The trail took another turn up the Virginia mountain side. Bucky ignored the pain in his side and the thumping in his head, as he continued up yet another switchback. Half way to the next turn, he was bent over, trying desperately to breathe. My God! He thought, I’m gonna die on this fucking trail, before I even make it to the damned tree!
Fading light filtered through passing clouds and the few leaves that clung to naked trees, which gave him a sense of urgency – he wanted to reach his goal before the cold November sun went down and climbing the huge oak became impossible.
Double time, the thirty eight year old ex-marine told himself, before picking up the pace. Two years of sitting on his ass, with his only diversion a drug and alcohol all-night bender, mixed with the shallow stressful breathing of man on a mission to kill himself, and he was quickly gasping for breath once again. He leaned over a rotting log and tried to force the air deep into his tight chest.
Breathe deep and try to relax. It was a mantra that his counselor had pounded into his head when they would talk about all of his problems and the multiple panic attacks he had experienced in the past few months.
“Try to put your problems out of your head and think about those you love” Mr. Gruber would always add. The only two people in the world who fit that description were the last two people he wanted to think about now. But the man inside who didn’t want to be found hanging from a tree – the man Bucky had suppressed for nearly a week now – wouldn’t let go of the thought.
Thoughts of his mother, the one woman in his life who still had faith in him, drove away the despair for a brief moment. He didn’t want to hurt her or his father, but the wheels were already in motion; it was too late to stop now – or was it? This is gonna kill both of them, he finally admitted to himself. All that I put them through in Afghanistan and Iraq – now this? You’re a real bastard Bucky James – a real fucking bastard!
Darkness and despair had been his companions for longer than he could remember and they weren’t about to give in to sentiment and reason. They’ll get over it, he told himself, as he gave into the darkness yet again, they’ve dealt with the dishonorable discharge, the divorce and that little slut who came to my door – they’ll just have to deal with this too!
He looked up and realized that he was much closer to his goal than he thought. He was climbing the last switchback before the trail became a gentle slope along the ridgeline, which led to the peak of the mountain. The goal of his mission was now in sight. He began to quiver as his chest tightened again and a cold sweat dripped from his brow. His lungs were burning and legs felt like lead, but he knew he didn’t have far to go now and soon he would be free from all of the pain that he had lived with for so long. He forced himself up the last switchback and marched like a soldier to battle towards the “old friend” that would hold his last breath.
The tree stood out as a giant among mortals on the apex of the ridge he was ascending. The giant Live Oak was ancient and it dwarfed all of the maples, dogwoods, hemlocks and birches which surrounded it. The base of the massive tree was so large that a young Bucky James and three of his hunting buddies had once tried to see if they could form a human chain around the trunk and they ended up being at least one hunter short. From this huge foundation, the trunk went up only ten feet before it split into five branches. Each of the five fingers extended vertically from the trunk in snake like fashion and began to split apart into a mass of twisted veins on a Herculean body. The five main branches were all equal to a normal oak tree. The top of the tree took the form of a Medusa’s head of twisted branches, which formed a colossal canopy, as it claimed the majority of the mountain top. One of the trunk sized branches, which shot off from the tree at an unnatural angle, extended twenty feet from the tree where it bowed to the weight of the thousands of capillaries it supported and rested on the ground. It had been an easy way to scale the giant when Bucky and his father first discovered the tree at eight years of age. Later on, the “ladder branch”, would offer up an irresistible vantage point to sit and wait for an unsuspecting deer to pass below.
The old oak had been instrumental in the formation of the nickname that ten year old Paul James acquired. He had been out with his father on his very first deer hunt with his brand new thirty aught six, sitting in the crux of three large branches, when the largest buck to ever grace the mountains of Bath County Virginia strutted up the very trail he was now walking. The shot went clean through the heart and dropped the magnificent animal where it stood. In an instant a ten year old legend was born. His father, who had been sitting on a branch on the opposite side of the tree, hailed him the “Mighty Buck Slayer”. Other names soon followed: “Sure-shot James”, “The Buckmaster” and “Buck-boy”, which young Paul hated, were among the many names that were spawned as a result of the kill. Eventually everyone just started calling him “Bucky”. It only seemed fitting that the he would choose this tree to put an end to Paul “Bucky” James.
The old leather rucksack he carried on his back fell to the ground in front of the massive trunk and its sole occupant, a bright red polypropylene rope, came out. He stared at the rope for a few moments, as he worked to steady his hands and his breathing. Its rough, sharp lines and stiff ways made him wish he had taken the time to seek out a softer rope to hang himself with. Perhaps a hemp rope or cotton rope like he used to use on the farm; they were strong enough if you got them thick, but the hardware store had just these cheap, rough plastic ropes on its shelves – at least it was incredibly strong. If only he hadn’t stormed out of the house and left all of his worldly possessions behind the day he walked in on his ex-wife Juliet and that scum bag. There were yards of dynamic rope in the garage with all of his military stuff, but somehow most of his stuff got “misplaced” when the divorce was finalized and the house was sold. It was pure luck that the rucksack he had brought was sitting behind the seat of his pickup or he probably would have lost that too. He scoffed at his musings, as he realized how silly it was to worry about having a “comfortable rope” to hang himself with – soon he wouldn’t feel a thing.
He took a deep breath to steady his hands then he scaled the ladder branch up to the confluence of trunk sized branches. He walked along one of the remaining four fingers, steadying himself with smaller branches, as it extended ten feet at a slight upwards angle, where it took a left back towards the tree, before it turned into three more branches. Because of the slope of the branch and the drop off of the hill, he was now more than thirty feet from the ground. At this height he figured that he could give himself about fifteen feet of rope and the force of two hundred thirty five pounds falling from that height would snap his neck like a twig. He wouldn’t have to worry about feeling the rope cut into his neck or gasping for his last breath – it would all be over in a matter of seconds.
