Sleep has become something to avoid for Detective Jessie Collins. The bottle he crawled into five years ago helps, but it can’t drown out the screams from his six year old daughter: Daddy help me! Daddy…daddy…daddy!
“I’m trying baby girl, I’m trying so hard to get to you! Daddy is trying!”
But the flames are too intense. They beat back every effort to rescue his family trapped inside the mangled car. All he can do is watch in horror. He drops to his knees. Screaming through the pain, he thrust his blistered arms toward the heavens, pleading for a divine intervention that never comes.
The dream from hell, the one that shows no mercy, is back. The raging flames, the bone chilling screams, they are as fresh tonight as the night he heard them five years ago.
The horrific sounds of the inferno are replaced by a faint ringing. Growing louder by the second, the ringing sends the nightmare back into the hellish world of troubled souls.
Jessie sprang up in bed gasping and out of breath. He could still feel the heat from the fire. His arms still felt blistered. The dream, the feelings of complete despair, it all felt so real. The pain was. His heart was pounding. Sweat dripped from every pore of his skin. The ringing grew louder. Jessie grabbed his cell phone.
“Is that you, Collins?”
“Yes, who did you think you were calling? Who’s this?”
“It’s your Lieutenant. Don’t you have caller I.D.?”
“Yes Lieutenant Vitale. Do you have any other Lieutenant’s you work for?”
“You know this is my day off, right?”
“Not any more. You need to get your ass to the precinct right now.”
“All right, all right, relax. I’ll be there in an hour. I’m a little messed up so bear with me.”
“Make it half an hour.”
What the fuck was that all about, Jessie wondered as he dropped his cell phone on the night stand and lay back on his sweat soaked pillow. The effects of the dream began to subside, only to be replaced by a hangover the size of Texas.
The lump of covers next to him began to move. A redhead peeked out from underneath. “Must have been a wild night, wish I could remember it,” Jessie mumbled to himself.
“Wake up, sweetheart. You need to get dressed. I have to go to work.”
“Go to work, who was that calling so early?”
“You’re a cop?”
“Yes…I’m a cop. You didn’t know that? Wait a minute. I know you.” Jessie said as he ran his hands through his messy hair. “You’re that new waitress from the Brass Tap.”
“You don’t know my name, do you?”
“Of course I know your name. Don’t be ridiculous.” Jessie said while trying to rally what remained of his brain cells to come up with a name.
“Okay, what is it?”
“It’s…whatever, you’re right. I don’t know your name. I don’t even remember coming home last night.”
“I remember your name. It’s Richard.”
“Richard? I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“Right, Cindy. Now I remember. Hold on a minute. I told you my name is Richard?”
“Why? Is that not your real name?”
“You need to get dressed, Cindy.”
“You’re not going to tell me your real name?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?”
“What about Rib Fest? Cindy said while getting dressed. “You promised to take me to Rib Fest today.”
“Hold on. I told you I’d take you to Rib Fest? Wow! I must have really been drunk. No way I’m blowing two hundred bucks on some washed-up bands and bad barbecue.”
“Well it’s too late. You were all for it last night when you bought two tickets.”
“You’ve got to be joking.” Jessie said when he spotted two tickets lying on the night stand plain as day. “That’s not happening. Here, sweetheart, you can have them.” Jessie said as he tossed the tickets over to her.
“Whatever, I’m out of here, and don’t ever call me!”
“No problem, darling. I’m pretty sure I don’t know your phone number.”
The force of the front door slamming shut rattled everything in Jessie’s messy one bedroom duplex. Jesus, $200 for Rib Fest, I’ve got to stay away from the tequila, Jessie thought on the way to the shower. The hot water flowing over his abused body felt good, but it offered no relief from the pounding in his head or the lingering effects of the nightmare from hell.
~ ~ ~
“Collins, come in and close the door. You look like hell, detective. I can smell your breath from here. Are you drunk?”
“No, Lieutenant, I’m not drunk, but I do have a massive hang over. I wasn’t expecting to be here today. What’s so fucking urgent anyway?”
“Don’t play innocent with me, Collins. It usually doesn’t matter if you have the day off. You’re drinking problem has wrecked your career, not to mention your marriages. If it was up to me, I’d kick your ass out of homicide and send you back to a street beat where you belong.”
“Whatever, Lieutenant. I don’t fucking care anymore. You big shot desk cops couldn’t solve a murder if someone handed you a confession! If you want to kick me out of here stop talking about it and do it. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Trust me, I would if I could. But our Captain assigned Johnson and Griffith to temporary duty on a federal task force. I need you to take their shift. By the way, your new partner is waiting outside my office. His name is Charlie Miller. Send him in after you introduce yourself.
