On a warm September evening in the Millers Kill community center, five veterans sit down in rickety chairs to try to make sense of their experiences in Iraq. What they will find is murder, conspiracy, and the unbreakable ties that bind them to one another and their small Adirondack town.
The Rev. Clare Fergusson wants to forget the things she saw as a combat helicopter pilot and concentrate on her relationship with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. MP Eric McCrea needs to control the explosive anger threatening his job as a police officer. Will Ellis, high school track star, faces the reality of life as a double amputee. Orthopedist Trip Stillman is denying the extent of his traumatic brain injury. And bookkeeper Tally McNabb wrestles with guilt over the in-country affair that may derail her marriage.
But coming home is harder than it looks. One vet will struggle with drugs and alcohol. One will lose his family and friends. One will die.
Since their first meeting, Russ and Clare's bond has been tried, torn, and forged by adversity. But when he rules the veteran's death a suicide, she violently rejects his verdict, drawing the surviving vets into an unorthodox investigation that threatens jobs, relationships, and her own future with Russ.
As the days cool and the nights grow longer, they will uncover a trail of deceit that runs from their tiny town to the upper ranks of the U.S. Army, and from the waters of the Millers Kill to the unforgiving streets of Baghdad.
One Was a Soldier is "a surefire winner" (Booklist) and "Outstanding" (Library Journal)--Julia Spencer-Fleming at her best.
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JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is an Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Dilys, Gumshoe and Macavity Award winner. She studied Acting and History at Ithaca College and received her J.D. at the University of Maine School of Law. Her books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, and Romantic Times RC awards. Julia lives in a 190-year-old farmhouse in Buxton, Maine with her husband and three children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ONE WAS A SOLDIER (Begin Reading)
I BELIEVE IN...THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS...
—The Apostles’ Creed, The Book of Common Prayer
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Sarah Dowling’s first thought, peering through the wire-reinforced glass of the community center’s door, was that they were an odd group. Usually returned vets had a lot to talk about with one another, even if they were embarrassed to be seen in counseling. She would have thought that in a tiny town like Millers Kill—she couldn’t help it, she still saw the place as a cross between a Thomas Kinkade painting and Bedford Falls—they’d be even easier together, but none of these soldiers were speaking to each other.
The two men unracking metal chairs could have been father and son; both middling height, in khakis and button-downs, both with regulation crew cuts—the fifty-something graying, the thirty-something dark brown. The younger man kept glancing sideways at the older as if looking for clues on how to behave. He didn’t pay attention to the young woman opening the chairs in a ragged circle, watching him. She was maybe midtwenties but dressed like a teen, with a little muffin top squeezed between low-rider jeans and a mini-tee. Sarah would have to include her no-romantic-relationships spiel in tonight’s session.
The other woman in the group was a decade or more older than the little cutie, wearing unrelieved black that almost hid her taut physique. As Sarah watched, she stirred spoon after spoon of sugar into coffee poured from the community hall’s industrial-sized coffeemaker. The last participant—Sarah frowned. A young man, maybe still a teenager. His hair had grown out, indicating he’d been out of the service for several months, at least. Well, she could have guessed that even if he had still been wearing it shaved to the skin. They didn’t let double amputees out of Walter Reed until at least four months after admission. His presence here worried her. If he was having post-amputation issues, he ought to be seeing a psychologist at the VA Hospital, not hanging around an LCT’s group.
She checked her watch, then gathered up her stack of handouts. Time to get the road on the show. She opened the office door and strode into the meeting room, the soles of her shoes squeaking on the polished wooden floor. Beyond the closed door, she could hear the faint thump and holler of the basketball game going on in the gym. On the far wall, construction-paper letters spelling out HELLO SEPTEMBER were taped over bright cutouts of apples and school buses. A preschool met here mornings. She thought of the stiflingly tasteful tenth-story office she had left behind in Silver Spring. Free at last, free at last.
“Hello, everyone.” She gestured toward the chairs. “Why don’t we get started? If we have any latecomers, they can join us in progress.” She smiled and took her own advice, selecting the twelve o’clock position in the circle. The woman in black pulled two chairs out of the way to make room for the teen in the wheelchair. The rest of the gang of five followed suit, scraping and clunking the cheap chairs until they were all roughly equidistant from one another, and twice as far from her.
“I’m Sarah Dowling,” she began. “I’m a licensed clinical therapist. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, that means I’ve been trained in psychology and in facilitating therapy, but I am not allowed to diagnose or to prescribe medications.” She stood up and handed the first stack of papers to the graying man seated to her left. “Take one and pass it along.” She resumed her seat. “I’ve just recently relocated here from the Washington, D.C., area, so this is my first group in New York State. However, I’ve been doing veterans’ counseling and running the on-base family mental health program for the past four years at Fort Meade.”
The older man nodded in approval. Officer, she thought.
“Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, this is not a Veterans Affairs program, although it does receive funding from VA, as well as from New York State and the National Institute of Mental Health.” She leaned forward. “Participating in our group will not affect your VA benefits or treatment, nor will it be in any official record.” For those in the group who would be continuing on in the service, that was often critical. Seeking out therapy was still viewed in many quarters of the military as suspect. Talking about feelings was not a high priority for the average CO.
“I apologize for scheduling the first session on Labor Day, but the community center gave me this time slot, and I didn’t want to lose it.” She smiled at them. “I was afraid I’d be the only person here, so believe me when I say I’m glad to meet you all. Why don’t we start by introducing ourselves, and saying a little something about our service.” She looked encouragingly at the older man.
He looked around the circle, knitted up his brows as if he didn’t understand the reasoning behind her request, then shrugged. “Sure. If you think it’s helpful.” He straightened in his seat. “I’m George Stillman. The Third. I’m a doctor and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. I was with a forward surgical team outside Mosul.”
“When did you get back, George?”
He smiled a little. “Please. Call me Trip. I hear George and I look around for my father.”
“Oh. I got back from my second tour of duty about two months ago.”
The kid in the wheelchair looked at him oddly. “Three months ago. You were here in June.”
The doctor stared at the kid for a moment, then wrinkled his face into an apologetic smile. “Sorry. We had a death in the family this summer, and I swear it’s thrown my whole sense of time out of kilter.” He tapped his palm. “I’d better start carrying my PalmPilot around again. My wife calls it my portable brain.”
Sarah smiled reassuringly at him before gesturing to the young man. “Would you introduce yourself?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marine, she thought, just as he said, “I’m Lance Corporal Willem Ellis, of the 5th Marine Division.” He looked down at the prosthetics strapped to his knees. “Formerly of the 5th Marine Division.” He glanced back up at her, then dropped his gaze. “I was only in-country a little over two months when this happened, so I can’t say I saw much traumatizing action.”
“How ’bout when your mother found out you’d enlisted?” Sarah was surprised by the black-clad woman’s accent, a southern Virginia drawl that sounded more out of place up here in the North Country than her own clipped urban consonants.
Willem Ellis laughed at the woman’s remark. “Yeah, I guess that counts as combat. Or at least battle royal.”
“And you are...?”
The woman slouched in her seat. “Clare Fergusson.” There was a pause. Sarah made a go-on gesture. Clare Fergusson sighed. “Major in the Guard, 142nd Aviation Support. Stationed in Ramadi, Tikrit, and Kirkuk.” She took a long drink from her coffee cup. Nothing more seemed forthcoming.
“Aviation support?” Sarah said.
“She flies helicopters,” the brown-haired man said. Before Sarah could ask, he went on, “I’m Eric McCrea. I’m a sergeant. Also in the Guard.”
“Did you serve with Major Fergusson?”
“No.” His gaze slid away from her and came to rest on the doctor. His lip curled up in what might have been a sneer. “I’m an MP.”
“What were you assigned to?” the young woman demanded. “Were you on base patrol? At the Green Zone?”
His lips thinned. “I was on prisoner detail. Camp Bucca.”
Sarah kept herself from reacting, but the rest of the group stared. They had all seen the pictures.
“That figures.” The young woman folded her arms over her generous chest.
“That has nothing to do with it.” Eric McCrea’s cheeks blotched with color. “You think you know what it was like—”
Sarah held up her hands. “Stop right there.” She gave both McCrea and the girl a measured look. “Let’s not go jumping in the deep end before we’ve finished getting our toes wet.” She dropped her hand, opening it to the last person in the circle. “Why don’t you introduce yourself.”
The brunette braced her hands on her thighs. “My name’s Mary McNabb, but everybody calls me Tally.” She looked at Stillman. “Sorta like you, I guess. I was formerly a specialist, formerly in the United States Army.”
“Where did you serve, Tally?”
That got some whistles from the rest. “Mortaritaville,” Fergusson said.
“Yeah, well.” McNabb ran her hands through her short hair.
Stillman snapped his fingers. “Mary McNabb. Fractured left ankle. A car dropped on you?”
McNabb laughed. “I was helping my husband fix it up for resale. I’m impressed you remember.”
Sarah put her hands up again. “Wait.” She looked around the circle. “Do you all know each other?”
They looked at each other. They looked at her. “Yes,” they all said.
“It’s a very small town.” Clare Fergusson’s voice was dry.
Sarah stopped herself before she could ask them to explain. She’d need a clearer picture of their interrelationships eventually, but right now she wanted to focus on opening the first door to whatever issues they might have. “We’ll get into that later,” she said. “I’d like to start by discussing your homecomings.”
MONDAY, JUNE 6
Their dispatcher, Harlene, had managed to get a red, white, and blue WELCOME HOME, ERIC banner printed up and hung from the front of the Millers Kill Police Department. It billowed and snapped in the warm wind gusting up Main Street.
“We gonna have to do the same thing for Kevin, when he gets back?” Deputy Chief Lyle MacAuley squinted in the bright morning sunshine.
