Excerpt 1—In which Clay Conover’s past reminds him of who he is.
Chapter 1—Saturdays Never Lie
Saturday, October 17, 2009
The rain drumming on his helmet began subtly, rising in a crescendo Lt. Clay Conover had come to recognize only too well—overwhelming sound, drowning thought. Monsoon in Cambodia.
Late afternoon sucked the light out of the triple canopy, muting everything to shadow. Shadow that slithered into his thoughts, tugging subtly on his mood. A look back confirmed third squad following in trace, greasy orange mud sucking at their boots. Clay checked the progress of second squad up ahead—soundless apparitions navigating the downpour. It would be dark in an hour.
To his left, first squad’s nearest fire team struggled through tangles of liana vines, prompting Clay to move forward to adjust second squad’s rate of advance. Even before he got close, Corporal Knickerson glanced back. Clay signaled him to slow the advance, pointing to first squad, bogged down in heavier undergrowth.
Knickerson nodded, scrambling forward to match his squad’s pace to that of first’s. Should’ve made first squad base, Clay thought.
The rain subsided to a drizzle, making Clay’s breathing seem unnaturally loud. His pack straps dug into his soggy, rain-soaked armpits, raw now from days of chafing friction. His neck was stiff from the weight of his brain bucket and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been dry or when he’d been so tired. Static from the radio startled him back to alertness.
“Six this is deuce, over,” Thompson listened a moment. “Wait one.” Thompson’s gangly form covered the twenty feet between them in under five seconds. “It’s the Skipper,” he said, passing Clay the handset.
“Six Actual, this is Two Actual.”
“Two Actual, hold at the ORP. SitRep on arrival,” Capt. Mortensen commanded.
“Two Actual roger.” Waving Thompson to follow, Clay caught up with Corporal Knickerson to update his orders. In the forty minutes it took to reach the Objective Rally Point, the rain started and stopped twice. Clay halted second squad at the ORP, squinting through the waning light to confirm first squad had also stopped. Partially hidden by ground foliage and the gathering gloom, Clay could just make out the nearest fire team.
Third squad, ghostly in the jungle twilight, was closing up. Ramirez, the squad leader appeared in a sparser patch of undergrowth and Clay held up his fist, pointed at his eyes then back in the direction they’d come.
Ramirez nodded. Clay could count on him to tie his squad in with the other two. They could refine their positioning later, if necessary.
Clay took the handset from Thompson. “Seductive Snake Six, this is Two Actual. At the RP…all secure.” He headed for the left flank, waving his radio operator to follow.
Less that thirty-five meters over, they caught sight of Lance Corporal Brown, Clay’s youngest squad leader. Hunkered behind a decayed log next to his radio operator, Brown held the handset to his ear, beneath the rim of his helmet. Thompson’s radio crackled with static.
Brown heard it and rolled over. Eyes wide, he came to a low crouch on his knees, frantically waving them down. On his way to the mud, Clay heard the first round catch Thompson with a sickening smack, followed by the angry crack of its passage. More distant, the hollow thump of mortar rounds leaving their tubes came to his ears. The left flank erupted in pin points of light and the rattle of small arms fire.
Clay sprinted for his radio operator, dove prone and dragged him over on his back. Dead. He pried the handset loose and keyed it. Also dead. The first mortar rounds impacted close by and his gut jumped to the concussion, as his ears rang and went cottony.
From the flank, muzzle flashes winked in eerie, malicious quiet through the gathering darkness. The shadowy forms of the Peoples’ Army rose from spider holes, firing AK-47s that seemed not to miss.
Another mortar round impacted near Brown, blowing off his helmet to reveal a blood-soaked death mask. Brown stared at him reproachfully, with missing eyes Clay could nevertheless feel.
The throaty chuckle of a diesel starting up rose above the din. Tanks? When the hell did the PA get tanks? The engine noise swelled to the accompaniment of strengthening wind and the incongruous beep of a back-up alarm.