Jessie hadn’t noticed Miller when he entered the lieutenant’s office. He exited his office to take a look at his new, unwanted, partner. He doesn’t look like much of a detective, Jessie thought to himself as he turned back to address Vitale.
“Lieutenant, I don’t have the time or the patience to wet-nurse a new partner. I’m better off working alone.”
“I agree and so would all of your former partners. But you know the rules, Collins. Homicide detectives work in teams. That comes straight from the top. So, if you want to remain a homicide detective you’re going to have a partner.”
“That’s bullshit, Lieutenant. I know you’re busting my balls.”
“You can think what you want, Collins, but Miller is your new partner or I’m sending your ass back to the dump you came from.”
“I’m Jessie Collins,” Jessie said as he extended his hand to his new partner. “Looks like we’re going to be spending some time together.”
“I’m looking forward to working with you Detective. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Charlie replied.
“Well, we’ll see about that. You should know up front that every partner I’ve had got shot or demanded a transfer. And as you can see, I’m not exactly wanted around here. No one wants to work with me. That’s why I get rookie detectives for a partner. What do you think of that?” Jessie said as he plopped down in his chair and laid his head on his desk.
“Miller, come on in for a minute.”
“Lieutenant, what was that all about? I could hear you guys out here. And so could everyone else.”
“Sit down, Miller. I’ll fill you in on your new partner.”
“Collins is a mess. He has been for the last five years. It’s complicated, but the short version is he’s been through some tough times. His first wife and kid were killed by a drunk driver. Jessie heard the call on his radio and was the first to respond. When he arrived he realized it was his family. The car was on fire. He tried to get to them but the flames were too intense. It was a horrific sight. He watched as they burned alive.
“It was the other driver’s fourth DUI arrest. The man shouldn’t have been on the street. Jessie never really got over that tragedy. Maybe no one could. It changed him into the man you just met. He began drinking heavily. Not on the job, but every night after his shift you could find him in a bar.
“He burned through two more marriages. He withdrew from everyone, including his partners. He refused to go to counseling. Before this happened Jessie Collins was an exceptional homicide detective and he always got his man. He was the best when it came to solving murder cases. But eventually his drinking began to affect his performance and now he doesn’t care. He’s hanging on until he retires later this year.”
“Lieutenant, why did you partner me with a man like that?”
“If you can get past all his bullshit you’ll learn a lot. He still has the instincts that can solve a murder when others can’t. It may not work out, but hang in there as long as you can.”
Charlie returned to the squad room to find his partner nearly passed out at his desk. He didn’t know what to think. His first day wasn’t starting out like he imagined.
“What’s going on between you and the lieutenant?” Charlie asked. “It sounds like you two hate each other.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Jessie said as he looked up. “Despise is more like it. It goes back a long time. What can I say? I drink too much and I’m a fuck up. You’ll see soon enough.”
The howling of a solitary wolf echoed through the pitch-black forest. An ominous, Stephen King kind of mist boiled over the rugged terrain, hiding the dangers beneath. Suddenly, as if on cue, the night went eerily silent.
The unmistakable sounds of a nearby enemy patrol hacking its way through the thick underbrush startled the creatures of the night. The patrol was looking for an assassin with orders to kill their leader.
My camouflage made it impossible for them to see me, but one of the soldiers was getting too close for comfort. He passed within arm’s length of my location and it cost him his life. I sprung up behind him and slit his throat. The razor sharp, twelve inch Bowie sliced through his jugular with the ease of soft butter, nearly decapitating him. His death was swift and painless. I hid his body beneath a rotted log and covered it with brush and leaves.
His comrades froze in place when they heard the sounds of our struggle. With a nervous–what the hell was that–whisper they called out to him: “Boris–Boris–is that you? It’s time to return to the camp.” The lack of a response sent shivers of fear through the wide-eyed men. After a brief but spirited exchange of reasons why they should get the hell out of there, they retreated to the relative safety of their camp in the valley below. The imaginary demise of Boris, probably more gruesome than what actually happened, will be with them all their lives.
Once they left, the sounds of the night resumed.
It was early morning now.
The sun began to clear the cuesta to the east of my location, flooding the valley with a cascade of yellow and orange light as it passed through the lingering mist. The camp bustled with activity as mess cooks hastily prepared for the day’s breakfast.
If I was lucky–if today was the day–it would be one man’s last meal.
