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Coup de Grâce

Coup de Grâce
by Doug Allyn
Art by Laurie Harden

 

I’ve walked this old dirt road ten thousand times in dreams. Walked it in Texas during basic training, then later in Afghanistan, standing guard over construction sites, bunkers, bridges, helipads. I whiled away the endless hours imagining the long walk home, down this dead-end road.

Over and over again.

Sometimes I’d vary the season in my mind. I’d be walking in the fall with the leaves going golden. Or in spring, in April, after a morning rain, with the mist rising from the forest floor like the souls of woodland spirits.

But I liked my winter dreams the best. New-fallen snow, cold and clean and glistening, totally unlike the rocky barrens of Helmand or Herat or wherever our construction battalion was blasting a landing zone out of a mountain or beefing up a redoubt.

From a guard post in the ’Stan, you can see a thousand meters in any direction. Not a single tree in view. A few clumps of scrub brush here and there. But nothing green. Nothing that even looks alive.

But in my mind? I’d be walking down this dead-end road, through a midwinter forest at dusk, shadows stretching out and away, pine trunks dark and stark against the snowdrifts, a study in chalk and charcoal.

Wending my way home as the twilight blue faded to purple, wondering what Ma would have simmering on the stove.

Knowing that I would never arrive. Ever again.

My folks are gone now. And our old cottage too. I got a postcard awhile back from a high-school buddy saying vandals had torched the place. Burned it to the damn ground.

It shouldn’t have mattered much. The cabin had been abandoned for years. After the logging accident that killed my father, we moved to town. Ma said she needed to be closer to her job, but in truth, I don’t think she could bear living in the place where we’d all been so happy. My father’s death changed everything. Her life most of all.

And now that I was finally making the long walk home, on a midsummer evening, after so many years away, I realized my favorite dream was . . . well. Only a dream.

Oh, the woods were lovely, dark and deep as a poem, but the old road wasn’t my imaginary memory lane. It was a woodland path through a northern Michigan forest, stalked by its own predators and prey.

The raw stench of a dead skunk hovered in the mist, a fresh kill. I’d definitely never dreamed up dead skunks in Afghanistan. And in my guard-duty reveries? I’d always walked the old road alone.

But I wasn’t alone now.

Someone was stalking me. Keeping to the shadows.

At first I thought it was battlefield jitters. I’ve been through a few tough scrapes. But it wasn’t paranoia. Someone was definitely dogging my trail, ghosting through the cover off to my right, using the terrain and the mist to mask his movements. And he was good.

If I hadn’t grown up in these woods, I might’ve missed him. As it was, I was only catching an occasional glimpse, a shadow, a flicker of a silhouette gliding silently through the trees. Just enough to know he was real. And that he was armed. Carrying a rifle.

I stopped. On instinct. Didn’t even realize why for a moment. Then, twenty yards ahead, a dark form took shape as a dog stepped into the road. A big dog. Black. Labrador, maybe? With his hackles raised. Showing his teeth in a silent snarl.

In the gathering dusk, I couldn’t see him clearly. But he looked so damned familiar . . . that I knelt.

“Ringo?” I called.

The dog stopped snarling. Cocking his head, he eyed me curiously, listening.

“Ringo! Here boy! Come on.”

And he bounded toward me, barking a hello, with his tail wagging.

And for one surreal moment I thought I might be dead. That I’d been killed in the Sandbox, and somehow my ghost had traveled through time and space, back to this road.

Because I knew this dog couldn’t be my Ringo—

My Ringo had been savaged by a rogue bear when I was ten. I’d put him down myself, and buried him, long before this dog was born.

So he couldn’t be my dog. And the boy with the rifle who’d stepped into the open behind me wasn’t some ghost from my past either.

He had red hair, jug ears, and freckles. His flannel shirt was patched and faded, and his Carhartt coveralls were two sizes too big. Hand-me-downs. It’s tough being a little brother.

His rifle was no toy, though. It was practically an antique. A ’98 Springfield 30-40 Krag, with a box magazine. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders carried Krags up San Juan Hill. But this kid wasn’t out here playing cowboys and Indians. He was a wood-smoke kid, hunting meat for the table.

“This is all private land hereabouts, mister. What are you doing here?”

“Passing through,” I said. “I used to live here.”

“No way. I don’t know you.”

“It was years ago,” I said. “You weren’t around yet.”

