Monthly Archives: February 2016

Oathkeeper Chapter 7

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 7

 

The Sumerset Motel is the preeminent lodging establishment in the entirety of Calumet County. One would typically describe it as “cozy” and “somewhat dated”, but the lodge pole motif and rustic accents fit the persona of the valley well. Each room and the lobby is adorned with lacquered pine, flannel curtains, and silhouettes of wildlife embedded in the wainscoting. The rooms are clean and adequate, even if the mattresses are a bit lumpy.

The DEA expeditionary force leased the entire motel and every room in it. Half of the parking spaces were occupied by immaculate black Chevy Tahoes. Even the meeting hall was commandeered to serve as a command center. The agents that were boarded there did not mind the accommodations; they had stayed in worse before. The scenery of the valley more than made up for any deficit in refinement.

Sheriff Ellison pulled into the lot, his cruiser a lonely white knight amongst the black cavalry that surrounded it. He checked in at the lobby and was directed to a seat in the meeting hall, in a temporary cubical partition that extended to form a patchwork of offices. Forty-five minutes of waiting passed before Special Agent Vincent Acevedo appeared and took a seat behind his desk. Acevedo was a humorless fellow, fit but short, with dull black eyes and a military-style haircut. He shuffled through some notes in a manila folder before finally acknowledging the sheriff’s presence.

“So what can I do for you, Sheriff?” Acevedo asked, without looking up from his papers.

“I’m here about what happened last night.”

The agent let out a deep, irritated sigh. “I imagine you want to review what’s going into the incident report.”

Ellison nodded. “I came by late last night, but they said you were unavailable.”

“We have a full schedule right now, but we should have a draft of the report for you tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s terrific, but I don’t think publishing a report will suffice. There’s a great deal of damage control that needs to be done.”

“Well Sheriff, this is your county. I think you’d be the best choice to handle the local politics.”

Ellison cleared his throat and leaned forward in his chair. “Well, this is…a complex situation.”

“So hold a presser,” the agent said dismissively. “Let everyone know we deeply regret what happened.”

“I wasn’t even present at the scene, and that was a requirement we agreed on before you even came up here,” retorted Ellison. “People will want to know what happened. There needs to be an investigation.”

“Do what you need to do,” Acevedo replied.

“Someone needs to be held accountable for this.”

The agent looked up from his papers, making direct eye contact with Ellison for the first time.

“What do you want from me, Sheriff?”

“A woman is dead.” Ellison studied Acevedo’s dull-eyed, deadpan expression as he spoke. “Her husband’s in the hospital.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“Why did you change the day of the raid?”

“The timing worked out better for us.”

“Why wasn’t it communicated to me?”

Acevedo’s eyes fell back into his papers. “It was a last-minute thing,” he mumbled.

“An oversight?”

“If you want to call it that.”

“Whose oversight?” asked Ellison.

Acevedo’s eyes stopped scanning his pages and froze in place. His face began to smolder, and his jaws flexed as he ground his teeth. “It was just an oversight,” he snapped.

“There are consequences related to this oversight.”

Acevedo looked up again, his face shifting into a snarl for a fraction of a second. “Would it really have made a difference, Sheriff…if you were there? You weren’t going into that trailer. Only my men were going into harm’s way. You were going to be back in your cruiser, probably catching up on your emails when it went down.”

“I would have made sure your men raided the correct address.”

“Oh, so this is about assigning blame,” growled Acevedo. “Is that what this is? Throwing me and my agents under the bus? My men are putting their lives on the line for your little county here.”

“It wouldn’t have happened had you followed protocol,” Ellison explained.

“What? Raiding the wrong trailer?”

“Yes. That and shooting two innocent people.”

“That’s a different matter, Sheriff. My agent saw a gun. He reacted as he was trained.”

“But it wasn’t a gun. It was a remote control.”

“It makes no difference. The officer perceived a threat to his safety. Agent safety is our highest priority.”

“But you were at the wrong house.”