Now I’m playing the waiting game. I’ve been properly trained for the killing, the scavenging for food and water, and sleeping on the ground or high up in a tree. Those aspects of my mission are a piece of cake–no problem. But waiting for days, or even weeks in complete isolation to complete a mission; that’s something you can’t train for. Every man develops his own way to deal with it.
I’ve tried a lot of different techniques, but nothing seems to work. The memories are too strong and the images too vivid. Solitude may be great for yoga, or the life of a monk, but for me it usually leads to an unwanted barrage of haunting flashbacks from my past. They arrive unannounced and show no mercy. The ability to control them doesn’t exist.
The images appear…
My parents are lying on the floor. The clerk’s body is slumped over the counter. Everyone around me is dead. There’s blood everywhere and it’s inching towards me, like a river of death spreading over a flood plain.
The store is cold…like a freezer, a vault containing nothing but unimaginable pain. My eyes are open so wide, they burn. Every attempt to close them fails. I want to look away, but it feels as though someone is holding my head in a vice, forcing me to gaze at the image for all eternity…allowing the horror to sear a permanent place in the region of my brain created to torment and torture.
I’m telling myself to run. Every instinct I own tells me to get the hell out before Lucifer, himself, arrives. But I can’t move. All I can do is stand here…paralyzed, waiting for my own end.
The flashback is interrupted by an image in the crosshairs of my scope. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. I noticed a slight tremble in my right hand–my shooting hand–as I adjust my scope two clicks to the left. At this distance the wind, the elevation, gravity, even the curvature of the Earth has to be factored into the shot. The final adjustments bring the blurred image into crystal clear focus.
It’s the general. His soul is mine for the taking. The waiting game is over.
It’s time to take the shot.
I whispered into my headset, “Charlie Bravo Six to base, I’m in position and I have a shot. Are we good to go?”
“Roger that Charlie Bravo Six. You’re cleared to engage.”
The moment of truth has arrived. In a few seconds I’m going to take this man’s life. This is what I’ve been trained to do. It’s my job–my duty.
I think, I should feel something, shouldn’t I? A normal person, a sane person would feel something. I don’t. My training shields me from feelings of guilt or sympathy.
Then again, why should I feel something? My target isn’t a normal man. He’s pure evil.
Serbian General Orlov Stravensky is a cold-blooded mass murderer of men, women and children. He uses war as a façade, hiding behind his speeches, screaming that the battles are for justice, while what they’re really for is ethnic cleansing. It’s time for his reign of terror to end. He has no idea the last few seconds of his life are ticking away. Guilt is not necessary here, and I’ll save my sympathy for the thousands of innocent civilians he executed over the last two years.
The adrenaline builds. The trembling has stopped. My finger caresses the trigger with a gentle, almost erotic stroke. The rifle and I are one. A soft squeeze on the trigger sends the high-powered projectile to its intended target nearly a mile in the distance.
In an instant, the back of the general’s head explodes like a soft melon. Brain matter and pieces of skull splatter the officers standing around him. The soft point, fifty-caliber round arrived unannounced. No one heard a thing. But his comrades will remember this day: one minute they were conversing with their beloved general, the next, a shower of his blood rained down upon them.
It’s time to get the hell out of here.
The diversionary explosions send the startled officers running in all directions. The ensuing confusion will provide me with enough time to reach the extraction point. Running double-time through the forest, I call my operations base to confirm the mission is a success.
“Charlie Bravo Six to base. The target is down.”
“Say again, Charlie Bravo Six; say again.”
“The target is down. The general is dead.”
“Roger that. The bird is waiting.”
I spotted the chopper hovering a few feet above the ground in a clearing about a half mile ahead. The downdraft of the blades sent waves of air rolling through the thick, wild grass. The muscular arm of one of my Special Forces brothers was waiting to hoist me into the chopper as I approached in a full sprint. Within a matter of seconds we were high above the forest and headed back to base. The escape signaled the completion of a long and difficult mission. I knew the colonel would be pleased. Now, I could relax.
As the black ops chopper whisked me away, the scene below became surreal. The fog of war faded into a beautiful, panoramic view of a tranquil forest. From up here, it reminded me of the hunting trips I used to go on with my uncles in the Ohio Valley. We’d sit for hours in our camouflaged cover waiting for deer to make an appearance.
My targets now are very different, and sometimes they shoot back.
I reported for my debriefing at 0600 the following morning. Colonel “Jake” Jackson sat behind his desk—back straight, chin raised, the look of absolute power that came with believing in his country was etched firmly in his eyes.