“I’m older than I look. Who are you?”

“My name’s Jax LaDart. My folks owned a cottage up around the next bend. I was born there. Grew up there.”

“Nobody lives up this road. It’s a dead end.”

“The house burned awhile back. I was away at the time. Just wondered if anything was left.”

“There’s a chimney’s still standing,” he admitted reluctantly. “And part of the porch.”

“Do you mind if I take a look?”

“Ain’t my land, I just kinda keep an eye on things. Nobody comes around here much. C’mon, Ringo.”

The dog loped after him as he turned away.

I swallowed. Hard.

“Hey kid,” I called after him. “How’d your dog get that name?”

“It’s carved in a tree,” he said. “By your old house.”

Of course it was. I’d carved it there myself. When I buried the first Ringo. All those years ago. And it was still there, in the yard of the burned cabin, guarding a few scorched timbers, a chimney leaning like the Tower of Pisa over the porch floor.

I’d planned to check out the ruins, then hike back to my rented Jeep and find a motel in town. But the sun was sinking now and after dreaming of this place all those years? I was reluctant to leave it so soon.

I made a rough camp instead. Spread some cedar boughs on the porch, built a small fire, and settled in for the night.

The floorboards were uneven, but I’ve slept in trucks and tanks and on rocky hillsides. Soldiers can sleep anywhere. Just not for long.

I woke with the rise of the moon, then lay there half awake, watching my fire dwindle down to glowing embers, listening to the wind singing in the pines.

Eventually I drifted off, and slept like the dead. Until just before dawn, when my favorite dream came to me again.

And I found myself walking down that dead-end road. Again. And the first Ringo stepped out of the shadows. And woofed a hello.

And I was almost home.

 

The first glow of dawn snapped me awake instantly, on full alert. I stayed silent and solid as a rock, taking in my surroundings. Sniffing the air for danger. There was none, of course. No Taliban in these hills, no tribal jihadis hunting me. The clearing around the charred ruins was on high ground with a clear view for miles in all directions. I was safe as a church up here.

I scanned the terrain anyway, out of pure habit. I’d been living at orange alert for so long that hyper caution seemed normal to me.

The forest began seventy yards below the clearing, scrub brush that blended into clumps of tag alders, then willowy poplars, then pines and hardwoods. Beyond that, the treetops rolled away from the hill like a vast green sea, stretching to the edge of the world, where the silvery line of Lake Michigan defined the horizon like a freshwater necklace.

Magnificent. Even better than my dream, actually. But seeing it again nudged my memory. Bringing back old feelings I’d forgotten.

Funny, as a teenager I’d grown to hate this place. The solitude. The eternal dusk of the deep woods.

But mostly the poverty.

I’d grown up wood-smoke poor. Dad was a logger, Ma worked in town. And they were happy here, I guess, though back then I couldn’t imagine why.

Then I hit the smart-ass time of my life. I looked around, and all I saw were rusty pickup trucks, loggers sweating in the deep woods for minimum wage, poaching game off state land to feed their families.

Losers. Like my father. No ambition, no gumption. Or so it seemed to me, with the vast experience of my eighteen summers.

I didn’t understand that there’s more than one American Dream. That the tapestry of life in the back country had nothing to do with numbers in a checkbook or the latest gee-whiz computer game.

Folks could walk free in these forests, harvest wild raspberries in the spring, take salmon and turkeys and white-tails in their seasons. Or whenever they damn well pleased, really.

If the Internet crashed and took civilization down with it, they’d scarcely notice, or care all that much. But at eighteen, I knew so much better.

I knew that the Secret of Life was money. Rack up enough long green, and you can buy anything or anybody. The world’s for sale. Buy as much as you want.

And because I’d grown up in wood-smoke country, I had marketable skills. I could hunt, shoot, track, and run like a spooked buck. I’d been working construction since I was twelve, already had my journeyman’s card.

And the U.S. Army was hiring, and paying a lot more than minimum wage. So my best friend and I signed on with the army, and then the Company after that, rebuilding Afghanistan. And there was plenty to rebuild, since the locals seem dead set on blowing everything up. Including us. Still, I took to the work. And I was good at it. At first. . . .

I shook off the dark memories before they could settle in and take hold. Rummaging through my pockets, I found half an energy bar stashed, then strolled the yard, munching, loosening up.

And noticed something I’d missed at first light.

