This post is going to be a wall of text. Just warning you in advance. I have another free novella coming out soon. As you may infer from the title, it’s called Land of the Brave. I’m posting chapter 1 below as a preview to everyone because it’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to get it out. It should be available to everyone subscribed to my readers list within two weeks.
The formatting looks different than it will in ebook form. This post is formatted . . . well, like a blog post, not an ebook.
Without further ado , here’s chapter 1.
As was our tradition, my cousin Rich and I celebrated another closed case by hoisting a couple pints at a local tavern. This time, we chose the James Joyce Irish Pub in the Harbor East area of Baltimore. Rich honored our Irish ancestors by choosing a Guinness, and I honored them fifty percent more by ordering a Guinness Extra Stout. We sat at a table and sipped our festive brews.”To another arrest,” I said, raising my mug.
Rich tapped his mug into mine. “Hear, hear.”
“You’ll make Lieutenant pretty soon at this rate.” After doing the heavy lifting for my cases, I summoned Rich from the bullpen to make the arrests. He’s a decorated detective with the Baltimore Police Department, and a good bit of the decoration has been earned on my cases.
“I’m doing all right on my own,” Rich said. As usual, he refused to see the light on how much I’d helped his career in my ten short months as a private investigator. He’d been a plainclothes detective about the same amount of time and had earned more commendations than many of his longer-tenured colleagues.
“And now you’ve added a deadbeat dad to your ledger.” I sipped my drink again. Guinness Extra Stout–the beer that drinks like a meal.
“I was surprised you took a case like that at first.” Rich smirked. “Then I saw the mom.”
“Are you insinuating I only took the case because the client is attractive?”
“Attractive? She looks like a young Jennifer Connelly.”
“I’m not old enough to remember a young Jennifer Connelly,” I said. The ripe old age of twenty-nine stared at me a couple months down the road. Rich had almost seven years on me. An occasional gray hair intruded on his otherwise brown crew cut. His hair was a couple shades lighter than mine, and I could boast of no gray. Rich maintained the hairstyle and clean shave as artifacts from his time in the Army.
“Watch The Rocketeer sometime,” he said.
“I’ll see if I can add it to my Netflix queue.” Rich focused on his beer. I looked around the pub. It was a decent crowd for a weeknight, with more diners than bar patrons. When I glanced back at Rich, he continued studying his beer, as if something profound lay at the bottom of the glass. “You’re quiet.” Rich didn’t answer. “Everything all right?” Nothing. I paused. “I just booked a trip to Mars,” I said.
“Rich.” He frowned and looked up. “Something must be on your mind. You’re quiet and surly, even for you.”
“I’m not surly.”
“When you grumble, it kind of confirms it,” I pointed out. Rich started to protest, but I broke in. “And don’t tell me you weren’t grumbling just now.”
“Maybe a little,” said Rich. Normally, he would have smiled or at least smirked. This evening, his expression remained neutral.
Rich gazed at me for a second, then shook his head. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“Troubles with the ladies?” I said. Rich’s expression didn’t change. “You know, if you need advice from a younger, more handsome man, I’m willing to help.”
“I do not need advice from you,” Rich said.
“Rich, if this were still an era of little black books, you’d be stuck on page two.” Now he scowled at me. “I, on the other hand, would be authoring a multi-volume epic.”
“No one likes a braggart.”
“Many of the names in my little black book would disagree,” I said.
“Whatever,” he said. “Forget it.”
I shrugged. “OK.” After a few more swigs of my beer, Rich was just as chatty as he had been. I decided to give him some space this time. If he wanted to tell me, he would.
Rich looked at his beer some more, downed the rest in a giant swig, sighed, and looked at me. “Can we go to your office?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. I paid the tab, and we left.
My office was an extra room in my house. I had an end-unit rowhouse in the Federal Hill section of Baltimore. Whoever owned it before me built an addition for the kitchen and turned part of the first floor into an office. It pinched the square footage of the dining room, but I usually ate in front of the TV, and I had no complaints about the size of the living room.