“We’re just going in circles here. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a lot of work to do.”

“We need to get to the bottom of this, Vincent.”

“Sheriff, we do dozens of raids every year,” Acevedo stated. “Accidents happen. It’s tragic. We do our best to avoid it. We all feel bad about it. I know it’s probably difficult for you to comprehend, but try to have some empathy for the agent involved. Kevin Sniggs is a high-potential agent. We don’t want to sidetrack him over this. He’s doing good work. This wasn’t his fault. Think about what he’s dealing with.”

“I’m concerned about the man who just lost his wife.”

“Did you come down here just to kick me in the balls?” Acevedo shoved the manila folder into his desk. “If that’s the case, we can wrap this meeting up right now.”

“I don’t get the sense that you’re going to concede anything. Nor do I think you will fully cooperate with the investigation.”

“I’ll get you whatever you ask for,” snapped Acevedo. “Video. Notes. The after action report. You want a deposition? You got it. Whatever you ask for. Put a list together for my admin. Now, if you don’t mind…”

“I’m going to need you to suspend operations until we can sort this out.”

“Can’t do that,” the agent stated bluntly. “We’re deep into our program, on the verge of blowing an entire meth racket wide open. Besides, we have our orders.”

“I am the sheriff,” Ellison declared. “I make the calls here. I think if you communicated that to the Arlington boys, they’d understand.”

“Arlington’s got nothing to do with it, Sheriff. This is DOJ’s show. Your little county has been red-listed by the Attorney General himself.”

“Then we’ll just need to convince him to de-prioritize this county for a little while, until the investigation is complete and we come to an agreement on how things will be handled going forward.”

“No,” said Acevedo. “That’s not possible. This is the middle of a surge. My boys are implementing the President’s personal plan for victory in the War on Drugs. Missions like this are what’s going to win this war. You can’t stop a surge just because of a little collateral damage. Accidents happen. It’s the fog of war. C’mon, Sheriff, where’s that country boy common sense of yours?”

“You can surge somewhere else for six months. Let the community here get over this.”

“This is a waste of my time,” Acevedo sighed. “There’s nothing more to discuss. I suggest you go drive out to City Hall, call the Gazette, and give a speech about how you regret what happened. Remind the folks around here that mishaps are going to happen during any war. Explain to them the concept of collateral damage. I think they can grasp it. I know the people in this county want to win this war, too. They’ll accept it as part of the price of victory.”

“How should I explain your men going to the wrong house?”

“You’ll figure something out.”

“Should I tell them you broke protocol?” asked Ellison.

“Sure, you could tell them that,” answered Acevedo. “You go ahead and tell them that you didn’t show up and that’s why that woman’s dead. But this is a joint operation. The first thing folks will think about is why did the DEA not keep you in the loop? All they’ll end up seeing is their disrespected sheriff. You’ll look weak. They’ll compare your department to my highly-trained professional agents, and you’ll end up looking like a bumpkin just getting in our way, trying to cover your ass.”

“You’re right.” Ellison stood up. “We’re getting nowhere. I do want it on record that you’re not authorized to conduct any more operations in my county until further notice.”

Acevedo chuckled. “I don’t need your authorization. Like I said, this is a DOJ operation. It’s federal. And your governor will authorize it if necessary.”

“I’m the sheriff of this county.”

“Sure, but your cooperation is mandatory.” Acevedo declared. “We call all the shots.”

Ellison put his hat on and started to walk out. As he stepped through the doorway, he turned back one final time before leaving the cubical.

“This is my county, Vincent…” he began, but was quickly shot down by Acevedo.

“Tell it to the AG,” snapped the agent. “Hell, go tell it to your governor. Your cooperation is irrelevant to him too, now that he’s bucking for a cabinet position.”

Ellison shook his head, turned and left.

Oathkeeper

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Oathkeeper Chapter 6

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 6

 

“Bear,” Ellison’s wife called. She had just come back from the kitchen with a plate in one hand and her phone in the other.