The youngest officer on the MKPD had been shipped off for temporary detached duty almost a year ago, first with the Capital Area Drug Enforcement Association in Albany, then with the Special Investigation Division of the Syracuse PD, which saw more major crimes in two weeks than Millers Kill might see in a year.
“Kevin Flynn’s welcome home is going to be a bump up in pay grade, if I can ram it down the aldermen’s throats.” Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne shook his head. “What we really need is another officer on the force. That way, we wouldn’t be overscheduling everybody. I worry that we’re putting Eric back on the streets too soon. A few days ago he was eating MREs and holding down a guard post in Umm Qasr.”
Lyle raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed. The only place I could name in Iraq is Baghdad, and don’t ask me to find it on a map.”
“I was in that neck of the woods, remember? First Gulf War.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “God, doesn’t that feel like an age ago.”
“It was. I think Eric was finishing up high school. Kevin was probably still in diapers.”
“Hunh.” And Lieutenant Clare Fergusson had been twenty-three. “They probably already have our beds reserved up at the Infirmary.”
“Speak for yourself. I plan to be shot to death by the enraged father of a pair of twenty-year-old twins.”
Russ laughed. Lyle gave him a sideways look. “You hear from the reverend lately?”
Russ’s laugh died away. “A phone call five days ago. The 142nd is still on target to ship home in three weeks.” He tried to smile. “Of course, they were on target to leave last March, too. Until their tour got extended.”
“She should’a gone into the chaplain’s corps instead of air support. She’d have been home by now.” Lyle hooked his thumbs in his duty belt. “A year and a half’s a long time.”
“Oh, yeah.” The longest damn eighteen months of his life, and that included a tour in Vietnam, going cold turkey on cigarettes, and quitting booze. Sitting home night after night, watching the casualty counts mount on the news—hell, giving up drinking again would have been easier. Drinking and smoking.
“How’s she sounding?”
“Like she always sounds. Chipper. Everything’s fine. She’s fine. The weather’s fine.” Russ glanced up at the banner, the granite, the clear blue sky. “You know what the temperature was in Basra that day? A hundred and five degrees. I saw it on CNN.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I can’t decide if she’s so happy flying helicopters again she’s forgotten there’s a war on, or if she’s babying me so I don’t...” He looked at Lyle. “You know how many helos have crashed or been shot down in Iraq since the beginning of the year? Fifteen. You wanna know how many pilots have been killed?”
“No.” Lyle held up a hand. “Stop it, or you’re going to make yourself crazy. Crazier,” he amended. “Eric’s home safe and sound, and your lady’ll get here, too.”
Russ touched the spot where, beneath his uniform blouse and undershirt, Clare’s silver cross rested against his chest. She had given it to him for safekeeping the day she left, and he hadn’t taken it off yet. He might not believe in a god, but that didn’t seem to stop him from putting his faith in superstition.
“Eric.” Lyle’s tone was deliberately workaday. “When I spoke with him, he was hot to get back into investigation, but if you think he needs more time, I can find some desk work to keep him busy.”
“What, running down addresses for check bouncers and updating the evidence lists? The last thing I want is for him to think we don’t need him anymore and head off for better-paying pastures. He’s our best investigator, after you.”
MacAuley touched one bristly gray eyebrow and smirked.
“Don’t look so smug,” Russ said. “Consider the competition.”
“A diamond in an ashtray is still a diamond,” Lyle said with immense dignity.
Which made Russ think of his recent purchase. He hadn’t told Lyle about that. He hadn’t told anybody, yet. What if she turned him down? A fifty-two-year-old widower with a bum hip wasn’t any great prize. His phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket. “Van Alstyne here.”
“His wife says he’s on his way.” Harlene, who had been at the MKPD longer than Russ and Lyle combined, didn’t believe in deferring to rank. “Get in here or you’ll spoil the surprise.”
“We’re coming.” He shut his phone. “Harlene says it’s time to get into the squad room and hide behind a desk.”
“I think she does these surprise parties as an excuse to stuff us with sweets until we can’t move.”
Russ thwacked Lyle on his still-flat belly. “She’s got a way to go with you, then, old-timer.”
Lyle tugged his uniform blouse into place. “I gotta keep my boyish figure. Just in case I find the woman of my dreams hanging around a church or something.”
Eric thought he might never have had a better moment, standing in the squad room, getting roasted by his brother officers. Harlene was squeezing his arm like she was testing to see if he was done, and the big boxed assortment from the Kreemy Kakes diner was on the scarred table where the chief liked to sit, and the old paint was still flaking beneath the windows, and nothing was changed. Everything was the same.
“Good Lord,” Harlene said. “How many chin-ups do they make you do in the army? You feel like you could pick me up, and let me tell you, there’s not many men as could do that.” She slapped her ample hips.
Eric wrapped his arms around her midsection and hoisted her a few inches off the floor. She whooped. “Now, don’t tell Harold,” he said, resettling her solidly on her feet, “but I did it all for you.” In fact, t...
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