“Outstanding job, Sergeant,” the colonel’s voice rang out loud and clear as he shouted his words through a thick cloud of cigar smoke. “My intelligence officer tells me the Serbian’s think a Bosnian Sniper killed the general. Vegas, you’re a goddamn genius, son. You did a great service for humanity today. Too bad no one will know about it.”
“Lighten up, Vegas. At ease. I have some news I’m sure you’re going to like.”
“What news is that, sir?” I asked, not sure what to expect.
“We’re standing down, son. Leaving for the States tomorrow. Hard to believe, but we’ll be back in Florida within forty-eight hours. How do you like that, Vegas? After three deployments the war’s over, at least for us.” Sitting back in his worn, leather chair—a piece that looked as if it had personally played a part in the battles—the colonel smiled. “So, hot shot, any plans after you leave Special Forces?”
“Not sure, sir. I guess I haven’t thought much about it.”
Right then I realized I was going home. And yes, in fact, I did have plans for this day. But they weren’t the kind of plans I could share with my superior. Most of my life has been devoted to this plan, this vow to avenge the murder of my parent’s, but a soldier never thought ahead. Hoped, yes. But now it’s time. All the training, the killing, the discipline, everything I’ve learned will be put to good use.
Thinking back, I realized that my vow had really been the catalyst to my enlisting in the first place. I knew the military could provide the skills I would need to fulfill my destiny, and I wasn’t disappointed. The weapons and hand-to-hand combat training was outstanding, but that was only one piece of the puzzle. In the military I had earned that balance; that mind that was focused and reasoned, that strength I would need to win no matter what the cost. It was time to take care of business.
“You have two weeks of leave when we return to the states. When you get back I’ll conduct your exit interview.”
After a brief visit with my aunt and uncle, I headed out to the cemetery where mom and dad were buried. I had so many stories to share with them.
It was a beautiful, crystal clear day in the Ohio Valley, perfect for a ride through the country. The twisting country road to the cemetery led past a once thriving farm with a huge red barn and a Norman Rockwell style two story home. Many years ago, the home and barn were surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans that stretched as far as the eye could see. Mom and Dad would point it out to me whenever we visited my grandparents about a mile up the road. “Son,” dad would say, “this is the backbone of our country. America’s farmers feed the world.”
Dad was very proud of that, which I found curious since he had chosen town life over farming, a fact that didn’t sit well with grandma and grandpa. I wanted to ask him why he chose to drive trucks instead of carrying on the family tradition, but it wasn’t something he talked about, and I was always afraid to bring it up. I had decided to wait until I was older to ask him.
The decline of family farms ended the thriving long ago, and the once fertile fields, since reclaimed by Mother Nature, were feeding no one but the birds and rabbits. The dilapidated red barn, now faded into a weather-beaten shade of pale, was missing most of its lumber and leaning a little to the left. The grand farm house now looked anything but grand. Most of the white paint had peeled away revealing the weathered, charcoal colored planks used to build the home. Most of the windows were missing. Those that remained were broken. The once well kept lawn and garden was overgrown with weeds and wild oats. A rusted out tractor–left in the last place it was running–was sitting just inside the entrance to the abandoned barn. A few hundred feet beyond the home was the entrance to the fifty acre cemetery. Death had become more profitable than farming the land. A damn shame, I thought as I approached the entrance to the cemetery
I pulled up to the section where mom and dad lay. My uncle picked this gravesite. It was on the highest point of the property and on a good day he could see the farm he and Dad had grown up on. He thought dad would’ve liked that. Most of my deceased relatives are buried in this cemetery as well, but not my grandma and grandpa. They wanted to be buried just outside the farm house they built and raised their family in. That’s what they did in the old days.
Twenty four months had passed since my last visit. I felt bad about that, but my overseas deployments kept me away for extended periods of time. When I lived in the area I’d come up at least once a month. I always had something to share with mom and dad. Telling them about the events in my life always made me feel better. This visit was going to be different, and difficult. I didn’t want to share this part of my life with them. I knew they would disapprove of what I’m going to do. So I stood there, in silence. And even though I couldn’t share my feelings with them, just being there made me feel better, and even more determined.
Thirteen years ago I was standing right here, trying to understand what had happened. I was shocked and overwhelmed with grief. And I was so angry at the world. My life was ruined and I was just old enough to know that it would never be the same. I would never be the same. All my dreams, all my hopes of living a life like mom and dad’s was destroyed in one night by one man.
Right here, on this very spot, I made the vow known only to me. One day I would find this man and bring him to justice
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THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE
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