the bed where he’d been conceived, Lilly went to the built-in drawers made of the same cheap wood that filled the entirety of the trailer. She found the letter that Horace Sr. had enclosed inside his most recent letter. Maybe some part of him knew that he needed to write some words that weren’t meant just for her. Impart something directly. She had gripped the thin envelope with such force, that even now, weeks later, it still bore the marks of her fingers.
She carried it to the kitchen, not a long walk, and used her sharpest knife to carefully slit open this most precious thing, marked on the outside simply: To My Son.
He’d told her so much in the few weeks they were together, and written even more words after deployment, enough for a lifetime. They would have to be. So she didn’t even glance at the page as she carried it back to her room. She moved the few stuffed animals off her bed that were still there, because until now she’d been a girl who needed the matted bunny and worn teddy bear of her own childhood. She carefully set them on top of the dresser for when they would become her son’s, because in the space of an hour she’d fully become the woman whom Horace Sr. had loved from the second he met her.
If being in love makes you stronger and better and more than you could ever hope for on your own, then her brief time with Horace Sr. had fulfilled all of love’s obligations. It would have to be. A lifetime’s worth.
She sat on the edge of the bed. Careful not to let one single tear stain the paper. And she never would in the years that followed as she read it to her son every night. She began to read to her son his father’s words, actually her father quoting another poet, something she completely understood, which would forever belong only to their son.
“’If you can keep your head . . .’”
excerpted from The Green Berets: Chasing the Son
“She’s supposed to be dead,” Hannah said.
“That’s the name she’s going by now?” Hannah asked. “Sarah Briggs?”
“Yes.” Cardena was seated across from her in her office three hundred feet underneath the ‘crystal palace’ that was the headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Hannah was head of the Cellar and while her office was underneath the NSA, she was not part of that organization, nor did she answer to it. She answered only to a Presidential Executive Order authorizing it during the dark days of early World War II giving her free rein as judge, jury and executioner of all the inhabitants (and there are many) of the covert world that the United States ran.
“And she was involved in the Karralkov incident?” There was nothing on the surface of Hannah’s wide desk.
“Correct,” Cardena said.
Hannah fixed her subordinate with eyes the color of dark chocolate. “And you did not make the connection as to who Sarah Briggs truly was?”
Hannah was in her late forties, in good shape, the result of a daily workout regime that was intense and brief, as she begrudged the time she spent on it. She had blond hair with gray roots, cut to her shoulders. She was known only by Hannah; no last name, no title.
“That’s unfortunate,” Hannah said. “But you did authorize a Predator strike that took out Karralkov’s boat. And saved Sarah Briggs.”
“Yes. I was focused on Karralkov. I misjudged.”
“Partly,” Hannah said, which was a strong rebuke coming from her.
“I’ve alerted an asset, one who knows one of those involved in events in South Carolina.”
“They worked together long ago when the asset was CIA and the person involved was in Special Forces. The asset also has a stake in the Sarah Brigg’s case.”
Hannah rubbed her forehead, a surprising sign of weariness, one Cardena had never seen before in his boss. Cardena was short, wiry and dark-skinned. His hair was completely gray. His eyes mirrored what Hannah was exhibiting: exhausted and haunted.
“Westland.” Hannah did not frame it as a question. “What happened with, let’s call her Sarah Briggs in order not to get confused, was before my time. Under Nero’s reign. Westland was her handler in that unit. I suggested the unit be disbanded and it was.”
“Before my time also,” Cardena said, as much of an excuse as he was going to attempt with Hannah.
Hannah allowed him that. “Nero thought Briggs was dead. He wouldn’t have closed the file if he had had any suspicions she was still alive. I suppose we have no idea how she escaped, if she did escape. She might have been turned.”
“Nothing,” Cardena said. “I’ve been able to track her back only to Hilton Head, fronting this off-shore gambling site. Before that, nothing until we go all the way back to her jump into Russia.”
“Odd place for her to show up.”
“The gambling site was hacked several times by the Russian mob. Paid off millions of dollars.”
“So the hack might not have been a hack,” Hannah said. “Perhaps money laundering and she was in on it. Which would explain how she got out. We know the Russian government and its organized crime elements are almost the same thing. Putin is no fool. He wields power and makes deals as needed. One might say he’s the biggest crook of them all in Russia.”