Bucky unfurled the rope and let one end fall to the ground below, while the other end he grabbed and stretched across his broad chest six times before draping it over the middle of the three branches. The long end was pulled back up the tree and wrapped five times around the first branch, as he formed a rolling bend knot. The shorter end of the rope was pulled back into the tree and crafted into a very convincing hangman’s noose. Each of the thirteen loops was meticulously wrapped and held firm next to its predecessor until the end of the rope was slipped through the loop at the top and pulled tight. He took the noose and placed it over his head before pulling it tight against his neck, with the large knot in the back.
Up to this point the mission had gone as planned. A letter was left in his apartment, alongside his wedding band, which told Jules that he still loved her and wished things had gone better after he left the corps. He made out checks to cover as much of his bills as he could pay and left him with a zero balance in his bank account. The bills were put in the mail along with a letter addressed to “Detective Miller, Leesburg Police Department”, which he had printed out from his parents’ computer the day before, while they were watching “Dancing with the Stars”. The letter read:
I know that my suicide will make my guilt seem to be indisputable, but I assure you that you will be doing the world an injustice if you do not continue to investigate this case. Miss Johnson, if that is her real name, is lying and I can only believe that I have not been her only victim. There are probably many other men who she has been able to blackmail into paying her what she asked. Even though we are both under court orders to refrain from communicating with each other, a note, which you will find on the table in my apartment, was slipped under my door yesterday. It informed me that she would now drop the charges if I pay her $50K instead of her last demand for $100K. I know that she will deny printing out this note. As you can see from this letter it is possible for me to have printed it. But my desire in sending you this letter before I die is not to clear my name – it is to put behind bars an evil young woman who doesn’t care whose life she brings to ruin.
How someone can be so cold-hearted as to knock on a man’s apartment door, pretend to be selling magazine subscriptions and then, when he goes to his desk for his checkbook, barge into his apartment, tear her own shirt, cry for help, and claim sexual assault, is completely beyond me. Detective Miller, this is truly what happened. I have no reason now to lie about this – the newspapers will spin my suicide as a man consumed by guilt, so I know that anything that you uncover concerning Miss Johnson will not absolve my guilt in the public eye. But you can prevent any other men’s lives from being ruined if you look into this and put that evil young woman behind bars.
With all of his final preparations in order, Bucky made the four hour journey to Bath County and the dirt road, which led him to the trail and the tree. Now the only thing left was to jump.
For the first time since he had joined the military, and left in disgrace, he was having difficulty pulling the trigger. He had seen scores of men die – many at his own hand – and held the hand of more than a few Marines as they breathed their last and he had honestly thought that it would be as easy as following an order to charge into enemy fire – but somehow it wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid to die – there had been way too many situations in the corps where that would have gotten everyone killed. There was just that ridiculous man inside who simply wasn’t ready to give up on life.
Bucky sat down on the branch, with his feet dangling over the edge and he began to go over all of the reasons why he needed to die.
There was the wasted lifetime of service and sacrifice to the military – the same military that paraded him before a stacked panel of officers who seemed hell bent on believing everyone else’s version of the facts other than his and then booted him out of the service without as much as a “thank you” or a pension. There were the four men who were captured and then murdered at the hands of insurgents because of his orders. And there were the nightmares he had had ever since. There was the loss of his dear and beloved son Mark… which led to the loss of his wife. There was the fact that he couldn’t seem to hold down a job, even when he tried. And his bills – there was no way that he would ever be able to put a dent in the debt he owed with what he was able to occasionally bring in. And of course there was this little thing with Candice Johnson. It was the most humiliating point of his life to have to call his parents and explain to them why he needed them to come bail him out of jail. What kind of son would ask his father to mortgage his recently paid off home to keep his own ass out of jail?
From the moment he had decided the world would be a better place without Bucky James, he had approached his suicide with a detached determination of a soldier on an important mission, as if his “success” would mean the end of a very costly war. He had learned early on in his military career that emotions only got in the way and the only feeling he ever paid attention to was what he called “his gut instinct”, which had saved his life more than once. The lingering thought of his parents, and what they would have to go through dealing with his suicide, pulled a much different trigger than he had expected. Like a can full of spring loaded snakes, emotions sprung from deep within his soul. All at once shame, guilt, fear, despair and sorrow consumed his mind and his heart. His shoulders began shake, as sobs of pain racked his body and exited through his eyes. As if on cue, the sky opened up and began to pour out tears of its own, while the tortured soul sitting on the tree branch, lamented his lot in life, was oblivious of the rain which began to fall on his head.
After several minutes – or was it several hours? – of weeping, he wiped the tears from his eyes and realized that it was raining. The temperature had dropped to forty two degrees and he was now shivering from the rain and the sweat that soaked his red plaid shirt and jeans. For a few moments he just sat there… shaking and staring at the void between heaven and hell without a thought or an emotion… numbness had taken control of his heart again and he wasn’t quite sure whether or not he had already jumped off of the branch or not. If not for the constant shaking from the cold, he would have guessed he had already died, and he was now a ghost sitting on his old haunt. The thought seemed so possible that he glanced at his feet to see if he could watch his own body swaying below him; a bloodcurdling cry from the sky above snapped him out of the delusion.
Bucky scanned the skies for the author of the baleful note, which had brought him back to reality. The cold rain stung his eyes as he strained to catch a glimpse of the magnificent bird that had to be the owner of such a powerful voice. At last, with the help of the final few rays of daylight, through the branches to his left, he saw the great bird. A Golden Eagle, with its huge six foot wingspan, was hovering high in the sky. A few moments of graceful gliding ended when the raptor’s wings seemed to collapse, as the eagle plunged to the earth with the grace and speed of one of nature’s greatest aerial predators. He had a difficult time following the line of the bird through the branches of the tree and lost sight of it completely when it got close to the ground. A few moments later it was flapping its wings towards the sky with a rabbit held by one of its deadly talons.