I sat behind my desk. Three large computer monitors looked back at me. Rich sat in one of my guest chairs and busied himself looking around. This was not his first time in my office, and nothing in the room had changed since his last trip. Still, I let him take his time and figure out whatever he wanted to tell me. The next time Rich confided in me may not be the first, but I could count them on one hand.
“You ever know my buddy Jim?” he said after a few minutes. “Jim Shelton?”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
Rich nodded and lapsed back into silence. A bad feeling welled in my stomach. I knew very few of Rich’s friends, and chief among the reasons was Rich chose his friends carefully. Getting on the exclusive list amounted to a lifetime appointment. Whether I knew the man or not, if Rich mentioned one of his friends to me, I doubted the reason was good.
“He’s dead,” Rich said, confirming my suspicion.
He nodded. “I’m sorrier for his widow and kids.”
“Of course,” I said.
I didn’t say anything else. Rich needed time to unpack this and tell me about it. “Water?” I said after a moment, reaching for the mini fridge.
I handed Rich a bottle, opened mine, and took a sip. Rich looked at his as if staring at it would compel the cap to open.
“Coroner says it’s a suicide,” he said.
A coroner being involved meant it didn’t happen around here. Baltimore, like most cities, had a medical examiner’s office staffed with competent doctors. “I take it you don’t agree.”
“No way.” Rich shook his head. “He wouldn’t kill himself.”
“We served together,” Rich said. I presumed this; most of Rich’s friends overlapped his years in the Army, especially the time spent in the Middle East. “When he got out, he . . . had some problems.”
“PTSD?” I said.
“Yeah. I don’t know if he ever got diagnosed or treated, but he had it.”
Rich fell silent again. This time, I pushed on. “I don’t mean to sound indelicate, but. . . .”
“It sounds like a suicide?” I nodded. “It does,” Rich acknowledged. “But I know there’s no way Jim would do it.”
“How do you know?” I said.
“We talked about it some.” Rich opened his water and took a long pull before continuing. “He admitted he thought about it. Even with a family, he still thought about it.”
“What kept him from doing it, then?”
“An organization out there. Land of the Brave.”
“Garrett County,” said Rich. The westernmost county in Maryland. Much of it was in the mountains, in the panhandle of Maryland, and it offered short drives to both West Virginia and Pittsburgh. I hadn’t been there in years, and my trip had been a weekend at Deep Creek Lake.
“How’s the county doing?” I said.
“Not well. They’ve lost a lot of jobs. Jim had trouble finding work, and when he did, the job usually didn’t last long. He felt like he couldn’t provide for his family, after leaving them for years.”
“I’m sure it was tough on him.”
“It was.” Rich drank some more water and paused. I gave him the time he needed. “Land of the Brave got him a job, sort of.”
“He worked with bees.”
“Like a beekeeper?” I said.
Rich nodded. “Yeah. He was responsible for several hives. They were setup on farms out there. The farmers leased out some land they weren’t planting on anymore. Worked out for everyone.”
“And this organization filled the land with bee hives?”
“I guess. Jim enjoyed the work. Said the buzzing didn’t bother him. It let him focus. I think it was almost quiet for him.” Rich frowned. “He told me working with the bees took a shotgun out of his mouth.”
“Wow.” I didn’t have anything else to say, so I sat in my chair and stayed quiet.
“Yeah. I’m sure he didn’t kill himself.”
One of these days, I would need to get better at asking questions. I probably should have asked this one earlier. “How did he die?”
“Gunshot to the head,” Rich said.
“And it appears self-inflicted?” I said.
“Coroner’s men found GSR on his hand.”
“You think someone else shot him.”
“So why would someone shoot an ex-Army guy with PTSD who’s working as a beekeeper?”
“I don’t know,” Rich said, “but I want to find out.”
“And you want me to come along?” I said.
