Unlike some of my homeless friends, I didn’t sell all my valuables to support my habit. Much of my military gear I kept. Even as an alcoholic and drug addict, I knew a time might arise when I would need to fall back on my ‘war’ skill set.
A time like now, for instance. At my lowest point, I trusted a friend of mine with my gear. Ashton Timothy Micha Hall, or ATM to his friends, was a successful international businessman and longtime friend of mine from our days patrolling Baghdad.
I took a satellite phone from underneath my kitchen sink and dialed up his number.
“Yeah. Um, sorry to bother you ATM. I need my gear, and I’m going off grid for a bit.”
“Okay. Is everything okay?”
“No. Janie is dead. A group of men raped her and stomped her to death.”
“Oh, man. 1401 Lexington, twenty minutes.”
He hung up and I walked out of my apartment until this hunt was over. 1401 Lexington Avenue was four and a half miles from here. I cut through the shadows of early morning silently, and soon, I found myself breathing hard as I raced toward my destination.
In 2012, I was discharged from the military for substance abuse. The nightmares associated from the ‘work’ I had done had became unbearable. So, I drowned my trouble in whiskey and various narcotics.
My ‘lifestyle’ had taken a toll on my body. I was out of shape, still powerful, but my cardiovascular system was working double overtime. It took me 18 minutes to make the four and a half miles to Lexington. ATM was already there, and he had my bags laid out behind his Jeep. Sitting next to my bags were a host of body bags.
I stood there taking deep breaths and looking at my friend. He watched me, but his mouth pulled back into a tight grin. His eyes followed my every move and breath.
“Are you sure you’re up to this, Freeman. You’re not nowhere in shape enough to fight this on your own.”
“I know, brother.”
He nodded, and I opened my bags. A Mossberg 590 tactical shotgun, with a red dot optic filled one bag, along with boxes of shotgun shells. Buckshot, slugs, and birdshot rolled around in the bag. I pulled the weapon out and blew the dust from it. Then, I racked it and discharged the shells, and reloaded it.
It had been some years since I handled a weapon of any kind, and I needed to refamiliarize myself with its function. My other bags held two sidearms. I carried Israeli made Jericho nine millimeter pistols, both with optics, and a tricked-out Bushmaster AR-15.
ATM set out my flak vest and extra magazines for every weapon. While we worked the weapons and lubricated everything with a light coat of oil, he talked to me.
“Where are you going to begin?”
“It’s better you don’t know, brother.”
“I’ll do some digging and see what I can turn up. You got the sat phone still, yeah?”
“Yeah, I got it with me.”
“Okay, Freeman. When I know something, you will. I’m sorry about Janie, man. That’s rotten luck. Especially when you worked so hard to find your way back to her.”
“Yeah, it is.” Anger gripped my throat, cutting off the words I wanted to add. Tears wet my eyes. ATM patted my shoulder.
“So, what’s your plan?”
“I’m going to ground and see what I can find out. I’ll kill them as I find them.”
“Any idea how high this goes? Or is it random?”
“You know nothing is random, ATM. Everything happens for a purpose, and sometimes things happen because of what you have done in the past.”
ATM paused and looked at me. Paranoid, the shrink had said. He’s paranoid and delusional. He should not be trusted. The drug use coupled with his alcoholism has addled his brain. Plus, he suffers from self-importance and a hero complex.
“Are you sure you’re on the right path, brother? Could this be…”
“Janie’s dead, Ashton.”
“Did you see the body?”
“No, the doctor met me outside the intensive care ward. Why would she lie?”
“Before you do anything, let’s go back and verify everything okay?”
I agreed to it, but I knew in my heart my daughter was gone. The last of my gear was my old Dodge truck. It had been locked away for several years while I fought my private war with Jameson and Oxy.
ATM took it out and drove it to keep the battery charged and had maintained it in the hopes I would overcome my addictions. I carried my bags to it and shoved them in the back seat.
On the center console was an insurance card, my driver’s license, and a slew of other ‘pertinent’ documents, including my ‘goodbye’ letter to my family from my days at war. Ashton walked up to me, as I loaded ammo onto the floorboards of my truck.
“Have you seen, Cindy?”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t expect too either.”
“She will know if Janie is…dead.”
He grimaced as he said the last word. My ex-wife would know, for she was the one who insisted I try to be there for my daughter. Cindy was a good woman, but she had left me when I needed her the most. While I could understand why she left me, she hadn’t signed up to deal with an alcoholic and drug addict, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t stick it out.
I knew this was an unrealistic expectation, but I harbored some grief over it.