The eagle flew straight for the large oak that he was sitting in. Perhaps it was going to choose one of the high up branches in which to enjoy its evening meal. He watched intently as this welcomed distraction played out before him. The bird was almost directly above him now and for some reason his attention was drawn to the poor creature held in the grasp of the great predator. The rabbits eyes were wide open with a look of shock and fear and, in a last ditch effort to live, it began to jerk furiously, as if it were trying to run in place fifty feet above the ground. The eagle wasn’t prepared for the rabbit’s dying fight. The victim slipped out of the bird’s grasp and fell to the ground; spinning and bouncing off of a few of the oak tree’s branches as it made its way back to earth.
The rabbit lay in place where it landed, while the eagle made a big swooping circle to take a second stab at securing his dinner. Bucky watched the victim for any signs of life, while keeping an eye on the big bird, as it circled back in for the kill. The rabbit appeared to be bleeding from its hind quarters and it was either already dead from the fall or had gone into shock and was just waiting to die. For a moment he identified with the poor animal, which had been unlucky enough to be plucked away from its family while out trying to make a living. Bad luck had taken him for a ride and was soon to be the reason for his exit from this world too. The eagle came in low under the tree and extended it broad wings fully, as it put on the brakes and thrust its talons at the lifeless bunny. A second before impact the rabbit suddenly sprang to life and zigzagged along the ground with lightening speed before disappearing into a thicket of gooseberries to the left of the oak. The large predator circled above the tree for a few moments before flapping its wings in pursuit of better hunting.
A profound feeling of shame came over the once proud soldier. Here was a simple harmless animal – an animal that was one step up the food chain from grass – a little bunny rabbit – and it had showed him up. The little insignificant creature had shown a hunger to live that had bested one of nature’s best equipped predators and his victory made Bucky doubt his whole mission… plan… or whatever the hell had made him sit there in a tree with a rope around his neck. If that little rodent can struggle to make it in this world, why can’t I? Once Bucky had been the eagle and his prey would have never been allowed the second chance that this little rabbit had received. And now... now he was acting like a scared rabbit hiding in a tree waiting to die. Bucky removed the noose from around his neck and let it fall, then he untied it from the tree, wound it around his left palm and elbow, before tossing it to the ground below.
It now dawned on him why he was not able to pull the trigger on his own death. For two years he had been acting like prey; sitting back and just waiting for life to pass him by, while everyone around him took advantage of him like a toothless lion. Candice Johnson must have sensed it when she came to his door that day. She was a predator, the worse kind of predator, and had moved in for the kill without hesitation. Maybe if he hadn’t been acting like a scared rabbit he might have recognized the hunger in her eyes before she had sprung her trap, instead; he just rolled over and offered up his belly to her attack. I’ll bet that if I had $10,000 in the bank like she demanded that day, I would have driven straight to the bank. The thought made him grind his teeth and stop shivering for a moment. Paul Bucky James was not prey; he was a predator who had forgotten who he was and what made him ‘tick’. The Marine Corps had kicked him out of his hunting grounds, declawed and defanged him, but they hadn’t taken away his desire for the kill – he had done that himself. It was time to turn the tables on life and become a predator once again. The man inside was finally in control.
Getting out of the oak tree proved to be much more difficult than getting up it; the bark was now wet and as slippery as ice, which made for a slow treacherous climb. Bucky’s training kicked in and he was able to control his desire to shiver long enough to steady his steps to the point where he could easily drop down to the ground. The rope was put back in the rucksack, which was then hung on his back for the two mile journey back to his truck. The temperature had dropped a few more degrees, while a steady downpour of ice cold rain continued to fall. It would be dark soon and Bucky knew that he would be putting himself in danger of slipping into hypothermia if he didn’t double time it back to his vehicle, so he hustled back down the trail, away from the place where he had almost made the final mistake of his miserable life.
Hiking now felt like the most wonderful thing in the world; it warmed his body and reminded him that he was still alive. He was breathing deep – breathing in the life he had almost cast away in despair. I’m such and idi… he began to think, nope – not gonna go there. “Only positive thoughts”, as Mr. Gruber would say. I’m the luckiest man alive right now. I’ve got nowhere to go but up from here.
As he headed back down the mountain, the thought of getting back in the game was all the ex-marine could think about. A few months after he had left the corps, Dave Carter, an old Desert Storm buddy, called him and offered him a job with a security firm of old war vets that worked in Iraq. At the time, Bucky was so sick of Iraq, and what had happened there to get him kicked out of the marines, that he didn’t even take a minute before he told Dave: “There is no way in hell that I would go back to that shit hole – not for all the gold bars on Saddam’s truck!” I wonder if that offer is still good? he pondered.
A sobering thought brought a dark cloud over his new found optimism: They’re not going to want some pervert running around Iraq with a gun – especially considering my discharge papers. There had to be someone else who that little tramp had pulled her little act on; maybe he could hire a private investigator to check into her background… no… every penny he owned would soon be drained from his account and he couldn’t ask his parents for more money. Well, maybe ‘justice’ would prevail (something he very much doubted) and he would avoid any jail time. Even if I do end up in prison, he started to think, prisons are full of predators and I can get a chance to hone my rusty skills. I’m sure that any company that puts Dave in charge of anything could care less about a prison record. Nothing was going to get in the way of Bucky James now – the soldier was back.
The last half mile back to his truck was pure torture. Besides freezing from being soaked to the bone in a thirty eight degree climate, he was starving and exhausted. He hadn’t eaten all day and the months of distressed sleep, which never left him feeling rested, were taking their toll. He had slipped a couple of times in the failing light and was now a muddy, dripping, weary mess. At last his faded blue and primer grey truck could be seen alone at the edge of the dark dirt road where he had left it. The sight of the thirty five year old Ford brought immediate relief to the enervated soldier and he jogged the last fifty yards to the driver’s side door.