A paper sign, stapled to a pine tree.

private!

no trespassing!

sav-land management

Forty yards further on, there was a second sign. And a long line of them stretching into the distance.

Which was odd. My dad inherited this hilltop from his grandpop, and though I couldn’t recall the exact details of my mother’s will, I knew the old place had come down to me.

Not that it’s worth much. There are vast oceans of vacant land in Vale County. Eighty thousand acres of state and federal woodlands, probably three times that in private hands. There’s more open land in northern Michigan than in half the countries in the UN.

Most of it’s primeval forest, like the ground surrounding this hilltop, as far as the eye can see. Natural habitat for native species too numerous to count, from earthworms to opossums, on up to the predators that feed on them. Coyotes and wolves, bobcats and bears.

And us, of course.

But in these woods, primates aren’t automatically at the top of the food chain. Every once in a while, a rogue bear or a coyote pack will remind us of that fact.

I stomped out the ashes of my campfire, walked out to the Jeep, and drove into town.

 

When I was a kid, Valhalla was a quiet little resort town snoozing on Michigan’s north shore. Nowadays it’s booming, flush with Internet money. Fierce young entrepreneurs, buying up everything in sight. Big-box chain stores springing up along the lakeshore roads, housing projects blanketing the hills above the town, so new the windows still have stickers on them.

The last bastion of my teen years is Oldtowne, the historic center of the village, six blocks of nineteenth-century buildings, some original, some updated, all faithful to their Victorian roots. Cobblestone streets and sidewalks, globular street lamps.

And the heart of the heart?

The Jury’s Inn. The old saloon dates back to the First World War. Built across the street from the courthouse, it’s a hangout for cops, lawyers, and media people, and locals who want to keep up with the latest gossip.

I took a seat at a corner table, facing the door with my back to the wall. An old habit, but a smart one. Ask Wild Bill Hickok.

The joint was buzzing like a hive, the jukebox thumping out Motown oldies, cops scarfing up lunch while newspeople sniffed around for headlines and lawyers swapped away their clients’ rights like a game of Texas hold ’em.

Nordic ambiance. Blond furniture, birch paneling, wagon-wheel chandeliers. Table lamps fashioned from deer antlers.

At the rear of the dining room, a massive octagonal table sits apart from the others, ensuring privacy for anyone who chooses it.

Today it was Todd Girard, prosecuting attorney for the five northern counties, sitting with a judge and a couple of cops I vaguely remembered.

I doubted a soul in the place would remember me.

But I was wrong about that.

“Jax?”

I glanced up. A tall woman in a khaki uniform was frowning down at me. She looked vaguely familiar, definitely someone I should know. But I didn’t.

“You are Jackson LaDart, right? Jake and Yvonne’s boy?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, starting to rise. “I’m sorry, but I don’t—”

“Marge Kazmarek,” she said, waving me back to my seat. She sat down facing me, but didn’t offer her hand.

“Of course,” I said. “You’re Chief Kazmarek’s wife.”

“Actually, I am Chief Kazmarek now,” she said, indicating the badge on her blouse. “Walt had a coronary chasing a dealer off school grounds last year. The city council asked me to fill in for the remainder of his term. I’m surprised to see you. When you didn’t show at your mother’s funeral, I thought you might be—”

“—dead?”

“A man who doesn’t show for his own ma’s funeral better be dead.”

“We were in the field, Chief, turning a mountaintop into an airstrip. I didn’t get word until it was over.”

“The army should do better by you boys.”

“I haven’t been in the military for a while.”

“I heard you quit the army but stayed in the war. Couldn’t imagine why anybody’d do that.”

“The CIA pays five times army wages, for the same kind of construction work.”

“With people still shooting at you?”

“Sometimes, sure. It comes with the territory. Why?”

“Your buddy Brian Baylor came home a few months ago, or half of him did. He’s staying with his sister. I hear he’s in pretty rough shape.”

I looked away, avoiding her eyes.

“You didn’t know?” she asked.

“Brian and I . . . got separated after it happened. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Because you left him? To die?”

I just stared at her.

“Brian was in Valhalla Samaritan for a month before they sent him home,” she explained, meeting my eyes dead on. “The nurses said he babbled in his sleep sometimes. Begging you not to leave him. And cursing you. What the hell happened over there, Jax?”

“A whole lot happened, Chief. Every damned day. None of it anybody’s business. Half the world’s at war, from Peshawar to Paris. Maybe you’ve seen it on TV.”