“That’s a possibility if she’d been turned,” Cardena said. “But she was well trained against torture and interrogation.”
Hannah could not tell Cardena that it would not have been difficult to turn Sarah Briggs given the circumstances around her capture.
“She also had a suicide option,” Hannah said. “Obviously that wasn’t used.”
Hannah leaned back in her seat, deep in thought and Cardena waited on her. She was thinking of the ‘greater good’. How the ability to truly make the hard decisions for those two words was an extremely rare trait. One few humans possessed. Most were ruled by fear; those who weren’t ruled by that most prevalent of emotions tended toward extreme self-interest. Neither were for the greater good.
The reason she was located in such close proximity to the NSA was because it was the greatest collector of information in the history of mankind. And it sorted a considerable amount of that information into intelligence. And Hannah needed intelligence in order to make those hard decisions for the greater good.
Another person might have some empathy for the woman called Sarah Briggs. Might want to understand who she was, why she was doing what she was doing. Empathy was not in Hannah’s arsenal.
“This is a Sanction in the hands of the field agent,” Hannah said.
Cardena cleared his throat.
“Yes?” Hannah asked.
“The way Briggs has resurfaced after escaping Karralkov has caused me to investigate why. She’s involved in some sort of land deal south of Charleston. There are other parties involved. One of them is Senator Gregory.”
“The land involved is on an island. Gregory quietly pushed through an appropriation for a causeway to be built to the island, which would then be developed as a resort, vastly increasing the worth of the land. But the existence of this appropriation has been kept under wraps. Additionally, Briggs has involved elements of the New Jersey mafia in acquiring a piece of land on the island. It’s complicated, but there appear to be irregularities involved in Senator Gregory’s involvement.”
“Is Briggs connected to the Senator?”
“Not that I’ve been able to find,” Cardena said.
Hannah considered the information. “Send backup for Westland. She’s to gather information. It’s up to her to determine when the backup will conduct the Sanction. Inform me about the depth of the Senator’s involvement. He’s a powerful man and it’s always good to have leverage on such people.”
Cardena stood. He waited a second to see if she had any further orders.
When there was nothing he left.
The heavy door swung shut behind him, leaving Hannah alone, as she usually was. There were no windows in the office, not that there could be. No personal touches. It was austere, much like her mind. If Cardena had known her background, he would have been surprised: she’d been a suburban housewife in St. Louis before being hand-picked, recruited without her knowledge, tested under fire and then blessed by her predecessor, Nero, to take his place. Because she had that most critical of talents: she could remove herself from the process and analyze, judge and order a Sanction without compunction.
She was not swayed by emotion, by money, by ambition. To her the greater good was the scales on which she made decisions.
The same scales that had tipped against Sarah Briggs so many years ago.
excerpted from The Green Berets: Chasing the Son
“Three can keep a secret if two are dead,” one of the three said.
The other two responded: “Except for the Ring.”
They put their fists together, Institute rings shining on their left hands. It was a complicated move, but they managed to bump rings with each other. They were seated in a booth in the back of the High Cotton Bar on East Bay Street in Charleston. It was an upscale place, full of tourists and a scattering of locals. It was early afternoon but several empty glasses littered their table, a sign of nerves not as steady as their oath. For two of them, at least. For the third, he had a half-full glass of water in front of him.
“I heard this Dillon guy was a bad ass on the football team,” one of the men said. He was the youngest of the three, having just graduated and not yet taking his ‘position’ at his daddy’s firm in Savannah.
“Jerrod, I was a bad ass on the football team,” the biggest man at the table said; he was seated on the same side as Jerrod. He was a former lineman for the Institute team, whose gut had not seen the inside of a gym since graduation. The mound of flesh pressed up against the table. His name was Chad Mongin Jr., a first name he hated, but his father had been a Chad, his father’s father had been a Chad and so on down the line until some fellow who’d stepped off a boat in Charleston harbor carrying the name Chad from whatever country he’d departed from. Thus he came from a long line of Chad’s. And the last name, Mongin, represented a family that had come to the Low Country in 1685.