His old faithful companion roared to life with a quick flip of the wrist, then he turned on the cab light so that he could adjust the climate controls to ‘full red’, as he waited for the truck to warm up. As he sat, shivering behind the wheel, watching the temperature gauge for any signs of movement, his eyes were drawn to something that was stuck under the driver’s side windshield wiper. He leaned forward to get a better look at what appeared to be a business card inserted beneath the blade of the wiper, like an advertisement left by some solicitor. It was the strangest thing the seasoned war veteran had ever seen. He was at the end of a dirt road, which many of the locals didn’t even know about, miles from any form of civilization and someone had stopped to put his business card under his wiper? There was no way that the card could have been there when he left Leesburg six hours ago. He would have surely noticed it or the freeway speeds would have sent it fluttering in the wind if he had somehow missed it. He leapt out of the truck to retrieve the card.
He held a deep breath to steady his shivering hands long enough to read the small card. No name or business was on the face of it; only a few words and a phone number marred its stark white surface:
“Life is but a vapor…
do not make it vanish before its time.”
Shock was added to the plethora of emotions Bucky James experienced that fateful November evening. He was no longer shivering, even though the truck was yet to produce any warmth. Shivering would mean that everything was fine and he could be on his way, back to whatever life he could scratch out of the mess he had left behind. His mind was spinning, so much so that he forgot all about being cold, tired, and hungry. All he could think about was what the card meant. The message on the card was clear: someone knew what he had intended on doing, knew that he wouldn’t go through with it and had driven out to this remote location to slip a custom printed card under his wiper… but who? Who could have known about his plan? Nobody knew – nobody! And why would they go to all the trouble to make up a card like this? Were they taunting him or just trying to drive him mad?
He examined the card for anything that might provide a clue as to who might have sent it. The paper must have had some kind of lamination or coating applied to it because the rain had not affected the paper, but it didn’t have the look or feel of paper sandwiched in-between two slices of plastic, like the cheap laminating process that was familiar to him. This paper had a smooth, almost silky feel and a silvery sheen that spoke of a coating he was unacquainted with. The message and the phone number were printed in a simple, yet elegant font.
He remembered a business card Detective Miller had given him so he grabbed his wallet out of the glove box and pulled out the card. No good – the paper, the font, the area code – none of it fit. Why would the police leave a card and a message like that anyway? If they knew Bucky was about to commit suicide, they would have followed him out to the tree to try to stop him. He was pretty sure that the area code was a D.C. number and the only people he knew in D.C. were military brass that he knew would care less if he killed himself. Wait a minute… wasn’t Dave Carter’s company based in the Capital City? Maybe… no that was too farfetched. What would be the odds that he had started thinking about them and then they would… who the hell could have known ANYWAY! NO ONE!!!
If only Bucky still had his cell phone. He had to give that luxury up a couple of months ago when they turned off his service for a little thing like “non-payment”. He would have to wait until he got back to his apartment in Leesburg and use the pay phone out in the lobby. Hopefully whoever answered the phone would have a logical reason for leaving the card or at least be able to answer his questions.
The truck was finally starting to put some heat into the cab, which meant that it was time to get moving. He put both cards into his wallet before shifting the truck into reverse and gunning the engine. As the truck lurched into reverse, he felt something hit his right knee and then he heard it hit the floor of the truck. His head rocked like a bobble head doll going over rail road tracks, as he slammed on the brakes and threw the truck into park. The cab light came back on and he furiously fished around the floor of the truck for what had hit his leg. Slamming on the brakes had sent the thing under the bench seat of his truck and it took him a few minutes to pull the thin rectangular object out from deep beneath his seat. It was a cell phone; the thinnest cell phone that he had ever seen. The phone must have been perched on the stirring column between the wheel and the dash board; it was the only place where he wouldn’t have seen the thin phone. The movement of the truck had caused it to fall and hit his leg.
He swallowed hard, as he tried to keep his heart from beating right out of his throat. His hands were shaking again, but this time not from the cold. Whoever left the card also left the phone. Perhaps they were watching him right now to see if he would open up the phone and place a call. Bucky looked through the rain streaked windows at the dark forms of the trees and bushes that surrounded his truck. If there was someone watching him, they would probably be using a night vision scope and could be on any of the ridges that surrounded him. He stared at the slim gun metal grey phone, as if he expected it to start ringing any moment. It had stopped raining for the moment, but the sound of windshield wipers squeaking against rainless glass failed to draw his attention away from the call he knew he needed (and was expected) to make. He flipped the phone open; it was turned on. The battery indicator showed full charge and he had all five bars on the signal indicator. I wonder what carrier he has, he pondered, as he recalled needing to drive several miles back to civilization the last time he was up here with a cell phone.
There was nothing left to do but call the number. He hesitated again… just moments earlier it was all he could stand to have to wait until he got back to his apartment… now… now he was about to contact someone with god like power who seemed to know all about his life and every move he made. What if I just drove away? Did this person really hold any power over him because they knew he came here to kill himself or did he or she have anything to offer him? Could Bucky live without knowing who it was that has gone to such an effort to get a hold of him?
At three rings the phone picked up and a man with deep voice and a British accent said: “Mister James, I’m so glad to hear that you are alive! I was beginning to wonder if I needed to send my man back for my card and phone.”
The man almost sounded as if he was amused that he was calling, which didn’t sit well on the raw nerves of Bucky James: “Who the fuck are you?!” he exploded into the phone.
“Forgive me Mister James. I understand if you are upset – you must be a bundle of nerves after what you just went through. My name is Raith Aldridge and I would very much like to meet with you.”
“Well you certainly have my attention.” Bucky replied, as he calmed down to a simmer, “I’d kinda like to meet you too. How the hell did you know why I came out here?”
“I would rather not get into that over the phone. Your questions will be answered when we meet face to face.”
“Alright; do you have a time and place in mind?” Bucky asked, already knowing the answer would be “yes”.