Clay came awake to the drone of the fan he used for white noise and the continued beep of a back-up alarm somewhere outside. Tow truck. He lay there, his chest jumping to each beat of his heart. As it slowed, the nightmare he’d always feared but had never quite materialized retreated.
But now as then, he remembered the endless wait that night for Kinseth’s medevac bird—his assurances as the morphine kicked in that the bird was on the way, knowing it would arrive too late.
He thought of the long, flight home from his first overseas tour, laced with a confusion of hope, disillusionment and dread.
After a cup of coffee, Clay stretched and prepared for his pre-dawn run. Seated on his front porch, he garroted his ghosts in the laces of his running shoes.
Excerpt 2—In which Clay Conover and Sheera Prasad inch closer to caving into their mutual desire for each other.
Chapter 11—Tempting Fate
Monday, November 30, 2009
The door to the suite closed decisively. “Good morning, Alistair,” Nina chirped.
“Good morning yourself.” Clay heard the hinges to Alistair’s office door creak as he opened it.
Shit, he thought. He’d forgotten the WD-40 he’d promised. Clay pulled out his planner and was scribbling a note in it when Sheera walked in.
“Good morning, Clay.” She walked between their desks and set purse and laptop bag on the return of her desk. “Do anything special for Thanksgiving?”
“Had my daughter and her boyfriend over for dinner. Instead of turkey we had ham and twice-baked potatoes. After dinner we watched the Packers pound the Lions.”
Sheera inspected him like she’d discovered a new specie. “You don’t strike me as the football type.”
“Hard to grow up in the Midwest without developing at least a passing interest,” Clay replied. “What about you? What’d you do for Thanksgiving?”
“Slept in for starters. Then Nan had Neill over for turkey. He brought three bottles of wine and a couple movies to watch. I fell asleep half-way through the first one. When I woke up, the TV was off, and I could hear them at it in Nan’s bedroom. So I retreated to the guest room, put on a pair of headphones and played dumb in the morning.”
“Considerate of you.”
Sheera flashed him a self-satisfied smile. “I’m an incredibly considerate girl. Besides, Nan is so overdue.”
“You knew her from college, I think you told me?”
She nodded. “Sorority sisters and roommates most of the time.” Sheera turned back to her desk, pulled her laptop from its bag and docked it, knocking a pen off the desk. She leaned over to retrieve it, giving Clay an opportunity to enjoy her skirt climbing high up her thigh.
Does she do that intentionally? he wondered. Not that I mind… “How are you coming on the scenario adaptation?” he asked.
Sheera looked up at him, still straining to reach the pen on the floor, her hem climbing even higher. “To be honest, I haven’t worked on it since we talked about it with Alistair, the other day. It’s been on my mind, but…” She captured the pen and straightened up. “I need to get cracking, don’t I? Especially in light of Alistair’s warning.” She frowned. “My bad. I’ll get on it today.”
Napali’s oozed atmosphere more appropriate to a date than a business lunch with a partner. Sheera decided to tease. “You and Alistair come here often?” she asked after a tall blond seated them. She glanced at the menu then eyed him mischievously over the top of the menu.
She smiled. “Well! Don’t you know how to make a girl feel special?”
“You’ve earned it,” Clay told her. “I’ve been riding you pretty hard—”
“Have you really? Oh, right…the project.”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
“Do I?” Sheera’s eyes glowed with amusement. Clay looked down and she relented. “You’re right I do.” Clay’s eyes came up to meet hers.
“Okay. What can I get you?” A waitress in an immaculate maroon dress and spotless white apron stood next to her, pen poised over her order pad.
“I’ll have the Coast Salad, without macadamia nuts,” Sheera told her. “And iced tea.”
“Make that two,” Clay seconded, “but I’ll take the macadamias.”
“Perfect.” She scribbled and left.
“You said something this morning about growing up in the Midwest,” Sheera noted. “Nan, my best friend grew up in Chicago. What about you?”
“It’s mostly farm country, right?”
“Very,” Clay affirmed. “At least back then. Not many distractions, either, which was good for my academics.”