“What is it?”

Nguyet put her phone in her pocket and took a seat on the salmon-colored leather sofa on the end cushion, next to her husband’s recliner. Ellison was nearly halfway finished with his dinner of pork chops, string beans, and applesauce with cinnamon. A baseball playoff game droned on from the flat screen TV. Nguyet smiled, placed her plate in her lap, and commenced sawing through her pork chop.

“You’re a grandfather,” she announced as she cut.

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” Bear set his fork and knife down and lowered the volume with the remote. He waited while Nguyet sectioned everything on her plate before she continued, which was her custom.

“I’ve decided, then,” she finally said.

“What have you decided?”

She took three bites from her plate, then dabbed the napkin against her lips. “Don’t you think it’s time?”

“Time for what?” Ellison asked.

“You know.”

“I don’t, Nguyet.” The sheriff picked up a pork chop with his fingers. “Time for what?”

“Don’t you think it’s time to start a new chapter in our life?”

“We talked about this, already. I’m not running for re-election.”

“The election is a long ways off.”

“It’ll be here before you know it. I can retire, then.”

“What is the point of staying on until then?”

“The point is that I have a job to do, Nguyet.”

Nguyet studied her plate, stirring her greens.

“But I do mean it,” Ellison continued. “I’m done when my term is up.”

“Just leave now. Let’s go see our granddaughter. Let’s go tomorrow, together.”

“It’s tempting, Nguyet. Believe me.”

“You have a pension, savings. You don’t need to work anymore. You don’t need this, these people always blaming you for everything, saying all those nasty things.”

“Who would be sheriff, then?” Ellison asked.

“There will always be another sheriff. What about Ken? You say he’s ready. Maybe Frenchie would come back.”

“It’s almost over. Hang in there.”

“Well, I’ve already made up my mind,” declared Nguyet.

Ellison’s phone rang. He glanced at the screen, examining the incoming number. “I have to get this,” he explained quickly, raising the phone to his ear. “Bear here. I see…I see… This was not the time and place we agreed on… I’m very disappointed that I wasn’t informed in advance.”

Nguyet stood up and took her plate to the kitchen, listening to her husband while he talked.

“No… That’s terrible news!” Ellison sounded shocked. “How could this have happened? No, I should be the one… Yeah, hold on, I’m heading there right now.”

“What happened?” Nguyet called from the kitchen as she scraped her plate.

“Something terrible.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow. I have to go. I’ll be late so don’t wait up.” Ellison was still wearing his work pants. He dressed quickly, pulling his uniform shirt back on, followed by his sidearm, his hat, and his coat.

“Bear…” Nguyet called, but he just smiled at her and left.

Ellison pulled out of his driveway under the stars and took the state highway south towards Salida, past the razor wire and guard towers of the penitentiary, whose grounds were brightly lit against the night. The long, straight highway thrust into the darkness, and the silhouettes of the mountains burst upwards, black against the starry night sky.

The drive afforded him some time to reflect. What had he achieved in his sixty years? He had made sheriff, that was something, but its significance was fading with each day. The job itself wore on him, especially the tasks such as the one that awaited him at the end of the road in Salida.

Nguyet was probably right. Perhaps it was time to quit.

#

Ellison won the sheriff position by 37 votes in a special election held to replace the beloved Frenchie Francione, who was forced to abdicate due to a heart condition. At first glance, you wouldn’t have thought Frenchie would have amounted to much of a leader. Short. Fat. Bald. Squeaky-voiced. But the people rallied around him.

“There’s something lovable in every man,” Frenchie would say. “Bringing it out is the secret to success.”

Francione and Ellison were never personally close, despite the decade they worked together. Ellison was efficient and competent, and that was reason enough for Frenchie to keep him around. Working relationships have less to do with merit and personality and more to do with the utility the subordinate provides the boss. Ellison was a dutiful deputy and undersheriff who did Frenchie’s bidding, but Frenchie was much more personable to his other subordinates and colleagues.