“I have taken the liberty of reserving you a room at the Sheridan Livery Inn in Lexington. You can use the room to refresh yourself if you like. Get yourself some supper – you must be starving by now – you can charge it to the room. They have a fairly adequate restaurant – the Mussels are fresh and properly prepared; although, I prefer white wine saffron over the spicy chipotle saffron broth that they use…”
“Wait a minute! You have a room reserved for me?! You have to know that I’m broke – what’s this gonna cost me? Whatever it is – I can’t pay you – I don’t like owing anyone I can’t pay back”.
“Yes, Mister James, I already know that about you. I wouldn’t think of putting you any farther into debt. Think of the room and dinner as payment for the stress I have caused you already and for giving me your time this evening.”
“Of course you already know that about me…” Bucky said this into the phone, but he was speaking to himself. “So you gonna give me directions to this place or do I just go to Lexington and start asking around for the Inn that’s having a mysterious stranger convention?”
“When we hang up, the phone I left you will make a tone, like you have received a text message. An icon will appear on the screen that will say “GPS”. All you need to do is touch the icon and you will start receiving voice commands that will take you right to the Inn. A map will also appear on the screen, but it’s rather small – I think you will do better if you just follow the directions”.
“So… is there any point in my asking what the hell this is all about?”
“Well I can tell you that I am going to offer you a job Mister James, but I am sure that that little tease will only elicit more questions, which I am not prepared to answer over the phone”.
“That’s more than I expected you to say. So how will I – “click” – know who you are at the hotel?” There was no answer; the phone had gone dead; Raith must have hung up. Bucky pushed the redial button but the phone only made a strange annoying tone; it was then that he noticed that all five bars had disappeared. A few seconds later the GPS icon appeared on the LCD screen along with a melodic tone and he got his first direction to “make a ‘U’ turn, drive one half miles and turn right on unmarked road” after he touched the screen. The signal for his cellular service seemed to have vanished but the GPS was working fine. Why not, he thought, he knows everything about me and he can control the airwaves… maybe it is God that wants to give me a job.
The drive to Lexington took about an hour. It was a good thing that Bucky had a voice telling him which road to turn on, because his mind certainly wasn’t on his driving. Who this mystery man could possibly be, consumed all of his thoughts and brought up new questions every minute. He figured that the guy had to be either CIA or possibly an intelligence agent from another country.
When he had been in Iraq, Bucky had been in charge of a brigade of troops which had been the first soldiers to enter one of Saddam Hussein’s Presidential Palaces in Bagdad. He had been trained to identify computer systems and many other sources of potential intelligence gathering equipment and the palace had yielded many items of interest that he and his men had amassed into one room. For weeks after that the one-day raid, he and his men were randomly selected for interrogations from CIA operatives, in which they would be drilled for hours at a time about what exactly they had found when they entered the palace. Sometimes they would bring up some of the more colorful parts of his military career and all but accuse him of holding back information. He guessed that some expected intel or device, which was supposed to be at the palace, had come up missing, but no one would admit to it or give him any explanation for the constant inquiries. They would even bring his family into the conversations, just to see if they could try to shake him up and get him to change his story. They too seemed to know a lot about him. Perhaps they were still after whatever they had lost.
Why the hell would they wait so long? And why would they wait until he decided to kill himself before they tried to contact him? Did he really believe that the CIA would offer him a job after the manner in which he had left the Marines? That left the foreign spy idea the only viable explanation.
The guy certainly sounded like a foreigner over the phone. Not really like the British troops he had fought beside in Iraq; this guy had one of those snooty, proper British accents that reminded him of some kind of Duke or Earl. There was a tinge of Americanism to his voice, however; and it was possible that the guy could have been in this country for some time now. He could be an implant who has lived in the US for a while and is now working for the government. But still – he had a foreigner’s way of phrasing things. No American he knew would refer to dinner as “supper” and there was also the little joke he had made about “asking around for the Inn that’s having a mysterious stranger convention”. It wasn’t a great joke, but most Americans he knew would have at least given him a “courtesy chuckle”, but he often found that foreigners didn’t get American humor. The only problem with the spy recruitment theory was he no longer had any contacts what-so-ever with anything even remotely classified and all of his clearances had been revoked with his court-marshal. What interest could a foreign government have in a disgraced former Marine that wanted to kill himself? There was simply no logical explanation, but that didn’t stop him from mulling both of these ideas around until the GPS announced: “turn left – final destination is on the right”.
The Sheridan Livery Inn turned out to be a lot smaller than Bucky had thought it would be. It was a rather plain brick building in the historic district of Lexington next to an old brick church. If not for the big metal sign hanging on the corner of the building proclaiming: “SHERIDAN LIVERY INN – Rooms Available”, the building might have been mistaken for a florist or one of the many touristy retail shops that filled this part of Lexington. He had imagined that the spy recruiter he would meet with would choose a bustling hotel or a large inn; a place in which they could get lost among the hordes of travelers and find a veil of privacy amongst the chaos.
The lobby of the inn was anything but chaotic. A lone man sat on a red Victorian Chaise Longue reading a book beside a tall brass lamp, which was made to look like an old candle lantern. Bucky’s muddy boots, hitting the hardwood floor, was the only sound that came from the seemingly empty inn. A young clean cut man wearing an argyle sweater vest and tie appeared from behind a wall a second before Bucky could ring the silver bell on the marble counter.
“Hello, you must be Mister James!” the man behind the counter said with a smile.
Having two strangers address him as “Mister James” within the last hour was a bit much for the frazzled soldier: “Uh why… did someone come here asking for me?” Bucky asked with suspicion in his voice, as he glanced around the lobby and back over at the man on the couch, who didn’t stir.
The clerk eyed Bucky cautiously: “Uh no… you are Paul James, are you not?”
“Yeah… um… I’m sorry – I’ve had a rough night. Sorry about the mess.” He noticed the trail of mud he had left when he glanced around the lobby. “I’m Paul James, I was just a little surprised when you called me by my name, that’s all.”
