Heroes, p.10
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       Heroes, p.10

           Leigh Barker
Like so many great ideas, it came to him while he was sleeping. Give up this stupid mission and retire to Florida. He sat up in bed and leaned against the padded headboard. If only.

  He was back in the marines. He’d accepted SecNav’s offer, and even if it wasn’t on paper, it was his word. So, no Florida.

  He thought about calling room service for some coffee, but decided he’d head out and find a diner for lunch, or dinner, or whatever the hell meal time it was right then. And he’d get a haircut and some new clothes. Question was, would his cash stretch? He remembered the credit card that was tucked into the back of his wallet, unused. Maybe it was still valid, but it had been a while. Credit cards leave a paper trail, and seven years in Special Ops teaches a man to minimize his footprint.

  He showered, shaved, and dressed in his shabby suit before leaving the hotel. It was late afternoon, and the city was busy with people heading out, or heading in. Whatever. First stop, coffee. A man can die from lack of coffee.

  When he returned to his hotel two hours later, he was a different man. He’d bought a new dark grey suit that actually fitted him and a pale blue polo shirt and white vest. He’d been tempted by desert sand Nike Air Force sneakers—because he liked the irony—but went with sensible polished black lace-ups. With his hair clippered back to high and tight, he finally felt he was back in the world.

  When he’d left the marines, he’d decided to see the country he’d been fighting for so took his ’98 Chevy Tahoe and headed out of Camp Lejeune for the last time. West through Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the Civil War. It was an amazing feeling to have nowhere to go, nobody expecting anything, and nobody to save. That was two years ago. And the novelty had worn off.

  Twenty-three months ago. Trouble had found him quicker than a grizzly finds a beehive. He ran afoul of the New Orleans Police Department within a day of arriving. Some kid-cop resented him stepping in to stop him beating an old black guy with his baton. And to prove no good deed goes unpunished, it got him a night in the cells, and some bruises. The old black guy had said thanks, though. So that was okay. He didn’t blame the NOPD, because some cops are just like that. Some people are just like that. And cops are people. Strange how many times something like that had happened in the last couple of years, though. Maybe he was just unlucky. Except he knew it was because he wouldn’t just walk by and let something bad go down. What is it they say about all it takes for evil to triumph? He didn’t see himself as a Good Man, but he wouldn’t just stand by and do nothing; it wasn’t in his nature. So he got into trouble. And that was in his nature.

  He ate at a little Italian restaurant down the block from the hotel, because who eats in a hotel when they don’t have to? The small, round tables were shoulder to shoulder, but at six o’clock, there were only two other people in the place. He ordered tomato and basil bruschetta, followed by spaghetti carbonara, cooked with just pancetta, garlic, olive oil, and Parmigiano cheese. He was a bit suspicious of the frugality of the meal, which lacked the usual mushrooms, chicken, onion, zucchini, and Canadian bacon that was a true American pasta dish. It was truly delicious, and he ate it hungrily. The waiter brought him an espresso coffee to finish, and that, by contrast, was truly gross. He remembered why he hated the thick, black stuff as soon as he sipped it and it strangled his taste buds.

  He was about to order a real coffee in a mug when his cell phone intruded. He fished it out and raised a hand to cancel the signal to the waiter.

  “We can see the car,” Kelsey said. “But it has to be tonight. Now. Can you do that?”

  He caught the waiter’s eye and mimicked writing on his palm. With the bill on its way, he put the phone back to his ear. “Can you pick me up at my hotel in say—” He looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes?”

  “Yes,” she said, but sounded a little reticent. “Are you still wearing that suit?”

  He smiled. “No, I bought a nice new one.”

  “Thank god for that or we’d be arrested at the FBI’s door.”

  “We’ll be fine. They’ll love the electric blue jacket and burgundy pants.” As he ended the call, he just caught the sound of Kelsey’s gasp. And smiled.

  She was ten minutes late. The cross-town traffic had been murder. He saw her black SUV pull up in front of the hotel, but stayed inside for a minute, just to worry her about being late, and his suit. He stepped out of the automatic doors and saw her look of relief by the dim interior light.

  “You think that was funny, don’t you?” she scolded as he climbed into the passenger seat. She looked at his smart suit. “Couldn’t stretch to a tie, I see.”

  He straightened the polo shirt collar. “Don’t want to overdo it.”

  She risked looking down at his feet and sighed in relief at the sight of the brogues.

  He smiled at the thought of the Nike sneakers. Still, it was a pity because they were cool. And everybody knows khaki and blue go together stylishly. He looked ahead at the unchanging road. “Shouldn’t we be moving? If we’re going someplace.”

  She jumped a little and snapped out of whatever was in her head. “We’re going. I was just waiting for you to put your seat belt on.”

  That was a lie, but he let it go and snapped the seat belt buckle with a flourish. “So, where is the car?”

  “Well, it isn’t here,” she said with a flick of her head. “FBI lab on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

  “Hey, that’s where the White House is. Cool, I’ve never seen it.” He sounded like a kid on a school trip. “Is it far? I could do with a nap.”

  “Go ahead,” she said, pushing into traffic. “It’ll take us fifteen, twenty minutes.”

  “Thanks.” He leaned on the side window.

  She glanced at him and shook her head. “I was kidding, you know that?”

  She was talking to herself; he’d gone to sleep instantly, even though he’d slept most of the day. It was a soldier thing to sleep when you can. She stared ahead into the traffic and smiled. He was okay, which surprised her, as she’d met a few ex-military men and mostly they were posturing bullies with an inflated idea of their own ability, both in life and in combat. She wondered if that was being a bit harsh, as the samples she’d met had come from Special Ops, and arrogance was pretty much a prerequisite for that role. She glanced at Ethan sleeping quietly. Maybe he’d revert when he settled in. She hoped not.

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