It took him a few seconds, but Rich nodded. It was as small a movement a human could make to count as a nod, but I saw it. “I don’t know if I can do everything myself,” said Rich. “Besides, I’m too close to it.”
“You’re not going to gripe when I break into a database or thumb my nose at the law?”
“I’m off the clock.”
I nodded. “All right; I’ll help you.” I smiled. “Wow, you’re hiring me. I should highlight this day on the calendar.”
Rich smirked. It was good to see a positive reaction. “I think I regret it already,” he said.
“Good thing you work for free, then.” Rich guzzled the rest of his water. “We’ll leave in the morning. Can you be ready at eight?”
“Doubt it,” I said. Rich glared at me. “It takes time to look this good. Not all of us have buzz cuts.”
“Fine. You think you can finish primping and pampering by nine?”
“I think I’ll manage.”
“Good,” Rich said as he stood. “See you then. Anything you can find out in the meantime would be great.”
“I’ll see what I can put together,” I said.
James Alan Shelton died five days ago, three weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. He left behind his wife Connie, ten-year-old James Junior, nine-year-old Carly, and two-year-old George. Before Carly was born, the Army sent Jim to the Middle East, where he stayed a total of six years. Eighteen months later, he left the Army and, like so many veterans, struggled to adjust back to everyday life. Calling his post-service work history “spotty” would have asked the word to do work for which it was unqualified.
I pondered how far to dig. Normally, I threw caution to the wind and probed as deep as my considerable skill allowed. This case was more delicate. Not only was the victim a friend of Rich, he was also a veteran. I had no compunction using the Baltimore Police’s resources for my own purposes or knocking over random databases. I didn’t want to hack the Army. Even with good intentions, it felt wrong. Even I have attacks of conscience from time to time.
During my first case, Rich left me alone at his desk for a few minutes. In that time, I snagged his IP and hardware addresses, then went home and used them to fingerprint the BPD’s network. Ever since, their network has accepted one of my machines as its own. I could have used the BPD’s resources to poke and prod the Army’s network for more info on Jim Shelton. Doing so would have been lousy, though, and while my conscience rarely intruded, I had a feeling Rich’s I’m-off-the-clock proviso wouldn’t extend so far.
Did I even need the Army records? Whatever Jim did in the Army, he was several years removed from it. What were the odds that someone tracked him to Garrett County and shot him? Rich and I were going up there to investigate. If we uncovered a tie-in to something related to Jim’s service, I could go after the Army files then. Rich would probably approve at that point, after the requisite moment of frowning and scowling.
Rich mentioned PTSD and the idea that Jim never had it diagnosed or treated. His comments were practically an invitation to snoop around the Veterans Administration and their databases. Never one to decline such an offer, I went about it. For an agency protecting gobs of sensitive information about the country’s veterans, their network didn’t present much of a challenge. A few minutes after discovering the VA’s servers, I found one running an older version of Linux. One new exploit later, I was logged into that box. From there, I moved laterally to some other servers, discovered a database administrator credential in a text file—this is unfortunately common—and looked for records on Jim Shelton. When I found them, I transferred them off the network, erased my tracks, and disconnected.
Since he got out, Jim had seen VA personnel on an irregular basis. I discovered a lot of rescheduled appointments, a few missed ones, and notes with a surprising lack of depth. It seemed Jim wasn’t much of a talker, and the shrink he saw wasn’t much of a speculator. Thus, no one ever made a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only treatment Jim received consisted of aperiodic appointments with a mediocre shrink and no medicine. I felt bad for Jim and his family, and at the same time, I hoped other veterans fared better.
Without much else to go on, I packed a bag for the next few days and went to bed.
There you go. That’s Land of the Brave, chapter one. If you’re on my list, look for it to hit your inbox within the next couple weeks. If you’re not on my list . . . well, you should be, and you can sign up below. If you do, you’ll also get my first free novella, The Confessional.
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