“That’s perfectly alright Mister James. I’ll clean that up right away – I would ask if you might be able to remove your boots before you go up to your room – by the looks of it there’s a lot more where that came from.”
“As for your name… we’re a small inn and tonight we are only at half capacity. We won’t start filling up for the holiday until next week – so you’re my last guest to check in tonight. We don’t get many walk-ins this late on a week night so I assumed…”
“You assumed correctly; I’m Paul James. I guess you have a room reserved for me?”
“Yes, I just need a signature and I can give you your key and show you to your room. The items you had delivered have already been sent to your room so…”
“Items? Uh… what was it that you had sent to my room?”
“I’m sorry Mister James; I was told that you had few things delivered to your room… Tony told me that he put them in your room himself before he left. He didn’t tell me what was delivered. Did you not make such a request?” The clerk stared at Bucky with the same suspicious glare he gave him after the “did someone come here asking for me” outburst.
“Again I apologize – someone else made my reservations for me tonight. I was unaware that anything had been delivered to my room. Does the computer say what was sent to my room?”
The clerk walked over to the computer that was at the end of the counter and began tapping on a few keys: “Uh… no I don’t see… now that’s odd – usually I can see a total on your room, with everything itemized at any point during your stay, but your room just says “all expenses approved”. I’ll have to ask Merl about that in the morning; I’ve never seen that before. Anyway, it looks like it’s all paid for, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Of course it’s all paid for” Bucky mumbled under his breath.
“Excuse me Mister James?”
“Uh, I’m glad it’s all taken care of. You can just give me the key and tell me where the room is – I can find it myself.”
“Go down the hall here to your right, past the restaurant entrance. The stairs will be on your right and if you continue on to your left you will see the elevator. You are in room 8 – two doors down on the left at the top of the stairs or the first door to the right of the elevator. Will you be needing any help with your bags?”
For the first time since he walked in the door, Bucky realized how odd he must have looked to the young clerk. His clothes were wet and mud spattered, he wasn’t wearing a coat – even though it was certainly cold enough to warrant one – and he didn’t have any luggage with him. With a slightly red face he replied: “Um, no… I’m uh… I’m travelling light tonight – just a room and something to eat is all that I need.”
“Well the restaurant will be closing in about an hour, so I wouldn’t wait too long. I would offer to make reservations for you, but I don’t think that will be necessary, there hasn’t been but a hand full of people go in there all night – Wednesdays are always slow. Enjoy your stay Mister James.”
“Thank you.” Bucky turned to head for his room.
“Uh… Mister James?”
“I’m sorry. Like I said: it’s been a long night.”
Bucky bent down, untied his boots and slipped them off of his feet, before following the hallway to the stairs in his stocking feet. A handsome couple, dressed to the hilt, was exiting the restaurant as he scampered by holding a muddy boot in each hand. Social graces obligated a smile and an awkward, snooty smile was returned from both the man and the woman as Bucky increased his haste to the stairs. Footsteps were heard on the stairs above, so he turned quickly to the elevator. Fortunately the elevator was waiting and opened at a push of the button before he had to face another uncomfortable smile from the person descending the stairs.
The hallway was clear. He breathed a sigh of relief, as he slipped the key-card into the reader, before moving quickly into his room.
The room was laid out like a typical hotel room: closet on the left, bathroom on the right, which formed a hallway to the queen sized bed and the oak furniture that lined the walls. Bucky froze in his tracks, as he entered the sleeping area of the room. There, on the striped comforter of the bed, sat a red thermal flannel shirt, packages of undershirts and underwear, a pair of Levis, white tube socks and a large shoe box. A black leather jacket was neatly laid over the metal tube footboard. His heart raced as he checked the sizes of the clothing that had been left for him – every item was his exact size. His hands quivered as he reached for the shoebox and it fell from his grasp spilling out two brown boots onto the large rug that covered the hardwood floor. The boots were the same exact boots that he had sat down next to the door when he entered the room. It only took a second for him to realize that every item of clothing was the exact same as what he had on. They were not only the same size, color and style; they were even the same brands. The only exception was the leather jacket. He had left his cheap nylon piece of shit jacket in his apartment.
Shock turned to anger, as the violation of his privacy sunk as low as a stranger knowing what brand of underwear he wore. Bucky reached into his pocket for the phone this prying jerk had left him, with the intent of calling to give him a piece of his mind. The phone still showed zero bars and made the same dull tone when he tried redial. He would have to wait for the guy to contact him – then he would give him what for. There was nothing left to do but take a shower, put on the new clothes and stop his stomach from complaining.
Bucky walked into the bathroom and turned on the light, which revealed another surprise: a bag with shampoo, soap, deodorant, tooth paste and a tooth brush was sitting on the counter next to the sink. Nervous laughter erupted from the stupefied soldier, as he pulled Head & Shoulders shampoo, Mennen deodorant and Crest ‘Extra-Whitening’ toothpaste from the bag. “This guy knows me better than my own mother!” he yelled into the mirror.
The man in the mirror looked tired. It had been a while since he had gotten up the courage to look at him. The spare tire, the growing crop of grey hair mixing in with his black goatee and flat top, the wrinkles and crow’s feet impinging on his boyish round face – they had all mocked him and reminded him of the failure he had become. For a moment he was tempted to look away in disgust, as had been his habit. No, he told himself, I’m not going back there. Things are going to be different now – I can do this. The glimmer of life returned to his green eyes, as he smiled at the man in the mirror and saw hope.
The hot shower felt invigorating and helped Bucky to put things into perspective. Sure this guy had intruded on his life and knew things about him that no one should know, but at least he still had a life to be intruded upon. If he had been successful with his earlier mission all of this anger and indignity would have never been felt – at least he was still alive and able to feel. The guy was a spook – he knew that for sure – maybe a spook from another country, but a spook none the less. CIA, MI6, the Mossad – they all worked the same – they all tried to get in your head and get you off of your game so that they had the edge over you. The card on the windshield, the phone on the stirring column and the items in his room were all attempts to put him in a state of mind that would make him pliable to the whims of whatever agency wanted his help.