Frenchie had many friends – friends who kept his political enemies and stalking opportunists at bay. He had friends on the right and friends on the left, friends on the up-and-up and friends in the shadows. He was at the height of his power when he was forced to retire due to bypass surgery. The Prince of Calumet reluctantly resigned, settling down with his wife Astrid on his ranch in the southeastern corner of the county.

When the ailing Francione left, Ellison thought it a no-brainer to throw his hat in the ring for sheriff. There was no one else as experienced as he was. His resume was faultless, and he assumed he would run unopposed. But he soon discovered that politics is not a meritocracy. Sheriff positions, even in small mountain counties, are coveted offices, cherished by the urban party machines. Ellison learned that he had taken Frenchie’s buoyant personality and talent for making connections for granted. He had assumed, incorrectly, that those aspects were secondary to success.

He fashioned himself as an independent, but he was compelled to join the political machine in order to stave off electoral assault. Furthermore, the tight election required Ellison to engage in what he perceived to be the indignity of panhandling for votes, which he had to do right up to the very day of the election. It should not have been so difficult that he needed to hand out cards, pins, and stickers at convenience stores and diners. He considered throwing in the towel at one point, but the machine educated him that he would soon find himself unemployed after the race, as the new sheriff wouldn’t want anyone on his team of questionable loyalty. Ellison pressed on to victory, but the reality of politics scarred him.

“The scum always rises to the top.”

This was another of the many morsels of unsolicited wisdom spooned out by Frenchie Francione. Ellison wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by it, but it resonated nevertheless. Was Frenchie referring to Frenchie? Was it some sort of confession? Or was it a warning? An insult, perhaps? Whatever it meant, it stuck with Ellison, popping into his mind time and time again after he rose to sheriff.

Ellison’s reign didn’t get any easier. Calumet County had known only one murder in the twenty years prior to his election. There had been six or seven since he took office, depending on how one tallied the killings at the Alco. The Gazette’s cantankerous editor was comparing the Ellison term to the wild days of the silver rush, where gunslingers, bandits, and Ute Indians terrorized the peaceful Christian homesteaders – all mythology, of course, but it made for good copy. Visitor numbers were declining. Hotel occupancy was down. Outfitters and guides were feeling the pinch. This had more to do with the general economic malaise than the recent spate of murderous violence, but public perceptions are the reality for any politician. It reflected badly on Ellison and on what would soon be his legacy when he retired. Each crime was solved, yet he was being held accountable for the trend. The pressure mounted.

#

Ellison finally reached the Salida Regional Medical Center and entered through the emergency room. A nurse directed him to the ICU, her grim expression betraying her thoughts. She knew where the sheriff was headed without even having to ask him. Ellison had made innumerable visits to that hospital. He’d seen far too many people sent there…people who he knew wouldn’t make it. Most of them were victims of car crashes, their bodies wrecked by high velocity rapidly decelerated by steel and concrete. One of his jobs as sheriff was to inform the families summoned to the hospital of the terrible news.

Too many times, he thought. And each time, the routine became more and more difficult.

Ellison stopped at a curtain and checked his watch. He had been beyond that curtain before, and had never witnessed any joy there. Drawing it back, he peered in. The patient was propped up in bed, with numerous tubes and wires hanging out of him. The sheriff scratched his neck, sighed, and removed his hat. As the patient heard him, their eyes met.

“Mr. Turcot?” Ellison asked.

“Yes sir,” Monte groaned.

The sheriff stepped in and took the chair next to the bed.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” continued Monte.

“Of course you didn’t.”

Monte looked away and closed his eyes. Ellison swallowed, his thumbs kneading away at the rim of his hat.

“There…there’s been a terrible accident.”

Monte made no gesture or motion. His eyes remained closed.

“Monte, your wife has passed away.”

The injured man’s only visible response was a clenching of his left fist. His face remained flat and featureless, as if he were asleep.