“Brian says you were working for some rag-head warlord.”

“His name was Omar Khalid, he was my friend and an ally. And since he was slaughtered, along with his whole family, you might want to watch your tone.”

“I don’t give a damn about anything over there, Jax. I’m sorry as hell about Brian, but you’re the one I’m worried about. Who are you working for now?”

“I’m between jobs. Why?”

“Lot of new faces in town. Some of them hard-case vets. Thought you might be one of them.”

“I’m not a new face.”

“But you got no people here anymore. So what are you doing here, Jax?”

“Visiting my hometown, Chief. Why would that be a problem?”

“You were always a problem, Jax, even as a kid. And now? There’s no work for mercenaries around here. Go back to your war, son, or find yourself a new one, the farther off the better.”

“I’m just passing through, Chief.”

“Glad to hear that, since they pay me to keep the peace around here,” she said, rising to go. “Make it a quick visit, Jax, and don’t expect to trip over no welcome mat.”

“Chief? I crashed at my folks’ old place last night. The property’s been posted with ‘no trespassing’ signs.”

“Then it sounds like you were trespassing.”

“On my own property?”

“A lot of land’s changed hands in the county recently,” she said. “Your buddy Danny Froggett’s handling most of it. He might know something.”

“I’ll ask. Thank you.”

She didn’t bother to answer. Shot me with a fingertip instead. Then strode briskly over to the Old Boys’ table to chat up the cops. Several of them glanced my way. Not hostile, just mentally taking my picture. For further reference.

I signaled the waitress for my check.

 

Outside, on that sun-dappled street, it almost felt like a long-lost teenage summer again, back in my hometown. But not for long. Too many cars, too new. Mostly SUVs, overgrown, overpowered road hogs that will never charge up anything steeper than a drive-thru at Burger King.

America. I love this country, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in foreign wars, and when I do make it home, I feel more and more like an immigrant. A stranger in a strange land.

Everybody mumbles now, talking to themselves as they walk down the street. I know they have cell phones plugged into their ears, that they’re actually carrying on a conversation with someone else, but it weirds me out. . . .

And I was stalling.

Delaying the inevitable. Putting off the real reason I’d come back.

I had to see Brian again. To face him. And explain, if I could.

First things first. The chief said he was staying with his sister, and Peg was a reporter with the Valhalla News, just up the street.

I found her name on the information-desk directory and took an elevator to the third floor. Peg was at a desk in an open bay with a half-dozen others. She glanced up as I approached, then froze when she saw me, taken completely by surprise.

I knew the feeling. Peg looked older by a decade. Not in a bad way, just . . . totally grown up. When last I saw her she was fresh out of college, a newsroom intern in faded flannels and knee-holed jeans.

Now, in a blue business suit and pumps? She looked cool, competent, and in charge. Definitely not my buddy’s kid sister anymore.

She rose to meet me, but before I could even say hello, she slapped me across the face.

Hard!

The blow snapped my head halfway around, bloodied my lip. I could have ducked it. I took it instead.

She was entitled. Everyone was staring, including Peg. She was surprised, I think, at how much rage had gone into that slap.

“The prodigal son of a bitch returns,” she said coldly. “I can’t believe you’d show your face here.”

“Nice to see you too,” I said, grabbing her wrist before she could slap me again. “That first one was free, Peg, but one’s all you get. Can we talk somewhere? In private?”

She nodded without speaking, visibly trying to control her temper. I followed her into a small snack bar, with vending machines along the wall. A coffee maker. There were small tables but neither of us sat. She turned to face me.

“How’s Brian doing?” I asked.

“Why would you care? You promised you’d look out for him, Jax, all that blather about never leaving a brother behind? And he comes home blown to pieces, and here you are, months later, standing tall. Not a mark on you. What happened to my brother, Jax?”

“What does Brian say?”

“He doesn’t say anything! Not to me. But he mutters in his sleep, Jax, pleading with you not to leave him in—wherever it was.”

I looked away, considering that.

She was staring at me. “Dear God,” she murmured. “In spite of everything, a part of me couldn’t quite believe it. But it’s true, isn’t it? You left him.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s true.”

“To die?”

“I left him,” I said. “I need to talk to him.”

“What’s the rush? He’s been home for months. And not a word from you to him. Or to me.”

“I’ve been . . . traveling. On business for the Company.”