He would meet with this guy, hell he might even agree to work for him, but one thing that he wouldn’t do: he wouldn’t allow his anger to cause him to make any rash decisions that would allow this guy to get the upper hand. After all, he was a predator. It was his job to put this guy on the defensive and make him feel uncomfortable. He decided that he would remain calm, cool and collected and dismiss all that he had seen today as parlor tricks that any person with intelligence connections could have done. The guy wouldn’t expect him to be in control, especially after what he had already been through, so he figured that was exactly what he needed to portray himself as being – in total control – not only of his emotions, but also of the situation. Hell, I wouldn’t have gotten this guy’s attention if I didn’t have something valuable to offer him, he thought. Something very valuable; by all the trouble this guy had gone through to get my attention.
Bucky dressed in the new clothes that were left for him and almost left the room without taking the nice new leather jacket. It was the only “odd ball” out of everything that had been left in his room. His own jacket was a cheap nylon jacket with a thin liner that he had picked up last year at Walmart. The jacket left for him was not your standard Walmart issue. This jacket was an Armani and certainly cost more than the $30 he had spent a year ago. Why had this person gone to so much trouble to copy every stitch of his clothing, yet chosen such an extravagant exception to his wardrobe? Certainly anyone who knew what brand of underwear he wore would know what kind of piece of crap jacket he had worn for a year. There were just too many questions that didn’t fit any of scenarios he could imagine. With nothing left to do but wonder, he grabbed the jacket and headed for the restaurant.
The clerk who had checked Bucky in was walking down the hall at the same time he reached for the door to the restaurant. “So was everything in order in your roooo…m?” Bucky could see that the young man’s mind was having a hard time processing seeing him wearing the same clothes and boots that he had walked in with now clean from the mud which had made him look like a vagabond. The dull haze that he had hiked up the mountain with was gone – his quick wit and sharp mind was back in full form.
“Um yes, thank you, yes it was. My friend is an inventor and he sent me this amazing portable cleaner. It cleans clothes and shoes and makes them look like new. There’s no need for drying them either. It’s as easy as using a small vacuum cleaner – about the size of one too. The one he sent me is a proto-type. What do you think?” Bucky then spun around holding his jacket out to his side, as if he were performing a turn on a cat-walk at a fashion show.
He watched the stupefied look the clerk was giving him and fought with the corners of his mouth, which were dying to curl up.
“That’s amazing!” the young clerk exclaimed, “You looked like you had taken a mud bath when you walked in – Wow! That’s… we have to get one of those! Tell your friend to send me a brochure or something… does he have a name for it? Is he looking for investors?”
Now that the wheels inside the young clerk’s mind were turning it was time to spring the trap: “Actually I’ve already told you more than I was supposed to – it’s all very top secret right now. Well… have a good night.” With that he reached for the restaurant door and slipped inside leaving the bewildered clerk standing with his mouth open.
A full and broad smile spread across his face – and boy did it feel good. The thought of the gullible clerk excitedly repeating his story to a friend or coworker and how they would look at him like he was crazy, reminded him of the stories that they would tell the all the cherries when they would come to Iraq for their first tour, and made him chuckle. His favorite prank to pull on a guy fresh out of boot was to tell him that Muslim women were really bare-ass naked underneath their long black burkas and that there was a hidden zipper in the back of the long gown. “The Muslim men make them wear them” he would tell any guy gullible enough to believe his first lie, “it’s kinda an easy access thing; if you know what I mean…” The whole company would keep their eyes on the guy the next time they hit the streets on patrol – just waiting for the guy to try to catch a glimpse of the ‘easy access hatch’. “People will believe what they want to be true” his father once told him. What horny Marine wouldn’t want to believe that every woman he saw was running around naked under a sheet just waiting for her man to unzip her zipper? God – he missed those times.
Bucky ordered the most expensive Item on the menu: the fillet. Not just because a jerk, who had been spying on him for God knows how long, was footing the bill, but because it had been a long time since he had ordered a steak in a nice restaurant. The meal was more than adequate – it was fantastic. It felt like it had been an eternity since he had eaten such a satisfying meal. Even the red wine he ordered hit all the right taste buds. He would have preferred a dark beer, but this was too snooty of a restaurant to serve beer. Maybe it was because he hadn’t eaten all day – that always made food taste better – but maybe it was because he had decided to live again, instead of simply watching life go by. He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but the mystery and intrigue created by Raith Aldridge had fueled the fire for life that had only begun to smolder while watching the eagle and the rabbit and he was now burning hot with the desire for action more than he had ever known.
As the last bite of steak was being washed down by the last swallow of Merlot, the incapacitated mystery phone, which Bucky had carefully placed just above his wine glass, came to life with a ring.
“Mister Aldridge, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps you had given up on me or found someone else to carry out your nefarious plans” Bucky said into the phone, with as much confidence as he could project over the phone.
“Mister James! It is good to hear that you are feeling better! I thought that a shower and a good steak would do you good. So how is the Merlot? I’ve always preferred French wines over California wines – but I suppose that’s just a personal preference – California wines can certainly hold their own.”
Bucky remembered his pledge to contain his anger, but couldn’t help but reply with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice: “So what? Do you have one of those spy insects following me around and reporting my every move?”
“No Mister James; nothing that sophisticated yet. It’s all about having the right resources at your finger tips, but I’ll explain all that when we meet. Stay the night at the inn and I will send my man Mister Jones to pick you up and bring you to me in the morning. He will be driving a Black Cadillac Escalade – he’ll meet you in front of the inn at say… 9:30?”
Mr. Jones? Couldn’t he think of something a little more original than Mr. Jones – Perhaps Mr. Smith? “I thought we were meeting tonight. Your gonna make me stew on this all night?”