“I’m very sorry for your loss, Monte. I really am.” Ellison’s face fell. He had endured these encounters many times but this one wounded him, deeply. This was no drunken highway accident, no stupidly or carelessly self-inflicted mortality. This had been a shooting by law enforcement…an accidental shooting, utterly avoidable and unnecessary. Ellison could not compartmentalize the death of Megan Turcot. He was supposed to have been present when the raid occurred, and he could have prevented what had happened. He wanted to tell Monte this, but it seemed self-indulgent at this moment, so he buried it down inside.

Monte opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. “She was pregnant,” he murmured.

Ellison shook his head to acknowledge the additional tragedy. Monte closed his eyes again and turned his head away. The sheriff knew that he was done talking.

“Monte, I’m going to leave you my card,” he said. “We can talk about this when you are able…if you want to. I want to help you. I want to do everything I can for you.” That was as far as Ellison could go. He got up, placed his card on the stand and left. On the way out, he asked the nurse if anyone from the DEA had been by.

“Haven’t seen them, Sheriff,” she answered.

Oathkeeper

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Indivisible Chapter 2

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joinordie2

Chapter 2

 

Specialists Jimmy Marzan and Michael Rollins sat next to each other, packed tightly with four other soldiers into their filthy, rattling Humvee which itself was held together in places with duct tape and bailing wire. They rode in bumpy, dusty discomfort, barely speaking, much as they had done the day before…and the day before that…and the day before that… Marzan and Rollins had been in country together for so many months that they had come to the point in their relationship where they had run out of things to talk about—not unlike some old, married couple.

It had been a dull week. The only pleasant aspect of boredom in their dirty, third world ghetto, was the good fortune of unseasonably cool weather. But despite the lull, Marzan and Rollins could feel the omnipresent ‘little brown man’—as they referred to him—watching them, grinning at them with his crooked-toothed grin while covertly plotting their destruction.

Michael Rollins cynically understood this bleak, Goyan world all too well. He enjoyed the life he was leading in it, especially its moral relativism and its ruthless code. He was a muscular fellow of about five foot ten with blonde hair that was so fair and thin that it blended with the color of his complexion giving him the appearance of baldness. He had had a terrible bout of acne as a teenager which badly pock-marked his face and neck. His grin resembled that of a horse, and his bulging eyes were set too far apart giving him a face that resembled a praying mantis. This potpourri of unfavorable genes made Michael Rollins the subject of ridicule and a reject of the young ladies as an adolescent. From this cold incubator, Rollins matured into an embittered, angry, drifting man-child of twenty six years. Then Rollins and the Army found each other. Within its ranks Rollins felt, for the first time in his troubled life, acceptance in the form of the embrace of brotherhood that is woven amongst men placed in a milieu of destruction and terror.

Jimmy Marzan, conversely a handsome devil, noticed a fomenting agitation in Rollins over the recent days. He knew Rollins was wound too tightly for boredom and that he had exhausted his venting mechanisms. He was becoming quick-tempered and unpredictable. Just that morning, Marzan noticed when Rollins had discovered that his wristwatch had succumbed to moisture damage and ceased to function. Upon this realization, Rollins calmly removed the watch from his wrist, delicately placed it on the ground, and then hammered it fifteen times into tiny fragments with the heel of his boot.

“Typical Army-issue.  Wrecked by water in the middle of a haji desert,” he complained.

Jimmy Marzan had grown accustomed to Rollin’s epithet-laced tirades. He did not encourage them but he did not protest, either. A protest of another soldier’s multicultural insensitivity would be classified as an act of overt pussification. The mere anticipation of reprisal would vastly exceed any discomfort associated with enduring the original offense. Jimmy Marzan forced himself to believe that Rollins meant nothing by it.

Colorful language was but one of Rollin’s four venting mechanisms, the others being: obsessively manicuring his toenails with his twelve inch Bowie knife, spinning his over-sized, silver, Osiris-eye ring which adorned his right middle finger, and head-banging to his catalog of death metal which sounded more like an M4 fired on full auto than actual music.