“And a business trip was more important than checking on your best friend?”

“It wasn’t like that, Peg. And I do need to see him.”

“He doesn’t want to see you.”

“He has a right to be angry. After we talk, if he still wants to punch me out—”

“Punch you out?” she scoffed, shaking her head in disbelief. “You know what, Jax? You’re right. You really should have a talk with him. Right now. Come on, I’ll take you to him.”

I followed her down to the newspaper’s parking garage. The Peg I used to know drove a purple V-dub convertible. The little car suited her then. Cute as a Bug.

The grown-up Peg climbed into a full-sized van, a GMC 350, battleship gray, with a raised roof. I climbed in the shotgun side. There were no backseats; the rear was tricked out with a bulky hydraulic lift for transporting a wheelchair.

And there was something about seeing the brutal mechanics of that machinery . . .

I’ve been blown off a road by a mortar round, had a bayonet jammed against my carotid, and I once walked into a walled compound filled with corpses, some of them children.

I don’t spook easily anymore, but I was getting a very bad feeling about seeing Brian.

Peg drove with grim competence, her lips a thin, angry line.

We didn’t talk, and I was sorry for that. We’d been good friends once.

Back then, Peg and a roommate had shared a cold-water flat furnished in early Salvation Army.

Now, she lived in a brand-new brownstone, in an upscale suburb. McMansions with three-car garages. As alike as peas in a pod. But Peg’s home had a major difference. A long aluminum wheelchair ramp that stretched from the front door down to the curb.

It looked sturdy enough to support a tank. I found out why the moment I stepped through the double doors.

The house wasn’t a home at all, it was a freaking hospital wing. There was no furniture in the living room other than the movable bed. There was only medical gear, oxygen tanks, a respirator, some kind of a heart beeper. Other bulky, space-age equipment I didn’t recognize.

All for a single patient. Brian Baylor was strapped into a massive motorized wheelchair amidst the equipment, with enough wiring plugged into his chest to jump-start a GTO.

Or roughly half of him was. The left side of his body had been crudely sheared away. There was nothing surgical about his injuries. The damage was so savage, so total, I couldn’t imagine how he’d survived at all. If you could call it that.

His left leg and arm were gone, and the left side of his face was distorted into a permanent scowl, pulled further down by a transparent drainage tube dangling from the corner of his jaw. His shaved head and shrunken features reduced his boyish face to a skull, or a death-camp inmate.

He looked like he was poised on the edge of forever, ready to drop into darkness in the next heartbeat.

I’ve seen some terrible things in my life, and I’ve done a few myself. But seeing Brian like this? The shock of it was more than I could bear. Instinctively, I flinched and started to back away, but he stopped me. With his eyes.

In that terrible wreck of a body, Brian’s eyes were intensely alive. His carcass was scarcely recognizable as human, but his spirit was still present.

And in a rage.

Instinctively, I reached for his hand—

“Don’t touch him!” Peg snapped. I froze.

“He can’t feel anything, Jax. His nervous system is barely functional. You could injure him and he wouldn’t know it. He only has partial use of his right hand. Just enough to operate the joystick on his chair.”

“Can he talk?”

“I can talk some,” Brian coughed. “Just don’t ask me to sing.”

“Not likely,” I said, kneeling beside his chair, meeting those intense eyes. “I’ve heard you sing.”

“I remember those days. Back when I thought we were friends. What the hell happened, Jax? If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it. You freakin’ bailed on us, man. Broke your promise.”

“I thought you were gone, Brian.”

“No. You didn’t. You looked me in the eyes, you bastard. I saw you. And you saw me. You knew damn well I was still alive.”

I didn’t say anything to that. Couldn’t. Because it was true.

“You didn’t even check to see if I was done. You ran like a scalded dog instead. And left me. Like this.”

“I, um . . .” I broke off. I rose, looking down at him. “Coming here was a mistake. I should go.”

“No! Not till we get things straight, Jax. Why did you ditch us? What the hell happened?”

“The ambush happened. Do you remember that?”

“Only the blast. Then . . . coming to in a ditch. Looking up at you.”

“A mortar round blew our Hummer crossways,” I said. “We all bailed out, all three of us ducking for cover in the ditch. But the next round airburst directly over us and . . .”

I swallowed, remembering that split second. . . .



# # #

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Coup de Grâce by Doug AllynCopyright © 2016 with permission of the author.

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