“The officers who broke the news to me, um, Judith and P. Belton, they said detectives would probably be out to see me today. I’ll go see them. They can fill me in on what they’ve got so far.”
“You’re going to use the cops as your source of information? Do you think that’s smart?”
“It’s what we did downrange, wasn’t it? Build up the ego of those in power and let them lead us to the bad guys. Then, we killed the bad guys.”
“And became bad guys in the process. Don’t forget that part of it.”
“I won’t, ATM.”
“Here,” he said, as he thrusted a card in my direction. “You remember Claire Underwood, yeah?”
“She was a JAG officer in Baghdad, right?”
“Yeah, dude. She’s one of my attorneys. I’ll have her standing by when you go too far. She’s paid up. Until then, good hunting to you brother. If these clowns did what you say, track ‘em, find ‘em, kill ‘em.”
I wrapped my arms around my friend, and he hugged me back. “Later, WidowMaker. Be careful out there.”
ATM got into his Jeep and drove out of the lot. The sun was coming up, and I had a lot to do before my day began in earnest. I would start by having a hearty breakfast.
Danny’s Diner, a fifties style restaurant complete with a jukebox and waitresses in poodle skirts, was on the way to the police precinct. I stopped in and was shown to a booth on the far-right side of the restaurant.
A tall brunette walked over to my booth. She had red hair and full lips, and she smacked her gum with an intensity I found comforting.
“What can I getcha, dahling?”
Her exaggerated southern accent was bad, worse it was grating and insulting. I held my tongue and forced a smile. “Blueberry pancakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs, please. I’ll have coffee to drink.”
“Sure thing, dahling. I’ll get it right in.”
I watched as she sashayed away. She turned at the counter and caught me staring at her, and her full lips pulled into a brilliant smile. I gave her a soft smile in return, and she blew me a kiss.
This I did not need. She brought me coffee and leaned close as she poured it. “Do you like what you see?” I couldn’t lie to the woman. She was beautiful, and whether I needed it in my life now, or not, one should always tell the truth.
“Very much so,” I said, as I spooned sugar into my cup. The fake southern accent was gone, and she smiled. Her eyes never left mine, and I could feel my heart beating in my throat.
“Then do something about it. Don’t stare like a perv. If you want me, make your move.”
I sighed and gave her a smile. “That’s a problem, right now. I have business to take care of, and I don’t need to drag anyone into it. If I made you uncomfortable with my staring, then I apologize to you.”
She sat down across from me and locked eyes with me. Her name tag informed me that her name was Tiffany, and she studied my face for several seconds.
“Let me get this straight,” she began. “You like what you see, and I like what I see in you. You undress me with your eyes, and I let you. I tell you to make your move, and you tell me you have business, and you have no time for this-whatever this is-and then apologize.”
“Yeah, that sums it up.”
“You’re not good at this, are you?”
“Would you believe me if I said yes? That at one time I was charming, daring, and more than a little romantic?”
“Order up,” the cook yelled from the kitchen.
Tiffany raised her eyebrows and said, “Wait right here.” She stood and walked over to the counter. My eyes followed her, and she turned her head in my direction. She smiled and picked up my food.
“For a guy who can’t keep his eyes off me, you don’t have much game.”
“Yeah, I know. I am older, and I have no time for games.”
“But you have time for business, and you can’t deliver on all those promises your eyes keep making.”
I cut into my pancakes, and Tiffany sat down across from me. She looked at her watch while I ate.
“What kind of business are you involved in? I’ve dated my share of losers, and I don’t want to wait on another one.”
I sat my fork down and met her eyes. Tiffany’s eyes were green and piercing. She was direct and to the point, and I realized she was as tired of the stupid games people played as I was.
“My daughter was raped and murdered. That’s the business keeping me from asking you to be mine, Tiffany. Right now, things are unsettled.”
“And you’re going to settle them.”
I didn’t say anything in response to her statement. Instead, I picked up my fork and speared my scrambled eggs. She watched me eat and waited for me to finish.
“Say you finish your ‘business.’ What then?”
“If I survive it, then I hope to return here and sweep you off your feet. Then, I plan to make good on every promise my eyes made you.”
Tiffany leaned forward and brushed her lips over mine, and whispered, “Then, you better survive it cowboy. Because I’m waiting for you, and your eyes promised me paradise.” She kissed me lightly on the lips and slipped out of the booth.
I watched her walk toward the back, and at the door, she turned and blew me a kiss. I snatched it from the air and shoved it into the pocket of my tee. She pushed the door open and disappeared from my view.
There was no way for me to know it at the time, but I would need that kiss later.