The sun was beginning to warm things up. It was going to be a hot day for a change.

Marzan’s and Rollins’ Humvee was one of a convoy that rumbled down a dusty road.  Led by Captain Albert “Al” A. Rick, they blared his musical selection—Elvis—through their PA system, drowning out the morning call to prayer.  They eventually came to a stop at a non-descript mud hovel. A dog, some multi-breed mutant, came tearing out of the yard and frothed away at the soldiers drowning out the verse of “…Then one night in desperation, a young man breaks away…” The music shut off and was replaced with the commands of an Army interpreter who was trying to coax the inhabitants out of the house from the safety of his armored vehicle.

The dog was a vile creature. Skinny and covered in a hide of ratlike fur, it barked and foamed and choked itself on its chain trying to lunge at the soldiers. It nearly took a chunk out of the captain’s ankle while he stood next to the road talking on his radio. No one would be able to get through the gate unscathed with that rabid beast guarding the way.

Rollins took matters into his own hands, firing one round at the dog, exploding its left hind paw and sending it into a yelping hysteria. Rollins grinned faintly as he aimed again, but he stopped short of finishing the job.

The man of the house burst out into the yard with his hands flailing, hurling incoherent dialect at a surprised Captain Rick. All rifles turned and aimed at him. Rick, who was not marked as an officer in any manner, drew the frantic man’s appeals. Marzan supposed that it was the Captain’s aura, if there was such a thing, that had betrayed his rank. The Captain was tall, with weathered skin, and a chin that looked as if it had been pounded into shape in a forge. In addition, all the other soldiers were arranged like spokes, eyes pointing inwards towards him. Despite making himself a target, Captain Rick couldn’t avoid looking like the man in charge. The interpreter was summoned out from the safety of his Humvee and spent about ten minutes describing to the native how it was necessary for the U.S. Army to search his particular mud hovel as there had been reports of a cache of insurgent ammunition stored in his neighborhood. Certainly the native would wish to clear his families’ name? In other words, some neighbor had rolled over on him. The native made many assurances as to his innocence in regards to hoarding ammo and RPGs and detonators but did not welcome the soldiers into his home. As a final nudge to get him to comply, Rollins finished off the crippled dog with another rifle shot. With that, the native ended his resistance and led them in.

Five soldiers, including Rollins and Marzan, stormed the well-kept shack and began their room to room search. They pulled a grandfather from his bed and walked him into the common room, setting him down onto a tiled floor in a huddle with three young girls and their mother. Household searches were messy operations and operations that were best not delayed with too much politeness. After three or four searches, even the pretense of restraint was ditched in favor of rapid efficiency. Get in and get out was the procedure.

The soldiers turned the place inside out in just a few minutes. They went through the cupboards throwing food and dishes onto the floor. They went through the bedrooms turning the beds over and yanking the drawers out of their chests. They ripped the laundry from the line dropping it in the dirt, and Rollins dutifully dug his filthy claws through the mother’s under things—as if an RPG might possibly be stashed in a lingerie drawer.

With his dog murdered, his children terrified and crying, and his wife screaming, the native man—a father and husband and a proud man as he had a decent house by his countries’ standards—sat cowering in a corner of his common room, shielding his face from shame and in fear of the bullets that might burst out of the two M4s pointed at his head.

After tearing the house apart and grilling the family for twenty minutes and after not finding any weapons or materiel, the squad extricated itself from the mess. Jimmy Marzan was the last man out and he left the house and the family with an apology, an apology that they could not understand as they spoke not a word of English.

But the U.S. Army did leave, Jimmy reasoned, and they did leave the man with his life and that was worth something. That’s how Rollins would process it, Jimmy thought. The little brown man’s ruined dignity was a small price for him to pay for being permitted to live. And the men of the U.S. Army were their liberators, after all.

That was the fourth of five searches for the 2nd Platoon of Bravo Company and it indeed ended up a very hot day for a change.

Indivisible

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