Despite his size, it was obvious to any observer, and there was one, that Chad was not the dominant figure at the table. That honor fell to a young man sitting alone on the other side, dressed casually in expensive jeans, and a button down shirt, which rested inside a sweater. He was a page in Esquire come to life with his brown hair, sculpted cheekbones, and overall model looks. Those pages where they showed other men how they were supposed to dress and look, although most could only do the dress since looks had something to do with genetics.
Preston Holland Gregory was the son of the senior Senator from South Carolina and chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence. While Chad might fit in at a toga party chugging beer, and Jerrod in a library perusing literature, Preston would fit perfectly in the halls of power, which is what all twenty-two years of his life had been directed toward and his future portended.
“Gentlemen,” Preston said, not calling his friends by their names, since he actually didn’t consider them his friends, although they didn’t know that. “My father’s aide informed me that this Dillon fellow comes from Mrs. Jenrette and—“
“Shit,” Chad muttered. “When is that old witch going to let it go?”
“I do not believe,” Preston said, “she will let it go as long as she breathes. Hopefully, that won’t be very much longer. Nevertheless, we are to cooperate with this Dillon chap.” He said that with the slightest of English accents, an affectation he’d started at the Institute and was growing stronger each month, since no one pointed it out to him. It might have been too much Downtown Abbey; or the fact he was heading off to Oxford for Graduate School in a few months and his subconscious was preparing him. Or he might simply be one of those dicks who need affectations like a fake English accent.
“I don’t like it,” Jerrod said, looking nervously around the bar. “We told the investigators everything they needed.”
“There are deeper forces at play,” Preston said. “People are coming after our parents. Our parents finalizing a deal with Mrs. Jenrette concerning Sea Drift on Saturday.” He nodded at Jerrod. “I know your father has a lot of capital tied up in the Sea Drift proposal.”
“My father doesn’t exactly fill me in,” Jerrod said.
Chad snorted in derision. “My family gave up too much on the island, but they still have a slice. An important one.”
“Yes,” Preston said. “And your family will be well paid for that slice.” He looked at one, then the other. “We are the future. We can do much better than our parents have.”
“Your father is a United States Senator,” Jerrod noted. “What more do you want?”
Preston simply smiled back at him, without saying anything.
Chad downed his drink in one quick swallow. “You two might. My family squandered almost everything.”
Preston graced both of them with a smile. “Don’t worry old chaps. I’ve got both your interests in mind despite what our parents do. We’re the next generation of the Ring. But we’re going to be bigger than our fathers. We’re going to own everything of importance from here down to Savannah. And then we move on to Atlanta and Washington.”
“You sound like Sherman,” Jerrod muttered.
“Fucking Brannigan,” Chad cursed. “Why did he have to show up in the Sinks?”
“It really—“ Preston paused as a figure loomed up to their table. Dillon was wearing a long black overcoat, jeans and a black t-shirt.
“How y’all doing?” Dillon asked, a bit heavy on his own southern accent. He didn’t wait to be invited, but slid in next to Preston, who could not hide his irritation at the close proximity of another human being and scooted away, until he was against the wall. And trapped.
Dillon pointed. “Jarrod Fabrou, right? Chad Mongin? And you must be Preston Holland Gregory. Your pappy is the Senator, is he not?”
“Did you check our yearbooks photos?” Preston said, trying to reclaim some ground. “Or Google us?”
Dillon ignored the question. “I’ve been watching y’all for a little bit. Habit of mine. In Afghanistan, I’d have my platoon set up recon at least twenty-four hours before we were supposed to hit a target. I was never a fan of those midnight swoop ins with no advance eyeballs on the target. Those can go to shit in a heartbeat. At first my company commander wasn’t thrilled with it, having to detail a chopper to send the recon element in. But it worked so well, eventually every platoon in the company was doing it.”
“You were in combat?” Jerrod asked.
“No,” Dillon said. “I’m making it up because I’m a liar.”
An awkward silence followed, one that Dillon allowed to last.
The balcony commanded a superb view of Charleston Harbor and the only complaint Mrs. Jenrette had about the view was that Fort Sumter was still out there with the flag of the Federalists flying high over it. The National Park Service lit it with a spotlight every single night, as if taunting the city that had taken it down by force so many years ago and replaced it with the Stars and Bars.
The grand dame lifted her right hand off the arm of her exquisite cane chair ever so slightly, a signal for the supplicant to proceed. He was a man in his late sixties, awkward in this subservient role, cloaking himself in it only on this balcony. To the rest of Charleston he was a ruthless lawyer with only one client: the most powerful family in the city.