“I can imagine,” Sheera retorted. “What else could you do? Watch the corn grow?”
“It wasn’t that bad. I grew up in a college town, swam competitively and was a lifeguard three evenings a week and every weekend. Add in homework and chores at home, it kept me out of trouble.”
“Which college town?”
“Ames. Iowa State University is there.”
“And your family…are they still there?”
“Moved on,” Clay told her. “What about you?”
“Hartford. My father taught Business Administration at UConn Hartford.” She frowned. “Growing up, it felt like they brought India along with them.”
“Isn’t that natural? Clay asked. “Even as we evolve, don’t we still crave the familiar?”
“I suppose…and don’t misunderstand me. I’m proud of my heritage, but I wanted to grow up American.” She shook her head. “Baba wanted me to grow up a proper Indian girl who just happened to live in America.”
“So you pushed back.”
“Oh, did someone rat me out?”
“No, but I sense…what…an interest in self-determination?”
Sheera felt herself go a little buttery. “Perceptive…and kindly put.” She shrugged. “Neighbors would probably have used rebellious to describe me. By the time I got to high school, we fought pretty much every day about something.” She chortled. “More like everything. Hemlines, dating, curfews, etc, were common themes, and to be honest, I enjoyed getting him riled up, after a while. Which is why I went away to college.”
Clay nodded. “Understandable.”
“Yeah well, Baba didn’t. When I came back for Spring Break my freshman year, my father had arranged for a transfer to UConn.” Sheera shook her head. “My mother handed me the application almost before I set my suitcase down in the hall.”
“Subtle,” Clay remarked.
“Here we go…” The waitress plunked down their salads and refilled the iced tea. “Anything else?” she asked.
Clay shook his head and she vanished.
Sheera picked up her fork and stabbed aggressively at her salad. “Even though he used Mother as a messenger, I knew Baba was behind it and it pissed me off.”
“So what did you do?”
“We fought about it every day for a week, but he wasn’t budging.” Sheera’s lips twitched mischievously. “So I pretended to cave. I filled out the application and gave it back to Mother to mail. After Baba left that morning for the school, I snatched the application from the mail box.”
Sheera harpooned another clump of salad. “When I got back to Northwestern the next semester, I checked into work-study and scholarship grants.
“I managed to cobble together a couple grants and a job to supplement them. When I went home after my freshman year, I played dumb until Baba wondered when we were going to hear from UConn. I kept saying, ‘any day now, any day now.’”
“Didn’t he eventually check?”
“Oh yeah.” Sheera took another swallow of iced tea.
“The shit hit the proverbial fan. He said things to me I knew he didn’t mean, but it still pissed me off. I went to my room and stayed there. When Baba left the next day, I packed, emptied my bank account and headed for Nan’s. Her folks let me flop there until school started.”
Clay shook his head. “And how long did it take before he tracked you down.”
Sheera laughed, soundlessly. “Good guess. Took less than a week. I should have known, in retrospect.”
“Nan’s father came home to our shouting match in the entryway to Nan’s place. Baba turned to him and demanded he ‘uninvite’ me.” She shook her head. “You’d have to know Harmon Telchik to know how that landed.”
“He said no, I guess?”
“Politely but firmly. And then unbeknownst to me, made a few calls to Northwestern and got me a really killer internship. And by the end of the year, I had a full scholarship to boot.
“Nan’s Mom, whom I just adore, helped Baba patch things up with me and the Telchiks became like a second family.”
“Quite a story. Thanks for sharing.” Clay looked at his watch. “We should probably head back.”
“Yeah. I’m a long way from finished with that damned scenario.”
Clay drove back to the office in a silence Sheera didn’t break. But Clay’s eyes were eloquent. She could feel them, every time she uncrossed or recrossed her legs, to the whisper of her nylons. His interest kindled a thrill of power mixed with arousal.
Did he know? Did he know she knew? Sheera couldn’t be certain, but something felt different between them. A palpable tension—physical and more. The drive back to the office was too long. And too short.