“Yes, well some things cannot be helped. I do apologize, but I seem to have overbooked this evening and I wish to give you all of the time possible to answer all of your questions. Besides – with all that you’ve gone through today, you must be exhausted. Get a good night sleep and we will talk in the morning.”
It was true; with a belly full of steak and red wine, Bucky was already fighting his eye lids. It would be better to be well rested before he faced the mystery man. “9:30 will have to do”, he replied, a little disappointed. “I’ll wait for Mr. Jones in front of the inn. I’ll be the one with the nice new Armani leather jacket.”
“Yes Mister James; he will know who you are. Feel free to charge anything you like to the room and I will leave your phone activated so you can let your parents know where you are if you need to. I wouldn’t call detective Miller, however; I’m not sure he would understand your leaving town without letting him know beforehand. Think of that jacket as a portent of better things to come. I’m looking forward to meeting you tomorrow.”
Morning came late for Bucky James. The corps conditioned his sleep pattern long ago and he hadn’t had the need to set an alarm since he could remember. He rubbed his eyes and looked again – the clock on the end table still read: 7:42. It was the latest he had slept since he could remember. The night’s slumber left him clear headed and well rested; in fact, it was the best he had felt since he could remember too. He had left his prescription of Prozac in his medicine cabinet at his apartment – something Raith Aldridge had failed to duplicate – but even if he had brought the drug, he felt so good that he would have left the pills alone. Maybe today was going to be different. A portent of better things to come, he thought, as he remembered his conversation with the mystery man. Maybe today I’ll see something positive happen in my life for once.
Yesterday seemed like a dream… no… a night-mare. Had he really climbed up his old hunting tree and put a rope around his neck? And… had he received a card, a cell-phone and an invitation to meet a mysterious stranger who was going to offer him a job? A quick glance at the end table affirmed the existence of the phone, so the memories of the day were confirmed. Well, at least he would finally be able to make some money and get some of his debt paid off before he goes to prison. Prison… if this guy knew Bucky as well as he seemed to, he would have to know about that. Of course he knew about it; he had mentioned Detective Miller when they last spoke. Maybe Raith had a way to keep him out of prison. Why would an intelligence officer tempt him with a job offer if he knew that Bucky was going to prison? – Unless maybe it was something illegal. He no longer had access to anything classified – he didn’t have access to anything, so it had to be illegal – why else go to all that trouble? Too many unanswered questions; he had better get some breakfast and wait for Raith’s man, Mr. Jones, to show.
The black Escalade pulled up to the curb in front of the inn on queue. Bucky opened the passenger side door then quickly hopped inside the SUV. A muscular man of around thirty years of age greeted him with a firm handshake: “Hello Mr. James – Brian Jones – I’ll be your escort to Mr. Aldridge.” Bucky’s quick eyes scanned Brian Jones for any sign that could help him determine his fate. The guy was dressed in a dark blue polo shirt and beige slacks, with brown dress shoes, which said “business casual”, but everything else about the guy screamed “ex-military”. His dirty blonde hair was cut short and would have passed any inspection. A thick, neatly trimmed mustache hung above thin lips and a strong, square chin. His intense, intelligent blue eyes had an aura of confidence that Bucky usually beheld in only those who were Special Forces material.
Bucky’s guess switched back to the CIA, as the guy’s voice was purely American: “So… Green Berets?” he asked, hoping the guy would come clean.
The driver smiled and let out a little chuckle: “Ah, I’m sorry Mr. James, but Mr. Aldridge asked me to let him answer all of the questions today. The only thing that I can tell you is that we will be driving to a small airport a few miles from here where we will hop into a Lynx ZB500 and buzz over to Mr. Aldridge’s New York office. It’s about a five hour round trip. I should have you back to the inn before dark. ”
“New York – that’s quite a trip in helicopter. Are you sure we’ll have enough fuel?”
“Our bird is equipped with oversized tanks – we’ll be fine.”
“Didn’t The Brits use Lynx choppers in Iraq?”
“That’s what I hear. This is a commercial version of what the British Army uses – you’ll find it much more comfortable than a military chopper.”
“Is this a company helicopter?”
“No. This is one of Mr. Aldridge’s personal helicopters.”
“Just how many helicopters does he own?”
“I’m sorry Mr. James; I was instructed to let Mr. Aldridge answer any questions about his status. I’m only allowed to tell you that it is his helicopter and I’m taking you to his office in Manhattan; any other questions must be directed to Mr. Aldridge.”
“Then I suppose it is pointless to ask who it is that Mr. Aldridge works for?”
“It’s going to be a long trip if we can’t talk about something.”
“There’s always the weather Mr. James.”
“So what’s the best weather to spy in? I would think that with the optics systems they have these days; it wouldn’t matter if it were a cloudy day and maybe the clouds would offer good cover for surveillance to go undetected – is that true?”
Brian Jones smirked at Bucky, as if to say “I guess I deserved that one”, before replying: “I can always turn on the radio for you.”
“That’s alright; I have a lot to think about.”
The “airport” turned out to be nothing more than a flat field with a windsock and a small hanger, which looked just big enough to house a crop-dusting plane. The Lynx helicopter was sitting alone near the hanger. After parking alongside the hanger, the two men got into the helicopter.
During the flight, Bucky’s curiosity, of just who Raith Aldridge really was and what his offer meant for Bucky, once again consumed his thoughts. Manhattan could mean he was being recruited by any number of governments from around the world, as any country with an intelligence agency typically set up shop in New York. But the guy flying him sure seemed ex-military and he had no hint of an accent, which pointed back at the CIA. Wouldn’t Brian Jones – if that was his real name – have seen action inside of Iraq? Maybe his little “that’s what I hear” comment was meant to keep him guessing – of course it was – he had already told Bucky that he “was only allowed to tell him about the helicopter and the trip to Manhattan&rd