Like many things in that rarified world full of secrets, that wasn’t quite true.
Charles Rigney walked up next to the wooden railing, smartly blocking Fort Sumter from view, a silent acknowledgement between the two of them. He was six and a half feet tall, had played forward on the Institute basketball team many years ago, and was bald as a billiard ball and lean as the stick from the same game.
“Yes, Charles?” Mrs. Jenrette said, a voice dripping in magnolia, Charleston, and age, swirled with the essence of power that came naturally from birth and exercised without restraint for decades. She had once been as physically commanding as the view, an inch shy of six feet, willowy and graceful, with long auburn hair. She’d broken many a beau’s heart when she was a debutante; as a young married woman, she’d brought attention to herself and her husband, as he escorted her about on his arm. Men envied him, woman hated her, and the truly insightful knew she was more than beauty: she was the brains behind the throne. Even in her later married years, as her hair turned silver and she disdained coloring it and cropped it back, she was still a marvel. But now, in her early nineties, the realities of arthritis and age had worn her down, literally shrinking her a few inches and making any excursion out of chair or bed a painful endeavor. Only the voice and the surroundings reminded one of who she was.
“The invitation list for the Ball has been finalized,” Rigney said.
He didn’t have to specify what ball, as there was only one that mattered in Charleston: the St. Cecilia Society Gala, held once a year. Which evening it was held was a closely guarded secret and at the whim of Mrs. Jenrette, who’d reigned as president of the Society for eighteen years. It was never reported on in the local newspaper and spoken only of in whispers. No one got in unless invited and no one was invited unless they were a member of Society of St. Cecilia, a dwindling, but still very powerful social circle, the most powerful one in Charleston. Mrs. Jenrette had ‘come out’ at that ball three quarters of a century ago.
Mrs. Jenrette sighed. This used to be one of her favorite tasks, an annual display of power. Even she admitted, only to herself, that she dipped into the well of petty once in a while, scratching a line through this name or that, for some slight, real or imagined. There was no point being powerful without some of the perks. But now, implicit in it, was a deep pain. And the realization the odds were rather good it would be her last one.
“There are no other men in my line,” Mrs. Jenrette said. “It dies with me.”
“It need not,” Rigney said, daring an argument that she always shot down. But it was late, and the large glass carafe on the table next to his patron was two-thirds empty, indicating she’d imbibed more than usual. Perhaps, for once, reason might prevail in this matter. “No woman was President before you. Perhaps the rules can be changed. You have a daughter. And she has a daughter.”
“But no living son or grandson; no male heir to carry on the name.” Mrs. Jenrette scoffed: “The men did not elect me. It passed to me when my husband and son moved on from this mortal coil in the crash, since no one was willing to step up during a difficult time. When I move on, no woman will set foot in the inner council. And they will never allow me to change the rule: only direct male descendants of founding members of the Order of St. Cecilia may become members.”
“It is a dwindling pool, ma’am,” Rigney pointed out. “Half of the houses south of Broad are now owned by strangers.”
“Turncoats,” Mrs. Jenrette stirred angrily. “Youngsters selling out their family homes for money.”
“They need the money,” Rigney gently pointed out. “Their parents did not provide as well for them as they should have. As you have so generously provided for your own family.”
“Tread carefully,” Mrs. Jenrette said. “Those parents were, and those still alive are my friends.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rigney said.
Both were silent, the only sound the waves breaking on the rocks lining the Battery. It was late and the park south of the house was empty of tourists. There were those wondered if that was why Mrs. Jenrette always chose the night to be out there. She would never be caught out on the porch during daylight any more, not when some yahoo tourist from Ohio with a camera could capture her image. Whether it was from a sense of privacy or vanity was up for debate. That and the fact that three years ago one of the tour guides who drove the carriages that clopped through the streets was regaling his captive audience with a tale of the Battery so inelegantly false in historical accuracy, belittling the bravery of the men who’d fired the cannon, that Mrs. Jenrette had gone inside and brought one of her deceased husband’s guns out and fired a load of bird shot at the poor young man. No one was hurt, but Mrs. Jenrette had begun a retreat into the cloak of darkness.
Excerpted from The Green Berets: Chasing the Son